WANTED: The State of Texas is looking for a cat burglar. No, not someone who steals cats, but a black-clad trapeze artist who can slip through air vents or climb up drain pipes. Just get an object that is rightfully ours, but leave the roasted chicken alone. Will pay well. Jeeze, if the UT-System can fork over $2.2 million to its new chancellor for his first year alone — who’s a journalism graduate of all things — money is no object in Austin.
I can tell that I’m going too fast, so let me explain. Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna’s leg is in a museum in Illinois when it should, by all rights, be in Texas, which has already given him an arm and a leg. We want that leg and Illinois won’t give it to us, so we’re going to steal it. But let’s begin even earlier. Every Texan knows all about Santa Anna, the Napoleon of the West, as he liked to call himself. He was one of those banana republic dictators who was president of Mexico nine (or 11) times. We hate him and the Mexicans aren’t too fond of him. I was visiting Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City years ago and overheard a guide, speaking in English to a group of gringos looking at a portrait: “And this is General Santa Anna who had the distinct honor of losing one-third of Mexico.” You get their drift.
He was a bloody tyrant. Recall that he killed more Texans at Goliad – 303 unarmed POWS — than at the Alamo. Even so, putting down other rebellions, he killed more Mexicans than Anglos. He was allegedly terrified of bodies of water, and he used opium. After the Battle of San Jacinto, Santa Anna was captured, went to New York City, where urban legend has it he introduced chewing gum to Americans, went back to Mexico, resumed his presidency and returned to war. In 1838 at Vera Cruz (no relation to Ted) during the so-called “Pastry War” (don’t ask) with the French, one of Santa Anna’s real legs was shattered by artillery fire and it had to be amputated — it was buried with full military honors — and he began wearing an artificial leg made of wood and cork. Flash forward to the Mexican-American War and, no, it was not a war against Mexican-Americans, some of whom fought gallantly on our side.
During the Battle of Cerro Gordo in 1847, the Mexican general had to beat a hasty retreat on a donkey. Some soldiers of the 4th Illinois Infantry overran his position, finding Santa Anna’s carriage with a sack holding $18,000 in gold (which they turned in) and a roasted chicken lunch (which they ate). They kept the leg. Later the veteran who owned it even sold peeks at the leg during the 1850s and 1860s for 10 cents a pop, before the veteran’s family donated it to the state of Illinois. Incidentally, a second limb, a peg leg, was reportedly later used by Lt. Abner Doubleday as a baseball bat. That one is on display at the mansion of a former governor in Decatur, Ill.
Now we get another weird part of this story. Not many Illinosians (Illinosy? Ill-at-ease?) thought much about the leg, held in a dusty case at the Illinois State Military Museum in Springfield, until a writer for the cartoon TV show King of the Hill read online about the leg and wrote an episode which ran in 1998. In that story, one of the characters stole the leg in Texas (wrong state). After that program ran, people began visiting the museum and asking about Santa Anna’s leg, so in 2006 the museum took it out of the case and built an impressive diorama for it, recreating the moment of its capture. The leg is propped in an elegant carriage surrounded by soldier mannequins. That sack of gold nabbed at the time is displayed as a couple of strong boxes cracked open. There’s even a plate with that roasted chicken on it.
There’s a major problem with this story. The leg is in Illinois, which had no Alamo, no Goliad, no San Jacinto and probably not very good Tex-Mex. You never heard of Ill-Mex. There were probably a lot of one-legged Mexican generals, and the only reason anyone cares about Santa Anna today is due to Texas. We have tried various ways to get the leg. But the museum keepers say it is now the main draw to the place, and aren’t about to give it up. The latest attempt came last May. Remember when the White House said it would consider for action any petition with 100,000 signatures? The San Jacinto Battle Monument and Museum launched a petition on the White House website, hoping to get enough signatures to get the White House involved in this intra-state dispute, and bring the leg here, but the staff missed the deadline.
If Mexicans cared about Santa Anna they might be willing to trade his former leg for the Alamo Flag (a great story for another time), but first we’d have to get the leg. What could we trade Illinois for that prosthesis? They already have a presidential library. We have three, although Sen. Vera Cruz might make it four. Wanna trade? Houston would gladly trade the Astros and the Texans for anything, although the Chicago Texans would sound as odd as the Salt Lake City Jazz. We have lots of money (see above: UT chancellor); name your price. Do we really need Waco? Oil. That’s the ticket. Chicago has those horrible winter storms, so we could ship them lots of heating oil. No, the only solution is to hire a cat burglar, have him or her swipe the object, bring it here, then explain to Illinois that in his newly discovered will Santa Anna named Texas as the sole beneficiary of his leg — and the roasted chicken.
Ashby trades at firstname.lastname@example.org