Texas has long boasted its iron fist of the law and strict treatment of its hardest criminals. Nevertheless, scoundrels, fiends and homicidal criminals inevitably slipped through the Lone Star justice system despite the best efforts of even the legendary Texas Rangers. From roadside murder to political assassinations, discover the seedy underbelly of Texas' murderous past. In 1877, Texas saw its first high-profile murder case with the slaying of a woman in Jefferson and the subsequent "Diamond Bessie" trial. Over a century later, state legislator Price Daniel Jr. was shot in cold blood by his wife at their home in Liberty. Texas true crime writer and historian Bartee Haile unburies this collection of sixteen coldblooded killings from Lone Star history and the dirty details that have shocked and bewildered Texans for decades.
About the Author
A fourth- or fifth-generation Texan (he can't really say for sure), Bartee Haile lives near Houston with his wife Gerri. He began writing This Week in Texas History in 1983 for small-town and suburban newspapers across Texas.
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Texas Town Never Forgot "Diamond Bessie"
Present-day Jefferson is a popular place with the bed-and-breakfast set and travelers, who cannot get enough of quaint antique shops. Those visitors who take the time to dip their toes in the history of this out-of-the-way tourist attraction are invariably surprised to learn it was once Texas' second-busiest port and sixth-largest city.
How could a town hundreds of miles from the Gulf of Mexico and less than twenty from the Louisiana border ever have been a bustling inland harbor? The answer is a freak of nature known as the "Red River Raft," a centuries-old logjam that made a network of interconnected waterways navigable all the way to Shreveport and New Orleans. Texas was still an independent republic in 1843, when the first steamboat reached Jefferson, ushering in a period of prosperity and growth that peaked three decades later with a population of 7,300.
The glory days came to a dead stop in 1873 with the removal of "the Raft" and the completion of the Texas & Pacific (T&P) Railroad line from Texarkana to Marshall. Overnight, the level of the Red River dropped precipitously, and Shreveport replaced Jefferson as the port of choice. The T&P linked the bypassed community to the main line the next year, but token rail service was not enough to prevent businesses from closing and residents from leaving town.
Jefferson was still managing to keep up appearances when a well-dressed couple stepped off the train on January 19, 1877. They took a carriage to the Brooks House, where the man signed the hotel register as "A. Monroe and wife." Curious locals heard him call his eye-candy companion "Bessie," a name they amended to "Diamond Bessie" because of the expensive jewels she wore around her neck and in rings on most of her dainty fingers.
Jeffersonians would learn in time the true identities of the twosome they found so fascinating. Both were the black sheep of their respective and respectable families. "A. Monroe" was Abraham Rothschild, son of a wealthy jeweler in Cincinnati, whose drinking, gambling and womanizing had tried his father's patience to the point of disinheritance. "Bessie" was Annie Stone, born in 1854 to the owner of a Syracuse shoe store. She ran away from home at fifteen to be the full-time mistress of a man by the name of Moore. When they parted company, she took his last name with her and as "Bessie Moore" plied her trade as a prostitute in infamous fleshpots like New Orleans and Hot Springs.
It was at the Arkansas "resort" that Abe and Bessie met a year or maybe two before their grand entrance in Jefferson. Since his father had cut him off, Abe looked to Bessie to keep him in the style to which he had been accustomed his entire life. Given her affection for the scoundrel, she was happy to oblige but drew the line at selling her diamonds. When they fought, which had been often of late, it was over the jewels and her iron-willed determination to hold on to her prize possessions come hell or high water.
On Sunday, January 21, their third day in town, the couple decided to go on a picnic. With two fried chicken dinners under one arm and Bessie on the other, Abe strolled across the bridge over Big Cypress Creek and into the woods. He was alone when next seen in town that afternoon but made no effort to stay out of sight. In response to courteous inquiries about his "wife," he said she was visiting friends in the area and would rejoin him in plenty of time to catch the eastbound train on Tuesday.
But that was not what happened. Witnesses would remember watching "Mr. Monroe" climb onboard the train with the complete set of matching luggage the two brought with them. But no one could recall seeing the missus since her picnic departure on Sunday.
A winter storm soon blew in, dumping half a foot of snow on northeastern Texas and subjecting Jefferson to a week of subfreezing weather. When the temperature at last began to rise, Sarah King went hunting for firewood and found instead the partially decomposed body of a woman in exceptionally fine clothes. She had been sitting on the ground with her back against an oak tree when her unknown assailant fired a single bullet at point-blank range through her temple.
Even though she had been stripped of her trademark jewelry, there was no doubt in anybody's mind that the victim was the woman the townspeople had nicknamed "Diamond Bessie." Jefferson was a long way from the wild frontier (in culture as well as distance), and murder, especially of a member of the fairer sex, was not an everyday event. That may explain why the inhabitants took pity on poor Bessie and paid for her plot and burial out of their own pockets.
The "Monroes" had mentioned a short stay in Marshall prior to their arrival in Jefferson. The authorities located the hotel where the couple had spent two nights and demanded to see the register. Right there in black and white was A. Monroe's real name and his hometown. The Texas Rangers and Marion County sheriff arrested Abraham Rothschild in his Cincinnati hospital bed, where he was recovering from a self-inflicted wound. During a clumsy attempt to take his own life, the drunk had succeeded in putting out his right eye.
Meyer Rothschild may have washed his hands of his worthless offspring, but he could not sit back and allow his flesh and blood to hang for murder in faraway Texas. He financed the fight against extradition on behalf of his boy but lost that round when the governor of Ohio signed the order to send Abraham back to Jefferson on March 19, 1877.
While the wheels of Lone Star justice were famous for grinding at breakneck speed in those days, in this case they had trouble getting traction. Endless legal maneuvering by both camps and a change of venue to Marshall stalled the process for twenty months.
When the trial finally got underway in December 1878, there was hardly room for all the attorneys at the defense and prosecution tables. Papa Rothschild spent a huge chunk of the family fortune to hire the best legal talent on the market, leading one of Abe's lawyers to brag that his fee was so big he never would have to work another day in his life. Shocked by this barefaced attempt to buy an acquittal, Governor Richard Hubbard sent reinforcements to the outnumbered prosecutor in the form of two assistant attorneys general.
The courtroom drama dragged on for three long weeks, as what must have seemed like half the populace of Jefferson gave sworn testimony for and against the accused. Being an attorney himself, the judge felt obligated to let every lawyer have his say during the summation and set aside three full days for closing arguments. To no one's surprise, the dozen and a half counsels used every minute of the allotted time.
The foreman of the jury set the tone for the deliberations by sketching a passable likeness of a noose on the wall, autographing the artwork and declaring the drawing his verdict. The other eleven followed suit and in nothing flat found Abe Rothschild guilty as charged and sentenced him to swing. But Abe never made it to the gallows. His conviction was overturned on appeal primarily because the trial judge had permitted a prospective juror to take a seat on the panel after stating in open court that the defendant was guilty and ought to hang.
Two years later to the month, the second trial was gaveled to order in Jefferson on December 14, 1880. The star witness for the state was Jennie Simpson, who testified under oath that she saw Abe return from the picnic without Bessie but with her diamond rings as plain as day on his fingers.
The defense counterpunched with Isabelle Gouldy, who was equally as firm in her belief that it was Bessie she saw with a strange man the day before her disappearance and four days after she was supposed to be dead. While there was neither testimony nor physical evidence to support the sighting, Abe's attorneys had planted the seeds of doubt that bore fruit during deliberations.
The jury needed only four hours to arrive at a unanimous verdict of not guilty. Flanked by his much poorer father and weeping mother, Abe Rothschild practically sprinted to a waiting carriage that took the happy trio to the train waiting to carry them home to Ohio.
Jefferson, Marion County and the State of Texas had given it their best shot and come up short. Abraham Rothschild may have murdered Annie Stone, aka "Bessie Moore," but convincing two juries of his guilt proved to be one jury too many.
In the 134 years since Rothschild's acquittal, fiction and folklore have picked up where the facts left off. Was "Diamond Bessie" with child at the time of her murder? Were a dozen $1,000 bills mysteriously lowered into the jury room during deliberations, and did all twelve recipients die under violent circumstances within the year? Did Abe Rothschild end up serving a twenty-year prison term for theft? The answer in every case is a definite "no."
It may be true, however, that near the turn of the century a man sporting a patch over his right eye showed up at Bessie's grave. He reportedly placed a bouquet of roses on her last resting place, dropped to his knees in prayer and handed the cemetery caretaker a cash incentive to maintain the grave. Some people like to think he was a guilt-ridden Abe Rothschild trying to clear his conscience.
Small Texas towns, as a rule, do not make a fuss over dead prostitutes or go to the trouble of keeping their memory alive. But Jefferson has been the exception to the rule for going on a century and a half. And every May since 1955, the local Lions Club has reenacted the "Diamond Bessie Trial" as part of the annual Jefferson Historic Pilgrimage.CHAPTER 2
Drunk Detective Shoots Barrymore Patriarch
A falling-down drunk railroad detective went berserk in an East Texas train station on the night of March 19, 1879. Opening fire on a traveling troupe of Broadway thespians, he killed a member of the supporting cast and seriously wounded the future patriarch of the first family of the American stage and screen.
Herbert Arthur Chamberlayne Hunter Blythe was born in India, crown jewel of the British empire, halfway through the nineteenth century to well-to-do and oh-so-proper English parents. To spare his relations the shame and disgrace of having an actor in the family, he traded his mouthful of a birth name for a pseudonym that rolled off the tongue: Maurice Barrymore.
Long before he mastered his craft, English theatergoers took to the handsome young newcomer like tea and crumpets. Barrymore was not just another pretty face. He was a natural athlete with an amateur boxing championship under his belt and magnetic masculinity that set him apart from the "dandies" of the Victorian age. Audiences simply could not get enough of him.
Barrymore found stardom in America quite by chance. He was just twenty-six years old when a juicy part in a Broadway play brought him to New York in 1875 for what was supposed to be a short stay. But he proved to be such a hit that a big-time producer with his own stock company made the Brit an offer he could not refuse.
Barrymore married Georgiana Drew, a rising comedy star, and in April 1878, the couple welcomed Lionel, the first of their three famous children. But shortly before his birth, the Barrymores received a bubble-bursting piece of bad news. Their employer was filing for bankruptcy and going out of business, leaving them with a brand-new baby and no means of support.
Never one to cry in his warm beer, Barrymore bought the rights to a popular play called Diplomacy, came up with a partner willing to foot half of the bill and formed a touring company. In January 1879, the partner left New York for bookings in the Northeast and Midwest, followed by Barrymore's departure for Texas and scheduled stops in practically every town with a stage and footlights.
Despite the Lone Star State's reputation as a cultural desert, Barrymore and his band of greasepaint gypsies could not have asked for a better or more profitable reception. Night after night, in places they did not expect to draw flies, the troupe played to packed and enthusiastic houses.
The crowd that filled every seat in Mahone's Opera House in Marshall on March 19, 1879, was no exception. The Texans showed their appreciation by giving Barrymore and his brother-in-law, John Drew, a standing ovation for their impeccable performances in the lead roles and clapped their hands sore with curtain calls for the entire cast.
The tired but happy actors had three hours to kill before catching the late train to Texarkana, site of their farewell appearance in the Lone Star State. Ben Porter and Ellen Cummins, who had announced their engagement a few days earlier, decided to grab a bite to eat at the station platform diner, and Barrymore went along to quench his thirst.
Proprietor Nat Henry immediately waited on the first paying customers he had had in hours. While Porter and Cummins whispered sweet nothings in each other's ears, Barrymore polished off an ale and excused himself to check on the luggage.
Moments later, a notorious bully named Jim Currie stumbled onto the premises and plopped himself down at the counter. A nasty drunk with a mean streak a mile wide, the Texas & Pacific Railroad detective had only recently killed three men under hazy circumstances, but he succeeded, as usual, in staying out of jail due to the timely intervention of his brother, Andy, the mayor of Shreveport, Louisiana.
Nat Henry dared not refuse Currie's request for a drink but cautioned, "You better go slow, Jim. You look like you've had enough."
"No, I must have some," the intoxicated tough insisted, slurring his words. "It is too good a thing around here." He nodded in the direction of the attractive actress sitting with her fiancé at a nearby table and added, "There's a high tossed whore if I ever saw one."
"Come on, Jim," the owner objected. "You don't know if she's a lady or not, and I would rather you wouldn't make any such remarks." Currie snorted, stood up on wobbly legs and stomped across the room. Pausing at the door, he suddenly spun around and accused Ben Porter of making an insulting gesture as he passed by.
The polished performer replied with his best manners, "My friend, if you alluded to me, I hadn't thought of you. I was talking to this lady here."
"You're a damn liar!" Currie growled with bulging eyes.
"I'm in company with a lady and would prefer you wouldn't make remarks of that kind in her presence," Porter protested. "If you want a difficulty, you can see me anywhere you like outside." Once again, Currie voiced his low opinion of Ellen Cummins's morals loud enough for the proprietor and Barrymore, who was in an adjacent area, to hear.
"Jim, stop that!" shouted Henry from behind the counter. No sooner had Currie turned to glare at his host than Barrymore entered the room and addressed him in a quiet, even tone: "Go away. There's a lady here."
Currie focused his wild rage on the self-assured stranger. "Maybe you want to take it up, you damned whoremonger!" Recognizing Currie for the human powder keg he was, Barrymore instructed Ben Porter to "get Miss Cummins out of here." Porter obeyed without a moment's hesitation, and the couple hurried out the front door.
"So you want to take it up?" Currie snarled, repeating his challenge. Barrymore was not the least bit intimidated by the six-foot, two-hundred-pound railroad detective's superior size. In anything remotely resembling a fair fight, his boxing skills would enable him to make short work of the drunk.
"Well, I'm not particular, but I am unarmed," the actor said taking off his coat.
"So am I," Currie lied. He was never without his matched pair of Smith & Wesson six-shooters, and tonight was no exception. Barrymore took him at his word, a potentially fatal mistake, and raised his fists in preparation for what he believed would be a bare-knuckle brawl. Currie reached inside his knee-length winter coat and came out with a cocked Smith & Wesson in each hand.
Without another word, he fired once, hitting the actor in the upper left arm. The bullet passed through the limb and buried itself in Barrymore's chest. Although badly wounded, the Englishman somehow stayed on his feet and scrambled toward the nearest exit. His attacker followed, shooting twice more but missing the mark both times. But the damage had been done, and Barrymore in his weakened state managed only a few more steps before collapsing outside.
Instead of finishing off his prey, Currie stormed back into the diner and ran headlong into Ben Porter, who had come running as soon as he heard the gunfire. Not too proud to beg for his life, Porter pleaded, "For God's sake! Don't murder an unarmed man!" But there was no mercy in Jim Currie's heart. "God damn you!" he screamed at the top of his lungs. "I can kill the whole lot of you!" With that, he shot the paralyzed Porter in the stomach, and the slug perforated his torso, coming within a fraction of an inch of blowing out his back.
Next on the bloody scene was John Drew, frantically searching for his brother-in-law, closely followed by Ellen Cummins, who found her beloved lying in a sea of blood in the open portal. Lucky for them, Currie was done killing for the night. He pushed his way past the two dazed bystanders and out the front door, stepping over his handiwork in the process. Instead of heading for the hills, he paced back and forth on the station platform, babbling incoherently and firing his pistols into the star-lit sky.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Murder Most Texan"
Copyright © 2014 Bartee Haile.
Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 Texas Town Never Forgot "Diamond Bessie" 11
2 Drunk Detective Shoots Barrymore Patriarch 17
3 Ex-Employee Goes Postal in the Capitol 25
4 Blood Fcud or Killing Spree? 29
5 No Honor in Houston "Honor Killing" 35
6 "First Couple" of Wichita Falls Murder Son-in-Law 41
7 The Pistol-Packing Preacher 47
8 Seventh Time the Charm for Wife Killer 53
9 West Texas Murder Mystery Baffles Lawmen 59
10 "Phantom Slayer" Terrorizes Texarkana 65
11 Scandalous Death for Firefighting King 71
12 Piney Woods Murder Trial Texas' Longest 79
13 Billie Sol Estes and the Five-Shot Suicide 85
14 Miami Murder Mystery Made in Texas 95
15 Civil War in River Oaks 103
16 Did Politician Meet His Killer at Dairy Queen? 111
About the Author 127