a village with a few hundred residents in 1841, Austin
experienced at least a couple of homicides that year that by today’s
standards read more like big-city whodunits.
The qualifier “at least” has to be used here because official records
from back then are sketchy. And it would be well into the 20th century
before the federal government via J. Edgar Hoover’s nascent FBI
would begin keeping crime statistics for cities and counties. No
matter the paucity of government records from the Republic
of Texas era, even two murders in a community that did not break
the 1,000 population mark until well into the 1850s amounts to a
serious level of violent crime.
outbreak in the capital city
came that spring, the first homicide discovered on the morning of
April 7, when someone came across a dead body on East Avenue – the
street that would more than a century later would become I-35.
As the Austin City Gazette reported, “much excitement prevailed”
following the discovery of the “horridly managed” corpse. Someone
recognized the victim, who appeared to have been shot to death,
as one Henry Zeutz.
The city’s recorder, an office akin to a municipal judge, was called
to the scene of the crime and in the absense of a justice of the
peace, summoned a group of male citizens to act as a coroner’s jury
to investigate the death.
In the verdict published by the Gazette, the jury concluded that
Zeutz “was killed by the discharge of a gun or guns, loaded with
ball and buckshot, which, when discharged must have been held close
to the head of the deceased.” (The jury proceeded to describe the
results of that wound in clinical detail.)
But whoever killed Zeutz did more than shoot him. “We further find,”
the jury noted, “that a sharp instrument was used on the deceased,
such as a knife; that a portion of the skin of the back part of
his head had been cut off and was not to be found.”
In other words, someone shot the man and then scalped him.
Could it have been an Indian? Hostile Indians killed numerous Travis
County residents during the 1840s, but the newspaper story makes
no mention of Indians. The jury concluded, “We are of the opinion
that it was the act of a malicious desperado and murderer.”
The newspaper did not note whether local law enforcement (which
back then basically amounted to an elected sheriff) made any progress
in locating the killer or killers. Chances are, no one ever knew
who killed Zeutz or why.
month and a half later, the Austin Gazette had another local
murder to report. Word of the crime reached the newspaper just as
the printer had begun working the lever to make impressions of that
“We stop the press to announce a mysterious murder, which took place
early this morning,” the story began.
Jose Merida, a man employed to watch some horses penned in a lot
had been sleeping near the entrance when suddenly awakened by someone
who “roughly seized” him. Jumping to his feet, the man saw three
men and “demanded [to know] who they were and what they wanted.”
The story continued: “They made no answer, but one of them placed
the muzzle of a pistol close to his back and shot him down.”
The wound did not prove immediately fatal and after Merida was found,
a doctor was summoned. The physician realized he could do nothing
for the man, but he lived long enough to report what had happened
to him. He did not know the men, but according to the newspaper,
he said that the men “were Americans.”
“No motive can be given for the murder,” the newspaper concluded,
“as none of the horses were taken.”
what little information the newspaper provided on these two cases,
from this distant perspective, it does not seem like they were related.
The “Americans” probably had intended to steal the horses, but must
have given up on the idea after shooting Merida. The motive for
Zeutz’ killing is less clear, since a robber would not have bothered
to scalp him. As any armchair sleuth could devine, scalping is an
act of hatred, not the earmark of an armed thief.
Whatever the circumstances of these two murders, they make it clear
that residents and visitors to frontier-era Austin
had to keep their guard up to stay safe.
© Mike Cox
- November 21, 2012 column
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