Long Distance Death

Whitworth rifle    In 1864, during the battle of Spotsylvania, Union General John Sedgwick berated his cowering troops for trying to stay hidden from Confederate sharpshooters positioned over 1,000 yards away.  Sedgwick marched up and down the barricades telling them, “What? Men dodging this way for single bullets. . .I am ashamed of you.  They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.”  Seconds later he was felled with a sniper’s shot, likely fired from the deadly, and elusive, Whitworth rifle.

    The Whitworth was a British-made, single-shot and muzzle-loaded rifle that was used almost exclusively by Confederate sharpshooters.  They were also rare during the Civil War as there were only about 200 imported to the States, and there are very few left in good condition today.   In early trials—Queen Victoria fired the first test shot—the Whitworth outperformed the Enfield rifle by hitting targets up to 2,000 yards away and it was greatly feared by Union troops facing the well provisioned and well practiced (and nearly invisible) sharpshooters firing at them from impossible distances.

    In my new historical novel, Lucinda, (to be published September 2013) the Whitworth rifle plays an important part of the narrative, both as an instrument of death as well an object of beauty and skill.  In many ways it proved to be my most challenging endeavor to date: confronting authentically the violence and uncertainty of the time as a researcher and writer, and reconciling those sensibilities with my own (more modern-day) discomfort with gun play.


How to Spot a Witch

     In honor of Halloween, I thought I’d write briefly about a book that was used for hundreds of years by Men of Science—although the science of the middle ages—and Men of Theology—zealots who used heavily biased religious texts against women who challenged the narrow definition of a female’s place in society, or who were mentally or physically unbalanced—to identify and prosecute witches.

     Called the MALLEUS MALEFICARUM, meaning “Hammer of the Witches” in Latin, it was written in 1486 to refute the more rational citizens of the Tyrol region of Germany who doubted the existence of witches.   The Church had officially denied the existence of witches since the time of Charlemagne, who in fact outlawed the practice of witch burning, calling it a pagan superstition.   But the wide distribution of the Malleus, thanks in part to the development of the printing press, brought a resurgence of witch hunting in Europe and in the New World. 

     The author of the book was one Heinrich Kramer who was initally thrown out of his home district for being a crank.  Called a “senile old man” by his local bishop, it has been theorized that the book was his act of vengeance against the established clergy in particular and women in general.  And what a bloody vengeance it was.   As many as 60,000 people, mostly women, were burned at the stake in Europe between 1480 and 1750.

     According to the Malleus “all witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable.”   A very telling insight into the mindset of the author, and of the prosecutors of the unfortunate women labeled as confederates of the Devil.  There were many stages of investigation, but a physcial examination almost always uncovered a wart or a mole that could be claimed to be the “witches teat” from which she fed her familiar—a cat, frog, newt, etc.—a demon in disguise.

     We treated our witches a little more kindly here in the colonies in that we didn’t burn them at the stake.   We only hanged them.  But the 20 men and women who were killed in Salem in 1692 (my 9X great grandmother, Martha Carrier, among them) were some of the last wholesale victims of the Malleus.

Mankillers: Cullen Baker

     Previously, I posted about Wild Bill Longley, the true-life “mankiller”, who served as a model for a main character—a serial killer—in my newest novel about Reconstruction era Texas (as yet untitled).

     But there were scores of other hot-headed, amoral killers roaming the interior of Texas during the second half of the 1800’s.  Cullen Baker (pictured here) was born in Tennessee and served in the Confederate Home Guard in Arkansas during the Civil War.   The CHG was a homely-sounding name for a group of rangers who raped, pillaged and murdered their way through Arkansas and Missouri, indiscriminately killing unionists and confederates alike.   After the war, he and his gang members killed between 50 and 60 people, many of them freed slaves.

      By all accounts, he was a heavy drinker which not surprisingly fueled his killing temper, but he chose unwisely in love as his violent death was linked to his second wife.  There are two versions of his death.  The first recounts that he and a cohort were both poisoned by strychnine by his wife’s family and then shot to death.  The second version says that Cullen was shot by his wife’s lover, a school teacher, in his own home.

      The Western writer, Louis L’amour wrote about him in several novels, adding him to the pantheon of better known gunfighters such as Billy the Kid, and the James-Younger Gang.


     One of the main characters in my third novel is a serial killer named William Estes McGill.  A charming, intelligent man, his personality is based on research that I’ve done on some real life murderers, or mankillers as they were called in the 19th century.  And there were plenty of examples of psychopaths and violent men to choose from following the chaos and lawlessness of the Civil War.

    An example of a true mankiller was Wild Bill Longley, a native Texan pictured here.   At the time of his death by hanging in 1877, he had killed 32 men.   A practiced marksmen, it was said that he could shoot left or right-handed, and held a particular hatred for the black state policmen who were given the almost impossible task of keeping law and order in mostly white towns and cities during the Restoration.  He was arrested several times and escaped jail, and was even hanged by a posse of lawmen, but the rope frayed and he fell from the hanging tree and survived.

   The crime that finally led to his second, and fatal, hanging was the callous shooting of man whom Longley suspected of killing his cousin.  He accosted the man plowing in his field and gut shot the farmer.  When the mortally wounded man asked why he’d been shot, Longley replied, “Just for luck.”

   Four thousand people gathered to watch Longley hang.  Shortly before his death he wrote an open letter from the Giddings jail, saying, “And now, boys, remember the road Bill Longley had travelled in disobeying his parents, and when you start to do wrong remember that a very small wrong always leads to still greater ones…My first step was disobedience, next whiskey drinking, next carrying pistols, next gambling and then murder, and I suppose the next will be the gallows.”

   It was reported that he smoked a cigar on the scaffold and commented to the sheriff that the gallows’ stairs seemed unsteady.   One of his last comments was, “Look out, the steps are falling.  I don’t want to get crippled.”  Then he laughed.

   Next week, I’ll post on one of his partners in crime, and fellow mankiller, Cullen Baker.

Scroll down for earlier posts.

Soiled Doves: What Grandma Never Told You

     I’m now in the editing phase of my third book, set in Reconstruction Era Texas, 1870.  One of the main protagonists in the novel is a school teacher turned prostitute.  In doing research for the book, I made some surprising discoveries about the prostitution trade in America in the mid to late 19th century.  


The accompanying portrait was taken by E.J. Bellocq, the now famous photographer who lived and worked almost exclusively in the notorious Storeyville section of New Orleans, capturing the titillating, if sometimes sad, beauty of the city’s prostitutes.   New Orleans had some of the most beautiful and diverse ladies of the evening, but prostitutes could be found in every town, cattle drive outpost, military fort and settlement in the West during the 19th century.

   Called Upstairs Girls, Soiled Doves, Daughters of Joy or just plain Whores, women of all ages, from young girls to much older women, well passed child-bearing age, engaged in the “oldest profession in the world” for simple economic reasons.  There were few jobs that a woman could pursue to gain financial independence and many women, more than most people now imagine, engaged in sex for pay in order to feed themselves or their families if they were unmarried, widowed, and poor; selling themselves periodically, and for short periods of time, to make ends meet—so to speak.  But many women found themselves addicted to alcohol or drugs, with dangerous, threatening pimps or with diseases that could only be treated with more alcohol and opium.  The rate of suicide among prostitutes was very high—10 times the national average.

   If a woman was lucky enough to work in high-end “Parlor Houses” or brothels, her clientele was considered more genteel and restrained.  But some of the most sensational murders of the late 19th century occured in palacial bordellos: the perpetrator a wealthy patron, the victim, an unlucky prostitute. 

   The women involved in prostitution most in control of their fates were the madams who managed the whorehouses, hired the girls, set the prices, paid off the local lawmen, and entertained the most prominent men of their time, including judges, senators, and even presidents.

   What your grandmother, or great grandmother, most likely never told you was that she probably knew someone, family member or friend, who for a time engaged in discreet solicitation for money or for barter to survive.  There are no accurate accounts of the numbers of prostitutes, even in large cities, because of the impermanent nature of the trade, but during the gold-rush years in San Francisco within a few blocks there were counted by local lawman over 300 prostitutes.  

   And chances are you never knew that Calamity Jane, explorer, teamster and friend to Wild Bill Hickok, worked as a prostitute in the Black Hills of the Dakotas.  Giving up her shotgun and buckskins for a time, she donned a dress and worked in the bordellos next to companions with working names like Big Dollie, Dirty Emma and Sizzling Kate.  Martha Jane Canary, her true given name, spent the last years of her life as a prostitute in South Dakota, after she had been lauded in newspapers and dime novels for over a decade as a true hero of the West.

The Governor’s Hounds

     The Governor’s Hounds was the name given to the police force that existed in Texas from 1870 to 1873.  It was designed, commisioned and supported by Edmund Davis, the much hated Republican Governor with the sole purpose of protecting the citizens from the jayhawkers, bushwackers and man-killers that operated freely in the state, still recovering from the destruction of the Civil War.

    The Texas State Police became the model for police forces in many states, north and south, and, unlike the Texas Rangers, who were home-grown, loosely organized and focused mainly on border raids from Mexican bandits, Apaches and Comanches, they were given powers by the Texas legislature to be judge, jury and executioner in hunting down violent criminals—many times with no questions or inquiries aferwards.

    The TSP over the years have been vilified in the history books for their brutality and dishonesty, and there were some policemen who blurred the line between criminal and crime fighter, but many of the attacks against the force were politically motivated; a strategy to discredit the governor who was appointed by the equally hated President Grant and his Reconstruction policies.  Except for the capital of Austin, which was firmly controlled by the Republicans, Texas citizens were overwhelmingly Democrats and resentful of the number of black policemen empowered to confront and arrest white men.

     In 1870, in 108 counties in Texas, there were reportedly 2,790 criminals at large.  In the first month following the organization of the force in July of that year 44 murderers and other felons were apprehended; five of the arrested being killed “resisting arrest.”  By the end of 1870 the force had arrested 978 dangerous felons, chasing a good many others from the state.

     Leander McNelly served as an officer in the Confederate Army and was appointed as one of the first four captains in the State Police.  He later went on to become one of the most famous Texas Rangers, serving as a captain of a much lauded Ranger unit.  He became the model for the ideal lawman of the time, described by his contempories as a man of “consumate skill, daring gallantry and meritorious conduct.”  McNelly credited his success leading his Ranger company with his earlier years of training and experiences with the TSP.

    As I have worked over the year on my soon-be-completed novel about Texas during the Reconstruction era, I have come to a different perspective of this much maligned and under researched police force.   With very few resources, scant pay and little or no support of their fellow Texans, the Texas State Police brought order and lawfulness back to the Republic.

One of the few comprehensive research books on the TSP is:  The Governor’s Hounds, The Texas State Police, 1870-1873 by Barry A. Crouch and Donaly E. Brice

My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys

    Most of my posts to date have been related to history of the Colonial Era in New England, and to my first two novels, The Heretic’s Daughter and The Traitor’s Wife.  But, as I’m nearing the completion of my third novel set in Texas during the Reconstruction Era of post Civil War America (and have spent the last year researching the topic) I’ll be posting some discovered revelations about this little known period of Texas history. 

    One northerner visiting Texas in 1869 said that Texans were like the weather, “a perpetual enigma, a tissue of contradictions” and that its citizens did “everything for honor and nothing for justice.”   The time in which this “damn yankee” made his observations was one of the most violent periods in the Republic’s past.  In 1869 Texas led the country in homicide rates.  Recognizable man-killers like Cullen Baker, Elisha Guest, Wild Bill Longley and Ben Griffith walked openly in the streets and the home-grown law keepers had been effectively gutted, disarmed and disenfranchised, by the still-present Federalist forces.  A year later, in 108 counties there were 2,790 known petty and violent criminals at large.   There was general and open hostility towards the immigrant population flooding into Texas, which had been left at least physically untouched by the Civil War battles raging farther to the East; border disputes still flared with Mexico, Native Americans were being shot first and questioned second, and gun control was a hot button issue.

     Struggling to rise from the chaos, and often volunteering at great risk to themselves to restore order in their towns and fields, were men and women of the soil, settlers and cowboys who were often the real, unsung heroes of this battle to regain peace and civility to a savage place.

    The above photo is of my dad, John Hickman, who, in an earlier time, would have been happy to have been called a cowboy.