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Temple Lea Houston

Temple Houston in the 1890s

A Sharpshooting Lawyer's Courtroom Theatrics

Lawyers were an essential link in the chain of frontier justice, and none was more able - or more flamboyant - than Temple Houston, son of Texas patriot Sam Houston. Tall and longhaired, he cultivated a dandy's look, favoring long Prince Albert coats, embroidered slippers and white sombreros. But appearances were deceptive: Houston was a crack marksman who once bested Bat Masterson in a pistol match. He was no less formidable in criminal trials across the Southwest, mesmerizing jurors with his oratory. Defending one Millie Stacey against a charge of prostitution in 1899, he declared that "Where the star of purity once glittered on her girlish brow, burning shame has set its seal forever," and asked the all-male jury to let her "go in peace." They did.

At another trial, Houston whipped out a pair of Colt .45s, pointed them at the jury box and blazed away - neglecting to inform the jurors that the guns were loaded with blanks. He was trying to prove that his client, who was charged with the murder of a skilled gunfighter, had acted in self-defense by shooting first. "I only wanted to show what speed the dead man possessed," Houston said in apologizing to the court. However, the ploy misfired and the defendant was found guilty. Undaunted, Houston demanded a new trial on the grounds that the jurors, while scattering before his fusillade, had "separated and mingled with the crowd" and therefore had not been sequestered. He won his point, and the case.

Houston could also be deadly serious with a gun. After a courtroom argument with another lawyer, the two men met in a saloon. Houston killed his adversary - and entered a successful plea of self-defense.

When he died of a stroke in 1905, a newspaper described him as "a mingling of nettles and flowers," adding that the Southwest "probably will never see his counterpart."

A collector of frontier memorabilia, Houston filled his home with guns, Indian artifacts and pictures of chiefs - and George Washington.

A West Texas attorney famous for his eloquent courtroom oratory, his accuracy with a pistol, and his free-wheeling, hard-drinking charm and charisma, the son of Sam and Margaret Lea Houston, was born on August 12, 1860. He was the first child born in the Governor's Mansion at Austin. After the deaths of his parents, the seven-year-old boy went to live with his older sister in Georgetown.

In 1873, at the age of thirteen, he joined a cattle drive to Great Bend, Kansas. Later he worked his way east and was employed as a night clerk on a riverboat. He traveled down the Mississippi River to New Orleans, where he met Senator James Winwright Flanagan, an old political crony of his father's, who obtained employment for him as a page in the United States Senate.

Three years in Washington, D.C., influenced Houston's decision to enter law, and in 1877 he returned to Texas and enrolled as a cadet at the newly established Agricultural and Mechanical College (now Texas A&M University). Later he transferred to Baylor University at Independence, where he studied law and philosophy and graduated with honors in 1880. After reading law in Georgetown, Houston was admitted to the bar and became the youngest practicing lawyer in Texas when he opened his office in Brazoria. In 1881 he was appointed Brazoria county attorney.

Courtroom Oratory

Perhaps his most famous speech, reprinted in many newspapers of the time, was at Woodward an 1899 address to a jury in defense of Minnie Stacy, an alleged "madam" who was charged with plying her trade.

Gentlemen, you heard with what cold cruelty the prosecution referred to the sins of this woman, as if her condition were 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? Oh, no, gentlemen. One of our sex was the author of her ruin, more to blame than she; then let us judge her gently.

You know the story of the prodigal son. He was one of us. Like her destroyer, but for the prodigal daughter, there is no return. Were she, on her torn and bleeding feet, to drag herself back home, she, the fallen and the lost, what would be her welcome? Oh, consider this when you come to decide her guilt. If the prosecutors of this woman, whom you are trying, had brought her before the Savior, they would have accepted his challenge, and each one gathered a rock and stoned her in the twinkling of an eye. No, gentlemen, do as your Master did, twice, under the very circumstances that surround you. Tell her to go in peace.

In 1882 Governor Oran M. Roberts offered him the post of district attorney of the Thirty-fifth Judicial District, which encompassed twenty-six unorganized counties in the Texas Panhandle. At age 22, Houston headed west to take an appointment as district attorney for 26 unorganized Panhandle counties. Houston returned to Brazoria to marry Laura Cross, a planter's daughter, on February 14, 1883. They set up housekeeping just outside Fort Elliott. The Houstons had seven children, but only four survived infancy.

Although flamboyant and sometimes eccentric in dress and appearance, Houston won a reputation as a brilliant trial lawyer and a gifted speaker, whose oratory was laced with allusions to the Bible and classical literature. He was a dead shot and often carried a pearl-handled pistol, but his alleged shooting contest in Tascosa with Bartholomew (Bat) Masterson and Billy the Kid is strictly fiction; Masterson was in Colorado and the Kid already in his grave by the time Houston arrived in the Panhandle.

The readily available bar-room camaraderie and the rough and tumble self-reliance of frontier life in Tascosa and its surroundings suited him well. The local people returned his affection and he was elected to the Texas Senate in November 4, 1884. Houston was elected to succeed Avery L. Matlock as senator from the Fifty-sixth District of Texas.

He served in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Legislatures from 1885 to 1887 and in a special session in the spring of 1888. During that time he was a member of the treasury, education, law enforcement, and Panhandle grass-lease committees and wrote or supported bills to establish pensions for the heirs of Texas war dead and to give the Alamo to the city of San Antonio for preservation.

Houston was even more lauded for his eloquent oratory and allusions to Biblical and classical literature than his marksmanship. He gave the dedication address for the new Capitol building in Austin on May 16, 1888. He speech concluded: This noble edifice is a fit seat for such a government. It, and the features of our civilization, are all we can leave to our posterity. Even should they prove unworthy of our bequest, we can at least pass from life's stages with the proud reflection that we leave behind us a purer civilization, and a Nobler Edifice, than has been bequeathed to us by proceeding ages.

As a result of espousing some unpopular political causes, he decided not to seek a third term in the legislature in 1888; he was also unsuccessful in his bid to become attorney general. Thereafter, Houston concentrated on his work as attorney for the Santa Fe railroad (the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway). He moved his family to Canadian, where he continued his private practice as a defense attorney and became closely associated with Harvey E. Hoover. In September 1891 Houston represented Henry B. Sanborn in his aborted lawsuit against the Murphy-Thomason-Wisner interests over the title to Block 88 in Amarillo.

Houston remained a restless soul to the end of his life. With fame and a great career ahead in Texas, Houston instead started over in a new frontier. He raced with thousands of other land-hungry pioneers into the Cherokee Strip of Oklahoma. For most people the Oklahoma Land Rush was a chance for a better life, for Houston it was a new adventure in a lifetime of adventures.

The great land-run into Oklahoma's Cherokee Strip on September 16, 1893, prompted Houston to move his practice to the new town of Woodward, and the next year he brought his family to the booming frontier hamlet. There he embraced his wife's Catholic faith and helped establish Woodward's first Catholic church. His silver-tongued oratory and unorthodox behavior became legendary throughout the Oklahoma Territory. He soon came to be in wide demand as a lecturer, and on May 1, 1897, he delivered the Tennessee Centennial address at Nashville.

His colleagues in law included Robert J. Ray, Sidney B. Luane, and David P. Marum. Houston's reputation as a gunfighter gained him dubious fame, as well as a number of dangerous enemies. Once, while he was in Enid on business, an unknown assailant fired on him, but a copy of the Oklahoma Territorial Statutes that he was carrying stopped the bullet. All the while, he continued making frequent visits to the Panhandle towns as legal counselor for the Santa Fe railroad and established a lifelong friendship with Judge James D. Hamlin.

Houston's enormous popularity in Oklahoma made him a prime candidate for various public offices. Seting up a law practice in Woodward, he was in great demand as a public speaker and worked for Oklahoma statehood. Finally, in 1904, he agreed to let his name appear among the possible contenders to be Oklahoma's first state governor, but gradually his hard living took its toll and his health declined at too early an age; he had less than a year to live.

On August 15, 1905, three days after his 45th birthday, Houston died from a brain hemorrhage at his home in Woodward. He was interred in the town's Laurel Land Cemetery. Among the several fictional characters inspired by Houston's life was that of Yancey Cravat in Edna Ferber's novel Cimarron.

The Old West. The Gunfighters. Time-Life Books Time Inc. 1976.
H. Allen Anderson. Handbook of Texas Online. Houston, Temple Lea. June 6, 2001.
Hank Bass, is the director of the Gov. Bill and Vara Daniel Center for Legal History. For more information about the center and its collection, call (800)204-2222, Ext. 2713. Temple Lea Houston: Gun-Toting, Bible-Quoting Lawyer of the Old West. State Bar of Texas. January 2001.

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