Beneath Austin's shiny veneer lies a dark past, filled with murder, lechery and deceit. Legislators, lawmen and lawyers killed, robbed and lied just as well and just as often as the drifters and grifters preying on newcomers. The nation's first known serial killer made his debut in Austin in the form of the Servant Girl Annihilator, who is still rumored to be Jack the Ripper. After the Willis brothers murdered their neighbors over rumored buried gold, a lynch mob hanged the boys from live oaks on present-day Sixth Street. Freshman representative Louis Franke died after he was robbed and beaten on the steps of the statehouse. Author Richard Zelade delivers a fascinating look at the seedier side of Austin history.
About the Author
Richard Zelade is an author and historian from Austin, Texas, and a graduate of the University of Texas. His writing has appeared in Texas Parks & Wildlife, Texas Monthly, People, Southern Living and American Way, among others. An author of five other books, Zelade studies Texas geology, weather, geography, flora, fauna and ethnic folkways, including the medicinal and food uses of native plants. This is his second book with The History Press. Visit RichardZelade.com for more details.
Read an Excerpt
HOW DO YOU SAY "PLEASE DON'T KILL ME" IN COMANCHE?
In his welcoming address to Republic of Texas president Mirabeau Lamar on October 30, 1839, Edwin Waller, chief contractor and Austin's first mayor, noted that since his construction crew had commenced building Austin in May of that same year, they "were liable every moment to be interrupted by the hostile Indians, for whom we were obliged to be constantly on the watch; many-tongued rumor was busy with tales of Indian depredations, which seemed to increase in geometrical progression to her progress through the country."
The March 11, 1840 issue of the Austin Sentinel featured a remedy against Indian arrows, given by Henry Mollhausen, captain of artillery and Austin's first architect: "Take 16 to 24 sheets of blotting paper, interspersed with layers of silk or cotton, wrap it around your torso like a jacket, and you will be invulnerable to arrows and bullets." The Sentinel also printed a brief dictionary of the Comanche language for the convenience of its readers.
The city was thrown into considerable excitement two nights later, when a man named Ward, a butcher, was found dead. His corpse was shockingly mangled — shot with three rifle balls and an arrow and scalped by a party of Indians who had ventured into town for the purpose of plundering and stealing. Scouting parties immediately got up and made an unsuccessful search. The next morning, another corpse was found about a mile below town — that of a ditcher, Thomas Hedley. He was attacked while alone, in his camp. Endeavoring to escape, he had gotten some two hundred yards from the camp, in the direction of the city. He was pierced with twelve arrows (most of which passed through his body), his throat was cut from ear to ear and he had been scalped. Future Texas president Anson Jones noted in his diary that the suburbs of the town had been plundered of all the horses and he heard Hedley's cries while under the hands of the Indians.
The good citizens of Austin were so rattled that Mayor Waller felt compelled to issue a public declaration on March 15, urging everyone to preserve strict quiet, "avoiding all unnecessary noise of any description, particularly the discharge of fire arms." Acknowledging a likely repeat of the events of the thirteenth, he laid out a plan of action:
It is expected that every citizen will have his arms in order for immediate use. Any incursion of hostile Indians into the City will be denoted by two discharges of the Cannon, which is under the direction of Captain Henry Mollhausen, and the Citizens are requested upon hearing the report, to assemble instanter, at the office of the Quarter Master General, on Congress Avenue opposite the Capitol, where those who require it, will be furnished with arms and ammunition. Particular attention is requested to these suggestions, that unanimity and vigor of action may be insured and the apprehension of the female portion of the community, in some degree quieted.
That night, Secretary of State James Mayfield was slightly wounded by a shot fired by an Indian while escorting a lady from a party to her home.
The Indians were skulking about through the streets at night with impunity during the summer of 1841, frequently dressed in white men's clothing. Scarcely a night passed without someone seeing Indians in town; they were thick as hops, and occasionally they knocked over a poor fellow and took his hair.
During November, the Indians were daily robbing and murdering the inhabitants on the frontiers, frequently in sight and in hearing of this city. When Congress came into session, the cannon was stationed in the street with the expectation of an attack from the Indians.
But there was danger lurking within, as well as without.
"SHOOT, DAMN YOU, SHOOT!"
In a state where some of the highest elected officials make no secret of the fact that they carry concealed weapons on their person at all times, it should not be surprising that politics in Texas has long been — and still is — a deadly game.
As recently as the 2015 legislative session, a representative from Houston cursed a colleague on the House floor before threatening to hurt a Department of Public Safety officer, according to the officer's incident report.
Political violence in Texas precedes the founding of Austin.
James Collinsworth, Peter Grayson and Mirabeau Lamar were locked in a bitter, three-way race for the presidency of Texas in 1838. On May 24, Grayson accepted a candidacy for the presidency. Shortly afterward, he was chosen to serve as minister plenipotentiary to the United States. On his way to Washington, he shot himself to death on July 9 in Tennessee. Since Sam Houston could not succeed himself as president, James Collinsworth was chosen as the Houstonian party's nominee. On July 11, Collinsworth died after jumping off a boat in Galveston Bay after a week of drunkenness. Lamar won the election.
Austin became the most enduring fruit of Lamar's victory.
In 1842, the capitol building was a cabin of rough Bastrop pine with two large rooms, one each for the House and Senate.
After the House of Representatives had adjourned for the evening on January 6, 1842, David Kaufman, the former Speaker of the House of Representatives, who had represented Nacogdoches County from 1838 to 1841, attacked former secretary of state Mayfield, now the member from Nacogdoches, because of some very pointed and severe remarks Mayfield had made in the House earlier that morning about Kaufman's political character.
Immediately after adjournment, Kaufman walked up to Mayfield in the passage between the Senate chamber and the House, raised a stick in a threatening position and commenced drawing a pistol. Mayfield, who had been previously cautioned and furnished with weapons, drew a pistol. Kaufman could not get his pistol out, so he retreated, passing off the end of the gallery, and made a show of continuing the fight. Mayfield fired two pistols in succession, the second of which took effect on Kaufman, entering the upper part of the abdomen.
Kaufman suffered very much, and it was feared that the wound was mortal, but he recovered. After Texas became a state, he represented the Eastern District of Texas in the United States House of Representatives during the Twenty-ninth, Thirtieth and Thirty-first Congresses.
Mayfield was freed on $5,000 bail and was acquitted in district court.
Like many of his contemporaries, Mayfield had a volatile character. On the evening of March 15, 1846, Mayfield, Bartlett Sims of Bastrop and Judge Robert M. "Three-legged Willie" Williamson were together in a room at Swisher's hotel, engaged in conversation, when Mayfield took offense at something Sims said. Mayfield promptly drew a pistol and was about to shoot him. Sims was a powerful man, and Williamson was rather below the medium size and slim. In order to avoid being shot, Sims grabbed Williamson in his arms and held him between himself and Mayfield, exclaiming: "Shoot, damn you, shoot!" Williamson did not like his position between Sims and Mayfield, who was trying to get a shot at Sims without harming the judge. Williamson was unable to help himself, so he vented his feelings in alternate expressions of eloquent imprecation and denunciation.
Williamson first earnestly appealed to the belligerents, saying, "Gentlemen, this matter can be settled amicably; there is no necessity for bloodshed. For God's sake, Mayfield, don't shoot!" Then, as Mayfield pointed the pistol at Sims, Williamson said, "Mayfield, make a center shot; for, damn you, I will kill you, sure, if my life is spared!"
"Bart, damn your soul, let me down!" From this appeal, or threat, or for some other reason, Mayfield cooled down and desisted. Mayfield afterward swore that Three-legged Willie saved Sims's life on the occasion.
Mayfield was born in Tennessee in 1809 and moved to Texas in 1837. In January 1839, he was practicing law in Nacogdoches. Mayfield represented Nacogdoches County in the Fifth and Sixth Congresses and served as Lamar's secretary of state for several months in 1841.
In September 1842, Mayfield assembled a company of volunteers from La Grange to help repel the Mexican army then occupying San Antonio. His group and several others arrived at the scene of the Mexicans' massacre of Nicholas Dawson's company on Salado Creek while it was occurring. Mayfield decided that his group was too far outnumbered, so they stood back until the next day, when they joined Mathew Caldwell's company in time to help bury their fellow countrymen. He presented himself as a candidate for major general of the Texas army in 1843 but then withdrew, claiming ill health. Or did Caldwell's and Edward Burleson's accusations of his cowardice at the Dawson massacre provoke his decision? Mayfield represented Fayette County at the Convention of 1845 regarding statehood and, during the same year, challenged Burleson to a duel before backing out.
In April 1846, Mayfield helped organize the Democratic Party in Texas. He was living in La Grange in 1849, the year he killed Absolom Bostwick in a political argument. "General" James Mayfield, described as "an eminent lawyer of La Grange," died in December 1852 in Gonzales.
Bartlett Sims was born in Tennessee about 1792 and settled in presentday Wharton County in 1824. Sims became a surveyor for Stephen F. Austin's colony that year and continued to make surveys in Texas until 1858. In 1825, Sims married Sally Curtis; they had nine children.
Starting in 1839, Sims commanded several volunteer companies in a series of battles with native peoples. Some say that Sims was one of two men who founded the Texas Rangers.
In 1846, while on a surveying expedition to the Pedernales River, Indians attacked his party. He was the only survivor. By 1850, he was farming and ranching in Williamson County, where he died in 1864.
Robert McAlpin Williamson was born in Georgia in 1804 or 1806. When he was fifteen years old, he was crippled by an illness. His right leg was drawn back at the knee, and he was nicknamed Three-Legged Willie for the wooden leg he wore from the knee to the ground. He had his pants tailored accordingly. Williamson read the law during his illness and was admitted to the bar around the age of nineteen.
In the late 1820s, he migrated to Texas. He participated in the Battle of San Jacinto, for which he received 640 acres.
In December 1836, the Republic of Texas Congress elected Williamson judge of the Third Judicial District. The town of Columbus had been burned during the Runaway Scrape, so he convened the first term of District Court under a large oak tree. In 1840, he was elected to represent Washington County in Congress. He served in the republic's subsequent congresses.
He became legendary for his personal characteristics, his unique judicial decisions and his colorful way with words. He and his wife, Mary Jane, had seven children, one son being named Annexus.
In 1848, settlers in western Milam County asked the Texas legislature to create a new county, suggesting San Gabriel as a possible name. When the bill to create the "County of San Gabriel" came before the Texas Senate, it is said that Williamson stood up and excitedly protested having any more saints in Texas. The legislators created the county but named it after Williamson. He never lived in "his" county but often traveled through it.
After annexation, he served two terms in the Texas Senate, retiring in March 1850. He was an unsuccessful candidate for lieutenant governor in 1851. In 1857, his mind began to fail, and he died on December 22, 1859.
Unlike many other Texas cities, Austin was never much of a lynching town. About sunrise on July 11, 1851, a slave called Lucky rode up to William Baker's dwelling, on Shoal Creek about one mile northwest of the capitol, and inquired the way to a neighbor's house. Baker invited Lucky to alight and wait until the family was done with breakfast. He did so. About this time, Colonel E.S.C. Robertson rode up on horseback and recognized Lucky as a runaway slave. He and Baker tied and placed Lucky in the north room of the house. Robertson left, intending to return in a short time. Soon after, Baker met Lucky at the door — Lucky had cut himself loose with a large butcher knife, which he had in his hand. As Baker attempted to subdue Lucky, he commenced stabbing Baker. Mathilda Baker ran to his relief, whereupon Lucky stabbed her in the chest, severing an artery and producing almost instant death. Baker was stabbed four times and died. Lucky fled on his horse. No one was present during the affair except the Bakers' five small children. Their screams brought several neighbors. Robertson soon returned and started up Shoal Creek on horseback. He came up with Lucky twice, but as he was unarmed, Lucky escaped.
A large number of citizens immediately armed themselves and went after Lucky. They found his horse and some of his baggage in a thicket the next evening, about one mile from the Baker house. The county sheriff offered a $200 reward for Lucky's apprehension and delivery, with the following description:
Black color; 6 feet high; weighs from 180 to 200 pounds; straight and well formed; intelligent looking; has a fresh scar in the forehead. He says he belongs to Col. Tom Moor, of Travis county, and that he was bought by him some twelve months since from a Mr. Storey, of Burleson county, on the Brazos River, for the last six months; and that his time having expired, he was then on his way to his master; that he had been lost, and wished directions in regard to the road; he states that he had a pass from Mr. Storey, but lost it in crossing high water.
Lucky was captured on July 26, discovered by a black woman, hidden in Judge Stephen Cummings's corncrib on Waller Creek. He was tried on the same day by a jury of twelve slaveholders in the statehouse, and his guilt being unquestionable to everyone present, he was executed in the presence of a large concourse of spectators, hanged from a limb of a hackberry tree, standing near where Colorado Street abutted the river.
"The owners of slaves indulge them to an extent not at all necessary to their comfort or enjoyment," the Texas Gazette complained. "Nearly half the negroes in town hire their own time, keep houses of their own, where no surveillance is over them, and which become pest houses to every neighborhood, where the most idle and worst disposed of this class assemble at night and discuss, if they do not organize, plans of mischief."
The other, and most spectacular, lynching occurred during the Civil War, with the three Willis brothers as the unfortunate guests.
Mystery shrouds their lynching. The only accounts are anecdotal; during the war, newspapers in Austin and elsewhere suspended publication for weeks or months at a time due to paper or ink shortages. Frank Brown, the most reliable authority on early Austin history, said the Willis lynchings took place sometime in 1864. An unnamed Austin citizen, in an 1884 Austin Statesman article, asserted that the lynchings were in 1863.
At any rate, there was a strong Unionist element in and about Austin in 1862 and 1863, stretching up the Colorado River into Burnet County and west into the Hill Country's German settlements, like Fredericksburg and Comfort. In the fall of 1863, Confederate soldiers scoured the countryside for renegade Unionists. It was in the context of these times that the Willis brothers were lynched.
The Willis family's reputation was anything but savory. There were six or seven grown men in the family, and according to one account, they were charged with being wholly responsible for the Cameron and Mason families' tragedy. The Willises had somehow ascertained that there was a considerable amount of money stored in one of these families' houses, and in order to get it, they went to a Comanche camp and persuaded the Comanches to assist in robbing and murdering these families. An eight-year-old girl from one of the families witnessed the event. She concealed herself when the Indians attacked, thus escaping death. When the attack was made on the house where the money was stored, a white man broke open the trunk and took out the money.
When news of the massacre became known, exasperated citizens assembled, arrested the suspected scoundrels and tried them. The little girl was brought forth as a witness. She stated a man with red hair and a sandy beard killed her mother and the Indians killed the rest of her family. Every prisoner who corresponded with her description was brought before her, one at a time. When Bill Willis was brought in, she sprang up, pointed to him and exclaimed, "That is the man who killed Ma, took Pa's money from the trunk, but Indians killed the rest."
Notwithstanding this strong evidence, the Willis boys were turned loose. They promptly stole a large number of horses and ran them to Mexico, where they sold them. While returning through the Hill Country to their home northwest of Austin, they were arrested on the frontier above Austin and turned over to the home guard company for safekeeping until they could be tried. They were charged with grave crimes, including inciting slaves to insubordination and assisting them to flee the country. The members of Austin's home guard infantry company were local citizens exempt from conscription but willing to perform military duty at home.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Austin Murder & Mayhem"
Copyright © 2015 Richard Zelade.
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
How Do You Say "Please Don't Kill Me" in Comanche?,
"Shoot, Damn You, Shoot!",
"Hold Fast What You Get and Catch What You Can",
Assassination in the Most Public of Places,
"Killed in the Line of Duty",
"Are You as Good a Man as You Was a While Ago?",
"My Amen Is Happiness to Come",
The Servant Girl Annihilators,
"Should We Have Another Such Legislature, Would It Not Be Well to Dissolve Our State Government and Get Attached to the Indian Territory?",
"Why Don't You Use It, Now That You Have Your Hand on It?",
Love Lies Bleeding in Their Arms,
"Tell Ben I've Killed Mollie",
About the Author,