Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Carolinas - Another Detour

Just thought I would share:

While vacationing in the Carolinas  (North and South) I recently took a peaceful walk along a beautiful river's edge in Conway, South Carolina.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Bayou Detour

Oklahoma was first discovered by Europeans in the 1540's when Spain sent Coronado to search for land and gold in the New World, but the French actually started settlements there.  The land was claimed alternately by both Spain and France in the centuries that followed, only to be handed over to the U.S. government as part of Thomas Jefferson's Louisianna Purchase agreement with Napoleon in 1803.   To protect this investment, a string of Forts were built by the U.S. military, the names of which are familiar to me from news stories, history books and Western movie scenes: Fort Smith, Fort Gibson, Fort Arbuckle, Fort Washita, Fort Cobb, etc.

Assigned to these Forts were men who also have well known names, such as:

                                                                Zachary Taylor,

White House Portrait
Robert E. Lee,                                                                                              and, Jefferson Davis

R.E. Lee;
J. Davis, courtesy

It has been a while since I've been in a history class, and, upon reflection I am not surprised,  but I don't think I have ever really thought of my home state as being part of Louisianna before: 

Enough of this detour for now...

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Oklahombre Outlaw

Mr. Neal Higgins recalled another interesting encounter at Sloane's  store not long after he settled in Guthrie, and many years prior to his tragic Babbs Switch experience as the Undertaker.    While working alone one night in the furniture store he said the Deputy U.S. Marshals showed up.  They told him they had a man's body in the wagon outside which they had brought in from near Stillwater, a town about twelve miles away.  Higgins went out to the Marshal's wagon to retrieve the body and discovered the man was riddled with gun shots.    Higgins said he counted "21 buckshot wounds in his breast."   It turned out the dead man was a notorious outlaw that had terrorized banks, railroads, and stagecoaches in both Kansas and Oklahoma.  The body was that of the infamous outlaw Bill Doolin!   

Bill Doolin had not always been an outlaw.  Born to a sharecropper in Arkansas, he made his way to the Cimarron and Arkansas rivers area of Oklahoma Territory as a young man and was hired on as a cowboy by Texas ranchers.   There are many reports that he was a good and reliable cowhand.  

Ganging Up

On the Fourth of July, 1891, Doolin was in Coffeyville, Kansas when a shootout took place between lawmen, Doolin,  and his drinking buddies.  He escaped from town that day and was on the run as an outlaw ever since.  He took up with the legendary Dalton Gang robbing trains and  banks, but in 1892, while again in Coffeyville, most of the Dalton Gang was gunned down after a failed attempt to rob two banks in town. 

Members of the Dalton Gang in Coffeyville
Rumors are that Doolin was there in Coffeyville at the time of the gunfight, but escaped along with one of the Dalton boys. 

Wild Bunch

Bill Doolin then formed his own gang, the Wild Bunch,  which became one of the most notorious of the territorial West at that time.  The Wild Bunch gang, also known as The Oklahombres, traveled throughout Kansas, Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma Territory robbing banks and holding up trains and stagecoaches.   Doolin, himself, was well liked by many of the settlers in the Territory which probably accounted for his ability to escape capture for so long.  

Bill Doolin
Lawrence Block, in Gangsters, Swindlers, Killers and Thieves,  describes the Wild Bunch as having good relations with the homesteaders, and identifies two women, Annie McDoulet and Jennie Stevens, also known as "Cattle Annie" and "Little Breeches," who even acted as spies for the gang members.   Doolin, himself, was  known as a family man during this time since he had married and started a family with the daughter of a Methodist minister.  

In 1896 Doolin was tracked down in Kansas and captured  by Deputy U.S. Marshal Bill Tilghman who took him to Guthrie to be tried. Lawrence Block reports that Doolin was actually taken on a tour of the town of Guthrie and allowed to shake hands with the hundreds of citizens who had come out to see him before he was locked up in the jail.  There was a $5,000 reward for the capture and conviction of Bill Doolin.  Tilghman never collected on this, however, since Doolin and some the other prisoners managed to escape from the Guthrie jail before he could ever be tried.  

Doolin successfully hid out with his wife and son at their home near Lawson, Oklahoma for a while, but Deputy U.S. Marshal Henry "Heck" Thomas and his posse tracked him down and killed him in a gunfight just outside their home. 

Three Guardsmen: Bill Tilghman, "Heck" Thomas, and Chris Madsen
The Undertaker

Heck Thomas must have been the Deputy U.S. Marshal that brought Doolin's body to Neal Higgins in the store that night in Guthrie.  Higgins said that word of Bill Doolin's death spread fast and a mob of people rushed to the furniture store to see the outlaw.   He said "they climbed on tables or anything to get a view of the desperado."  To accomodate the viewing (and probably save the furniture, as well), Higgins said they moved the body to an empty building down the street.  Higgins was assigned to stay there with the body.  He remembered that not all of the viewers were curiosity seekers.  He had many friends and neighbors that also came by.   Doolin's wife and son still lived nearby and came to see him while he was on display.  Higgins said she wanted a picture of him, so they stood the body up and took a picture of his body for her.

A. Meier; cosmicautumn

He was buried three days later in Summit View Cemetery in the town of Guthrie, Oklahoma.  

Monday, July 4, 2011


Traveling from North Carolina in 1891, Mr. Neal Higgins eventually settled in the town of Guthrie, Oklahoma, working  as a part-time furniture salesman - part-time embalmer for Mr. W. L. Rhodes.   Guthrie,  which originated with the famous Land Run of 1889 into  Indian Territory, was settled by almost 10,000 people within only six hours time.   The furniture business was good, according to Higgins, since most of these people brought very few pieces with them to the Territory and they eventually needed to furnish the homes which they built.

Land Run of 1889

Higgins said he also did a lot of embalming early on.  He charged $50 for the procedure, which was generally done in the person's own home.  It was customary for someone to "sit up" with the deceased for one or two nights before they were buried or shipped back home to relatives.  His boss's wife didn't like this custom and insisted that no one sit up for her when it was her time.  When Mrs. Rhodes did die, Higgins said, the family caused quite a scandal in town by honoring her wishes and leaving her "alone" in the front room during the night.

Higgins believed his early embalming jobs were of the highest quality.  He noted that he had used "Mill's and Lacy's Embalming Fluid" in the early days, which resulted in bodies that looked alive.  In later years,  he had to use fomaldehyde.   While formaldehyde gave poorer results,  he said "patching up" the dead was better  than in the past.  Of the early days, Higgins said  "If a man had a bullet hole, we filled it with wax, but it was almost  white and showed up plainly."

I don't know which method Neal Higgins used when he was called to Babbs Switch Christmas Day, 1924.  Being the only undertaker in the area, he made the trek to the tragic site.  He said he was able to take 24 of the bodies from the school house fire in "one load" in his hearse.   The others, he said, were loaded on a truck that followed him up the road to the town of Hobart.   "That was the most tragic experience I ever went through," he said.  1920 Lorraine Hearse

Mr. Higgins had many other "undertakings," a couple of which are interesting to recount.   One rainy night he said he went to Downs, Oklahoma to embalm a woman's body.  He loaded her in his hearse  to bring her back to Guthrie, while her husband and his young helper followed behind on the muddy road.  His hearse, however, overturned on a slippery hill that night.  The man and the boy refused to get out and help him.  He ended up wading up the muddy road for about three miles to get a local cowboy and his sons to help pull the hearse back up on the road with their horses.

Higgins also recounted that they kept the body of one man for six months in the furniture store while they waited for relatives to come claim him.  He had been killed in a saloon fight in town.   They knew he was from somewhere in New York, so they placed ads in the New York papers and waited.  The furniture store was so crowded, that Higgins said he ended up having to stand the man up in the corner while they waited for someone to come claim him.   (That must have made shopping for a new table or sofa totally delightful!)  There was a law that bodies had to be buried within six months, so he took him down from the corner and buried him when his time was up.   Lo and behold, it wasn't but a month later that the man's sister contacted them inquiring about the advertisement.