Theft of Governor’s Pants – March Mischief – Police Calls

“Officer Sendry reports that someone entered Gov. Ireland’s room last night and stole a pair of pants and one dollar in the pockets.” — 17 MAR 1885. Austin Police Calls.

Gov. John Ireland

Gov. John Ireland

The above incident is the perfect metaphor for Austin in the spring of 1885 — a time when it was possible for someone to sneak into the Governor’s Mansion, enter his bedroom and steal his pants away in the middle of the night, never to be caught, probably careening around in them during the next night’s inebriated antics.

When spring arrived in Austin in 1885, an unprecedented crime wave arrived with it.

It’s hard to sort out precisely why that was the case; maybe it was the weather, March is perhaps the nicest month of the year in Austin, before the summer heat and humidity sets in; everyone feels like getting outside. Maybe it was the fact that the city’s dozens of saloons stayed upon 24 hours a day, pouring alcohol without let or hindrance into the mouths of rowdy all-night patrons who would afterwards set out into the streets to fuss and fight and commit acts of uninhibited debauchery for which they would not be held to account unless they were caught by one of the city’s police officers, who were few and far between. Whatever the reason, the March nights of 1885 were filled with an unprecedented amount of general mischief and mayhem.

The police kept track of reports of crimes and other matters in the Police Calls ledger in which the officer on duty would enter a brief description of the incident. Nowadays the ledger (available for perusal at the Austin History Center) makes for some interesting reading with its colorful archaic language and terminology. While there are a descriptions of a number of very serious crimes, there are also some somewhat farcical incidents as well as descriptions of some of the more mundane duties required of Austin police officers.

Police Calls MAR 17 1885

Police Calls 1885 Volume, AR.P.01, Laws Collection, Austin History Center, Austin Public Library

The above page from March 17th is fairly typical for the time.

Animals, mostly horses, dogs, cows and pigs found their way into police reports on a daily basis. There are three incidents involving horses on the above page alone. The first entry noted the loss of a black pacing pony with saddle bridle and harness on; a gray mare on was reported dead on Orange Street; and finally the report “that someone put a horse in Hollingsworth’s office last night.”

Stray horses were often found roaming the city at night and would be put in an available stable or livery by the police. In this instance, Benjamin Hollingsworth was a clerk in the state Comptroller’s department; the horse put into his office was likely an act of mischief.

Dogs created their share of problems for the police; uncontrolled vicious dogs were a frequent problem in the city and were a danger to pedestrians. They were frequently shot by the police. The entry: “Officer Boyer reports that he killed a proud slut at the station house” — “proud slut” being an archaic term for a female canine “in heat” that was frequently used in police reports.

Police also had to deal with accumulations of trash, dead animals, doors left open, streetlights “out of fix”, holes in bridges and other hazards to traffic or pedestrians. The “gutters” referred to in the ledger were the trenches at the edge of the streets were refuse and waste would accumulate. If not regularly flushed out, the stench of garbage and animal droppings would quickly become overwhelming. The city’s waterworks and sewer were only a few years old at that point. The officer on duty would open the hydrants, and if there was enough water, wash everything away before the next day’s accumulation started.

The Great Bat Slaughter of 1885

Bats 1885Austin, Texas is the seasonal home to a large population of Mexican free-tailed bats who spend their summers under the Congress Avenue bridge on the edge of downtown.  According to Wikipedia it is the largest urban colony in North America, with an estimated 1.5 million bats.

The Congress Avenue bat colony is a popular tourist attraction and bat aficionados line the bridge on summer evenings to witness the impressive display as the colony departs into the skies over Austin at dusk.

By contrast, in the 1880s the presence of bats in Austin was not met with the same enthusiasm.  As the city grew in the late 19th century, the area bat population increasingly sought refuge in the urban setting, frequently roosting in downtown buildings, barns and homes.  Austinites regarded them as household pests, straying from attics into dining rooms and disturbing suppers.

In March 1885, William Frank “Doc” Carver, better known as Dr. Carver, a former dentist,  hunting guide, and self-styled frontiersman, was making his way across Texas starring in a touring shooting exhibition that showcased his renowned marksmanship skills to large and enthusiastic crowds, sometimes with local challengers, shooting contests and wagering.

Dr. Carver had started his career as an exhibition marksman in the late 1870s; he briefly teamed up with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show but by 1885 he and Bill Cody had parted ways and Carver was touring with his own show company.

Dr. William Frank Carver 1883

Dr. William Frank Carver 1883

For the highlight of his show in Austin, Carver had announced that he would shoot 1000 bats in 80 minutes. A large crowd attended the show at the Capital State Fairgrounds (located in what is now Hyde Park).  The Statesman described Carver’s show, the targets and techniques, some of which were provided by the crowd and kept as souvenirs.  After an afternoon of shooting of targets, “the real fun of the occasion — the shooting of the bats” commenced.  The roosting location of the bats is not named but it was possibly the fairground pavilion, which evidently must have housed enormous numbers of bats in the immediate vicinity. (see diagram below)

As the bats took to the sky at dusk, Carver used a repeating shotgun to lay waste to the bats.  The Statesman reported “it fairly seemed to rain bats, but the slaughter never ceased.”  Dr. Carver successfully killed 1000 bats in 78 minutes.  The Statesman praised Carver’s accuracy and “powers of endurance that few men possess.”

Bat Face Illustration North American Fauna No. 18. 1897.Ironically, after the smoke cleared Dr. Carver suffered the indignity of being fined for bat hunting without a license.  The fine was levied by Justice of the Peace Von Rosenberg, who perhaps prefigured Austin’s contemporary bat conservationists or more likely saw the opportunity to add a few extra dollars to the city coffers.  The Statesman subsequently defended Carver with the opinion that “it ought not to require any license for the extermination of the winged nuisances” and that “the next legislature should provide a bounty for their destruction”.

In spite of Dr. Carver’s onslaught, Austin’s bats remained and thrived.  Dr. Carver’s shooting exhibitions toured the world the world for the next decade.

Capital Fair Grounds 1882

Capital Fair Grounds 1882

Source:

Austin Daily Statesman. 31 Mar 1885.

http://codyarchive.org/memorabilia/wfc.prog.1883.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Frank_Carver

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mexican_free-tailed_bat