Jefferson, Texas, has more than 100 historically important structures. That they have all survived is amazing. The closest large town to Jefferson is Shreveport, and Jefferson is far more like it than Waco. In fact, being there is like being near a bayou in southern Louisiana. The day before Ruth & I arrived, there was a Mardi Gras parade.
Jay Gould predicted that Jefferson would fade away, and he was partially right. The population has dropped from 30,000 to about 2,000, and my impression is that its citizens are far more interested in the past than the future. This attitude has led to painstaking preservation and lots of nostalgic stories.
There were few tourists in town when Ruth & I were there, but it admittedly was off-season. The locals we ran into loved to tell tales about the past, and there’s a clear Jeffersonian fixation on ghosts. For example, we had been in town less than an hour when we heard the tale of Diamond Bessie and Abraham Rothschild. He murdered her and the trial was a precedent-setting sensation. Abraham reportedly paid each juror $1,000 and was let go. Bessie, it is believed by many, continues to haunt the Excelsior House Hotel, and a play about the trial, which affected national laws regarding jury sequestration and double jeopardy, is done annually. Over its 60+ year run, it has weirdly morphed from a drama into a comedy called the Diamond Bessie Murder Trial.
We went from Gould’s train car to the Excelsior, where unlike Steven Spielberg, Ruth & I encountered zero ghosts. I judged the Spielberg story dubious at best. Then we browsed the Jefferson Historical Museum, which is in an old, well-preserved government building. It’s one of those old-style museums that would benefit from storing 90% of what’s on display and focusing on the 10% that holds genuine interest and causes TripAdvisor to be a fan. Among its guns, dolls, and Caddo arrowheads, are some historic Sam Houston papers, a lamp that supposedly belong to Annie Oakley, and a box made from a tree that, its sign says, grew in Shakespeare’s yard.
Angry Jay Gould probably never went back to Jefferson, but I think it’s worth returning to. I’d like to see its still-in-use Carnegie Library, take a boat ride on Big Cypress Bayou, see the recommended Museum of Time and Measurement that has limited hours not posted on its website, etc. Perhaps I’ll have an encounter with the ghost of one of the passengers from the Mittie Stephens, a steamboat that burned on Caddo Lake near Jefferson in 1869 with great loss of life. If I don’t, I can create my own hair-raising tale.