Dennis McCown spent 16 years tracking the story of Helen Beulah Mrose. He searched from Mason County west across Texas to El Paso, south into Mexico and north to Sacramento, Calif. He conducted interviews with a “crazy woman,” a deaf man, cemetery caretakers and a big cowboy with a bad German accent. He negotiated the sticky field of outlaw-lawman history, following connections with John Wesley Hardin, George Scarborough and John Selman. All this tracking and tracing, researching and writing resulted in as complete a biography of one of the West’s great female characters as might ever be possible. The Goddess of War: A True Story of Passion, Betrayal and Murder in the Old West (Sunstone Press, 2013) is an important contribution to Western literature. McCown recently discussed his research methods and book with Wild West.
What drew you to Helen Beulah’s tale?
It wasn’t Helen that drew me to the story. It was Laura Jennings, her daughter. I knew Laura’s traumatic childhood soured the rest of her life. As research progressed, I found other women from the Wild West with conflicted lives and wonderful, strong characters: Annie Williams, John Wesley Hardin’s landlady at the Herndon House, who was unafraid to stand up to him; Rae Wilmarth Lee, rejected by her father because she was pregnant and wouldn’t re-turn to her husband; Annie Londonderry, a Polish Jew from Boston who broke all sorts of conventions to bicycle around the world in bloomers; and Carolyn Baze, who lived her life ostracizing anyone who dared talk about her youthful marriage to Hardin. In each case the scandals these women incurred echoed into the lives of their children and grandchildren. In Helen’s case she had many chances to get her life on track, and she squandered every opportunity. For me the tragedy of her story took a couple of years’ research before I decided she was going to be the main figure.
What about John Wesley Hardin?
I resisted every effort from friends and prospective publishers to make him the central figure, and in the end Helen’s story became my focus, though it hadn’t started out that way.
How hard was it to find out where Helen Williams met killer turned outlaw Hardin?
It was awfully hard. I knew that Helen Jennings (neé Williams) in central Texas was Helen Beulah Mrose in faraway El Paso. The family legends I heard at Thanksgiving dinners, summer barbecues along the Blanco River or over the hoods of F-250 trucks while waiting for cattle auctions to begin were clear: John Wesley Hardin had stolen Helen from her husband in Mason County. For at least a year that looked plausible, for Hardin was in and near Mason County in December 1894. The conundrum was, however, that Helen was already living in New Mexico Territory before Hardin arrived in Mason. I had a hard time reconciling this to the idea Hardin had stolen her, but in the end, after dozens of interviews and hundreds of letters, I realized that having a runaway wife was embarrassing, but having her run away with someone famous was less so. That’s when I reevaluated what I was being told. I wasn’t being lied to in interviews; it was what the family wanted to believe.
You sorted out the facts from the myths?
With great difficulty. To give you an example: Both Leon Metz and Dr. Richard Marohn, in their biographies of John Wesley Hardin, stated that Helen Beulah had a son. I knew it wasn’t true, but every mention of Beulah since the mid-1950s claimed it was a boy. I knew this was based on the photograph “Mrs. McRose and Kid,” in which a tired and worn Helen posed with daughter Laura, with shorn hair and wearing a Little Lord Fauntleroy suit….As I began work on this, I learned that a number of competent researchers and a bunch of hacks had settled on “Albert Mroz” (M-r-o-z being the accepted spelling at the time) as Martin’s son, and he probably could be found in Arizona or California. In fact, one prominent collector told me he had interviewed Albert Mroz in Phoenix in the 1970s, and Albert had shown him a family album filled with Hardin memorabilia and photos. I pressed hard for Albert’s phone and address, which I couldn’t get out of him. I drove out to Phoenix twice and wrote a hundred letters. It was a bogus claim. In the end I became satisfied the idea Helen’s child was a boy originated with C.L. Sonnichsen in El Paso, who concluded that from the photo. Robert Mullin, however, also researching during the 1950s, was convinced it was a girl.
By this time I had historical proof the child was a girl, [most notably] an original of the photo, inscribed on the back “Aunt Hellen [sic] and Laura Jennings,” which had passed through the Williams family via Helen’s brother, David Alonso Williams. The importance of this photo is crucial, and I insisted both the front and the back be published in my book.
That left me researching why Laura was dressed as a boy. What most likely happened—which I left as speculation in the book—was that it was part of Helen’s strategy to escape arrest as she fled from Midland, Texas, to Juarez, Mexico. This is not the only explanation, however. Several stories told within Helen’s family hint at a darker rationale, but because I couldn’t find proof, I decided not to include it.
What kind of darker rationale?
I am convinced 4-year-old Laura Jennings was sexually assaulted in El Paso or Juarez. This may be the ultimate trauma of her childhood, the reason she and her family tried for a hundred years to squelch her story.
Which was more exciting, trailing Helen or an icon like Hardin?
Truth be told, Hardin. I knew he had been in Arizona, though no one else had ever figured this out. One day, sitting in front of a microfilm machine in a public library in Tucson, I found Hardin in Tucson in 1895. It was better than finding the Lost Dutchman gold mine. I jumped up and danced around the machine ecstatically. Everyone looked at me like I was crazy.
I am, however, more of a patient hunter. I like to metal detect and look for arrowheads, and really, the slow, careful tracking of a prostitute under aliases was more rewarding.
Researching characters who deliberately obscured their trail can be a challenge. How did you negotiate the twists and turns?
Sometimes I was helped. I wrote an article in the Western Writers of America Roundup magazine, “Role of Family Legend in Search for History,” to explain the serendipity of my research. I’d worry and worry over a detail or line of thought, and then one day it would just appear. It happened far too often to be chance. Leon Metz wrote an earlier article in Roundup where he talked about brooding over negative influences as he researched Hardin. He has told me he felt himself mysteriously stymied, and he felt dark and depressed for several years. I, too, was depressed sometimes, but I must say my overall mood was one of excitement. I bounded from one discovery to another.
At the same time, the many discouragements I’ve had in my life have made me tough and stubborn. I could not give up this story. I save papers and documents for years, and one of these, an envelope a genealogist had written 20 years before, broke the story’s back. The Jennings family legend was wrong; the Williams family held the truth, without exaggeration, but also without knowledge of the scandals.
Folks you met along the way contributed leads. What are some of their stories?
I met some of the most wonderful people. I talked to Dee Harkey’s granddaughter and Beauregard Lee’s grandson; I interviewed a close friend of Dave Kemp; I found descendants of Tom Fennessey; A collector showed me John Selman’s actual pistol, mounted in a case facing John Wesley Hardin’s pistol; I held the hand of an old woman who felt so close to the old outlaws she could see them waiting for her death in her peripheral vision. Not long after our interview, she died, screaming, “They’re coming for me!” I met a crazy woman who knew all about me. I corresponded with Ed Bartholmew, who was so blind his fingers were on the wrong keys of his typewriter, and I had to decipher all his letters.
Anyone particularly memorable?
Joyce Capps, living north of Deer Creek in southwestern San Saba County, Texas. Joyce took me one day to the Campbell Ranch on the San Saba River. There is a cave there and a pool where the locals used to swim, and on a limestone cliff above the pool was Mary Ann Jenning’s name and 1904, the year Laura returned, written in wagon axle grease. One summer day maybe a year later I was in Fredonia, Texas, unannounced, and I decided to drive up the narrow gravel road to visit Joyce as a surprise. When I got there, miles from the highway, her house was unlocked, and her car was in the carport, but she wasn’t in the house or outside.
This was in the days before cell phones, just 15 years ago, and rural custom dictated I wait and look. After a while I heard my name faintly called. Joyce had locked herself in the well house three days before and was nearly dead, but in the interim she had discovered the date 1876 on the doorjamb. After drinking a gallon of water, she took me back to the well house to take pictures. She had lived years on her family ranch and never seen it before. 1876 was very early for that part of Texas. The Comanches lurked nearby. The rise of the San Saba Mob, Mason County’s HooDoo War and the Higgins-Horrell violence in Lampasas would have been threats.
How did you trace Grace Berry, or Helena Grace Rose, to New Helvetia Cemetery in Sacramento?
This all goes back to the genealogist’s envelope, written 20 years before by Dell Barnes. Dell had written Helen Beulah’s brother, seeking information about A.J. Williams’ bond forfeitures. D.A. Williams answered he didn’t know anything, but there on the envelope was that return address. I researched the address and found a telephone number that led me to a cousin, and finally to Glenn Wilkins, who had the Williams family bible. Helen’s death date was listed. I then ordered California death records through a Mormon genealogical library in Austin and found the record of Helen dying in Sacramento on September 11, 1904.
You traveled to California to research it?
NOLA, the National Association of Outlaw-Lawmen History Association—a precursor to today’s Wild West History Association—gave me a grant to go out to California and research Helen’s death. Without that grant I couldn’t have done it. I wrote my first historical article, “The Death of Helen Beulah,” in 1999. That article led to the book, The Goddess of War.
Did you face difficulty confirming any other stories?
Quite a few. John Selman Sr. with pistol in hand looking to “intervene” as Charles Perry slapped George Gladden in the face, thinking it was John Wesley Hardin. Annie Williams identifying John Wesley Hardin’s body, rather than his kinfolk in El Paso. John Wesley Hardin and Helen Mrose at the scene of the murder of Martin Mrose. George Scarborough “getting together” with Helen Beulah Mrose prior to the final determination of the Hardin estate. There were a lot of stories like these that I had to relegate to rumor status and didn’t include in the book.
Within the book I had a devil of a time confirming Martin Mrose rode back to Eddy, N.M., from Midland, Texas, to confront his accusers. I finally found three solid sources of this, and if Eddy County wants to erect a statue to attract more tourist dollars, I hope they do a bronze on the southwest corner of the courthouse square someday of a rearing horse and Martin Mrose exclaiming, “If any of you ever say my name again or speak of my wife, I’ll come back here and kill every one of you sons a bitches!”
Yet you write favorably about Mrose. Why?
The historical record—that is all the stories and records about him prior to his murder—is quite clear. He was a good guy, murdered by conspirators and slandered after his death. He was quite a cowboy and horseman. Drive from Carlsbad, N.M., to El Paso, Texas, today. Mrose rode this very countryside in 1895 on a horse in what I estimate was four days. There is no man or horse alive who can do that today. Walk the Trinchera Pass in southern Colorado. As trail boss Mrose moved tens of thousands of VVN cattle through this country. No amateur could do that. Look at Mrose putting Jesse James’ killer, Bob Ford, to flight in Cripple Creek, or Mrose in a blizzard near Walsenburg, beating a lone cowboy to survive—this man was a hero to those who knew him and maligned by his enemies after his death. In the end I had more empathy with Martin Mrose than anyone else in the story.
Do you consider Mrose a good guy?
Yes. A lot of negatives didn’t add up. Dee Harkey’s Mean As Hell is colorful and fun, but as I researched it line-by-line, I came to the opinion it was so filled with lies that if you changed the affirmative sentences to negative, and the negative to affirmative, you’d have the truth. And the deliberate misspelling of Martin Mrose’s last name in the Eddy and El Paso papers after he made the “sons a bitches” comment.
Dr. Richard Marohn, however, proved the deciding factor for me. He really believed Mrose was bad, and among his facts lists a horse theft in a county that didn’t exist in Mrose’s day. That started me down a trail to research Mrose’s horse theft in Live Oak County, Texas—nope. Rustling in Eddy County, New Mexico? Nope. Rustling charges anywhere? Nope. And what about Marohn? I’m convinced he did not do his own research, instead hiring inexperienced locals to search for him. A research archivist at the Texas State Archives, for example, confirmed Marohn had never been there. I came to the inescapable conclusion Mrose had been unfairly accused of being a bad guy all these years. I think I conclusively show in the book that Mrose was a great cowboy and had very influential friends. He became the second strong character in my research, and whenever I go to El Paso, I visit his grave, not Hardin’s just five feet away.
What makes The Goddess of War unique?
Several things, really. First, I didn’t tell the story from John Wesley Hardin’s perspective. Hardin is marketable, so it’s claimed, and lesser figures like … a woman … are not.
You met resistance to this being a woman’s story?
Oh, yes! Several publishers put up a real stink over that. One publishing company was so insulting about this being a woman’s story, I am single-handedly boycotting any of their books. And, if you think about it, that means I’ve joined the ranks of … women’s historians!
Any stories you had to just set aside?
I heard many things in interviews I had to omit. In some cases my interviewees insisted I not proceed with what they were telling me; in other cases I knew I couldn’t find historical references to prove what they were saying, or that it would take too much time.
Can you share one such story?
Samuel Knight’s wife and Laura Jennings are not on the 1900 census. They may have traveled abroad, of course, or been in hiding, because Knight was working on a very volatile national scandal that I am convinced was bigger than Watergate or Teapot Dome. It was called the “Crime of 1900,” and I’ve written extensively on it. Samuel Knight and all the passengers and crew of a ship named Charles D. Lane arrived in Nome, Alaska, in 1900 in time for the census—but they all used fake names! I have been told Mary Knight and Laura Jennings were on that boat. I have also run across hints Helen Beulah (under an alias) traveled to Nome as a prostitute at the same time. It was a small, dense congregation of excited people jammed into the town of Nome on a narrow beach, and it wouldn’t take much imagination to picture a 9-year-old adopted child encountering her mother there. If, indeed, it happened, it must have been very emotional. By the way, at the time of her death Helen was being paid $75 a month to stay away from the Knights, so I believe an encounter did happen.
What fact totally eluded you?
Aargh! The biggest one of all. Steve Jennings, a poor cowboy from a tiny town in central Texas spent all of his and his friends’ subsistence over a 10-year period to find his daughter in California and return her to the Jennings family in Fredonia. This whole story holds so much emotion within the family, but one part of the legend is very clear. Jennings beat the most powerful lawyer in the country. He won over vast money resources, political influence and even professional kidnappers. How did he do it? The family legend is adamant Steve won Laura back in a court hearing. There is nothing in San Francisco newspapers about this, but it could have been a hearing in front of Catholic officials or a justice of the peace. In any case the San Francisco earthquake and fire in 1906 destroyed all records that might have shed light on this dramatic event. I simply don’t know how Jennings did it, and I can’t research further. The divorce petition “Helen Jennings vs. Steve Jennings” is mysteriously missing from the Mason County, Texas, records, however, and I think child custody was specifically covered in these papers and used to win Laura back.
This is, if I may, another of the wildly parallel events this story from the Wild West has to our times. Child custody and parental kidnapping are still issues today, and that’s why I devoted half a chapter to explaining the recovery of Laura Jennings in today’s context.
What are you working on now? Another family story?
Absolutely not. For one thing, I doubt anyone will share such an intense family legend with me. At the same time I must tell you that as a two-time cancer survivor I probably don’t have the lifespan to spend years on the road again. But it goes beyond that. There were rewards researching so exhaustively and trying to be honest in my writing, but golly, it took a lot out of me. Instead, I’m looking to produce a lighter nonfiction on the Old West, plus I have two finished novels that need to be published. Ultimately, I’ve decided to do a coffee-table book of World War II combat photography my father left me.