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DIAMOND BESSIE MURDER TRIAL
DIAMOND BESSIE MURDER TRIAL. When a well-dressed man and woman calling themselves "A. Monroe and wife" got off the train and registered at the Brooks House in Jefferson on January 19, 1877, events were set in motion that led to the first big-name trial in Texas. A. Monroe was in reality Abraham Rothschild, the son of Meyer Rothschild, a Cincinnati jeweler. He was a traveling salesman for his father's jewelry business. During his travels he had met Bessie Moore at a brothel in Hot Springs, Arkansas, several years before the journey to Jefferson. Bessie was born Annie Stone to a successful shoe dealer in Syracuse, New York, in 1854. According to newspaper accounts, she became the mistress of a man whose last name was Moore when she was fifteen. Although the association did not last long, Bessie did keep the man's name. Articles written after her death alleged that she was a prostitute in Cincinnati, New Orleans, and Hot Springs before meeting Rothschild. Although they traveled together as husband and wife, there is no evidence that they ever married. On January 17, 1877, the couple arrived in Marshall by train and stayed in the Old Capital Hotel for two days, where they registered as A. Rothschild and wife. From Marshall, they rode the train to Jefferson and took a room at the Brooks House under the name Monroe. On the Sunday morning after their arrival, Abe Rothschild bought two lunches for a picnic from Henrique's Restaurant, and the couple were seen disappearing into the fog as they crossed the footbridge over Big Cypress Creek. Abe returned to town that afternoon by another path and was seen casually going about his affairs around town. When asked about his wife, he replied that she was in the country visiting friends and that she would meet him Tuesday morning to leave town. But on Tuesday morning the staff of the Brooks House found room 4 empty and "A. Monroe" gone. Witnesses later stated that Rothschild had left town alone on Tuesday morning on the eastbound train with the couple's luggage.
A week of snow and bad weather followed this, and after it began to warm up, Sarah King, while out looking for firewood, found the body of a well-dressed woman, without jewelry, near a twisted oak. The remnants of a picnic lunch were also found near the tree. The coroner ruled that the woman died due to a gunshot wound in the head. The citizens of Jefferson took up a collection and buried the unidentified body at Oakwood Cemetery. An initial warrant was issued for the arrest of A. Monroe on suspicion of murder. After determining that Monroe had left on an eastbound train and that in Marshall he and Bessie had registered as A. Rothschild and wife from Cincinnati, Ohio, a new warrant was issued for Abraham Rothschild of Cincinnati, and the victim was identified as Bessie Moore. Meanwhile, in Cincinnati, Rothschild had been drinking heavily and swore someone was following him, after which he walked into the street and attempted to kill himself, but only succeeded in blinding his right eye. While he was in the hospital he was arrested, and Texas and Marion County officials were sent to Cincinnati in order to identify and extradite him. Rothschild's family put up a fight, but on March 19 extradition was approved.
The trial became very notorious. Most of the lawyers in East Texas tried to become involved either on the side of the state for prestige or on the defense for the money to be provided by the Rothschilds. The governor of Texas personally sent a letter to two attorneys, Campbell and Epperson, appealing for aid with the prosecution, and two Texas assistant attorney generals were involved. The defense had an impressive array of legal talent including a future governor of Texas, Charles A. Culberson, and a United States senator, David B. Culberson, among other legal minds who undoubtedly were paid very well for their efforts. With the lawyers in place a series of indictments, trials, and appeals set forth, and a legal battle began that took 2½ years to conclude. The first trial did not begin until December 1878 for several reasons: both sides filed a writ of habeas corpus, the lawyers were involved in state and national legislatures, and the defense moved for a change of venue. After three weeks of testimony with the closing arguments alone lasting three days, the jury found Rothschild guilty of murder in the first degree and sentenced him to death by hanging. Tradition says that during jury deliberation over the verdict, jury foreman C. R. Weathersby drew a noose on the wall, signed it, and stated that that was his verdict. After the sentencing, the defense appealed to the Seventh Texas Court of Appeals and Judge J. Clarke for reversal of the case on the grounds that the trial had been unfair. Clarke found that the trial had indeed been unfair and that the court had been in error in ignoring a motion by the defense and by accepting a potential juror after the man stated that he had an opinion in the case. The judge declared a mistrial.
The state issued another indictment against Rothschild on December 2, 1880, and the second trial began on December 14 in Jefferson. The jury was whittled down from the 156 men initially summoned to the requisite twelve, two of whom were black—an unusual occurrence in Texas at the time. The defense focused on the testimony of Isabelle Gouldy, one of the women who had prepared the body of the victim for burial, who claimed to have seen the victim in the company of a man who was not the defendant on Saturday, January 20, and on Thursday, January 25. Although the prosecution attacked Gouldy's credibility, the defense managed to plant a seed of doubt in the jurors' minds. Also, Rothschild's lawyers argued that the body was too well preserved to have been in the woods for fifteen days and that the murder must therefore have happened after their client left town. The strategy worked. On December 30, 1880, the jury found Rothschild not guilty.
There the actualities of the case ended and the rumors began. Many stories about the case and Rothschild circulated during and after the trial, and some of them became part of the folklore surrounding the trial. Several rumors concerning the jury were heard. It was said, for instance, that twelve $1,000 bills were lowered into the jury room during deliberations, and that all twelve jurors met violent deaths within a year of the trial. The rumor that a hack was waiting outside the door of the courthouse and that the verdict was not announced until after the train whistle blew has not been substantiated; nor has the rumor that Rothschild was later imprisoned on a twenty-year sentence for grand theft. The popular rumor that Bessie was pregnant when she died has also never been proved. In the 1890s a handsome, elderly man wearing a patch over his right eye asked to be shown the grave of Bessie Moore. Upon seeing it, he laid roses on it, knelt in prayer, commented on the goodness of the citizens to provide a decent burial, and gave the caretaker money for the care of the grave. Folklore asserts that this was a repentant Rothschild visiting the grave. In the 1930s a headstone mysteriously appeared on the grave where none had been before, and in the 1960s the Jessie Allen Wise Garden Club built an iron fence around the grave. In 1941, E. B. McDonald admitted putting up the headstone because it had not seemed right for Diamond Bessie to sleep in an unmarked grave. Thus ended at least one mystery surrounding the case. The case, still officially listed as unsolved, attracts many investigators and lawyers to this day. Furthermore, since 1955 a courtroom drama relating the story has been presented each spring as part of the Jefferson Historic Pilgrimage.
Willie Mims Dean, Jefferson, Texas: Queen of the Cypress (Dallas: Mathis, Van Nort, 1953). Mrs. Arch McKay and Mrs. H. A. Spellings, A History of Jefferson (Jefferson, Texas, 1936). Traylor Russell, The Diamond Bessie Murder and Rothschild Trials (Waco: Texian Press, 1971). Fred Tarpley, Jefferson: Riverport to the Southwest (Austin: Eakin Press, 1983). Mahlon L. Walters, "Who Done It to Whom: Rothschild in Retrospective," Texas Bar Journal, February 1963.
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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.Handbook of Texas Online, Walter F. Pilcher, "Diamond Bessie Murder Trial," accessed April 23, 2018, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/jbd01.
Uploaded on June 12, 2010. Modified on September 13, 2017. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.