joined a cattle drive from Texas to
when he was just 13 years old, eventually working his way east on
a riverboat. In New Orleans, an old friend of his father’s helped
him get a job in Washington, D.C. as a page for the Senate.
The work impressed the young Houston so much that he returned to
Texas and enrolled in the brand new
Agricultural and Mechanical College, better known today as Texas
A&M. He transferred to Baylor when that school was located at Independence
and studied philosophy and law, graduating with honors. He was appointed
country attorney when he was 21 and was a state senator at age 24.
He served two terms, then worked as an attorney for the old Santa
Fe railroad, later known as the Atchison, Topkea and Santa Fe Railway.
Before that he was appointed district attorney of the Thirty-fifth
Judicial District, which was made up of 26 unorganized counties
in the vast and mostly unsettled Texas
Panhandle. He was said to have a fondness for ties made of rattlesnake
skins that matched the bands on his wide-brimmed, Mexican-style
hats. He wore his hair shoulder length or longer and dressed in
Prince Albert coats, starched shirts, pinstripe trousers and expensive
Like his father, Temple Houston had a way with words. As a defense
attorney he once described an opposing prosecutor as “a man who
can strut sitting down.” His defense of the “soiled dove” (a local
prostitute) not only earned his client an acquittal but also marked
Houston as a man who could mingle compassion, the Bible and classical
literature into a compelling legal narrative.
Drawing on a
reputation – maybe deserved, maybe not – as a gunfighter, he was
not above brandishing a weapon in the courtroom. On one occasion
he is said to have fired his pearl-handled Colt during his summation,
thus causing the “jury to mingle with the crowd” as both terrified
groups fled the proceedings. That stunt earned him a fine from the
judge but a new trial for his client. Temple considered it a fair
One of the best-known stories concerning Temple Houston is not true.
It’s a great story but it casts other stories, like the one above,
in doubt. The story has it that he won a shooting contest against
legendary gunfighters Billy the Kid and Bat Masterson. The story
has been told in exacting and compelling detail but Billy the Kid
was dead and Masterson was in Colorado when Temple Houston set up
shop in the Panhandle.
It didn’t happen.
The character Yancey Cravat in Edna
Ferber’s novel and the movie version of “Cimarron” is based
on Temple Houston. He was also the namesake if not the exactly subject
for a short-lived 1950s TV series called simply enough “Temple Houston.”
At a time when the real Temple Houston seemed to have the world
on a string, around 1890, he gave up his promising political and
legal career in Texas to join the Oklahoma
land rush. He quickly earned the same kind of respect and admiration
that he had enjoyed in Texas. He was
among the candidates vying to become Oklahoma’s first state governor
but he died in August of 1905, at just 45 years old, of a brain
In a final contrary-to-ordinary irony to Temple Houston’s life,
the fist baby born in the Texas governor’s mansion is buried in
© Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" November
1, 2009 Column