Halloween 2017: Ben Thompson’s Grave

Ben Thompson doesn’t have the level of posthumous fame as his exploits should have earned.  I think it’s because he didn’t have a catchy nickname.  In the early days of Texas statehood, among impulsive, gun-crazy men with a violent streak, he was first among equals.  But fame is fickle and it’s hard to pin down why some gunslingers are well-remembered and why some become footnotes.  In many regards, outside of Texas history buffs, Ben Thompson is a footnote.

Still, among lovers of Old West or Texas history, some of us do remember Ben Thompson and this is a perfect time of the year to share his story.  He was a soldier and a lawman, but among Texas lawmen during the 1800s, it was not uncommon for lawmen to also be criminals, and Thompson was definitely a criminal, and a violent one at that.  So violent was his life that some people interested in ghosts and the paranormal say the power of his character affects his final resting place.

Ben Thompson was like many of the wild men who made Texas their home – he was a jack of all trades before he found his niche as a gunslinger.  Born in England in 1843, his family emigrated to Texas in 1851.  In his teens, he worked as a printer’s apprentice and in 1859 he went to New Orleans to work as a bookbinder.  It was in New Orleans that the man he was to become showed himself when he killed a man whom he claimed was abusing a woman.  Stabbed him to death.  He was fifteen or sixteen when this happened.

He served in the Civil War, fighting with the Confederates, but the battles he fought didn’t quell his love of guns and rough justice because after he returned to Austin he shot and killed a man during an argument over a mule.  A mule.  Seriously.  And since the mule was technically Army property, Thompson was arrested.  That didn’t slow him down though because he busted out of prison and fled to Mexico where he joined Maximillian’s forces until the good emperor lost the war in 1867.  Clearly a man unable to function outside of conflict, Thompson returned to Austin and promptly shot his brother-in-law for abusing Thompson’s wife.  Oh yeah, Thompson got married during his stint in the Civil War.  The civilizing effects of marriage didn’t really take with him.

So, Thompson was tried and sent to prison in Huntsville, and this time he was unable to break out.  He served two years of his four year sentence until pardoned by President Grant.  Once free he headed up to Abilene, Kansas with his family and opened a prosperous saloon with an old Army buddy, Philip Coe, and seemed to be doing reasonably well.  That changed when Thompson was in a terrible buggy accident that injured him, his son and his wife, who lost an arm.  While Thompson was recovering from the accident, Coe went and got himself shot by Marshal “Wild Bill” Hickok.

By any measure Abilene of the early 1870s was a tough town, and its city marshal – James B. (Wild Bill) Hickok – was up to the challenge of taming its rowdy visitors.  Although there may have been many reasons that Hickok and Philip Coe did not care for each other, it is likely that the basis for their dislike was a woman they both cherished.  Apparently she chose the gambler over the lawman and was going to leave town with Coe – or so she thought.  During the evening of October 5, 1871, Hickok shot Coe, who had been firing his pistol into the evening air on a street in Abilene.  Tragically, in the confusion of the shots taken at Coe, Hickok also shot and killed his deputy. (Texas Cemeteries, Harvey)

After that, Abilene, Kansas was tired of Hickok and all the cattle drivers who passed through, making trouble at the drinking and gambling establishments, so they relieved Hickok of his duty and banned undesirables from entering or remaining in the city.  That included Thompson so he went to Ellsworth, Kansas and began his time as a professional gambler.  Interestingly, it was in Ellsworth that Thompson encountered another name we all remember more than poor Ben:

After the shooting of Coe, Ben Thompson left town for Ellsworth, Kansas, where he met Wyatt Earp in one of the Old West’s classic “in the streets” confrontations.  Looking down the barrel of Earp’s gun, Thompson backed down and soon left Ellsworth for the Texas Panhandle.  There Thompson would meet and, in the ensuing years, form a life-long friendship with Bat Masterson. (Texas Cemeteries, Harvey)

Interestingly, Thompson’s brother shot and killed the Ellsworth, Kansas sheriff and fled.  A couple of years later he stood trial and was acquitted – the Thompson family seemed to be able to avoid the worst penalties for their impulsive and criminal natures, but so did a lot of men during that time.  Rustle some cattle and you’d hang immediately if caught but shoot a sheriff and people could understand how the sheriff may have had it coming.

From 1874 to 1879, Thompson made his living as a professional gambler, traveling around various Texas cities, and of course he got into trouble as he did it.  On Christmas Day, 1876, a fight broke out in the Austin Theater.  Thompson, seeing a friend was causing the commotion, decided to help his friend out and jumped into the fray.  When the theater owner emerged with a rifle and shot at Thompson, Thompson returned fire and killed him in three shots.  It was determined later that Thompson had killed in self-defense.

Looking for quick money in the Colorado silver mines, Thompson went west and while there teamed up with his friend, Bat Masterson, who had assembled a team of hired guns to work for Kansas-based railroads that were embroiled in a right of way dispute with Colorado railroads.  Thompson was well-paid for his efforts so he returned to Austin and opened a gambling saloon that he called the Iron Front Saloon.  Here’s where it gets kind of funny: Ben Thompson was scrupulously honest in the way he ran his gambling tables and earned the respect of Austin citizens as being an honest man, so honest that the citizens in Austin elected him to be city marshal, not once, but twice.  And the hell of it is, he was an honest man.  He just liked shooting people.  So why not have an honest shooter serve in law enforcement?

And it was a pretty good decision – plenty of people thought Ben Thompson was the best marshal Austin ever had.  But rest assured he didn’t stop killing people.  In 1882, Thompson visited the Vaudeville Theater in San Antonio and felt that the card tables at the establishment might not meet his level of scrupulous honesty and shot the theater owner, Jack Harris, to death.  He was indicted for murder and resigned as marshal and it will surprise no one that he was acquitted of murder.  Presumably the theater owner had it coming.  Thompson returned to Austin and was given a hero’s welcome

Now, you and I, if we shot a popular entertainment establishment owner to death, we might be emboldened a bit if we returned home to the 1880s version of a ticker tape parade, but it takes a really bold person to return to the scene of the crime.  Thompson went back to the Vaudeville Theater in 1884.  He and his friend, John King Fisher, one helluva gunslinger in his own right, sauntered into San Antonio like they owned the place and news of their arrival spread quickly.

What happened inside the Vaudeville Theater depends on the sources.  Some say that within minutes of entering the saloon area of the Vaudeville Theater, they were both ambushed and shot from behind.  That’s some cowardly crap right there but, it must be said, that there would have been little chance for anyone to kill him in a straightforward gunfight.  But other sources indicate that perhaps Thompson pushed things too far. He had already run into some of Jack Harris’ business partners inside the Vaudeville Theater, but stayed for the show and pressed his luck in the saloon

Thompson and Fisher had been drinking heavily in the saloon.  Inside, Simms, Foster and three confederates were waiting.  When the subject of the murder of Jack Harris came up, Fisher wanted to leave. But Thompson pushed on, eventually slapping Foster and putting a pistol in the saloon owner’s mouth.  Almost immediately shooting broke the tension and silence of the room.  As the smoke cleared, both Thompson and Fisher lay dead on the floor.  Fisher had never drawn a gun, and Thompson managed but a single shot.  Yet the bodies of the outlaw lawmen had nine and thirteen wounds, respectively.  Ironically, a coroner’s jury in San Antonio ruled the killings self-defense. (Texas Cemeteries, Harvey)

Legends of the ambush grew far outside of the reality of what really happened.  Texas history junkies talk of how it was that Ben Thompson killed six of the men who ambushed him with a single six-shooter and hit them each square like ducks in a carnival shooting game.  The reality is that even in the scenario where he pressed his luck, he barely knew what hit him.  I bet he’d have liked the way his own murder played out in terms of the myths that arose around him.  But no one was ever charged with killing him, and his body was shipped back to Austin.  He’s buried in Austin’s Oakwood Cemetery.

I first heard about Ben Thompson from a ghost hunter.  I don’t hunt for ghosts, but I do like looking into ghost legends, and ghost hunters can be really helpful in finding out interesting stories.  The lady I met told me that it was impossible to take a good photo of Ben Thompson’s gravestone because he hates the stone that was put on his resting place because it isn’t the one he won in a card game, so he makes sure all the photos people take are marred in some manner.

Bear with me, this story has some merit.  The late Charley Eckhardt wrote up a lot of what he knew about some of the better and more interesting Texas legends and he wrote a short article about how it was that Ben Thompson won his tombstone in a card game.  One night a tombstone salesman named Luke Watts played poker at a table at Iron Front Saloon and it just so happened that Ben Thompson was playing that night at that table as well.  Watts tried to sell Ben Thompson a tombstone, but Thompson didn’t seem too interested. But when Watts had lost every penny in his pocket, Thompson’s demeanor changed.

Watts was not as good a poker player as he thought he was, and sometime after midnight he announced that he was cleaned out and was leaving the game. Thompson asked him how much his tombstones were worth. “It depends on what kind it is,” Watts replied.

Thompson said he wanted the best tombstone Watts had. Watts told him he had a fine marble stone that was worth $200. Thompson told him to bring it up and put it in the game. Thompson would accept it in lieu of $200 cash. The game began again and Thompson won the tombstone. Watts suggested that he carve at least Thompson’s name and date of birth on it, but Thompson said no. The stone sat in the poker room in the Iron Front for a few months, until Thompson ordered it moved to the basement.

Not long after this Ben Thompson died in the ambush in San Antonio, but according to Eckhardt his resting place in Oakwood Cemetery lacked a headstone until 1925, and that the tombstone he won remained in the basement of the Iron Front Saloon until it was demolished. Eckhardt wasn’t certain if the stone that was eventually placed on his grave was the stone he won in the card game.

I don’t know one rock from another but the stone that marks Ben Thompson’s resting place does not look like it’s fine marble and I don’t think that anyone was too pressed to rescue a slab of marble from the basement of a saloon marked for demolition.

Oakwood Cemetery is a favorite of mine and many others in the area.  I spent a lot of time there searching for the burial places of the victims of the Servant Girl Annihilator, and while I was there years ago, I remembered that legend the ghost hunter told me and I took a photo of Ben Thompson’s gravestone.

And there you go.  Maybe Ben really is angry about his stone and interferes with good pictures.

Join me under the cut as I behave like the killjoy I so often am.

The Liberty Hill Witch Grave: Bad Legends and Cemetery Desecration

I’d known about the legend of the infamous Liberty Hill witch grave for a while but only recently managed to drive up there and have a look around. It seemed a perfect thing to document for Halloween, because the legend, though unlikely, is fueled by witchcraft, cruel death and creepy graveyard stories, and though a creation of the digital age, seemed to have some interesting historical relevance. But this was one of those times when the damage done by the legend far outweighs the value of recently-created folklore.

The Liberty Hill witch grave is an example of new folklore, and is largely a creation of Internet sites that breathlessly repeat rumors as fact and take EVP tapes gathered by ghost hunters as solid evidence. My research shows that the stories of the witch grave really started to get traction in the last 20 years or so, and have been spread through ghost hunters who visit the cemetery at night to talk to the dead witch and assorted “weird” sites that tell ghost stories. Older locals in Andice and Liberty Hill, small towns north of Austin in the Texas Hill Country, especially those who don’t spend hours online each day, haven’t heard of the witch grave or only know about it now because they are appalled by the amount of destruction ghost hunters and drunk teenagers have done to the cemetery.

Often legends need to stand as they are – critical analysis of the legends seldom does any good because people who have a will to believe will not be dissuaded by facts and because most of the time truth in such stories doesn’t matter. For example, I’ve shared my trip to Baby Head, Texas on this site – Baby Head gets its name because there are stories of a Comanche raid that resulted in the beheading of a little settler girl. I don’t know if that happened, but have come to believe that because the first grave in the Baby Head Cemetery is that of a little girl who died on New Year’s Day, and because Baby Hill/Llano was once in the middle of Comanche territory, the town name may not be based in whole truth but is certainly derived from genuine trauma or terror.  Real Comanche incursions into pioneer settlements combined with that tiny dead girl fueled the legend of the little girl who lost her head to the Comanches, the girl behind the legend that gave Baby Head its name.  People who lived during the dangerous time described in the legend actually created the legend, so even if it is not wholly accurate the story was fueled by genuine experience.

Such legends are organic outgrowths of genuine events and even if they are not true in the factual sense, they are true in that they represent the collective fears and anxiety of a particular group of people in a particular place and time. The Liberty Hill witch grave is not one of those kinds of legends. It’s cobbled together using elements borrowed from other places and times, it’s not a story that attempts to explain some unpleasant reality of frontier life because tensions regarding slavery were long in the past when the myth was created (though certainly elements of the story may have some factual basis in social injustices that happened to other black women in Texas). It’s a bad ghost story that doesn’t really add to the lore of Texas or depict social issues of the past so much as it contributes to wholesale vandalism of historical sites.

(9/14/17:  I received an interesting email from a reader who didn’t want to leave a comment and prefers to remain anonymous, but the questions she raised are worth discussing so I am going to address her concerns in the sections appropriate.  She was alarmed by what she perceived as a statement I made that in modern Texas there are no racial divisions and racist actions perpetrated by citizens and authority figures. As a life-long Texan I certainly know there are problems with racism in my home state. The point I was trying to make is that the Liberty Hill witch legend is not a legend that attempts to portray or explain the travails of female slaves. Instead it’s a modern mishmash of assorted legends that don’t represent the experiences or customs of any person alive when slavery was still legal in Texas.

I am unwilling to cede the leeway given in other inaccurate but culturally important legends to the tale of “Elizebeth Simpson.” The Liberty Hill witch grave story was created at least 130 years after the Civil War.  The people who created the legend were probably at least four generations removed from anyone who was held in bondage in Texas or owned slaves.  The person who created the witch legend did not directly experience slavery in Texas.  The racial climate when this story was created was not perfect but it was significantly different than it was in the 1860s. The world is and always will be racist to varying degrees but it, for me, a bridge too far to think that whoever created the Liberty Hill witch legend did so with the intent of representing racial tensions he or she never experienced in a time long past. That makes this legend all the more offensive because it becomes a placeholder, and a particularly bad one at that, for the stories of actual black women who were subject to extrajudicial punishments and lynchings.)

So let me tell you about the story of the Liberty Hill witch grave, show you some pictures, and then explain, using common sense, why the story is nonsense, and using factual record to show why it’s absolutely false. I’m going to leave the analysis of the myth under the cut so that way people who just want to revel in the ghost story can skip my commentary.  Also, I have set up an album in Flickr that shows the whole of the cemetery so those who love cemetery porn can see some old Texas graves, some of genuine historical worth.

Click on any picture in this entry to see a larger version.

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North entrance into Bittick Cemetery. This sign was erected in 2004 after the wooden sign was destroyed by vandals.

The Liberty Hill witch grave, located in the Bittick family cemetery in Williamson County, is said to contain the mortal remains of a slave named “Elizebeth Simpson.” The legend says that in 1862, “Elizebeth Simpson,” a slave woman, was hanged to death for stealing one of her master’s horses. She was dragged to the Bittick family cemetery, hanged from one of the oak trees in the center of the parcel of land, then cut down and buried there.  Other legends indicate Elizebeth was hanged for witchcraft but witches in the Hill Country were thin on the ground.  I can’t find a single historical record to indicate anyone was ever executed for witchcraft in Texas.  Frankly the horse story makes a lot more sense – stealing livestock is serious business even now, but common thieves seldom make curses from the grave the way hanged witches do.

esfront1
What’s left of “Elizebeth Simpson’s” gravestone.

Her stone said she was born on April 10, 1834 and died on September 24, 1862. Her head stone had the following saying:

And remember as yo ar pasin by yo must die as well as I

That inscription has been interpreted by some to be a dark curse of sorts, with people insisting it means that anyone who walks in front of “Elizebeth’s” grave will be hanged unless they leave her some sort of offering to appease her.  And I use past tense describing the stone because it’s been destroyed – I am relying on an older picture of the stone I’ve found online to show its original form. A picture taken by someone else before it was wholly obliterated is under the cut.

 

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Debris and offerings left at “Elizebeth’s” gravestone.

Ghost hunters have come to “Elizebeth’s” stone and recorded all kinds of EVPs they claim demonstrate moans they claim no one heard while they were recording, as well as ghostly whispers.

To keep from being hexed by the curse on the stone, or possibly in attempts to curry favor with the dead slave, people leave gifts and offerings on the grave, like toys, alcohol and coins. Curiously, other stones throughout the cemetery are covered in coins, mostly pennies and quarters. I worry that because “Elizebeth’s” stone has been destroyed and lacks visual impact that ghost seekers are going to other graves.  One grave of a dead child who was born the day before Halloween 150 years ago was festooned with quarters, and a rock tomb belonging to a child was also covered with change.

esofferingsclose
Toys and cigarettes left for “Elizebeth.” The cough drops seem a pretty thoughtful gift for a witch whose throat likely hurts after being hanged.
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Note the “X” marks at the bottom of the stone. These are reminiscent of marks left on Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau’s tomb.

Some try to raise her spirit to speak to them via seances and ouija boards.  Mr OTC found this handmade ouija board folded up in some tall grass in the northwest corner of the cemetery.

ouija2
Impromptu attempts to speak to the dead.

Far creepier than leaving beer bottles on the gravestone of a possibly executed slave woman is that it appears that people engage in carnal activities on or near “Elizebeth’s” grave.

condom
Never a good sign when you find condom wrappers in a cemetery.
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It’s an even worse sign when you find used hand towels and empty beer bottles near a condom wrapper in a cemetery.

I would like to beg everyone who thinks of going into this cemetery to commune with a dead woman to please not have sex on her grave.  From the standpoint of courtesy, having sex on a grave is impolite.  But I suspect the sorts of folk who fornicate in cemeteries are not often bothered by social niceties.  If you are the sort who doesn’t care about graveyard etiquette, bear in mind I got poison oak just walking through the cemetery – the sap seeped through my jeans.   And let us not speak of all the broken glass from shattered beer bottles around “Elizebeth’s” stone.  If you anger the dead by engaging in any sort of activity that may require even partial nudity, you may find the dead achieve vengeance in itchy or painful ways. Be sure your tetanus shot is up to date.

So here we go – the physical location where people go to talk to, torment, or otherwise irritate a woman they believe was a slave witch executed in the cemetery for stealing a horse or for being a witch.

Now let me explain to you why none of this happened and why this legend is so tiresome where history and the residents of Liberty Hill are concerned.

Halloween Week – The Servant Girl Annihilator

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Finally, something truly creepy and scary for Halloween week.

At some point during 2000, I read a book called A Twist at the End: A Novel of O. Henry and the Texas Servant Girl Murders of 1885 by Steven Saylor.  I’m not entirely sure how I came to have this book because I’m not really one for historical fiction, but once I learned that the book was indeed based on real events, I became obsessed with the Servant Girl Annihilator case.  As most friends I had at the time can tell you, I pretty much sent a copy of this book to anyone who showed even the slightest interest in it.  I went on a “ghost tour” that took me on a walk late at night to visit the locations of some of the murders.  It was on this tour that I learned about the “Moonlight Towers,” one of which stood at the end of the street where Mr. Oddbooks and I lived at the time, a nearly useless anachronism that seemed pointless to me until I learned their origin.

Much of what I am going to share here is data I have rattling around in my brain, but I will include a list of links at the end of this article for those who may want to read more about this interesting case than just what I remember.

The moniker “Servant Girl Annihilator” is actually both a flippant and misleading moniker for the person or persons behind the murders that occurred in Austin, Texas in 1884-1885.  The name comes from a line William Sydney Porter, aka “O. Henry” put in a letter to a friend, describing the events in Austin in the summer of 1885.  In a bitchy little comment worthy of Oscar Wilde, Porter snarked that Austin was terribly boring but the attacks from the “Servant Girl Annihilators” made things interesting at night.  This moniker is misleading because men, boyfriends/common law husbands living with some of the female victims were also attacked, and because the last two women killed were not servants, but “respectable” married women.

But most of the victims were indeed women and most of them were black servants.  Here is a list of the victims, as well as what was done to them.  Most readers of this site are hardy people, but if you are new here, the content that follows may be a bit upsetting. 

Halloween Week – Slave Cemeteries

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

I was born in Dallas and have lived in Texas all my life.  When I was a little girl, I can remember seeing “colored” entrances, restrooms and drinking fountains in older downtown buildings.  Jim Crow was dead, in legalities at least, so no black person was forced into using these lesser amenities, but they had not been removed yet.  In some places in older parts of Dallas, such reminders of the nastier parts of racial history in the USA weren’t remodeled or removed until the 1980s.

I tell you all of this because while I was and still am aware that race relations in the USA are difficult, it was still…  shocking when I began cemetery investigation and saw that segregation was enforced even in death.  The slave and “colored” sections of “white” cemeteries were seldom maintained well, which is not particularly surprising.  But I discovered that large chunks of history were lost in those slave and black sections of cemeteries, making even some of the simplest genealogy or historical research maddening, if not completely impossible.

And there’s no way around this expression of sentimentality – often slave and Jim Crow cemeteries are sad places indeed.

The first slave cemetery I found was in Round Rock Cemetery in Round Rock, Texas.  I was there looking for the graves for some Old West villains and lawmen, and was startled when I saw it.

Slave Cemetery
Note that you can’t actually see any headstones beyond that sign. 

Halloween Week – My Favorite Cemetery

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

One day Mr. Oddbooks came home and told me about a cemetery near Jarrell, Texas that was evidently very interesting.  It was located in a ghost town called Corn Hill.  Old Corn Hill Cemetery boasts the graves of people of historical importance in Texas, so I wanted to check it out.  Cemetery, ghost town, historical importance – what’s not to like?  The problem was that the directions were so bad that I really think that had we closed our eyes and tried to get there by our sense of smell, we wouldn’t have ended up as lost as we became.

It took us a couple of weekends to find Old Corn Hill Cemetery, but during the hunt we found a couple of very interesting mini-cemeteries, a derelict house where we totally trespassed and took pictures (I later learned that house is the James Shaver home, called the Old Stage Stop and Hotel), and all sorts of interesting fauna, mostly longhorn cattle.  But we also found the Holy Trinity Catholic Cemetery, which has become the cemetery to beat for me in terms of symbology, statuary and emotional attachment.

Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Jarrell, Texas, is an imposing building, very gothic without any accompanying morbidity, which seems strange to say given that the cemetery is essentially in the church’s backyard.  Corn Hill, Texas was established in 1848 and began to die a slow death in 1910 when railroad lines bypassed Corn Hill in favor of neighboring Jarrell.  The Holy Trinity Catholic Church was built in 1914, and, as I’ve mentioned before, in such a young state as Texas a hundred year old church has serious history behind it.  Corn Hill itself was not founded by Germans and Slavs, but their influence is felt heavily in this area.  People who aren’t familiar with Central Texas and the Hill Country are often surprised to know that huge swaths of this area are to this day very German and Slavic, especially Czech Moravian.  For decades many Moravian families spoke a Moravian Czech dialect, as well as English, being bi-lingual in the way that we tend to associate with Mexican and Central American settlers to this area.  Sadly, this dialect with pidgin elements is dying off though you still see lots of signs and bumper stickers boasting the phrase, “Jak se mas?” which translates as “How are you doing?”  In short, Czech for “Howdy!”

Holy Trinity Catholic Church is heavily Czech and the cemetery reflects it.  I loved this cemetery not just because it was exotic to my austere Southern Baptist upbringing, but also because it was, quite literally, an education investigating the stones.  Eventually my friend Barbora K., a resident in Slovakia, had to help me translate much of what is written on the stones.  This cemetery was the gateway to me learning about the German, Moravian and Bohemian influences in Central Texas.  It also taught me a lot about how cemeteries are arranged in Eastern Europe.  Others feel strongly about this cemetery as well – I get at least one message a month from someone who finds my photos and wants to share their experiences with the church or ask if they can use some of my pictures.

And I know this isn’t particularly spooky or Halloween-y, but cemeteries in the bright Texas sun simply cannot be creepy unless you’re out in the middle of nowhere near dusk.  But there is still a somber, gloomy mood to this cemetery, especially when you get to the “babyland” section. The cemetery is a strange mix of dereliction and utter devotion because while many graves and statues have not held up in the Texas heat, every grave has been tended to by church members, even the ones where the stone is missing and all that is left are little metal markers so weathered the names were unreadable. The cemetery is grim yet comforting.

Angry Angel
I am not a particularly good photographer but this angry angel is one of my favorite pictures I’ve taken. You can see the church spires peeking behind the trees. 

Halloween Week – Baby Head Cemetery

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

In the summer of 2012, Mr. Oddbooks and I drove out to Baby Head, Texas.  A real place.  I swear.
Baby Head Cemetery

It’s a ghost town now, more or less incorporated into Llano, Texas, and Llano was a weird place in its own right.  We drove around forever trying to find the remaining Baby Head post office and never found it.  But we did find plenty of Apostolic churches, Cowboy Congregations, exotic animals being raised so weekend warriors can obliterate them with assault weapons on canned hunts, and several hidden little cemeteries that I really want to go back and investigate, as long as I can remember to wear steel-toed boots to repel all the grass burrs and fire ants.

Back to Baby Head.  The town got its name because “oral tradition” says that some time between 1850-1875, a local Indian tribe kidnapped a white child, killed it, and left it on a mountain that came to be called Babyhead Mountain.  (The town’s name and the cemetery’s name are Baby Head, while the mountain is Babyhead.  Don’t ask me why.  But even that isn’t carved in stone as you will find the town, the cemetery and the mountain all referred to as “Babyhead” or “Baby Head” with no real explanation for the variations.)
Historical marker

It’s hard to know if there is any truth to this legend.  The tribe of the Indians who supposedly killed the baby is unknown, though if hard-pressed I would say it had to be Comanches, a pretty harsh tribe to be sure.  The name of the baby is also officially unknown, but it is assumed to have been a little girl.  I personally suspect the baby’s designated gender is because the oldest grave in the Baby Head Cemetery belongs to a little girl who died on New Year’s Day in 1884, though one local historian insisted her late husband knew people who searched for the child.  The woman’s husband said the little girl was murdered in 1873, and that her name was Mary Elizabeth Buster.  I have never been able to run to ground a Mary Elizabeth or a Mary Elizabeth Buster from Baby Head in 1873, but I also have a notoriously short attention span.  This article by Dale Fry best illustrates all the stories about this Texas legend.

I had read several accounts of how creepy Baby Head Cemetery is.  It wasn’t creepy.  It was interesting, and sort of macabre in a very sunny way, but mostly it was painful. 

Halloween Week – Dead Man’s Hole

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Up US 281 in Marble Falls, TX, there is a site called Dead Man’s Hole. Dead Man’s Hole is a natural limestone cave many ghost hunters insist is very haunted.

It’s hard to rattle me and I self-identify as a skeptic.  But even as I maintain that I am a skeptic, I have had strange experiences that I cannot fully explain.  Some of those experiences involve what I call wrong places.  A wrong place, simply enough, is a place wherein you feel something is not right.  It’s a place where you feel uneasy and you don’t know why. If you probe your feelings long enough, you may find an answer that explains your uneasiness. The human mind perceives more than we process on a conscious level and sometimes our subconscious filters just enough to give us valid information that we may attribute to unseen sources, like the paranormal.  I tend to think that was at play during my visit at Dead Man’s Hole, but, regardless the reason, Dead Man’s Hole is a wrong place.  It is a place where so much human misery played out that even without any sort of paranormal interpretation many may feel uneasy here.  The last time I was there I became so unnerved I likely will never return. I hope that despite the fact I was there during the brightness of the summer that the creepy nature of the place will show up in the pics.

The historical marker
According to the Historical Marker on the site, an entomologist called Ferdinand Lueders discovered the hole, presumably in the course of searching out insects, but it was not until the Civil War that the cave gained it’s ghostly and ghastly reputation. The cave is quite deep, probably around 155 feet down, and is now capped to prevent accidents and, one suspects, potential vandalism.

Recycled Reads in Austin, Texas

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

The ever devoted Mr. Oddbooks took me to a used book store on my birthday (my birthday was back during the summer, but you all know I run behind on things) and I didn’t have particularly high expectations. The store, Recycled Reads, is sort of a compromise store. You see, a few years back Austin still had Friends of the Library Sales, but some morally anal blowhards ruined it for everyone. One of the few benefits of being a volunteer on behalf of the library is that when the annual sales come around, you get to have first pick of the books. No one really abuses it and even if they did abuse the privilege, first pick means something different to everyone. My first pick sure ain’t gonna be someone else’s first pick.

It’s a small perk, a very small one when one considers the sheer hell of running the book sales for the library. All the screaming kids, all the assholes with scanners beeping up the place as they try to find stock for their online book stores, all the people asking for bulk discounts or special discounts, the mess and the dust. Yet someone made a fuss about some elderly women holding back a few books to buy after the sale and it resulted in such a mess that for a while, if I recall correctly, the Friends of the Library disbanded for a bit. They sure stopped the annual sales at Palmer Auditorium. Recycled Reads is what came after the annual sales ended. Not sure what the difference is since it is still volunteer-run but I guess now there are cameras to make sure no one there sets aside a completely trashed copy of some old school best-seller? No idea, but given my experiences with library sales, I expected Recycled Reads to be a complete shit hole filled with book sellers beeping up the joint, dust everywhere, and at least one kid with a smelly diaper toddling about.

Recycled Reads, 9/20/12
The outside did not fill me with confidence. It looked like it was going to be some hole in the wall. And yeah, strip malls, bleah…

But the store was much larger than the outside would lead one to believe. It was pretty well organized and nary a beeping shopper to be found. Clean, too.

Recycled Reads, 9/20/12

The store was having some sort of steam punk thing going on.

Recycled Reads, 9/20/12

I am not really that interested in steam punk, as a genre or as an aesthetic but some of the displays were visually interesting.

Recycled Reads, 9/20/12
I was interested in buying this little piece of art but was stymied.  The store was not authorized to sell these pieces and advised me to take a card and contact the artist. Funny but ultimately stupid story: I took the card next to the piece and contacted the artist. The man I contacted had no idea what I was talking about. He was a painter, not a maker of miniature vampire hunting kits. I went back and checked the picture I took of the section and sure enough his cards were placed right next to the little kit. But stuff gets moved around in this place, as other pics will show. A shame, really, but perhaps I should just try to make something like this myself.

Recycled Reads, 9/20/12
The store was far better organized than a regular library sale.  However, no matter how well-organized it may be, it’s hard to discuss a store like this because the inventory turns over every few days or so, even including the books that are not part of the library culls. The public donates books to this location – lots of books. I saw several people bring in boxes of books when I was there. Like, entire trunks of cars full of boxes sorts of drop-offs. While I was there, the fiction section was blah but I found a dozen or so history books that had to come home with me. Among them were a biography about Madame C. J. Walker, a book about a man who stalked Queen Victoria, a biography of Horatio Alger and a biography of Jennie Churchill.

Mr. Oddbooks also found a lot of books about naval history and doing stuff with boats. As a person who grew up then subsequently lived her life landlocked, I have no idea, but he seemed to like them.

Recycled Reads, 9/20/12
The store had a nice collectible section, but you will be hard pressed to tell because I took some really crappy pics with my phone. Sorry about that.

Recycled Reads, 9/20/12
The store also had a pretty good selection of sociology and cultural studies books but because everything in life invariably photographs terribly and is awfully staged when I am behind the camera, all you can really see is the misplaced copy of Jane Smiley’s Moo. I snagged a Cornell West title, One Drop of Blood: The American Misadventure of Race by Scott Malcolmsen, Flesh and Blood So Cheap: The Triangle Fire and Its Legacy by Albert Marrin, Ain’t Nobody’s Business if You Do: The Absurdity of Consensual Crimes in a Free Society by Peter McWilliams, No Shame in My Game: The Working Poor in the Inner City by Katherine Williams, and The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life as an Experiment by A.J. Jacobs.

Recycled Reads, 9/20/12
I do feel some regret about not purchasing The New Glutton or Epicure.

Recycled Reads, 9/20/12
Mostly, it’s a brightly colored store with art and some seating, most of it less than comfortable. I have some more blurry pictures here if you are interested. But you really can’t ask for amazing seating in a place where the hardcovers are all $2 and the softcovers are $1. A friend of mine got a vintage and evidently very expensive collection of Mark Twain books for about $50 at Recycled Reads. I did not luck into anything like that but we did leave with 42 books for $90.

The hours are extremely limited. They are only open Thursday through Sunday, 12-6. But you know, cheap books and supporting the library system in Austin. So there’s that.

I didn’t really fall in love with this store but, again, the stock turns over so frequently that I could go there next Friday and think it is the best place ever. So checking it out if you are an Austinista or just visiting would be worth it if you land there on a day when they have stocked the sections relevant to your interests.

South Congress Books, Austin, Texas

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

So, I’ve been lax where discussing independent book stores is concerned. Amazon has made me completely unwilling to leave my house and risk encountering crappy selections, deal with parking and endure as kids half my age sneer at my selections because I’m obviously too pedestrian for them to waste their time bothering to make eye contact with me as I spend Mr. Oddbooks hard earned cash on the very things that permit them to have a job in the first place. (Yeah – I hate shopping at BookPeople. There! I said it. Most arrogant, unpleasant staff ever. If I wanna be mocked by weird kids with poor taste, I’ll review another Tao Lin book.)

But Mr. Oddbooks and I decided the best way we could spend our Fourth of July would be to go a bookstore and we chose South Congress Books.
South Congress Books, Austin, Texas

Oh, I very much like this store.
South Congress Books, Austin, Texas

You know how bibliophiles talk about loving the smell of books? And you go into a book store and all you can really smell is dust? Used book stores, I fear, have come to represent the smell of old books – musty dustiness. In South Congress Books, you get to smell that gorgeous aroma of books, of softened pages, crisp mylar, and a vague under note of vanilla, possibly nutmeg – something sweet and edible. The real smell of beloved, pre-read books, not the smell of mustiness.

The store is also a huge departure from most used book stores. Sometimes you want a store that is a hot mess because you want to dig through piles in the hopes of finding an under-priced gem. But sometimes you want a store that has done the work for you and separated the wheat from the chaff. South Congress Books is a small store and gorgeously arranged. So organized that my inner organizational pedant wept. One of the reasons it can be so organized is because this store is particular in what they stock. You go into a used book store and you expect to see the usual shelves of Stephen King, Tom Clancy, Dean Koontz and endless copies of the same romance novel. Not at South Congress Books. Here, if there is a King on the shelves, it is because it is a first edition, not because dozens of people decided to get rid of their copies of Duma Key at roughly the same time. Their eye to selective book acquisition means one could spend hours in this small store because every title is worth picking up and flipping through.
South Congress Books, Austin, Texas
I did not see a single copy of Eat, Pray, Love in the entire store, not even in the signed books. It felt good.

I’m not kidding. The selection is astonishing. Guys, the cats here at Chez Oddbooks have had a rough couple of months. Kidney failure, thyroid problems, urinary tract infections, a weird spell of sneezing blood that we never got figured out despite numerous vet visits. That kind of devotion to elderly and defective pets costs money, money that in a just and decent world would be spent on books. I had to tell Mr. Oddbooks we had to go before he was really ready and I studiously avoided certain sections of the store (the metaphysics section would have wrecked me financially had I looked in serious depth) once I ascertained there were titles I really wanted and had to put back on the shelves because I chose to keep the cats comfortable. And the cats are totally not grateful and there were, like, seven books I had to leave behind. Goddamn cats.
South Congress Books, Austin, Texas
So, instead of owning this copy of Dr. Johnson’s Doorknob, I just have to go to bed at night knowing that Cicero Cat’s metabolism is working well again. If you want a good look at all the books I had to leave behind, here’s my small Flickr set of the pics I took that day.

South Congress Books, Austin, Texas
This is Sheri, one of the co-owners. She told me about a strange series she read by Andrey Kurkov. She hooked me up with the second book in the series, which is awesome because it will remind me to order the first book. If it’s odd enough, I am sure to discuss it here. She also worked at Half-Price Books and listened calmly as I shared the horrors I faced at the Round Rock store, what with all the bats, rats, urine soaking from the men’s bathroom into the break room and that black stuff that may have been mold but was probably something far worse. Most frightening building I’ve ever worked in. But enough about me…

Here’s what we ended up with that magical day:
Kings of the Road: A Cartoonumentary of a Life on the Road by Ragnar
Penguin Lost by Andrey Kurkov
Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr by Jean-Paul Sartre
The Murder of Marilyn Monroe by Leonore Canevari, Jeanette van Wyhe, Christian Dimas and Rachel Dimas with foreword by Brad Steiger (this one is gonna get discussed here for sure)
Oval Office Occult: True Stories of White House Weirdness by Brian M. Thomsen
Dessous: Lingerie as Erotic Weapon by Gilles Neret
Smothered in Hugs: Essays, Interviews, Feedback, and Obituaries by Dennis Cooper

And of course, our selections are in no way representative of the bulk of the books in the store. The art and photography sections, in particular, were amazing.
South Congress Books, Austin, Texas

The only drawback I found to the place is that being on South Congress there were a lot of looky-loos wandering around, which happens when a shop is located on a street with a lot of foot traffic, and it happens even more in the heat of the Texas summer when people are looking for a place with sweet, merciful air conditioning as they make their way to the BBQ and beer trailers. And if one has to discuss the traffic of people who just wanted to look around in order to find a drawback, then that means there probably isn’t one.

Next time I go I will have a large wad of cash with me. Mark my words, I will not go back into South Congress Books without some serious bank because it was just too painful to leave behind books that were so clearly meant to come home with me. Sigh…

Domy Books, Austin, Texas

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

It’s been over a year since I wrote about an independent book store, which may seem like a long lapse for the average person. But I kind of like not leaving my house often. If I’m not taking a cat to the vet, buying groceries or subject to fire evacuations, I pretty much like staying home. And since we moved to the suburbs, driving into Austin seems like Death Race 2000. So even though Domy Books is less than 20 miles from my house, I hadn’t been in three years or so.

Domy Books, 9/20/70
But Mr Oddbooks urged me to haul my carcass out of the house and off to Domy we went. Domy Books is an alternative arts and culture book store and art space. Perhaps it is a good thing I can’t go there much because when I do go, I spend unseemly amounts of money. It’s a visually appealing space.

Part of one of the art exhibits on display currently.
Domy Books, 9/20/70

I don’t know from art, however. I mostly go for the books.
Domy Books, 9/20/70

So many beautiful books.
Domy Books, 9/20/70

Domy Books, 9/20/70
It’s one of those spaces where you can never look enough. I feel like I never have enough time to get a handle on all that is on offer there. And I think I don’t look as much as I should because just a quick scan can cost me a couple hundred bucks. A deep look would likely require a bank loan.

The manager, a friendly and very knowledgeable man named Russell, turned me on to a couple of new strange writers and when I told him I maintained this site, he even offered to do a weird book tour for me if I gave him a heads up so he could organize it. I definitely plan to take him up on this offer once I have gathered sufficient money to take another Domy splurge. I guarantee you there is no way I would have the strength to go on such a tour and not, and forgive the rude parlance, blow my wad.

So Austinites, I heartily encourage you to check out Domy. It’s a place to find ‘zines, high and fringe art books, fringe graphic novels, amazing photography compendiums, vinyl collectible dolls, alt culture non-fiction and local art. Russell was laid back and let us look, while offering help or comments when needed. It’s definitely a place where long-term browsing is allowed and encouraged. So visit if you can and if you can’t, you can shop online. I’ve got more pictures of the store on my Flickr account – just click on one of the pics above and wallow in the pretty art and pretty books.

And oh yeah, here’s what I bought (and I am only linking to them on Amazon because what I purchased does not appear to be on the Domy web store):
Richard Dadd: The Artist and the Asylum by Nicholas Tromans
Encyclopaedia of Hell: An Invasion Manual for Demons Concerning the Planet Earth and the Human Race Which Infests It by Martin Olson
Burn Collector: Collected Stories from One through Nine by Al Burian
Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet Of Wonder by Lawrence Weschler
True Norwegian Black Metal by Pete Beste