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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
The private side of Temple Houston revealed a complex, immensely intelligent man, gifted and flawed, with assorted quirks, contradictions, and loyalties both fierce and tender. Throughout his marriage, he referred to his wife as “Valentine.” He walked with a slight stoop, head down, like a buffalo. His trademark attire in later years was a black Prince Albert coat, bell-flared pants over boots, a black cravat, a colorful vest, and a large white Stetson atop shoulder-length hair.
Perhaps because of his frequent solitary rides between courthouses, local cowboys gave him the nickname “Lone Wolf of the Canadian.” He seldom stayed in hotels, preferring to sleep under the stars in cow camps, and carried a small bottle of Tabasco sauce in his pocket to flavor his food. A voracious reader, one of his first stops in a town was its bookstalls. He was an authority on Napoleon and Aaron Burr and a collector of Native American and frontier artifacts. In later years, he befriended many Plains Indians, often allowing them to camp in his yard when passing through.
Houston adopted his wife’s Catholic faith and helped organize Woodward’s first Catholic Church. Three of his seven children died in infancy. He was a doting husband and father, never used corporal punishment on any of his youngsters, and once shot a man for spitting on his son.
But it was a courtroom episode variously known as the “Soiled Dove Plea” and the “Plea for the Fallen Woman” that secured Houston’s place in territorial history. In 1899, Minnie Stacey was tried for prostitution. Unable to afford counsel, she was before the judge when Houston, there on another case, overheard her plight and volunteered his legal services, saying, “Your honor, I’ll defend the lady if she’ll allow me.”
He met with the accused for ten minutes before addressing the court on her behalf. His unrehearsed closing argument, once on display at the Library of Congress, was called “one of the finest examples of American oratory ever uttered.” Houston told the all-male jury:
Our own sex was the author of her ruin....Where the star of purity once glittered on her girlish brow, burning shame has set its seal, and forever!...Now what else is left her? Where can she go and her sin not pursue her? Gentlemen, the very promises of God are denied her. He said, ‘Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest’....Society has reared its relentless walls against her, and only in the friendly shelter of the grave can her betrayed and broken heart ever find the Redeemer’s promised rest....There reigns over her penitent and chastened spirit a desolation now that none...but the Searcher of all hearts can ever know.
Alluding to opposing prosecutors across the room who would have “gathered a rock and stoned her,” he then challenged the jurors, “If any of us can say unto her, ‘I am holier than thou’...who is he?....No gentlemen, do as your Master did twice under the same circumstances that surround you. Tell her to go in peace.”
With scarcely a dry eye in the room, the jury unanimously acquitted the woman after a few minutes’ deliberation. The trial and Houston’s oral arguments were reported to much acclaim, even outside Oklahoma Territory. Minnie Stacey, the story goes, quit prostitution and moved to Canadian, Texas, where she supported herself taking in washing, joined the Methodist Church, became a devout Christian, and died there in the 1930s.
For weeks following the trial, the court stenographer was flooded with requests for copies of the speech, hailed by newspapers as “the most remarkable, the most spellbinding, heart-rending tear-jerker ever to come from the mouth of man.”
A contemporary, El Reno attorney R.B. Forrest, said of Houston, “He could touch a heart of stone in painting its sorrows. He seemed to feel the agonies of others and portrayed them with electric power.”
One of the great tragedies of his life, and one that probably shortened it, was his self-confessed “intemperate use of strong drink.” For years, he suffered from erysipelas—also known as St. Anthony’s fire—an acute, lymphatic-spread bacterial infection. In an era before safe and effective antibiotics and painkillers, alcohol provided the most effective relief.
In a 1938 interview, Judge C.W. Herod, an associate of Houston’s, said, “When he went into a saloon to drink, it was quite the custom of Temple Houston to insist that every man in the house drink at his expense regardless of the number. Notwithstanding his vast earnings, he died in abject poverty.”
As talk of statehood spread, he was mentioned as a possibility for governor. Shortly before Oklahoma’s admission as the forty-sixth state, however, Houston died of stroke and brain hemorrhage three days after his forty-fifth birthday. Flags flew at half-mast over the Oklahoma territories and in Texas. Although relatives in the Lone Star State sought to have his interment there, his wife Laura reaffirmed his wish to be buried in Woodward.
According to legend, at his funeral was a prairie flower garland. The sender? The “fallen woman,” Minnie Stacey.
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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.