Tuesday, March 13, 2012

People: A Buccaneer at Heart

The old saying about greatness can be applied to pirates, too. Some are born, some are made and some have the mantel thrust upon them. Today’s subject was neither alive during the Golden Age nor, in the end, much of a seaman. But his life bares all the earmarks of any raider, from Viking to buccaneer. And most of it was thrust upon him.

Lee Christmas was born at the end of an era in a place that was fading away. He came into the world in Livingston Parish, Louisiana in a plantation house on the Amite River, February 2, 1863. The world he was born into was doomed by changing attitudes and the rigors of war, and the Christmas family fell – had in fact already fallen – on hard times as Lee grew to manhood.

There does not seem to be anything of delusion in Lee’s approach to life, however. Far from mourning the wealth he might have inherited, Christmas as a young man went forth to find adventure, first on the water. He apprenticed with bargemen on the Mississippi and eventually graduated to operating a tug boat on Lake Pontchartrain. Never a strikingly handsome man, Christmas all the same was full of charm and a quirky sense of humor that either endeared him to his fellows or put them off, depending on the man. He was driven to succeed, and when the opportunity arose to get in on the ground floor with the Illinois Central Railroad, Lee jumped at the chance.

He became a brakeman and by the 1880s was instrumental in the building of railroad lines in Louisiana, Kentucky, Mississippi and Texas. He was a force in the booming railroad industry, and worked as an engineer aboard a train that ran regularly between Memphis and New Orleans, where he lived.

In 1891 everything changed in the worst possible way for Lee Christmas. Some sources, like Herman Deutsch in his book about Christmas, The Incredible Yanqui, claim that the hard-drinking Louisianan was hitting the sauce at the throttle. His employer, on the other hand, said Christmas had been on duty – and awake running his locomotive – for over two days straight. Either way, Lee fell asleep in his speeding train and hit another engine head-on.

When Christmas recovered from the awful accident he found he had been bared from returning to his job while the incident was “under investigation.” With no means of support and bills to pay, Christmas tramped around Texas and Louisiana doing odd jobs with his hands. At last, in 1894, he was called back by the railroad but just when he could see his life returning to normal his former employer threw him for another loop. The now-required company physical found Christmas to be color blind; the railroad would not rehire him.

Devastated to once again be without income, Christmas managed to hear about the new railroad systems in Central America. Banana plantations, most of which were connected in one way or another to the U.S. company then known as United Fruit, needed their produce transported to the coasts and supplies – including huge blocks of ice – brought back up the mountains. No one would turn away an experienced engineer for a little problem like color blindness. Christmas booked passage on a steamer out of New Orleans and arrived in Puerto Cortes, Honduras late in 1894.

Christmas settled into the routine of engineer fairly quickly. The tiny train on its rickety tracks was no where near the mighty engine he had once piloted, but the work was steady until a pivotal moment in Christmas’ life happened at a gorge known as the Laguna Trestle in the Honduran mountains. The date was April 14, 1897. Christmas’ train was flagged down by revolutionaries with guns who commandeered both engine and engineer. At first, it seems that Christmas had no intention of joining the revolutionaries but, when government forces arrived to do battle, Lee Christmas took the gun the men in his engine had given him and fought along side them. On that day, the man from the Amite River went from locomotive engineer to politician and warrior.

Christmas switched camps often; in 1899 he was working for the Honduran government but by1903 he was again on the side of rebel leader Manuel Bonilla. Christmas adopted a persona of careless ferocity; he continued to drink hard, made a name for himself in Honduran capital San Pedro Sula’s brothels and chewed glass.

When Bonilla tried to encroach into Nicaragua in 1907, Christmas found himself exiled to Guatemala. It was here that he met the United Fruit company’s Central American agent Samuel Zemurray, known – in some cases affectionately, in others sarcastically – as “El Amigo”. While the documentation is slim, it is generally assumed that Christmas was in some way involved with, and probably in the pay of, United Fruit and their bid to monopolize the banana plantations of the region.

From this point on, Christmas’ exploits, either with or without Bonilla, would be heavily armed with guns provided by Zemurray. The famous Battle of La Ceiba in January of 1911 saw Christmas battling Honduran government forces with the aid of U.S. Army Colt machine guns. He used the guns to support rebel infantry in such an innovative way that his tactics would be studied by European and American generals, and used to great success in World War I. Bonilla’s rebels won the day and he resumed control of the government. Christmas was a hero until 1913, when Bonilla’s death changed the political climate overnight. Christmas was again sent packing, this time to Nicaragua.

Lee dropped out of sight, but landed on his feet. For nearly eleven years he worked with Zemurray, manipulating governments and economies in Central America. Rumors swirled in the states and elsewhere that Christmas had become emperor of some banana republic or other or that he was fighting with Zapata in Mexico. One thing we know with certainty thanks to letters home to friends; he married a local girl, Ida Culotta, in Puerto Cortes in 1914.

Lee Christmas was not a healthy man, however. The ravages if a tough life and a tougher lifestyle took their toll. Sick with tuberculosis, Christmas returned home to New Orleans in the early 1920s. He died there on January 24, 1924. The memory of his fascinating life faded quickly as the 20th century pressed on, but his legacy remains in odd corners like this one. Lee Christmas’ life is the story of a man who, if born in the Great Age of Sail, would surely have given Morgan or Roberts a run for their money.

Header: Lee Christmas in cavalry fatigues courtesy of the Marion Samson Collection, University of Tennessee, Knoxville


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Sounds like his life would make for a fun action movie...

Pauline said...

I doubt that we're the only people who think that. He's a bit of an anti-hero, though, so it would be a delicate treatment for sure.

Rodney Hastings said...


I am a direct descendant of Lee Christmas. I really enjoyed reading your post.

Pauline said...

Rodney: Thank you; I'm so pleased to meet you and that you enjoyed the post.