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Belle Christmas

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

She possessed a lyrically evocative name few would believe, a life few would envy. Her name was Belle Christmas.

Nearly a century after figuring in a tale Charles Dickens surely would have fancied, how she came by her festive-sounding handle can only be a matter of speculation. Perhaps Belle’s birthday fell on December 25. Maybe her parents simply liked the two words. Another possibility is that she was a damsel of the demimonde and took it as her professional name.

No matter how she came to be called Belle Christmas, she had a reputation as a local character long before someone dreamed up the “Keep Austin Weird” bumper sticker.

In the early 1900s, decades before construction of the dam that created Lady Bird Lake (originally Town Lake), the area of the Capital City between West First Street and the Colorado River was a squalid neighborhood of shacks on the edge of the red light district, which began at Second Street.

As a young newspaper man, Edmunds Travis covered this rough side of Austin, as well as other goings on, often riding to the scene of a shooting or stabbing on the back of a policeman’s horse. Eventually becoming a newspaper editor and still later a highly influential lobbyist, Travis told me the story of Belle Christmas in 1970. He died a year later, 81 years old.

Puffing on his pipe, he began the story with the necessary background. Many of those who lived in the shanties along the river made a meager living as commercial fishermen. Conservation laws prohibiting the taking of freshwater game fish for sale had not yet been passed and even if it had been against the law, the fisherman would have got around it somehow. They could have cared less and as they could land bass and catfish.

While some of them may have been hard-working family men, the majority of this class, according to Travis, “either drank or ate cocaine leaves…they were cocaine fiends.” They would sell their catch to Austin restaurants or markets only to use most of the proceeds to support their drug habit. When the last of their drug supply wore off, they went back to work.

One of those “louts,” as Travis called them had a girlfriend – Belle Christmas. While the couple apparently got along well enough when he was sober, one day he got high, turned mean and practically beat her to death. The police arrested him and hauled him off as Belle sobbed.

Despite the injuries he had inflicted on her, Belle soon came to see him at the city jail, which occupied the basement of city hall. Whether she had intended to get her boyfriend out of the clink is not known, but the opportunity presented itself when the officer who let her in forgot to lock the door. Belle sprang her lover and they hurried back to their riverbank abode.

But Austin was a small town. It did not take the authorities long to locate the escaped fish monger. And this time, they arrested Belle for her role in his getaway.

Back then, the mayor also presided over recorder’s court, the equivalent of today’s municipal court – a legal entity with jurisdiction only over misdemeanor cases. The mayor was Alexander Penn Wooldridge, who served from 1909 to 1919.

A compassionate man who believed in the importance of education and public parks, Wooldridge found it touching that Belle would free the very man who roughed her up so badly. At the same time, he viewed their cohabitation as morally reprehensible.

In relating this story, Travis did not give the season of its occurrence. But it must have been around the holiday for which Belle had been named, a time of year when many people get the urge to make things better for the less fortunate.

Wooldridge had no immunity from such feelings. Summoning the couple to his office, the mayor lectured the man not only for having hurt Belle, but for doing her wrong. In fact, Wooldridge said, he “ought to be ashamed for dragging Belle into the gutter.” To make it right, the mayor continued, the man needed to marry Belle.

“I don’t think so,” the fisherman said defiantly.

“Well,” Wooldridge countered, “I’ll keep you in jail until you do.”

Mentally weighing the invisible shackles of marriage against actual confinement behind bars, the man caved in. Being as how the mayor thought it proper, he would gladly take Belle’s hand in marriage. If a look of doubt momentarily clouded Belle’s bruised face, the mayor did not pick up on it. Forgoing the formalities of a license, Wooldridge pronounced them man and wife right there and cheerfully bade them good luck and many years of marital bliss.

A week later, a sober but noticeably agitated Mr. Belle Christmas showed up at city hall and demanded an audience with the mayor.

“You got me in trouble and now you’ve got to get me out of it,” he said. “Belle’s husband is really raising hell about this marriage.”

According to Travis, the embarrassed mayor ordered the couple to separate and seek a divorce. Apparently he opted to take no judicial notice of Belle Christmas’ accidental decent into bigamy.

What became of Belle after that has not been determined, but Mayor Wooldridge probably proceeded somewhat more cautiously the next time he got the urge to do a little social engineering.

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" December 22, 2008

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