After I flew into Dallas for my latest research trip, my cab driver’s response to my mention of the Trinity River was: “Oh you mean the bodies?” Whatever renaissance American rivers may be experiencing, the Trinity’s reputation remains infamous. I have a few theories about when and why this reputation developed, but in part it is simply a result of the fact that people did meet their deaths down by the river. One of the first readers of my blog sent me documentation of her family’s history with the Trinity River when her great-grandmother was murdered next to the river on May 20, 1923 at age twenty. What happened, and what does this event tell us about the Trinity River?
Unfortunately most of the older police files have not been archived in the Dallas Municipal Archives, but the newspaper reports confirmed the details of Geraldine Harris’s death. She had come to the Trinity River with friends for a fishing trip near the California Crossing in what is now Northwest Dallas. Early that morning another member of the fishing party “had fired two shots from a pistol at some bushes where he heard a rustling sound which he believed to have been made by a wolf or some other wild animal.” (Dallas Morning News, May 21, 1923) The other term used in the newspaper articles was that the assailant had fired at a “booger” in the bushes. Not until all three men present had armed themselves did they investigate what was in the bushes. Mrs. Harris's husband discovered his wife’s body, “‘My God! You’ve killed my wife!’ Harris exclaimed as he rushed to the prostrate form of Mrs. Harris.” (Dallas Times Herald, May 21, 1923)
One of the detectives assigned to the case was Will Fritz, who forty years later led the investigation into the assassination of JFK. Despite the strong detective work there is no indication that anyone ended up serving time for this murder. According to the reports, the shooter feared a wild animal rather than another human, and he took a shoot-first ask questions later approach. The Trinity would have been a relatively undeveloped area, and it is unclear whether the shooter had a reason to fear the animals along the river or if he had heard tales of these wild animals. In The Making of a Lynching Culture Bill Carrigan argues that the state’s reputation for violence made new settlers more likely to take part in a culture of violence. There may be some specific material reasons why so many murders happened along the Trinity, but a bad reputation and an itchy trigger finger also played their role in this tragedy.
On May 21, 1923 the Trinity made two separate headlines, the first reads: “Jurors Probing Death of Woman Bullet Victim,” but directly below that story the next headline reads, “Heavy Rains May Cause Trinity To Overflow Again.” While the placement of these two stories next to each other may be both conscious and coincidental, it shows the ways that the physical actions of the river and its reputation are completely intertwined. How I put the Trinity’s relationship to Texas culture into words, is one of the many questions I will be trying to answer over the years to come.