joined a cattle drive from Texas to Kansas
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 Brazoria
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 handmade boots.
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.
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 trade.
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 in Oklahoma
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 hemorrhage.
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 Oklahoma.
© Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas"
November 1, 2009 Column