Houston Babylon

Four of the spookiest true tales in our city's history

Houston Babylon

Houston and New Orleans stand alone as the creepiest cities on the Gulf Coast.

With its pervasive voodoo ambience, sprawling cities of the dead, air of genteel decay, and long history of murder and mayhem, New Orleans is undeniably a spooky town. Fright is a cottage industry there.

Having said that, Houston is not far behind. Houstonians just don't celebrate death and the past the way New Orleanians do. In fact, we tend to simply forget all the awful and weird things that have happened here over the last 176 years, and mercifully so, because there have been an enormous number of terrible episodes. It's just that with few exceptions, this absent-minded behemoth of a city has forgotten its most chilling outrages, its many midnights in dozens of evil gardens.

In a scene typical of early Houston, a slave woman tries not to laugh as three well-armed and drunken "rowdy loafers" harass and alarm a respectable family from the upper crust. A similar confrontation led to Houston's first publicized public hanging.
Gary Zaboly illustration from Stephen Hardin's Texian Macabre
In a scene typical of early Houston, a slave woman tries not to laugh as three well-armed and drunken "rowdy loafers" harass and alarm a respectable family from the upper crust. A similar confrontation led to Houston's first publicized public hanging.
Dr. Robert H. Watson was a physician and one of early Houston's leading citizens. He liked to do two things in his spare time: drink, and collect human skulls. He also liked to drink from the skulls, and here, according to one of his friends, he drinks from one "that had yet brains in it." He reportedly toasted the following: "This when living was not worth a pin, but now how precious with good liquor in."
Gary Zaboly illustration from Stephen Hardin's Texian Macabre
Dr. Robert H. Watson was a physician and one of early Houston's leading citizens. He liked to do two things in his spare time: drink, and collect human skulls. He also liked to drink from the skulls, and here, according to one of his friends, he drinks from one "that had yet brains in it." He reportedly toasted the following: "This when living was not worth a pin, but now how precious with good liquor in."

Most locals do know a thing or two about the Candy Man murders, though many of us confuse that case (Dean Corll's horrific years-long serial-killing spree) with that of Ronald Clark O'Bryan, a.k.a. "the man who killed Halloween" by giving his son a stick of cyanide-laced Pixy Stix candy. Andrea Yates, Coral Watts, Karla Faye Tucker, the Poe Bombing, the Peña-Ertman gang initiation murders and the Blood and Money killings are all also widely remembered, the first five because they were simply awful, and the last both because it was terrible and for the window it provided into River Oaks.

There's not much need to retell those stories here in full when there are so many more to choose from, beginning with a hanging in Houston's second full year of existence, continuing with a gruesome murder in the Houston Heights of 1910 and a tale of a golden boy gone astray in the 1970s, and ending with the murder of a sleazebag in the throes of the Oil Bust. And eerily, uncannily, all-too-spookily, several of the well-known crimes listed above are closely connected to the ones we've included here.

A Hanging in the Most Miserable Place in the World

For the not-yet-two-year-old town of Houston, March 28, 1838, was a banner day, the biggest spectacle the capital of Texas had yet seen. On that date, in what historian Stephen L. Hardin says was Houston's first widely publicized execution, two convicted murderers were slated to hang simultaneously from an old oak tree near what is now the corner of Main and Webster. A crowd of two to three thousand men, women and children flocked to the hanging tree, where they watched and jeered as Jones and Quick were wheeled in a cart under one of the live oak's limbs, had ropes placed around their necks and said their last words. Seconds later, the hangman cracked his whip on the team, and the cart was wheeled out from under the doomed men.

Quick met his end after reportedly killing his fifth man. This was Jones's first murder. Unfortunately, in killing a gentleman, Jones chose his victim poorly. Like Quick, Jones was from what was known at the time as the "rowdy loafer" set. As Hardin, a history professor at McMurry University, explains in his eminently readable and enlightening book Texian Macabre: The Melancholy Tale of a Hanging in Early Houston, the rowdy loafers were impoverished, illiterate, Bowie knife-toting, underemployed, tobacco-spitting backwoods desperadoes in search of adventure, easy money and whiskey-fueled good times. They ranked just above slaves and Mexican servants on the social totem pole of early Houston, and far beneath the social elite: the planters, the attorneys, the physicians and the like. (Sam Houston, the fledgling republic's president, combined the social status of the upper crust with the drinking habits of a rowdy loafer.)

Like many others of their sort, Quick and Jones were combat-tested veterans of the recent war against Santa Anna, and they had hair-trigger tempers. As Hardin writes, a sure way to set them off was to offer them a chance to detect a snub against their honor. "You think you're better 'n me?" was often the last thing said before knives were drawn. As the case of Quick showed, such killings, so long as they were kept amongst themselves, were almost never prosecuted. "If two rowdy loafers knifed each other up, they certainly weren't going to waste taxpayer money on that," says Hardin. "Good riddance." But when Jones killed above his station, that was another matter...

Life was as cheap as border-town Chiclets in 1830s Houston, a town that made Deadwood look like Zurich by comparison. A visitor from Nacogdoches called what was then the capital of the Republic of Texas "the most miserable place in the world." There was the heat and humidity, unalleviated by air-conditioning. Among a host of other maladies, yellow fever alone carried off early Houstonians by the thousands, their bodies often simply dumped in the muddy, waste-filled streets, where they vied for space with the corpses of dogs, cats, pigs, cattle and horses. A local complained that the stench came "so near as to impregnate the air with its putridity."

All that rotting flesh attracted billions of flies, fleas "were as thick as the sands of the sea" and Buffalo Bayou was the mosquito's perfect breeding habitat. Just outside of town — which was then bounded by Buffalo Bayou, Texas Avenue, Crawford Street and Louisiana Street — wolves and panthers howled and caterwauled through the long nights. The miserable shanties almost every Houstonian called home were plagued by rats "almost as large as prairie dogs." People feared sleep because these gargantuan rodents were known to gnaw off toes, fingers and noses.

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8 comments
carlalex75
carlalex75

Houston was the murder capital in the early 80s. Clocking about 3 times the murders than now days. I think it was 82 or 84 that it had the record number of homicides in the country. Would like to find an article on that. And Jeffery Statton wasn't List murderer, he was in the other end of the house when it happened

innerlooper
innerlooper

Never knew that much about the horror on Toddville Road until this juicy cover story.  Interesting that List's killer, Statton, befriended Elmer Wayne Henley in prison.  The two have an awful lot in common.

Geezy
Geezy

Damn Houston You Scary!!!!

artichokev
artichokev

perfect seasonal article

I came to Houston from NYC in 1988 & was greeted with a news item about a mummy wrapped body found in a a Montrose attic

this poor soul had been the entertainment at a debauched party and was covered in duct tape, save for a few strategic holes

unfortunately the host had a seizure & in the ensuing excitement the bound lad was forgotten by the party-goers

the host was taken to a hospital for a protracted admission as he was found to have a brain tumor

only months later when neighbors noted a foul odor, was the decomposed youth discovered

I learned that NYC had nothing on my new town when it came to edge & that if ever mummified, always have a designated buddy (or two) to bail you out of unforeseen circumstances

DuckDuckGoose
DuckDuckGoose

"Houston and New Orleans stand alone as the creepiest cities on the Gulf Coast."   Galveston might have something to say about that.

 

Great series of stories. Continue, please sir.

roadsscholar
roadsscholar

@innerlooper 

Read the story again, innerlooper.  Jeffrey Statton didn't kill List.  Elbert "Smiley" Homan did.

jnovalomax
jnovalomax

 @DuckDuckGoose Pre-Fertitta Galveston was creepy. Now it's like freakin' Orlando. Well, that's an exaggeration, but it's a lot less scary than it was.

 
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