“Should We Have Another Such Legislature, Would It Not Be Well to Dissolve Our State Government and Get Attached to the Indian Territory?”

June 21, 2017 § Leave a comment

“Around the Texas Capitol this year, it wasn’t unusual to hear the 85th Legislature described as the worst anyone could remember. … this session had more than its fair share of dispiriting moments.  … not much got done. This Legislature passed the fewest bills in years, and while some might argue that’s a good thing, the biggest issue facing Texas—the crumbling school-finance system—went unaddressed. Instead of action, we got grandstanding over school vouchers, property taxes, and, as ever, abortion.” — Texas Monthly, June 2017.

Well, yes, the 85th deserves its place in the history books, but no one alive now is old enough to remember the 19th Legislature, and it was really a doozy compared with the rather tame 85th. Read this chapter from my recent book, Austin Murder and Mayhem, and make up your own mind.

“Should We Have Another Such Legislature, Would It Not Be Well to Dissolve Our State Government and Get Attached to the Indian Territory?”

The lawmaking process is often compared to making sausage. Little good ever comes from any Texas legislative session, but some legislatures grind out particularly wretched sausage. The Nineteenth Legislature (1885) was possibly the rudest, most feckless and most violent legislature in Texas history.

Ah, where to begin with the carryings-on of the Nineteenth…

Let’s start with the evening of Wednesday, March 11, when a disgraceful scene marred forever the history of legislation in Texas.

The Senate was discussing a bill abolishing the office of insurance commissioner, its supporters claiming that the commissioner was little more than a newspaper clipping collector and filer, and that any clerk could do the job. Augustus Houston of Bexar County made an elaborate and forcible argument in favor of its retention.

William Davis of Cooke County replied in his characteristic style and took occasion, as he often did, to ridicule. He compared Houston to a “strutting turkey gobbler.” 066

At the conclusion of Davis’s speech, Houston rose to a question of privilege and stated that in debates, criticisms were often indulged in, but never before had the personal appearance of any member been dragged into the fray, until that “little yellow, sallow-faced mummy and blackguard from Cooke” saw fit to allude to him, and that he was ready to settle the matter outside the chamber, or either within or outside of the state, as the senator might select.

Confusion followed, and the Senate president instructed the sergeant-at-arms to arrest the two senators. Comparative quiet was restored without this extreme measure, but intense excitement prevailed in the lobbies.

Davis arose and said that any senator who would take advantage of his position on the Senate floor to insult a member was a deliberate coward, poltroon and pusillanimous blackguard and that if he (Davis) wanted to raise a fight he would do it outside the Senate chamber.

As he said this, Houston passed from the Senate floor into the lobby, saying as he did so, “Come out, then.”

Davis said he would not go out into a crowd, where he would be prevented from fighting, but that he could be found on the streets, at his boardinghouse or anywhere else outside the chamber.

After quiet was fully restored, Davis took the floor and stated that he had not intended to insult anyone in the heat of the debate and he was sorry that offense had been taken.

Houston replied that if that was the case, he felt sorry, too, and took back all that he had said.

That extraordinary scene in the Senate chamber was all the chief topic of discussion the next day. The belligerent senators had yet to encounter each other, and mutual friends were trying to preserve the peace. There was little hope of an actual reconciliation, but perhaps a difficulty might be staved off. There was no doubt that a very bad feeling prevailed and very little business would be done during the remainder of the session. The Senate was hopelessly cut up into hostile factions, and bickering and antagonism would destroy the hope of the business of the public being cared for.

“Back in the day,” journalists tended to protect the reputations of the sinners they covered—but only up to a point. By March 19, the Galveston Daily News had had enough of the Nineteenth’s shenanigans and ripped the covers off of events in the Senate chamber on Monday night, March 9:

“During the delivery of this speech the senate chamber was a perfect bedlam—shouting, gesticulating, remonstrating, denouncing from all corners of the chamber, pistols were passed around, as cards are dealt at a whist-table. Messengers were dispatched for pistols, knives were taken out and opened, and for a while everyone present was morally certain that bloodshed, if not slaughter, was imminent.”

The hostilities extended beyond the statehouse. A number of legislators were eating supper at Bulian’s restaurant on the evening of March 19. Mr. Merriweather, of Frio County, came in and took a seat. He had a stick in his hand with which he kept tapping Doctor Camp, the member from Limestone. Camp at first paid no attention but finally objected. Merriweather had been drinking and was ripe for a row. Some emphatic words passed, and a fight was prevented only through the intervention of friends. The difficulty was, however, renewed on the sidewalk not long after, and flourishing their walking canes, both the gentlemen made at each other. Speaker Upton, in endeavoring to act as peacemaker, caught one of the blows, a sorry reward for his benevolent intentions. Then others again interfered, and the row was stopped for the night.

On March 28, the Dallas Herald ran the following:

Prepared for War

A few days since, when war was raging in the legislature, and the lie and “sich” was being hurled promiscuously by the members, the constituents of our representative, Mr. R.S. Kimbrough, purchased and expressed him a six-shooter, with the injunction to defend the honor and good name of Dallas county at all hazards. Yesterday the following reply, which explains itself, was received:

Austin, March 27, 1885 — W.G. Sterrett, J.G. Stephens, et al, Dallas, Texas:

My Dear Friend: The “gun” came to hand O.K.—charge 25 cts. Many thanks for the same and accompanying kind expressions. I have loaded her up and am waiting for an opportunity to “distinguish” myself. My friends were very thoughtful, indeed, for a statesman working for $2 per day here would never accumulate enough to buy a 50-cent pistol with which to defend himself and country. I needed it, and my only regret is that you didn’t think of my poor, lone condition among savages sooner. Again tendering my most heartfelt thanks to one and all, I am yours for war and reform.

R.S. Kimbrough

P.S.—The senators don’t come in the house now, except when I am out. K.

   After these preliminary rounds, real blood finally began to flow.

That same morning, March 28, an Austin Statesman headline blared: “Cutting to Kill.”

Between ten and eleven o’clock on the evening of March 27, a very serious stabbing affray occurred almost in front of the Avenue Hotel, involving Tobias Mitchell, correspondent of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, and Alexander Sampson, calendar clerk of the Senate.

The origin of the row was a caricature of Sampson in the March 25 issue of the Globe-Democrat, one of a series of burlesque pictures of members of the legislature, with some little accompanying description of the man. Sampson was not at all pleased with his, only a rear view being presented, and his ill temper was ill concealed. The sketch, though a burlesque on the surface, along with the accompanying brief biographical narrative, conveyed a deeper meaning in the light of subsequent developments:

This presents a view of the handsomest part of Major Alex Sampson, the calendar clerk of the Senate. He is the only representative of the Israelites in that body, and has a great reputation for “being seen” as he terms it, or shaping the course of legislation for a reasonable consideration. He is a daisy at securing free railroad passes for himself and “particular friend,” or none at all. Like all of his race, he is possessed of the strong ability to look out for number one, and it is a cold day when a senator can get him to calendar a bill conveniently.

   Other men occupying far more honorable positions with quite as much reputation at stake were hit equally as hard, both by pen and picture, and yet did not consider themselves insulted.

Sampson claimed that he and Mitchell met on the sidewalk near the Avenue Hotel. Sampson told Mitchell that he had been given a rough deal in the paper and cursed the man who did it in terms not fit to be printed. At this, he said Mitchell drew a knife, whereupon he endeavored to do the same, but it caught somehow in his pocket and he could not pull it out. Then he ran, Mitchell after him. Sampson entered the Occidental saloon, followed by Mitchell, and the difficulty was renewed, resulting in the severe stabbing of Mitchell. Sampson’s weapon was a paper knife, double edged and sharp as a razor. Policeman Jim Williams came and arrested both men. Sampson was taken to the police station and released on a bond of $150, for disturbing the peace.

The wounded Mitchell walked to his room. He was bleeding terribly. Doctors Richard Swearingen (state health officer) and Frank McLaughlin were sent for, and they did all they could. The blade had entered at the point of the left shoulder and passed downward in the direction of the axillary artery. The artery was probably severed, the doctors thought, from the great flow of blood. They would not allow him to be talked to, for his life appeared in danger at the moment. (He recovered.)

A friend who heard it from the wounded man’s lips told Mitchell’s side of the story. It differed from Sampson’s statement in one important particular. He admitted having gone into the saloon after Sampson, but his better judgment began to assert itself, and wishing to avoid a scene, he was turning to go when Sampson suddenly sprang forward and stabbed him.

Mitchell was well known in Texas journalism. He was managing editor of the Houston Post before its demise, a well-built, muscular man, weighing about 180 pounds, and possessing great nerve. He was around forty years of age and generally popular, having pleasant manners and a genial smile for every man he met. Scarcely a newspaperman in Texas was better liked.

Although arrested only for disturbing the peace, Sampson would find a far more serious charge to confront the next morning.

Sampson hailed from Galveston, where he was a ward politician. Little was known about him, except that when the legislature assembled, he sought, and was elected, the Senate’s calendar clerk. In the early days of the session, he was earning a reputation as an efficient officer, winning golden opinions from the senators and others who came in contact with him. But his true motives gradually began to reveal themselves.

For more than a month, the moral atmosphere of the capital had been rendering an unpleasant odor. The lobby was filled with whispers of questionable doings, and members of both houses swapped reports of questionable methods indulged in by attaches of the legislature: of bills being extracted from the committee rooms, defaced, altered and mutilated; that officers, mostly clerks, of both houses were professional lobbyists who levied blackmail on every party who appeared before the legislature, interested in either the passage or defeat of a bill.

They levied tribute on all who would yield up a dollar. The advocates of certain new counties were bled freely. When the gambling bill was up, the gamblers were sucked dry. A telegraph lobby that appeared was rich game. The “sailors bill” (which would have prevented foreign sailors from working beyond their ship’s tackle in Texas ports) was tackled when it was first introduced, but it didn’t produce much.

The grand stand of the session was made on the bucket-shop bill. A bucket shop was a private establishment where a customer could put up a specified margin on gold, cotton or other commodities to be delivered on an agreed-upon date in the future. We call it futures dealing. Here the boys expected to make the blood flow freely. They looked for big returns and luxurious expenditures, and some of the ring’s members had planned a trip to New York, Hot Springs and other points when the bucket shop bill was called up.

When the House convened on the morning of March 28, Representative Lorenzo Fisher of Galveston exposed Sampson and company. About a month earlier, Sampson had written a letter to a well-known bucket shop proprietor in Galveston, stating that a pending bill, the bucket shop bill—which would prohibit speculation in grain and stock futures—could be suppressed if the bucket shop men would pay Joseph Tryon, clerk of the house’s Judiciary Committee No. 2, $1500. The bill was killed by placing on it a rider that would also prohibit dealing in futures in cotton and other public exchanges.

The reading of Sampson’s letter on the House floor created a great sensation. Fisher, in a vigorous speech, exposed the doings of the band of clerical blackmailers, who, he said, had infested the legislative halls since the opening of the session.

Sampson was expelled that day.

Tryon was a young man from Houston, according to the Galveston News. He was a generous, impulsive fellow, reckless and thoughtless and could easily be made a tool of by designing men. In conversation with a News correspondent following Sampson’s expulsion, Tryon admitted that others made a cat’s-paw of him, though with loyalty worthy of a better cause, he refused to squeal.

Tryon was expelled on March 30, the day before the legislature adjourned.

They returned to their respective home turfs, evidently with open arms, because in September 1886, Tryon was a candidate for Harris County attorney, and Alex Sampson for Galveston County judge, which the Galveston News regarded as a rebuke to the Nineteenth Legislature.

Sampson would play a prominent role in Galveston’s legal circles and politics for years to come.

The postmortems on the Nineteenth began weeks before its adjournment, and they cut to the bone.

The Fort Worth Gazette declared on March 18, “The legislature has been at work now since the 13th of January, and has nothing but a few local bills and several disgraceful scenes, to show to the people as the result of its labors.”

And:

Hasn’t Texas just a wee bit too much of “good fellowship” in its legislature? A “devilish good fellow” may be place around the stove of a courthouse room or a “store”; but men who make laws should be “honorable” men in “word and deed.” “Tom, Dick, and Harry” and the slap on the shoulder may do for the street, but dignity, self-respect, and a regard for personal, as well as public, rights, are expected of statesmen. There is too much of big-boyism, “kids,” “mugwumps,” etc., at Austin, and the solons have not been without a certain newspaper encouragement in converting the legislative halls of the state into the play-ground of a village school. Indeed, it is likely, from the aid and comfort they received from one newspaper, that “the kids” actually grew to believe that people in Texas had suspended all business and were standing on tiptoe to see what “the boys” would do next; whether they would thump another newspaper man, put a mansard roof on a judge, or curse and abuse each other. Texas is sick and tired of this “kid” business, in the legislature as well as in the university.

The Austin Statesman nailed the lid on the coffin on April 9:

“The Nineteenth Legislature had no intelligent executive suggestions, until at the last hour Comptroller Swain took the bull by the horns and showed the necessity for increased taxation for State expenses, as well as for a law forcing payment for the use of lands set aside for educational purposes. The two measures suggested by him led to the only two valuable enactments of the Nineteenth Legislature.

“The Legislature failed to pass the granite bill—even permitting the capitol to be built of granite. Such was legislation to the Nineteenth Legislature. When will we have such another; and should we have another such legislature, would it not be well to dissolve our state government and get attached to the Indian Territory?”

It’s appropriate to close the books on a joke of a legislature with a joke about it, from the Statesman.

   We do not know how much good or bad the legislature has thus far accomplished. They are still grinding away, but the grinding is like the turning of the crank on a peanut roaster. A countryman from Onion Creek watched a man who was turning the handle on a peanut roaster steadily for half an hour, and then he asked:

   “When are you going to play a tune?”

   He had taken the peanut roaster for a hand organ. The legislators are still turning the crank, but we are unable to determine just yet whether it is a hand organ for the amusement of the people or a peanut roaster for their own private profit.

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