Answer Man

Did Davy Crockett die in battle at the Alamo or was he executed?

Davy Crockett at the battle for the Alamo.
Davy Crockett at the battle for the Alamo.

Q: I seem to recall reading in a 1950s encyclopedia that, contrary to popular history, Davy Crockett did not die during fighting at the Alamo. Instead, he was taken prisoner by Mexican Gen. Santa Anna and shot by firing squad six days later. Is there any foundation to this story today?

Ed Welling, of Collinsville

A: While the exact circumstances of Crockett’s death continue to be debated, it seems clear that the celebrated frontiersman did indeed die at the Alamo on March 6, 1836, and that the story you remember deserves to be shot down as total fabrication.

That said, Crockett perhaps didn’t die quite as heroically as Hollywood would lead us to believe. I’m sure those of us of a certain age will never forget the Walt Disney story, which had him clubbing Mexican soldiers with Old Betsy, his trusty rifle, until the very end. Then there was fearless John Wayne in the 1960 movie throwing a torch into the powder room as he died.

Now, in truth, there are at least two accounts that seem to back the Disney version, although these came decades after the fact and were perhaps embellished to boost the teller’s image. For example, in 1889, Felix Nuñez, who claimed to be at the battle, told the San Antonio Express:

“(Crockett) apparently had a charmed life. Of the many soldiers who took deliberate aim at him and fired, not one ever hit him. On the contrary he never missed a shot. This fact being observed by a lieutenant who had come in over the wall. He sprung at him and dealt him a deadly blow with his sword, just above the right eye, which felled him to the ground and in an instant he was pierced by not less than twenty bayonets.”

Less dramatic accounts, however, seem to show that, while fighting bravely, Crockett died in the midst of battle. Susanna Dickinson, the wife of an American officer, said Crockett was killed in the assault, while Joe, Gen. William Travis’ American-born slave, said he saw Crockett lying dead with the bodies of slain Mexican soldiers around him.

Nevertheless, this death-in-battle story was turned on its head in 1955 when a purported diary kept by Mexican Col. José Enrique de la Peña was published in English. Not surprisingly, it set off shock waves because de la Peña, who was with Santa Anna during the siege, alleged that Crockett had surrendered before being executed on the spot.

“Some seven men had survived the general carnage and, under the protection of General Castrillón, they were brought before Santa Anna. Among them was one of great stature, well proportioned ... He was the naturalist David Crockett ... Santa Anna answered Castrillón’s intervention in Crockett’s behalf with a gesture of indignation and, addressing the troops closest to him, ordered his execution.”

At the time, many pooh-poohed this newly published English translation as a publicity grab just as coonskin caps were flying off the shelves thanks to the popularity of the Disney TV miniseries with Fess Parker. But here’s the strange thing: As historians began investigating de la Peña’s claims, they began uncovering more evidence that backed him.

Although not naming Crockett, Gen. Sam Houston wrote in a letter on March 11, 1836, “After the fort was carried, seven men surrendered and called for Santa Anna and (mercy). They were murdered by his order.” Likewise, a story in the July 9 Morning Courier & New York Enquirer offered this account:

“Six Americans were discovered near the wall yet unconquered. They were surrounded and ordered by General Castrillón to surrender, which they did under a promise of protection.” An undaunted “David Crockett” boldly faced Gen. Santa Anna, looking him “steadfastly in the face.” “Sir, here are six prisoners I have taken alive; how shall I dispose of them?” Manuel Fernandez asked his commander. Santa Anna fiercely looked at Castrillón, replying, “Have I not told you before how to dispose of them? Why do you bring them to me?” Several junior officers lunged at Crockett and the others, plunging their swords into the “bosoms of their defenseless prisoners.”

Still other accounts back up the surrender story as well. For example, about three weeks after the battle, passengers aboard the schooner Comanche told the New Orleans Post-Union, “Crockett and the others tried to surrender, but were told there was no mercy for them.”

So, somewhere in all these accounts likely lies the truth, but nowhere do they indicate that the King of the Wild Frontier lived to see another day.

Today’s trivia

What state in 2013 finally officially ratified the 13th Amendment, which banned slavery?

Answer to Saturday’s trivia: In 1874, chemist Charles Romley apparently became the first person to synthesize diacetylmorphine in his lab at St. Mary’s Hospital in London. However, after running a few experiments on the new drug, he abandoned it.

Too bad they didn’t let it die.

A quarter century later, chemist Felix Hoffman resuscitated the drug while he was trying to produce codeine for the Bayer company in Germany. It was found to be far more potent than morphine, and the company apparently decided to move ahead with it. After tests on both animals and humans, Bayer presented it to the Congress of German Naturalists and Physicians as a miracle drug that was 10 times more effective than codeine as a cough syrup and a better painkiller than morphine.

They trademarked the drug as “Heroin,” apparently because test subjects said the drug made them feel “heroisch” (heroic). Within just a few months, Bayer’s Heroin became a worldwide hit. In the first year alone, Bayer reportedly made a ton of the stuff that was marketed in 23 countries as cough medicine, tablets, elixirs — even heroin salts.

But as the number of Heroin addicts quickly skyrocketed, Bayer discontinued production in 1913 in favor of the product we know the company best for today — aspirin. You can find a picture of a company bottle if you search for heroin at www.todayIfoundout.com.

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer

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