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  • Matthew Kerns

Time Wounds All Heels

Texas Jack had been dead for nine years, and his wife Giuseppina Morlacchi for less than three, when this story about Jack's grave in Leadville was reprinted in newspapers across the country. Originating in the Omaha, Nebraska, Herald, it is shown here as reprinted in the Chattanooga, Tennessee, Daily Tribune of May 4, 1889:



TEXAS JACK'S GRAVE

Last Resting Place of the Handsome Cowboy Husband of Morlacchi


Omaha Herald: "Not far from Charlie Vivian's grave in Leadville Cemetery," began the old actor, "is the earthly tenement of another man whose reputation was world wide. A rough pine slab, upon which are inscribed the simple words, 'John Omahundra,' mark the spot where the once famous Texas Jack is interred. When the pneumonia scourge carried him away he was the dime novel ideal of a frontiersman. Tall and muscular, with long raven hair and moustache and features of Grecian beauty, 'twas no wonder that the first time Morlacchi met him she loves him. Morlacchi was a Parisian danseuse, who came to the country with one of the French opera companies. She saw Omahundra one night in a New Orleans cafe, and a week later she married him. She was a blase woman of the world—his life had been spent on the plains. She was gifted with all the graces ultra refinement could bestow—he was a beautiful brute.


"The queerly assorted couple drifted into Leadville with the 'rush.' Morlacchi's talent was in demand. She danced divinely, and the princely salary she received form the management of the Grand Central Theatre was only an insignificant portion of the emoluments showered upon her. Golden coins were flung upon the stage every time she graced it. Meantime her beloved husband drank and gambled with the many kindred spirits he found in the new camp. The woman danced and made money, and the man spent her earnings in the wildest sort of dissipation. She never complained of his conduct. Stories of his marital infidelity reached her ears, but she dismissed the gossips with a shrug of her shapely shoulders and a snap of her fingers. 'Pouf,' she would say, 'ze enfant enjoy heemself—why not?' Yet to him she was as true as steel. Perhaps her love was mingled with fear, for her spouse had a playful habit of publicly proclaiming his intention to commit a double crime if his wife should ever forget her vows. And so he drank and gambled and blustered until King Pneumonia cut him down and hurried him away from the world in which he was less useful than ornamental. Morlacchi was with him when he died and remained with the corpse until it was buried with all the tinsel honors her professional associates could bestow. Yet not a tear did she shed. She silently stole away from the city in which the last act of her life romance was played, and in a quiet Vermont village shut herself up with her memories until death claimed her, about a year ago."


Buffalo Bill Cody at the grave of Texas Jack

Stories like this one, with its mixture of fact and fiction, make it hard to peer into the past and discern the truth. Newspapers were allowed to print essentially whatever they wanted. Notice that this story has no credited author, leaving no one to hold accountable for the half-truths and lies. Further, note that this entire article is in quotes, and being spoken by "the old actor." This "news" is nothing more than a piece of gossip—a rumor presented as important. To discern the truth, we must look at the context.


In her grief over her husband's death, Giuseppina Morlacchi left Leadville without ensuring a proper memorial was left for her husband. For several years his grave marker was actually handwritten in Italian, bearing the parting words she wrote for him at his death. That marker was eventually stolen and replaced with another. This second memorial was also removed, and by the time the article in question made its way into papers across the country, it followed multiple reports about the shameful condition of Texas Jack's grave and efforts by Jack's many admirers to maintain his final resting place and to eventually replace the current pine slab with a more permanent stone. Consider this article from January 1889, four months prior to the Omaha Herald piece above:



TEXAS JACK'S GRAVE


Perpetuating the Memory of a Courtly Frontiersman, Morlacchi's Husband


The traveling company of comedians headed by the Daly brothers recently visited Denver. While there the two Daly boys were informed that the grave of a former actor and famous scout, Texas Jack, was in a most dilapidated condition, and had, in fact, been neglected for many months. They immediately made generous arrangements with the keeper of Evergreen Cemetery in that city, and the plot will hereafter be carefully looked after.


Nearly every actor in the country, all border men, and a great many other people will remember Texas Jack. He was born John B. Omohundro, from Spanish and Indian stock, and after a brave career as a scout he became a fellow actor with Buffalo Bill, sharing with the latter much celebrity in this city, when they were first lionized here. Jack was the favorite scout and guide of the Earl of Dunraven. Years ago he loved and wedded Morlacchi, a dark-eyed dancer famous in her day, and wealthy, too. He died in Denver ten or a dozen years ago, and was buried with military honors. Morlacchi soon went into retirement and passed away about 1886 at Lowell, Mass.



Jack's grave was a subject of national interest, as it had been since 1882 when his friend John M. Burke first visited and suggested a permanent replacement to the wooden tomb marker. If you look back at the first article, you'll notice that only the first two sentences are actually about Omohundro's grave, despite the fact that the headline is TEXAS JACK'S GRAVE - Last Resting Place of the Handsome Cowboy Husband of Morlacchi. The big words, in this case, exist to draw attention, diverting the reader into an article almost completely unrelated to the headline.


There are truths in the article: Texas Jack was a cowboy. He was married to Morlacchi. He did die in Leadville and he is buried there. Where the article falls apart is in the details: Jack's surname was Omohundro, not Omahundra. Morlacchi was from Milan, Italy, not Paris, France, and came to America for an American production of The Devil's Auction, not a French ballet company. They met in Chicago rather than New Orleans, and as costars of the play The Scouts of the Prairie rather than in a cafe. They married at the end of August, 1873, nine months after they first met rather than eloping after a week as suggested here. She died in Billerica, Massachusetts, and not in Vermont. Though this article suggests infidelity on the part of Texas Jack, no suggestion of any impropriety exists during Jack's lifetime, and articles announcing his death point out that the couple had traveled together and acted together since their marriage, "Jack proving a stanch and stalwart husband, and she a true and devoted wife" and noting that "their mutual affection never cooled."

Grave of Texas Jack Omohundro, Leadville, Colorado.

Sometimes it is difficult to discern what to believenot just in the distant past, but in the here and now. With so much information (and misinformation), how do we know what's real and what isn't, what we should add to our accumulated facts, and what we should ignore? We have to try to work around confirmation bias, the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one's existing beliefs or theories. We can't simply ignore the things that challenge our preconceived notions while accepting those that confirm what we hold true. In writing about Texas Jack, I have to look at all of the evidence, including all of the articles depicting him as a loving husband and speaking tenderly about his wife, and decide if this article, full of errors and printed long after his death without attribution to an author, might be true. For my part, I feel I can file this one away as fiction. It would be wrong to simply ignore it because even if it isn't the truth, it was circulated and likely shaped the way newspaper readers thought about Texas Jack at the time. A lie can shape our perception just as much as the truth—even more so depending on the circumstances and source of that lie. In the end, is it important not just to understand what is the truth; it is important to understand what lies are being told and why people might be inclined to believe them.


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