Wednesday, June 26, 2013

"Don't shoot me anymore, I'm killed:" The Fleeting Fame of William Claiborne

To the last, all he wanted was a little fame and fortune and to be known as "Billy the Kid." For William Claiborne, though, fortune was hard to come by and his fame, found at the wrong end of a gun, was fleeting at best. Born October 21, 1860, William Floyd Claiborne hailed from Mississippi, most likely from Yazoo County, although no record seems to exist to show his lineage. That he was born in Mississippi, though, was verified in court by Claiborne himself in 1881. At that point, the twenty-one-year-old had taken a crooked path to the west and was a survivor of the most famous gunfight in American history.

Before going to Arizona in 1880, Billy Claiborne had gone to Texas and found work driving cattle. After arriving in Tombstone, he worked a variety of jobs, including as a miner at the Neptune Mining Company, owned by Col. William Herring, a New Jersey attorney who moved west to get rich in the silver mining industry. Billy Claiborne (right) also drove a buggy for Herring and other odd jobs. He had also managed to fall in with a rough set of cowboys, including Ike and Billy Clanton and Tom and Frank McLaury, and seemed intent on establishing a reputation as a gunfighter, although he hadn't really established a pedigree as such. When William "Billy the Kid" Bonney was killed in 1881, Claiborne saw a chance to gain some unearned fame and demanded that everyone  begin calling him "Billy the Kid." On Oct. 1, 1881, Claiborne got into a fight with a certain James Hickey at the Queen’s Saloon in Charleston, Arizona, a now-extinct mining town in Cochise County. Hickey, who was on a three-day drunk, refused to refer to Claiborne as "Billy the Kid," so Claiborne shot him in the face with his revolver. Since no one seemed to like Hickey anyway, he was acquitted on grounds of self-defense.

Less than a month later, William "Billy the Kid" Claiborne, as an ally of the Clantons and McLaurys (aka 'The Cowboys'), was recruited as reinforcement against the Earps and Doc Holliday, with whom The Cowboys had a running feud. Things boiled over on October 26, when the two sides squared off in a back alley of Tombstone, Arizona. Though the shooting lasted less than a minute, the gunfight at the O.K. Corral left Billy Clanton and Tom and Frank McLaury dead in the street. Ike Clanton, Billy's older brother, managed to get away unharmed and Claiborne, despite his desire to be a famous gunfighter, ran into a nearby establishment, the C.S. Fly photography studio, to escape the flying lead. He later claimed that he was unarmed. Ike Clanton subsequently accused the Earps and Doc Holliday of murder and the case went to a hearing, during which Billy Claiborne was called as a witness. During his testimony, Claiborne seemed to recall few details of the fight (which, given its brevity might be understandable) except  that the Earps were responsible for starting it, that Doc Holliday (left) was sporting a "nickel-plated pistol" and that one of the Earps said "You son-of-bitches, you have been looking for a fight!" just before the bullets started flying. He also denied having any particular association with The Cowboys other than as an acquaintance.

The defense attorney for Wyatt Earp was Billy Claiborne's old boss, Col. William Herring. In addition to the mining business, Herring took several cases in the Tombstone area, including one in 1889 involving a county treasurer charged with embezzlement. In that case, Andrew Jackson Ritter, a Union veteran who became an undertaker, carpenter and contractor (and who invented a fruit-canning machine in 1895) was accused of stealing $6,599.47 of county funds after overseeing the construction of the county courthouse (it's now a museum). With Herring as his attorney, the grand jury refused to move forward with the case and the charges were dropped. In 1881, Ritter was the undertaker who prepared the bodies of Billy Clanton and Tom and Frank McLaury, all of whom were photographed in their caskets (above) by Cadmillus S. Fly (who would himself die in 1901 of "acute alcoholism"). As in the Ritter case, Herring was able to get an acquittal for his client in the O.K. Corral shooting. During the trial, which was quite a public sensation, Herring carried a gun at all times in order to protect himself.

Following the O.K. Corral affair, William Claiborne left Tombstone for a time, no doubt sensing that his reputation as the new "Billy the Kid" had been tarnished by the trial and public exposure. He returned to Tombstone in November, 1882, however, and promptly got into a fight with Frank "Buckskin" Leslie, the bartender of the Oriental Saloon (seen here). Once again, the issue was that Leslie refused to call him "Billy the Kid," so Claiborne waited for him outside with a rifle, intent on bloody revenge. Claiborne also believed that Leslie was responsible for the death of Johnny Ringo, another outlaw associate of the Clantons. Leslie, however, learned that Claiborne was lying in wait and exited from a side door and surprised his would-be assassin. After shooting Claiborne in the chest, "Buckskin" Leslie (left) aimed a second time, at which Claiborne cried "Don't shoot me anymore, I'm killed." Taken by friends to a doctor, "Billy the Kid" Claiborne died a few hours later. His last words were supposedly another accusation about Leslie's guilt in the death of Johnny Ringo. After a jury met in Ritter's undertaking parlor, the shooting was ruled as a justifiable homicide.

William Floyd Claiborne died on November 14, 1882, and is buried in Tombstone's famous Boothill Graveyard, along with James Hickey (killed by Claiborne) and Billy Clanton, Tom McLaury and Frank McLaury, the three "victims" of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. As the mystique of the shootout has grown through the years, so has their fame. Claiborne, however, never achieved the fame he so coveted while alive nor did he achieve it in death, as his grave marker makes no mention of his chosen nickname of "Billy the Kid." More famous by far is another grave in the cemetery, and perhaps the most famous western epitaph of all. It is that of Lester Moore, a Wells Fargo agent killed in 1880. His grave marker (as seen in the movie "Tombstone") reads:

Here lies Lester Moore,
four slugs from a .44,
no Les,
no more.

Photo and Image Sources:
(1) Claiborne:
(2) O.K. Corral: original painting by Bob Boze Bell;
(3) Doc Holliday:
(4) C.S. Fly photo:
(5) Leslie:
(6) Oriental Saloon: http://shantishome.forumfree
(7) Lester Moore grave:

Monday, June 17, 2013

John Trindle and the Vicksburg National Cemetery

The Vicksburg National Cemetery, composed of nearly 120 acres, is the final resting place for 17,000 Civil War dead, all but two of them Union soldiers. Of these, approximately 75% of the dead are unknown; the graves of those nameless heroes marked by small white stones. In addition to the Union and Confederate dead, there are nearly 1,300 soldiers from other eras, from the Indian wars to the Korean Conflict, as well as a smattering of civilians, including park superintendents and their families. Although most of the stones represent tragic stories, one memorial in particular is heart-wrenching: the Trindle family monument.

The Vicksburg National Cemetery was established in 1866, thirty-three years before the adjacent military park was established by Congress. Managed by the War Department, authorities went to great effort to locate and exhume the thousands of remains scattered across the battle-scarred landscape in Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas, many of the remains buried in river levees or in shallow graves on some lonesome battlefield. To collect these remains, the U.S. government paid private contractors to exhume bodies for reburial in the new cemetery at Vicksburg. As one might imagine, there was plenty of corruption in this plan and often horrid tales of desecration of the dead. Despite these terrible conditions, work proceeded, if an agonizingly slow pace, until the cemetery was filled. To supervise the work not only of the exhumation and reburial of the dead but of the ongoing construction work at the cemetery, the War Department appointed a superintendent. In 1868, the first full time superintendent was appointed to the Vicksburg National Cemetery. Alexander Henry arrived on September 9 and immediately began working with mortuary records, keeping track of employees and welcoming visitors to the site. There was plenty of work to be done, much of it related to drainage and the building of terraces in the cemetery, but that work was under the guidance of the Vicksburg Quartermaster. Even so, the superintendent was often blamed for problems in the cemetery. For example, a soldier who visited complained that hundreds of skeletons were lying around in the open awaiting burial. While the charge was accurate, it wasn’t the fault of the superintendent. Although it appears that Alexander Henry did the best he could under difficult circumstances (while keeping a large family together), he was suddenly dismissed in September 1874 and transferred to Baton Rouge, reportedly because he “was given to periods of excessive drink, and that at times he suffered in consequence from delirium tremens.” With Superintendent Henry’s departure, John Trindle was appointed as the new superintendent at Vicksburg.

Himself a Union veteran, Trindle was considered an “intelligent, active, energetic man who gives his whole time heartily and faithfully” to his work. An Irish immigrant, he had served in Co. K, 56th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry during the Civil War. The regiment was raised fairly late in the war and served in the Siege of Petersburg under the command of Colonel Stephen Minot Weld, Jr. (left) On Thursday, July 21, 1864, Weld wrote about the position held by the regiment in his diary. “We are now on the front line again, in a pretty fair position,” he wrote. “The men have to keep well under cover, however, in order to avoid the fire of the sharpshooters.” Apparently, one of the Confederate snipers found a ready target that day, as John Trindle was shot in the left leg and, as a result, had to have his leg amputated. Col. Weld, a Harvard graduate, would become a wealthy cotton merchant after the war and built a 52-acre estate named Rockweld in Dedham, Massachusetts. He is the first cousin (twice removed) of former Massachusetts governor William Weld and the great-grandfather of actress Tuesday Weld.

Just three years after coming to Vicksburg, Superitendent Trindle requested that he be transferred to another post, due to the unhealthy climate. “I have been stationed at different Cemeteries in this state and Florida during the last eight years,” he wrote his superiors, “and as a consequence the health standard of my family and myself has been greatly lowered, so much so that there is constantly some of us suffering from the climatic diseases which we have contracted during that time.” Furthermore, Superintendent Trindle claimed that “owing to my disability” the “frequent changes in temperature causes me severe pain in my stump which frequently lasts for days.” The request was transfer was not approved, however, and Trindle continued his work in Vicksburg. The very next year (1878), Trindle’s fears for the health of his family became a reality with tragic results. In the summer, a severe yellow fever epidemic erupted in the area and Trindle requested that the cemetery be closed, which was granted by the Quartermaster General. Trindle also requested a leave of absence to protect his family from the fever outbreak. Enclosed with his request was a statement of support from his physician, Dr. David W. Booth of Vicksburg. The letter to Montgomery Meigs was dated August 12. In just two weeks, Dr. Booth would himself die from the yellow fever epidemic while taking care of others stricken with the disease. He was 37 years old. Booth's memorial (above) is located in Vicksburg's Cedar Hill Cemetery. Trindle’s leave was granted, beginning November 1. By then, however, it was too late. Although his family’s health seem to improve somewhat in September, disaster struck when both of the surviving children died (a daughter, Eola, age one year, had died in mid-August). On October 11, four-year-old Willie fell victim to the disease, and two weeks later Charlotte, age three, also died, leaving the Trindles without any children. A fourth child had died in 1875. All were buried in the Vicksburg National Cemetery. Despite his personal tragedy, Superintendent Trindle, by then sufficiently recovered from sickness, continued to work at Vicksburg and did not take the leave granted.

During John Trindle’s administration, the cemetery saw a number of improvements in drainage, appearance and in the construction of several utility buildings within the cemetery. On April 12, 1880, Trindle received a distinguished guest at the cemetery: President Ulysses S. Grant (left), who visited Vicksburg and the scene of his wartime victory, rode out to the cemetery, where he was enthusiastically greeted by a crowd of three thousand well-wishers. After complimenting Trindle on the appearance of the cemetery, Grant registered as a visitor and rode back into town. The next day, the Vicksburg paper wrote that the “reception of General Grant in this city was, we are glad to state, entirely free from partisan manipulation.” Two years earlier, there was a much less genial reception for another visitor to the cemetery. In May, 1878, a “young desperado” named Charles Latcher “indecently exposed” himself in front of several hundred visitors to the cemetery. When a cemetery watchman ordered him to stop, Latcher punched him in the face and then assaulted another cemetery employee with a knife. He was finally apprehended after emitting “much vile and abusive language,” and Trindle recommended that the authorities make an example of him “as it would have a good effect on the class to which he belongs.”

In 1881, Trindle received orders to transfer to the cemetery at Antietam in Maryland. Although he had earlier wished to leave Vicksburg, Trindle now requested that he remain. Again writing to Meigs, Trindle said that since the loss of their children “I find it difficult for myself and almost impossible for my wife to sever my connection with the Cemetery.” The request was granted, and Trindle remained at Vicksburg until March, 1882, when he transferred to the national cemetery at Chattanooga. There, on February 13, 1914, he died of arteriosclerosis at age 73. His wife Charlotte lived until age 96, dying in 1935. Both are buried in the Vicksburg National Cemetery, reunited in death with their children. Today, the Trindle family monument (right), topped by an angel, is surrounded by the 17,000 veterans who John Trindle was charged to keep secure. It is a fitting memorial to his dedication and sacrifice.

Photo and Image Sources:
(1) Vicksburg National Cemetery:
(2) Cemetery Plan:
(3) Weld:
(4) Grant:
(5) Booth:
(6) Trindle monument: Photo by author

Friday, June 14, 2013

Greenville's Electric Trolley

In the 200 block of South Poplar Street in Greenville, Mississippi, there is a section of tracks from the early years of the 20th Century. Theyre not railroad tracks, as one might expect to find in many towns across the state, but trolley tracks, one of the few remnants of the Greenville Electric Company trolley line.

Greenvilles trolley system was established about 1900 and operated for almost three decades. There were similar trolley lines in other Mississippi cities during the period, including Meridian, Laurel, Vicksburg, Hattiesburg, McComb, Pascagoula, Natchez, Columbus and in DeSoto County. Nationally, street cars had been around since as early as the 1820s, although the early "omnibus" lines were pulled by horses and mules (as seen in this image from Palm Beach, Florida). The addition of rails for animal-powered streetcars came along in 1832 in New York and were added just two years later in New Orleans. By the mid-19th Century, there were more than 400 lines established in U.S. cities, carrying approximately 188 million passengers a year to and from their appointed rounds. Greenville's trolley line, beginning in 1887, used mules to pull their streetcars. Then, in the 1880s, electricity - prominently featured at the New Orleans "World Cotton Exhibition" in 1884-1885 - started the move away from animal power to mechanically-powered trolleys. Among other things, horses and mules required too much food and then left smelly piles of poop behind. Besides the economic and olfactory considerations, electricity was seen as more progressive and was "the latest thing."

In 1886, Montgomery, Alabama, was the first city to install an electric trolley route, and Scranton, Pennsylvania, is credited with the first all-electric system.  Richmond, Virginia's trolley line, however, was the first to utilize a pole connecting to a single overhead electric line and became the model for most of the trolley lines established throughout the U.S. The Richmond streetcars were designed by naval officer and inventor Frank J. Sprague (left), a business associate of Thomas Edison. When Edison, who manufactured most of Sprague's trolley cars, bought out Sprague's interest in the company, Sprague turned to another invention of modern convenience: electric elevators. The introduction of an electric streetcar line in Greenville, the only such line in the Mississippi Delta, was an indication of Greenville's emerging status as a progressive and modern city. The mayor of Greenville at the time, who no doubt encouraged the development of the new trolley system, was William Lewis Yerger, Jr., whose father had also served as mayor. Yerger was a Confederate veteran. Born in Jackson in 1842, he enlisted in 1861 and was an officer in the 12th Mississippi Cavalry, despite his youth, and served on General Charles Clark's staff (Clark became governor in 1863). It is interesting to note that Mayor Yerger, despite being an "old" Confederate, embraced the latest technology for his city at the turn of the new century. Yerger died in 1914 and is buried in the Greenville city cemetery.

Like other trolley lines, Greenville's was owned and operated by an electric power company which was responsible for the electric generating plants supplying the power. Initially, there were two separate transit companies in Greenville: the Delta Electric, Power and Manufacturing Company (D.E.L.P. & M. Co.), which was chartered in 1901, and the Greenville Electric Light and Street Railway Company. The larger of the two, the D.E.L.P. & M. Co., purchased the smaller companys plant and streetcar system in 1905. The new Greenville line connected the old Columbus and Greenville (C&G) and the Yazoo and Mississippi Valley (Y&MV)  passenger stations and was powered by a coal-fueled steam generator located at Poplar and Johnson Streets. After the merger of the two companies, the Delta Light and Traction Company advertised that the line consisted of five miles of street railway, fully equipped with light vestibuled streetcars, and with duplicate engines and generators to furnish power for same, together with a 1,400 horse power direct connected generator of the most modern make…” During the trolley's heyday, the line included eight miles of track and fourteen cars. The company claimed the line was the shortest modern trolley line in the nation.

Then, in 1927, the Great Mississippi Flood inundated the Delta and wrecked the Greenville Trolley System. With tracks covered in mud and several rail cars abandoned to the flood waters, there seemed to be little hope of reestablishing service to the line. Service was eventually restored but by then there was little public demand for the railcars and the trolley line was discontinued on May 20, 1929, in favor of the next new thing in urban transit: buses. The honor of driving the first bus in Greenville, which occurred the very next day,  was given to Arthur M. Pender, who had been a conductor for many years on the trolley line. With the Great Depression, trolley lines across the nation ceased operation in favor of bus routes and by the 1940s most trolleys were already yesterday's news. Today, few reminders exist of the original trolleys, except in New Orleans. In Greenville, the only indication that there was ever a trolley in the Delta are a few tracks and a historical marker erected to mark the site.

For more on Mississippi's trolley history, please visit

(1) Horse drawn trolley:
(2) Sprague:
(3) Greenville Trolley:
(4) Poplar Street:
(5) Tracks:

Monday, June 10, 2013


In Pike County, Mississippi, there is a place – now just a ghost town – which was once a thriving center of commerce in the county. The town of Holmesville was established in 1816, just a year after Pike County was formed and a year before Mississippi became a state. Located near the geographic center of the county, Holmesville was named not for territorial governor David Holmes, as might be expected, but for a soldier who fell on the field of battle many miles from Mississippi.

Andrew Hunter Holmes, a Pennsylvanian, was an officer in the 24th U.S. Infantry during the War of 1812. In 1813, he was promoted to major with the 32nd regiment. On August 4, 1814, Major Holmes was selected to lead an attack on Mackinac Island, where the British maintained a fort named, appropriately enough, Fort George. Fort George was a strong position, and included cannon, a blockhouse and an ammunition magazine, and the Americans were unable to take the position. Killed in the attack was Major Holmes, along with several other soldiers. In 1815, after the war ended, U.S. forces reclaimed Mackinac Island and took possession of the fort, and renamed it Fort Holmes. With no military use, however, the fort began a slow decline and by the early 20th Century had all but disappeared. During the Great Depression, however, the fort was rebuilt according to its original plans by the Civilian Conservation Corps, and part of the rebuilding effort included a reconstruction of the blockhouse. Today, the 1930s blockhouse (above) is gone but the earthen fort remains and Mackinac Island, Michigan, is a popular tourist destination. 

Holmesville, founded prior to Mississippi statehood, was named for Major Holmes. After the town was chartered on December 11, 1816, Holmesville grew at a rapid pace. As the judicial center of the new county of Pike (itself named for Zebulon Pike of Pike's Peak fame), Holmesville attracted lots of businessmen and lawyers, among them William A. Stone. Stone was a native of Livermore, Maine and a graduate of Bowdoin College in 1825 and a classmate of both Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (right) and Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The Scarlet Letter. Stone was appointed as a circuit judge at Holmesville by Governor McNutt, and then served in the Mississippi House of Representatives from Pike County in 1838-1839, when he moved to Natchez. Later moving to Monticello and Hazlehurst, Stone was also a senator from Marion and Lawrence counties, mayor of Hazlehurst and a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in 1865 from Copiah County. He died in 1877. Although his burial place is currently unknown to me, it's unlikely to equal in grandeur that of his classmate Henry Longfellow, who, while buried in Massachusetts, is memorialized in Poets Corner at Westminster Abbey. 

Holmesville was not only a place for business and law, it was a resort of sorts. Situated on the Bogue Chitto River, the area was a haven for those wishing to escape the vicissitudes of life in New Orleans, including the very real threat of yellow fever. In 1841, John Francis Hamtranck (J.F.H.) Claiborne (left), often called the “father of Mississippi history,” visited Holmesville and wrote glowingly about his experience. “This is really a pretty village,” he wrote. “Beautifully shaded with venerable trees, it is the residence of several interesting families and of many agreeable and intelligent gentlemen. It has a new and spacious Temperance Hotel, kept by a respectable Methodist, in a style of taste and comfort rarely met with by the traveler. We know of few places where one could spend the summer more agreeably or with a better prospect for health.” In addition to the Temperance Hotel, there was the California House (where presumably you could get a drink), and the town boasted a Masonic Lodge, courthouse and a newspaper called The Holmesville Independent.

Among the “intelligent gentlemen” were members of the Quin family, starting with Peter Quin, one of the earliest settlers. Born in Ireland in 1750, he emigrated to the American colonies and fought in the American Revolution (although he was perhaps on the “wrong” side of the conflict). Regardless of his loyalties, he moved to the Pike County area about 1812 along with six of his seven children. Peter Quin, Sr. died in 1824. One of his sons, Peter Quin, Jr., was a colonel in the militia in the 1820s and then served two terms in the Mississippi Legislature. He died on August 25, 1825, from wounds received in a duel with a man who had been a “warm personal friend,” according to his obituary. The duel was reportedly over a political disagreement. Peter Quin, Jr. left behind twelve of his thirteen children, one of whom was Hugh Murray Quin (above right). A student at Oakland College, he became a lawyer, judge, planter, supervisor of the State Lunatic Asylum and mayor of Summit before his death in 1900. Like his father, he and his wife had thirteen children, but only eight survived to adulthood. Quin’s wife died after their last child was born in 1866. Hugh remarried the next year and fathered two more children. One of his brothers, Josephus, was a captain in Co. A, 14th Mississippi Cavalry during the Civil War. He was killed in the battle of Harrisburg (aka Tupelo) in 1864. He was 37 years old at the time. Most of the Quin family, including the patriarch of the family, now rest in the Holmesville Cemetery, along with many other prominent families. Other than the cemetery, there are just a few buildings which remain, including a small brick building (lower right) used at one time as the county clerk’s office. The building, often referred to as the old county courthouse, was enlarged in the 1930s and partially renovated in the 1970s.

So, one might ask, what happened to the rest of this once bustling town? The story of the rapid decline of Holmesville is the same story repeated throughout Mississippi history. The booming town was a victim of “progress,” progress in the form of a railroad. Even though Holmesville was the county seat and was prosperous, the railroad (later part of the Illinois Central) decided to locate nine miles west of town. Despite the protests of her citizens, Holmesville declined as businesses moved to the railroad. In 1872, the county seat was relocated to Magnolia, which was on the railroad line, and Holmesville quietly passed into memory. If you’re ever in the neighborhood of Holmesville, take a few minutes and enjoy the peaceful setting. In particular, stroll through the old town square and among the monuments of the cemetery. And while you’re at it, take a moment to remember the sacrifice of Major Hunter Holmes, who gave his life nearly 200 years ago at far-off Mackinac Island, Michigan. 

Photo and Image Sources:
(1) Blockhouse:
(2) 32nd Infantry:
(3) Longfellow:
(4) Claiborne:
(5) Quin:
(6) Clerk's Building:
(7) Holmesville Cemetery: