- Captain Jack Helm: A Victim of Texas Reconstruction Violence by Chuck Parsons
Academic interest in Reconstruction in the U.S. South has largely been focused on the struggles for political and social dominance among white conservatives, Unionists, African Americans, and agents of the federal government. Captain Jack Helm: A Victim of Texas Reconstruction Violence serves as a useful reminder that local interests and disputes, many of which had relatively little connection to the larger contests for power, produced much of the violence that exploded across the post-Appomattox South. To this end, Chuck Parsons, author of several books on the Texas Rangers, feuds, and Reconstruction violence in Texas, has written the first full-length biography of Jack Helm.
Better known to devotees of the Wild West than to scholars of Texas, the South, and Reconstruction, Helm was born about 1837 in Missouri and moved to Texas with his family. His father owned three slaves, and in October 1861 the younger Helm was mustered into what became the Ninth Texas Cavalry Regiment. The following February, he participated (probably as the hangman) in the lynching of five suspected Unionists in Hopkins County, Texas. Shortly thereafter, Helm deserted Confederate service and left his wife and two children. He married a second time in 1869 and was elected sheriff of DeWitt County later that year. Helm cracked down on supposed rustlers and desperadoes, allying himself with the so-called Regulators and taking part in dozens of extralegal executions throughout south-central Texas. In 1870, in a bid to restore order to a crime-ridden frontier, Republican governor Edmund J. Davis appointed Helm to the newly forming state police, but public outcry against the number of people "'[k]illed in an attempt to escape'" forced his resignation after fewer than three months on the job (p. 117). On July 18, 1873, while attempting to perfect two inventions—a cultivator and "a new and Improved Cotton Worm Destroyer"—Sheriff Helm was gunned down outside a blacksmith shop in tiny Albuquerque, Texas (p. 167).
Targeting a general rather than scholarly audience, Parsons uses census records, materials from the Texas State Archives, county records, and newspapers to trace the life of a violent man who lived in violent times. Parsons makes no effort to downplay or to excuse the brutality of Helm's efforts to impose what he perceived as order, and he argues that James Creed (Jim) Taylor, not John Wesley Hardin, murdered the sheriff in retaliation for having ambushed Taylor's father several months earlier. Unfortunately, none of Helm's private papers have been located, making definitive explanations for his actions difficult, and Parsons is more comfortable dealing with the nuances of gunmen and the Sutton-Taylor feud than with more academic debates about the broader nature of Reconstruction. Better editing would have trimmed the repetition and extraneous detail that often mar the narrative. Nonetheless, the book succeeds in leaving any reader with a sobering impression of life in Reconstruction Texas. [End Page 195]