Charles Powell Bickley, author, officer in the Knights of the Golden Circle, Confederate Army officer, playwright, journalist, and actor, supposedly was born in Virginia in 1835 to Joseph Bickley and Jerusha (Templeton) Bickley. His parents moved from Russell County, Virginia, to Kirklin, Clinton County, Indiana, in October 1831. In 1847 he and his family were visited by his cousin, George W. L. Bickley of Virginia who later became national president of the Knights of the Golden Circle, a secret secessionist society. George W. L. Bickley wrote to relatives in Virginia favorably of this visit to Indiana and especially of the “Indiana Asbury University” and told of his plans to attend there. Indiana Asbury University was the predecessor of DePauw University, where Charles Powell Bickley enrolled the following year, 1848, when just thirteen years of age. He was listed among the “Preparatory” students in the school catalog in 1848. He did not graduate but did receive a sound liberal arts education.
In the 1850 census Charles P. Bickley was living at home in Kirklin; his occupation was listed as “farmer.” His mother died in 1852, the same year his cousin George W. L. Bickley achieved some notoriety as an author in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he had relocated the previous year. Before long Charles Powell Bickley began his career as a writer of sensationalist pulp fiction stories. His first novel, Garnelle, or, The Rover’s Oath of Blood, was published in 1853 by Garrett & Company of New York. After George W. L. Bickley and George Lippard were published by Cincinnati-based H. M. Rulison’s Queen City Publishing House in 1853, Charles Powell Bickley released his next work, The Mock Marriage; or the Libertine’s Victim, as part of Rulison’s compilation titled Mysteries and Miseries of the Queen City in 1855. This places him in Cincinnati during the time George W. L. Bickley claimed to have established the first Castle of the Knights of the Golden Circle (K. G. C.) in Cincinnati. Some scholars believe that Bickley patterned the K. G. C. after George Lippard’s earlier secret society, the Brotherhood of the Union. By January 1857 Charles Powell Bickley had released The Rival Knights, as well as Life’s Web, published by Albert G. Richardson of New York City.
By 1858 Charles Powell Bickley’s cousin George had set himself at the head of the Knights of the Golden Circle and conveyed upon himself the title of “General.” At this point Charles P. Bickley became directly involved in the promotion and development of the K. G. C. By the following year, he had dropped his middle name and was known simply as Charles Bickley, possibly to protect his family back in Indiana and to disassociate his subversive activities in the secret secessionist society from his publishing career. Charles Bickley became known to the New York press as “Major Bickley” and frequently served as the spokesman for the clandestine order.
By January 1860 Charles P. Bickley had quietly entered Texas on behalf of the K. G. C. and swiftly became its de facto organizer and administrator in the Lone Star State. The K. G. C. was to have its greatest success in Texas and organized at least forty Castles there before Texas seceded from the Union. One of four Castles organized in San Antonio, the largest city in Texas in terms of population by 1860, was called the Charles Bickley Castle. On February 22, 1861, the K. G. C. held it first statewide convention in San Antonio at which Charles Bickley represented the Castles of Concrete, Bastrop, Gonzales, and Castroville as their delegate, the result of his extensive organizational efforts. At this four-day meeting that formalized the organization and procedures for the secret society that played a significant role in ushering Texas into the Civil War, he served on at least one committee and was recognized by the assembly for “presenting the claims of the K. G. C. to the people of Texas.” Proceedings of this convention were printed and distributed by the La Grange States Rights Democrat.
The Civil War began with the bombardment of Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, and organization of new K. G. C. Castles continued through the summer of that year. In November 1861 Charles Powell Bickley returned from a trip to Tennessee where the K. G. C. had its national headquarters, to accept a position of Instructor of Tactics with the rank of second lieutenant, on the order of Gen. P. O. Hébert, commander of Confederate forces in Texas. He was initially assigned to Col. A. Nelson’s Fifth Regiment of Volunteers at Virginia Point but resigned on February 8, 1862. He soon reenlisted as a private in Capt. James Deegan’s Company A of Griffin’s Regiment of Texas Infantry at Houston on May 13, 1862, but upon offering to serve as captain without pay was made captain of Company F of Maj. William H. Griffin’s Regiment by June. His company was present at the battle of Sabine Pass, but Bickley missed the battle as he was serving as a judge advocate at a court martial in Houston. Subsequently his company was combined with another due to reorganization and became Company K of Col. Joseph Bates’s Thirteenth Texas Infantry. Assigned to occupy Fort Manhassett, which guarded the western approach to Sabine City, they fought Union gunboats at the battle of Calcasieu Pass after which Captain Bickley was accused of cowardice and misuse of public property. He himself was arrested on October 14, 1864, and faced court martial. After the charges were investigated, they were dismissed, the infractions thought to be due to incompetence rather than fraud. He was released from arrest in February 1865.
By June of that year the war was over, and Charles Powell Bickley had signed his parole papers pledging not to take up arms against the United States. By July he returned to Houston where he promoted himself as Charles Bickleigh, playright, actor, and acting coach. His cousin, George W. L. Bickley, had been arrested in Indiana in 1863, was transferred to federal prison, and was not released until October 1865. In December Charles “Bickleigh” premiered Man of Frigidity, a play he had written for the Houston Theatre. It was a success. The play’s signature character, Tom Vapid, soon became his alter ego and nom de plume. Shortly thereafter Charles Bickley moved to London, England, to become the foreign correspondent and “special agent” for the Houston Telegraph, and posted commentary under the name Tom Vapid. There he became a member of the Confederate ex-patriot community that included Judah P. Benjamin, former treasurer of the Confederate States and Louis T. Wigfall, former general and Texas congressman of Marshall, Texas. Ads in the Telegraph defined Charles Bickley’s services as “special agent” rendering “aid to Southern Immigration Societies” to “execute commissions of every description, for his Southern friends, in London and Paris.” On May 19, 1867, the Telegraph began publication of Bickley’s story, “Lost in London,” with installments to appear in every Sunday edition. When Richard W. “Dick” Dowling, the hero of the battle of Sabine Pass died on September 23, 1867, the September 26, 1867, edition of the Telegraph featured a eulogy written by Tom Vapid.
By October he had returned to Houston and a staff position with the Telegraph and eventually became its news editor by 1868. He sometimes wrote antagonistic comments, which were taken as insults directed at the editorial staff of Republican newspapers. Later that same month found him in New Orleans organizing the Texian Club of New Orleans, whose membership was for Crescent City residents who were Texans by birth. Charles Bickley was among the officers of the club, as were former K. G. C. members Phillip N. Luckett, late of the Texas Committee of Public Safety, and Richard Allen Van Horn, former editor of the Navarro Express, a K. G. C.-friendly newspaper in Corsicana. After staying two or three months in Virginia, Bickley returned to Houston by February 1869 and helped organize a benefit concert for flooding victims across the state in July. For a short time in early 1870 he edited The Sunday Gazette, which struggled, while writing and producing plays at the Perkins Theatre, which were generally well-received and reviewed.
The 1870 census shows his residence at the Enterprise Hotel in Houston’s Fourth Ward. Occasionally he was employed by the Houston Daily Union, whose editor described him as “a gentleman of taste and experience in theatrical matters.” Bickley leased and operated the Perkins Theatre through the winter season of 1870 and thus offered badly-needed entertainment to the residents of Reconstruction-era Houston. In December 1870 he announced that he (along with Daniel McGary) would commence publication of The Age, a new evening newspaper that officially launched in 1871 and was successful in Houston for several years. During the 1870s Bickley also wrote for the Houston Times, Houston Daily Union, Houston Daily Mercury and Galveston News and maintained respect and good relations with the Gulf Coast media community. The editor of the Mercury cited him as “one of the finest writers of the age, and versatile genius.” Beginning on December 28, 1873, the Mercury published his serial, “Houston, Then and Now,” and in February 1874 a comedy inspired by his writing, titled Tom Vapid, was presented at the Bowery Theatre in New York. After a trip through Europe, he returned to Galveston via New Orleans in October 1875. Continuing to serve the Texas publishing community as a traveling reporter, in October 1878 he temporarily served as city editor for the San Antonio Daily Herald before moving to Florida in 1879 where he tried raising oranges on the Indian River and occasionally contributed prose features to the Galveston Daily News. Returning to Galveston in December of that year, he helped start a small evening daily called The Day. Not content with only that, he left for New Orleans a few weeks later, where he accepted a staff position on the New Orleans Democrat.
The 1880 census shows his residence as a boarder living with John Monestes on Bienville Street in the French Quarter. On November 10, 1880, Charles Powell Bickley died suddenly, probably due to the effects of a lifetime of heavy consumption of alcohol. The Galveston Daily News and Dallas Herald carried reports of his funeral, noted that he had expressed a desire to convert to Catholicism and was baptized on his deathbed, and that he had secretly married “a Mexican senorita” after their meeting on the Texas/Mexico border, probably during one of the two failed invasions of Mexico by the K. G. C. in 1860. His funeral was conducted at the Church of St. Joseph in New Orleans, and his body interred in Greenwood Cemetery there, although no records exist of this today.
For years after his passing, his death was mourned by editorial staffs in Houston and Galveston. In April 21, 1886, the Galveston Daily News commemorated him for San Jacinto Day and asked, “how many know who gave this day such an appropriate name? If my memory serves me right…the credit is due to Charles Powell Bickley, journalist, author and actor, whose memory is still near to the hearts of his friends, and whose many literary contributions still live in the bosoms of those who cherish Texas history.”