some of the history behind cormac mccarthy’s blood meridian: glimpses of the real-life judge holden

Samuel E. Chamberlain (1829 – 1908) was a soldier, painter, and author who travelled throughout the American Southwest and Mexico.  Chamberlain was a participant in the era’s Texas/Mexico border disputes and rode with the infamous Glanton gang, commanded by the truly frightening John Glanton. Chamberlain’s My Confession was a key source for Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and is the only personal document written by a member of Glanton’s gang: 
The second in command, now left in charge of the camp, was a man of gigantic size called “Judge” Holden of Texas. Who or what he was no one knew but a cooler blooded villain never went unhung; he stood six feet six in his moccasins, had a large fleshy frame, a dull tallow colored face destitute of hair and all expression. His desires was blood and women, and terrible stories were circulated in camp of horrid crimes committed by him when bearing another name, in the Cherokee nation and Texas; and before we left Frontreras a little girl of ten years was found in the chapperal, foully violated and murdered. The mark of a huge hand on her little throat pointed him out as the ravisher as no other man had such a hand, but though all suspected, no one charged him with the crime. (271)




Holden was by far the best educated man in northern Mexico; he conversed with all in their own language, spoke in several Indian lingos, at a fandango would take the Harp or Guitar from the hands of the musicians and charm all with his wonderful performance, and out-waltz any poblana of the ball. He was “plum centre” with rifle or revolver, a daring horseman, acquainted with the nature of all the strange plants and their botanical names, great in Geology and Mineralogy, in short another Admirable Crichton, and with all an arrant coward. Not but that he possessed enough courage to fight Indians and Mexicans or anyone where he had the advantage in strength, skill and weapons, but where the combat would be equal, he would avoid it if possible. I hated him at first sight, and he knew it, yet nothing could be more gentle and kind than his deportment towards me; he would often seek conversation with me and speak of Massachusetts and to my astonishment I found he knew more about Boston than I did. (271–272)




He also was fluent regarding the ancient races of Indians that at a remote period covered the desert with fields of corn, wheat, barley and melons, and built large cities with canals bringing water from rivers hundreds of miles distant. To my question “how he knew all this,” this encyclopaedian Scalp Hunter replied, “Nature, these rocks, this little broken piece of clay (holding up a little fragment of painted pottery such are found all over the desert), the ruins scattered all over the land, tell me the story of the past.” (283–284)


 —from Samuel E. Chamberlain, My Confession: Recollections of a Rogue. New York: Harper, 1956. The excerpts above are cited in John Sepich’s Notes on Blood Meridian, University of Texas Press, (2008).