Standing in the Shadow of Sam: A Son’s Rush Toward the Light

He said he wanted to make his own way in the world and not live in the shadow of his famous father. In fact, sometimes it seemed that he spent his life trying to run out from under that big shadow cast by Sam Houston.

Temple Lea Houston was Sam Houston’s last child, born in 1860 (when Sam was sixty-seven), and the first child born in the Texas governor’s mansion. (Photo from Legislative Reference Library of Texas.)

This is the census listing of the Sam Houston household at the governor’s mansion in August 1860. The day of the listing is difficult to read but appears to be “thirteenth.” If so, census taker Wood knocked on the door of the governor’s mansion the very day that Temple Houston increased the household by one.

Sam Houston died when Temple was three, but Temple inherited his father’s sense of adventure. Temple joined a cattle drive at age thirteen, later worked on a Mississippi River steamboat.

temple 6-28-78 bwbTemple Houston also inherited his father’s love of law and politics. Temple graduated from Baylor in 1878 and stayed on to “read law.” Note that he won an award for oratory. Clip is from the June 28 Brenham Weekly Banner.

Temple seemed driven to overachieve. He was admitted to the bar in 1880. When he opened his law practice in Brazoria in 1881 at the age of twenty-one, he was the youngest practicing attorney in Texas. He also started a newspaper in Brazoria. In 1882, at age twenty-two, he was appointed district attorney of the Thirty-Fifth Judicial District. And when he was elected a state senator in 1884 he became the youngest in Texas history at age twenty-four. The state Constitution requires a minimum age of twenty-six, but, hey, with the son of Sam Houston, who was counting? Temple Houston served four years in the Senate.

houston adFor several weeks in 1883 this classified ad ran in the Fort Worth Gazette.

The appositive “son of Sam Houston” often followed Temple Houston’s name in print. The Gazette on December 8, 1883 reported that District Attorney Houston, then living in Mobeetie in the Panhandle, was shutting down disorderly houses (brothels). But in 1899 he agreed to defend—on short notice—Minnie Stacey, a “soiled dove” who roosted at the Dew Drop Inn in Woodward, Oklahoma. Many trial attorneys to this day consider Temple’s extemporaneous closing argument to the jury—known as the “Soiled Dove Speech” or “Plea for a Fallen Woman”—to be a classic. The all-male jury quickly acquitted the woman by a unanimous verdict.

An extract of Houston’s closing argument: “Gentlemen of the jury: 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 embraced of her own choosing? Do you think that she willingly embraced a life so revolting and horrible? Ah, no! Gentlemen, . . . Our sex wrecked her once pure life . . . and only in the friendly shelter of the grave can her betrayed and broken heart ever find the Redeemer’s promised rest.”

Like his father, Temple Houston was a big man. He wore his wavy hair shoulder-length, dressed in a white Stetson hat, white vest, long black frock coat, rattlesnake-skin necktie. And like his father, Temple Houston became the stuff of myth: Temple Houston is said to have cleared a courtroom during a trial when he suddenly drew his pistol and fired—six blanks—at the jury to make a point; he bested Billy the Kid in a shooting match; he dodged death when an assassin’s bullet struck a lawbook instead of Houston.

In 1887 the Fort Worth Gazette referred to Houston as a correspondent. He was in town often. Temple and Fort Worth banker Otho S. Houston, who in 1897 would be reported as an eyewitness during Airship April, were first cousins.

In fact, in 1891 Temple Houston moved to Fort Worth to practice law, staying at the Pickwick Hotel (where Sundance Square is today). He was active in the local Democratic Party. This clip is from the 1892 city directory.

In 1888, when the new state Capitol was dedicated, Temple Houston delivered the “dedication oration,” accepting the new building on behalf of the people of Texas.

The first part of his speech is included in this clip from the May 17 Gazette.

But Temple Houston’s life was bedeviled by confrontation. In 1895, when he was living in Oklahoma, the Gazette reported that he shot and killed fellow lawyer Ed Jennings. Houston was acquitted after acting as his own counsel and pleading self-defense. Twenty witnesses testified that Jennings had drawn first.

Ed and John Jennings were brothers of Al Jennings, who himself had an interesting CV: attorney, train robber, evangelist, and silent movie actor. Al Jennings had sworn to kill Temple Houston but was sent to prison before he got the chance. (Photo from Wikipedia.)

temple 11-12-96 charlotte democratThe Houston-Jennings feud continued. One year later on November 12, 1896 the Charlotte Democrat reported that Houston had shot and killed Judge Jennings after the judge spit in the face of Houston’s son. Houston killed father Judge Jennings in the same saloon where Houston had killed son Ed Jennings.

The next month Temple Houston announced that he was willing to go to Cuba to fight Spain.

temple 12-22-97 nyt

In 1897 “the son of Sam Houston” pleaded guilty and was fined $300 for killing Judge Jennings in 1896. Clip is from the December 22 New York Times.

temple bryan morning eagle 8-18-05In 1904 Houston suffered a stroke and was invalided. He died on August 15, 1905. Even in death he could not escape the label he had run from all his life: “son of General Sam Houston.” This clip is from the August 18 Bryan Morning Eagle. Temple Lea Houston was forty-five years old.

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