Waxahachie Courthouse: Beauty & The Beast

Like a lot of other small towns in America, a beautiful county courthouse dominates the town square of Waxahachie, Texas. The town is often called "The Gingerbread City" for the elaborate wooden lacework found on many of the area's vintage homes. It is also known as "The Movie Capital of Texas" for the many movies such as Places In The Heart, Bonnie & Clyde, 1918, The Trip to Bountiful and Tender Mercies which have all been filmed in and around the town. The many well-maintained stately homes on tree-shaded streets, the restored town square and the imposing 9-story tall courthouse make Waxahachie a perfect setting for turn-of-the-century-period movies.

The elaborate Richardsonian Romanesque courthouse, built in 1895 to replace an old wooden one that only cost $59 to build, is widely considered to be among the most beautiful in all of Texas. Look closely at the ornate sandstone carvings along the top of the granite columns however and you will find a disturbing story, a story of unrequited love.

In 1895, a young stone mason named Harry Herley who had recently immigrated from Italy was hired to sculpt and decorate the outer walls of the courthouse which was under construction. Harry rented a room at a nearby boarding house owned and operated by a Miss Frame. Her teenage daughter, Mabel, lived with her mother in the boarding house and, along with her cleaning duties, often helped serve food to the boarders in the communal dining room. Young Harry quickly became enchanted with the very lovely and vivacious Mabel and wasted no time before he began courting her. His good looks and charming accent attracted Mabel and she returned his amorous attention.

With the rush of young love driving him, he began carving angels into the sandstone that was to adorn the courthouse as an expression of his feelings toward Mabel. With great care and devotion, he then carved her face and added his own next to her's over one of the doorways. So enthused was he that he often worked into the wee hours of the night on the carvings.

It wasn't long however before Mabel's ardor began to cool. Plus, her mother had different plans for her daughter and they didn't include getting pregnant and marrying a poor, uneducated stonemason fresh off the boat from Italy. The short-term thrill of being involved with a handsome foreigner began to fade and it wasn't hard for Mabel's mother to convince her to turn her attention to someone who could offer her a better future. Embittered and brokenhearted, Harry's carvings began to drastically change. He took out his anger and sorrow on the stone beneath his chisel and the courthouse started becoming adorned with twisted demons, monsters and gargoyles.

If you visit the courthouse in Waxahachie, find the angels and happy faces and then with a simple walk around the outside of the building, you can follow the history of Harry's romance with Mable. It's easy to see the progression from enchantment to the excitement and thrill of first love and on to the misery and anger of rejection. Fascinating and sad.

And one more thing - according to word-of-mouth history handed down to the grandchildren by grandparents who were there, the last carving Harry made in the courthouse sandstone is not an angel, not a smiling face or even a monster or gargoyle. It is of something much more intimate - a stylistic rendition of a female's private parts. They say he placed it on display for all to see as a final insulting thumb-of-the-nose farewell.

As soon as his work was complete, Harry left the town where his heart was broken and moved to Dallas. History shows he married a girl there the next year, but sadly, he passed away of unknown causes in 1899. Mabel married a local boy and settled for a quiet, but happy life as a mother and wife in Waxahachie. As for that insulting last panel Harry left, it, like all the rest of the carvings, are still there, visible to anyone who takes the time to look for it.

"The Town That Dreaded Sundown" - True Tale That Inspired The Movie

The Texarkana Post Office/Courthouse. The left half  is in
Texas while the right is in Arkansas.
Texarkana is a nice, small city. With half of the town in the state of Texas and the other half in Arkansas, the road that divides the two halves is named State Line. Shoppers on one side of the street are in Arkansas and just a few feet away on the other side of the yellow line in the middle of the road the stores are in Texas. The Post Office/Courthouse Building sits astride the state line - Texas offices on one side of the building, Arkansas offices on the other. There are plenty of outdoor activities to enjoy as well as several popular parks where families go for a picnic lunch or to play Little League baseball or simply to enjoy a lazy summer day in the shade of the many trees.

But one of those popular parks, Spring Lake Park, has a sordid history. Many of the old timers still refuse to go into the park after dark. You see, back in the mid-1940's, it was the favorite hunting grounds of a serial killer. The murders shocked and terrorized the quiet, close-knit town. Doors and windows in homes that previously were never locked, were locked and checked several times after darkness fell. Men began carrying guns; women stopped walking alone when running errands and children were forbidden to play outside. As more innocent people turned up brutally killed and the murders went unsolved, neighbors and friends of many years began to suspect and turn on each other. In the mid-1970's, a horror movie, The Town That Dreaded Sundown was made about the crimes. The true horror is that the story was based on fact.

The entrance to Spring Lake Park
On the night of February 22, 1946, 24-year-old Jimmy Hollis and his 19-year-old girlfriend, Mary Jean Larey, went on a date, a date that started off as any number of dates taken by any normal young couple, but this particular date would end very differently. After dinner and a movie, Mary Jean accompanied Jimmy in his car to a dark, secluded spot in the park for a romantic interlude. Jimmy glanced at his watch and noted the time as 11:45. He had promised his father to have the car home by midnight, but the moon was full, Mary Jean was lovely, her sweet perfume filled the air and when he leaned in for a kiss, she didn't resist. Facing the wrath of his father's anger later was no match for the lure of Mary Jean now. Soon, only the sounds of heavy breathing could be heard in the car and the young couple were not aware of anything other than their passion.

When Mary Jean opened her eyes to look into Jimmy's, she saw a dark shape beside the car. When she gasped and pulled away, Jimmy looked up and saw the figure of a man. Expecting to see the uniform of a policeman, he began to roll down the window and was startled to see not a policeman, but a man dressed in dark clothing with a hood over his head. In a muffled voice, the man said, "Get out of the car now!" and tapped on the partially opened window with a .32 caliber pistol he held in his hand.

Fearing the man would shoot through the window if they didn't do as he demanded, they both exited out of the driver's side door. They offered to give him their money and the keys to the car, but the hooded man hit Jimmy in the head twice with the butt of the gun knocking him out. He then turned his attention to Mary Jean. In desperation, she ran, but the man quickly caught her and threw her to the ground. After slapping her several times, he began to rip off her clothes and while still holding the gun, began roughly fondling her. After several minutes but what seemed like hours and frightened beyond words, Mary Jean had resigned herself to her fate when she saw the dirty canvas that covered her attacker's head light up. The man groaned and shouted several coarse cuss words. At first confused, Mary Jean then realized it was a car coming down the road and its headlights had illuminated the scene. The hooded man stood up and after hitting her in the face with his fists several times, ran off into the darkness.

The approaching car, occupied by a kindly farmer and his wife who were coming home from a late movie, stopped to see what was going on. They managed to get Jimmy into the back seat and rushed the injured couple to the nearest hospital. Physically, Mary Jean only had bruises and scratches, but Jimmy's injuries from being hit in the head with the butt of the gun were more serious. Although he suffered from two skull fractures so severe that he had to spend days in the hospital, both he and Mary Jean lived to tell their story. At the time, they were not aware of how lucky they actually were.

When the police failed to find and arrest the attacker, the crime was written off by the residents as an anomaly, a sad byproduct of having a railroad going through town. The perpetrator must have been a transient and he had no doubt hopped a railway car and was long gone. No need to fear.

Trees in the area where 2 bodies were found in a car
On March 24th, just one month later, a visitor to the park noticed a 1941 Oldsmobile parked partially hidden about 100 yards from the road in a grove of trees. Thinking it might be a stolen vehicle and he should investigate, the driver approached the car. He saw what he thought at first was a man asleep behind the wheel, but when he got close, he saw a body covered in blood. He ran, jumped in his car and made it to a store nearby where he called the police.

After rushing to the scene, police found not one, but two bodies in the car. The man sitting in the driver's seat was identified as being 29-year-old Richard Griffin who had recently received his discharge as a Navy SeaBee. Laying in the back seat was his girlfriend, Polly Ann More. Both had been shot in the head with a .32 pistol. Polly had been roughly sexually assaulted. Evidence indicated Richard had been shot outside of the car and Polly had been tied to a nearby tree with rope. Police theorized the attacker had incapacitated Richard and then tied Polly to the tree. He had made her watch as he beat and then fatally shot her boyfriend. For some reason, he drug Richard's body back to the car and placed it in the driver's seat. He then proceeded to assault Polly while she was still tied up. She eventually was killed and drug to the car where her body was placed in the back seat. Once again, the police were unable to find any clue that would lead them to a suspect. He seemed to have vanished into thin air.

The town now knew there was a sadistic killer among them. Papers across the state picked up on the news and began calling the case the "Texarkana Moonlight Murders. With the public clamoring for an arrest, the local police called in the vaunted Texas Rangers for help. Three weeks later on April 14th, with the Rangers in town performing their investigation, the killer struck again.

15-year-old Betty Booker was an exceptionally gifted saxophone player. To help with her family's income, she sometimes played in a band which performed at proms and other social events. The band was asked to play for a dance one night at the local VFW and since she was a straight-A student, it would be for good pay, and he had come to trust the band's adult leader, her father gave his permission for her to join her band-mates and then attend a slumber party at a friend's house. After the performance was over at about 1:00AM, a friend and former classmate of Betty, Paul Martin, offered to drive her to her friend's house for the slumber party and drop her off. Paul was a clean-cut, innocent-looking young man who had not partaken of any alcoholic beverages so the band leader said it was OK. After packing her sax in its case, the two said their goodbye's. It was the last time they would be seen alive.

Road going into the park where Paul's car was found
Several hours later, parents at the slumber party became worried that Betty had not yet arrived so they called her parents to see if maybe she had decided to go home instead. Soon, the police were notified that Betty was missing and a search was quickly begun. Paul's car was found abandoned on the side of the road just inside the entrance of Spring Lake Park, nowhere near where the slumber party took place. Paul's body was finally found over a mile away and Betty's was found almost 2 miles from the car. Both were riddled with bullets from a .32 cal revolver and Betty had been sexually assaulted. It was a mystery as to why Paul's car was found so far from the slumber party destination. The pair had not be linked romantically and both had reputations for being good kids so there was no reason for them to be at the park. Betty's saxophone was missing and police put out notices in the papers and to pawn shops to be on the lookout for it. The instrument, still in its case, was found 2 months later rotting in the muck around a small pond inside the park several hundred yards away from where the car was found. It had obviously been thrown there the night of the murders as it was half-submerged and rusted. Why it was taken and why it was thrown there so far away from the car and the bodies is unknown. The leader of the band Betty had played in felt so guilty that he had let her go with Paul rather than drive her himself that he disbanded the popular group. The Rhythmaires never played again.

The pond where Betty's saxophone was found is now
clean and maintained
After testing, it was determined all of the bullets from each of the murders was from the same gun. Once again, the perpetrator had disappeared and neither the police nor the Rangers found anything which would lead to the identity of the killer. The papers began calling him "The Phantom."

Texarkana became a town under siege. Gun shops sold out of shotguns and ammunition; hardware stores completely sold out of locks and latches. Homeowners began constructing burglar devices that would drop nails and tacks on the floor. Shotguns were rigged to fire with strings attached to doorknobs and triggers. Business' closed at sunset when the streets and sidewalks emptied. Groups of vigilantes, men armed with shotguns, patrolled all over town. Unfamiliar cars driving through town were stopped and the passengers made to identify themselves and give a good reason for being there. Older teenagers staged traps in the park - a boy and girl would park along a dark secluded roadway and pretend to make out while a pack of armed boys would be hidden in the trees waiting for The Phantom to make an appearance. The police had their hands full trying to disperse and send the armed groups home before some innocent person was shot. It was all to no avail - The Phantom seemed to be able to sniff out any traps and stayed away.

As to capturing The Phantom, the police were clueless and the Rangers embarrassed. In desperation, the FBI was called in. Over 300 people were detained and questioned - people caught roaming around in the dark, people considered "odd" by their neighbors, hermits, loners, and every person in town who had any kind of criminal record. Soon, the FBI was just as perplexed as the other lawmen. Newspapers around the country picked up the story and Texarkana came into public awareness for the wrong reason.

On May 3rd, with groups of armed men roaming around, police on high alert, the Texas Rangers and the FBI still in town in force, The Phantom struck again.

Virgil and Katy Starks owned a farm 12 miles outside of Texarkana. About 9:00PM, Virgil retired to his easy chair in the living room, turned on the radio and began to read the newspaper. Katy finished cleaning the kitchen, went upstairs, changed into her nightgown and lay on the bed reading the Post magazine she had recently purchased. As Katy began to relax, she was startled by what sounded like two gunshots and breaking glass downstairs. She jumped out of bed, put on her slippers and rushed down to her husband's side. She saw glass blown into the room from a shattered window pane and then she saw her husband slumped over and covered with blood from two gunshots to the head. She immediately thought, "Phantom!" and rushed across the room to the phone to call the police. Her shaking finger managed to dial 0 on the rotary phone, but as a female voice answered, "Operator, how may I help you?" she felt a tremendous blow to her right jaw and the phone flew from her hand. The blast of a gun shot registered in her brain and she instinctively turned toward the sound only to feel another bullet smash through her left jaw. As if in slow motion, she fell to the floor and saw her shattered teeth flying through the air above her. When she hit the wooden floor, she swallowed a mouthful of blood.

Incredibly, Katy remain conscious and fighting through the pain and shock, began crawling toward the kitchen away from the window where the shots were coming from. Bleeding profusely, she made it to the kitchen only to discover to her horror that the shooter, failing to gain entry through the locked front door, had ran around to the kitchen door in the back and was trying to get in. It too was locked and she could hear the monster on the other side cursing in frustration as he kicked and slammed his body into the door trying to break in. Struggling to not pass out, Katy found a determination borne of desperation to not be another of The Phantom's victims. She made it to her feet and ran to the front door. As she unlocked it and ran out, she heard the kitchen door finally give way. As she stumbled across the porch and into the front yard, she heard more curses as The Phantom found her to be gone.

She made it into the dark before the intruder saw her and made it to a neighbor's house down the road. After banging on the door, she passed out. Finding her on the porch in her bloody nightgown, the neighbors called police and then rushed her to the hospital. Katy was immediately taken into surgery and spent several weeks in the hospital in critical condition, but, physically anyway, she eventually recovered. She had terrible scars, but the physical scars were nothing compared to the emotional scars she suffered for the rest of her life.
Back at the Starks home, authorities entered to discover no one alive. Virgil's body was found laying on the floor in a pool of blood. Muddy footprints were found going from the smashed back door, through the kitchen, into the living room where the killer evidently had dabbed his palms in Virgil's blood, then up the stairs into the bedroom and back down again through the front door. The walls had been smeared with bloody hand prints. The monster had obviously been hunting for the whereabouts of Katy. Bloodhounds were brought in and they followed the scent out the front door, across the yard and into the woods where Katy had fled. They then doubled back for about 200 yards and disappeared where he evidently had gotten into his car and drove away.

The authorities were ecstatic because this time they had hand prints and shoe prints, plenty of them. However, in spite of the evidence and all of their efforts, The Phantom's identity remained unknown. There was no record of his prints to match, his shoe prints were non-remarkable, there were no witnesses and again the perpetrator seemed to have vanished into thin air without a trace.

As suddenly as the killings started, they stopped. Nobody was ever arrested. Nobody ever confessed. Nobody knows who The Phantom was, why he did what he did, why he stopped, if he fled Texarkana or if he stayed in town as a neighbor and friend to unsuspecting residents. The case is still open today and unsolved.

Famous Ginkgo Tree of Tyler

Tyler, Texas, known by most people primarily for its roses and azaleas, also is home to a famous and rather rare tree. The Ginkgo biloba is a type of tree that was around almost 200 million years ago when dinosaurs roamed the earth and then basically went extinct in the last ice age when the glaciers wiped them out everywhere except China. Buddhist priests brought the trees to Japan and began planting them around their temples. Over time, the Japanese began considering the trees to be sacred. The tree in Tyler, known as The Hubbard Ginkgo, is a living fossil, the only species left of the Ginkgoacae family which itself is not closely related to any living family or group in the plant kingdom.

 A former Texas governor and ambassador to Japan, Richard Hubbard, brought two Ginkgo trees back from Japan as saplings in 1889. He planted one of them on the lawn of the governor's mansion in Austin and gave the other to his friend, Colonel John Brown of Tyler who planted it on his property. 

In 1939, the Brown property was purchased by the city of Tyler as the location for the new city hall. On what is now the southeastern lawn, the 128-year-old tree is over 80 feet tall and in good health in spite of getting hit by lightning in the 1960's.  

The Hubbard Ginkgo on the lawn of the Tyler City Hall
Anyone can visit the tree, gaze on its magnificence and sit in its shade, but the vast majority of people are unaware of the history, drive right by and never give it a second thought. Maybe that's best for its continued good health. Just another obscure historical relic found along Texas highways.

In Japan, the nuts are considered a delicacy and served at
weddings, banquets and social gatherings. The leaves
are prized for their reputedly medicinal properties.