Early Victorian Houston and Texas: Suicide City for the Elite
Houston Babylon, the feature coming out this week, dissects a few of the creepiest and most chilling events in Houston history. In coming up with four of those tales, we stumbled over many more -- too many to fit the print edition.
All this week we'll bring you some extra, online-only stories. Check out Part 1 about Avenging Angels: A Failed Revenge. Without further ado, here is the second...
Between 1838 and 1858, no fewer than five of the most prominent politicians in Texas committed suicide. Three of the men shot themselves, another leaped (or possibly fell) off a steamboat in Galveston Bay, and one gutted himself with a Bowie knife. All called Houston home, at least for a time.
Speaking to the Houston Chronicle in 1986, an amateur local historian, the late Jim Glass, stated his belief that they were motivated by the European Romantic movement, which stressed honor and grand, drastic gestures. You be the judge.
This melancholy tale begins with the Republic of Texas presidential election of 1838. Sam Houston was term-limited out after his two-year term, so the race pitted his arch-nemesis Mirabeau Lamar against two candidates more to the Big Drunk's liking.
First, there was Peter Grayson. A Virginia-bred lawyer, Grayson was up for consideration by Houston as Texas's consul to the United Kingdom, but when another man got the post, Grayson went on a tear in downtown Houston, where he was spotted roaming "the streets half of one night, drunk, and hatless, coatless, bootless, daring anyone to fight with him."
Evidently behavior like that was not considered political suicide at the time (nor would it be in the time of Bob Bullock, we guess), because Grayson soon became Texas attorney general and minister plenipotentiary to the United States. After that he became Houston's hand-picked choice as his would-be successor.
Grayson was a reluctant candidate and regretted his choice to accept the nod almost immediately. He was already blue over a failed marriage proposal and had been dogged by paralyzing fits of depression and madness all his life. (Perhaps he would be diagnosed as bipolar today.) The Lamar presidential juggernaut helped push him over the edge -- they found he had a ne'er-do-well cousin of the same name who had abandoned his family in Kentucky and had pinned that Peter Grayson's sins on him, at least until the Texas Peter Grayson, then 50 years old, could get back home and clear his name.
On July 9, 1838, while returning from an official trip to Washington, Grayson checked into an inn in the Smoky Mountain hamlet of Bean's Station, Tennessee. Witnesses heard him muttering about "fiends" having taken control of his mind before he entered his room, and then they heard a single shot from his pistol, and Grayson's worries were over.
Even with all his troubles, Grayson's suicide shocked Anson Jones, the last Texas president and an eventual suicide himself. "I shall be surprised at no ones (sic) committing suicide after hearing of Col. Grayson doing so," he wrote. "It has shocked me more than the Death of a Dozen others."
That left Collinsworth as Lamar's sole remaining prominent electoral foe, but even as Grayson breathed his last, Collinsworth was five days into a week-long Fourth of July Galveston whiskey bender that would end his young life.
Collinsworth and Houston were both lawyers and fellow Tennesseans, and Collinsworth nominated the Big Drunk as leader of the Texan army back in the Revolution days. Houston repaid him by tapping him first as one of his aides-de-camp at the Battle of San Jacinto and later as the Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court. Collinsworth reportedly had a quick temper and once narrowly averted a duel with Anson Jones. (More on that later.)
Like Houston, Collinsworth was overly fond of sour mash whiskey, but that was no obstacle to his running for president of the wild-and-woolly Texas of 1838.
Collinsworth headed down to Galveston to campaign and party, and it appears the holiday got the best of him. The Fourth was one of the days on which it was culturally acceptable for men of his stature to be drunk in public -- indeed it was almost expected. However Collinsworth could not cork the jug on the fifth. Or the next day. Or on the seventh, eighth, ninth or tenth either. And on the eleventh, while aboard a steamboat in Galveston Bay, Collinsworth jumped (or fell) into the waves and drowned.
Jones was not surprised by Collinsworth's manner of demise. He would later say he "expected it (of Collinsworth) as I knew him to be deranged & when excited by liquor almost mad."
With his two main rivals dead of suicides within two days of each other, Lamar won the election in a walk and moved the capital of Texas from Houston to Austin.
Like both Houston and Collinsworth, George Campbell Childress was a Nashville lawyer, and like Houston, was tied in with President Andrew Jackson's Scots-Irish McMafia. (Unlike Houston and Collinsworth, the babyfaced Childress was not a drinker.)
Childress was also a newspaper editor, and using his journalistic and legal skills, it was he who drafted the Texas Declaration of Independence in 1836. After the revolution, the widowed Childress returned to Nashville, practiced law and remarried, in hopes of one day bringing his new bride to Texas with him. Childress spent the next several years hanging out his shingle in Houston, Galveston and Nashville, and failing every time.
In October of 1841, Childress was at the end of his rope. The 37-year-old was living in Mrs. Crittenden's boarding house in Galveston. President Lamar had refused his plaintive entreaty for a government job. His brother had gambled away his pitiful nest egg. He was 800 miles from his wife and children. He sat down with pen and paper and wrote letters back home settling his affairs, walked across the hall to Mrs. Crittenden's room, and pounded on the door. He begged his landlady to save him from himself, then unsheathed his Bowie knife and stabbed himself in the guts six times, spattering the poor Mrs. Crittenden with blood.
Childress died three hours later, most of which he spent futilely begging for a clergyman to come baptize him. The author of the Texas Declaration of Independence was buried in an unmarked grave. (It's believed to be under the playground of Rosenberg School at 721 Tenth Street; a cenotaph in Galveston's Episcopal Cemetery was built in 1935 and does not mark his resting place.)
By 1857, South Carolina native and longtime Nacogdoches planter Thomas Jefferson Rusk had held just about every high office in Texas, from secretary of war back in the Republic days, to chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court, to United States senator and president pro tem of the Senate. (Regarded by some party bigwigs as presidential timber in both Texas and the United States, Rusk always shied away from running.)
He would have seemed to have had it all, and yet he had nothing, for in the spring of 1856, his beloved wife Polly died of tuberculosis, leaving him with the care of five of their seven children. (Two others were adults.) Rusk was less chauvinistic than many of the men of his time, and went out of his way to praise women.
"The men of Texas deserved much credit, but more was due the women," he once said. "Armed men facing a foe could not but be brave; but the women, with their little children around them, without means of defense or power to resist, faced danger and death with unflinching courage."
Already despondent over Polly's death, wracked by guilt for choosing his career over his children, and facing his own grim medical prognosis (a tumor had been found at the base of his neck), Rusk told his family he was going squirrel hunting one day and walked out the door with a musket. He apparently rigged the trigger with a string and managed to shoot himself in the head. Sam Houston broke the news to the U.S. Senate, and they honored Rusk by wearing black crepe for the next 30 days.
Which brings us to Dr. Anson Jones, the final member of this quintet of talented, terminally depressive men.
Born in poverty in Great Barrington, Massachusetts in 1798, Jones trained as a physician in New York state and failed to establish a medical practice in Philadelphia, where he was jailed briefly for debt.
Dr. Jones headed for the sunny south, all the way to Venezuela, where he evidently made some money. In 1832, he resurfaced stateside in New Orleans. There he abandoned medicine and became a businessman. He also contracted yellow fever, gambled recklessly, and, in his own words, "found myself learning to imitate the fashionable practice of taking a `julep' much oftener than was at all necessary." He swiftly went broke. Again.
The following year found him practicing medicine again, this time in Brazoria, Mexican Texas. Here his medical practice finally thrived.
During the war, Jones served the Texas army as a judge-advocate and surgeon, though he humble-braggingly insisted on holding a lowly private's rank. After the war, Jones returned to Brazoria, where he found a squatter practicing law from his clinic: none other than the soon-to-be-drowned James Collinsworth. Jones evicted the hot-headed Tennessean from his office, and friends headed off the duel that was looming between the two men.
Jones then entered politics, and served as the republic's secretary of state, and eventually became the last president of the Republic of Texas. In Austin on February 19, 1846, Jones struck the Lone Star flag from atop the flagpole on the capitol grounds for the last time and handed it to a weeping Sam Houston.
Jones hoped to become a senator, but was passed over time and time again, and the perceived slight festered in his soul as the years rolled on. (Houston, whom Jones had come to despise, and Rusk were the first to beat him out.) He took to moping, once reportedly writing to a friend that he would never be elected, that an uncaring public had forgotten all the good he had done for it, that he had been forgotten, "just as they forgot Grayson."
Even as his wife and children adored him and Barrington, his Brazoria County plantation, thrived, Jones's funk continued. And yet hope was born anew. In 1857 he saw one last chance. Both senate seats were coming open. Houston was running for governor and Rusk had just shot himself.
Jones traveled to Austin and expected a coronation from a grateful legislature, but instead he received exactly zero votes from that august body.
A devastated Dr. Jones rashly sold his plantation at a quarter of its value and decided to settle for opening a medical practice in Galveston.
While making those arrangements, he chose to come to Houston for a few days. Here, he wallowed in misery and regret in the Old Capitol Hotel, the same building in which he had served as a congressman as a young man. Back then, all things seemed possible and the future limitless, but now he was weeks away from his 60th birthday and doomed to spend out his days as a humble doctor.
On the night of January 8, Jones and a friend sat up late in his room."My public career began in this house, and I have been thinking it might close here," Jones reportedly told his friend. The friend left at two a.m. on January 9. An hour later Dr. Jones made good on his promise by taking out his pistol and shooting himself in the head.
Even his epitaph was bitter.
The echo of his words lingers in the Councils of his Country, alone unheard by ears deaf to the claims of merit, dull to the voice of Honor and dead to the calls of Justice; To them the sand To Thee the Marble!
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