Texana Book Reviews -- July 1997
(by Mike Cox)


Good Guys: Texas Lawmen
(July 25, 1997)

Thanks to computer technology, if a police officer stops you for running a red light, in a matter of seconds he can learn if you're wanted for anything else anywhere in the country.

When James B. Gillett was a Texas Ranger back in the 1870s and early 1880s, the system worked a bit differently. (And there weren't any red lights . . . well, not for traffic control.)

What Gillett and other peace officers did was refer to what they called "The Book of Knaves," or, as the State of Texas called it, "A List of Fugitives From Justice." The book, arranged by county, listed and described wanted felons.

The oldest known surviving copy of this listing was one published in 1876. It shows Texas was a pretty rough place, with thousands of people wanted for everything from hog theft (a felony back then) to murder. Ten years worth of felons wanted in Travis County filled parts of six pages.

In the absence of mug shots, frontier law enforcement officers had to paint word pictures of wanted men and women. In addition to his physical description, accused murderer John H. Nelson, wanted in Polk County, had "a kind of downcast expression, will not look a man straight in the face [and] has a peculiar laugh."

Several years ago, Gillett's grandson sold this book along with some other items that had belonged to the old Ranger to the Texas Ranger Museum and Hall of Fame in Waco. The fugitive book and a collection of notes and reward information Gillett kept has been published by State House Press as "Fugitives from Justice: The Notebook of Texas Ranger Sergeant James B. Gillett." The 274-page book sells for $24.95 in hardback.

No too many years after Gillett left the Rangers, 22-year-old Jim Gober became the first sheriff of Potter County, where the seat of local government was a new town called Amarillo.

Years later, Gober wrote a memoir, a collection of recollections dealing with his days as a cowboy in the rip-snorting town of Tascosa in Oldham County, his time as the youngest county sheriff in the nation and other aspects of his interesting and at times tragic life.

Gober completed his work only three months before his death in 1933, but the manuscript -- more like a collection of reflections, not a seamless narrative -- languished in the possession of a descendant for years. But now, thanks to a fine editing job by his grandson and historian B. Byron Price, the manuscript has been published as "Cowboy Justice: Tale of a Texas Lawman." (Texas Tech University Press, 327 pages, $28.95.)

With maps, annotations and vintage photographs, "Cowboy Justice" is a major contribution to outlaw and lawman history.

While Gober was the youngest sheriff of his day, Jess Sweeten had the honor in 1932, when he was elected sheriff of Henderson County. He went on to become one of the most famous Texas sheriffs ever.

Sweeten's story is told in Lawrence Melton Jr.'s "A Trail Is Never Cold: The Life and Times of Sheriff Jess Sweeten."

(Ballycastle Publishing, 384 pages, $14.95 softcover.)

Reading this book, I found myself wondering why it hasn't been optioned to Hollywood. This book -- more a collection of tales than biography -- reads like fiction. Good fiction.

Of course, Sweeten would never make it as a sheriff today. He'd be in prison for civil rights violations, but back when one man could be The Law, Sweeten clearly was the right man at the right time for Henderson County.

Sweeten survived 11 gun battles (three of the other participants did not) and when he retired in 1954, there were no unsolved murders, rapes or armed robberies in his county.

With Sweeten, there never was any doubt what side of the law he was on. Others in Texas law enforcement history were more flexible.

One such character was Mason T. Bowman (he went by Mace), a Civil War veteran and participant in the sanguinary Lee-Peacock feud in Northeast Texas who later became a respected sheriff in New Mexico.

Bowman's story is well-told in a thoroughly researched by book James Stephen Peters with Chuck Parsons and Marianne Elizabeth Hall-Little. (The 218-page hardback book is available from Hartmann Heritage Productions, RR2 Box 148A, Yorktown, TX, 78164 for $39.95 plus $5 shipping and handling.)


Bad Guys: Outlaws of the Southwest
(July 18, 1997)

Bill Longley can be forgiven for being a little ill at ease.

After all, he was standing on the gallows in front of a large crowd with a rope around his neck and a hood over his head.

But when he heard the sheriff say, "Where's the hatchet?" he must have thought there had been an unpleasant change of plans.

"What do you want with a hatchet?" came the muffled and nervous voice from beneath the hood. "Are you going to split my head open?"

That, of course, would be cruel and unusual punishment, prohibited by the Bill of Rights. The sheriff was only looking for the hatchet so he could chop the rope holding shut the trap door Longley stood on.

He didn't bother to explain his comment to the condemned man, which would have just given him more time to worry. He merely swung the hatchet, a motion which should have resulted in the opposing motion of Longley suddenly swinging from the rope.

But it just wasn't Longley's day.

Instead of dying from a neatly broken neck, the rope slipped and Longley fell to the ground, still quite alive.

The sheriff and a deputy quickly grabbed the rope and pulled, suspending Longley. Unfortunately for him, he choked to death.

Okay, grim reading. But interesting, especially if you are a fan of outlaw lore. Though less well known than John Wesley Hardin or Sam Bass, Longley was one of Texas' more notorious badmen. He certainly deserved to hang, even though the slipped rope was a bad break.

The story of Longley's 1878 hanging in Giddings, and the life that led to it, is in Rick Miller's fine new book, "Bloody Bill Longley." The 202-page book from Hennington Publishing Co., sells for $29.50.

The author is a prominent member of the National Association of Outlaw and Lawman History, which will be having its annual convention starting next Thursday (July 24) in Killeen. Miller, who deals with modern day miscreants in his capacity as county attorney for Bell County, is program chairman for this year's NOLA rendezvous. Research papers will be presented, and dealers will be selling rare and out of print books on outlaws and lawmen. (For more information on the conference, contact Miller at 254-933-5135 or write him at 1201 Holly Court, Harker Heights, TX, 76548-1538.)

Here are some other outlaw books you might want to add to your personal wanted poster:

Next week, a roundup of books on the good guys, the lawmen.


Catfish Humor
(July 11, 1997)

This is a bet I could have made money on. Too late now for me, but if you need a little extra cash, see if anyone will put money against you being able to name two recently-published funny books with the word "catfish" in their titles.

But first a rumination on humor and its medicinal effects.

We've all heard that laughter is the best medicine. The early Greek philosopher Democritus was known for his frequent laughing. He laughed so often some folks got to worrying about him. Hippocrates was sent to chat him up and see if he was crazy.

"Democritus, why are you laughing?" Hippocrates inquired.

"I laugh at the eternal nature of human follies," the philosopher replied. "I laugh so that I will not weep."

It took another couple of millennia before anyone got around to writing a textbook on psychology, but when Robert Burton wrote "The Anatomy of Melancholy," he said that one of the best cures for depression was laughter.

Laughter even makes you feel better when you're not feeling bad in the first place.

Take the morning I wrote this. I wasn't feeling puny, but it was a Monday, the work week loomed ahead, and I was not yet a whirlwind of vitality, even after the first cup of coffee. Then I read a little piece about a West Texas cowboy having dinner with a young lady from California at the Big Tex Steakhouse in Amarillo.

I have dined at that establishment, where anyone who can eat a 72-ounce steak gets it for free. (You have to pay for the ambulance, though.)

For some reason, the cowboy in this short essay is a bit down. In fact, as they say in West Texas, he's lower than an angle worm. In further fact, his heart has been as heavy as a bucket of hog livers ever since his true love left him.

As heavy as a bucket of hog livers! I have never toted a bucket of hog livers, but I can imagine. And for some reason, that little seven-word simile caused me to burst into spontaneous, hearty laughter. I'm still laughing. I can't tell you why. When you think about it, the words "hog" and "livers" are not particularly evocative of pleasant thoughts, but something about the expression made me laugh. (Doctor, if you are reading this and believe my prescription should be renewed, please call it in.)

Seriously, who needs a prescription for an anti-depressant when they can get a good laugh from a little book? And if two little books can make you laugh, all the better. And if those two little books have "catfish" in the title, better still.

Oh. The books? Made your bet? The first is "Tickling Catfish: A Texan Looks at Culture from Amarillo to Borneo," by Jerry Craven with illustrations by Jean Dixon. Published by Texas A&M University Press, the 147-page softcover sells for $14.95.

The other book is "When the Catfish Had Ticks: Texas Drought Humor," by Rana Williamson. Published by Eakin Press, this 56-pager sells for $7.95 in softcover.

Craven's book is a collection of short, humorous essays, none longer than one-and-a-half to two pages. Some of the stories are slightly different versions of old favorites, but others, including the one that enlightened me about the relative density of hog livers, are fresh as a new cow patty after a two inch rain.

Speaking of rain, the other catfish book must have been inspired by the late, great Texas drought of 1996. It is a collection of dry gallows humor -- literally dry -- connected to Texas' worst drought, the dry spell of the 1950s.

An example: "It's so dry . . . I found a 61-pound catfish in the Pecos River at Horse Head Crossing near McCamey that had never learned how to swim." Or, " . . . in Jones County the trees started chasing the dogs."

Williamson's preface to this enjoyable little book shows how humor can be used as a coping mechanism, especially when it gets so dry, you have to dust the catfish for ticks.


Texans in the Civil War
(July 4, 1997)

James Henry Yett of Knoxville, Tennessee, my grandfather's grandfather, was a war-time army deserter. At least that's what I grew up believing.

"Grandpa Yett knew the war was ending and the South had lost," my grandfather told me. "He went over the hill."

As a baby boomer, I used to watch "The Big Picture" on television. The show was based on documentary footage shot by the U.S. army during World War II and included biographies of battle heroes. It hurt to think my great-great-grandfather had been a coward in his time.

Not for many years did I discover the truth. Grandpa Yett had been motivated not by cowardice but by fierce Rebel pride. As a handful of Confederate officers accompanied Gen. Robert E. Lee toward Appomattox Courthouse in April 1865, they became accustomed to finding that whole companies of their command had disappeared overnight, taking their rifles--and, if they were lucky enough to have them, their horses--and beginning the long trek homeward.

Surrender had become inevitable. It was the oath of allegiance to the victorious Union they were determined to escape.

Among the Confederates who did take part in the official surrender ceremony was Charles William Trueheart, member of a prominent Galveston family. He was an assistant surgeon with the 1st Regiment of Confederate Engineers. Charles' older brother, Henry Martyn Trueheart, loved horses and enjoyed buying wild ones just for the fun of breaking them to saddle. He took part in the Battle of Galveston in January 1863 and later rode with the 7th Virginia Cavalry and with McNeill's Partisan Rangers.

The boys' father, John Overton Trueheart, had come from Virginia to Texas in 1838. From June to October 1841 he served under Texas Ranger Captain John Coffee "Jack" Hays. Returning to Virginia, Trueheart brought his wife and six children to Texas, settling in Galveston.

Charles and Henry's letters among family and friends have been gathered in Rebel Brothers: The Civil War Letters of the Truehearts (Texas A&M Press, hard cover, $35). Selected and annotated by Edward B. Williams, the letters are from a collection housed in the History Center of the Rosenberg Library.

When the war broke out, Charles Trueheart was a medical student at the University of Virginia. He tried to find a volunteer company to join and for a while considered coming back to Texas to raise one of his own.

That's how many Confederate units were formed, as Ralph A. Wooster and Robert Wooster explain in "'Rarin' for a Fight': Texans in the Confederate Army," one of 17 essays in Lone Star Blue and Gray: Texas in the Civil War (Texas State Historical Association, paper, $16.95).

Local politicians, professional men and wealthy planters recruited volunteers for companies of infantry or troops of cavalry. Few of the leaders had formal military training. Recruits usually had to furnish their own arms, ammunition and gear. Each unit started with its own elected officers, its own idea of uniforms (if it had uniforms), its own flag and a big send-off from the ladies. Later these ragtag groups were formed into regiments like the 8th Texas Cavalry or brigades like the John Bell Hood's Texas Brigade.

The essays can be browsed at random with pleasure. Taken in order, from Walter L. Buenger's "Texas and the Riddle of Session" to "Hood's Texas Brigade at Appomattox" by he late Col. Harold B. Simpson, the essays give a good overview of Texas in a troubled time.


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