Thursday, April 4, 2013

A Texas Kaleidoscope

DNA is a funny thing...

It exposes unsuspected connections, confirms a quickly formed conclusion or proves that conclusion to be a half-baked notion, and sometimes it leaves questions unanswered...

Last week, a man was convicted of murder in the southwest Texas town of San Angelo after DNA evidence ended a twenty-five year nightmare behind prison bars for another man whose trial jurors were obviously willing to believe anything prosecutors and police had to say about his character.  He had been the victim's husband and was, as is sadly common practice, automatically Number One on the list of usual suspects.

DNA, a nucleic acid, consists of two strands
of nucleotide wound around each other in a
double helix.  It is found in all living things
and attests to the uniqueness of each member
of a species while confirming their common
On the other hand, a recent article by Carol Christian of the Houston Chronicle shows another assumption long held to be gospel by Texans does have basis in fact...

Most people outside the Lone Star State probably don't devil their minds with questions about the origin of Longhorn cattle unless they happen to have a strong interest in the history of ranching in the western and southwestern states.  Some, who know cows are not indigenous to the Americas, might assume Elsie's bovine ancestors ambled across the famed Bering Straits land bridge in prehistoric times with the distant great-great-great-grandparents (many times removed) of today's Native Americans in hot pursuit of a tasty meal...

The historically-inclined chuckle at this fanciful assumption since they know the Spanish brought cattle with them to the New World and that the cowboy culture of the Old West owes far more to Mexican vaqueros than it does to brave lads who sought opportunities in the Great Desolation past the 100th Meridian in the years following the hell called the Civil War...

The rare birth of a "white buffalo" held great spiritual significance for many
Native American cultures inhabiting the plains and prairies of the modern day
United States and Canada.  One example of this can be found among the Lakota
who were taught many of their sacred traditions by a beautiful woman with the
power to transform herself into a white buffalo.  After instructing them, she
disappeared while crossing the grasslands, leaving behind a promise to return to
inaugurate a time of peace among men.

[Early Americans did hunt large bovines we call bison or the American Buffalo.  Steppe bison, ancestors of these grazing beasts, crossed the Bering land bridge, back and forth from North America and Asia, as early as 500,000 years ago.  While bison and modern cattle share a distant common ancestry, they evolved separately.  Today's cows belong to one of two species-- Bos indicus or Bos taurus-- whereas the prairie-roaming buffalo (of whose home cowboys sang lonely songs as they remembered places where the deer and antelope also played) belong to genus Bison, species bison.]

By 1521, cattle were being bred in Mexico.  Spanish colonies in the New World spread northward into present-day Texas and southward to modern Peru onto the vast grassy Argentine pampas.  The colonists brought their cattle with them.  Of course, there were challenges-- it took cows longer to adapt to the humid and hot Central American climate than it did other domesticated animals like pigs and horses.  But adapt they did, serving as work animals in sugar fields and mine camps.  They even indirectly gave rise to one of our names for pirates who favored them as a meal: the French word "boucan" refers to their smoked meat.  And those who enjoyed the taste became "buccaneers"...

The Argentine Pampas are semi-arid grasslands in South America
with grazing conditions similar to the short grass prairies of the
United States and Canada.  Both Texas Longhorns and many of the
cattle now living on the Pampas descend from animals brought to the
New World by Spaniards in the late 15th and early 16th Centuries.
It has long been an article of an almost Biblical faith among Texans that our rugged and cantankerous Longhorns are cattle royalty -- they are the distant children of the very first cows to graze the grasses of the New World...

Modern DNA research at the University of Texas Austin and the University of Missouri, Ms Christian reports, can attest the truth of this bit of Texican braggadocio...

This fanciful rendition of a Mexican vaquero
was featured in a children's jigsaw puzzle from
the 1950s.  American cowboys learned their trade
from the vaquero who practiced techniques first
used on the Iberian peninsula by herdsmen
mounted on horseback.
Longhorns, it seems, descend in part from a herd of cattle brought to the Americas by Christopher Columbus during his second voyage of 1493.  The article does not go into great detail about the study itself but notes the Spanish shipped cattle to the New World for approximately two decades.  Presumably the research involved comparing genetic markers of the cattle on Caribbean islands where Columbus' cows are known to have been placed with genetic markers of Longhorns...

Cattle came into modern-day Texas during the late 1600s.  It was a grassy land-- ideal for the cows and too vast for the men who herded cows to entirely keep them in herds.  Some escaped, forming feral herds in rugged country where animals with longer horns survived longer than animals with shorter horns...

Wild cows usually have four legs...

Occasionally, these critters take two-legged form as they did in the persona of Phantly Roy Bean, Jr, born in Kentucky circa 1825.  Columnist Paula Allen of the San Antionio Express-News, recently chronicled a few of Beans pecadillos in the erstwhile Lone Star Republic after his arrival in San Antonio in 1864.  He was a bully and a thief who'd tried his hand at gold mining in California and cargo freighting (and killing men in bar fights) down Mexico way before deciding to marry a daughter of one of Texas' oldest families so he could sponge off her relatives...

A longhorn cattle drive through a Mexican pueblo drive provided
an anonymous painter with his subject in an undated 19th Century
The marriage ended in 1881 when Bean abandoned Maria Chavez and their children to head out into the West Texas desert where he ran saloons catering to railroad workers and rowdy cowpokes.  It was an unhappy marriage and Maria had even once had Bean arrested for savagely beating her in one of his frequent drunken rages.  The case was dismissed when the judge demanded she remove her clothes publicly in the courtroom so male jurors could examine her bared body for signs of abuse and Maria refused...

Phantly Roy Bean, Jr, portly and white-bearded, stands in front of
the Jersey Lilly, his combination courtroom and saloon, in Langtry,
Here, with the end of his marriage and the establishment of a saloon called the Jersey Lilly in the semi-arid wilderness of a town called Langtry, Roy Bean steps into history as the law west of the Pecos...

Judge Roy Bean, as he called himself, had no actual formal training in the law, but he had earlier been appointed Justice of the Peace for precinct 6 in Pecos County in the settlement of Vinegaroon (likely named after a particularly large desert scorpion) after the Texas Rangers sought to establish law and order in the area.  (He used the 1879 Revised Statutes of Texas to guide his decision making process and liked the results well enough that he burned subsequent updates to the law that found their way to him.)  His first act as Justice of the Peace was to use his authority to bust up the saloon of a Jewish competitor for the railroad workers' drinking money and ensure his monopoly in the local whisky trade...
Bean followed the tracks as the rail crews laid them down and moved on...

He eventually settled down roots twenty miles west of the Pecos River at the town first named Eagle's Nest (and then renamed Langtry in honor of the lovely English actress who also gave her name to Bean's Jersey Lilly saloon according to romantics or after an engineer on the railroad according more mundane souls).  He continued to dispense an eccentric brand of frontier justice in this stretch of the Chihuahuan Desert...
"Judge" Bean, the Law West of the Pecos, tries a horse thief on
the front porch of the Jersey Lilly.  Despite his reputation as a
hanging judge, Bean was loathe to execute anyone save a cold-
blooded killer.  He much preferred to fine miscreants and pocket
the money without sending the state of Texas its share of the
financial proceeds.
Although Bean has been called a "hanging judge" by many, he sentenced only two men to that fate.  His preference was to fine men for misdeeds (even horse thievery, provided they returned the stolen mounts to their rightful owners) and set them loose with the fine usually being the exact amount of cash in their pockets or wallets at the time of their conviction.  No portion of these monies ever went to the state of Texas as required by law, remaining instead in Bean's own pockets...

Life in Langtry was simple enough for townsfolk or visitors provided they observe one very simple rule: to never, in any way or shape or form, besmirch either the beauty or honor of Miss Lily Langtry.  Her name was not to be spoken aloud in his saloon unless the speaker first raised a glass to toast her (A film version of Bean's life offers us the probably not-true-story that he shot dead a drunk who discharged a pistol whose bullet came perilously close to a portrait of Miss Langtry gracing a wall of Bean's saloon)...
[Note: This week's Marketplace (below) features a photograph of the Jersey Lilly's interior, complete with infamous portrait of Miss Langtry, by Canadian photographer Avis Noelle.]

Stage Actress Lily Langtry as Cleopatra in an 1891 performance.
Among the most celebrated and scandalous women of her day,
Langtry was courted by European nobles and American
millionaires.  None of them proved as devoted to her as Roy Bean
who exchanged letters with her regularly until his death.
Today, the "Judge" would probably be considered an obsessed fan of Lily (sometimes "Lillie") Langtry.  He wrote to her often and she replied to his letters as time and her career as one of the great stage actresses of the late 19th Century permitted.  A friend of Oscar Wilde and mistress to a multitude of English noblemen and American multi-millionaires, Langtry began her stage career in the early 1880s and eventually toured America.  She appeared in San Antonio in 1888.  Bean paid a very large sum of money for a front row seat but despite his rough and rowdy ways, was too shy and awestruck to meet her after her performance...

Correspondence between the two continued for many years more and Langtry decided during a 1903 trip through the American Southwest she would travel to the dusty town where her most devoted fan lived because she was puzzled as to why he'd suddenly stopped writing and she was hoping she'd not somehow offended him.  Stepping off the train in the town that may or may not have been named in her honor, Lily Langtry learned Roy Bean was dead of a fever that claimed his life some months before her arrival.  Townsfolk gave her a tour of the hamlet and the Jersey Lilly saloon, presenting her with the Judge's pistol before she reboarded the train.  She placed the pistol on the mantle in her home in fond memory of "that odd little man" who sent her so many letters and it sat there until her own death more than a quarter century later...

Yet another wild cow of man came to Texas more than fifty years after Judge Roy Bean performed his last marriage ceremony that concluded with his hope for bride and groom that, like a scoundrel sentenced to drop through a trap door with a 13 knot rope around his neck, "may God have mercy on your souls"...

Elvis Presley: King of Rock 'n' Roll in the 1950s
Frank Sinatra, one of America's most famous crooners, dismissed this wild man's music as deplorable, going on to describe it as "a rancid smelling aphrodisiac"...

Old Blue Eyes was referring to Elvis Presley who reported to Fort Hood on the outskirts of Killeen, Texas, in late March in 1958, not as the reigning King of Rock and Roll who'd already sold more than 10 million records but as a buck private earning a princely $78 monthly and ready to be trained in the art of being an armored tank gunner...

Presley probably irked Sinatra for more than one reason.  The boy was no tuxedo clad gentleman who warbled love ballads and his gyrating hips suggested he took a rather physical approach to courtship and romance.  His music sounded, to the civilized ear of the late 1950s, like the raucous, frenetic bastard child of a lascivous bluesman and a churchgoing hillbilly spinster inclined to supplement that good old time religion with nips of root cellar medicine...

Teen idol Elvis Presley earned the respect of his fellow soldiers
for his refusal to seek special privileges and his willingness to
carry his share of the workload.  He served two years in uniform,
training at Fort Hood before an overseas assignment in West
Fort Hood wasn't Presley's first Texas experience.  Two years before reporting for his military duty, he'd thrilled 4,000 squealing young people at the Heart O' Texas Coliseum in Waco.  It was his third trip to that city.  Bea Ramirez covered the concert for the local newspaper.  She seems to have shared Sinatra's opinion of Presley to a degree, writing "he shook in epileptic like movements while thousands of teenagers moaned, groaned, and attempted to push their way nearer the stage" where the Pride of Memphis twisted the night away, howling at the top of his lungs...

Ramirez had an opportunity to interview Presley before his performance.  He told her, in words oddly prophetic for a man who would earn sergeant's stripes in under two years and die before he saw forty-three full years, he was both grateful for his meteoric rise to fame and fortune and scared by it...

"I could," he told Bea Ramirez, "go out like a light just like I came on"...

Ava Gardner, seen in a publicity photo, played the role of
Lily Langtry in The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, a
1972 tongue-in-cheek movie "biography" of the irascible
and eccentric desert magistrate.



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Avis Noelle: Jersey Lilly Saloon

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John Malone: Bourbon Street Buskers


Note: Information for this essay is taken primarily from readily available sources such as Encyclopedia Britannica, Wikipedia, and almanacs.  When other sources are employed they are credited either in the text or as follows: Information about the early history of cattle raising from "The Age of Exploration" at; Frank Sinatra opinion of Elvis Presley and Presley central Texas concerts quotes from "Elvis rocked region reporting to Fort Hood" by Don Bradley of the Waco Tribune-Herald.  All photographs are taken from Wikipedia or Google Images without source or authorship credits available, except as noted: DNA from; Longhorn Cattle Drive through a Mexican Pueblo Town from; White Buffalo postcard from Northern Rockies Heritage Center; Pampas from Wikipedia; 1950 Doubleday Vaquero Puzzle from; Judge Roy Bean standing in front of the Jersey Lilly from baffledspirit.; Jersey Lilly Saloon from; Lily Langtry as Cleopatra and Elvis Presley Army Days from; Ava Gardner from Ava Gardner Museum, Smithfield, North Carolina; Elvis Presley album cover from


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