Houston 101: The Election Of 1838: Doom For Houston As Capital Of Texas, Death For Two Candidates

The Texas Presidential Election of 1838 was likely unique in the history of democracy, if for no other reason than its body count.

At the time, there were two political parties in Texas -- Houstonites, and anti-Houstonites. The former favored annexation to the United States, relatively gentle treatment of the Indians, and keeping the capital in Houston. (The party's namesake was term-limited.)

The anti-Houstonites favored Texas independence and expansion to the Pacific, total eradication or expulsion of the Indians, and the removal of the capital farther west.

Houston's rival Mirabeau Buonaparte Lamar emerged as the flag-bearer for the anti-Houstonites; planter, poet and Texas attorney general Peter Grayson and lawyer, jurist and signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence James Collinsworth, both protégés of the Big Drunk, were the leading Houstonite candidates.

The campaign quickly turned vicious.

Grayson was a reluctant candidate and immediately regretted having decided to run and thus subjecting himself to the mud-slinging, calumny and vilification of the stump. He also suffered from bouts of depression and was despondent over a rebuffed marriage proposal.

En route to Texas from an official trip to Washington, Grayson checked into rented lodgings in Bean's Station, Tennessee, where another guest heard him muttering something about "fiends" having taken possession of his mind. (For some reason we keep thinking of him mumbling "I sit alone in my four-cournered room, starin' at candles...") The next morning -- July 8 -- the fatal thoughts of suicide got the better of him and he shot himself in his room.

That left Lamar and Collinsworth in the race. But at the very same time Grayson was in his terminal sulk in Tennessee, Collinsworth was coping with the calumny of the campaign by embarking on a Hunter S. Thompson-style spree in Galveston, a week of debauchery that culminated on July 11 with the candidate either falling or jumping from a ship in Galveston Bay. Many, but not all, believe his drowning was a suicide.

Collinsworth's body was fished out of the bay and delivered to Houston, where his remains were, as his headstone notes, given the first Masonic funeral in Texas. He's buried in the Founders Cemetery on West Dallas in the Fourth Ward.

Collinsworth was also a pioneer in Texan Spring Break-style demise, and probably the most prominent yacht-related political career-ender until Gary Hart's Monkey Business shenanigans in 1987.

With his two principal rivals dead, Lamar won the election in a walk. The City of Houston's days as a world capital were numbered, but the Big Drunk didn't abandon his namesake city without sticking one last thumb in Lamar's eye. Donning a powdered wig and other George Washington-esque regalia, ex-President Sam Houston orated a three-hour farewell address at Lamar's inaugural. Lamar was reduced to such a quivering rage, he was unable to deliver his own speech -- an aide read it for him and told the crowd that Lamar was "indisposed."

By January of the next year, Austin was selected as the site of the new capital of the Republic of Texas, its former Houston site eventually to become today's Rice Lofts.

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John Nova Lomax
Contact: John Nova Lomax