I Heart Denton

Exploring The Denton County Courthouse

Courthouse Denton County
Looking at our beautiful courthouse on the square, it’s almost impossible not to want to investigate every nook and cranny of it. How exciting it would be to climb all the way up to that clock tower! I want to have a picnic on that balcony at the top. Unfortunately, that activity is not allowed.

There are no tours that explore the upper floors of the courthouse and take tourists to the tower. Let me repeat that, just in case you didn’t get it the first go-round: the county does not give tours of the upper floors of the building. Visitors may wander somewhat freely in the basement, on the first floor (where the Courthouse-on-the-Square Museum is located), on the second floor, and even on the third floor. Some of it is restricted because it’s office space for Heaven’s sake. We can’t just be barging in on county commissioners while they work.

Authorized Personnel only
However, that’s the extent of it. A chain blocks the spiral staircase that leads to the upper floors, with a sign that says “Authorized Personnel Only.”

That sign tells the public not to go futher (sorry, when faced with deciphering the proper English usage between “farther” and “further” I opt for the Texan —“futher”) and it means exactly what it says! I’ve heard some folks say, “One day I’m just going to step over that chain and climb up there.” I urge you not to do it.

First, you could get arrested. Yes, you really could. And second, there is more than one darned good reason that the public isn’t allowed up there. It’s dangerous. Folks could damage the courthouse or themselves! Some unscrupulous scalawags have even defaced that lovely edifice with graffiti. And, it’s dangerous (didn’t I already tell you that?).

Nope. The public doesn’t get to see the mysteries of the upper floors of the courthouse. That said, I got to take a tour of it! Yes, moi! It’s not that I’m particularly special, although I will admit that I’m a legend in my own mind. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. I got an invite to climb those stairs, and I jumped at the chance.

If you aren’t familiar with our courthouse (the third courthouse built in the town), the brochure for the walking tour of Denton describes it this way: “Denton County Courthouse On the Square was built between 1895 and 1897, using locally quarried limestone, gray sandstone from Mineral Wells, and Burnet County red granite for the columns.” That doesn’t quite do it justice, but it will have to do for the moment. Suffice to say it is magnificent.

You want to see what I did, don’t you? Yes, I knew you would. As a friend said, it’s like getting to see the Pope’s bathroom or Antarctica. It’s something that you probably won’t ever get to do, but you can at least experience it vicariously.

I’ve put together a few pictures for you, although I won’t bore you with all of them. I just want you to get a chance to see what is behind those walls. Click on the first picture below and you can view a slide show.

No, that isn’t all of the pictures I took, but it should give you an idea of the mysteries beyond that chained gate.

While I am immensely grateful to have gotten the opportunity to see it, I’m not sure I would climb up there again. At least, I wouldn’t go all the way to the clock tower. I really balked at the stairs for the last two flights … after all, I’m a little old lady and I’m not an athlete. However, I had bragged about the fact that I was going up there! If I backed away from the challenge, it would be like a ten-year-old walking away from a triple-dog-dare.

I would have loved to show you the bell, but I was too afraid to take my hands from the ladder rungs. And, I hoped to video the clock moving when it struck the hour … but, duh, I forgot to press the button to make it record. Still, I hope you enjoyed the virtual tour, since you probably won’t ever get to take one. Remember, the county does not offer tours of the upper floor of the courthouse (sheesh, I hope that satisfies the powers that be!).

Survivor of Goliad Came to Denton, Texas

Andrew Jackson Hitchcock graveI woke up this morning thinking of Andrew Jackson Hitchcock (I fell in love with that name the moment I saw it). Although he is just a footnote in the history of Denton, Texas, he was a hero of the Texas War of Independence. Few people think of him these days, and he lies forgotten under the sod of the I.O.O.F. Cemetery, beneath a towering monument. Today, March 27th, would have been a day etched into his memory; it was a day the horrors of which A.J. Hitchcock would have liked to forget.

Hitchcock came to Texas in 1836, with a battle regiment from Georgia, to fight with the Texians in their quest for independence from Mexico. He had the great misfortune of fighting under Colonel James Fannin.

You might not know much about Colonel Fannin, or Texas history for that matter. It’s OK. If you didn’t grow up here, then you never had a history teacher who extolled the virtues of the men who fought for Texas independence with all the fervor of a preacher at a tent revival. The Texian battle cries of “Remember the Alamo!” and “Remember Goliad!” were pounded into my pea-brain; they were the cries that spurred the Texians to victory in their battle for independence from Mexico.

You probably remember the Alamo? Hey, John Wayne was in a movie about it … surely you remember that! That tragedy of Texas history happened on March 6th. I will never forget the anniversary of The Alamo, because it’s my birthday (and you should remember that I like gifts of chocolate or coffee!).

Certainly Colonel Fannin remembered The Alamo later that month. He found that his troops were in a dire predicament against an overwhelming number of Mexican troops. Rather than risk another senseless slaughter of soldiers, on March 20th, 1836 Colonel Fannin surrendered his troops to General José Urrea near La Bahia (Goliad). Fannin and Urrea had a “Gentleman’s Agreement” that the men would be turned over to the United States Government as prisoners of war. Well, that didn’t happen.

The men, along with other Texians who had been captured by the Mexicans, were imprisoned at Fort Goliad. Though General Urrea wanted to honor his agreement with Fannin, it wasn’t his decision to make. The President of Mexico, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, ordered them executed.

On Palm Sunday, March 27th, the men were marched out of the fort. Thinking that perhaps they were being released, the approximately 350 men were docile prisoners. After marching about a half-mile from the fort, the Mexican soldiers turned and fired on the men. Most of the men fell with the first volley, but a few were left standing.

Andrew Jackson Hitchcock was one of them!

As the Mexican soldier began clubbing and knifing the survivors near them, Hitchcock (and perhaps as many as 30 other men who were not killed) turned and ran like hell.

When the war was won, Hitchcock was given land grants, as were all of the veterans of the war. His life after that read like a ten cent novel. He was a wealthy plantation owner in Louisiana for a time until his wife and children died of a fever. He went to Argentina, thinking to become a rancher, but decided he liked The States better. In his old age, he wound up right here in Denton, Texas, but he wasn’t living the high life.

Hitchcock lived at a boarding house which was grandly called, “The James Hotel.” He shared a room with another boarder. Quite often, he visited with local family members and told them the tales of his harrowing escape from Goliad. One of his kin, Dr. W. N. Rowell, later wrote the story (you can find it at the Emily Fowler Library). Unfortunately, the life of Andrew Jackson Hitchcock ended in tragedy.

On August 25, 1887, A.J. Hitchcock retired to his rooms with two bags of gold known to be on his person. A suspicious fire broke out at the James Hotel that night. It burned to the ground, and only one person died — A.J. Hitchcock. His charred body was downstairs, but the gold he possessed never was discovered; only a single gold collar button from his shirt was found. It was a mystery that was never solved.

I’ve spent months trying to discover where the James Hotel was located, and finally have. If the story interests you, I tell more about it sometimes on the Ghosts of Denton tour (Friday and Saturday nights at 8:00). Make reservations to take a walk around the square with me, ask for his story, and I’ll take you to the spot where he died to tell you the full tale.

Today, however, I just want to raise my glass to Andrew Jackson Hitchcock. He was at the Massacre at Goliad and lived to tell the tale.

Captured By Comanches

Banc Babb Bell“Look up the name ‘Banc Babb,'” Frank murmured, as we sat on “Murderer’s Row” at the coffee house. “I think you will like her story. She died here in Denton in 1950,” he said, “and she was the last surviving person who had been captured by Comanches.”

I love sipping coffee with the locals down at Jupiter House! They always have historical tidbits for me. That one was all it took to send me digging into history. With Google and Ancestry.com at my fingertips, I have spent the last two days unearthing what I could of the tale of Banc (Bianca Louella) and her brother Dot (Theodore Adolphus) Babb.

I didn’t find as much as I want. While both of them later wrote their memoirs, I have to drive to Decatur to read what Banc had to say in the papers that are filed there; her book was never published. Dot’s memoirs can be read on-line, so this story is more-or-less from his perspective.

They were just two children playing innocently in the tall grass of a field near their cabin in Wise County. Hearing a noise, they looked up to discover thirty-five or forty Comanche Indians in full “regalia and war paint.” It was the 14th of September 1865, when the lives of fourteen-year-old Dot Babb and his nine-year-old sister, Banc changed forever.

Realizing their danger, the two children raced to the house with “weird and unearthly war whoops ringing” in their ears.1 They sought the protection of their mother and a friend (“Mrs. Luster,” who was a widow due to the Civil War) who lived with them. There was no real “protection,” because their father and older brother were on a cattle drive to Arkansas at the time, so only women and children faced these fearsome warriors.

According to the reminiscences of Dot, “an eternity of horror crowded into a moment of insufferable suspense for unprotected and undefended women and children.” Although the boy tried to live up to his role as the man of the house, he could not protect his family. The Comanches broke through the unbarricaded door.

Mrs. Luster was seized and bound by some of the Indians, taken outside and put on a horse. When other men reached for Banc, Mrs. Babb interfered, trying to save her daughter. She was stabbed four times with a “big butcher knife.” Dot helped her to the bed, and when the Indians returned from tying up Banc they shot Mrs. Babb with an arrow. Dot still tried to help her, but the Indians insisted he go with them. Years later, Dot would recall:

“Mother, seeing that I too would be killed if I resisted or refused, said, ‘Go with him and be a good boy.’ One of them then grabbed me by the arm and jerked me off the bed.” 2

The last Dot saw of his mother, she was dying in a mass of blood with his baby sister (Margie, who was left physically unharmed) in her arms. Dot was tied on a horse behind a warrior, and the Indians galloped away. Over the next several days the party had little rest, as the Comanche retreated to Indian Territory in Oklahoma, raiding along the way.

Many nights later, as they camped along the banks of the Canadian River, Dot boldly helped Mrs. Luster steal a horse and escape [she was later captured by a band of Kiowa, but made a second harrowing escape]. When the Indians discovered his role in Mrs. Luster’s get-away, they advanced on Dot to kill him, forcing his sister, Banc, to watch. Seeing the distress of his little sister, Dot said, “wanting the scene closed I made signs to them to shoot and end my unbearable suspense.”3 His courage and defiance in the face of death caused the Comanche to spare him, for he had the qualities of a warrior.

A few days later, the group of warriors split into several groups and Dot and Bab were separated.

The children were “adopted” into the Comanche tribe, and treated as children of the tribe, but they didn’t have similar experiences. Dot was trained as a warrior and was taken on raiding and hunting parties. He was even forced to shoot a captive Caddo on one of the raids. He always kept his eye open for an opportunity to escape the band and return to his home. 4

Banc’s life was very different. She was given by “Kerno,” the warrior who had captured her, to his childless sister, Tekwashana. That woman was overjoyed, and on the night Banc arrived there was feasting with a special treat … coffee. Tekwashana taught Banc the “women’s work” of taking down and setting up camp (the tribe moved every three or four weeks), cooking, and curing hides. She pierced Banc’s ears, often colored her hair with a tallow and charcoal mixture, and taught the child the Comanche language. When the time came that Banc was ransomed from the Comanche (for $333, which was a small fortune) by her father, Tekwashana wept and tried to take the child and flee. When she wrote her memoirs in later years, Banc would title it: “Every Day Seemed to Be a Holiday.”

Dot and Banc Babb would not see each other again for two years … until the time they were finally ransomed by their father. Unlike some young captives, who assimilated into the tribes, they were delighted to return to their father in 1867, after their years of captivity. They went on to live the normal life of any settler’s child of that time (although they both admitted they had a bit of “wanderlust” that was, perhaps, instilled during their time of captivity). Both married and had children, and both spoke sympathetically of the Comanche tribes.

Banc married Jefferson Davis Bell in 1882. He was an abstractor of land titles. They lived in many different areas of the country, but the widowed Banc spent her last five years in Denton. Here is her obituary from the Denton Record Chronicle on 14 April 1950:
Banc Babb Bell obit_1.png
Banc Babb Bell obit_2.png

Banc Babb Bell tombstone

The home where she lived in Denton is no longer standing, and Banc Babb Bell is resting in peace at the I.O.O.F. cemetery. Perhaps she still has relatives living here, but I don’t know that for certain. I can hardly wait to read her memoirs to see what she has to say about the time during which she was captured by Comanches.

Banc Babb Bell

1 T.A. Babb. In The Bosom Of The Comanches. Dallas: Worley, 1912. Open Library.org, https://archive.org/stream/inbosomofcomanch01babb#page/n7/mode/2up. p.20. 25 Mar.2014
2 T.A. Babb. In The Bosom Of The Comanches. Dallas: Worley, 1912. Open Library.org, https://archive.org/stream/inbosomofcomanch01babb#page/n7/mode/2up. p.22 25 Mar.2014
3 T.A. Babb. In The Bosom Of The Comanches. Dallas: Worley, 1912. Open Library.org, https://archive.org/stream/inbosomofcomanch01babb#page/n7/mode/2up. p. 30 25 Mar.2014
4 T.A. Babb. In The Bosom Of The Comanches. Dallas: Worley, 1912. Open Library.org, https://archive.org/stream/inbosomofcomanch01babb#page/n7/mode/2up. p. 42 25 Mar.2014