If you knew one, you knew all four. Each of the firemen sheltered wives and kids in unprepossessing single-story houses in East Dallas or Mesquite and handled the mortgage on salaries of about $500 a month. They hung Sheetrock or slapped mortar on bricks on their off days. All four worked 24-on/48-off at downtown fire stations. Each married his high school sweetheart. Gresham, Henderson, Bigham, and Manley were peas in a pod, midcentury, middle-class, solid citizens. 

But distinctions emerge when you lean in a little closer. Private Jim Gresham, age 25, wasn’t scheduled to work that Saturday, but a friend and fellow firefighter named Bill McDonald wanted the day off, so Gresham filled in, thereby excusing himself honorably from shopping for furniture with his wife and their 3-year-old daughter. Mrs. Gresham bought the furniture without him; he would just have to wait until he came home on Sunday to see it. 

golden_pheasant_fire_3 SIGNAL ONE-SEVEN: The Golden Pheasant was already in decline before Jim Bigham (and every other fireman in Dallas) was called to save it. Courtesy Dallas Firefighters Museum

Not for the first time, Jim Bigham took his son to work. Ricky, 15, loved the station-house grub, the joking and camaraderie, those gleaming red trucks, and staying up late before retiring to one of the bunks arrayed around the big room upstairs. But even more than the station-house culture, Ricky just loved hanging out with his dad. Bigham had played baseball at Sunset High, and, at age 36, still played summer-league fast-pitch hardball. He’d had stints in the Navy and with DP&L before he went to work for the city in 1951. “A firefighter’s firefighter,” recalls a co-worker, Bob Bailley, 88. “Purposeful. Jim always wanted to carry the hose in and get that fire out.”

The other two grew up together near East Texas and were great friends. Last summer, five members of the Canton High School class of ’53 met me for lunch at Papadale’s Grill & Cantina, a pale-orange-stucco buffet joint hard by Interstate 20, to talk about their old friends. They recalled the time Jerry “Bucket” Henderson made some sort of squeaking sound with his chair in sophomore English, and, while the others suppressed giggles, Mrs. Kennedy sent Ben Allen Pruitt to the principal, where he got a wallop with the paddle. Bucket drove his ’41 Ford—aka the Gray Ghost—so fast that he’d take a corner on two wheels, and he dressed so neatly that “he looked like he came out of a band box.” He and classmate Kathleen had gotten married, probably in the summer before senior year, their matrimony kept secret because the school board would never have allowed a married student to wear the Eagles’ green and white football uniform. How many kids did they have, five? Yes, five. 

Bucket lived with his grandmother, didn’t he? Wonder where his parents were? His classmates didn’t know that the two potential fathers in Henderson’s life had rejected him thoroughly. When his mother divorced when he was 2 and remarried, the new guy didn’t want anything to do with him—thus the handoff to grandma. And when, in his majority, he organized a trip to Houston to reacquaint with his biological father, that man refused to even meet with his son.

Back at Papadale’s, the crew from Canton thought back on handsome Ron Manley, who was so good at football, twice all-district as a left end. His girl and later wife was Cornelia “Neely” Peel, and is she still alive? Doesn’t she live in Dallas? Ron’s daddy had a truck farm, tomatoes and watermelons, and those seven kids worked. Didn’t they also have a little country grocery store out on 243, in Dawson? 

And on and on, with memories great and small, until, for a moment, everyone at the table fell silent. “What we’re talking about here,” said Jean Sanders at last, “is two all-American boys.” 

Not that there’s any need to idealize Gresham, Henderson, Bigham, or Manley. Their lives speak for themselves.

They came together in the middle of a cold night, startled out of sleep by 100 decibels of vibrating fire bell. They jumped into steel-toed rubber boots and heavy gray fire-resistant pants. They hooked their arms through suspenders, threw on jackets outlined in reflective tape and fastened by four rows of heavy metal hooks and clasps. There was a patch of light-gray corduroy sewn on the inside of the collar. Metal helmets. Slide down a pole. Sprint to the truck. Sirens. Ricky couldn’t go back to sleep after his father left. He was the only one left in the station.

golden_pheasant_fire_4 Courtesy Dallas Firefighers Museum

No fire was visible at the three-story building at 1417 Commerce, just smoke percolating out of its basement, up past the yellow awning in front. The night and the dark billows obscured but did not hide the Dallas Blueprint Company on the two floors above the restaurant and the Melody Shop store next door. Light wind, about 28 degrees. 

Scant minutes after the first alarm, Battalion Chief Lloyd C. Briscoe led nine, maybe 10 firemen under the awning and through the front door. “It had been a four-star restaurant, but I saw that now it was just a cafeteria,” recalls Bob Bailley, then a lieutenant in the fire department. Some of the men had masks on their faces and SCBAs on their backs—the high-pressure air tanks of the Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus held a 15- to 30-minute supply of oxygen, depending on how hard the wearer breathed. For what they called “an initial knockdown,” they carried three hoses gushing water, with two men on each, one at the business end and the other behind him, pulling the thing along. The 200-foot, 1.5-inch diameter hoses—“spaghetti” in the fireman’s argot—stiffened under 200 pounds of pressure. Smoke from an elevator shaft poured into the room. Someone found a little hole in the floor and had a look. Jesus! The basement was a sea of flames.

Now what? Briscoe and Bailley conferred. They decided to enlarge the hole and snake a Bresnan Distributor through it—the Bresnan being a hose attachment that rotated rapidly and sprayed water in hard-to-reach places. As the men walked back toward the front door, suddenly everything changed. It was like an earthquake. Unseen glasses crashed to the floor. The lights went out. The floor collapsed, and four men fell 12 feet into hell.

Bailley and Briscoe barely escaped. “Where are your guys!” someone shouted. “Back there!” replied Bailley. “They’re in there!” The laconic, tough-as-nails Briscoe, the last one out, had to run uphill on the falling floor.

With the sudden onrush of fuel, the fire spiked so high that no one could get near it. “Frustrating,” Deputy Chief T.E. Allen told a Dallas Times Herald reporter at the scene. “Nothing we [can] do.” 

But when fireman Michael Jones, then 20, arrived at the scene at about 3 am, he heard stories of Briscoe wading into the flames several times to attempt a rescue. 

More and more trucks and men arrived. Every on-duty firefighter in the city was summoned, and then every off-duty man as well—a Signal One-Seven, in fireman lingo. There have been only two in the city’s history. 

The fall did not kill Gresham, Henderson, Bigham, and Manley. Two of the three hoses they’d brought in the building melted, but the heat didn’t kill them either. They would have been stunned, hurt, hot, and hyperventilating. They would have looked around for a way out. They crawled together toward a wall and formed a kind of pyramid. They put their hands on the floor and their faces on their hands, searching for a breath. 

Then the first floor of the blueprint company—the restaurant’s ceiling—gave way. Then the second floor. The flaming basement filled with a chaos of rushing air and giant rolls of paper and tinder dry joists and studs, as well as a number of ozalid-process blueprint machines, which looked vaguely like tanning beds and weighed about 500 pounds each. 

“We formed a line to shovel or carry the debris out,” recalls Jones. “We knew. We could look at the building and know that no one survived.”

“I was called in from off-duty,” says Charles Pitman, then the captain of Station 44 in South Dallas. “By the time I got there, the fire was out. We dug all night long, taking debris out hand-to-hand. I called down to the station for our heavy-duty wrecker, which we used to pull out those presses.”

Seven hundred and fifty fighters fought the Golden Pheasant fire. It took them until 6:03 am—over three hours—to extinguish it. Men wet with sweat and quivering with emotion cut twisted rebar with torches, drained four feet of water from the basement, and carried away tons of detritus. A crowd of about 1,000 watched, among them Bigham’s father and younger brother. Shortly after noon, they brought the bodies out and up. In order: Gresham, Henderson, Bigham, Manley. They died of smoke inhalation. The yellow awning remained standing.

•••

In March, after Jack Ruby was convicted of murder and sentenced to death, attorney Belli hastened back to California to work on his book, titled, with heavy irony, Dallas Justice. He railed at the Waspy homogeneity of the jury pool, at the “defensively self-conscious” city’s absolute need to find a scapegoat, and, most of all, at the power of the DA’s office. 

“I was told defense criminal lawyers didn’t have a chance in Dallas,” Belli wrote. “ ‘What can we do about it, we live here?’ was the resigned answer that shocked me.” 

That sounds about right, says attorney Lisa Blue, who worked in the DA’s office in the final years of Wade’s reign. “If you stood up and didn’t fall over, you won about 90 percent of the time.”

The state charged Bryant with murder initially, but the statute said something about premeditation, which really didn’t fit in this case, so the DA reduced the charge to arson and asked for 40 years.

Arson is notoriously tough to prove—the evidence burns up, obviously—and the tools of the investigator’s trade in ’64 would put no one in mind of CSI. Samples were gathered with an ax and a shovel, placed in empty metal paint cans, and dropped off at a lab. Yet the case against Bryant seemed solid. A cook he had employed would testify that, a month before the fire, Bryant had offered him $1,000 to ignite his place in the middle of the night, using the bread warmer and some well-placed dishrags. There was the fire—apparently started in just that way—the night before the tragedy. Joe Guyton, another cook, would testify that he called Bryant after dousing the fire, and that Bryant had said, “Are you still there? I thought the place would be gone.” Bryant’s bookkeeper would quote his employer saying, pre-fire, “Well, old Charlie’s had it. I’m too far in debt to pull out.” An insurance agent would testify that Bryant held six policies that would pay him $70,000 if the restaurant and its fixtures were destroyed. Witnesses would confirm that Bryant had fallen behind on payments to vendors and to the taxman. Bryant, furthermore, was an unsympathetic defendant, with an infuriatingly blase attitude and a long, colorful record.

He didn’t have a chance. But he had Charles Tessmer.

Tessmer, SMU Law, ’49, was a grand man, a drinks-for-the-house guy when he won, which was often. A flamboyant, ingratiating defense attorney from Central Casting, Tessmer’s trademarks were big hair, a loud suit, a photographic memory of case law, and a nearly hypnotic rhetorical style. He provided his clients a beautifully organized defense and some tricks when they needed them. When he identified a juror he knew he did not want, he’d sometimes begin his voir dire interview by greeting the man by his first name, and inquire about his wife Martha, and how’s your boy Timmy? The DA’s team would then use one of its challenges to dismiss the juror, who was obviously a friend of the clever Tessmer. 

“Only attorney I know who would put a deaf man on the stand to testify that he had heard nothing,” wrote Judge W.A. Morrison in his foreword to his friend’s book Criminal Trial Strategy (1968).

=pq=“He was by far the best I ever went up against, such a great lawyer,” says a former assistant Dallas DA who did not want his name used. “I attended that trial to see the new judge [John Mead] and to watch Tessmer.” 

The trial began in early June. After three of Wade’s assistants laid out their case, the maestro impugned, challenged, and impeached. You say my client offered you $1,000 to burn his restaurant? But isn’t it true that you and Mr. Bryant had an argument about unemployment compensation, and you lost, and you would say anything to get even? You’ve testified that my client has $70,000 worth of insurance. But Mr. Bryant had many thousands of dollars of paid-for and uninsured property in his restaurant. So the net to him from insurers would be far less, wouldn’t it—perhaps half that $70,000? 

On behalf of the defense, retired Houston Fire Marshal Press W. Clooney testified that a fire so hot would have fused the food warmer’s plug into the wall. It didn’t. So we don’t even know if this food warmer was plugged in, do we sir? Couldn’t the fire have been started by faulty wiring, or by rats gnawing on paper matches, or by flammable gas escaping from an air-conditioning compressor? 

Bryant took the stand on the fourth day, and, give the devil his due, he was a cool cucumber up there. As instructed by Tessmer, he gave the jury plenty of eye contact and he did not lose his temper. “He’s lying,” he said of this accuser. And when the prosecution connected the dots between his financial crisis and the insurance money, he was ready. “That’s nothing new to me,” said Bryant calmly. “If you’ll check back, I think you’ll find I’ve been in debt plenty of times.” His masterstroke: Bryant said he’d been thinking about expanding the restaurant with an oyster bar. He certainly didn’t want to burn it down!

It was enough. Bryant was acquitted. Perhaps Tessmer went to his favorite joint afterward, the Kings Club at the Adolphus. Perhaps the band played “My Way,” his favorite song.

•••