History Friday – A Deep-Dyed Villain

The tree by the Nimitz hotel’s stable gate.
He really was a black hat, this particular villain; he was known and recognized throughout the district around mid 19th century Fredericksburg and the German settlements in Gillespie County – by a fine, black beaver hat. Which was not furry, as people might tend to picture immediately, but made of felt, felt manufactured from the hair scraped from beaver pelts. This had been the fashion early in the 19th century, and made a fortune for those who sent trappers and mountain-men into the far, far west, hunting and trapping beaver. The fashion changed and the far-west fur trade collapsed, but I imagine that fine hats were still made from beaver felt. And J.P. Waldrip was so well known by his hat that he was buried with it.

There is not very much more known about him, for certain. I had to resort to making up a good few things, in making him the malevolent presence that he is in The Adelsverein Trilogy; a psychopath with odd-colored eyes, a shifty character suspected of horse-thievery and worse. I had found a couple of brief and relatively unsubstantiated references to him as a small rancher in the Hill Country before the Civil War, of no fixed and definite address. That was the frontier, the edge of the white man’s civilization. Generally the people who lived there eked out a hardscrabble existence as subsistence farmers or running small herds of near-wild cattle. There was a scattering of towns, nearly all founded by the German settlers who filled up Gillespie County after the late 1840s, and spilling over into Kendall and Kerr counties. The German settlers, as I have written elsewhere, brought their culture with them, for many were educated, with artistic tastes and sensibilities which contrasted oddly with the comparative crudity of the frontier. They were also Unionists, and abolitionists in a Confederate state when the Civil War began and strongly disinclined to either join the Confederate Army, or take loyalty oaths to a civil authority that they detested. Within a short time, those German settlers were seen as traitors, disloyal to the Southern Cause, rebellious against the rebellion. And they paid a price for that; the price was martial law imposed on the Hill Country, and the scourge of the hangerbande, the Hanging Band. The Hanging Band was a pro-Confederate lynch gang, which operated at the edges of martial law- and perhaps with encouragement of local military authorities.

J.P. Waldrip was undoubtedly one of them; in some documents he is described as a captain, but whether that was a real military rank, or a courtesy title given to someone who raised a company for some defensive or offensive purpose remains somewhat vague. None the less, he was an active leader among those who raided a string of farms along Grape Creek, shooting one man and hanging three others – all German settlers, all of them of Unionist sympathies. One man owned a fine horse herd, another was known to have money, and the other two had been involved in a land dispute with pro-Confederate neighbors. Waldrip was also recognized as being with a group of men who kidnapped Fredericksburg’s public schoolteacher, Louis Scheutze, from his own house in the middle of town and took him away into the night. He was found hanged two days later: His apparent crime was to have objected to how the authorities had handled the murders of the men from Grape Creek. It was later said bitterly, that the Hanging Band had killed more white men in the Hill Country during the Civil War than raiding Indians ever did, before, during, and afterwards.

And two years after the war ended, J.P. Waldrip appeared in Fredericksburg. No one at this date can give a reason why, when he was hated so passionately throughout the district as a murderer and a cruel and lawless man. He must have known this, known that his life might be at risk, even if the war was over. This was the frontier, where even the law-abiding and generally cultured German settlers went armed. Why did he think he might have nothing to fear? Local Fredericksburg historians that I put this question to replied that he was brazen, a bully – he might have believed that no one would dare lift a hand against hi, if he swaggered into town. Even though the Confederacy had lost the war, and Texas was under a Reconstruction government sympathetic to the formerly persecuted Unionists, perhaps he saw it as a dare, a spit in the eye? ‘Here I am – what are y’all going to do about it?’

What happened next has been a local mystery every since, although I – and the other historical enthusiasts are certain that most everyone in town at the time knew very well who killed J.P. Waldrip. He was shot dead, and fell under a tree at the edge of the Nimitz Hotel property. The tree still exists, although the details of the story vary considerably: he was seen going into the hotel and came out to smoke a quiet cigarette under the tree. No, the shooter saw him going towards the hotel stable, perhaps to steal a horse. No, he was being pursued by men of the town, after the Sherriff had passed the word that he was an outlaw and that anyone killing him would face no prosecution from the law. Waldrip was shot by a sniper from a window of the cobbler’s shop across Magazine Street – no, by another man, from the upper floor of another building, diagonally across Main Street. He was felled by a single bullet and died instantly, or lived long enough to plead ‘Please don’t shoot me any more!’

But everyone who knew the truth about who shot Waldrip, why he came back to town, how the town was roused against him and what happened afterwards – all those people took the knowledge of those matters to their own graves, save for tantalizing hints left here and there for the rest of us to find. The whole matter about who actually fired the shot was kept secret for decades; one man confessed to having done it on his deathbed, for fear of reprisals from those of Waldrip’s friends and kin who had survived the war. This was Texas, after all, where feuds and range wars went on for generations.

So James P. Waldrip was buried with his hat; first in a temporary grave – not in the town cemetery as would have been proper – and then moved to a secret and ignominious grave on private property. The story is that this was done so that none of his many enemies might be tempted to desecrate it, but I think rather it was to make his ostracism plain and unmistakable, in the community which he and his gang had persecuted.

5 thoughts on “History Friday – A Deep-Dyed Villain”

  1. Well, when you began making a list of those who had a motive to kill – there was a good half the town or more. Means – a chicken in every pot, and a side arm or a long gun by the door. Opportunity – everyone in town on that day. I’m betting it took place in front of lots of people, every one of whom didn’t see a thing.

  2. When I read this Sgt Mom another story came to mind – and for the life of me I can’t remember all the circumstances – but a local bully – terrorized most of this small town – within the last 30 years – in Missouri? But he ended up dead too – as Cris said, he needed killin’.

    It sounds like that area of TX was as bad as the Kansas & Missouri wars – within – the war.

    Terrible times, those were.

  3. That was the same on which came to my mind, too, Bill. Small town, violent bully – shot by unknown person right in the middle of the street with a good few people around who never saw a thing, and said so to investigators afterwards.

    (Later – Found it; notorious story at the time – Ken McElroy, in a little town called Skidmore.)

  4. Sgt – your research skills are first rate! That is the guy I am sure.

    And nobody knew nuthin ;-)

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