This Week in Texas History:
A column by BARTEE HAILE
“‘Ma’ Frees 26 More Prisoners” blared the banner headline of the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal on Jan. 5, 1927. With 12 days left in her term, Texas’ first woman governor had plenty of time to finish cleaning out the state penal system.
In her 1924 bid to become the second Ferguson to rule the Lone Star roost, Miriam promised to pick up where her impeached husband left off seven years earlier. Though Jim cut 2,253 prisoners loose during his 32 stormy months, “Ma” would go down as the most soft-hearted governor in American history.
To tip the scales of justice in favor of the underdog, Miriam exercised her pardon power and every other available act of executive clemency. In addition to the 1,161 felons granted full pardons, another 2,000 were given extended furloughs, restorations of citizenship and life sentences in lieu of dates with the electric chair.
Since the Fergusons were long-time opponents of prohibition, petty bootleggers benefited most from Ma’s mercy. To lock up a farmer for selling a bottle of booze, when city slickers kept well-stocked liquor cabinets, was a travesty in her eyes.
Inmates also qualified for leniency if they were in bad health, convicted on weak circumstantial evidence or near the end of their sentences. Furloughs were routinely approved for deathbed visits to dying relatives as were pardons to the breadwinners of indigent households.
Predictably the Fergusons were flooded by tear-jerking appeals. A daughter recalled, “Every member of the family was besieged from morning until night by letters, telephone calls and visitors pleading for some loved one who had disobeyed the laws of society and had been imprisoned, but who deserved another chance.”
Unlike her husband, Ma never came face-to-face with a pardon-seeking prisoner. One day in his office, Jim was confronted by an escaped convict, who broke out of prison to present his petition in person.
Ferguson listened patiently to the visitor’s tale of woe and then promised to honor his request, if he went straight back to Huntsville. The fugitive retraced his steps, and Jim kept his word.
Executions were especially hard on Miriam, who made the ordeal more difficult by ordering the warden to contact her before pulling the switch. Whenever she failed to find grounds for a postponement, she hung up the phone and burst into tears.
The governor endured this private agony on 15 occasions between April 1925 and July 1926. However, in the initial six months of her first term in 1924 and her second in 1933, only one prisoner was put to death. The fact that Texas averaged an execution every 32 days between 1924 and 1940 strongly suggests she dragged her heels.
While Ma’s penal policy was popular with her predominantly rural supporters, critics charged that many liberated inmates were undeserving dangerous criminals. To prove their point, they cited an article in a national magazine which accused her of setting free 203 murderers, 44 rapists and a child molester.
Whenever her detractors were running low on ammunition, the governor unwittingly replenished their supply by signing a pardon before the recipient reached prison. And the law-and-order lobby never tired of talking about the businessman that won his freedom by convincing Ma he did not mean to kill his partner. The knife “slipped.”
Farmer Jim came to his wife’s defense in the pages of the Ferguson Forum, the weekly newspaper started in November 1917 soon after his impeachment. He attacked the courts for putting only paupers behind bars and warned that denied justice the common folk “will rise up and burn the lawbooks.”
Jim indignantly insisted that the same forces which drove him from office were behind the anti-pardon protest. He wondered in print why the release of 1,500 inmates by William P. Hobby, his successor and implacable foe, had ruffled so few feathers.
Believing the rumor that pardons were for sale at the executive residence, a policeman decided to take the direct approach. Shaking hands with the former governor, he pressed several large bills into his palm. Quick-tempered Jim threw the money in the stranger’s face and chased him out of the mansion.
Taking his cue from the generous governor, a Houston legislator submitted a bill to make all incarcerated wrongdoers eligible for parole. He confidently predicted that nine out of ten would mend their ways and never return to prison.
Although the development of a permanent criminal underclass was still decades away, his naive proposal was rejected out of hand. The idea of universal parole did not come to a vote.
Meanwhile, Ma Ferguson stayed her controversial course, and the inmate exodus continued. She later hailed as her “most outstanding accomplishment” the compassion shown the “poor and unfortunate convicts and their families.”