May 21, 2009 - Temple Houston, youngest son of none other than Sam Houston, was the first baby born in the governor’s mansion in Texas, on Aug. 12, 1960. Orphaned at the age of seven, he lived with an older sister in Georgetown for six years before basically lighting out for the territories.
Though he would become an eloquent and respected attorney in Texas and the Oklahoma Territory, he was in essence a frontiersman who kept pushing his way toward open land and new opportunities. He was known as a dandy and a gunfighter in addition to his legal and oratorical skills. He has been called the patron saint of Texas lawyers.
“Temple would have charged hell with only a bucket of water,” said one old-time Panhandle lawyer of Sam Houston’s son.
Temple lived a short but eventful life, usually on the often-anonymous fringes of the frontier. Like other Texas and Old West legends, much of what has filtered down to us about Temple Houston is pure fiction — compelling fiction, to be sure, but fiction nonetheless. For people like Temple Houston, the truth is just a starting point for the legend.
Temple joined a cattle drive from Texas to Kansas when he was just 13 years old, eventually working his way east on a riverboat. In New Orleans, an old friend of his father’s helped him get a job in Washington, D.C. as a page for the Senate.
The work impressed the young Houston so much that he returned to Texas and enrolled in the brand new Agricultural and Mechanical College, better known today as Texas A&M. He transferred to Baylor, when that school was located in Independence, and studied philosophy and law, graduating with honors. He was appointed Brazoria country attorney when he was 21 and was a state senator at age 24. He served two terms, then worked as an attorney for the old Santa Fe railroad, later known as the Atchison, Topkea and Santa Fe Railway.
Before that, he was appointed district attorney of the 35th Judicial District, which was made up of 26 unorganized counties in the vast and mostly unsettled Texas Panhandle. He was said to have had a fondness for ties made of rattlesnake skins that matched the bands on his wide-brimmed, Mexican-style hats. He wore his hair shoulder length or longer, and dressed in Prince Albert coats, starched shirts, pinstripe trousers and expensive handmade boots.
Like his father, Temple Houston had a way with words. As a defense attorney, he once described an opposing prosecutor as “a man who can strut sitting down.” His defense of the “soiled dove” (a local prostitute) not only earned his client an acquittal but also marked Houston as a man who could mingle compassion, the Bible and classical literature into a compelling legal narrative.
Drawing on a reputation — maybe deserved, maybe not — as a gunfighter, he was not above brandishing a weapon in the courtroom. On one occasion he is said to have fired his pearl-handled Colt during his summation, thus causing the “jury to mingle with the crowd” as both terrified groups fled the proceedings. That stunt earned him a fine from the judge, but a new trial for his client. Temple considered it a fair trade.
One of the best-known stories concerning Temple Houston is not true. It’s a great story, but it casts other stories, like the one above, in doubt. The story has it that he won a shooting contest against legendary gunfighters Billy the Kid and Bat Masterson. The story has been told in exacting and compelling detail but Billy the Kid was dead and Masterson was in Colorado when Temple Houston set up shop in the Panhandle. It didn’t happen.
The character Yancey Cravat in Edna Ferber’s novel and the movie version of “Cimarron” is based on Temple Houston. He was also the namesake, if not the exact subject, for a short-lived 1950s TV series called, simply enough, “Temple Houston.”
At a time when the real Temple Houston seemed to have the world on a string, around 1890, he gave up his promising political and legal career in Texas to join the Oklahoma land rush. He quickly earned the same kind of respect and admiration in Oklahoma that he had enjoyed in Texas. He was among the candidates vying to become Oklahoma’s first state governor but died in August of 1905, at just 45 years old, of a brain hemorrhage.
In final contrary-to-ordinary irony to Temple Houston’s life, the fist baby born in the Texas governor’s mansion is buried in Oklahoma.