Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Murder Maverick of Big Bend

Big Bend country in Texas
In the Big Bend area of Texas, the rugged mountains, valleys, and plains seem to go on forever. It's a place of harsh desolation, a place where it seems everything either bites, kicks, stings or sticks in a desperate attempt to live. In the summer months, the heat can feel like a blast-furnace and even the rattlesnakes seek shelter from the unrelenting sun. In the winter, the bone-chilling wind can take your breath away and sometimes brings ice, hail or sleet storms so bad you can do nothing but hunker down and wait for a thaw. But the Big Bend country also has its own beauty for those who care enough to look. From blooming cactus flowers to sheer canyon walls hundreds of feet tall, its stark landscape has drawn a few humans for thousands of years. If a person desires to get away from it all, to find solitude and peace away from other humans, this would be their destination as the whole area is sparsely populated and the landscape hasn't really changed from when the first man wandered into it 10,000 years ago.

By the 1880's, a few hardy men had established ranches in the Big Bend country. Because the land is so harsh and rugged and the cattle needed lots of land to roam to find enough to eat, there were no fences erected. The ranchers were used to their cattle sometimes mixing together and strays were born which, of course, were not branded. For years though, this didn't cause problems as the cowboys simply waited until round-up time when the cattle would be sorted out and ownership of the calves would be determined. In 1889, however, during the winter round-up on January 28, a young unbranded longhorn bull was driven from the open range into the corral with about 3,000 other cattle. This yearling was not following a mother cow which would normally provide proof as to who owned the calf.

Dusk in Big Bend, the time when the cursed phantom bull is said
to make his appearance
One of the ranchers at the round-up was a Confederate veteran named Henry Powe. A true war hero, he had lost an arm on the battlefield and after recuperating, had gone home to Alabama, gathered up his family and established a small ranch in Big Bend. Even though he kept mostly to himself - due to the horrors he had seen in the war, it was said - he was respected as a good man who worked hard to provide for his family who loved him dearly. With him that day was his son, Robert, to help drive the family's cattle back home after the gather. Two cowboys who worked for a different ranch were also there; Manny Clements, a cousin and best friend of the outlaw John Wesley Hardin, and his friend and running partner Finus "Fine" Gililand, who also had a bad reputation.

Archive photo of a cattle round-up in Texas
Several cowboys told Henry that although the unbranded yearling's mother cow was not in the herd, they had seen it several times following a cow with his HPP brand. With that information indicating the yearling belonged to them, Henry's son Robert rode over to cut out the calf to the Powe gather. Gililand noticed this and rode up to Robert telling him unless he produced the mother with an HPP brand, then he considered the calf to belong in his gather. Robert told him what the cowboys had said, but Gililand bumped his horse into Robert's and proceeded to herd the calf back to his gather.

At this point, Henry rode up to defend his son and after words were exchanged between him and Gililand, Powe again cut the yearling back to his gather. While he was doing this, Gililand roped the calf and began dragging it back to his side. Even though Henry wasn't carrying a gun, he decided enough was enough. He rode up beside Manny, reached into his saddlebag where everyone knew he carried a revolver, drew out the pistol and fired at the calf. However, being one-armed, it was virtually impossible for him to ride a horse and shoot too and his bullet cleanly missed the bawling calf. Apparently, Gililand thought the shot had been meant for him so he jumped off his horse, pulled his pistol, got down on one knee, took aim at Henry and shot. Amazingly, his shot went high and didn't hit anything but air. Knowing he couldn't shoot straight while riding his now skittish horse, Henry jumped down and started to return fire, but unfortunately for him, the reins was still wrapped around his only arm and just as he fired, his horse shied and jerked so hard Henry fell to the ground. As he started to get back up, Gililand fired again, but as before, his shot missed, this time plowing into the ground beside Powe. Henry was finally able to untangle himself from his horse reins, stood up, took careful aim and pulled the trigger. Once more, luck was not with him as his gun jammed. With only one arm, there was no way he could get his pistol to work and as the other cowboys looked on in astonishment, Gililand ran up to Henry, grabbed his only arm, and with the Confederate war hero now helpless to defend himself, put his gun against his chest and fired into his heart, killing him instantly. Gililand mounted his horse and lit out.

After Robert left for home with his father's body to bury him in the hard, rocky ground, the remaining cowboys roped the calf who had caused everything. Nobody wanted this cursed animal so they branded the word "MURDER" on the calf's left side, "JAN 28'89" on the other side and turned it loose to roam forever.

The law went after Gililand since he had murdered a man who had been rendered defenseless. About a week later, Deputy Sheriff Thalis Cook and Texas Ranger Jim Putnam were searching for their man in a canyon when they spotted a cow above them on the rim. They were just able to make out the word "MURDER" on its side. Not more than an hour later, they came upon a stranger riding a horse. When they got within hailing distance of him, Sheriff Cook called out, "Are you Fine Gililand?" The man replied, "I am," pulled out his pistol and began shooting. Sheriff Cook was hit in the knee and his horse was killed, but as he was going down, he fired a shot which killed Gillihand's horse. Ranger Putnam jumped down off his horse, pulled Cook behind some rocks and while Gilihand took cover behind his dead horse and fired in the direction of the lawmen, rested his Winchester on a large rock and waited. Several minutes later, Gilihand, being curious as to why there was no return gunfire from the lawmen, stuck his head up over the body of his horse and that was just what Ranger Putnam was waiting for. His aim was true and a moment later, Gilihand lay dead with a bullet between his eyes.

Since then, the "Murder Maverick" has roamed the land in Big Bend. In a hard land of hard men, death is not uncommon and many times, the cursed bull has been seen just before foul play and death occurred. The cowboys and Mexican vaqueros who today work the isolated Big Bend ranches claim he is still out there portending death for anyone who sees him. Before their passing, the unfortunate ones have said his eyes of fire looked straight at them as if looking into their very souls, and then he simply vanished like smoke on the wind.

Friday, August 16, 2013

The High Society Ghost

In the upper-class University Park section of Dallas, Texas on quiet, tree-shaded Amherst Lane, is a nice, well-kept, but otherwise unremarkable 14-room home. Most of the home is impossible to see from the street due to the lush landscape and healthy trees on the property. Until she died in 1972, it was owned by Bert DeWinter, one of Dallas' highest of High Society and, apparently, she refuses to leave the home she loved even today.

For over 30 years, Bert was the head of the millinery department at the original Neiman Marcus store in downtown Dallas. At a time when women's hats could be as expensive as furs and were considered to be an absolute must for the well-dressed woman, anybody who was anybody came to Mrs. DeWinter for her to pick a hat for them. Bert was always immaculately groomed and exquisitely attired. Everything she did was with flare and perfect taste. When she bought something, she only purchased the finest. She had her dry cleaning packaged and sent to be done at The Ritz in Paris. Financially, she was very well off and often appeared in the high society pages of the papers and magazines as having entertained the rich and famous at her beautifully decorated home. Powerful politicians, foreign heads of state, actors and actresses, writers, poets and power brokers were the usual guests of honor. She was well-known for being a lavish hostess and having perfectly orchestrated dinner parties. An invitation to a Bert DeWinter dinner party was coveted by all.

At one such party, a certain up and coming Dallas politician and his wife were invited. The wife, being several weeks overdue in her pregnancy, tried to decline, but she was told it was just a small dinner and besides, one did not refuse a Bert DeWinter dinner invitation if one wanted to keep or enhance one's position on the society ladder. Knowing the importance of the invitation to her husband's career, she accepted in spite of her physical distress and hideous maternity wardrobe. Arriving precisely at the appointed time of 5:30, the couple was escorted in and the husband was given his first drink of the evening while a fruit drink was given the wife. By 6:30, sixteen more guests had arrived for the "small dinner" and the husband was on his 3rd drink. By 8:30, dinner had still not been served and it was obvious the husband should have stopped at least 1 drink ago. When the guests were escorted to the formal dining room at 10:30, the husband had to be helped by the staff and was in danger of nodding off into the soup.

Just as the main course was being served, the soon to be mother began having labor pains. An older lady seated next to her whispered that she needed to see her in the powder room. They made it to a bedroom where the lady told her, "I can see you need to go have a baby and you need to go now!" After suffering through another pain, the wife agreed. The older lady went back to the dining room and announced, "This girl needs to get to the hospital to have her baby now. Somebody needs to drive her." Sitting at the head of the table, Mrs. DeWinter was heard to mutter, "Can't she wait?"

The husband came out of his near stupor and said he could do it. None of the other guests dared leave Bert's party so one of the staff was assigned to facilitate getting the girl to the hospital. Once in the car though, the husband demanded the staff person leave as he was the husband and he would be the one to drive his wife to the hospital. Just 2 blocks into the drive however, it was painfully obvious the husband was in no condition to drive so the wife persuaded him to pull over and she drove herself. They made it safely, but by the time the wife parked the car, the husband was passed out in the seat and his wife couldn't wake him. She walked into the hospital and had her baby alone. The husband didn't see the baby until he woke up and stumbled into the hospital the next morning. The couple was never invited to another Bert DeWinter dinner and the husband's political career died. The wife blames it all on Bert, saying, "She never forgave me for interrupting her dinner."

In the 1960's as Bert got older, some of the upkeep to the house began to slide. After a short illness, she passed away in 1972 and her once beautiful home which still contained many of the antique furniture pieces sat empty for over a year before a prominent tax attorney named Don purchased it for him and his family. The house was in a pretty run down condition and needed extensive work before it could be occupied again. The wife, Diane, a professional photographer and writer, took charge of the restoration work. Walls were stripped of their elegant, but faded wallpaper; the black slate floor in one room was ripped up and replaced with wood. In general, spirits do not like change and Bert must have been particularly upset over the way her home was being changed. During the modification, the worker's tools would often come up missing one day only to appear again the next morning right where they had been left. Power saws would quit working for no reason that could be found and then work perfectly several minutes or hours later. Without giving a reason, several Hispanic workers refused to work in the house after dark. Eventually though, the renovation was completed and the new owners and their four children moved in.

Not long afterwards, the family began to hear footsteps downstairs in the dining room at night when they were all in their beds upstairs. It sounded like someone who was wearing flip flops or open-heeled house-slippers was slowly walking back and forth, back and forth. Don, with a protective baseball bat in hand, investigated the first few times the pacing was heard, but the sound would stop as soon as he turned on the lights or entered the dining room. He never found anyone and the family, for the most part, learned to accept it and sleep through it. The house began to creak and occasionally pop very loudly. It was thought to be just the usual settling of a house with the usual creaking and popping of boards, but the only time it happened would be at 3:00 AM. Paranormal investigations have shown that for some reason, 3:00 AM is the time ghosts are normally most active. One day, the youngest child screamed in fright. Diane ran to her room and burst in to find her child sitting on the bed staring at the curtains which were standing straight out! The weather was calm and besides, the window the curtains covered were closed and locked. A few seconds after Diane ran into the room, the curtains dropped back to their hanging position. The young child told her mom it was "the lady who comes to watch her." Another child told her a woman comes into her room at night and stands at the foot of her bed watching her. The child would cover her head with the sheet until morning. All four children said they hated the night because that's when "that woman" would come into their rooms. Pieces of jewelry which did not belong to Diane would often simply show up on the fireplace mantel or the dining room table or on the kitchen counter or a side table in the living room. Several times Diane, upon finding the jewelry, took it upstairs and placed it in her jewelry box and closed the lid. The next time she had occasion to be in the box, nothing would be disturbed, but the piece in question would be gone.

The family endured this for almost a full year. While the disturbances frightened them, they all said they felt like the spirit wouldn't actually harm them, it just wanted to be in charge. Whenever the owners threw a party, the wife said she always felt like she wasn't alone; that there was a presence with her. She didn't feel threatened, but had the distinct feeling that whatever she did in preparation for the party just wasn't good enough. "I just felt like she was telling me that no matter how nice we had fixed up the house, we could never compete with her excellent taste in decorating and entertaining."

On a trip to New York City, Diane was introduced to a lady who had lived in Dallas and had been a close friend to Bert. As they talked, Diane told her she thought their home was haunted by Mrs. DeWinter. When she described the footsteps as being the sound of flip-flops, the lady exclaimed, "That has to be Bert! She always wore "mules" (a heelless shoe in fashion back then) when she was home. Diane went on to describe several pieces of the jewelry which showed up out of the blue and the lady confirmed they were owned by none other than her friend Bert DeWinter. 

Not long afterward, the family reached their breaking point and even though they were no longer particular upset about the spirit which lived in their house with them, they were annoyed enough by all the strange happenings that they consulted a priest about cleansing the house. Told it would take an exorcism, they were concerned such a rite would somehow harm or anger Bert so they didn't take the advice. Then a friend told them about an old folk remedy for curing a haunting. That same night, they went home with a 12-candle candelabra that was made with wrought iron and had angels in the design and walked through the house, the candles flickering, while they sprinkled salt in every corner. As they performed this ritual, s thunderstorm began to rage outside.

The family didn't hear the house creaking or popping that night and over time, the curtains stopped standing straight out, the children were no longer visited in the night and even the footsteps came less and less. Even so, the family decided to sell and move to a newly constructed home which, hopefully, would have only them living in it, a house they could call their own home. The current owners of the beautiful home on Amherst Lane say they have not heard footsteps or seen curtains sticking straight out. They have not experienced anything of a haunting nature at all actually. They are confused, however, with occasionally finding a piece of beautiful jewelry in the house which they do not own. They say the jewelry is probably just pieces left behind by different guests after they attended a party in the house. They are not sure why none of their guests claims ownership though and they have no explanation as to how the found jewelry somehow always gets misplaced and simply disappears, seemingly into thin air.