This gal cain’t keep her mouth shut!

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 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, p.20. 25 Mar.2014
2 T.A. Babb. In The Bosom Of The Comanches. Dallas: Worley, 1912. Open, p.22 25 Mar.2014
3 T.A. Babb. In The Bosom Of The Comanches. Dallas: Worley, 1912. Open, p. 30 25 Mar.2014
4 T.A. Babb. In The Bosom Of The Comanches. Dallas: Worley, 1912. Open, p. 42 25 Mar.2014

The Case of The Missing Co-Ed

She stepped off the train in Denton, Texas on Tuesday, June 1, 1948, after a six hour trip from her home in Texarkana, wearing a striped chambray dress, red platform shoes (with a matching red bag), and a white hat perched on her head. Virginia Carpenter was twenty-one years old. The 5’3 young lady had long brown hair, brown eyes, and a lovely smile. She took a cab from the train station to Brackenridge Hall, which would be her dormitory, at Texas State College for Women (now Texas Woman’s University). She planned to take summer classes for her future career as either a nurse or a lab technician.

Pictures courtesy of The Charley Project

She didn’t get a chance to be either. Virginia disappeared that night without a trace.

Edgar Ray “Jack” Zachary was the taxicab driver that night. The Denton Record Chronicle1 reported that his story was this:

He took the girl to the front of the dormitory where a yellow convertible with two boys standing by it was parked. As he took her luggage from the car, the cab driver said he heard the girl say to the boys, “Well, what you all doing over here?” Continuing, the driver said the girl then told him to put the luggage down, that “they” (the boys) would take it in. He said he put the bags down, collected his fare, and left her talking to the two boys.”

The cabby drove away and, other than those two unknown men that Virginia approached, he was the last person to ever see her. Virginia seemed to vanish from the face of the earth.

Three days later, she was finally reported missing. Her luggage had been on the porch all that time, and she never checked into her dorm (which stood where the Student Union Building now is located). There seemed to be no leads.

The two main suspects in the case were Virginia’s boyfriend (who passed a polygraph test after hours of grilling) and the cab driver (who passed seven polygraph tests). Leads came pouring in as the reward for information leading to finding Virginia climbed. None of those clues panned out.

Students at the college were understandably terrified. They wondered if her body was floating in the lake, or if her body was under the foundation of Hubbard Hall (the concrete for which was poured the day after she went missing), or if she had been sold as a “sex slave.” Local police and sheriff’s, The Texas Rangers, and even the FBI kept searching for answers to no avail.

In June of 1949 (a year later), a fisherman at Lake Dallas reported he pulled up what he believed was human hair on his hook.2 It turned out to be a “red herring,” so to speak. Search of the lake was futile. In 1960, when a box of bones from a female was found on a farm near Jefferson (50 miles west of where Virginia lived), it renewed interest in the case. Once again, those bones weren’t related to Virginia’s case.3

There was some speculation that Virginia’s case was in some way related to The Phantom Killer, who murdered five young people on Lover’s Lane in Texarkana in 1946. The Phantom Killer is another unsolved case, but Virginia knew three of the five victims. Again, it led investigators nowhere.

In 1955, the “Seven Year Law” prevailed.4 Virginia Carpenter, after seven years of being missing, was pronounced legally dead. But, her widowed mother, grieving for her only child, held out hope that she was simply a victim of amnesia. She didn’t stop searching for her child until the day she died.

The Charley Project reports that in 1998, “authorities received a tip that two men had raped and killed Carpenter shortly after her disappearance and buried her body in a dam at a stock tank near the Texas Woman’s University campus. The suspects were both deceased by 1998 and were not publicly identified. Authorities searched the dam after receiving the information, but uncovered no evidence.”

Each anniversary of her death, the Denton Record-Chronicle wrote about Virginia. In 1997, Donna Fielder, a crime reporter (now-retired) for the newspaper, got the opportunity to interview Ranger Lewis Rigler, who worked that case for most of his lengthy career. The Virginia Carpenter case was one that never left his mind, even though he had retired thirty years previously.

“I always hoped someday she’d call and say `Mr. Rigler, this is Virginia Carpenter. I just wanted you to know I’m all right,” the 83-year-old Ranger said.
“By God, I’d like that to happen before I die.”5

Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. To this day, the case remains unsolved. If you have information that might be helpful, please contact the Denton County Sheriff’s Office. Although her mother passed in 1980, Virginia still has cousins who would like to know the truth. While it’s doubtful that her case will ever be solved, Virginia Carpenter should never be forgotten.

1Denton Record-Chronicle, June 1, 1950. p.2.
2Denton Record-Chronicle, June 5, 1949. p.13.
3Denton Record-Chronicle, January 17, 1960. p.1.
4Denton Record-Chronicle, June 9, 1955. p.1
5Denton Record-Chronicle, August 3, 1997.

Harry Houdini — The Most Sensational Entertainment Ever Offered in Denton.

HarryHoudini1899 I knew that the great magician, Harry Houdini (born in 1874 as Erik Weisz, in Hungary), had been featured at the State Fair of Texas in 1924. According to Bartee Haile, Texas was a regular stop in Houdini’s travels. However, I was delightfully surprised to find, when I opened my very own copy of C. A. Bridges’ History of Denton, Texas, from Its Beginning to 1960, that Houdini was a prominent visitor to Denton in the 1920s. Who would have thought that this tiny town could attract “The Master Wizard of Magic?” The population back then was less than 8,000 and probably most of those could barely make ends meet.

Unfortunately, Mr. Bridges did no more than mention Houdini’s name. Searching on-line, I couldn’t find any record of Denton associated with Houdini. In frustration, I decided I had to go to the library and browse through back issues of the newspaper. That could take forever. I mentioned his visit to my friend, Laura Douglas (who is a Super-Hero Librarian at the Emily Fowler Public Library). Before I could gather my notebooks and head out to the library, she had found the information I sought!

I know you can’t read this advertisement at this size, so click it to enlarge it. It was in the Denton Record Chronicle on October 15th, 1924 to promote Houdini’s performance at the “C.I.A. Auditorium.” “C.I.A.” didn’t stand for “Central Intelligence Agency,” but for “College of Industrial Arts.” However, I suppose you could say that was an “Intelligence Agency.” The C.I.A. later became Texas Woman’s University.

Houdini advertisement. 1924 Denton Record Chronicle

“The Most Sensational Entertainment Ever Offered in Denton?” Well, it better have been, with ticket prices ranging from 75₵ to $1.50. That was pretty doggone pricey in those days. During that time period, you could take $1.50 and feed your family! Think about this for a minute: You could have bought a loaf of bread (10₵), a dozen eggs (47₵), a pound of coffee (57₵), and a pound of cheese (38₵) and still had 8₵ left over. Add 2₵ and you could go to a moving picture show! If you planned to take the spouse and all four kids to see Houdini, and sit in premium seats, you were looking to spend the week’s grocery money.

Still, the evening was well attended, according to an article on October 18th, 1924. Laura sent me that, as well, but the print is unreadable on-line. I transcribed it for you just as it was written. Please keep in mind that the run-on sentences and atrocious grammar are not mine … at least not what is in the quote block.

Denton Record-Chronicle. Saturday. October 18, 1924

Houdini, noted magician and mystifier, entertained a large crowd in the College of Industrial Arts auditorium Friday evening with legerdemain and a lecture-demonstration in exposing what he termed the “hokus pokus” of so-called spiritualistic mediums.

He opened his program, with a short lecture in which he stated that he did not say there is not such a thing as spiritualism, but declared that in 30 years of investigation and association with some of the greatest mediums of the world he had never been convinced that the dead could be communicated with. Every demonstration he had seen given by mediums, among them the most noted the world has over seen, he has solved, he said, convincing him they were fakes.

He gave demonstrations to show how trick tables were used by the mediums and other devices of deception that had been employed to bewilder even men of broad education and experience. These demonstrations were given with A. O. Calhoun, Dr. P. Lipscomb, and Theron J. Fouts on the stage for several, and T. P. Cobb for one.

In one demonstration he sat on one side of a table with Dr. Lipscomb on the other, with Lipscomb holding both his hands and with his feet on Houdini’s feet, in which Houdini rang a bell and used other noise-making devices which were on the floor. This was by the simple process of slipping one foot out of his shoe and manipulating the noise instruments with his toes. He explained that all the seances are held in dark rooms.

He also produced writing on slates and told how the paraffin hands, of which much has been said in spiritualistic circles recently, were made.

In the early days, Houdini was a “professional medium,” he explained, and gave several instances of some of his “revelations,” pointing out how information was secured and other preparations made for the demonstrations. One notable instance was a demonstration he gave on board a ship in which the late Theodore Roosevelt was mystified. He explained how he secured advance information in order to answer a question Roosevelt asked, and how by the use of carbon paper he secured a copy of the question.

He branded mediums as fakes and declared that all of the seance demonstrations were “hokus pokus,” those taking part being divided into two classes — the deluder and the deluded. A great many persons are honest in their belief that communication with the dead has been established, however, he admitted.

One of his most mystifying legerdemain demonstrations was the threading of four packages of needles in his mouth, first placing the needles in his mouth and then a long strand of thread, pulling out the thread which had been run through the eyes of the needles. This was done in the presence of the committee of Denton citizens.

The feat which drew the greatest applause, however, was in extricating himself from a regulation strait jacket, which was carefully strapped on him by Sheriff W. M. Swinney and S. R. Taylor. This is one of the feats which first brought fame to Houdini.

Two moving picture films were shown, one of which depicted Houdini freeing himself from a strait jacket while suspended by his feet from the cornice of the city hall in St. Louis, and the other showed him jumping from one airplane to another in midair for a movie stunt and the collision of the two planes shortly afterward.

At the close of the performance Houdini invited questions regarding spiritualism, several of which were asked and answered.

I have some journalist friends who will cringe reading that article. I don’t know, because I wasn’t around back then, but it sounds like the show was a bit of snoozer. I’m not sure I would have wanted to spend my $1.50 to see a self-important, middle-aged man cavorting around a stage in his underwear and spouting off with long-winded speeches.

Ramone Novarro and Alice Terry in The Arab 1924Instead, I would have bought that coffee (57₵), a pound of bacon (47₵), and treated myself to a showing of “The Arab” over at the Dreamland Theater (one of the theaters on Elm Street, which was showing that flick the next week). It featured the Mexican heartthrob Ramone Novarro (be still, my heart) and Alice Terry. Although I am sure it was melodramatic, it would have been much more enjoyable to me than Houdini.

Still, I’m sure that an appearance by Harry Houdini was the talk of the town in 1924, which makes it surprising to me that these days few people know of it. I’m just thankful that Laura found the newspaper articles, because even Mike Cochran, a local historian who loves collecting quirky information like this, had not heard of Houdini’s visit.

Harry Houdini was in Denton in 1924, and he escaped with $1,000 for his “sensational” performance. That was the best magic trick of the evening.