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The Mystery of the Courthouse Fire Continued from cover I asked her if the date August 12 meant anything to her. “August twelfth? That’s the day it burned,” she recalled. Then she said, “That’s today, isn’t it?” She thought about it for a moment. “It’s kind of sad to see it standin’ there like that,” she said. The courthouse had been standing there since 1891. No one could be sure at this point, though, whether it would survive to see its 100th year. It was easy enough to look at the roofless old building and conclude that its life was over. What use did it have? And yet, standing in its presence you could almost hear its rejoinder: “I still stand.” The old wooden joists had given way and floors and staircases had been crushed and burned. Cracks in the masonry may or may not have grown larger. But the walls were still standing. Facing the building from the north side, you could see that it might well have been impressive in an earlier day. This side had once been used as the front of the courthouse, in its earliest period after construction. The view from the north accentuates the most unusual feature of the building’s architecture: an octagonal tower situated offcenter on the northwest corner. It was a castle-like, Medieval touch on a style that otherwise suggested Classical Greek or Roman forms: triangles, arches, columns. Partly because of these unusual features, the courthouse is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In nominating the courthouse and the adjacent jail for such a designation in 1977, the state’s historic preservation officer pronounced the site to be “significant locally.” But an old courthouse is significant for more than its architecture. An old courthouse is a monument a reminder of the noble and the not-so-noble events in a county’s life. Here is where the people have cast their ballots for generations; perhaps also elections were manipulated here behind closed doors by local kingmakers. Here is where the wheels of justice have turned, in the courtroom and on the witness stand; here also is the site of an endless parade of murderers and thieves and petty crooks. This is the first of a two-part series on the courthouse fire and politics in Bowie County. This investigation has been made possible by a grant from the Texas Investigative Reporters’ Fund. Part two will appear in the December 23 issue of the Observer. Here are the records of marriages, and of divorces. Here is the courthouse, repository of deeds, in the legal sense, and of misdeeds, too, if you think of this as the seat of “the courthouse gang,” in every generation up to something. What secrets these walls must know! It would be natural for people to regard such a monument with some ambiv,alence: Especially if the courthouse is not, any longer, much to look at. But this courthouse stands now as a monument to something else. It is a reminder of someone’s crime. These walls now have a deeper and darker secret. The Bowie County Courthouse, in its present condition, is a monument to arson. TWILIGHT ZONE IWILL SAY at the outset that I do not know who set the Bowie County Courthouse on fire, nor do I know why it was set on fire. But simply asking the question out and around Bowie County has been my ticket into an intriguing world of East Texas politics. It is a world where suspicion hangs in the air like the pungent odors from the local paper mills. Rumors frequently guide politics and politics can sometimes get rough. “County politics here are ruthless,” one Texarkana businessman told me, only after being assured of anonymity. A visitor learns early that there is almost always a sexual innuendo to be heard about anyone in public office, or anyone running for public office. For the reporter, it is a world where many will talk, but few will be quoted. When you enter Bowie County and start to inquire about local mysteries, you are entering a political twilight zone. This particular corner of the state has always been unusual in the first place. Bowie County \(it is pronounced Boo-eh. Cannah corner of Texas, bordered on the north by the Red River and Oklahoma, and on the east by Arkansas. The center of population is in Texarkana, which straddles the state line, half of it in Texas, half in Arkansas, yielding a split personality that city boosters try to gloss over with the slogan “Texarkana is twice as nice.” The city’s power structure and the county’s, for to a great degree they overlap has never taken kindly to suggestions that life in this corner of the state is anything less than twice as nice. The major newspaper here, the Texarkana Gazette, has had moments of journalistic initiative, but not ‘many. Young reporters who incline toward investigative work tend to move on to better papers about the time they are beginning to see who turns the wheels of power. Those who stay become familiar with the limits of their enterprise. One limitation is that “negative” coverage tends to generate a hostile reception, if not reprisals. Several years ago the Associated Press wrote a story that billed Texarkana as the “rat capital of the world,” based on public health officials’ claim that Texarkana had a larger urban rat population per capita than other major cities. “The story was not well-received by the powersthat-be,” according to a journalist in Texarkana who remembers the ensuing Storm. This source claims that loc’al officials saw the story as a “slap at the city” and were more concerned with finding out who leaked the information than in doing something about the rat problem. This may appear to be a mild criticism, yet the source refuses to be quoted by name, saying “there’s been too many damn heads lopped off” by the power brokers. The county government’s public image suffered in 1981 when four county commissioners and one former commissioner were indicted in connection with a kickback scheme. One commissioner was acquitted, three pled guilty, and one was convicted on 38 counts, involving the Hobbs Act, mail fraud, and conspiracy. Sometimes traces of an underground “criminal element” filter into the press, as well. In February of 1987 a Texarkana drug company executive was killed when a pipe bomb exploded under his Mercedes-Benz in the company parking lot on State Line Avenue. An anonymous group offered a $250,000 reward later that year for information leading to a conviction, but the FBI and local police have been unable to solve the crime. “I’ve always said, if you’re not paranoid in Bowie County politics there’s something wrong with you,” James Presley, a Texarkana writer and political activist has told me more than once. \(Presley is a longtime as Duval County, our politics are,” says Ruby Neil Hart, the former postmistress of New Boston who Presley describes as the “Grande Dame of the Bowie County Democratic Party.” The comparison to Duval County may well be exaggerated few counties can 6 DECEMBER 9, 1988