Texas history is full of larger-than-life men and women. There was none more compelling in the Old West than Temple Houston, the youngest child of Sam Houston.
Temple carried the distinction of being first child born in the governor’s mansion in Austin, Texas. He never knew his father because Sam Houston died when the boy was only 3 years old. His mother followed four years later when Temple was 7. Upon her death he went to live with one of his sisters.
Of the eight Houston children, Temple was most like his father in temperament and abilities. But he hated being compared to Sam and especially as being Sam’s boy. Temple was rebellious and had a need for adventure. At age 13 he signed on as a cowboy on a cattle drive going all the way to Dakota territory. To get back home, he was hired as a steamboat captain on the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers.
He began studying law and at the age of 19, he was admitted to the Texas Bar. He was well-educated and spoke fluent French and Spanish in addition to seven Indian languages.
None was more flamboyant and unorthodox. The 6’2″, long-haired man was fond of wearing black Prince Albert coats, elegant pinstriped trousers stuffed into high, handsome boots, and white sombreros. Temple was exceedingly handsome, had piercing gray eyes and coal black hair.
He was also a crack marksman. He carried a pair of ivory-gripped, nickel-plated Colts. And he didn’t hesitate to use them. After a courtroom argument with another lawyer, he met the man in a saloon. Houston killed the adversary and promptly entered a plea of self-defense. He was acquitted.
Before his 21st birthday, Temple was appointed first district attorney for the new district court in the Panhandle. He went to the wild, lawless town of Mobeetie where there was no jail. Not long after he arrived he insisted that one be built. While it was being constructed, one convicted cowboy was chained to a rock pillar in one of the town’s saloons. They gave him a blanket and left him in the saloon overnight. The following morning they found the man dead drunk, surrounded by whiskey bottles. He’d torn his blanket into strips and made a lariat. He spent the night roping bottles off the backbar and drinking the contents.
The next year at age 22, Temple married Laura Cross, a planter’s daughter. Seven children were born to them, but only four survived infancy.
Temple Houston was also an excellent defense attorney. At one trial, that of a man accused of murdering a skilled gunfighter, Houston whipped out his pair of Colts, pointed them at the jury, and fired away. Jurors dove out of the box, spectators dove out the window, and the judge ducked down behind the bench. Houston’s attempt to show the lightning speed of the gunfighter in comparison to that of the accused cowboy, even though the cowboy had shot first, was in fact a matter of self-defense. Once courtroom order resumed, Houston apologized for his gunplay, explaining that his own weapons had held blanks. The cowboy was acquitted.
But his most famous case was the one defending accused prostitute Millie Stacey in 1899. His closing summary is still studied by law students today. It’s considered the perfect defense argument and one of the finest masterpieces of oratory in the English language. In his speech which was spellbinding, he proclaimed Millie innocent, saying man was to blame for her shame and that “Where the star of purity once glittered on her girlish brow, burning shame has left its seal forever.” Millie went free, her guilt expunged.
(As a side note, a copy of the speech was framed and hangs today in the Library of Congress.)
A remark for which his is known is “Your honor, the prosecutor is the first man that I’ve ever seen who can strut while sitting down.”
Another time, a judge persuaded Temple to represent a penniless horse thief. Temple promised, “I’ll provide the unfortunate gentleman the best defense I can.” He asked the judge for a private office where he could talk to his client. A little while later, they found Temple sitting alone in the room with the window open. He smiled and remarked, “I gave him the best advice I could.”
Always a restless soul, Houston left Texas for a new frontier and more adventure. He participated in the Oklahoma Land Rush and raced with thousands of other land-hungry pioneers. He brought his family and moved his practice to the new town of Woodward, Oklahoma. His services were in great demand. Before it was over, he became as big a legend in Oklahoma as he was in Texas.
The man who lived life large died of a stroke in 1905 at the age of 45 and was buried in Woodward’s Laurel Land Cemetery. Needless to say, Temple Houston left a huge mark on the legal profession. And though he never reached the historical acclaim of his father Sam, he was a man to be revered.
Doesn’t this sound like a hero right from one of our western romances? I’d like to have known him.