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Lone Wolf of the Canadian
NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. An Old West original who died young, Temple Lea Houston was quick on the draw and even faster to wield his oratorical skills in defense of his clients.
Photo courtesy TEXAS STATE LIBRARY & ARCHIVES
Son of a famous father, one of the fastest draws in Oklahoma Territory, master of oratory, and devoted family man, Temple Lea Houston was one of the least known and most notorious of Oklahoma's settlers.
By JIM LOGAN
Published November 28, 2011
Downstream from Fort Supply on the North Canadian River, Woodward was a bustling mass of settlers, soldiers, railroaders, cattlemen, and gun-toting cowboys—a smaller version of Dodge City. It was for a time the largest point of original cattle shipments in the world, with two banks, two newspapers, and twenty-three saloons. Most legal cases involved land titles, most of the citizenry carried firearms, and community meetings often ended in gunfire.
Houston, widely regarded as one of the best defense attorneys in the nation, left his mark on the territorial courtrooms of Oklahoma. Representing clients and causes popular and otherwise, he packed and polarized courtrooms with standing-room-only crowds.
Houston brought photographic recall, humor, passion, and deep human insight to the court. He was the model for the lead character, Yancey Cravat, in Edna Ferber’s acclaimed 1929 novel, Cimarron. A newspaper of the day, the Guthrie Daily Leader, dubbed him “the silver-tongued orator of Oklahoma.”
Once assigned to defend a hapless horse thief, he told the judge he’d do all he could for the defendant and met privately with the man in a closed room. When authorities, after a lengthy wait, opened the door to find Houston sitting alone with an open window nearby, he said, “Well, boys, I gave him some good advice.”
While known for keeping powerful cattle ranchers out of prison, Houston championed many a worthy cause. He once shot up a Guthrie saloon after it fleeced a youngster out of his wages, chased the gamblers and the establishment’s owner from the building in a rage, and returned the boy’s money.
For theatrics, nothing topped his defense of a young cowboy who allegedly stole a rancher’s horse. When accosted by the rancher, known as a quick-tempered gunman, the cowboy, according to witnesses, shot and killed the rancher without giving him a chance to draw. Before a hostile jury, Houston pled self-defense for his client and set about showing how the dead man’s reputation and “lightning draw” left the defendant no chance in a fair fight and no choice but to fire first.
Inching slowly closer to the jury box, he described his client as “an ordinary, hard-working citizen...little experienced in the use of firearms.” Stopping just in front of the jurors, he explained how the rancher had been “so adept with a six-shooter that he could place a gun in the hands of an inexperienced man, then draw and fire his own weapon before his victim could pull the trigger—like this!”
He then drew the Colt pistol from beneath his coat, pointed it at the jurors, and began firing rapidly—with blanks. Chaos followed, with jurors, judge, defendant, and panicked spectators stampeding for cover and out of the building.
When order returned, the judge threatened the attorney with a contempt citation. Houston apologized for “any seeming disrespect for the person of this court,” explaining that he wanted to “show what speed this dead man possessed.”
The reassembled jury, angered, found Houston’s young cowboy guilty. He then motioned for mistrial, based on the jury’s separation and mingling with the crowd during the hearing. A new trial was grudgingly granted, and a few months later, with an impartial jury and new presiding judge, his client was acquitted.
Among Houston’s foremost legal rivals in Oklahoma Territory were the Jennings brothers: Ed, John, Frank, and Al, all lawyers. Their father, J.D.F. Jennings, was a local judge. In October 1895, Houston opposed Ed Jennings in a controversial property case. Tempers flared in court, with Houston pronouncing his opponent “grossly ignorant of the law.” Ed Jennings yelled, “You’re a damn liar,” and attempted to slap Houston. Guns were drawn, the two were separated, and the case was adjourned until the next day.
That evening, as Houston and a friend sat in a saloon, Ed Jennings and his brother John approached their table. An argument erupted. Houston asked Jennings to step outside. Jennings said they could settle it inside, and each man drew his gun. Blasts from the first of several shots shattered the lights.
It is generally believed that Houston killed Ed Jennings with a shot to the head, although some believe a wild shot in the dark from John is what killed his brother. John Jennings was also badly wounded in the arm. With witnesses claiming Houston drew in self-defense, he was acquitted of first-degree manslaughter charges. The Jennings clan never consummated a threat to avenge the shooting, but Houston had his share of close calls, with a notable one coming in Enid when he was shot by a would-be assassin. Luckily, the bullet lodged in a book of territorial statutes he happened to be carrying in his coat’s inside-chest pocket.
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The Plains Indians & Pioneers Museum in Woodward has a gallery containing a number of Temple Lea Houston’s personal possessions and dioramas of his parlor and office. 2009 Williams Avenue, (580) 256-6136 or pipm1.org. Houston’s grave is in the central part of Woodward’s Elmwood Cemetery at 2755 Downs Avenue.