This Week in Texas History: A column
by BARTEE HAILE
Paralyzed and partially blind, Temple Lea Houston spent his forty-fifth birthday on Aug. 12, 1905 waiting for death to put an end to his suffering.
Sam Houston was 67 years old and fighting a losing battle to keep Texas in the Union, when his eighth and last child (and the first born in the governor’s mansion) came into the world. Driven from office by the secessionists seven months later, the hero of San Jacinto did not live to celebrate his son’s third birthday.
Practically full grown at age 12, Temple left his sister’s home at Georgetown to roam the range from the Mississippi to the Rockies. At New Orleans in 1874, an influential friend of the deceased General took the young wanderer under his wing, pulled a few important strings and secured his appointment as a page in the United States Senate.
The Washington experience kindled in the footloose teenager a burning desire for knowledge. Temple returned to Texas to enroll in the new Agricultural and Mechanical College and later finished law school at Baylor University in a whirlwind nine months.
In less than two years of private practice, the legal whiz kid so impressed Brazoria County voters they elected him district attorney. But Temple soon answered a higher calling, an 1882 plea from Gov. Oran Roberts to serve as the Panhandle’s first prosecutor.
On the rough and ready frontier, a fast gun was as much a requirement as a law book. In a shooting contest that may be more fiction than fact, Temple supposedly put Bat Masterson and Billy the Kid to shame.
At 20 paces he perforated the tiny tin star on a plug of tobacco tossed high in the air by Masterson. The Kid conceded defeat with a shrug and asked, “Who could do better?”
Panhandle voters sent Temple Austin in January 1885. With his shoulder-length hair and flamboyant attire, he cut a colorful figure in the state senate.
Three years later at the dedication ceremonies for the new capitol, Temple lived up to his growing reputation as the finest orator in the Lone Star State. His memorable remarks were hailed in the press as “an able and worthy address from the worthy son of a most distinguished sire.”
The stirring speech accelerated a drive to draft the 28 year old spellbinder for a U.S. Senate seat. To an audience of enthusiastic supporters, Temple expressed doubts of his ability to win a statewide contest. In a clumsy attempt to boost his confidence, an overzealous partisan blurted out, “Just stand on your father’s name and you will win.”
Outraged by the suggestion that he ride the coattails of his immortal parent, Temple retorted, “A man is only what he makes himself!”
He stormed out of the meeting and refused to make the Senate race. However, he did ignore his own advice to run for attorney general and lost the statewide election.
Temple often declared, “I care not to stand in the light of reflected glory. Every tub must stand on its own bottom.” This gnawing need to escape Sam Houston’s giant shadow led him to abandon Texas for Oklahoma in 1894.
Hanging out his shingle in the town of Woodward, the fiery barrister crossed swords with the Jennings clan, a father judge and four lawyer sons. The dispute finally came to a violent head in October 1898.
During a debate at the bench over a point of law, Ed Jennings suddenly lunged for Temple’s throat. Guns were drawn, but a quick adjournment averted bloodshed.
The showdown was merely postponed until that night in the Cabinet Saloon. Temple and a companion shot it out with Ed and John Jennings, killing one and seriously wounding the other.
Temple’s arrest for murder provoked a storm of irate letters and telegrams from the southern side of the Red River, but the subsequent trial appeased angry Texans. Eyewitnesses testified the victim was accidentally slain by his own panic-stricken sibling, and a sympathetic jury found Temple not guilty.
Known far and wide for his wry sense of humor, Temple sometimes went to hilarious extremes. As he headed for an adjoining room to confer with an accused horse thief, the prosecutor joked, “Give him your best possible advice.”
When the pair failed to return, the curious district attorney found Temple sitting alone in front of an open window. Pressed for an explanation, he slyly replied, “Well, after hearing his story, I did as you told me and gave him my best advice.”
Temple contracted Saint Anthony’s fire, an incapacitating disease that eventually left him completely paralyzed and nearly robbed him of his sight. In August 1905 three days after he turned 45, a brain hemorrhage mercifully ended months of bedridden agony.
The Dallas Times Herald criticized the illustrious native son for moving to Oklahoma, an unpardonable sin for which he never asked forgiveness. Worse yet in the eyes of most Texans, Temple failed to live up to his vast potential.
As the Big D editor put it, “A chip off the old block, he had great gifts and strong passions. The gods were kind to him — he was not kind to himself.”
Commemorate the Civil War Sesquicentennial with “Secession & Civil War” from the “Best of This Week in Texas History” collection. Order today at twith.com or mail a check for $14.20 to Bartee Haile, P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, TX 77549.Email | Print