The story behind A Question of Madness
The short story “A Question of Madness” springs from a passage in Letters from an Early Settler of Texas, by William Bluford DeWees. He wrote:
A great many very interesting circumstances took place during my stay in Nacogdoches, one of which was of painful interest. A gentleman who had been into Mexico on a traveling expedition came into the place and presented himself to the Commandant, telling him that he deserved death and desired he should hang him. The Commandant, believing the man deranged, commenced interrogating him, asking why he wished to be hung. He replied that he had been into Mexico with his partner trading, and on his return he had murdered his companion, taken his money, and sunk his body in the Angelina river, about twenty miles distant. The Commandant told him to go away and not trouble him, he was certainly crazy and would not listen to him. He still insisted that he would not leave – that he should be executed; he did not wish to commit suicide, nor yet to live, and if the Commandant still disbelieved him if he would send some men with him he would show them where he sunk his comrade. To this the Commandant agreed! Some five or six persons accompanied him to the place, where they found the body as he had said they would. Upon their return, the Commandant called a few persons together to witness the solemn scene; took the man out behind the old stone building, and there, according to the man’s request, hung him upon a tree till he was dead. (1)
DeWees was one of the early settlers in Stephen’s Austin’s colony in Texas. His book claimed to be a series of his letters written to a Kentucky resident named Cara Cardelle between 1819 and 1852. In fact it was a volume of his dictated reminiscences, actually written by Emmaretta Kimball, who was born in 1829. The accuracy of this particular reminiscence, which is said to have happened in 1821, is thus questionable. I was unable to find any separate reference to corroborate the incident. Still, I thought it was a striking story so set out imagining how it might have happened.
The “Commandant” of Nacogdoches at the time was James Dill (c. 1766–1825), a native of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, who appears briefly as a character in Napoleon in America. He was the first Anglo-American to be elected alcalde for the Nacogdoches ayuntamiento (town council). There was opposition to Dill’s election, on account of his illiteracy. In 1823 he was removed by a group that included his son-in-law Joseph Durst, Juan Seguín (who became the new alcalde) and José Mariano Sanches, among others. Dill had a constituency among local Anglo-Americans, however. In early 1824 a petition bearing 114 signatures was sent to the Texas governor, requesting his reinstatement. (2)
The great irony, given DeWees’s anecdote, is that on May 18, 1825 Dill shot and killed a man named Charles Duboys or Dubois. In the subsequent trial, a twelve-man jury found Dill not guilty, being “perfectly justified in taking the life of sd. Dubois.” (3) The governor reversed this verdict, on the grounds that Mexican law did not authorize trial by jury. He ordered Dill rearrested. Rather than face another trial, Dill fled to Natchitoches, in Louisiana, in June 1825. On November 21 of that year, he died as a result of falling from a horse.
- W.B. DeWees, Letters from an Early Settler of Texas (Louisville, KY, 1852), pp. 21-22.
- Lester G. Bugbee, The Texas Frontier, 1820-1825 (Harrisburg, PA, 1900), p. 110.
- Jack Jackson, Indian Agent Peter Ellis Bean in Mexican Texas (College Station, TX, 2005), p. 31.
A gentleman who had been into Mexico on a traveling expedition came into the place and presented himself to the Commandant, telling him that he deserved death and desired he should hang him.
William Bluford DeWees