A Southern Belle on the Prairie (Part 1)
Updated: May 10, 2021
In Savannah, Georgia, in late 1868 and through the summer of 1869, Ena Palmer's life seemed charmed. She was the favorite child of her doting parents, the only sister of loving brothers, and was engaged to a handsome young doctor who was part of Savannah's elite social circle. A poet, Ms. Palmer had recently seen several of her poems printed in national publications, and she was immensely proud to see her work in print. The trajectory of her life seemed pointed ever upwards.
And then things fell apart.
Doctor Hilliard H. Harley, the man Ena had been engaged to marry, was murdered, struck down by an assassin's bullet while he wrote at his desk at home on the 24th of August, 1869. The Governor of Georgia offered a $1,000 reward for the capture of the man or men who had perpetrated the murder.
Savannah society was shocked by the murder of a promising young doctor—a member of the social elite, respected Confederate veteran, and local businessman. A Savannah newspaper ran this article:
ASSASSINATION OF DR. H.H. HARLEY—Our community was shocked on Wednesday morning, upon the circulation of the fact of the cruel and dastardly assassination of the gentleman whose name heads this article.
From the findings of the empanelled jury we glean these particulars: Dr. H. was in charge of the business of Mr. Babcock, cutting and hauling cross ties for the Brunswick and Albany Railroad, with headquarters at College plantation, about two miles from Bethel. On Tuesday night, about ten o’clock while Dr. H was sitting in his cabin, an open log house, writing at his desk, with one or two others present, a gun was passed through the logs and discharged, the murderous fire terribly mutilating his head, his brains staining the walls of the house. He survived the fatal wound but a few brief moments.
As there are dozens of rumors as regards the probable cause of this assassination, and as it is probable that the affair will be thoroughly sifted, and, if possible, the guilty party or parties brought to punishment, we refrain from publishing any of the unpleasant rumors.
Dr. H. was a young man, lately a resident of Camden county, in this State, but a native of South Carolina, where he has a father, brothers, and sisters now residing. He served during the late war in the C.S.A. as assistant Surgeon, with Maxwell’s Battery. Since the war he has been connected with the timber business in this vicinity.
His remains were brought to our city Thursday and interred with Masonic honors, by Ocean Lodge, of which he was a member.
The article says that there were "dozens of rumors as regards the probable cause of this assassination." Several of Harley's friends knew that he had recently, and rather suddenly, broken off his engagement with Ena Palmer, offering disparaging words about her both in public and before her oldest brother, William Herbert Palmer. William and the doctor had publicly argued about the things that were now being said about Ena, and the arguments had lead to threats. William was questioned and then arrested for the murder of his sister's ex-fiance. At trial, it became obvious that William had indeed murdered Harley for slandering his sister. Palmer was convicted, as was another man listed as an accomplice, but his lawyers appealed the ruling and William Palmer was released on an $8,000 bond.
The appeal was dropped when some of William's clothing was discovered washed up on the shore of the Savannah River. He knew he would lose his appeal, locals said, and took his own life by jumping from a local bridge rather than face his accusers a second time. His family was devastated, both by the loss of their son and the very public trial. The accusations, sideways glances, and shame meant Ena would never find a husband in Georgia and the family considered a move to another part of the country where they could start their lives over.
William Herbert Palmer's body was never found, but weeks later a man named William Herbert Miles arrived at North Platte, Nebraska. Matching descriptions of Mr. Palmer, Mr. Miles' southern accent stood out amongst the prairie settlers. William found work where he could, assisting cattle ranchers and working odd jobs. He met local men like Texas Jack Omohundro and Buffalo Bill Cody, and they became friends. In the summer of 1872, the Palmer family relocated from Savannah, Georgia, to the Nebraska prairie. When Ena stepped off the train, she was greeted by William Miles and his new friend Texas Jack.
Ena’s diary entry dated June 7, 1872, makes plain the impact the dashing cowboy had on the refined Southern belle: “I have been introduced to ‘Texas Jack,’ one of our ‘Western Heroes,’ and a fine picture of handsome, dashing, manly manhood he is,” she confided in her journal. “Certainly one of my beau-ideals of a hunter or a ‘Scout.’ Hope I shall see more of him and that I like his character as well as his face. But enough of this hero for the present, only that he now heads a party out on about as wild an adventure as even my wild brain could devise—viz.: lassoing buffalo, full-grown ones for the purpose of shipping them, alive on the train. Some say it is dangerous work; some prophecy not only broken arms and legs and crippled horses, but dead men as well as dead horses!” [The story of Ena Palmer and Texas Jack is continued in part 2 of A Southern Belle on the Prairie and completed in A Southern Belle on the Prairie Part 3.]