Bartee Haile: Life of Texas judge inspires strange short story
This Week in Texas History: A column
by BARTEE HAILE
A former judge from the Lone Star State passed away in Chicago on Dec. 31, 1867 without knowing he would be immortalized in a short story that may be far more fact than fiction.
Four years later, a San Francisco newspaper carried an offbeat piece by William Rhodes, a Texas attorney turned science fiction writer. “The Case of Summerfield” opens with the author recalling his boyhood meeting in Galveston with a well-known jurist named Summerfield. The lad is bowled over by the famous magistrate, whose brilliant intellect qualifies him as an authority on everything from mathematics to philosophy.
Summerfield passes the Arkansas bar after only six months of study. He moves south to Texas and becomes a judge at Brownsville, where in spite of the demands of the bench he writes a colorful book called The Desperadoes of the West.
The tale jumps ahead several decades to the San Francisco law office of the adult author. Summerfield suddenly shows up with the startling announcement that he has created from ordinary water the most powerful explosive on earth.
“I have now the means at my command of inflicting incalculable ills upon the whole human race,” boasts the unhinged inventor. Unless the citizens of San Francisco come up with a million dollars, he vows to level the “City by the Bay.”
At Summerfield’s insistence a delegation of local leaders assemble for a demonstration of his dangerous device. He pours a single drop of the mysterious concoction into a lake, and within minutes the water begins to boil and soon completely evaporates.
But San Francisco cannot raise the cash to satisfy the mad scientist. He agrees to accompany the author on a transcontinental ride to New York, where the balance of the ransom is supposed to be waiting. But as the train chugs along the edge of a steep gorge, the hero of the story saves mankind by pushing Summerfield to his death.
Now for the stranger-than-fiction facts. During his Galveston youth, future attorney-author William Rhodes was indeed introduced to a prominent Texas judge by the name of Alfred W. Arrington.
A circuit-riding evangelist, the North Carolina native settled in Arkansas after a scandal compelled a career change.
Arrington was known far and wide for his intellectual and oratorical gifts. One observer praised him as “an intellectual prodigy, rarely excelled in any age or among any people,” and a former governor ranked him as “the most magnificent orator that ever appeared in Texas.”
Admitted to the Arkansas bar after a crash course on the law, the newcomer served in the legislature before pulling up stakes for Texas in 1840. After a short but successful practice in San Augustine, he moved to Brownsville making such a powerful impression that in less than a year he was elected judge.
In addition to his many other interests, Arrington fancied himself a writer. Despite his judicial duties, he found time to publish an entertaining work entitled Desperadoes of the South-West under the pen name Summerfield. Carried away by the dream of a full-time writing career, he abruptly abandoned Texas for New York in 1856.
After nothing but disappointment in Manhattan, Judge Arrington came to his senses. He spent his last years as a practicing attorney in Chicago and died on the final day of 1867, four years before the publication of “The Case of Summerfield.”
The similarities between Arrington and the main character in the strange short story are too striking and too numerous to dismiss as mere coincidence. In place of Arrington’s real name, the writer substituted his pseudonym Summerfield. Arrington and Summerfield were extraordinarily talented individuals, who switched to law in mid-life and began their practices in Arkansas.
Both wandered to Texas, wound up judges in Brownsville and wrote epics on frontier gunfighters. Even the titles of the two books are nearly identical. But is that where facts leave off and fantasy takes over?
Late in life while living in Chicago, Arrington reportedly conducted ground-breaking research in the sciences. Had his failure to make the grade as a New York writer somehow weakened the old man’s grip on reality? Was he looking for a diabolical way to strike back at a society that did not appreciate his literary ability?
William Rhodes obviously set out to appropriate the up-and-down existence of Judge Alfred Arrington for his own fictional purpose. Maybe he stumbled across an aging genius driven mad by disillusionment and who, with one foot in the grave, could think only of revenge.
Then again, Rhodes probably cast a real character in a world of his own making and the rest was merely a figment of his fertile imagination. Yet “The Case of Summerfield” may be one tale where the story behind the story is clearly the better of the two.
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