Tiny, today, but not always such a small part of East Texas. Because this used to be a place where commerce was King.
Jefferson was a busy riverport town. It was the jewel of the Big Cypress River, the "Riverport to the Southwest." It boomed, and boomed big, back in the heyday of the riverboat. From 1845, when Big Cypress Bayou was cleared for boats -- to 1873, when the Red River Raft was destroyed by the Army Corps of Engineers, Jefferson was the place to be. But some say the town was cursed, and is just now waking from a 125 year slumber.
One of those places is the historic Excelsior House Hotel.
This two story white hotel on West Austin has been in constant operation since the 1850s. Its historic register includes entries from guests such as Rutherford B. Hayes, Ulysses S. Grant, and Lady Bird Johnson. It also counts among its previous guests one Roscoe Conklin, a grand orator, and the author Oscar Wilde. It is yet another entry into that register, though, that the curse is attributed.
Back in 1874, railroad magnate Jay Gould made the city of Jefferson an offer -- he wanted to put a hub for his new railroad empire right in town. He wanted to run a rail line down the town's busiest street, but Jefferson was having none of that. Gould was incensed, and declared that grass would grow in the streets and bats would roost in the belfries. He took his idea to another town, and departed. In the register for the Excelsior House, Gould reportedly wrote "The end of Jefferson!" Whether or not it's his mark is a subject for debate -- but the decline in water levels in Big Cypress ended the steamboat boom, and the ensuing ebb of population out of town made Gould's curse seem plausible.
But Jefferson may have the last laugh on Jay Gould -- for many reasons.
Today, you can tour Jay Gould's Atalanta by going to the Excelsior House Hotel. Tours run several times a day, a dollar for adults and half a buck for kids. For more information, call (903)665-2513.
Gould's offer, refusal, and prognostication weren't the only big news of the 1870s in Jefferson. Another incident shaped the face of the town and the legal world as well.
In January of 1877, a "Mr. & Mrs. A. Moore" of Cleveland, OH checked in to the Excelsior. Over two days, they were seen about town, eating and walking and arguing. He called her Bessie (among other things too awful to print) and the locals made note of her diamonds and jewels. Diamond Bessie quickly became the talk of the town.
The two were last seen crossing a bridge together, picnic basket in hand, on January 21st of that year. The man returned later by himself.
His name was Abraham Rothschild. He was the son of jewelers and the black sheep of the family. He kept company with women of less than eminent stature, and ended up with Bessie after a sojourn in Hot Springs, Arkansas.
Rothschild was seen about town for a few days, and some say he was wearing some of Bessie's diamonds. He swore she'd gone to visit relatives -- and then left town with all of their luggage on an eastbound train.
On February 5th, a young woman ran into town to report a well-dressed corpse amidst the remnants of a picnic. Diamond Bessie was found with a gunshot wound to the head and no diamonds to be found.
A search ensued. A hotel clerk in Marshall reported that a similar couple had registered under the Rothschild name, and a warrant was issued. Shortly before Rothschild was apprehended in Cincinnati, he attempted suicide, but was only successful in putting out his right eye. He was brought back to Jefferson for trial.
The case went to trial in December 1878 in Marshall. Rothschild shared a cell there with Jim Currie, a railroad employee who had shot two actors, killing one. The wounded victim was actor Maurice Barrymore.
The trial ended in a conviction -- in a rage of emotion so strong that the jury foreman reportedly drew a noose on the wall and hollered "that's my verdict!" But an appeals court threw the verdict out.
The Diamond Bessie Murder Trial is performed each year at the Jefferson Playhouse. And the procedural defense of double jeopardy would have prevented a second trial in later years.
Much of the grandeur, too, as evidenced by the hotel's grand ballroom and dining room. Each room is decorated in fine French chandeliers and gorgeous Oriental rugs. These rooms have hosted some of Jefferson's most hoity-toity goings-on over the past 160 or so years, and they are still in fine condition.
Receptions, galas, and special dinners are held here throughout the year. And each morning, a Plantation breakfast is served up to guests. It's a gorgeous place to dine.
But in better weather, the courtyard has its own allure.
You can still stay at the Excelsior House Hotel in Jefferson. It's going strong. And the community Jay Gould once said was doomed has come back to make the town a historic destination in East Texas. The town's population stands around 2200, and there are more than 60 lodging choices for visitors. There are several museums, neat places to shop like the Jefferson General Store and Old Fashion Soda Fountain, a good
You can check out the Excelsior House Hotel by calling (800) 490-7270 or checking out the hotel's website.
UPDATE 9-13-17. The Excelsior House is still in operation, and you can still visit Jay Gould's railroad car. Visit the Jefferson, Texas website for more of what to do in this great little town.
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