History – Murder in the Castle

img055There was a time when Boerne was a little country town way out by itself in the sticks, miles and miles and light years away from San Antonio, a town of farmers riding in from their places out on the farm-to-market roads, from Kreutzberg and Kendalia and Pleasant Valley and Wasp Creek. It was a town with little traffic and dusty wooden awnings over the sidewalks, a town with sheep grazing behind their fences, with windmills and barns and stock ponds along a packed-dirt Main Street where chickens clucked out of the way of wagon wheels.

In Main Plaza in front of the Kendall Inn cowboys passing through town would stop to add the cattle penned there to the huge herds they were driving up the Chisolm Trail. It was a favorite adventure for the young women and men of Boerne to saddle up and ride out with the cowboys a half-day’s distance along the trail, where they stopped to have a picnic and then turn back to town before night fell.

Families from the cedar camps out past Bergheim, from String-Down and Happy Valley, loaded up in their wagons on the great occasions they came all the way to the big town for their supplies, the men with their smoke-darkened faces, the silent women in their stovepipe bonnets and the children in threadbare calico swinging their bare legs over the long, rough road.

But there also was a castle here. In those days, the Grahams were the squires of the town, their castle was on the hill and this was their little kingdom. For a while, as is the way of all history. For a little while.

It was the 20s in Boerne, and although some floozy got up like a flapper would’ve been run out of this town on a rail by the upright locals, bathtub gin was a different story. Bootleg liquor dripped slowly from copper tubing hooked up to stills hidden all over the hills and canyons of this section, and roadhouses tucked back off the old highways peddled illegal hooch to a thirsty crowd. If you knew the right people and the right places you could pick up a package in the dim back room of the mercantile store or along with your milk from an obliging dairyman.

Al Capone rose to heights of staggering, heady power on the strength of illegal alcohol, and an Irish-American named Joseph Kennedy would found a family empire with his profits from the bootleg liquor trade.  And here in Boerne, a few months before the Black Friday crash of the stock market and three years before Prohibition would be repealed, a young, wild-eyed man tried to clear his reeling head as he looked down at the smoking gun in his hand, and beyond to his stepfather lying on the floor, shot through the head.

The man lying dead was one Joseph HH Graham, 38 year-old former scion of the wealthy and powerful Graham family of Boerne, once his parents’ blue-eyed boy, and former Assistant District Attorney in San Antonio. The papers called him a leading criminal lawyer of the Southwest, and his children would soon become leading lights among the Top Drawer set in SA’s super-rich society. Yet there Joe lay, reeking of whiskey with his “face blown off”, dead on the floor of his father’s castle.

The family dynasty had begun back when Joseph Graham had been appointed Consul to Brazil under President Lincoln in the 1850s. It was in Brazil that Joseph’s wife Ellen gave birth to their son Henry Joseph Graham in 1854. The walls of the castle in Boerne would one day be hung with documents in flowery, formal handwriting signed by Lincoln, and though some in the family would beg that the historical letters and commissions should be preserved, they were ultimately left to the un-gentle hands of vandals, rats and the elements. When Joseph Graham’s appointment in Brazil was ended, he returned with his wife and only child to his home country, and settled in the farm market town of Boerne, just in time to help organize the new Kendall County and sign the petition that would officially create it. He was also appointed the first Chief Justice of the new county. He set an example of public service that his son and later, for a while, his grandson, would emulate.

Henry J. Graham, then, grew up in Boerne, and when he died, some 75 years later, he died in Boerne, having never lived anywhere else but for his brief, exotic beginning in South America. He lies today buried in the Boerne Cemetery, in the town he loved and served and changed, in which he once built a castle, and mourned the violent death of his only son on the castle floor.

He became County Tax Assessor and Collector in 1878, and held that office for 26 years, and served as a Deputy Sheriff until his death in 1936. But Henry was undoubtedly best known as a guy with a razor-edge business sense, a land-trader with an eagle-eye for a sweet deal. In fact, Henry (usually known by HJ,) was, in the very best meaning of the phrase, a wheeler-&-dealer. In 1918, just as the US was getting into WW1, HJ paid $4000 for a 209-acre property out on the Guadalupe River known as the Elmax Ranch, and Henry quickly set about building a two-&-a-half story wood-frame house he named Rainbow Rest Home, just in time to receive veterans returning from Europe with poisoned lungs and tuberculosis.

Boerne had, of course, been thought the perfect recuperative spot for consumptives since Dr. Herff first started sending his patients here from San Antonio in the 1860s, and so HJ Graham, always sharp at spotting an opportunity to turn a buck, tried his hand as entrepreneur of a tuberculin sanitarium for a while. Although it doesn’t seem that Rainbow Rest did a land-office business ( it was a pretty good stretch out into the country over rough roads, and another doctor in Boerne got the jump on the VA contract to treat veterans,) HJ still cleared a quick two grand when he sold the place 5 years later. The house Henry built is still there, having become the ranch headquarters for Elmax, and now the historic ranch house at Cordillera.

That, however, was just one of HJ’s many business schemes. It seems like he had a hand in every major property in Boerne during his long life. He acquired the old slave property over the San Antonio Street bridge behind Main Plaza, surveyed it and had it annexed to the City as the Irons/Graham Addition and sold it off in sections to become the Flats. He once owned the Phillip Manor and the Phillip House across the street (now El Chaparal restaurant)- in fact, it’s supposed to be his second wife, the former Miss Augusta Phillip, who lived in the house from 1823 until 1843, who now haunts the upper rooms, although a cousin of hers says he has his serious doubts about that as she just wasn’t like that. Henry Graham, in fact, was the one to die in the house, but peacefully, unlike his son. It was Henry Graham who donated the memorial to the men who served in WW1, in Veteran’s Park; Henry’s name which was given to a street in the Flats. He served as a Fair Director and on the committee for Boerne’s 50th anniversary celebration, he owned and operated his own bank and had a real estate business with partner Henry Wendler, and in a hundred other ways did HJ Graham make himself one of the leading citizens of the town.

Now in the midst of all of HJ’s thriving business concerns, he found time to woo and marry a widow-lady by the name of Mrs. May Worthington Clarke, who in turn bore him a daughter, Caroline, and in 1890, his only son Joseph HH Graham. By all accounts, HJ adored his son Joe, and Joseph soon became a fine young man, choosing to make his own name in the practice of law.

As young Joe rose in his profession, he took time out to take a wife of his own, marrying Miss Elizabeth (Bess) Orynski of San Antonio in 1910. The following year daughter Wanda was born, and in 1915, Joe and Bess welcomed son Henry Joseph, named for his grandfather. The family seems to have been a sort of mutual admiration society, at least to outward appearances, with HJ dotingly proud of his son and Joe, in turn, devoted to his father.

Joe and his wife and children lived on Camden Street in a fashionable San Antonio neighborhood, and were on their way to becoming young movers-and-shakers in SA Society with a capital S. In 1913 Joe Graham was appointed 1st Assistant District Attorney in San Antonio under newly elected DA Judge JC Linden. He would serve in this office until Judge Linden left the bench, at which time Graham and Linden went into private practice together. Joseph HH Graham was spoken of as one of the best-known and top criminal lawyers in southwest Texas, he had two healthy children, he and his beautiful wife were beginning to appear regularly in the Society pages, and his father was building a castle in Boerne. The world was Joe’s oyster.

img056The castle was the showiest of Henry’s projects, and no one is still living who knows why he chose to build it, whether it was activated by his sharp business acumen or whether it was merely the fanciful whim of an otherwise hard-headed, practical man. HJ built it on the crest of the hill where HEB now stands, in the days when no interstate bisected the view below of the fields that stretched out to the horizon, a time when no fast-food places and convenience stores and strip malls sullied the rolling, unbroken hillside.  It was a sprawling, turreted stone castle, looking more like a European castle in a storybook than anything anybody had ever seen in Boerne, and you can imagine the astonishment of the bucolic natives hereabouts, the children of the cedar-choppers staring up at it, agog, if they ever got far enough out of town in that direction, wondering what manner of people lived there and maybe what language they spoke. The fields surrounding the castle were plowed and put into crop, because Boerne was a farm town and HJ was a business-man, but even the farm-people of Boerne knew a castle when they saw one, and they were proud of it and referred to it never as Graham Manor, but simply as, The Castle. It was built during the teens of the last century, and HJ and his wife May lived there together only for a few years, until her death in 1919. When he and his second wife Augusta married four years later, they purchased the Philip House, and the family then used the castle as a sort of retreat.

And then it all gets fuzzy for a while. Family problems, a good son somehow losing his way, drunkenness, divorce and ugliness in the family, are things you don’t find mentioned overmuch in letters and diaries meant to be preserved for posterity, and in the teens and 20s folks didn’t broadcast their troubles to the whole world. In Joseph HH Graham’s world, something started going wrong. There was a divorce, and Joe left the family home in San Antonio to move into the castle in Boerne, and disappeared for a while from his profession. Bess Orynski Graham, who remained in SA with her children, moved into even greater social prominence as the years went on and her daughter married a famous architect and became widely known and respected as a philanthropist and patron of the arts, and her son also distinguished himself.

At Christmas-time, 1925, long after the divorce, Bess and the children, along with Bess’s mother, beamed in the Graham family photograph, but Joe Graham was not of the party. What can be gleaned is, that in 1923 (the same year his father HJ remarried) Joe also took a second wife, a widow named Mrs. Mary Etta Bunn, who with her son Jimmie moved into the castle with Joe. By this time, Joe was back to practicing criminal law as well as doing some farming at the castle. His stepson Jimmie Bunn got married somewhere in there, and in 1928 had a son, whom he named after his much-loved stepfather Joe.

And then one day in January, 1929, Jimmie found himself standing over his stepfather’s body, slumped on the floor of the kitchen, shot through the head by the gun that Jimmie still clutched.

Jimmie turned himself over to Sheriff Ed Bierschwale, and the formal charge of murder was filed against him by Deputy Sheriff August Phillip- brother to the dead man’s stepmother. His trial for murder was held in October of that year, in the weeks before the Stock Market Crash, and in the trial transcript the deterioration of Joseph Graham’s life is sadly evident. There were many sworn witnesses to Joe’s many violent episodes of drunkenness and unreasoning rage, many who would testify to his brutality to his wife. “The said deceased,” the transcript unemotionally notes, “was addicted to the excessive drinking of whiskey, intoxicating liquor, and had been drinking whiskey all day the day he was killed, which occurred late in the afternoon.” What a day that must have been at the castle- the violence, the drunken rage, the palpable fear, the desperation of the young stepson who looked up to and loved his stepfather and considered him as his best friend, even as that stepfather threatened to kill his mother, finally snatching up a butcher knife for the purpose. They were in the castle kitchen, Joe and Mary Etta and Jimmie Bunn, and at the end, Jimmie must have felt he had no choice as he raised the gun to save his mother’s life. A photograph of Jimmie during his trial shows a very young-looking man, with a thatch of dark hair and a sort of hunted look about him. He had loved Joe, and he had killed him.

img057The judge’s instructions to the jury were markedly sympathetic. The jury voted to acquit.

Later, HJ Graham filed a civil suit for wrongful death against Jimmie Bunn, but the suit was dropped and nothing ever came of it. HJ might have been grieving no less for the death of his son as for what that son’s life had become in its last few years. He had been the bright and shining star of the Graham family, but had burned out like a comet, and his father had lost all of the hope and pride he had invested in his boy.

In 1930, the year after his acquittal, Jimmie Bunn was living with his wife and young son Joe in his in-law’s house. He couldn’t find work as a truck-driver, but then it was the Depression, and things were tough all over. Then in December of that year, Jimmie was arrested for possession of whiskey, bootlegging (this was before Prohibition was repealed) and sentenced to 3 months in prison. Eventually, he and his wife divorced, and a cousin said that Jimmie had always had problems with alcohol, that he was a ‘rounder’ who was always in trouble, and in and out of jail, after the death of his stepfather. “He never did make any name for himself,” his cousin told me. He died only a few years ago in a nursing home in Floresville.

It’s been speculated that maybe Joe Graham and his stepson had been in the bootlegging business together, but nothing in proof of that has ever turned up.  It’s not the kind of thing people would have kept a lot of records of, nor seemed to talk about much after the fact. It’s funny how tight-lipped people became all of a sudden, after the Repeal, about their quiet little business on the side.  It wasn’t until a few generations later that it became fashionable to brag of the family fortunes being made in rum-running, and I believe the Kennedys still don’t talk about it much.

The castle, abandoned after the murder, still held all the ancient treasures from the illustrious career of the first Joseph Graham, all those signed documents from Lincoln, and cousins and nephews and grandchildren of the Grahams tried to have them taken out and preserved, but a strange disinclination to go back into the castle subdued HJ and Augusta Graham, and the treasures were lost and destroyed. The castle itself was rented out as a garage for a while before it was finally torn down, and the land sold to HEB and the strip malls and the fast-food places, and now the only reminder left behind on the old estate is a little street called Wanda, after the young princess of the family who grew up in the castle, the daughter of the young prince, who was slain.


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