Jefferson, Texas may only have about 2,000 people living in it now, but it was one the most important cities in the Lone Star State in the mid-19th Century. Some claim that 30,000 people lived there when the river port hit its peak. When the railroads came in, Jefferson's economy cratered, but its glorious past lives on in the dozens of restored Greek Revival and Victorian mansions gracing the town's magnolia-shaded streets, many if not most of them converted into bed and breakfasts. (The age of the place gives it a spooky feel -- it's a hotbed of paranormal activity, according to people who are into that sort of thing.)
You can also get a sense of the town's erstwhile importance in Oakwood Cemetery, where the town's wealthy merchants spared no expense in interring their loved ones beneath ornate grieving stone angels.
Once a year, Jeffersonians host a twilight stroll through Oakwood and they give it an interesting twist. Locals dress in period costume and stand by the headstones and portray the real people six feet under their feet.
This year's cast of revivified characters includes a local lumber tycoon (portrayed by a descendant), an African-American woman who escaped slavery, a shipwreck victim, pioneering country music superstar Vernon Dalhart, and Diamond Bessie, (pictured above at her gravside) whose story deserves further elaboration.
On a snowy day in 1877, not far from Jefferson's once-teeming bayou-front Turning Basin, a woman walking in the woods found the partially decomposed body of Diamond Bessie, a gorgeous but troubled prostitute who remains to this day one of this spooky town’s spirit totems.
It’s a Dixie riverport version of Deadwood: The 23-year-old raven-haired, blue-eyed knockout arrived in Jefferson on January 18, draped in diamonds and on the arm of Abe Rothschild, the drink-sodden black sheep son of a Cincinnati jeweler. The two may or may not have been married, but they passed themselves off as man and wife when they checked into the town’s Brooks House hotel. (What’s more certain is that Rothschild had long been subsidizing his many vices by pimping out Bessie, and that he coveted the diamonds given to her by his predecessors in her bed.)
A couple of days after checking into the Brooks House, the two were seen walking toward the woods south of town with a picnic basket. A few hours later, Rothschild returned alone and wearing Bessie’s diamond rings. That got townsfolk to talking, so Rothschild caught the first thing smoking out of town and was back in Ohio when Bessie’s body was found, a gunshot wound in her temple.
Because of the killer’s wealthy background and his victim’s beauty, not to mention the illicit sex that pervaded the case, Rothschild’s trial was a national sensation. His father swallowed his shame and hired young Abe a dream team of no fewer than ten attorneys. Even so, Rothschild was convicted, but the verdict was thrown out on appeal and Rothschild was acquitted at his second trial. (Somewhere along the way, he was a cellmate with a guy who non-fatally stabbed famed actor Maurice Barrymore.) Rothschild returned to Cincinnati and his dissolute ways.
In today’s Jefferson, Diamond Bessie paraphernalia is all over town. Not only does she come back to life to confront her killer graveside each year, but the townsfolk also annually pack the courtroom to reenact the highlights of Rothschild's murder trial.
Saturday, April 20, 2013, from 5 to 7 pm (tours depart every 15 minutes) at Old Oakwood Cemetery at 607 N. Alley Street, Jefferson, Texas.
Suggested donation: $10 per person, to support the preservation and maintenance of Jefferson cemeteries.
Call 903.665.3733 for more information. Rain date: Sunday, April 21, from 5 pm to 7 pm.