The Texian Legacy Association
By Jeffrey Dane
Here is a page of book reviews
by our friend Jeffrey Dane. He reviews 5 books and an artist and collector of Bowie knives,
The books are:
The Alamo Almanac and Book of Lists by William R. Chemerka
The Alamo Story: From Early History to Current Conflicts by J.R. Edmondson
The Alamo - An Illustrated History by George Nelson
The Alamo - A Cultural History by Frank Thompson
An Illustrated History of Texas Forts by Rod Timanus
An interesting collection, each of which earned
The Alamo Almanac and Book of Lists by William R. Chemerka. 1997, Eakin Press.
To paraphrase Aaron Copland, the Dean of American composers, "If itís in the writing, itís in the man." As weíre often defined (or even judged) by our choice of friends, weíre often best represented by the results of our own work.
David Crockett was a frontiersman and adventurer (and a hunter, farmer, businessman, veteran of the Creek Indian War, town commissioner, militia colonel and Tennessee state legislator), who served for a time as a United States congressman. He was not a congressman who spent time as a frontiersman and adventurer.
It seems the bookís intent is for expanse and diversity. This is not a negative judgement but a positive observation: thereís no other book quite like it so its singularity makes it quite special. Seek not here thy standard detailed biographies - thou shalt not find them. There are countless tomes about the history of the West, of Texas, and of the Alamo with its countless sub-species (biographies of Bowie, Crockett, Travis, volumes about the collective defenders, their descendants, etc). This book provides something rather unique, which adds to its value: a compendium of fascinating details that would be difficult, if not altogether impossible, to find in one source. It can, indeed, be a blessing to the researcher and surely a delight to the reader.
Of particular interest is the Alamo Chronology, offering a virtually year-by-year account of the location and its events, and presenting a veritable Alamo timetable in microcosm. The Alamo from A to Z, the bookís longest section, offers data too abundant even to summarize here, and defies description. Suffice it to say itís a virtual treasury of information, facts, tidbits and fascinating details, allowing us to vicariously do our own excavations on the Alamo grounds. The section titled Alamo Lists includes (but isnít limited to) rosters of the defenders, the survivors, the couriers, the best Alamo books, and even the best actors in Alamo films.
The book contains both photos and well-executed illustrations by various people. One warranting mention is the superb rendering by California artist and Bowie historian Joseph Musso, picturing the three most prominent Alamo defenders: Crockett, Bowie and Travis. Outstanding and fascinating maps of the actual assaults are provided by artist Rod Timanus. Perhaps the most gripping photographic illustration, however, is the reproduction of the first known photographic image made in Texas: the 1849 Daguerreotype of the Alamo. By its very immediacy, the appearance of this picture in William Chemerkaís book seems to enlarge and strengthen the links in the chain that binds us to our own history.
One can easily foresee the entirely predictable objections and ludicrous reactions the book will prompt from some quarters. We can safely anticipate the claim by some academics that itís not source material for scholars. Well, maybe this book isnít supposed to be. - - We must recognize that some people are hard of reading, being unable (or worse, unwilling) to gauge a finished, integral work by its own intrinsic value, and to understand and appreciate it for what it is. They prefer instead to view it tangentially, and to focus on what it is not. Alas this postural view is often taken in academe and is popularly known as a cop-out.
If this book isnít a be-all and end-all of Alamo history and wonít be everything to everyone, itís because it isnít its purpose. Itís not for those who get annoyed because goldfish arenít trained to do tricks or because dogs donít live in fish tanks. Those who would benefit most by this volume and would respond most positively to it are those with the prudence and integrity to form their own opinions and draw their own conclusions. This principle brings to mind a relevant remark, made by Beethoven: when asked by the violinist Radicati about "the meaning" of the composerís late string quartets (virtually avant-garde music in his day), Beethoven replied in the most matter-of-fact manner and without a trace of conceit, "Oh, those are not for you, but for a later age."
Those academics who might not consider the contents of this book "source material for scholars" would be revealing more about themselves than about the book. For readers, itís superb material and is, in a phrase, highly recommended as an invaluable "at your fingertips" tool -- for anyone -- both as a reference work and as very enjoyable, even fascinating and, perhaps more importantly, enlightening reading.
The Alamo Story: From Early History to Current Conflicts by J.R. Edmondson. 2000, Republic of Texas Press.
This bookís coverage of the Alamo is, in a word, comprehensive. For anyone with even a peripheral interest in Western history, it has the clarity, cohesion, drama, and excitement of the finest historical narrative. Anyone can report dry facts. Not everyone can tell a story well. Fewer still can tell a good story engagingly with important data woven into the tale as an integral part of the text (rather than tacked on as footnotes). It would be difficult to envision a more professional, appealing and enjoyable volume than this one by historian J.R. Edmondson.
Unearthing details is only one facet of a researcherís work. What distinguishes this book from most others is its flow and efficiency.
A book like this can result when an author combines research findings with aggregate knowledge born of his or her family background, life experience, general environment, personal upbringing and scholarly training. Itís content is a near-ideal melding of an authorís acquired professional skills, his evident personal predilections, and exceptional perceptions. To paraphrase a remark by Bill Groneman in his book, Death of a Legend: Edmondson has substantially advanced our understanding of the Alamo in the course of being sensible about it.
Among the many interesting features of the book are Myths, Mysteries & Misconceptions following each major section. Itís here that Edmondson encapsulates and sheds light on preceding chapters, offering insights on the thoughts and ideas other historians have dealt and struggled with for decades. He explains, for example, that a man who had an almost accidental connection with the Alamo and who took only a relatively small part in its overall defense ultimately became its most famous defender. In crystallizing concepts like these into concise and almost revelatory prose, Edmondson has performed a service for which all historians -- independent, amateur, and academic -- should be indebted to him: he has illuminated some dark rooms through which we were previously stumbling.
Edmondson identifies the origins of "Comanche" and "santanistas"; the particular term for the uniquely-shaped hump atop the Alamoís faÁade; the link between Sam Houston and Francis Scott Key; how and why "Colonel" James Bowie was so titled; the incident in Crockettís life that effectively determined his outlook; which presidentís nephew perished at the Alamo; the name of the bugler whoís supposed to have played the De Guello before the final assault -- all these points and countless more are discussed in this superb book, which contains outstanding illustrations by artists like Rod Timanus, Joseph Musso, and Craig Covner. What transpired at the Alamo in 1836 is dramatic enough without the need for Hollywood embellishments, and the screenwriters for the best (but as-yet unmade) Alamo film would distinguish themselves by using this book as their Bible.
James Bowie is arguably the most misunderstood of the Alamo defenders. Confusion and contradictions about him are legion. The authorís statement that thereís no historical documentation that Bowie ever fought a duel per se may initially seem at odds with legend but should also lay to rest some Bowie questions and put things into proper historical perspective. We must remember that a colorful nature like Bowieís precludes black & white judgements or descriptions.
The book is so thoroughly researched one wonders if there were any sources the author didnít consult. The final chapters, including the Epilogue, are fascinating and give us a clear, blow-by-blow description of how the Alamo grounds and buildings evolved in the last 17-or-so decades. The 13 chapters on the 1836 battle, one chapter for each day of the siege, are so vividly written and bring us close enough to the action that the reader might find himself looking over his shoulder to make sure he isnít being targeted by a Mexican sniper lurking in a double-trunk cypress tree.
Edmondson ends each chapter in a way that prompts the reader to attack the next one with an Alamo defenderís tenacity, rather than to "continue reading tomorrow." Itís comparable, at least in its effect, to the musical device called a deceptive cadence: clearly itís an ending of sorts but itís not "resolved," making the listener -- in this case, the reader -- wonder just whatís coming next.
In an ideally fitting ending to the book, "Epilogue: The Battles Continue," Edmondson provides an 1836-to-the-present chronology of modifications the compound and its buildings underwent. This is intriguing reading for those whoíd like to see how things evolved since that significant dawn in 1836.
Western historians will have to live a long time, amass abundant research material, study it diligently and learn a great deal from it before realizing theyíd be hard pressed to question this bookís substance and findings. J.R. Edmondson has given us a solid work. If weíre persuaded, itís not by comments but by actual findings. That the author effectively acknowledges this in his book is very much to his credit: he has enough confidence in his readersí intellect to feel they can come to their own conclusions and he wants us to think for ourselves.
Many Alamo questions are still unanswered and will forever so remain; one of them involves those whose claims of a historic Alamo connection have no documentation. Edmondson makes us realize that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
As a high-water mark of the literature in this genre, this might be the "Beethovenís Ninth" of books about the Alamo. Even those unfamiliar with that masterwork will know what this means, even if only by reputation of iconic status. Placing this volume beside many others gives us filet mignon with hominy grits, notwithstanding the need and value of each. The only objection is that this book isnít long enough, even at over 400 pages. You canít choke a cat with cream -- and as a volume on the history of the Alamo, this book is the cream of the crop.
The Alamo: An Illustrated History by George Nelson. 1998, Aldine Books.
Though a clichť, the phrase "A picture is worth a thousand words" finds worthy illustrations, even literally, in this book by artist and author George Nelson, "The Alamo: An Illustrated History."
A collection, by common usage and by operative definition, is an accumulation of objects for purposes of examination, comparison, study, display and viewing, and enjoyment. Private collections usually contain treasures only a chosen few can enjoy. Nelson has done every history enthusiast a real service by putting into literal publication this volume of Alamo images. They are absolutely fascinating.
Though not as massive in its heft as the facsimile of Leonardoís "Leicester Codex," in format Nelsonís volume could easily serve as a superb "coffee table" book. In it, one finds accounts, illustrative and written, of the Alamoís evolution throughout the centuries. Some of the artistís renderings are the authorís own, and most of the photographic images are historic.
The most compelling picture in the book might be the 1849 Alamo daguerreotype. Itís compelling mainly for two reasons: itís the first photographic image known to have been made in Texas -- and itís the only known photograph of the church before the now-iconic campanulate roof was added by the U.S. Army not long after the image was made. It thusly offers us a literal glimpse into the past, and shows how the Alamo church looked -- if not literally, then surely effectively -- at the time of the siege. That there are a few people visible in the photo lends a special distinction -- a human quality -- to the image, even though weíre seeing in it a freeze-frame of mid-19th-century time. That instant shows certainly not the battle that occurred there thirteen years before, or even a "reality" of daily life at the moment the photo was made: what it captures is essentially a brief view of one of historyís "coffee breaks."
We should be thankful for the existence of this particular Alamo photo, and that George Nelson included it in this book. Made the very year Chopin died, the picture seems to cement the attachments that tie us to our own history. Historic photographic images like this one have certain primacies others do not, and only the most minimal reflection and effort reveal to us the important connections between the times of those photos and the corresponding people and events. As just one example, the first known photographic image ever made is a ďheliographĒ on a pewter panel by French lithographer Joseph Niepce. A view from his window at Gras, it took eight hours to expose, is primitive by any standards and lacks real detail. Nevertheless, that photographic image is still extraordinary: when it was made in 1826, Beethoven was still alive, with the mighty Missa Solemnis and the Ninth Symphony already two years behind him. Thereís no way to know that the 1849 Alamo daguerreotype has no hidden story: can anyone say that none of the people visible in that photo didnít actually witness the events of Sunday, March 6, 1836 from a safe point in or near the town of San Antonio de Bexar? Conjecture may be fruitless, but itís still fascinating.
The artistís speculative rendering of the 1836 Alamo compound, one of the finest in the book, has an odd detail. The southern main gate seems totally surrounded by a U-shaped fortification of earthworks and cannon, with two rather narrow doorways on the eastern side of the Galera (often referred to as the "Low Barracks") being the only visible means of ingress or outlet to and from the entire compound. Itís conceivable the artist might be suggesting that at the time of the battle, entry and exit might have been effected via those two doorways, perhaps with the intent of maximizing protection of the compound under conditions of seige. This still leaves open certain questions about how larger apparati might have been brought in. Even if this unusual peculiarity was an oversight in the rendering -- after all, nothing is "perfect" -- it certainly doesnít invalidate the overall worth and quality of the book, just as a wrong note or two wouldnít invalidate an otherwise fine performance by a fine pianist.
Exemplified in Nelsonís book is the "Show, donít tell" principle. The finest writers show us with prose; and as the skilled musician can "hear with his eyes" by reading a score, the finer artists can "tell" us with images rather than words. Resurrected in this book are conceptual renderings and actual photos of places in eras long gone. With such a wealth of illustrations, the book offers us a rare and fascinating opportunity for comparison and study of images that have a very direct Alamo connection.
Though thereís much to learn from the written accounts given here, the images themselves are the main feature of this book. And images -- especially historic ones -- can resonate with us as no written descriptions can.
The Alamo: A Cultural History, by Frank Thompson. 2001, Taylor Publishing
"One wife can be all things to a man," spoke Marcian, the Roman centurion-turned-Christian (played by Jeff Chandler) in the 1955 film,
Sign of the Pagan
. Ironically, he said it to perhaps the foremost polygamous pagan of them all, Attila the Hun (portrayed by Jack Palance). Attilaís calm but disarming response carried a paradoxical logic: "How can a man know which wife is best, unless he can choose from among many?"
The underlying concept corresponds to the content of this fascinating book by Frank Thompson: it places before us a powder-horn of plenty, from which pour details and keen observations that enable us to feast on a banquet of enlightening historical tidbids and informational delicacies.
The clear perspective presented even in the Introduction is a promising indication of what awaits the reader. The author consulted a gamut of sources from William Chemerka to Robert Penn Warren, with William C. Davis, J.R. Edmondson, Bill Groneman and Walter Lord as part of the roster. This book belies the built-in relative modesty of its title. Itís not just a cultural history, but a factual one as well, in which the Alamo of both genuine history and popular culture is examined.
Lucky is the man who can do what he loves, love what heís doing, and see his efforts recognized -- and, ideally, rewarded in tangible form. Authors appreciate noble royalties but it seems clear this book was a labor of love. It shows through in the authorís written voice.
The second part of Chapter 1 is very fittingly sub-titled, "The Shifting Face of the Alamo: a Visual Essay." A real value of this section is that it encapsulates the evolution of the visual depictions of the Alamo throughout the decades. Though relatively short, the section offers a chronological series of illustrations of the shrine.
Itís a given some sections of the book will interest readers more than others, but by definition of title the entire volume is relevant to the Alamo and all that goes with it. The book would appeal to both the scholar and the general audience, for thereís much in it that would interest both. Itís infinitely more readable and enjoyable than the traditional dry academic dissertation, while offering us glimpses into the past and even insights into historical events and the people who took part in them. Without claiming clairvoyance, one could say that the most avid fan of a book like this would be the intelligent and astute reader who has any interest in the Alamo and related periphera. Whatís more, it could easily prompt and intensify a regard for the subject from others whose interest might be only peripheral to begin with.
By their own procedural history, the actions of some are entirely predictable. "The quintessential professor straightening out the errant student" is a perceptive remark, laden with insight, by historian Bill Groneman, which will exemplify the kind of reaction and objections from some academics to Thompsonís volume. We can easily foresee academic hard-liners trying to trivialize this book because it doesnít suit their own scholastic purposes and follow the traditionally expected collegiate formulas for presenting historical source material. We should be mindful, however, that this isnít the aim and purpose of Thompsonís book. Its very title is aptly descriptive but shouldnít be taken literally, for although the book does indeed present a cultural history, it also offers a sensible and well-reasoned historical account. After all, culture is part of our history as much as history is part of our culture. The account in this book is one with which some hard-of-reading academics might still take issue in some of its details -- but from which many of Thompsonís readers could learn, and of which many authors would be proud. The content and tone of negative criticism usually reveals far more about the critic -- where heís coming from and where heís going -- than about the work on which heís commenting. In academe, oneís behavior in reporting on anotherís book can speak volumes.
Photos abound in this book. One is from the film
The Man From The Alamo
(1953), in which a young, pre-"Wyatt Earp" Hugh OíBrian (who portrays Lt. Tom Lamar in the film) is seen walking, in buckskins, hot on the heels of Glenn Ford. Shown also is a stamp from the Republic of Maldives, with Crockett at the Alamo as its subject. Clearly the little mission in San Antonio is known far and wide, even in islands of the Indian Ocean. Also pictured are some of the "new" Alamos -- structures built to resemble the Shrine of Texas Liberty, including a copy center in Cypress, Texas, and a ballroom & convention center in El Paso. Some might call these buildings as pretentious and prosaic as the "fooferai" worn by some of the characters in Alamo-related films; others would view these structures as being visually pleasing, entertaining curiosities and rather enjoyable and even fascinating to see. In context, a fine song can be just as gratifying as a fine symphony.
One of the bookís more illuminating gems is that the author informs us of artist and Alamo historian Craig Covnerís conjectural but very plausible theory, about which particular European structure might have influenced the design and prompted the shape of the Alamoís operatively now world-recognized faÁade.
Among the bookís wealth of illustrations are photos of four of the actors who over the years have portrayed on film the man who was operatively responsible for what became perhaps the greatest single traumatic event in southwestern American history during the first half of the nineteenth century, and whose revealing sense of modesty prompted him to call himself "The Napoleon of the West": His Excellency, El Presidente y Generalissimo Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna y Perťz de Lebrůn. Debatably the most visually convincing cinematic Santa Anna might have been J. Carrol Naish, who portrayed the Mexican general in
The Last Command
(1955), and who brought a subdued but very real kind of palpable humanity to the role thatís rare in such portrayals. Photographic images of the real subject indicate a remarkable visual likeness between the two men. In character, Naish bears an almost uncanny resemblance to the historical Santa Anna. While theyíre not actual "clones," the features and facial structures correspond, making Naish persuasively credible in the role. Parenthetically, the same can be said of actor David Keithís arrestingly believable portrayal of James Bowie in James Michenerís
One of this bookís many advantages is that it offers particulars that would be unavailable elsewhere in one book. It would impress readers as a rather thorough compendium of both factual details and conceptual notions about the history and popular culture of the Alamo. Does this book by Frank Thompson contribute to our fascination with and our enjoyment and knowledge of the Alamo in virtually all its incarnations? "It do."
An Illustrated History of Texas Forts, by Rod Timanus. 2001, Republic of Texas Press.
"Something of Value" is not just the title of Robert Ruarkís book but also a fitting description of this one by Rod Timanus. It should be highly recommended to anyone interested in Western history, generally, and in Texas history in particular. Among its outstanding illustrations is a fascinating overlay titled "The Alamo: Then and Now", comparing the current plot parameters with those of the sprawling original compound in 1836.
The authorís evident personal predilections and exceptional perceptions are evident in the book. What were the real names of Kit Carson and Bat Masterson? What was "the mile-long shot"? Here youíll find the answers to these and other questions.
Finding what the researcher seeks is one of the more time-consuming features of his job. This book presents information which apparently canít be found elsewhere in a single volume.
Itís not a textbook and wasnít so intended. Too many reviewers examine a volume merely by reading only the text -- and they very often do so, it seems, without overmuch regard to an actual examination and real consideration of it, focusing not on the bookís substance but on how theyíll "criticize" it. The Introduction or Preface to any book is usually the key to understanding its target, and clarifies the scope and intent of the volume. The aims of the author become clear when those sections are read. As just one example, some might see this book as an unlikely "travel guide". Thatís not the bookís purpose.
In keeping with available information, historical priority and practical logistics, some entries have relatively thorough histories while others have shorter sketches. If the aggregate details in each and every case donít resolve conjectures or provide explanations to questions long-unanswered (and which may remain forever-unanswerable), they are still details which shed more light on what transpired in those places so long ago.
Itís very relieving to see that this book isnít saddled with the affectation known as footnotes, which are comparable to hearing a knock at the door on oneís wedding night. Anyone can provide them. Not everyone, however, can take the information normally and traditionally found in footnotes and weave it skillfully and seamlessly into the tapestry of the text. Those who are sticklers for specific dates and names of historical figures associated with a fort should look elsewhere. Thatís not the aim of this book.
This volumeís very existence exemplifies the principle of priority, a concept from which many of us could learn. The author of this work has evidently set a goal, which heís clearly met, of producing a book that can be read and enjoyed by the reader, not merely examined and studied exclusively by the scholar (though they should surely benefit from it). The author discusses matters that would be of interest to virtually anyone with even an indirect interest in Western history.
The astute and discerning reader would view this book for what it is: an illustrated history of Texas forts, just as the title says. Those who can gauge something on its own merits are the exceptions, not the rule -- but theyíre the gems in the settings of an authorís readership.
Those who would benefit most by this volume and would respond most positively to it, be they laymen or historians, are those with the prudence and integrity to form their own opinions and draw their own conclusions. The author evidently feels his readers can do this. This book would be at least enough to satisfy oneís desire for historical information, would be the ideal starting point for additional research, is enjoyable reading and, perhaps most importantly, it should meet the expectations of those interested in learning about the forts of Texas.
Joseph Musso: Artist, Blade Collector, and Western Historian
by Jeffrey Dane
The music library and those who administer it at any major symphony orchestra are behind-the-scenes but very crucial organs and people, without whom the ensemble canít function. Similarly, the storyboard artists and conceptual illustrators in Hollywood serve a corresponding purpose thatís just as important: their work enables the film-makers to plan and make their movies. How are the art and set decorators to determine, plan and map out the scenes that viewers will see on the screen, without having literally graphic illustrations and visual points of reference?
This is how Joseph Musso earns his livelihood: as an artist and conceptual graphics illustrator in the film capital. His personal calling is as a historian, whose contributions are many, varied, and singularly significant -- especially regarding some of the recent controversies surrounding the Alamo, and the origins of James Bowie.
Mussoís work as an independent historian and author gives him a different but totally genuine and valid perspective of Western history. Some of his findings may initially seem at odds with what weíve heard from legend, but they also solve and lay to rest some long-standing problems and answer some long-outstanding questions by putting things into proper historical context.
Though his historical focus is primarily on the Alamo era, heís a virtual San Saba mine of both broad, deep and explicit information about the history of the United States during the last century. An ideal blend of engaging conversationalist and considerate listener, itís from Joseph Musso that we can learn about some of the more obscure -- that is, the darker and more shameful -- chapters in our own history, including the disgraceful incidents involving the native American, Mangus Colorado, and the embarrassing reasons why his story isnít more popularly publicized in the American culture or historical literature.
His personal research into past eras has also enabled him to apply his graphics skills to the very specific details of his historic pictorial interpretations, and easily qualifies him as a foremost illustrator in this genre as well. His graphic renderings of various historic concepts, events, and people thusly lend an accuracy, distinction and special character to his historical work that would be the envy of most of his peers.
During his long and still-active career in Hollywood, as an artist Musso has worked with film-makers like Irwin Allen, John Carpenter, Norman Jewison, Mike Nichols, John Huston, Clint Eastwood, and Alfred Hitchcock, perhaps the greatest director of the suspense film, and whom Musso holds in particularly high regard. He speaks very warmly, too, of Sidney Poitier and especially of William Holden. In the Hollywood arena, he most enjoyed meeting John Wayne and Johnny Weissmuller; in the historical arena, he has a very special personal feeling about having met some of James Bowieís own descendants. When asked if he had any major "regret" regarding his time in Hollywood, he replied, without hesitation, that heíd like to have met Errol Flynn, but whose death pre-dated Mussoís arrival in California.
The roster of films to which Musso has contributed include
Space Cowboys, Volcano, Star Trek: First Contact, Escape From L.A., Naked Gun 33-1/3, Basic Instinct, Dick Tracy, The Three Amigos, The Towering Inferno, Torn Curtain,
(a film that composer Miklos Rozsa had originally been asked to score). Additional films on which Musso has worked include
The Italian Job, Ladder 49
, and the new
Phantom of the Opera
. Musso also provided a piece titled
Forty Acres: A History of the RKO Backlot Films
, for the Burroughs Bulletin (Nr. 14 New Series), Sierra Madre, CA, April, 1993.
Schooled in Philadelphia, PA., where he earned his degree in Fine Arts, Musso traces his earliest conscious interest in edged weapons to his childhood fascination with the knife Johnny Weissmuller used in the Tarzan films. Being told of this, a friend gave him the kind of "You ainít seen nothiní yet!" advice that sent the young Musso scurrying to see the then-recent Alan Ladd film,
The Iron Mistress
, based on the book by Paul Wellman. From then on, Musso was hooked. He had no way even of conceiving of the possibility that heíd someday own the very studio prop knives used in that film, as well as the original "Tarzan" knife that had first piqued his interest. It should surprise no-one that these are his two modern favorites among the many antique and replica weapons he owns.
Among the films Musso has worked on most recently is
(MGMís sequel to
), starring John Travolta, Uma Thurman and Danny DeVito. Musso even has a small role in it: he can be seen as a waiter in Cantorís Deli serving a plate of stuffed cabbage to a Mafia hit man -- a seemingly unlikely patron for such a dish. Says Musso, "The last film cameo I did was 20 years ago for Paramountís
The Man Who Wasnít There,
when I played Mo Musso, an accordionist who gets into a fight with a guest at a diplomatic party for Third World Countries."
As well, Joseph Musso appeared on several TV programs as a guest speaker:
Masters of Production: Art Direction on Film
for the Trio Cable Network;
Wild West Tech : The Alamo
for The History Channel (in which he also served as a Historical Consultant); and
, a DVD documentary for Delta. He also made a guest-speaker appearance on the A&E cable network's
Real West : The Battle of the Alamo
, and on
The De La PeŮa Diary
documentary by Brian Huberman. Some of these programs also highlighted many pieces from Mussoís vast collection. Additionally, his alma mater, The University of the Arts, flew him back to Philadelphia this past May for a tribute on his film career, and to present him with The Outstanding Alumni Award from the Board of Trustees of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. He then had the honor of addressing the Universityís graduating class of 2004. Clearly Joe Musso continues making noteworthy contributions.
Among his publication accomplishments are illustrated articles for various knife and other weapon-related magazines. One of the most outstanding is "Jim Bowieís ĎIron Mistressí : Reel Knife vs. Real Knife," published in the 1991 Guns & Ammo Annual. The article is lengthy and profusely illustrated with mouth-watering specimens from Mussoís own collection. That collection, now conservatively valued at well over one million dollars, includes not only countless studio prop knives and other weapons that his historic interests have induced him to acquire over the years, but also innumerable antique and authentic historical pieces from those eras. Peripherally related Alamo-era artifacts, many of them extremely rare -- and many of those, in turn, truly unique -- are also part of the Musso collection, including rifles, swords, military uniforms and other accouterments.
Discussed and/or pictured in Mussoís article are the knives used by Bowie-portrayers Sterling Hayden in
The Last Command
, by Alan Ladd in
The Iron Mistress
, by Kenneth Tobey in the last part of the Walt Disney trilogy,
Davy Crockett -- King of the Wild Frontier
, by Scott Forbes in the 1950s TV series
The Adventures of Jim Bowie
, and by Richard Widmark in John Wayneís film,
Musso also contributed a 4-part series on The Iron Mistress knife in the May through August, 2002 issues of Blade Magazine.
For anyone who was in some way influenced in his or her youth by the films and TV shows of that era (just as Joseph Musso was), such articles would be required reading as the veritable answer to a prayer -- an answer "three decades in the making" and long overdue, but certainly none the worse for it. There are many such people -- and by virtue of that very formative influence, some of them are now themselves directly involved in the Western historical field. Certainly for this, we owe a lot to Joseph Musso. It corresponds to the young admirer who once told Miklos Rozsa that his music for
King of Kings
prompted him to investigate the same events as recounted by Bach in the Passions. This is influence exemplified -- and for the creative artist, is a compliment of the highest order.
Musso has also contributed to two books by fellow Western historian J.R. Edmondson: "The Alamo Story: From Early History to Current Conflicts" (Republic of Texas Press, Plano, Texas, February, 2000), and "Mr. Bowie With a Knife: A History of the Sandbar Fight," specifically for which Musso rendered the superb illustrations. Musso and Edmondson are regarded as being among the foremost authorities in the USA on the subject of the Alamo era, generally, and on James Bowie specifically.
Mussoís personal contributions to the field of Western history at large might be even more significant than those heís made to the films, individually or collectively, on which heís worked. At the outset of the final siege, the Alamo had two commanding officers: William Barret Travis, and James Bowie. For years, Bowieís birthplace was disputed, with Tennessee, Georgia, Louisiana and even Maryland claiming the distinction of having been where Bowie first saw the light of day. Even the Alamo in San Antonio, where Bowie and all the other combatants perished on the morning of Sunday, March 6, 1836, has a large bronze plaque memorializing Tennessee as his native state. Throughout the ensuing decades, the Bowie legends only deepened and compounded the confusion.
Joseph Musso cast a bright light on some of the more shadowy and unfocused areas of James Bowieís life and background, and he ultimately determined Bowieís actual birthplace. Through extensive personal research and consultation of primary sources -- original property deeds, musty hand-written records, and other such documents -- Musso found that when James was born, the Bowie family was living in what was then Logan County, Kentucky, on land that is now nine miles north of the city of Franklin, in present-day Simpson County.
For this singular effort, the Governor of Kentucky, Brereton C. Jones, not only made Musso an Honorary Colonel but also erected on the site a historical marker, the wording for which was composed by Musso himself.
Peripherally, heís also found that many other accepted and published details about and accounts of Bowieís life were, to say the least, questionable in the extreme.
After receiving the necessary documentation, the Texas State Historical Association, at Joe Mussoís suggestion, revised its relevant entries in the second printing of The New Handbook of Texas, which now reflects the corrections regarding Bowieís birthplace and other information about him. Musso subsequently received a personal Thank You letter from the then-Governor of Texas, George W. Bush.
Further acknowledgement and kudos came from the Alamo itself. While the expense of replacing the bronze plaque is prohibitive, Dorothy Black, one of the officials at the Alamo, had said about Musso, "Without a doubt, what he has put together is more than enough," and that the Alamoís printed literature will be modifed to mirror the changes.
As Bartolomeo Cristofori and James Watt are traditionally acknowledged by history as having "invented" the piano and the steam engine, respectively, so, too, is Joseph Musso recognized as having discovered James Bowieís true birthplace.
Succeeding in determining where Bowie was born, and having been honored with the responsibility of cleaning the only known life-painted portrait of James Bowie (by George Peter Alexander Healy), are two episodes in Mussoís professional life he considers particularly fulfilling.
His historical goal ". . .is to get the facts out and set the record straight." Mindful of this, heís writing two books about Bowie, at least one of which will contain his own illustrations. That itís taken Musso several years to do the research and prepare these books is a testimony to his diligence and revererence for the subject matter.
Part of his extraordinary collection was for a time in 2001 exhibited at San Antonioís Buckhorn Saloon, fittingly located a short walk from the Alamo. Parenthetically, itís an unfortunate fact of life that professional jealousy exists, and only the naÔve would believe that it doesnít. For whatever their reasons may be, there are some who have tried to horn in on Joe Mussoís good fortune; they even include lawyers, some of whom would go miles to get what they want.
Among the many items displayed in the Buckhorn exhibit were various Alamo-era artifacts, historic prop knives and rifles used by the studios, and a number of exceptional antique Bowie knives. One of these, in particular, the centerpiece of the display, seems to have an undefinable but almost palpable "presence." Extraordinarily shaped and unusually large, the knifeís blade itself is almost 14 inches long, making the weapon effectively a small sword -- which is how Bowie's knife has been described. The knife is pictured in an article about Mussoís collection, published in the Spring, 2000 issue of Texas Gun Collector.
From residue traces found in the steel and in the brass, a metallurgical laboratory that performed tests on the knife in 1981 determined the extreme likelihood that it was made in the Washington, Arkansas area around 1830 -- intriguingly, just when James Bowie was in the prime of his life. The letters JB appear on part of the quillon. Some feel they might be the initials of James Black, a blacksmith who was active in that area at that time and whom some believe may have made knives specifically for Bowie. Others, however, feel the letters could be the initials of the owner -- James Bowie -- rather than of the maker. Itís conjectural, but if the latter is the case, Joseph Musso has in his possession a knife made for -- and, by extension, used by -- James Bowie himself.
Also on the cross-guard is the pre-1850 insignia of the American officer, the six-pointed star, and a rendering of the knife is clearly visible in an illustration that appears in the memoirs of Sam Houston -- published in 1855, a mere nineteen years after Bowieís death.
Rather singular and historically almost unique of shape, positively frightening of configuration and monstrous in its size, there is a disturbing mood about it which is strangely unsettling, as though it has some hidden story to tell, if only it could speak. Inanimate, the weapon has no life of its own --but its presence, which can be sensed even in its photos, is unmistakable. Itís no accident that the knife carried by Bowie (portrayed by Jason Patric) in the recent Alamo film was a replica of this one.
An "autobiography" of Crockett (who generally signed his name David rather than "Davy") offers whatís purported to be his own impression of Bowie's knife, and which heís supposed to have seen the first time the two men met, at the Alamo: "I wish I may be shot if the bare sight of it wasn't enough to give a man of squeamish stomach the cholic, especially before breakfast." Our first notion might be that for a seasoned man like Crockett to so refer to a garden-variety hunting knife seems rather unlikely, and that itís reasonable to presume there was something rather special about the weapon in question which James Bowie would have had with him in the Alamo. Unfortunately, the "autobiography" in which that Crockett "quote" appears was actually written by Richard Penn Smith very soon after Crockettís death, so weíre faced with the possibility, even the likelihood, that the remark is spurious in its attribution to Crockett.
Applied and affixed to the heel of the blade on whatís since become known in the relevant historical circles as "the Musso Bowie" is a strip of brass. Since itís softer than steel, in theory the purpose of this brass strip would have been to enable the weaponís user to more efficiently parry the blow of an opponentís blade, which would have stuck fast to the brass strip, rather than sliding down to the crossguard if the bladeís heel had been of naked steel. J.R. Edmondson of Texas wrote a two-part article about this knife, suitably titled "The Brass-Backed Bowie," published in the January and February, 1993 issues of Knife World Magazine.
The fact is that if it was Bowie's own blade, it represents its own cumulative past. Do those who conclude it was James Bowie's knife believe it because they wish to? It may be so, but that it might have belonged to and been used by James Bowie is a possibility --unprovable, but very real -- with which we're still faced, and it must be if not "accepted" then certainly considered.
Musso considers the three prize historical pieces of his collection to be this enormous knife, a guardless coffin-handled piece, and another Bowie made by Henry Schively, a cutlery and surgical tool maker then at 75 Chestnut Street in Philadelphia -- a city once visited by James Bowie and his older brother, Rezin.
Among his own personal favorite Bowies per se are a horse-head piece, and an antique "half-horse, half-alligator" knife, so-called because of the handle design. Both of these handsome knives are pictured in the Texas Gun Collector article.
Like his fellow Alamo historian Bill Groneman, Joseph Musso has also made notable findings in the heated disputes surrounding the existence of a controversial memoir. Translated into English by Carmen Perry and published with the title "With Santa Anna in Texas", itís purported to have originated in the 1840s by a high-ranking Mexican officer who was present at the time of the Alamo battle. In this chronicle, Lt.Col. Jose Enrique de la PeŮa is said to give an eyewitness account of the siege. The supposed memoir has caused a good deal of disagreement, conflict and friction among Western historians regarding whether itís authentic or a forgery. One of its implications is that David Crockett didnít die fighting, but that he was captured and then executed by command of Santa Anna.
Musso isnít alone in believing, like others, that the memoir is suspect because it seemed to have suddenly materialized, virtually out of no-where, in the possession of a Mexican coin dealer over a hundred years after the fact, and that itís missing more than an entire century of provenance and documentation. "It doesn't have 110 years of human records behind it," Musso astutely noted. It might be more than just coincidental that the memoir emerged unexpectedly in 1955 -- just as the Davy Crockett craze was sweeping the nation.
His observations about the memoir matter brought some details into perspective. "Several years ago, while researching material for my biography of Alamo commander James Bowie, I noticed certain handwriting anomalies between the de la PeŮa memoir and that of a letter purportedly written by an Alamo defender, Isaac Milsaps. As it turns out, both documents had no known pedigree prior to 1955, and by March 1989 Texas Monthly magazine used research of the leading handwriting expert, Charles Hamilton, to report that the Milsaps letter was a suspected fake, written by a known forger . . . who died in 1970. . . Since I originally planned to quote from both documents in my Bowie biography, I decided to contact Charles Hamilton regarding the de la PeŮa memoirs. He, in turn, confirmed my fears and sent me a written certification, dated October 18, 1993, stating his belief that the de la PeŮa memoir was also faked . . . "
Even before the "original manuscript" of the memoir was auctioned by Butterfield & Butterfield (and purchased by two Texans, so that it can remain in the state where they feel it belongs), Musso urged the auction house to arrange some scientific tests (like ion diffusion analysis on the ink) to try to determine if the document is genuine.
An intriguing and perhaps even revealing postscript to this matter is one of the more recent developments in this ongoing controversy. Artist and author Rod Timanus learned that a Western historian in Austin, Texas, Thomas Ricks Lindley, had acquired an original document, complete with signature, written by Jose Enrique de la PeŮa: the handwriting in this document matches other known samples of de la PeŮaís letterhand -- but it does not seem to match the final-draft "memoir" thatís been causing the ruckus, lending yet further credence to the de la PeŮa memoir as being fraudulent rather than authentic.
Though not a shy man in the traditional sense, Joseph Musso prefers modesty and subtlety in his approaches, which render him pleasantly casual and informal in manner. Notwithstanding his investigative character and adventurous nature, one thing that sets him apart from many of Hollywoodís denizens is that he eschews publicity and opts to be behind the scenes, where his work will be if not as conspicuous and observable as that of the great actor or superstar, then surely as consequential as an integral component of the film-making teams of which heís a member -- and he pursues his interests in the field of Western history with the same tenacity and singularity of purpose as did the Alamo defenders.
General Rules and Reg.s
Copyright © 1998-2004 Texian Legacy Association