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  • Writer's pictureCarolyn E. Cook

Texas: Myths, Legends, and the Real Deal

Part 18, Queen of the Bayou, Episode 2

The Excelcior Hotel - then

To recap: Businessman and robber baron, Jay Gould, had come to Jefferson from New York, intending to expand his empire of railroads. He wanted to bring a new line through Jefferson and planned to discuss this with city officials. None of his bargaining worked, since the mayor and others realized that a railroad would do much damage to the city’s riverboat trade.

In a rage, Mr. Gould stormed outside and predicted that, due to thwarting his plans, the town of Jefferson would die out.

Moving onward: Did anyone in the prosperous town believe such nonsense? Probably not. Gould did build tracks, but they pointedly bypassed Jefferson, going to Marshall, instead. Perhaps that much could have killed Jefferson.

However, other forces were also at work.

As far in the past as the early 1830s, before the Texas War for Independence, before Jefferson was founded, there was talk among entrepreneurs about removing the Great Raft, since it blocked navigation on the Red River for almost 100 miles. Without that logjam, new territory in northern Louisiana and East Texas could be opened to settlers and farming. But wait. . . Wasn’t the Raft what enabled the boat traffic on the Red River? Also deepened Caddo Lake and Cypress Bayou?  Wasn’t that route what brought about the establishment of Jefferson?

After independence had been achieved, some of those entrepreneurs forged ahead and brought in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to remove the Great Raft. The engineers recognized this would be a tremendous job and hired someone else to handle it, a fellow named Captain Henry Shreve. He had successfully cleared similar logjams from the Ohio River and the Mississippi. His method used a steam-powered boat to remove logs and debris, which were simply left as mountainous piles on the river banks.

He and his crew of hired laborers got at it, working for five, long years. By then, Shreve decided that enough had been removed to provide a clear waterway of the Red River.

The Second Great Raft

No sooner had Shreve packed up and left, when a new Great Raft began to form, miles to the north. This logjam extended as far as the Arkansas state line and the Red River was once again unnavigable, at least in the area that the entrepreneurs wanted. Downstream, those in the new settlement of Jefferson were thrilled and were left to build their businesses and prosper.

But not forever.

A year after Jay Gould’s unfortunate visit of 1872, another high-ranking fellow showed up, along with a group of soldiers. He was Lieutenant Eugene Woodruff and he came with orders to get rid of the Great Raft permanently. Woodruff didn’t bother with a slow, steam-powered boat and the grueling work of his men. He used dynamite. It must have been a colossal explosion!

Gradually, the water levels to the south dropped. Riverboats could no longer travel on Caddo Lake to Cypress Bayou and Jefferson started its decline. Docks dried up, businesses closed, and residents lost their jobs. People gave up and left town. From a peak population of 30,000, the number of residents dropped to 3260 by 1880. Gone were the ship captains, most of the merchants, the saloons, the rabble-rousers, the gunfights.

Who stayed? Mostly, the long-time, upper-crust families and the farmers who had to drive their wagons of produce and cotton to the railroad in Marshall. Still, the townspeople managed to create stories of strange occurrences and murder.

The Haywood Hotel continued as lodging for occasional town visitors, until there weren’t enough to keep the place open. Down through the decades, a descendant of the original builders, Confederate General Hinche P. Mabry, his wife Abbie, their children, and then their grandchildren resided in the hotel, now just a house. Clarence Braden, a grandson, was the last. Locals believed he was quite wealthy. The story was that Braden had distrusted banks and he chose to store his hoarded fortune inside the old house. Upon his death in 1962, the description of Braden’s riches grew. Supposedly, someone had found coins there, (trespassing?) which hinted that much more was squirreled away. From that, the tale of Braden’s hidden money made international news. Treasure hunters came from all over and they conducted such extensive searches that the house was nearly destroyed. However, not a dime more was ever found.

The railroad magnate, Jay Gould, passed away in 1892. No one knows if he ever heard of Jefferson’s downfall. Four years prior to his death, he spent an untold amount of dollars to build a special train car for himself, which he called The Atalanta. It boasted a luxurious interior, having four staterooms, a lounge, kitchen, dining room, butler’s pantry, and ballroom. Thus, in his remaining years, Gould traveled around the country, always riding in his special car. 

After Gould’s demise, his son used the car for his travels. During WWI, the army confiscated it for a mobile office of the war effort. In the 1930s, it was brought to East Texas and served as a residence for oil boom workers. After that, folks lost track of the car’s whereabouts until 1953, when someone spotted it ditched in a field of weeds near Kilgore. Word of this sad state reached the Jessie Allen West Garden Club in Jefferson. The women of the club raised the money to purchase the car and had it transported to Jefferson the following year. Much restoration work was required, but eventually that old railroad car shone with its former beauty. The Garden Club placed it across the street from the still-operating Excelcior Hotel and since then, tickets to tour it can be had for a small fee.

What irony! That Jay Gould’s private train car would end up in Jefferson, the town that he had cursed, (or so the legend goes.)

Portrait claiming to be of Diamond Bessie Moore Rothschild


Lastly, one can’t leave Jefferson without mentioning the tale of Diamond Bessie. In 1877, a very fashionable couple arrived in town, possibly by a horse-drawn carriage, as the river was too shallow for boats by then and the nearest railroad depot was in Marshall. The couple took a room at the Brooks House, registering as Abraham Rothschild and Bessie Moore Rothschild. Over the next days, they spent time perusing the few shops and dining in the few restaurants. Local folks noted that both gentleman and lady wore fine clothes and the lady possessed a number of diamond rings, necklaces, and earrings. The folks nicknamed her Diamond Bessie. Those who saw the couple close enough claimed that Bessie had an extraordinary beauty, with black hair and light gray eyes. Abraham was considered very handsome.

They knew nothing else about this couple, having no inkling that Bessie had been around the block many times. They didn’t know that Abraham was a member of the wealthy Rothschild family. His father was a jeweler in Cincinnati, although Abraham wasn’t the best son. He was a slacker, enjoying women and fast-living. To get him out, he’d been charged as a traveling salesman for Dad’s business.

One morning, the Rothschild couple bought a picnic lunch from Henrique’s Restaurant. Then they crossed the bridge at Cypress Bayou and walked away from town on Marshall Road. The last to see them before they made this trek was a fellow named Frank Malloy, who was in the restaurant earlier. He noticed Bessie’s now-famous diamond rings and therefore, realized this was the rich Rothschild couple everyone talked about.

Three hours later, Abraham was seen coming back over the Cypress Bayou bridge. But he was alone. Someone questioned him about the wife and Abraham said she had stayed a mile or so away to visit friends. Friends? What friends?

The next morning, Abraham breakfasted in the hotel restaurant — again, he was alone. Another anonymous person noticed the fancy gentleman was wearing a large diamond ring. Was it Bessie’s?

The rest of that day, no one saw anything of Abraham, as he stayed quietly in his hotel room. The very next morning, he took a buggy from Jefferson to Marshall and boarded a train for — you guessed it — Cincinnati.

Days later, Sarah King, an African-American woman, was out gathering firewood and, in the brush, she discovered the body of a young, well-dressed woman. She had been shot once in the head. Although fully dressed, the woman wore no jewelry, as in, diamonds. The last of a picnic lunch was scattered in the dirt. Screaming to high heaven, Sarah King came running over the bridge to report her grisly find.

Townspeople were much saddened at this turn of events and they raised $150 to give Diamond Bessie a decent burial. Everyone, including the sheriff, accepted that the evidence placed blame on Abraham Rothschild. Meanwhile, in Cincinnati, the suspect was living with his parents. He drank heavily and even tried to shoot himself, though he only succeeded in putting out one of his eyes.

Sheriff Jones Vines was sent to arrest Abraham and extradite him to Texas for the murder of Diamond Bessie. The trial would be held in the town of Marshall in December, 1878. Fearing a large scandal, Abraham’s upright father hired ten expensive attorneys to defend his son.

Folks from all around developed a lurid fascination with the case — the murder of a beautiful young woman by the son of a successful businessman. Even the Texas governor, Richard B. Hubbard, declared it “a crime unparalleled in the record of blood.” 

The trial lasted three weeks. Abraham was considered a scoundrel and, no surprise, was convicted. Nevertheless, the Rothschild lawyers appealed and the verdict was overturned. People believed this was due to the family money involved in bribes, plus the information brought out that Bessie had been a prostitute.

However, this wasn’t the end of legal wrangling. Somehow, the people of Jefferson managed to obtain a third trial, held in their town in December, 1880. Different defense lawyers proved skilled in planting doubts in the new jurors’ minds. Yet again, Abraham was acquitted. He returned to Cincinnati and his family as an exonerated man and took up his life of living fast and loose.

Back in Jefferson, Bessie became another part of local folklore. For years, her grave had gone unmarked in Oakwood Cemetery. In the 1930s, a retired foundry worker, E. B. McDonald, placed a tombstone at the gravesite. He stated, “I put it there one night because it did not seem right for Diamond Bessie to sleep in an unmarked grave.” He meant well, but had carved the wrong date of death on the stone, 12-31-1876. Bessie had last been seen alive on 1-1-1877. Her body had been found on 2-5-1877. Later, the Jessie Wise Allen Garden Club erected an ornate iron fence around the plot. They respected Mr. McDonald and left the incorrect date as it was.

Diamond Bessie's Gravesite, Oakwood Cemetery

Nowdays, Jefferson is a small town, population around 1800. You can still spend the night at the Excelcior Hotel, peruse the various shops, dine in good restaurants, tour the Gould train car, and listen to even more stories of happenings from Jefferson’s heyday. Some people claim to have seen the ghosts of Bessie, Clarence Braden, and others wandering the streets at night.

Maybe. . . Maybe not. . .


Excelcior Hotel -- now

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