Texas Crazy

Contrary to the poster for this 2008 film, none of the witnesses from the 19th century said the Wild Man hurt them

A few days ago, it turned up in the news that in Norway, “Texas” is slang for “crazy.”  According to Anne Ekern, an official of the Norwegian consulate in Houston whom National Public Radio talked with, the use of “Texas” as an expression meaning something wild, exciting, or out of control “goes back to Norwegians watching cowboy movies” and was familiar to her in as a phrase adults used when she was a child in Norway in the 1970’s.

US left-wingers, among them most of the people I see on social media, love this story, and have been gleefully sharing as fact the theory that it stems from the Lone Star State’s often ultra-conservative politics.  I started wondering about this when I noticed that Norwegian friends of mine were mentioning that they’ve only heard “Texas” used to mean crazy in the sense of wild or unpredictable, not mentally unwell.

That, combined with the explanation Ms Ekern offered, reminded me of a memory I had as a child in the 1970s, not in Norway, but in the USA.  My older brother showed up at a family function with a long, unkempt beard.  Our grandmother, who’d last seen him clean-shaved, laughed and said that he looked like the Texas Wild Man.  I’d often heard people of her generation (she was born in 1905) use the phrase “Texas Wild Man” to refer to eccentric people, and I was curious where it came from.  So I asked her.  She said she didn’t know where it came from, but that it was a familiar expression when she was growing up.  The younger adults assured her that it was still in common use, and I told her that I had heard it before.  We all speculated for a few minutes as to what its origin might be.  I don’t remember what our hypotheses were; I’m sure the longtime popularity of cowboy movies must have figured in some of them, as it does in Ms Ekern’s theory about the Norwegian use of “Texas.”

Another kind of Texas Wild Man

However, when I finally got round to googling “Texas Wild Man” yesterday, I found out that cowboy movies had nothing to do with it.  “The Texas Wild Man,” also known as “The Texas Wild Woman” and “The Wild Man of the Navidad,” was a half-human, half-ape creature of whom various people in and around Lavaca County, Texas reported catching glimpses from 1834 until 1851.  A number of anomalous footprints and other bits of evidence lent credence to the testimonies of a large and diverse array of witnesses.  The people held in slavery in that area called the creature whom they saw by moonlight “The Thing That Comes.”  In the 1830s not many people were in a position to know what or who might be living in the wilds of southeast Texas; the mystery of the half-man, half-ape “Thing That Comes” made its way around the world, keeping the phrase “Texas Wild Man” alive in US slang well into the 1970s, and perhaps keeping an echo of it ringing even in Norway.

On 21 February 1986, a column appeared in the Victoria, Texas Advocate (also available here) putting forward an explanation as to what exactly was behind the sightings of the Wild Man of the Navidad.  Columnist Henry Wolff, Jr read an article from the Texas Historical Quarterly of October 1900.  In that article, Mr Wolff found the recollections of “Mrs Dilue Harris, who was the wife of Ira S. Harris, an early Colorado County sheriff.”  Mrs Harris explained that the Wild Man was one of a group of Africans held in slavery on a plantation near the town of Columbus, a plantation belonging to a man named Ben Fort Smith.  The Wild Man had escaped from Smith’s plantation, fled to the Navidad river, and remained at liberty for quite some time.  Mrs Harris, relying on her memory to recount events of more than half a century before, apparently said that the Wild Man was captured in 1846; however, Mr Wolff cites a scholar named Brownson Malsch who found a newspaper article published on 7 August 1851 reporting that the Wild Man had been captured a few days before, that on 1 August he had been sold back into slavery at an auction where a man named Payton Bickford paid $207 for him, and that within hours of that sale the Wild Man had escaped from Payton Bickford and was now in jail along with three other men.  Evidently the Wild Man’s name was revealed in this article to be Jimbo.

Mr Wolff quotes a source telling us that when Jimbo was sent back to Payton Bickford after this escape, Bickford “turned him into the cornfield to fatten previous to closing his contract with Barnum for the sale of Jimbo.”  That Bickford was in negotiations with P. T. Barnum, already a world-famous impresario in 1851, for custody of Jimbo shows just how much publicity the Texas Wild Man must have attracted.  Something must have convinced Barnum that Jimbo would not bring him a triumph to match those he had enjoyed exhibiting various disabled and enslaved people as freaks, however, as Payton Bickford ultimately sold Jimbo, not as a public attraction, but as a field hand.  A Victoria County planter named Zebriam Lewis paid Bickford for Jimbo, and Jimbo was still in service to Lewis when slavery was abolished in 1865.  In 1865, Jimbo left the Lewis ranch for another ranch, belonging to someone called Carlos, and there he stayed until he died in 1884.  Mr Wolff quotes someone who knew Jimbo as saying “He was perfectly harmless, and never learned to speak English, talking in broken Spanish which could hardly be understood.”

So, the man who put the crazy in Texas, at least in “Texas” as a slang term, may not have been a far-right politician, but an African who refused to be enslaved.  Der ist helt Texas, indeed!

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