Abilenian James T. Holland: on trial for murder in 1880s New York

Pine Street in Abilene TX, ca 1884

Abilene was a small but bustling prairie town in west Texas in 1885, when it made its debut in the New York Times. And it did so in decidedly wild-west fashion: a shoot-out and ensuing murder trial, all played out on the streets of lower Manhattan.

Tom Davis was a known swindler on the mean streets of 1880s New York. He was what people in-the-know referred to as a “sawdust operator” or “boodle man,” meaning he tricks people into purchasing money, real or counterfeit, from him, but then pulls a switcheroo. The victim realizes, too late, that what they thought was cash has been replaced by paper-wrapped bricks, crumpled wads of newspaper, or metal coils wrapped in paper to resemble rolls of coin. Davis operated his “business” out of half a dozen offices through Manhattan, easily bamboozling any number of unwary victims before sneaking away to a new location to start again.

Reade Street, ca 1870 (from NYPL archives)

One such location was at 113 Reade Street at the corner of West Broadway. The building was a part of the Rapid Transit Hotel, but the owner often leased out section of it to small businessmen such as Davis. His “office” was a hotel room which had a wall partitioning it into two smaller rooms: one facing the street for his “business” and another behind it with no windows. Davis’s accomplice(s) would hide in this darkened room, listening to the transaction taking place in the front room. When the time was right, and the victim had paid his fee after seeing a bag of real money, the accomplices would open a trap door and pull the “boodle” by swapping the bag for a fake one filled with any of the aforementioned forms of trickery.

Around 1:00PM on August 31, 1885, a young man from Abilene, Texas, by the name of James T. Holland, stepped into Davis’s office on the third floor of 113 Reade Street.

Holland, described in the Times as “32, sunburned, hatchet-faced, fair, with a small brown mustache, a long nose, and an eye that does not inspire confidence,” had come to New York from Abilene after seeing one of Davis’s ads for the money exchange. It is not known with certainty whether Holland believed he’d be getting counterfeit bills or if he was truly naive enough to expect genuine $10,000 for a payment of only $500. He arrived in New York with his friend John T. Hill, then the City Marshal of Colorado City (Mitchell County TX), who was described as “a natty, black-haired, white-skinned, handsome fellow of 31, a jet mustache and imperial. He is better dressed than Holland, and appears to have more intelligence.” The two stayed the night of August 27th at the Merchants Hotel at 41 Cortlandt Street, which is now a part of the World Trade Center.

Stationery from the Merchants Hotel

Through written correspondence over the next few days, the agreement was settled: that Davis would sell Holland $10,000 of “green goods” for $500. Around noon on August 31st, Holland and Hill met with Tom Davis at the Merchants Hotel. Tom, described as “corpulent, tall, fair, podgy-faced, and uncouth,” had left his brother Theodore hidden in the windowless back room of his office at 113 Reade Street. John Hill remained at the hotel after the meeting, leaving Holland to walk with Davis to his office to complete he transaction.

Holland counted out his $500, which Tom Davis pocketed. Davis then counted out the $10,000 into a black satchel while Holland watched. Both satisfied, Davis closed the satchel and attempted to distract Holland while Theodore made the bag swap through the wall’s secret door. Holland, however, noticed the bag move. He opened it, discovering the ruse. He drew his revolver on Davis and demanded his money. “You wouldn’t shoot me; I am unarmed,” Tom said to him. He then lifted the hems of his coat to show he had no gun, when Holland fired. Tom was struck in the chest, the bullet passing through his shoulder to the wall, and he dropped dead where he’d stood. Theodore sprang out of the secret room with the money and into the hallway. Holland chased after him, firing as he went.

The NY Times account of Holland’s apprehension

On the street, Theodore was waiting for the Texan. He summoned a nearby police officer, declaring, “Arrest him – he’s just shot a man.” Holland was taken by the officer into Davis’s office. A doctor was summoned, but arrived too late to save Tom Davis. He died on the floor in a pool of his own blood. The officer then marched Holland to the Leonard Street police station, where he was locked up after refusing to discuss the shooting. Theodore arrived shortly thereafter, “extremely agitated,” and he was held as a witness. Theodore, familiar with many of the particulars of the transaction, gave information on John Hill, and he also was arrested at the Merchants Hotel.

Leonard Street Precinct House

That evening, Theodore was released with an officer to arrange for Tom’s burial and to inform his family of his death. Arriving at their house at 1062 Lexington Avenue, they discovered that Tom’s family was on holiday “at Rockaway.” A relative was dispatched to travel to Rockaway to deliver the bad news. Mrs. Davis, however, was found to be suffering and delirious under a terrible fever. And no one had the heart to break the news to their 6 small children, the eldest of which was 14, so the whole family went to bed that night oblivious to Tom’s death.

The Police Headquarters at 300 Mulberry Street

At 9 the next morning, Holland was taken to Police Headquarters at 300 Mulberry Street and photographed. He was then transferred to The Tombs Police Court, where he was reunited with John Hill. Theodore Davis arrived shortly after Holland, and all but gnashed his teeth with rage at the sight of his brother’s murderer. Davis’s lawyer, Mr. Howe, immediately addressed the judge, insisting that Holland had butchered Tom in cold blood and that nothing should save him from “the rope that will strangle his life out.” Theodore was then called upon to relate his side of things. In melodramatic fashion, he recounted what he’d seen: that Holland had come into the office and almost immediately drawn his gun, murdering Tom in cold blood. It was supposed by the prosecution that Holland and Hill knew full well of the swindle in which they were taking part, but intended to steal the real money rather than accept the fake.

The Tombs prison on White Street

Holland was called upon to testify, but demurred, saying only “that he was born in Texas, that he was 32 years old, and unmarried. He said that he had lived in Abilene since 1880, and that he was a land and stock speculator.” Hill and Holland spent the night in separate cells at The Tombs. Davis was released into Lawyer Howe’s care. The following morning, Mrs. Davis arrived from Rockaway to visit the body of her husband. She refused to leave his side until noon. An autopsy was performed, and his body was then transferred to Theodore’s house in preparation for his funeral on September 3rd.

NY Times descriptions of Hill & Holland

John Hill, meanwhile, declared himself innocent. He had been born in Kentucky and helped found Abilene in 1880 with Colonel J. Stoddard Johnston and several other Kentuckians. He is quoted as having told an acquaintance in The Tombs that, “he had not the slightest knowledge of what his friend was doing, and at the time of the killing he was a mile from the scene.” However, it was suspected that Hill had arranged the exchange, but, suspecting a deception, had sent Holland to do the dirty work, ordering him to bring back the real money if possible or, if not, to enter a stand-off with Davis until he got what he wanted.

Theodore concluded his testimony on September 4th and by the 5th, a group of Texan friends of Hill and Holland had arrived, outfitting Holland with a new suit, and helping Hill attain a “sprightly mood.” The Texans hustled about the city, raising the requisite $2,000 for Hill’s bail. The Davis lawyers, meanwhile, accused the Texans of sending threatening missives to them, including one which “was decorated with drawings of two pistols and of a bleeding heart with a dagger thrust through it. The Texans disavowed responsibility for these threats.”

Back in The Tombs, Holland and Hill received a letter from George F. Wilson, Chief of Police of Abilene, claiming that the two had the sympathy of the town and that they’d furnish the money for their bonds tomorrow.” Shown the letter, Hill laughed and told the prison guard that he was the Chief of Police of Abilene and that George F. Wilson had killed a man only two weeks prior. “I’ll answer him at the proper time,” Hill said. On September 8th, Hill paid his bail and was released to the custody of his lawyer. Four days later, Holland was arraigned on charges of murder.

NY Times, December 1, 1885

He would sit in The Tombs for many months, as Hill, a key witness, continuously found excuses to not appear in court in New York. It wasn’t until February 25, 1886, that the jury was finally selected and the trial gotten underway.

Holland was reintroduced and presented as a kindly, simple Texan boy who got caught up in a scheme for which he simply wasn’t wise enough to overcome. He had come to New York understanding that the Davis brothers would give him real money, only to switch it later. Holland believed he could get away before this trick would occur. “He was not a criminal, but the victim of a mistaken idea that he could beat the Davis brothers at a game which they had practiced for years.” Holland’s lawyer claimed that Tom Davis had prevented Holland from leaving the room, forcing him to defend himself with deadly force.

Holland’s testimony, March 5, 1886

On March 5th, more than six months after the murder, testimony in James T. Holland’s trial came to a close and the case went to the jury. At 7:30 that night, the jury retired to debate, and at 9:05, Judge Van Brunt returned and it was announced that Holland would be acquitted. Jubilation erupted in the courtroom and it was difficult to clear the crowd out. Eventually, Holland and a group of friends was able to slip out a back door and head back to the Grand Central Hotel.

March 6, 1886: the announcement of Holland’s acquittal

March 7th, Holland wandered New York, taking in the sights, and being recognized by virtually everyone on the street, such was the city-wide fascination with his trial. He told the New York Times on March 8th that “once he gets home, he will devote himself to farming and stock raising.”

The Grand Central Hotel at 31st & Broadway, where Holland stayed after his trial

James Holland seems to drop off the record after his trial. John Hill, returning to his post as Police Chief in Texas, was killed just months after Holland’s acquittal. On August 6th, 1886, a drunk man named John Varden was shooting out streetlights in Ballinger, Texas. When Hill attempted to disarm him, Varden’s gun went off, shooting Hill in the foot. The surgery to amputate his foot caused infection, and Hill died of lockjaw on August 8th. He was buried in Abilene City Cemetery. Varden was killed in another drunken rage in Fort McKavett, Texas, in October of that year.

Whatever became of James T. Holland, he put Abilene on the map for the first time, and in true Texas fashion.

Abilene in 1883 (copyright expired)

About keithyorkcity

Name: Keith Age: 20-something Location: New York Passion: History You'll find a million blogs like mine, but mine is better.
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3 Responses to Abilenian James T. Holland: on trial for murder in 1880s New York

  1. nathanalbert says:

    The descriptions are the best thing about this story. You have to love descriptions like “32, sunburned, hatchet-faced, fair, with a small brown mustache, a long nose, and an eye that does not inspire confidence,” Awesome post!

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