Nota bene: Be sure to see update, here.
First, there was the woman who squealed in class when I mentioned Travis County, the Texas county in which resides Texas’s capital city, Austin. She said later she had thought it was a fictional county. By the way, she asked, was the rest of the “Texas chainsaw massacre” story true, too? (I have never seen any of these movies; I understand the 2003 version was set in Hewitt, Texas, which is a real, small Texas town near Waco, between Dallas and Austin — but not in Travis County. I’m not sure what Travis County has to do with any of the movies.)
Since then, in the last couple of weeks I have had at least a dozen requests to teach the history behind the movie, the “true story.” The movies are all highly fictionalized, I note. Perhaps I should plan a day to discuss real Texas murders, and just what fiction is, especially from Hollywood.
According to Snopes.com, one of my favorite debunking sites, there was never a Texas chainsaw massacre. There was a Wisconsin farmer who stole corpses from the local cemetery, and upon whom was based the earlier Alfred Hitchcock movie, Psycho. There was the chainsaw exhibit at Montgomery Ward seen by writer/director Toby Hooper, when he needed inspiration to finish a screen treatment. That’s about it.
But it’s nearing Halloween, and the studios in Hollywood hope to make money.
There are real Texas crimes that would be good fodder for movies, in the hands of intelligent and creative people. One wonders why more movies aren’t done on the real stories.
Historian Kent Biffle has a weekly column on Texas history matters in the Dallas Morning News, for example — and last week he featured a murder mystery from 1847, in which guests at a wedding were served cake laced with arsenic:
No matter how you sliced it, the luxurious dessert served to 60 East Texans in May 1847 was the wedding cake from hell. A few toxic bites sent guests into convulsions. At least 10 died.
Lacking autopsy tests, backwoods folks blamed arsenic poisoning.
The nuptials united a young couple on a Shelby County farm near the Sabine River settlement of East Hamilton, which today is little more than a cemetery where historian Bill O’Neal suspects several cake-eaters lie.
Author O’Neal links the mass poisoning to what he concludes was “Texas’ deadliest feud” in his new book, War in East Texas: Regulators vs. Moderators. Vigilantes organized as “Regulators” to punish suspected outlaws, usually by flogging. Soon enough they traded in their whips and canes for a lynch mob’s nooses and shotguns. Moderators claimed they arose to regulate the Regulators. As usual, in applying folk justice, vigilante leaders tended to target their personal enemies along with real outlaws.
“Four years or so of Regulator-Moderator warfare, along with a lethal aftermath, produced more than 30 deaths – more than 40 if the poisoned victims of the wedding feast are added,” said the Panola College professor O’Neal. He was in Nacogdoches last weekend to describe the Regulator-Moderator insurrection to members of the East Texas Historical Association.
It was full-out range war. One of the leaders of one faction got so good at killing, he thought he’d raise an army and take over Texas. Texas President Sam Houston personally intervened and brought the warring sides to the peace table (shades of the Camp David Accord). Then one was killed in a duel brought about when his mistress exchanged slurs with a physician’s wife.
Texas history is often the stuff of movies. The real stuff would make better movies that a lot of what gets made into movies these days. And for a lot of it, the stories are in the public domain. Fewer writers to pay.
Thomas Hewitt, the Hewitt clan, and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, are all fictional.
Help others get the facts:
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