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  Texas : Features : Columns : All Things Historical

Three-legged Willie

by Bob Bowman
Bob Bowman
The Republic of Texas, which existed only a decade, had its share of interesting characters. But few of them were as colorful as Three Legged Willie, who passed away some 146 years ago.

Robert McAlpin Williamson was born in Georgia. When his mother Rebecca died while he was an infant, Willie and a brother were reared by grandfather Micajah Williamson, who served in the Continental Army during the revolution of 1776.

At the age of 15, Willie was crippled by what he called "white swelling." The disease, probably polio, left his right leg permanently bent at the knee. He built a shortened crutch-like device, strapped it to his knee, and had his tailor sew an extra piece of cloth to the knee of his trousers to cover the crutch. Hence, his nickname.

By the age of 19, Willie was admitted to the bar and began practicing law. When he wounded an opponent in a duel, he fled to Texas, where he met Stephen F. Austin. Learning Spanish in less than a year, Willie began practicing law and when Texans began to complain of Mexican abuses of colonial rule, he was one of the first signers of convention to protest to Mexico.

After Mexican officials placed a price on his head, Willie became a moving spirit in the Texas revolution, fighting at Gonzales and San Jacinto. A skilled horseman, Willie wore a coonskin cap at San Jacinto, but it had a difference; his cap was attached with nine tails instead of one.

When he was named a district judge in the new Republic, Willie came to East Texas, where outlaws from all over the South were ruling an area known as the Neutral Zone. Willie's trials became the stuff which inspire frontier movies today.

When he rode to Shelbyville to hold a court session in the Neutral zone, Willie faced a mob of men who had decided they would not be judged by any man. Seating himself behind a dry goods box serving as a judge's bench, Willie read a resolution from the mob and asked for the mob's lawyer to cite any law allowing such a resolution.

The lawyer whipped out a Bowie knife, laid it on the bench, and said: "This is the law that governs here."

Calmly, Willie pulled a long-barreled pistol from his coat, slammed it down on the knife, and added: "This is the constitution that overrules it." The court session continued without further delays.

When a mob burned down a courthouse where a judge was scheduled to try several horse thieves, Willie set up court in a school room and faced a lawyer who claimed the thieves should be freed because the written charges had gone up in smoke.

Willis calmly reached inside his jacket, produced a duplicate of the charges and warrants for the lawyer's clients, and went on with the trial.

In another case, Willie arrived in a town just as a lunch mob was about to hang a Cherokee Indian for raping a white woman. Willie rescued the indian from the mob and ordered him to be tried the next day. During the trial, Willie discovered there had been no rape and the Indian was only in town to buy some tobacco. It seemed that Comanche Indians had killed the woman's brother -- and she wanted revenge on all Indians.

Willie dismissed the rape charges against the Indian and ordered the woman's husband to buy the Indian all the tobacco he could chew.

Willie later served in the Republic's congress and later ran for several other positions. But each time, he lost. He retired to his farm at Independence. When his wife Mary Jane died, he slipped into a prolonged depression. He died December 22, 1859, at the age of 55.
All Things Historical >
April 3, 2006 Column
Published with permission
(Distributed by the East Texas Historical Association Bob Bowman is a former president of the Association and the author of more than 30 books about East Texas.)

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