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 Texas : Features : Columns : "Charley Eckhardt's Texas"

THE OTHER HOUSTON
Temple Lea Houston

by C. F. Eckhardt
Temple 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.

Temple 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.

On 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.
Temple Lea Houston
Temple Lea Houston

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."

He 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.

He 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.

Houston insisted 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.

In 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 yellow beads.

In Oklahoma 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.

The 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.

In 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.

Temple 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.

Temple Houston 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.

Houston's 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 instantly.

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.
In 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"
January 22, 2007 column

The Golden Heritage and Silver Tongue of Temple Lea Houston
More on Temple Lea Houston:
Temple Houston by Clay Coppedge
Temple Lea Houston: Son of Sam by John Troesser
Lost Sword by Mike Cox
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