The Monster Who was Real: Judge Holden of Texas, Scalp-hunting Giant

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In all of fiction, there is perhaps no more horrifying, monstrous character than Judge Holden in Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian.” Yet many readers will be shocked to learn that Judge Holden, the almost seven-foot-tall, hairless mass murderer with a genius IQ, was actually flesh and blood. In the 1840s, Holden rode with the Glanton Gang, a band of legendary scalp hunters who murdered, raped, and robbed along the borderlands of the U.S. and Mexico. Holden wasn’t only a ruthless killer but also a skilled musician and silver-tongued devil with an extensive knowledge of archaeology, geology, military tactics, and chemistry.

The bloody actives of the gang are fictionalized in McCarthy’s classic novel “Blood Meridian,” selected as one of Time magazine’s TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005. In the book, Holden is a mysterious figure, depicted as almost supernaturally powerful, the very embodiment of evil itself. He is gigantic and pale with a totally hairless body. Throughout the book, the judge shares his philosophical views on a variety of subjects, not least of which is his overarching passion: war. “It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be… War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god.”

The Monster Who was Real: Judge Holden of Texas, Scalp-hunting Giant
Photo: Pixabay.com

McCarthy drew on many historical sources for his book, including Samuel Chamberlain’s “My Confession,” a memoir  of Chamberlain’s time riding with the Glanton Gang. In “My Confession” Holden’s description is shockingly similar to McCarthy’s fictional portrayal: “The second in command, now left in charge of the camp, was a man of gigantic size who rejoiced in the name of Holden, called Judge Holden of Texas. Who or what he was no one knew, but a cooler-more blooded villain never went unhung. He stood six foot six in his moccasins, had a large, fleshy frame, a dull, tallow-colored face destitute of hair and all expression, always cool and collected. But when a quarrel took place and blood shed, his hog-like eyes would gleam with a sullen ferocity worthy of the countenance of a fiend… Terrible stories were circulated in camp of horrid crimes committed by him when bearing another name in the Cherokee nation in Texas. And before we left Fronteras, a little girl of ten years was found in the  chaparral foully violated and murdered. The mark of a huge hand on her little throat pointed out him as the ravisher as no other man had such a hand. But though all suspected, no one charged him with the crime. He was by far the best educated man in northern Mexico.”

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