Temple Lea Houston
Lea Houston, the last child born to Sam Houston and his final wife, Margaret Lea,
was also the first child born in the Texas governor's mansion-on 12 August 1860.
He never really knew his dad, though, because Sam died when the boy was only 3.
His mother died 4 years later, and from age 7 on Temple lived with his Lea kin.|
Houston was probably the closest of all the sons to the old man in temperament
and abilities, but he resented being compared to Sam. He determined at an early
age that he would not be remembered as 'Sam's boy,' but as 'Temple Houston.'
For six years, until he turned 13, Temple lived with his Lea relatives and attended
various schools, getting kicked out of most of them for what was termed his 'rebellious
temperament.' This, of course, was much like his father, who had trouble with
schoolmasters, too. When Sam got a bellyful of school, he ran off to live with
the Cherokees. Temple didn't have any Cherokees to live with. Well, he did, too-he
had a whole slew of half-brothers and half-sisters with the Cherokees in 'the
Nations,' but that's not something his Lea relatives would have mentioned. In
1873, at the ripe old age of 13, he signed on as a cowboy with a drive going all
the way to Dakota Territory. To get home he hired on as a clerk on a steamboat
and came down the Missouri and Mississippi to New Orleans.
In New Orleans
he met an old friend of his father's, who happened to be serving as a congressman
from Louisiana. Temple got an appointment as a page in the US Senate in Washington.
He remained in Washington for the next 4 years. There he studied law under various
senators and sharpened his oratorical talent, which had begun to flower while
he was in school. In spite of his many, many scrapes with schoolmasters, all who
knew him praised his logical mind and gift for oratory. He excelled in debate
and extemporaneous speaking-'rhetoric,' it was called in those days, and schools
of the day emphasized it.
his return to Texas in 1878 Temple spent about a
year at Baylor Military Academy in Waco,
a forerunner of Baylor University. He left and a year later, at the age of 19,
he was admitted to the Texas Bar. He opened his first law office in Brazoria County.
Temple Houston was so effective as a defense attorney the people of Brazoria County
decided it was better to have him on the people's side of the courtroom. He was
elected County Prosecutor. Before he turned 21 he was appointed as the first district
attorney for the new district court established to cover some 1,400 square miles
in the Panhandle.
Photo courtesy Texas State Library
| The young man who
went to the Panhandle in 1880
was impressive to look at. He stood 6'2"-the same height as old Sam-was extraordinarily
handsome, had piercing gray eyes, and wore his coal-black, wavy hair to his shoulders.
The fact that he had long, wavy hair had any number of young women wanting to
run their fingers through it. According to tradition, Temple Houston wasn't at
all averse to having that happen. One of the young women who liked to run her
fingers through his ample locks was Laura Cross of Columbia. She eventually became
Mrs. Temple Houston.|
Temple went to Mobeetie,
which at the time was an open door to Hell. As he described it in a letter to
Laura, it was "a baldheaded whiskey town with few virtuous women." He prosecuted
horse thieves, gamblers, and killers, though usually a killing resulted in a charge
of assault. In the Panhandle
of the day it wasn't murder unless the victim was unarmed or shot in the back.
There were a lot of people who resented Houston's success as a prosecutor. Some
of them tried to do away with him. They discovered something. Sam's youngest boy
had a skill his daddy never developed. Under the long black frock coat he habitually
wore, Temple Houston packed a pair of ivory-gripped, nickel-plated Colt sixshooters-and
he was greased lightning when he reached for 'em. One contemporary wrote "Temple
Houston stays alive because he is very fast on the draw. He has winged several
bad men and killed two or three, and now he is a man to be feared."
was also a crack shot. After he outshot two notorious gunmen-legend holds that
one was Billy the Kid-in a shooting match for money, his reputation spread. Not
only was he fast, he could pick the eye out of a rooster at 40 yards with a sixshooter.
Mobeetie, when Houston first came
there, had no jail. The new DA was convicting malefactors on an hourly basis and
there was no place to put them. One was chained to a rock pillar supporting the
roof of one of the town's main saloons. The chain wasn't long, so he had limited
movement. He was given a blanket and left in the saloon overnight.
was a thirsty man. He was also a cowboy. The next morning he was found dead drunk,
surrounded by bottles from the saloon's bar. He'd torn the blanket into strips,
made a lariat of it, and roped the bottles off the backbar.
on a jail and construction was started. However, there wasn't any place to hold
a female prisoner. Two of the prisoners the town had to contend with were a couple
of prostitutes who got in a fistfight over a cowboy-who hadn't time to take off
his boots before the fight started. The poor cowboy, who just wanted to get out
of the vicinity of the catfight, accidentally hung a spur in a featherbed, covering
himself, the room, and the two fighting women with feathers. The women were eventually
separated. Unfortunately, they had to be confined in the same room. As soon as
they were put together, the fight started all over. They were finally chained
by their ankles to opposite walls of the room, the chains too short to allow them
to get to one another. They spent the next several days glaring at each other
and turning the air blue with their language.
By 1883 Temple judged the
new district tame enough. He went back to Brazoria County, and when he returned
to Mobeetie he was a married man.
The next year he was elected to represent his district in the legislature, though
he was only 24. He won a second term in 1886 and the badmen of the Panhandle
sighed in relief. Houston was in Austin,
not throwing them in jail.
Temple's powers of oratory were legendary.
At the dedication of the new capitol building in 1888 he was chosen, over all
the orators in the state, to deliver the dedicatory address. He was being groomed
by the legislature to succeed his father in the US Senate, though it would be
another 7 years before he was eligible for that office. At the time, senators
were chosen by state legislatures, not by direct election.
1893 Temple Houston took his young wife to Woodward, in what, 14 years later,
would become the state of Oklahoma,
in the newly-opened Cherokee Strip. He's remembered there partly for his skill
as a gunfighter. He witnessed a teenage boy get fleeced at a gambling table in
the territorial capitol of Guthrie. This so thoroughly incensed him that he shot
the place up and chased off not merely the gamblers, but the owner of the saloon
who'd allowed the fleecing to happen. He's also remembered for his flamboyant
appearance. His first foray into the streets of Woodward saw him under the biggest,
whitest Stetson the town had ever seen, wearing not merely his trademark long
black frock coat, but a snow-white vest decorated with a pattern done in bright
Temple moved from the prosecution table to the other side of the courtroom. Shortly
after he arrived he took the case of a Texas cowboy called Red Tom. Red
Tom shot an Indian. He apparently shot the Indian simply because he wanted to
shoot an Indian. In fact, he said-in front of witnesses-"If you find a dead Indian
out there with a bullet in his head that's my Indian." It was an open-and-shut
case of cold-blooded murder. The Indian was unarmed. The trial should have taken
all of half an hour-and probably would have if Temple Houston hadn't been Red
Tom's defense attorney.
The facts were clear. Red Tom shot an unarmed
man. Temple, however, knew it hadn't been all that long since most of the jurors
lived in deathly fear of Indian attacks. Instead of offering evidence of Red Tom's
innocence-there wasn't any-Houston launched into a long speech that brought back
memories of the Indian wars. When the defense rested it took the jury 5 minutes
to acquit the defendant.
In an alleged murder in which a young cowboy,
a stranger, was accused of stealing a horse and then killing the animal's owner,
Houston came to the defense. The dead man was a well- known gunman, reputed to
be fast on the draw. The cowboy pleaded self-defense, but there were no witnesses
to back up his plea. Houston leaned on the deceased's reputation as a gunman and
his client's inexperience. The prosecution claimed that the fact that the cowboy
drew and fired first constituted murder. In answer, Houston said "He could no
more have stood up to his malefactor than the spark from the lowly firefly could
outshine the noonday sun-than the stubborn jackass could outrun the swiftest racehorse.
Gentlemen, such things are impossibilities." He moved closer to the jury's box.
"Gentlemen, that malefactor had a gunman's reputation, while my client here is
an ordinary, hardworking citizen like yourselves. He had no chance unless he fired
first. The malefactor was so adept with a sixshooter that he could draw and fire
his own weapon before his victim could begin to draw-like this!" Houston's hand
went under his coat, came out with a shiny sixshooter, and emptied it directly
at the jury.
The result was panic. The jurors dived out of the box, spectators
dived out of windows and through the door, the defendant crawled under the table,
and the judge ducked down behind the bench. Houston's pistol was loaded with blanks.
A mistrial was declared, and the cowboy was later acquitted in the same court.
Jennings brothers, local lawyers, were decidedly unsavory characters. Ed Jennings
in particular resented Houston, who was a far better lawyer. One evening as Temple
and a friend were having a friendly drink in a local saloon, Ed and John Jennings
came in looking for a fight. They found one. When the smoke cleared Ed was dead
and John's left arm would be useless for the rest of his life. Houston and his
friend, ex-sheriff Jack Love, were charged with first-degree manslaughter. On
the testimony of 20 witnesses who stated the shooting was in self-defense, Houston
and Love were acquitted.
There were two more Jennings brothers-Frank and
Al. Al, a loudmouth, swore he'd kill Temple Houston at the first opportunity.
Apparently the opportunity never arose. A year later Al and Frank were convicted
of train robbery and Al was convicted of attempted murder of a federal officer
as a result of the longest-and most bloodless-gunfight in the history of the American
West. By the time Al got out of prison Temple Houston was dead-of natural causes.
1899 Temple Houston assured his own immortality in the annals of the legal profession.
If all else he'd done were to be forgotten, he would still be remembered for his
defense of a notorious Woodward prostitute named Minnie Stacey.
wasn't even on the case. He was in the courthouse waiting for a case he was defending
to be called. Minnie Stacey was charged with "plying her vocation and operating
a brothel." She had no counsel. Houston said "Your honor, I'll defend the lady
if she'll allow me." For about 10 minutes he talked with his new client, then
pronounced himself ready for the trial to begin. The prosecution presented the
state's case, which was pretty much open and shut. The woman was a known prostitute.
The evidence was clear. Then Temple Houston stood up.
spoke in Minnie Stacey's defense for about 30 minutes. He presented no evidence-there
wasn't any. By the time he finished what a newspaper called "the most remarkable,
the most spellbinding, heart-rending tearjerker ever to come from the mouth of
man" there wasn't a dry eye in the courtroom, including those of the judge, the
prosecutor, and the 'hardened prostitute' who was the defendant.
speech to that jury is still studied by law students today. It's considered one
of the finest, if not the finest, masterpieces of extemporaneous speaking
in the English language.
Houston began "Gentlemen, you have heard with
what cold cruelty the prosecution referred to the sins of this woman, as if they
were of her own choosing. Do you think that she willingly embraced a life so revolting
and horrible? Gentlemen, one of our sex was the author of her ruin, more to blame
than she." The speech went on for a long time, but nobody dozed off. As he continued
men began to turn red and look away. Even those most adamantly opposed to immorality
began to cry openly.
When Houston concluded with "The Master, while on
Earth, though he spoke in wrath and rebuke to kings and rulers, never reproached
any of such women as Minnie Stacey; one he forgave, another he acquitted. Do as
your Master did. Tell her to go in peace," there was no doubt in the courtroom
that Minnie Stacey would be acquitted-nor that Temple Houston was probably the
finest defense attorney who ever lived. Minnie was, in fact, acquitted-almost
The court's stenographer, who had taken down the speech word
for word, was bombarded with requests for copies of it. A copy was framed and
hangs, today, in the Library of Congress. It is labeled "One of the finest examples
of American oratory ever uttered."
And Minnie Stacey? Well, what happened
to her after she left Woodward is open to debate. There are those who say she
merely moved on, continuing as she had before. There are others who insist, and
claim they have good reason for insisting, that she went to Canadian,
Texas, abandoned her life as a prostitute, took in washing for a living, was baptized
in the Methodist Church, and remained a church-going Christian until she died,
late in the 1930s. Whether that's true or not we don't know, but if it isn't it
certainly should be.
Temple Houston prospered in Oklahoma.
His reputation as a defense attorney made him a fortune. He built a fine home
in Woodward, which is still a showplace. He gained the nickname "The silver-tongued
orator of Oklahoma,"
but he never again entered politics.
1904 he apparently suffered a stroke, aggravated by his somewhat choleric temperament
and his fondness for whiskey, both of which he inherited from old Sam. He was
confined to his bed or a wheelchair for the remainder of his life. On 15 August
1905 he suffered a second stroke and died. Flags flew at half-staff all over Indian
Territory, Oklahoma Territory, and Texas.|
Today Temple Houston is little
remembered, overshadowed by the reputation of his father-a reputation he sought
all his life to outshine. He deserves better, for like his father, Temple Lea
Houston was an original. We do not see his like today.
C. F. Eckhardt
"Charley Eckhardt's Texas"
22, 2007 column
Golden Heritage and Silver Tongue of Temple Lea Houston||