HELL AND TEXAS have long been associated. Back in the 1820’s and ’30’s, if a man from Virginia or Tennessee left home between sundown and sunup, staid citizens would wag their heads and say, “He's goin’ to hell or Texas.” After David Crockett was defeated for Congress, he told the Tennessee voters that they could go to hell and he would go to Texas.
General Sherman is credited with saying that if he owned hell and Texas, he would rent out Texas and live in hell. “That's right,” retorted a Texan, “every man for his own country.”
But far from resenting this association of their state with hell, Texans, by a process of reverse boasting which Californians cannot understand, have, far more than outsiders, publicized the connection. And one of the chief means of doing this has been by singing, reciting, and printing widely a poem entitled “Hell in Texas.”
A version of the poem, together with some evidence of its wide circulation, was published in Southwestern Lore, annual publication of the Texas Folk-Lore Society for 1931. This article has brought to light the authorship of the poem. The author was not a Texan by birth. He was E. U. Cook, a lawyer, who came to Texas from Iowa in the early eighties to manage the interests of the Keystone Land and Cattle Company, which he had helped to organize and which had acquired holdings near Pearsall. Mr. Mason Maney, who was attorney for the company for twenty-five years, remembers him well. Cook probably wrote the poem during the great drouth and die-up of 1885-6, when it was said that every cattleman in the state went broke, some of them twice.
This was not Cook's only venture into poetry. He rewrote parts of the Bible in verse and published a volume entitled The First Mortgage, in which appeared “Hell in Texas.” Perhaps he gave the poem also to the Pearsall News, for it has been preserved in a clipping in the scrapbook of Mrs. Ruby Saunders of that city. Thousands of copies of the poem were distributed by the Buckhorn Saloon (later the Buckhorn Curio Store) in San Antonio, and a live stock commission company printed it on the back of their business cards.
Versions from oral sources vary considerably, and since I have not been able to find The First Mortgage, I am reprinting the text (kindly supplied by Mr. Maney) from Mrs. Saunders’ scrapbook as the most authoritative text available.
Hell in Texas
The Devil in Hell we're told was chained,
And a Thousand years he there remained.
He did not complain and he did not groan,
But determined he'd start a Hell of his own,
Where he could torment the souls of men
Without being chained in a prison pen.
So he asked the Lord if he had on hand
Anything left when he made this land.
The Lord said “Yes, I had plenty on hand
But I left it down on the Rio Grande.
The fact is ’old boy’—the stuff is so poor
You cannot use it in Hell any more.”
But the Devil went down and looked at the truck,
Said even as a clear gift he was stuck,
And after examining carefully well
Pronounced it even too dry for a Hell—
So, in order to get it off his hands,
Lord promised the Devil to water the lands,
For He had some water that was of no use—
Was plumb cathartic and smelt like the deuce.
So the trade was closed, the deed was given
And the Lord went back to his home in Heaven—
And the Devil had everything he needed
To make a good Hell, and sure succeeded.
He fixed up thorns all over the trees,
And mixed the sand with millions of fleas;
Tarantulas scattered along the roads,
Put needles on cactus, horns on toads.
The mosquito delights with its buzzing wings;
The sand burs prevail and so do the ants.
And those who sit down need soles on their pants.
The summer heat is a hundred and ten—
Too hot for the Devil, too hot for men;
The wild boar roams thru the black chapparell—
’Tis a Hell of a place is the Texas Hell.
Additional information about Cook and his poem is contained in J. Will Harris’ Early Life on the Texas Range:
Yes sir, we were in school together, studying to be Presbyterian Ministers. Neither of us could tell a noun from an adjective. We both could ride mustangs, rope cattle and carry six shooters. He had left Wyoming and I had left Texas—a kind of running away not from the sheriffs but from the pull of rope and saddle on the range. I beat him to it by a day and slid down into the little desk letting my knees stick up above the top till cramps struck me; then I would stretch out around the desk and cross my feet in front. I was 5′ 10″ and weighed 160 pounds, while all my grade were mere children of the profs. This grade was a kind of tuning up of the fiddle on what were nouns, pronouns and adjectives so as to enter six months later the three-year course as preparatory to the admission to the Academy. At the expiration of these three preparatory courses I might hope to be admitted to the College department, after which I could go to Princeton for Theology, and then if I passed the Presbytery's examination I could hope to be a minister in regular and good standing. What a term! a little more than 12 years—longer than Wild Bill had served in Huntsville for killing three sheriffs. Added to the humiliation of having to study with children who knew more than I did was the fact that I was among Yankees for the first time, and Yankees who had no knowledge except of books, nothing of the ranch and its wilds.
The next day this congenial soul from Wyoming, Fred Huckvale, was led in and seated just back of me. Fred had a long, brown mustache, a rather sharp-pointed nose and almost bald head running up to more than a clearing on top.
The teacher was a recent graduate about my age and very attractive. We were new specimens for her. She expected and did sail for Persia as a missionary soon thereafter. She announced that we were going to have Rhetoricals again next Friday at the close of school. Fred and I had come in after New Year's, and all the others had had several months the start over us. I did not know what Rhetoricals meant and so looked back inquiringly at Fred. He shook his head. Never heard of them. The usual thing at the close of schools in Texas that I could recall was that the teacher took his vengeance out on the big boys with application of catclaw switches. Fred and I were the only big fellows and be hanged if we would submit to a whipping. Secretly I felt even a thrashing from such a beauty would be a distinction, and might be a Yankee way of showing us their welcome. She doubtless would have explained had we asked, but we had it bred into us not to ask strangers questions. A dictionary would have enlightened us, but we didn't know there was such a book. So we laid low and waited to see what was coming.
Friday came and Miss Demuth said in her sweet tone, “Will Mr. Harris and Mr. Huckvale please come forward and remove (we thought she was going to say their coats) my desk from the platform to the floor?” The teacher then called on little Alice Wilson to be first. Alice came up. She stood erect, with hands down, and caught between her thumbs and first fingers her dress and white panties that were tied below her knees with blue ribbons, made her bow announcing her piece and the author. I looked back at Fred and he was red as a beet. He said he sure could not do that way. After Rhetoricals we asked to be excused. She would not consent. We urged that we had mental arithmetic and had no time to learn a piece. She replied by saying simply, “Recite what you already learned sometime.” I could not think of anything I ever learned but the Lord's Prayer and this had two words in it that I could not pronounce. It was not the thing to recite before men anyway.
My mind ran back to E. U. Cook, manager of the Keystone Cattle Ranch down in Frio county, part of my old stamping grounds near my father's ranch. Cook had come down at a time when one of those old time drouths, like the seven-year itch, was repeating itself in full strength. Good water wells dried up leaving alkali mixtures. Water holes were as dry as your throat behind a herd in a summer noon's sun. It was hot and it was dry. Cattle were dying for lack of food and water. Cook was a poet. His book of poetry, The First Mortgage, was for years one of the best sellers for the newsboys on the trains. He left Texas with a fling of six stanzas on Texas as Hell, in which there is more truth than poetry. I had learned that and would say it when my time came.
Let me say here that E. U. Cook came back to the ranch some ten years later and found abundance of rains, grass, water, fat cattle, oceans of blue bonnets, and even the thorny trees and grass covered with flowers. It was then that he wrote his second poem on Texas as a Paradise. “Texas as a Hell” appeared in the papers at the time Cook wrote it. I think it was about 1884 that it first appeared, possibly in the San Antonio Express. The Keystone Cattle company of Pennsylvania certainly got their early copy from Cook when he left Frio county.
When I finished Miss Demuth stood up as white as a ghost and, without calling on Huckvale who was to have followed me, announced, “You are all excused.” Then she rushed up to the Office of the President to get some smelling salts, I suppose. Huckvale was asked the next day to let her see his poem. It was on Napoleon Bonaparte who shook the world harder than my poem by E. U. Cook had shaken her poise. We both got very serious after my speech on the previous day. We were disturbed, not knowing just what verdict would be given. I was all the time thinking of early school teachers down on the Rio Grande. Had it not been for the distracting and interesting study of mental arithmetic, the brush in Texas and Wyoming would have again been cracking with two frightened ex-cowboys.