Friday, October 24, 2014

The State of Man


I am a military historian which means that I am a (half a$$) historian who specializes in military history. To be specific, my "specialty" is the impact of technology on military tactics in the 19th Century. Does this qualify me to lead an armored division in combat? Not hardly. But I can pontificate at length on the difference between Napoleon's tactics and those of Robert E. Lee. I can even show you how Civil War commanders employed artillery versus how it was done during the Crimean War. None of that amounts to jack crap in the grand scheme of things, but it gives me something to do with my time. (When I'm not busy teaching, driving, or working on my own CJ graduate classes.)

I'm using The Killer Angels in class this semester with good result. The title gets its name from a statement made by a character in the book who says if man is an angel then he must be a killer angel. It seems as though mankind has this innate desire to self destruct. The ancient historians left chronicles of all sorts of wars for all sorts of reasons. They can be summed up in the same way that an altercation between toddlers can be summer up.

1. You took my toy. (ie: land, resources, etc)
2. I want your toy. (ie: land, resources, etc)
3. I don't like how you look.
4. I don't like what you believe.

I think most conflicts will fall into one of those categories. I've read that man and ants are the only species who make organized war on their own kind. I'm not a biologist or botanist and so I do not know if that is true or not. But if you read it on the internet, it has to be true, right? I am not a pacifist as I do not think that all wars are bad. Sometimes they are very necessary. Would we have defeated Hitler otherwise? I think not.

We'd be speaking English if it weren't for the Revolution!
Oh, wait......

No, friends, my intention here is to consider whether or not warfare is the natural state of man. As soon as people began organizing themselves into city-states (ie: Sumer), conflict followed soon after. The Sumerians had beer too, which must have made them happy. Perhaps the two are linked? Seriously though, the Ancient World was rocked by conflicts just as dangerous to them as ours are to us. If you read the Bible as history rather than a religious text, you'll pick up on even more death. Every time you turn the page, someone is getting smote by someone. The fact that people use religion to justify killing is something that we still deal with in the present.

The chariot was the Attack Helicopter of its day!

Our weapons have changed over time from rocks to ICBMs. But our blood lust has never abated. It seems as though every generation is rocked by a conflict of some sort. As a country, the United States has actually been fairly fortunate. We have never seen a war here like the 30 Years War was in Europe that killed 8 million people. War brings its dysfunctional relatives along with it, famine and disease, more often than not. And when the war ends, the killing doesn't necessarily stop there. Victors often seek vengeance upon the losers. Sometimes this may be justified, as in the trials of Nazis after World War Two. In ancient times this usually consisted of raping women and enslaving people. The "civilized" world today frowns on that, yet they still make war.

A terrible scene? These four women were brutal concentration camp guards.

During the Cold War, we thought that a future world war would bring about the end of the world. Maybe it would have. Thankfully, we never found out. Today, we no longer fight other nations but rather non state actors. This asymmetrical warfare is extremely difficult for a country such as ours, not because our gallant men and women in uniform are not up to the challenge, but because all the technology in the world won't stop a militant with an AK-47. And should our War on Terror ever end, another will come along to replace in a few decades.

So, Dear Readers, I ask you this: is warfare the natural state of man? Was Hobbes right when he said life is "nasty, brutish, and short"? Will human beings ever learn to live in peace and harmony with one another? Are we doomed to fight one bloody conflict after another until we finally rid the world of......ourselves? 

My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Half A$$ Historian who has no answers for the questions that I asked. 

Monday, October 20, 2014

Desperate Times, Desperate Men, Desperate Measures: The St. Albans Raid


By the late summer of 1864, the Confederacy found itself mired in straits of desperation. The glory days of the summer of 1862 were but a distant memory. In a six week period, Grant bludgeoned his way to the gates of Richmond. Further south, Sherman's men moved closer and closer to Atlanta. In the three years since First Manassass, the country witnessed slaughter on an unspeakable scale that only seemed to get worse as the years dragged on. War weary Northerners pressed for an end to the conflict. Groups such as the Order of American Knights, the Sons of Liberty (not the Sam Adams version), and the Knights of the Golden Circle held secret meetings and plotted various ways to force the Lincoln Administration to give up the fight or to unseat him in his upcoming reelection bid. In the South, the Dahlgren Affair forced the Confederate government to the realization that the war was no longer civil. It is worth noting that although the authenticity of the Dahlgren papers has been questioned, the fact remains that key members of the Confederate government believed in their authenticity and thus they acted accordingly. The cherubic Secretary of State, Judah P. Benjamin appropriated a large sum of funds for "secret service" in the aftermath of the raid and dispatched commissioners to Canada with the purpose of carrying out operations from there.

In many ways, members of the Confederate government were long on ideas but short on practicality. They put forward numerous plans, most of them hatched in their safe haven of Montreal but the majority of them fell short of success. They planned to free prisoners from Johnson's Island. They planned to free prisoners from Camp Douglas in Chicago and seize the city in the midst of the Democratic National Convention in August. At least eight men were sent to New York City to work with an estimated 20,000 Sons of Liberty who, the Confederates were told, were stockpiling weapons. On Election Day, the Confederate Agents planned to set fire to government buildings as a signal to rise up and occupy the city. The Sons of Liberty, if there ever even were any, backed out and the Confederates set fire to some hotels instead. The idea behind all of this was to bring the war to the North in a way that, other than Morgan's Raid into Ohio and Lee's invasion of Pennsylvania, they had not seen. And that, Dear Readers, in the genesis of the Confederate Raid on St. Albans, Vermont.

Some of the dashing band of Confederates

Why raid a small town in Vermont? What purpose could that possibly serve towards a Southern victory in the War? Your guess is as good as mine. Some say they wanted to rob the banks in the town to help finance the war. Others have said that the raid was revenge for the mistreatment of Southerners by Northern troops. (Which may be the real reason, at least in the minds of the raiders.) The leader of this intrepid band was a young Lieutenant named Bennett Young, who made his way to Canada after escaping a Northern prison camp, as did many others. But this was to be no Jesse James style raid on a town and its banks. Not at all! The Raiders, allegedly numbering 22 though we only have names for 18, arrived in the town prior to the appointed day. They staggered their arrivals over a ten day period so as not to draw unwanted attention to their presence. Originally, they planned to strike on the 18th of October but they learned that a town festival was planned for that day that might complicated things unnecessarily, so they postponed their strike to the following day.

On the day of the attack, the Confederates wore no uniforms but they were armed with pistols. Some were detailed to steal horses as that is how they planned to make their escape. To kick off the festivities, Young made an announcement to the town in front of the American Hotel. He said "I am an officer of the Confederate States Army. I am going to take the town and shoot the first person who resists." This was met with laughter by those who heard him, thinking it was a joke. But when other Raiders began firing pistols in the air, well, things got a bit more serious.

They forced their way into the town's three banks, taking the occupants hostage and plundering the vaults of all that they could carry. Bank tellers were forced to swear allegiance to the Confederate States of America. I do not think those oaths would be binding in the future as they were given under duress. In the Franklin County Bank, two employees were locked in the vault where they remained for the duration of the raid until bystanders entered and let them out. At the First National Bank, an old deaf man sat reading the newspaper for the duration of the robbery without ever looking up and seeing what was unfolding in front of him! 

I, state your name, do solemnly swear.....

In the meantime, those not detailed to hit the banks guarded hostages on the village green or rounded up horses to be used for the escape. During the round up of people on the street, one man was shot, superficially, by one of the Raiders. More shots were fired as the Raiders mounted their trusty steeds (well, probably not trusty since they were just getting to know them) and attempted to flee town. Lieutenant Young fired a round that fatally wounded one man. Up to this point, all the shots were fired by the Confederates. But that was about to change as armed townspeople arrived to fight back. One Raider was seriously wounded as they galloped away, tossing bottles of Greek Fire (an incendiary mixture) at buildings on their way out of town. None of the bottles ignited.

In a move worthy of a Western film, a recently discharged cavalry officer named George Conger organized a posse of around fifty men to pursue the dastardly Rebel bandits. The Raiders split up, which was perhaps a smart thing to do given the circumstances. But here is where the story gets a little strange. The posse pursued them across the international border into Canada and in fact, apprehended 14 of them, including Bennett Young. While trying to sneak them back across the border into the United States, they were stopped by Canadian authorities who relieved them of their prisoners. Canada also sealed off the border to prevent any more raids by Confederates or any US attempt to recapture the men. True to their word, Canada did hold an extradition hearing for the men, but they ruled that as this was a military operation and not a criminal enterprise, they would not send the men back to the US to stand trial. Needless to say, the US government was not amused.

So that, Dear Readers, is how the little town of St. Albans, Vermont came to be the location of the northernmost action to take place during the Civil War. There interesting question here is could a concentrated number of raids like this one have forced the US Government to negotiate a peace? Could it have led to Lincoln's defeat in his reelection bid? On their own, I would say no, so long as Sherman took Atlanta. If these raids were coupled with Confederate successes on the battlefield, then I would say perhaps it might have made a difference. But I guess we'll never know.

My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Half A$$ Historian who spent several years studying Confederate unconventional warfare. I can speak at great length on all of these feats of daring do, but that tends to bore people. 

(I patched this together from notes I have taken over the years. For further reading, download a copy (it is public domain) of The St. Albans Raid, or, An Investigation into the Charges Against Lieu. Bennett H. Young and Command For Their Acts at St. Albans, VT. This is the official Canadian records of the extradition hearing. Also, download a copy of Confederate Agent by a guy named Horan. It ties all of these operations together. And then peruse John Headley's Confederate Operations in Canada and New York. He was second in command of the "attack" on NYC.)

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Murder, Mayhem, and the American Past


I enjoy a good mystery as much as they next person, after all, I was a detective. But reading about them is preferable to seeing them in person. I can say that for sure. As a Half A$$ Historian, I've always had an active interest in crime fighting of old and unsolved cases from the American past. I'm not saying I could have solved any of them, but I would have liked to have been around back then to give it a try. These days, thanks to shows like C.S.I. (or B.S.I. as I call it) we tend to think that the only way you solve crimes is to run a bunch of tests and there you go, you have a killer. The truth is, you still solve cases today just like you did a hundred years ago, by beating the pavement with your feet and talking to people. So today I give you another one of my top five lists as I give you my five "favorite" unsolved murders in American History in no particular order.

Andrew Borden

1. The Borden Murders

Who knows the childhood rhyme:

Lizzie Borden took an ax
and gave her mother forty whacks
and when she saw what she had done
she gave her father forty-one

She got away with murder!

On August 4, 1892, the small town of Fall River, Massachusetts was rocked by a vicious double homicide. Andrew and Abby Borden were bludgeoned to death with an ax. I won't go into all the details but it suffices to say that it was not the Fall River Police Department's finest hour. Suspicion centered first on the Irish maid as back then, they solved cases by blaming the nearest Irish person to the crime, but then it came to focus on their daughter, Lizze Borden. At the time of the murder, she was seen as a spinster as she was unmarried, 32 years old, and lived at home. None of that really qualifies your for spinsterhood today, but the times were different back then. Eventually she was arrested and put on trial for murder. Given the botched police investigation, they were unable to present a lot of evidence though they built a decent circumstantial case. The trial was a media circus in line with O.J. and Casey Anthony. After deliberating an hour and a half, the all male jury returned a not guilty verdict. Why? It is partially due to the evidence. The real reason? The penalty for murder was death by hanging. They were not about to send a white Protestant woman to the gallows to die a somewhat slow death by strangulation. Men and immigrant or minority women were frequently condemned to death on less evidence than what was presented in this case. Personally, I think she either did it or was otherwise involved in the crime. But what do I know?

The Beautiful Cigar Girl

2. Mary Rogers, The Beautiful Cigar Girl

By all accounts Mary Rogers was incredibly hot. Alas, there were no cameras back then and I do not think she was a redhead, so I probably would not have been interested in her anyway. That said, she was considered quite the catch. She grew up as the only child of a widow who ran a boarding house. When she was seventeen, she went to work in a cigar store after her father died in a steamboat explosion. (That was commonplace in the 1840s). Given her beauty, she really helped the business. One customer penned an ode to her in the New York Times. None other than the great James Fenimore Cooper patronized the shop while she worked there. (Of course, Mark Twain would disagree with me calling him great, but that is a tale for another day) On July 25, 1841, she left home and told her fiance that she was going to visit some relatives. On July 28th, her corpse was found floating in the Hudson River in Hoboken, New Jersey. How she died and why is still a mystery. Some say she was murdered and dumped there. Others claim that she died during a botched abortion as a well known abortionist lived near where her body was discovered. There are all sorts of rumors and speculations. The case filled the New York City newspapers for weeks but eventually they moved on to other things. The story caught the eye of Edgar Allen Poe who immortalized her in his short story The Mystery of Marie Roget

A sad Hollywood tale.....

3. The Black Dahlia Murder

Postwar Los Angeles was a happening place. Money flowed like the cheap wine served in bars filled with women hoping to be discovered and the men who took advantage of them. Gangsters rubbed elbows with moved stars. The film industry was at perhaps its greatest era and pumped out classics on a regular basis. But there was something else. Something lurking under the surface. Murders happened on a regular basis. Many of them were bizarre, almost ritualistic. And a person or persons roamed the streets who were capable of murdering a beautiful young woman, cutting her body in half, and posing it in a vacant lot. Her name was Elizabeth "Beth" Short, but we know her today as the Black Dahlia.

Her naked and severed body was found in a vacant lot off of West Norton Avenue on the morning of January 15, 1945. The woman who spotted the remains thought at first that it was a discarded mannequin. Everything is sensationalized in Hollywood, even homicide. The media went wild. There was no shortage of suspects and no shortage of people coming forward to confess to the crime. But the case grew cold, given the investigative limitations of the time and the fact that they never found the original crime scene, only the secondary scene where the body was dumped. To do so, they would have had to find the killer or killers first.

This is still, perhaps the most "popular" of our unsolved murders. New books come out on a semi-regular basis claiming to definitively solve the case. The most interesting one to me is by retired LAPD detective Steve Hodel called The Black Dahlia Avenger. He goes into the connections between the Dahlia case and other similar unsolved murders of women in Los Angeles and the surrounding area from the same time period. There is one man who connects with all of them. Steve Hodel's own father! Could he have been the killer? We'll never know.

A tragic tale....

4. Dark Places

Please allow me to let another writer set the scene for you:

"The body of Geneva “Jean” Hilliker Ellroy was discovered at approximately 10:00 am on Sunday, 06/22/58.  Her body had been dumped in an ivy patch just a few inches shy of the curb near the playing field at Arroyo High school in the small city of El Monte, California.  Officers from the El Monte Police Department arrived at the scene at approximately 10:15 am.  According to Ellroy, they noted the following:
“It was a female Caucasian.  She was fair-skinned and red-headed.  She was approximately 40 years of age.  She was lying flat on her back…  Her right arm was bent upward.  Her right arm was resting a few inches above her head.  Her left arm was bent at the elbow and draped across her midriff.  Her left hand was clenched.  Her legs were outstretched.
She was wearing a scoop-front, sleeveless, light and dark blue dress.  A dark blue overcoat with a matching lining was spread over her lower body.
Her feet and ankles were visible.  Her right foot was bare.  A nylon stocking was bunched up around her left ankle.
Her dress was dishevelled.  Insect bites covered her arms.  He face was bruised and her tongue was protruding.  Her brassiere was unfastened and hiked above her breasts.  A nylon stocking and a cotton cord were lashed around her neck.  Both ligatures were tightly knotted.” (My Dark Places, 4-5) Online cite here.
What makes this so remarkable is that Ellroy is describing the murdered body of his mother. I admit, I take this murder personally as the victim in this case was an attractive redhead. There was a string of similar murders in the greater Los Angeles area at the time but they were never connected to this one. The police had no suspects and the crime quickly went cold. Decades later, James Ellroy, now one of America's greatest crime writers, partnered with a retired detective to reopen the case. Ultimately, they developed some leads but came up empty. If you want to know more, read My Dark Places. You won't be sorry.

A tragic day at the library...

5. Death in the Library

On the evening of November 28, 1969, Betsy Aardsma, a graduate student at Penn State University went to the library to work on a research paper. Somewhere close to five pm, an unknown assailant stabbed her once through the heart. Immediately afterwards, a clerk reported that either one or two men walked out of the library and on the way, said "Someone better help that girl!" Bystanders tried to revive her as help was summoned. One item of interest is that they did not know that she had been stabbed until they got her to the hospital. The reason given is that there was not a lot of blood and she was wearing a red dress. The murder is still unsolved. I just find it to be extremely bizarre and random. Libraries are suppose to be safe places for learning. Not places to get away with murder. 

So there you have it, Dear Readers, the most interesting unsolved murders in American History in my opinion. I hope you enjoyed the read. And stay safe out there. Trust your instincts. 

My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Half A$$ Historian.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Spitting Equals Death: The Spanish Influenza Pandemic of 1918


I am not a doctor. I only pretended to be one in bars when I was single. (j/k) My EMS certification expired many years ago, but I'm still a handy person to have around should you suffer a gunshot or stab wound or sever your foot with a lawnmower. (Or cut your finger with a chainsaw, as my brother did recently.) I can even handle a sucking chest wound. If you get a cold though, you are on your own. I can handle trauma, not sickness. If you were to ask me "Hey Half A$$ Historian, what could bring down American society and lead to the collapse of our country?", I would give you two answers. First, you could wipe out all of our technology as in with an EMP weapon. In a matter of a few days, we would be back in the Stone Age. (Check out the novel One Second After for a good fictional depiction of that.) The second thing would be the outbreak of some pandemic virus that we could not adequately control. Recently the news has been full of sometimes factual and sometimes fearmongering information about the Ebola virus. While those with extreme political views on both sides tend to latch onto a tragedy in order to further their own political agenda, I think that perhaps we should put this into a little historical perspective. Why does the government freak out over Ebola or the Bird Flu or the Swine Flu? Well, because we've been down that road before, almost one hundred years ago, and it was bad. Really bad.

The pandemic of which I speak is known now as the Spanish Influenza. It ravaged the world during the waning months of the First World War. No one knows the exact origins of this flu as we were in the midst of a World War at the time and thus it spread very quickly, in an age without air travel. Given the close confines in which soldiers lived in the trenches, it easily moved from one host body to another. This flu hit in two different waves. The first wave was not nearly as deadly and those who recovered from it were more or less safe from the far deadlier second wave. Due to wartime censorship, Spain, as a neutral, received more international press coverage thus giving the pandemic its name. Some think that it originated in Spain, but that is not true.

When the second wave hit the US in the fall of 1918, it created a public health nightmare. Unlike the "regular" flu which is normally only fatal to those over 65. The Spanish Influenza seemed to favor younger victims. 99% of deaths in the United States were people under 65. Almost half of them were between the ages of 20 and 40! That is medically remarkable. Public meetings were banned in many cities. Police officers went around in masks, as did many civilians as well. When soldiers got sick they were sent to crowded field hospitals and spread the virus even further.

So how bad was it? John M. Barry who wrote a great book called The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History estimates that it killed over 100 million people worldwide. He states that it killed more people in 24 weeks than AIDS did in 24 years and more than the Black Death did in 100 years. Somewhere around 675,000 Americans died and most of those within a short 12 weeks or so. Cities like Philadelphia dug mass graves with steam shovels. This, dear readers, is why the government gets so concerned about deadly viruses. No one wants to see another epidemic like this one. And if you think that modern medicine would save us, sadly you are incorrect. With my physical condition, the doctors can do no more for me than they could do 100 years ago. So no, medicine isn't as modern as we like to think. After all, they still call it "practicing medicine." Regardless, I hope that this gives you a little insight into why the media has jumped on the Ebola wagon. They'll ride that wagon until something else comes along.

My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Half A$$ Historian.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

A Real World Application From History Class


This week I am in the process of finishing my graduate course entitled Leadership in Criminal Justice. Going into this course I looked forward to it with much the same enthusiasm as one might feel while waiting for a colonoscopy, lobotomy, or root canal. Of what possible use can this be to me, I thought. As it turns out, and write this date down because it doesn't happen often, I was wrong. There are plenty of connections between this theoretical course I took and the history courses I teach. I just needed to know where to find them

There exists something called the Great Man school of history which follows a premise that history is nothing more than the deeds of great men. There is a built in gender bias there, of course. I think that if we called it the Great Figure school of history, it might not have fallen into disfavor amongst academics. The idea that a person can, through sheer force of will, personality, or character influence an age is an interesting one to say the least. To dismiss it out of hand would be wrong as I think few can doubt that Hitler, for example, put his mark on an era. If you argue that he was merely a product of his time, so too were plenty of other people and they, with the exception of Stalin and a few others, did not become maniacal mass murderers.

I wasn't short, damn it!

What this course has shown me is that great leaders, be they generals, politicians, or everyday people like you and I, are sometimes born but more often made. As a Half A$$ Historian, I like to study monumental figures from the past to try and figure out what made them tick. What were their shortcomings, their fears, and what obstacles stood in their path. There are real life lessons to be learned from this. For those who say that history has no practical application, this is what I point to in order to prove the wrong!

I struggled with depression.

It isn't just about leading countries or leading men into battle. We all have the ability to be great in our own way. For some of us, it might simply involve being the best parent we can. Maybe we aspire to being the best at our job or gaining a promotion. Some might be happy being the best parent they can possibly be or the best writer or maybe graduate from Half A$$ Historian to a Complete A$$. (Though plenty who know me might say I have already gotten there!) Regardless of what our end goal is, we all have the power to change our own history and perhaps by extension, the histories of those around us. Consider me. I was on top of the world with a career I excelled at. All that ended in an instant. Now I fight chronic and often debilitating pain and PTSD with its accompanying issues that are life altering on their own. My story could have ended there and to be honest, there were times when I wanted it to. But I make a decision every day to get up and go to the one job left that I can physically handle. I made the decision to go back to school and try to better myself. And maybe learn something along the way. Which brings me to the actual point of this post and I do apologize for being a little more verbose than normal.

Dress for success. Or I'll hit you!

What have I learned about leadership in a historical context? Well, I idolize General Patton and so I look to him for leadership examples. I think that when you look at some of his maxims, you can apply them to great leaders throughout the past. Here are just a few:

1. Do more than is expected of you.
2. Never  take counsel of your fears.
3. A pint of sweat saves a gallon of blood.
4. You're never beaten until you admit it.
5. Select leaders for accomplishment, not affection.

And of course:

6. When in doubt, ATTACK!

All of these things helped make Patton our greatest battlefield commander, in my opinion, but it also has bearing on our day to day lives. We can all take these words to heart, whether we are leading troops in battle or "commanding" a classroom. By studying what makes great leaders from the American past tick, we can gain valuable insight into our own strengths and weaknesses. That, Dear Readers, is a real world application of history. I am also inclined to agree with the General's poem, Through A Glass and Darkly when he said 

So through a glass, and darkly
The age long strife I see
I have fought in many guises
Many names, but always me

So forever in the future
Shall I battle as of yore
Dying to be born a fighter
But to die again once more

My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Half A$$ Historian who hopes to be getting his second straight A in my new graduate program!

Sources: Patton's Maxims are all of the internets! I recommend Carlo D'Este's masterful biography if you really want to know about the man. He's even more interesting than the movie! And you can find his Maxims here.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Legendary Lawmen


I have always liked the term "lawman". It has a nice ring to it, sort of like "peace officer". Alas, during my years in law enforcement I had to settle for being called a "cop" or worse! I was a lawman out west. In the Great State of Texas where cowboys once roamed the dusty trails and horse thieves and rustlers plied their trade. Things have changed a lot since then. No more do you mount up on your trusty steed and gallop off into the sunset after jailing a bad man. At least I got to wear a cowboy hat on the job. I've always been interested in Western History, probably because I watched too many Saturday morning westerns as a kid. And my father is a big John Wayne fan. The Holy Trinity in our home was God, John Wayne, and Elvis. With an interest in lawmen of old, I decided to give you some of my favorite Western Lawmen! (By no means are these the greatest or even the best. There are merely my personal favorites.)

1. Frank Hamer

With a name like Frank Hamer, you almost have to be a Texas Ranger. And Ranger Hamer was a great one. He has entered Texas lore as one of the greatest Rangers of all time which is quite the feat given that Texas Rangers are generally given over to badassery. Hamer was a Ranger off and on throughout his life as was commonly the case back when Rangers served by special appointment rather than promotion within the ranks of DPS like today. Hamer's biggest claim to fame came after he retired. In 1934, Hamer received a special commission from Governor Ferguson to hunt down the notorious duo, Bonnie and Clyde. He and his posse stalked them for one hundred days. The chase ended in a hail of gunfire outside Gibsland, Louisiana on May 23, 1934. At the time, Hamer was working not as a Ranger but as a Special Investigator for the Texas Department of Corrections. As is often the case, Americans romanticize the criminal element in our society and so we make movies and songs about Bonnie and Clyde, who were nothing more than robbing, murdering psychopaths, and demonize the men who brought them to justice.

2. Bat Masterson

One name that often does not come up when discussing legendary lawmen is that of Bat Masterson (standing second from right in photo). What is sort of unusual about Bat is that he was born in Canada. Strange that a Canadian would end up as a fear Western gunslinger! At 23 years old, he first had occasion to "slap leather" as they say and got involved in a gunfight over a girl. He killed his attacker, a soldier, but one of his attacker's bullets struck the young lady in question, killing her. Masterson received a bullet in his pelvis for his trouble, but survived no worse for wear. Like many Western gunslingers, Masterson did not work as a lawman his whole life as he also took time to gamble, among other things. He was not quick to draw his gun, and preferred to use other means of persuasion as did his friend Wyatt Earp. In 1902 he relocated to New York City where President Theodore Roosevelt appointed him to be the US Marshal for the Southern District of New York. He served in this capacity until William Howard Taft fired all of Roosevelt's appointees. (Taft's claim to fame is getting stuck in the White House bathtub.) Masterson was also a writer and penned numerous articles for newspapers both in the West and in New York City. He died at his desk in New York at the age of 67. 

3. Pat Garrett

Before angry shouts are raised in protest, let me remind you that Billy the Kid was a punk. He was not the tragic hero that he was portrayed as being in the Young Guns movies, even though they are enjoyable. Billy the Kid shot people in the back and most historians will tell you that the whole "he killed a man for each of his 21 years" quote is a bunch of crap. When Garrett was appointed as Lincoln County Sheriff, he was charged with tracking down an escapee from jail named Henry McCarty, better known, of course, as Billy the Kid. Garrett and Billy had known each other but they were not best friends as is often said. Garrett tracked him down and killed him, that much is known. But the details are foggy. Garrett's account has been challenged. Only two people in the world know what actually happened that night and one of them is dead. The killing of Billy the Kid marked the high point of Garrett's career as it was really his only claim to fame. Later, he too would become friends with Theodore Roosevelt who appointed him as a Customs Inspector in El Paso! Garrett was murdered in 1908 but the person who was charged with the murder was found not guilty by a jury. Garrett's case is another example of a person living and dying by the gun.

4. John Coffee "Jack" Hays

Now, I've said before in jest that coffee was my middle name, but in the case of Texas legend Jack Hays, it really was! Jack Hays was born into badassery. His Uncle was the great Andrew Jackson. Consequently he was also friends with the great Sam Houston! How is that for a pedigree? Hays immigrated to Texas in 1836 at the ripe old age of 19. He met with Sam Houston for the first time then and gave him a letter of introduction from Andrew Jackson which was all Houston needed to see. Hays got an appointment to the Texas Rangers. Hayes served on numerous campaigns against the Comanche and various other tribes during the wild years of the Republic of Texas. He was present at the Battle of Plum Creek which is a turning point in the constant warfare between Texans and Comanches. During the War with Mexico, Hays commanded a regiment of Texans first at the Battle of Monterrey and then made the long march with General Scott to Mexico City.  Hays eventually made his way further west and served for a brief time as a sheriff in California before retiring from military, law enforcement, and political endeavors. Hays is a legend in Texas and an all around tough hombre.

5. Wyatt Earp

And you thought I'd left him out! No discussion of great lawmen would be complete without the inclusion of perhaps the best known badge totin' man who once roamed the streets of Tombstone. My words cannot do justice to the life he lived so I really won't try. Watch Tombstone. You won't be sorry. However, what I will say is that his life was defined by a 30 second gunfight. That's all it took. Thirty seconds and he achieved immortality. That is quite interesting since he lived to be 80 years old! As in the movie, he did run off with Josephine Marcus and they did live quite a life together. They eventually settled in Los Angeles where Earp worked as a consultant on early Western films. One day he was served a cup of coffee by a young stagehand named Marion Mitchell Morrison. Yep, the Duke himself! John Wayne!

A Notable Absence 

I do not include Doc Holliday on this list because he was only a lawman for a brief period of time in Tombstone. Otherwise, he'd be on the list as he is one of my favorite historical characters. Alas I never got to ride off into the sunset on my trusty steed with a redheaded saloon girl perched behind me in the saddle. I did marry a redhead though. But she was not a saloon girl. Worse than that. She's from Missouri.  

My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Half A$$ Historian who would like to say that in all honesty, my favorite Western lawman man was, well...


Sunday, October 5, 2014

Houston's Forgotten Tragedy: The Gulf Hotel Fire

The Aftermath


I am starting a series on historic fires in United State History. It won't be every post, more like every third post or so. I thought it would be fun since, after all, I spent years as an arson investigator which meant I figured out how fires started and jailed those who set them. My arrest and conviction rate was over four times the national average, which is admittedly too low at 20%. Simply put, I was good at what I did. Being an arson investigator is tough because you need a fire service background, which I have, but you also need to be a bada$$ detective with excellent crime scene skills and interviewing skills since a confession is sometimes more important in an arson case than a homicide since you rarely, if ever, have a witness. I was all of those. I say this not to brag (okay, maybe a little) but my record speaks for itself. My background in the fire service and law enforcement gave me a healthy interest in historic fires as they are so often the root of the safety codes that exist today. Sadly, people had to die for those codes to come into existence, but that is how life (and death) often go. So on to the sad tale.

Houston during World War Two was a happening place. It was nowhere near as large a city as it is today, with a population of just under 400,000. The city added 100,000 people between 1930 and 1940 and would add another 200,000 by the end of the 40s, partially due to the growth brought about by the War. Americans were lucky in the sense that here in the Continental United States, we did not face bombing raids as did our allies and our enemies. Houston, with its port and oil, played an integral role in the allied war effort. The downtown area was booming as well with restaurants, movie theaters, and dancing at the Rice Hotel. But there was an underside too. Cheap hotels and boarding houses dotted the landscape filled to the brim with transient workers who traveled to Houston seeking employment. The Houston Fire Department was gutted by the War as well with many members enlisting after Pearl Harbor. The City of Houston created an Auxiliary Fire Department as well to supplement their missing manpower. This created the perfect storm which broke over the downtown skyline on the night of September 7, 1943.

The Gulf Hotel was located at 615 Preston which was the corner of Preston and Louisiana in the Downtown District. As you can see from the photo, it was probably a nice looking building when not on fire. As was often the case in downtown buildings at the time, the hotel only occupied the second and third floors. The Gulf Hotel would be happy to rent you a bed for forty cents a night. Or if you were down on your luck, you could get a cot for 20 cents! Though the hotel register listed 133 guests that night (all male), in reality there were probably many more than that. The 87 beds were often divided by thin wooden partitions and two men often shared a bed and split the price. Fifty cots were also crammed into the building. Every bed was occupied by at least one person and so were all of the cots. The hotel was located one block from the city's major bus depot which meant that many of the guests arrived and booked a "room" with little familiarity with the layout of the building or the surrounding area.

While making his rounds in the middle of the night, a clerk noticed a smoldering mattress on the second floor, most likely due to a carelessly discarded cigarette. This was the 1940s and non-smokers were a rarity and you could smoke just about anywhere. The clerk and some guests dumped water on the mattress and thought that the fire was out. Rather than tossing the mattress outside, they stuck it in a closet. Bad idea. A few minutes later, other guests noticed heavy smoke pouring out of the closet and you began to hear shouts of "Fire!" There were only two exits from the building, an interior stairwell which led to the street and another which was a rickety fire escape. The fire quickly moved to cut off most of the guests from the interior stairwell, fueled by the wooden partitions used to separate the rooms. This left the fire escape as the only option, but just days earlier a Fire Department Inspector cited the Gulf Hotel for not installing a red safety light to point the way to the fire escape.

Around 12:50 am, the officers and men at Houston's Central Fire Station received the alarm. The station was only six blocks away. After the fire, Deputy Chief Grover Cleveland Adams (what a name!) said "As we started out of the station, we could see the reflection of the fire against the sky." That always signifies a big job. As they pulled up, the sole fire escape was already crowded with men. Some of them were on crutches and making slow progress which backed up the rest of the men trying desperately to get out. Then people started jumping out of the third story windows as that was the only means of escape left. With bodies thudding on the sidewalk, the fire department tried to rescue as many men as possible while the flames continued to light the downtown sky. The body of one victim, unable to escape from the third floor, hung limply out the window for the duration of the fire as a gruesome reminder of a fire's deadly power.

Victims were transported to the two nearby hospitals, Saint Joseph and the old Jefferson Davis Hospital, many of them by private auto or police car. Doctors arrived and provided what first aid their could on the scene. Two victims died at the scene and another fifteen died after arrival at the hospital. The city was already dealing with a major tragedy. It took two hours for the fire department to battle their way inside and extinguish the fire. What they found was far worse. Thirty-eight bodies were inside the hotel, overcome by smoke and flames as they tried in vain to reach safety. The fifty-five men who died that night were victims of the deadliest fire in Houston history. Indeed, it is one of the five deadliest hotel fires in 20th Century American History. The 40s saw many deadly hotel fires, unfortunately, and this was just one.

Given that this happened during the midst of World War Two, it did not receive much coverage. Fire disasters like this were not unheard of at the time. Indeed, not even a year earlier, the City of Boston experienced the Cocoanut Grove Nightclub fire (subject of an upcoming post) which killed 492 people, the second deadliest fire in American History. Today, few Houstonians know anything about the Gulf Hotel tragedy. Part of this is because so many of the people who live in Houston today are part of the boom in population that happened after the War. Also, the City of Houston is partially to blame. They gleefully bulldoze any building more than thirty years old. The city has totally lost touch with its past, both good and bad. That is a tragedy of a different sort.

Twenty-three of the victims from this fire were never identified. They were buried in a mass grave at Houston's South Park Cemetery, where they remain just as forgotten today as they were in 1943. The Houston Chronicle summed it up best at the time when it said the following:

"Who were these men? What strange, pathetic, colorful,
or drab histories led to a fate that sent them unrecognized
to this tragic grave?

Histories that shall be forever unwritten, unknown.

Some of them had good jobs, as shipyard workers,
defense plant workers. Some perhaps were newspaper vendors
peddlers, or clerks in hideaway stores.

Or they were beggars and crippled derelicts wandering
in the city streets with nothing to do, no place to go but
their cots in the crowded hotel.

What kind of homes did they come from? Where?
No one will ever know?" 

Perhaps the finest words ever written by the Houston Chronicle. Sadly, we still do not know.

My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Half A$$ Historian. 

Source Notes: In my college years I wrote a paper about this tragedy and had the opportunity to speak with a few people who witnessed the fire. (None of them were inside the hotel at the time.) I also collected newspaper articles, etc, and had a pretty nice file on it. I also consulted a publication available at the Houston Fire Museum called Houston Fire Department: 2000 Traditions & Innovations. There is some debate as to the number of remains buried in the mass grave with some sources saying 23, 31, or even 38. Most of the sources say 23 and so that is what I am going with.