Texan winters are unpredictable. Rain turns the state into a soggy mess one day then blazing sun bakes it hard the next. This changeability is especially pronounced in the state capital of Austin.
‘If you don’t like the weather,’ say seasoned Austinites, ‘just wait five minutes.’
On Saturday 8 January 1938 they had their usual dose of fickle climate. The sun shone intermittently through the day but by late afternoon grey skies ruled and a chill wind chased commuters out of the downtown business district into the suburbs. In an upscale part of town a young man called Thomas H Markley jnr celebrated his twenty-first birthday with a gang of college friends outside his parents’ house.
He had a case of beer and a revolver to keep him warm.
Texas oil revenue sheltered Markley’s hometown from the worst of the financial depression that blighted America in the thirties but Austin had not completely escaped the country’s economic melt down. A few miles past the city limits hundreds of men lived in government work camps digging ditches with President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programme.
No danger of government handouts for the birthday boy. A recent graduate of the 200 acres of red terracotta roofs and Spanish architecture that made up the University of Texas campus in Austin’s centre, Thomas jnr had plans for his future. He was the brains behind new photo-magazine The Drag, named after a strip of shops and bars on Guadalupe Street, aimed at students and due to hit stores Monday.
By evening he and his friends had worked their way through the beer. Texas was a gun loving state where no home was complete without a hunting rifle and a handgun. None of Markley’s friends were concerned when he produced a revolver. They only protested when he asked everyone to watch as he played a game he called ‘Russian Roulette’.
Markley told them he knew what he was doing, put one bullet in the gun, spun the cylinder and put the revolver to his head. As his friends watched he blew a hole in his skull and fell twitching on the grass. His parents buried him in Oakwood cemetery near the University.
He was the first victim of Russian Roulette in America.
Seven months to the day later another twenty-one-year-old Texan, this time in the crowded metropolis of Houston, tried the same trick. Paul Grasso sat in his car joking around with a revolver late at night. Like Markley he put one bullet in the gun and manipulated the cylinder. His friend George Tillota warned him to be careful.
‘Watch – I’ll show you it won’t go off,’ Grasso said.
He held the gun pointed backwards towards him at arms length, thumb on the trigger, and squeezed. The hammer came down on the chamber holding the bullet and Grasso bounced off his seat into the steering wheel, spraying blood from a massive head wound.
Why did two young men die like this? Leading newspaper for America’s southern states the Dallas Morning News had no idea. The paper’s hacks failed to uncover the origins of Russian Roulette (‘a gruesome game‘) or the reason for its popularity among young Texan men. The best they could do was assure readers that Markley and Grasso’s deaths were not suicide. Markley wrongly believed the weight of the single bullet in the revolver would roll it to the bottom of the cylinder when spun. Grasso tried to set his revolver so an empty chamber rotated under the hammer.
Four months later the Lone Star state lost exclusive rights to Russian Roulette.
In 1938 only heavyweights like the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times were available nationwide and most Americans read the regional press. It would have been a sharp eyed southerner who spotted the headline ‘Boy’s Triple Death Gamble Told By Chum At Inquest’ in 22 November edition of the Los Angeles Times and figured the gun game had spread to another state.
Sixteen-year-old Richard V Brady died at his parents’ Los Angeles home as he demonstrated Russian Roulette to a thirteen-year-old school friend.
‘After school we went to Richard’s home,’ the teenage witness told the inquest. ‘Richard got his father’s gun and put a shell in it. He twirled the cylinder, put it against his head and pulled the trigger. It didn’t go off. Richard dared me to do it but I wouldn’t. Then he did it a second time and the gun just clicked. But the third time he pulled the trigger the gun went off.’
The Times had a better research department than the Dallas Morning News and was able to give its readers a brief history of Russian Roulette, straight from the inquest. The anonymous staff reporter assigned to the story explained it was the invention of fatalistic Russian soldiers – ‘maddened by starvation and fear of death’ – during the last World War. If the Russian survived, he won. No journalists connected Russian Roulette with Georges Surdez, the Swiss pulp fiction writer who named it.
Before Surdez’s story appeared in Collier’s 30 January 1937 issue no occurrences of Russian Roulette, name or practice, were reported in America. Then in the late 1930s four young men died in three states – Markley and Grasso in Texas, Brady in California, and a fourth youth whose fatal gamble with Russian Roulette in July 1939 got a few lines in the Nevada State Journal.
Russian Roulette existed as an anonymous gun game for twenty years before Surdez settled down at his typewriter to write his short story about the French Foreign Legion. It was reported in Russia, Poland, France, and England. It’s a fair deduction that Surdez was the plague carrier who introduced it to America. He was lucky that by the time people started dying the practice had sunk deep enough into the culture that no-one remembered he had been the source.
Over the next seventy years 1,000 people would die. Something about the United States made it the perfect breeding ground for a suicidal gun game.
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