Uncle Billy: The Evolution of a Legend, Part Two

Rubottom Inn 1866

Another Billy Rubottom story has a third version, less romanticized, a product of the change in sensibilities in our own era.  This one concerns the death of  Hilliard Dorsey, who was married to Billy’s daughter Civility.

Dorsey was a former Confederate officer, like Billy a prominent Mason and community leader. Horace Bell’s portrait is not complimentary. He describes Dorsey as a street fighter, so violent that he once actually bit off an opponent’s nose.  Purporting to quote Billy’s actual words, Bell reports that Billy considered Dorsey “the bravest man I ever faced,” but also an “overbearing bully” who “didn’t know how to treat a woman.” At some point, Civility was compelled to take the couple’s small son and flee to her father’s house. Dorsey followed, announcing that he was there to take back his son. He was met at the front door by Billy, sitting on the front porch with a shotgun across his knees. Both men drew their guns; Dorsey died. “I hated to shoot him,” says Billy in Bell’s telling. “I begged him to stop, but on he came.”

Twenty-two years later, Frank Parkhurst Brackett repaints the picture.  His account adds, or invents, many dramatic details, omits the derogatory description of Dorsey, and goes on at length about his “many sterling qualities, frankness, sincerity and winsomeness [winsomeness??] and energy.”  Civility’s flight is described as the result of a domestic dispute, and the fatal shooting as a tragic conflict between two southern gentlemen obliged by circumstance to defend their honor.  It is not hard to read this version as casting the blame on Civility herself, for disrupting her happy home.

We look at these stories differently today.  Anne Collier, a descendant who has researched these related families, says flatly that Dorsey was an alcoholic and a womanizer.  An article published in the Los Angeles Times in 2005 describes him, with no dramatic detail, simply as an abusive husband.  “Rubottom’s warnings to the wife-beater were ignored, so Uncle Billy fetched his daughter back home. The husband armed himself, came after her, and ignored Rubottom’s warning not to come any closer.  That was the abuser’s last mistake.”

The disappearance of romanticized violence from this story, and the acknowledgment of the realities of alcoholism and domestic abuse, are certainly a mark of progress for our civilization. But I miss Horace’s Bell’s admiring and affectionate description of Billy’s honesty, generosity, love of right and hatred of wrong.


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