The Writing Traveler: Mourning Diamond Bessie

A re-enactment of the Diamond Bessie murder trial is performed each year during the Jefferson Pilgrimage.

Unexpectedly, on a chilled morning, Diamond Bessie wasn’t forgotten anymore. A stranger, dressed in black, had come to see her grave.

The stranger came just after the first splinter of daylight had torn a red gash in the morning sky, at a time when he thought the town lay sleeping, and he was alone. Frank Schweers watched as the aging man dressed in black knelt beside an old grave that held the body of a girl no one knew or even cared about until the day she died, and she had died so long ago.

Jefferson had forgotten her, ignoring the lady and her past, which was probably shady. At least, the gossip said it was. And in Jefferson, in 1920, gossip – when repeated enough – became the truth, and nothing but.

Maybe the stranger in black hadn’t heard of the girl’s shady past. Maybe he was part of it. He bowed his head for a moment of prayer, then gently placed a wreath of red roses amidst the dew upon the grave.

The stranger stared at the small, apologetic marker stained by rains and lichen that ready simply: Bessie Moore, 12-31-1876.

Schweer leaned up against a tree – his eyes narrowed and puzzled – unwilling to break the holy solitude of the stranger and his roses. The sexton had come to Oakwood Cemetery early, as he always did, to cut the grass and pull the weeds that had crawled without reverence upon the graves.

But the work could wait.

Bessie Moore had waited for almost fifty years, and, at last, someone had finally come to visit her.

Bessie Moore had journeyed to Jefferson that cold winter on the arm of Abe Rothschild, dark and handsome, a diamond salesman, the twenty-three-year-old son of a wealthy Cincinnati jeweler. And he draped most of his diamonds upon the lovely girl who walked at his side and drank the beer he gave her.

Caleb Pirtle III

Rothschild treated Bessie as though she were merely a worldly possession, abusing her rather than loving her, beating her, but hiding the bruises with diamonds. The townspeople of Jefferson began calling her Diamond Bessie, and she smiled because the title was a close to Royalty as she would ever come.

Abe and Bessie had been in Jefferson for two weeks when the diamond salesman walked into a hardware store one Saturday afternoon and bought a pistol. On Sunday morning, he and Bessie were seen walking hand in hand across the iron bridge over Big Cypress Bayou, trudging through the newly fallen snow, carrying a picnic basket and each clutching a bottle of beer.

Bessie had wrapped herself in a red cloak, and folks could see the sun reflecting the brilliance of the diamonds long after they had lost sight of her in the shadows of the forest.

Late that afternoon, Abe Rothschild returned to John Nutt’s saloon. He was alone. “Bessie’s gone off to visit some friends,” he explained. “She’ll be gone for several days.”

Nutt noticed, and he would one day tell a jury, that Rothschild was wearing two diamond rings, which had flashed on Bessie’s slender fingers that morning. Rothschild left the bar at midnight. The next day, he left Jefferson and headed back to Cincinnati.

Two weeks later, Diamond Bessie was found lying upon a stone as though she were asleep in the forest. Her left hand was draped over her body, and her hat had fallen awkwardly over the left side of her head.

Bessie’s diamonds were gone.

And a small bullet hole had been drilled neatly into her forehead.

The judge examined the body and said without hesitation, “I want Abe Rothschild.”

The sheriff chased him down in Cincinnati. The diamond salesman sought to escape. He attempted suicide by firing a bullet into his head. He managed to take one eye, and the sheriff brought him back to the Marion County courtroom of Jefferson.

His trial dragged on for several years.

The first ended in a hung jury.

The second, held in another county, convicted Rothschild, but he won a new trial on appeal.

His final defense would be made before a jury in Jefferson, with the finest legal talent in the Southwest – ten attorneys – all taking large chunks of Rothschild money to prove his innocence.

It was a daunting task, and they knew it.

The jurors retired to decide his fate.

A carriage and driver waited at the courthouse door. And a mob strutted around outside with ropes in their hands and rotgut whiskey in their bellies.

Inside the courtroom, the jury foreman heard the faraway whistle of a train and announced loudly, “Not guilty.”

Rothschild dashed out the door and to the carriage. He leaped in, and the horses thundered past the stunned mob, racing madly for the evening train. It was rumored that the attorneys had paid the jurors $10,000 apiece to acquit their client, then wait for the sound of the train coming into town to vender a verdict.

In a lonely corner of the cemetery, Schweer buried Diamond Bessie, then cared for her grave because there was no one else to come and pull the weeds away.

Unexpectedly, on a chilled morning, Diamond Bessie wasn’t forgotten anymore.

The stranger, dressed in black, stood and turned away. He spotted Shweer and walked toward him.

“Who’s responsible for burying Bessie?” he asked.

“I guess I am,” Shweer admitted.

“Why?” The stranger asked. “You didn’t even know her.”

Schweer shrugged his tired and aging shoulders, then answered softly, “Because she was some mama’s daughter.”

The stranger slipped a ten-dollar bill into Schweer’s hand and quickly walked away.

“Hey!” the sexton yelled. “Do you happen to be Abe Rothschild?”

The stranger didn’t answer, nor did he look back, and Jefferson never knew for sure. He left town as quietly as he had come. No one but Frank Schweer saw him.

The roses wilted. And the wind chased the wrinkled petals away.

No one ever came to see Diamond Bessie again.

Please click HERE to see many of my travel stories in Confessions from the Road.

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