William W. Christmas: An Education in Woe
William Whitney and James Y. Christmas, respectively the son and son-in-law of Myra Clark Gaines, found it uncomfortable boarding their families together in the same house. The men had gone into business together mainly to satisfy Mrs. Gaines, whose power over family matters was enhanced by her status as a potential heiress to a fortune worth millions. William was a brooding, physically imposing hothead, prone to outbursts of temper and epileptic fits. He limited himself to the financial aspects of their horsehair processing business. James was a garrulous Southern gentleman and former colonel, who enjoyed only the social aspects of business: hobnobbing with suppliers, cultivating existing client relationships, and charming new potential clients.
James Y. Christmas had formerly been involved in the distilling business, and sold barrels of "Old Christmas" whiskey. The name was a take on the term "Christmas whiskey," used colloquially, usually to describe the batches of quickly-aged moonshine made to meet the demand of the December holidays. What caused James Y. Christmas to leave that business is not known. The horsehair processing industry supplied stuffing for mattresses and furniture. Very likely, it did not offer nearly the same romance as the art of whiskey distilling.
Christmas and Whitney had only been partners for a year and a half before William Whitney grew impatient with the irregular office hours and large expenses submitted against the business ledgers by Mr. Christmas. In early Spring, 1881, Whitney confronted Christmas and they agreed to dissolve the partnership. James Christmas, apparently, believed that he was still owed some out of pocket expenses by the business. Even after leaving the firm, he accepted payments from clients on behalf of the business, believing he was entitled to recoup his expenses. Upon hearing this, Whitney physically threatened Christmas on several occasions. Furthermore, Whitney felt compelled to place a notice in the Washington Post newspaper of June 25th, 1881 alerting the public that �J.Y. Christmas is not allowed, under any circumstances, to collect any bills for the firm of Wm. G. Whitney & Co.�
The morning edition of the Post was brought to the breakfast table and was the subject of a heated argument between the two men. They nearly came to blows, but were separated by other boarders. At 8:00AM, Whitney was convinced to leave the Catacazy Mansion for his office, while Christmas left a short while later, but returned in the early afternoon. Whitney returned to the house after work at 5:00PM, and on entering the door saw Mr. Christmas descending the stairs on his way to the dining room. �Now, God damn you, I�m going to kill you,� Whitney cried out. Christmas quickly went down the steps to a landing below the front door level, where Whitney caught him and with his fist dealt his a blow on the back of his head. Christmas fell down a few steps, but grabbed the banister and righted himself. Whitney advanced, placing his hand inside his coat. Christmas dug for his own pistol, brought it out, and fired up at Whitney. The bullet hit Whitney in the heart and he fell. He clutched at his chest as the blood spurted out, covering his left arm, face, and whiskers. Whitney looked up at Christmas and uttered, �Damned son of a bitch!,� and then died.
Christmas put his pistol in his pocket, turned to the other boarders and servants present, and declared that he had shot Mr. Whitney in self-defense. He then walked up the stairs, told a servant to go fetch the police, and retired to his room. He sat down in an easy chair, lit a cigar, and read the newspaper until the law arrived. Among those who saw William Whitney�s bloody body sprawled on the floor was Christmas� youngest son, James, aged 8. James ran upstairs and told his grandmother, Myra Clark Gaines, that �father had shot uncle.�
Christmas was escorted to the nearest police station, where he surrendered his pistol. The investigators of the shooting found no weapon concealed in Whitney�s clothes. That same night, Myra Gaines Clark send word to Christmas that she believed her son was in the wrong, and that she held Christmas blameless in his death. She would testify to that effect at his trial. A coroner�s inquest was held the day after the murder, and determined that all witnesses agreed that Mr. Christmas had killed Mr. Whitney. Christmas was taken from the inquest by ambulance to jail to await trial. His two sons, James, 8, and William, 15 went with him in the wagon. They burst into tears when he was led into his cell. James Y. Christmas was released on bail less than a month later, and at his trial he was acquitted by the jury without their even having to leave their seats to deliberate.
William W. Christmas did not let the scandal deter him from seeking friends and diversion. At age sixteen, he and his companions experimented with kites. One frame they built measured eleven feet in length. Another kite, slightly smaller, was sent aloft by Christmas, and its tether accidentally twisted around his arm. He was pulled into the air, and only saved from a fall by his quick-acting pals, who pulled him down. The rope had cut into his arm, but he healed without lasting damage.
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For the sake of her grandchildren, Myra Clark Gaines reconciled with son-in-law James Christmas following his acquittal. Myra died two and a half years later, in January, 1885. James was named her executor, and in that capacity he went with Myra�s attorney to probate court to file her will. Myra�s will left $100,000 to James Christmas, $100,000 to Hattie Hall Whitney, and about $700,000 to be divided among her six grandchildren. However, before anyone would see those amounts, the final round of appeals by the City of New Orleans over the Myra Clark Gaines case had to be heard. Moreover, a final accounting in probate had to be made to Myra�s former legal representatives. Even knowing that, as he entered probate court, James Christmas must have felt that a last turn had been made in a decades-long journey to justice. That sense of finality was short lived. He was shocked to be told by the court clerk that a will of Myra Clark Gaines had already been filed in probate, by a Mrs. Marie P. Evans, the daughter of an acquaintance of Myra�s.
The existence of multiple wills by Myra Clark Gaines opened up a whole new round of court suits, all focused on assets that other courts in Louisiana were still deciding. The health of James Y. Christmas declined sharply after the new cases began contesting the legitimacy of Myra�s wills. He suffered a stroke that half paralyzed him, and succumbed to complications. James Yancey Christmas died in August of 1888.
The mantle of lead litigant now passed to James� oldest son, William Whitney Christmas. He was 23 years old when his father died, a former student of St. John�s Military Academy, where he attained the rank of First Lieutenant (and where his cousin, W. W. Whitney--the son of the slain uncle--was a mere corporal). Christmas also matriculated from the University of Virginia, where he earned a Bachelor�s and a Master�s Degree in the Arts. Before he died, James Christmas met with an old friend, Gen. C. M. Shelley (also a former Confederate veteran), who now held the position of Fourth Auditor of the Federal Department of the Treasury. Gen. Shelley arranged to get young William Christmas a job as a messenger for the Treasury Department. Through this work, William Christmas got an inside view of how federal government contracts were negotiated in Washington, D.C., and how vast sums�larger than the Gaines inheritance�turned on old boy social networks and quid pro quo. His own government pay was used to help support his younger brother, sister, and their old family maid.
At 23, William Whitney Christmas was described as a daring, fearless and expert sailor. In 1887, at age 22, Christmas--with no prior shipbuilding experience--built his own trim yacht from a design he saw in Kuhnhardt's Small Yachts. He had assistance from three fiends: McConnell, Shelley (son of his Treasury Dept. benefactor), and H. D. Money, Jr., the son of a congressman. Christmas christened the boat the Rhoda, and launched it from the Washington, D.C. Navy Yard. He was a musical genius, who taught himself to play guitar and was said to be better than any guitarist in Washington. As a sportsman, he was an unerring shot, and in 1883, at age 18, he had obtained his first patent for a shotgun shell crimping device. He was a reckless swimmer, plowing through turbulent waters that discouraged others. As an artist, Christmas showed skill both in watercolor and in paint. In 1889, his painting of the Civil War confrontation between the Monitor and the Merrimack was awarded a prize in an exhibition. William Whitney Christmas was obviously a young man of many talents, and was described as a handsome one, as well.
Before she died, Myra Clark Gaines� last piece of advice to her grandchildren was to use their inheritance--when it came--to buy property. Holdings in land were the source of all wealth, she believed. However, when William W. Christmas was asked by reporters how he would spend his money if he finally came into the Myra Clark Gaines inheritance, he did not hesitate to say that he would immediately travel to Italy and devote himself to studies of music and art. He had no intention of tying his happiness to farms, plantations, deeds, rents, lawyers, or judges. They brought nothing but misery, he concluded. In the meantime, however, he found it increasingly difficult to keep himself groomed as a member of the upper crust on the salary of a lowly Treasury clerk.
On Oct. 30th, 1889, William W. Christmas married a young woman whose family had recently moved to Washington, Annie "Mae" Mabel Norris. The formal wedding at Epiphany Church in Washington, D. C. was reported in the Washington Post's society pages. Christmas brought to this match his polymath skills, his family heritage, a winter house in New Orleans (a long-time necessity for the main Gaines litigant, the property had been acquired by Myra in exchange for dropping a lawsuit)--and the prospect of an inheritance. Mabel, described as a pretty little woman with expressive gray eyes and an abundance of fluffy chestnut hair, brought the cash they needed to live on in their accustomed style.
W.W. Christmas was granted a patent in 1883, when he was 18 years old, for a gun cartridge loading implement.
Samuel Pierpont Langley
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