Texas Myth# 471
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JAMES BOWIE INVENTED THE BOWIE KNIFE.
No, one of his brothers did. Rezin (pronounced “Reason”) Bowie designed the big, butcher-style hunting knife in the mid-1820’s while the two were living in Louisiana. When Jim started feuding with a local ruffian, Rezin lent him the weapon. Good thing, too, because on September 19, 1827, outside Natchez, Mississippi, the enemies clashed in a free-for-all known as the Sandbar Fight. Jim withstood multiple wounds before the bowie knife saved the day. Jim’s victory made a name for his weapon and himself—but not for his brother.
Q. What exactly is the difference between Diez y Seis de Septiembre and Cinco de Mayo? Which is more important to Texas?
A: The former—“the sixteenth of September” in Spanish—is the national independence day of Mexico, or its Fourth of July. It commemorates the day in 1810 when Father Hidalgo, an elderly priest in a village near Guanajuato, first let out el grito (“the shout”) for freedom from Spanish rule. Cinco de Mayo, or “the fifth of May,” celebrates the 1862 victory of the Mexican army over the French, who—by order of Napoléon III—wanted to install a despised figurehead, Maximilian. Under the leadership of General Ignacio Zaragoza, who was born in what is now Goliad, the Mexicans crushed their foe at the Battle of Puebla. Both holidays are dear to the hearts of Tejanos (and are often referred to collectively as the fiestas patrias), but Cinco de Mayo had a much greater impact on Texas history. During the Civil War, France supported the Confederacy, so when Napoléon III failed to secure Mexico, the South lost a prime arms-supply route. Such a source might have changed the outcome of the war, or at least prolonged it.
Q. I ran across a reference to something called the Screwmen’s Benevolent Association of Texas. Is that as dirty as it sounds?
A: Well, it took bolls. The union, founded in New Orleans, was unique to the cotton industry. Its Texas members, based in Galveston, operated the huge, hand-cranked screws, or compressors, that squashed cotton bales as tightly as possible to allow maximum storage on cargo ships. From 1866 through 1924, the union enjoyed closed-shop status in Galveston and, though the majority of the members were immigrants, refused to hire blacks. The invention of the power screw compress eventually, um, compressed the screwmen.
Q. I’ve heard that NASA had female astronauts way back in the sixties but the program was top secret and was eventually canned. Is this an urban legend?
A: You are thinking of the real-life Mercury 13. In 1959 NASA began investigating the advantages of sending women into space and selected thirteen military pilots as trainees. The group aced the battery of tests that male applicants faced, and two, Jerrie Cobb and Wally Funk, went on to complete all phases of astronaut training. The Oklahoma-born Cobb, who had started flying at age twelve, had 10,000 hours of flight time—twice as many as John Glenn—and NASA essentially promised her the helm of a Mercury rocket. But back then sexism still ruled: Glenn told a House subcommittee that “the fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order,” and Vice President Lyndon Johnson scrawled on a NASA advisory memo, “Let’s stop this. Now.” The launches began with a smaller group, the all-male Mercury 7, and NASA announced in September 1961 that its new headquarters south of Houston would be christened the Manned Spacecraft Center.
Q. Who was Texas Jack?
A: Despite the moniker, he was actually a Virginia boy. John Burwell Omohundro Jr. (his middle name is sometimes listed as Baker) acquired the nickname Texas Jack after spending his teenage years working as a cowboy in the Lone Star State and later leading cattle drives to Tennessee, but the name stuck all his life. In the 1870’s Texas Jack crossed paths with William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, and the two kindred spirits teamed up to perform in Scouts of the Prairie, a smaller, early version of Cody’s blockbuster Wild West show that toured the U.S. Texas Jack was famous in his day and starred in many a dime novel. He died of pneumonia in 1880 at the age of 33.
Q. Is it true that the infamous Sally Rand once ran a strip club in Dallas?
A: You’re a bubble or two off. The exotic dancer had caused a sensation at the 1933 World’s Fair, in Chicago, with a suggestive dance performed with two seven-foot fans made of pink ostrich feathers. Although Rand claimed to have worn a body stocking, she appeared to be nude. Naturally, three years later the men of Texas sought “the Queen of the Fan Dancers” to spice up their centennial year. By then Rand had moved on to the scandalous “bubble dance,” which she performed behind a giant semi-opaque balloon. Again, she appeared naked as a jaybird; however, her elegant moves, plus the alleged body stocking (or, given the summer weather, perhaps a few dabs of selectively applied greasepaint), prevented actual indecency. Still, Rand signed on not for the relatively wholesome state fair in straitlaced Dallas but for the Texas Frontier Centennial, the largely Western equivalent next door in rowdy Fort Worth. She headlined at a hot new venue called Casa Mañana (House of Tomorrow) and also operated her own nightclub, Sally Rand’s Nude Ranch, which featured curvy young women clad in gun belts, boots, and wisps of Texas myth.