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On the night of December 17, 1915, a young girl named Pauline fell asleep in her bedroom. A short while later her mother, in the room next door, heard groaning and sent her husband to investigate. He entered his daughter’s room and in the glow of his kerosene lamp, saw a gruesome scene. Pauline was sitting up in bed, blood flowing profusely from her slashed throat. A doctor was quickly summoned, but a few hours later Pauline died.
That story sounds very familiar to long-time residents of Durant. The murder of Pauline Amsel was shocking and the story has been told and retold. In March of 1916 when Judge Hatchett spoke to the grand jury he said, “I never in my life saw a community get a case of nerves as this community did over that killing. Brave, strong men were so shocked they were afraid to go out at night; extra locks were bought: doors were barred; all kinds of modern weapons were purchased, loaded and kept in convenient places.”
He also implored the grand jury to find the killer and bring them to justice, no matter how much time, effort, or money it required: “Dollars and cents do not cut figures in a case like this.” And he didn’t care who the guilty party turned out to be: “If you have sufficient evidence, indict whoever that evidence indicates is guilty, whoever it may be…”
It’s ironic, and somewhat disturbing, that in April of 1916, about seventy-five miles east of Durant, Tillman and Mary Walton were charged with the murder of their own daughter, Pauline. That’s actually her murder described in the opening paragraph.
The comparisons between the two crimes are interesting, but they don’t exactly fit the modus operandi of a serial killer. Razors were a common weapon of the times and sadly there were reports of at least a dozen other murders and suicides during the same time period. Still, the similarities were close enough for me to investigate further.
Pauline Amsel was murdered on November 11, 1914. She was 14 years old. Pauline Walton was 17 when she was killed. Pauline Amsel screamed and somehow managed to walk to her parents’ room even though the right side of her throat had been severely slashed with a razor. She returned to her room and collapsed on her bed, then rolled to the floor. Pauline Walton never left her bed and was probably awake when she was killed because her bed was in disarray and much of her hair had been yanked out. Pauline Amsel lived about 30 minutes after she was attacked. Pauline Walton lived for three hours.
Neither home was burglarized even though there were objects of value nearby, especially in the Amsel home. The one item taken from the Amsel home was a coat, later found in the basement of another house. The one item taken from the Walton home was a hat, found in the yard.
Mr. Amsel confronted Pauline’s killer and the man shot at him, according to newspaper accounts of the time. He missed and then the gun jammed. He pulled out a pocket knife, stabbed Mr. Amsel in the stomach, and ran away, but not before he was seen by a couple of neighbors. He left his ragged hat behind. It and the razor had Chicago store brands on them.
Pauline Walton’s killer disappeared without being seen. The only evidence of his existence was fresh dirt on a window sill and a boot print on the ground beneath it. However, that evidence was doubted during Mr. Walton’s trial. Sheriff Lain testified that when they first examined the property, he and his men did not find any evidence of an intruder. Several hours later, when they returned, a screen had been removed from the room of their 14-year-old son, the dirt and footprint were there, and a hat (later identified as the son’s) was found in the yard. There was more evidence that someone in the house might have killed Pauline Walton. A neighbor reported hearing screams, but was not alarmed because she did not “regard them as unusual.” Both parents were later indicted and the prosecution presented evidence that the Waltons had argued over Pauline’s “delicate condition.” The defense theorized that she was killed by a rejected suitor.
The grand jury that considered the indictment of Jake Amsel was comprised of many well known and respected men of Bryan County and their names will be familiar to older residents of Durant and Caddo: R. L. Crudup from Durant was the foreman. Also from Durant were H. M. Taylor, W. J. Weathered, and Robert F. Story. Those from Caddo were H. G. Huffman, C. D. Robinson, S. W. Maytubby, and D. B. Williams. Rounding out the group were J. W. Gentry of Calera, J. H. Ellis and L. E. Batchelor from Bennington, and Jess Moreland of Bokchito. After two weeks they reported: “We have inquired into all the details, rumors, and reports of all kinds and permitted persons to express their personal opinions and advance their theories about how the matter occurred. We had all the eye-witnesses living in Durant, the officer in charge at the time, the detective who worked on the case, the person who had charge of the hounds making the investigation immediately thereafter, the father and the mother of the girl, before us and examined each one carefully. And after so doing we return no true bill of indictment.”
The Amsel home was boarded up shortly after Pauline’s murder and the family lived in another house until their affairs were put in order. They rented out their store, sold their stock and moved, first to Texas, then to Colorado, then back to Texas 40 years after the tragedy. When they died they were buried next to Pauline.
In October of 1919, after years of legal complications and jury problems, Tillman Walton was found guilty of killing his daughter and sentenced to 10 years in prison. He vowed that he would never accept the sentence because he was innocent. After his release he moved to Bowie, Texas, where he lived until his death in 1945.
The comparison of the two crimes does not lead to any connection between the two, but certainly Mr. Walton must have read or heard the news of Pauline Amsel’s death. Newspaper reports were widespread after Governor Williams ordered that a reward of $200 would be added to the $1,000 offered by Jake Amsel for the capture of Pauline’s killer. There were many friends and family members shared between the communities of Durant and Paris. People talked of little else for months. I would be remiss if I did not consider that Pauline Walton’s death might have been a “copycat” murder.
One hundred years after the death of Pauline Amsel, one of her relatives from Israel visited Durant and gave a presentation about the murder. She was interviewed by the local paper and spoke to many people in the community, hoping to find more clues. It was her belief that Jake had committed the crime; it is my belief that he did not. It’s doubtful that either of us will ever be fully satisfied with our conclusions. The problem with researching the past, especially past crimes, is that our conclusions are influenced by our own experiences and interpretations. We see history through the eyes of a different generation. And since we can’t access all of the records and documents we need, we often “fill in the gaps” with stories and opinions of people who were witnesses or children of witnesses or second cousins twice removed. We all know that any two witnesses to a crime will tell a slightly different version of it. I wonder how many of the local people interviewed by Pauline’s relative had actually read the original accounts of her death.
As a genealogist and historian, I caution people to find direct sources and documentation for the names and dates and events in their ancestor’s lives. I always tell them that family stories are interesting and entertaining, but seldom completely accurate.
As I was finishing my research for this story I came across one more item of interest:
In July of 1916 a young woman in Fort Worth awoke at 2 a.m. to a man touching her shoulder. She rose up in bed and he grabbed her by the throat and threatened to kill her. But she managed to scream, awakening her three sisters who all screamed, which awakened her parents. The man had a long knife in his hand. After he fled, it was discovered that he had used it to cut the screen. Nothing was stolen from the home. Fannie described her attacker as a young man wearing a white shirt, blue trousers, and a straw hat.