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The Case of Minnie Stacey

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

With black and white TV Westerns still in their prime, Hollywood decided to produce a series that would put a Perry Mason-style lawyer in the Old West.

They chose as their protagonist Temple Houston, the youngest son of Sam Houston. Born in the Texas governor's mansion in 1860 only three years before his famous father's death, Temple Houston became a lawyer and for a time served in the legislature. He died in 1905.

The series debuted Sept. 19 1963, but gunned down by poor ratings, it bit the dust on April 2, 1964, cancelled after only one season.

Since two of Temple Houston's children were still alive when the series aired, producers were careful to portray Sam's son in a positive way. No biography had yet been published on Temple, so the show's writers likely had never heard about the time the hard-drinking younger Houston stood in defense of a woman of easy (well, affordable) virtue.

Temple moved from the Texas Panhandle to Woodward, OK in 1894. There, in 1899, he was waiting in court to represent a client while the judge cleared several minor cases from his docket. One of the defendants was Minnie Stacey, a young prostitute. She being without counsel, either out of a sense of chivalry or just for the heck of it, Houston offered to represent her pro bono.

Fortunately for posterity, a reporter with the Kansas City Star also sat in the courtroom to cover the murder trial in which Houston would defend the accused man. It may have taken the journalist a moment to realize he would get two stories that day, but Houston surely had not spoken long before it dawned on the scribe that he was seeing a fine human interest story unfold.

Houston had been fighting a cold and his voice was weak. Leaning so close to the jury that "he could almost have laid his hands on the shoulders of each..." the lawyer began his closing argument "in a low, clear voice."

"Gentleman," he said, "you heard with what cruelty the prosecution referred to the sins of this woman as if her condition was of her own preference. The evidence has painted you a picture of her life and surroundings. Do you think that they were of her own choosing? Do you think that she willingly embraced a life so revolting and horrible?" The lawyer quickly answered his question.

"...No, gentlemen, one of our own sex was the author of her ruin, more to blame than she..."

After a brief hesitation, he continued:

"Gentlemen, the very promises of God are denied her. He said: 'Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest. She [the defendant] has indeed labored and is heavy laden but if at this instant she were to kneel down before us...and confess her redeemer and beseech His tender mercies, where is the church that would receive her?"

Gathering momentum:

"And even if they accepted her, scorn and mockery would greet her and those she met would gather around them their skirts the more closely to avoid the pollution of her touch. Would you tell me a single employment where she could realize 'Give us this daily bread?'"

Sticking with his Biblical theme, Houston broached the story of the prodigal son.

"He was one of us, like her destroyer," he said, "but for this prodigal daughter there is no return. Were she, with her wasted form and bleeding feet to drag herself back to her childhood home, she, the fallen and the lost, what would be her welcome?"

Houston urged the panel to consider that when they began their deliberation.

"One should respect her grief and I tell you that there reigns over her penitent and chastened spirit a desolation now that none, no none but the searcher of all hearts, can ever know."

The lawyer then faced the prosecuting attorney.

"They wish to fine this woman and make her leave. They wish to wring from the wages of her shame the price of this meditated injustice; to take from her the little money she might have; and God knows, gentlemen, it came hard enough. I say unto you that our Justice, fitly symbolized by woman's form, does not ask that you add aught to the woes of this unhappy one, who only asks at your hands the pitiful privilege of being left alone."

But Houston was not finished.

"The Master, while on earth, while he spake in wrath and rebuke to the kings and rulers, never reproached one of those. One he forgave, another he acquitted.

"You remember both--and now looking upon this friendless outcast, if any of us can say unto her 'I am holier than you,' in the respect in which she is charged with sinning, who is he?"

Houston concluded his argument with this:

"Now, gentlemen, do as your Master did twice, under the very circumstances that surround you -- tell her to go in peace."

Within 10 minutes, the jury voted to acquit.

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" March 16, 2017 column

See also Temple Lea Houston, son of Sam Houston
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