Monday, July 25, 2011

Billy the Kid was in the closet

I recently visited Helena Modjeska's home at Arden. (If you haven't driven out to see it, please do. It's now one of Orange County's Historic Parks, and definitely worth scheduling a tour.) One of many curious things that caught my attention was a closet where most of the wallpaper had come off, revealing old newspapers underneath! Hardly anything is as historically interesting as old newspapers, but it's damned near impossible to read them upside-down and backwards in a dark closet. With that in mind, I asked for permission to photograph some of the closet walls so I could decipher them later. Today's images both come from that set of photos.

The first one, above, was easy. One article begins "Las Vegas, N.M. -- The Gazette has positive... ...ion that Billy the Kid, the notorious murderer and outlaw who for several years has been the terror of New Mexico cattle men, was on... inst. killed by Pat Garrett ...[Sheriff] of Lincoln county. Garrett... been on his trail for some... overhauled him... [Fort] Sumner and shot... was a native of... his real name..." (The ellipses indicate physically missing portions of the article.)

Garrett shot Billy the Kid on July 14, 1881. So the paper was probably printed shortly after that date. The reference to the Gazette makes me wonder if this was a copy of the Anaheim Gazette, which seems likely. Someday I should check it against the microfilm at the Anaheim History Room.

In any case, this scrap of newspaper also included the following gem: "A contemporary commenting on 'Clara Belle's' the fashion writer's statement that 'during the coming season ladies will wear nothing but longitudinally striped hose,' observes, 'The printer must have overlooked her copy describing her other apparel.'"

But most interestingly of all, this 1881 newspaper pre-dates Modjeska moving into and expanding the house. These papers were most likely put in place by "Judge" Joseph Edward Pleasants, who had owned the property previously.

This will be blasphemy to some, but I personally find Judge Pleasants a more interesting local historical figure than Modjeska. A true Orange County pioneer, he moved to the Santa Ana Mountains a few years after his first visit to the area in 1859 and he never left. As well as being one of the first white settlers in that area, he became the foreman for William Wolfskill's ranch, conducted the first recorded bear hunt in Orange County, helped found the first Orange County Fair Association, judged horse races (hence his honorific), kept bees, and was one of the first members of the Orange County Historical Society. Much, much more can be said about Pleasants, but that's a whole 'nuther post.
This second newspaper remnant proved to have a bit less wow factor, but was fun to puzzle out anyway. First, I found a reference to U.S. Senate Sergeant at Arms Richard J. Bright, who served in that position from 1879 to 1883. Another article mentioned that the U.S. Census was running out of money, so that put it around 1880. But the article about James B. Doyle being sentenced to ten years in prison for bond forgery pinned down the date to late June or early July of 1881.

It will be interesting, as I go through the rest of these papers, to see if all of them are from Summer 1881 or not, and whether they contain any local news. If I find other cool stuff in Madame Modjeska's closet, I'll let you know.


Chris Jepsen said...

In the words of Milton Berle, "Come on folks. I know you're out there. I can hear you breathing."

Anonymous said...

Great article, get with it and follow-up with articles on 'the judge'

Major Pepperidge said...

Strange... were the newspapers there as added insulation? I've seen photos from the Great Depression of homes with unfolded cereal boxes lining the walls, maybe to keep the cold wind out.

Cool that Billy the Kid is mentioned, since that photo of him just sold for over $2 million!!

Anonymous said...

That is very neat and a great example of how people who bother to look and pay attention can find real history all around them. Even behind the walls of their house!

Great post Chris!

- An HB kid in exile on the east coast