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DENNIS WATERS DAVE DENISON A year after the fire Before the fire, December, 1986 rival the corruption of the legendary political machine that flourished in South Texas in the first half of this century. But there is an interesting historical resonance to the comparison. On an early morning in August the 1 1 th of August, 1914 the Duval County Courthouse went up in smoke. Some said there was a connection between the fire and the fact that state auditors had planned to visit the courthouse later that day for a look at the records. Of course, it is a preposterous idea that someone would have a courthouse burned for political or economic gain. Yet the suspicion has never been dispelled in Duval County. And in modern-day Bowie County, people have their suspicions, too. THE HUNGRY HOBO THERE IS NO evidence that the Bowie County Courthouse, when it burned in August of 1987, contained anything of substantial value. Though the contents of the building were insured for $20,000, all records that were of day-today importance to the county had long since been transferred to the new , courthouse. Batches of old documents were still stored at the old courthouse, as well as office equipment that was no longer in use. The third floor was used mainly as a “typewriter graveyard,” according to the leader of a local preservationist group who toured the building months before the fire. The building seemed to serve no other purpose in its dotage than to shelter a considerable population of pigeons. Local officials said after the fire the courthouse had one other purpose as well: it may have been used as a shelter by vagrants. New Boston Police Chief Otis Scott said there had been evidence of forced entry to the building, though there were no records of arrests for trespassing on the site. Immediately after the fire, officials began to speculate about the possibility that a vagrant had been in the building on the night of August 11 or the early morning of August 12 and had, either accidentally or intentionally, started the fire that burned the courthouse. “We got word this morning that there might have been a transient living in the building,” Police Chief Scott told the Texarkana Gazette the day of the fire. “I hadn’t heard anything about this until this morning,” the chief continued. “We did find the basement door open when officers arrived.” Scott said if the fire had been caused by a transient it would be treated as a case of “accidental arson.” The Gazette headline said that a “derelict” was the suspected culprit, and as the newspaper repeated this information in the following weeks it rapidly became the “official” version of the story. A year after the fire, nearly every local official that I talked to expounded on what had by then evolved into a sort of “hungry hobo” theory. The most likely cause of the’ fire, in their view, was that a hobo had made himself at home on one of the fine wooden benches inside the courthouse and had been cooking his supper when somehow the fire got out of control. At this point, the hobo could have made his escape from the inferno and might well have caught a rail to California by the time officials began to investigate. Modified versions of the theory had the hobo starting the fire to keep warm smoking a cigarette and dozing off, or, in one version, even free-basing cocaine. These more imaginative stories seem to be served up mainly for the consumption of the press. In less fanciful moods, officials have been willing to discuss the possibility that the fire might have been the work of delinquent teenagers from the Bowie County area. But the local press \(by which I mean the Gazette and the twice-weekly Bowie County Citizens Tribune content to swallow the hungry hobo story and did not pursue the matter further. In reality, police had no record of reports being made prior to the fire of transients living at the courthouse, according to Sgt. Kerry Pinkham of the New Boston police. Vague and inaccurate information was reported and then allowed to stand. For example, New Boston Fire Chief Billy House had told the Gazette the fire was discovered by two women who were “doing their walking at that time in the morning.” But the log at the New Boston Police THE TEXAS OBSERVER 7