Diamond Bessieprostitute whose murder in the woods outside of Jefferson, Texas propelled her to the level of local legend. She was killed by a single gunshot wound to the head sometime during the early afternoon of Sunday, January 21, 1877. Her accused killer was her lover (and possibly husband), Abraham Rothschild, the dissolute son of one of the most prominent society families of the day.
Bessie was born in 1854 in Syracuse, New York, and the abundance of attention from men resulting from her striking beauty is said to have led her down the proverbial "wayward path" at a young age. At 15, she left home and took up with a man named Moore. After this affair ended, she entered into prostitution (though she kept Moore's name). By all accounts she adapted to the life quickly, and her numerous male admirers showered her with gifts of diamond jewelry. A story that she had a large inheritance from her father may be apocryphal.
Bessie plied her trade in brothels in Cincinnati, Ohio, New Orleans, Louisiana, and finally Hot Springs, Arkansas, where she met Rothschild sometime in 1875. From this time until her death, they were together, though there is no evidence they entered into a legal marriage.
Rothschild's reluctance to legitimize their relationship may have been what motivated her murder. Bessie was pressuring Rothschild to marry her, and according to various accounts, she may have claimed she was pregnant (which might even have been true) and threatened to reveal this scandalous fact to Rothschild's father.
Whatever the motive, it is known that Bessie and Rothschild's relationship was tumultuous, marred by alcoholism and physical abuse. Rothschild is said to have forced Bessie to prostitute herself numerous times during their travels together, and to give him $50.00 a day. She may have been suffering from a venereal disease. In Cincinnati, Rothschild was once arrested for beating her in public, and she accused him several times of trying to steal and hock her diamonds.
On January 17, 1877, the couple registered as husband and wife at the Capitol Hotel in Marshall, Texas, about 18 miles south of Jefferson. After two days they traveled to Jefferson by train. Jefferson was at this time one of the largest and busiest riverports west of the Mississippi River, and it is possible Rothschild might have thought he could sell some of Bessie's diamonds there. In any event, the exact nature of Rothschild's business in Jefferson is not known, nor at what point his plan to murder Bessie might have been hatched.
The couple registered at the Brooks House in Jefferson as "A. Munroe and wife". Their fine clothes and, of course, Bessie's diamonds made an immediate impression on the townsfolk. Rothschild is said to have first addressed his "wife" as Bessie during this trip, and the locals adapted this into "Diamond Bessie."
On the morning of January 21, Rothschild bought a picnic lunch, and the couple crossed the bridge at Cypress Bayou, walking away from town along the Marshall road. The last person to see them together was Frank Malloy, who noticed them in the restaurant before 11:00 AM; Malloy took special note of Bessie's massive diamond rings. Approximately three hours later Rothschild was seen crossing the bridge back into Jefferson alone.
When questioned about his wife's whereabouts at the Brooks House, Rothschild claimed she had stayed across the Bayou to visit friends. The following morning, he took breakfast alone at the hotel, where he was seen wearing Bessie's rings. On the morning of Tuesday the 23rd, he boarded a train to Cincinnati with Bessie's luggage.
Bessie's body was discovered in the woods along the Marshall road on the afternoon of February 5 by Sarah King, an African-American woman out collecting firewood. The remnants of a picnic lunch were still scattered about. The body was fully clothed, and had no jewelry.
In Cincinnati, Rothschild began drinking more heavily and was reportedly becoming quite paranoid, believing himself to be followed everywhere. He tried to shoot himself outside a saloon in late February, but only succeeded in putting out his right eye. After a few days in the hospital, he was arrested and jailed, awaiting extradition to Texas for the murder of "Diamond Bessie Moore."
With Rothschild's real identity known, the case quickly became a cause celebre. The public fascination with the murder of a beautiful young woman at the hands of a wealthy scion of society held a lurid appeal comparable to the contemporary murder trials of O. J. Simpson or the Menendez Brothers. It was Texas' first big murder case, called by Texas governor Richard Hubbard "a crime unparalleled in the record of blood."
Though Rothschild was the black sheep of his family, their fear of devastating scandal evidently prompted them to rally to his side and hire him a formidable defense team. Rothschild had no fewer than ten high-priced attorneys. They immediately secured a change of venue, as feelings toward Rothschild in Jefferson were so hostile that any possible jury pool was hopelessly tainted. The townfolk were known to have contributed money to reimburse Sheriff John Vines for his trip to Cincinnati to arrest Rothschild.
The case finally went to trial in December 1878 in Marshall. While in jail in Marshall, Rothschild's cellmate was Jim Currie, a railroad employee who had shot two actors, killing one; the wounded victim was actor Maurice Barrymore.
Rothschild was convicted -× the jury foreman reportedly drew a noose on the wall during deliberations with the slogan, "That's my verdict!" -× but the conviction was overturned on appeal. There was widespread opinion that Rothschild's wealth, and Bessie's being a prostitute, was influencing the appellate court. One newspaper editorial bitterly wrote, "Certainly all that is required to save a red-handed murderer from the gallows are two or three active friends and sufficient money..."
After much legal wrangling, Rothschild went to trial again on December 22, 1880, this time in Jefferson. Rothschild did not testify in his own defense, and his lawyers made mincemeat of prosecution witnesses. Rothschild, to the dismay of many, was acquitted, and rejoined his family in Cincinnati. Editorialists were again bitter, one writing, "...one of the vilest and meanest murders ever perpetrated goes unpunished through the inefficiency of the legal system."
Rothschild quietly faded into obscurity, but Diamond Bessie became a figure of folklore. Every year in Jefferson during its annual Pilgrimage Festival, a play titled The Diamond Bessie Murder Trial, derived from court transcripts, is performed. Diamond Bessie's grave in Jefferson's Oakwood Cemetery is a popular tourist attraction; unmarked for years, it bears a tombstone reputedly installed in the night by an unknown admirer. But this could be one more story to add to Diamond Bessie's romantic legend.