When the Allen brothers sold Houston’s first lots, the city became a magnet for enterprising tycoons and opportunistic crooks alike. As the young city grew, a scourge of crime and vice accompanied the success of oil and real estate. The Bayou City’s seedy side—flashing Bowie knives, privileged bad boys, hardened prostitutes and unchecked serial killers—established its hold. From a young Clyde Barrow to the Man Who Killed Halloween, Houston’s past is filled with bloody tales, heartbreaking loss and despicable deeds. Authors Mike Vance and John Nova Lomax shine a light on these dark days.
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For the not-yet-two-year-old town of Houston, March 28, 1838, was a banner day — fine weather and the biggest spectacle the capital of Texas had yet seen. On that date, in what was Houston's first widely publicized execution, two convicted murderers were slated to hang simultaneously from a gallows erected near what is now the corner of Main Street and Webster Avenue. A crowd of two to three thousand men, women and children flocked to the hanging tree, where they watched and jeered as David James Jones and John Christopher Columbus Quick were wheeled in a cart under the beam, 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' third 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. 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.
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. Historian Stephen Hardin writes that 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 among 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 hundreds, their bodies sometimes 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 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.
Catering to the desires of the rowdy loafers, Houston soon bloomed so many gambling houses, grog shops and bordellos that in 1838, one respectable resident declared that Houston was "the greatest sink of disipation [sic] and vice that modern times have known ... What a den of villains must there be here?"
Davy Jones was one such villain, albeit one with a more impressive war record than most of his fellows. One of just twenty-eight survivors of the Goliad massacre, Jones made it back to Texan lines in time to fight alongside Sam Houston at San Jacinto.
That patriotic pedigree came to naught, however, when, as the result of a tragic misunderstanding over a horse, Jones stuck his Bowie knife in the guts of a gentleman named Mandred Wood, whose brother Fernando was a future mayor of New York City and whose other brother, Benjamin, later rose to become editor of the New York Daily News and a New York state representative.
City fathers knew that this murder was bad for business. If ever Houston was going to rise from the wicked muck, the likes of Davy Jones could not go around stabbing gentlemen like Mandred Wood. "I was flabbergasted that Houston was as brazen and depraved as it was," Hardin says. "But at the same time, you had an upper crust who had a vision for the place that went beyond what they could see out their window every day."
Thus Jones, veteran or not, would have to hang. One-armed Dr. Francis Moore would see to it personally, and as both outspoken mayor and blue-nosed editor of the newspaper, he was uniquely positioned to effect just such a result. Try to imagine it in today's Houston: the mayor editorializes in favor of hanging a notorious criminal in her own newspaper and then presides over the execution.
After they were cut down and buried in shallow graves that were practically under the spot where they had swung, Quick and Jones would not slumber long in peace. According to the diary of attorney John Hunter Herndon, later that day five of the town's leading citizens exhumed the corpses, sawed off the heads and retired to Herndon's lodgings to study the shapes of the two skulls for signs of bad character. A day later, the men popped open the skullcaps to sift through the brains, and Herndon decided to keep Jones' noggin, which showed bumps indicating great moral deficiency, as a souvenir.
This was the pseudoscience of phrenology in action, and Hardin believes such practices were more common than we might think. "Most people did not record those shenanigans in their diary," he says. "We're just so lucky that he kept that diary and that it survived." Another of Herndon's skull-related entries is even more ghoulish: While on a tear in Galveston, Herndon's friend Dr. Robert Watson guzzled whiskey from a skull "that yet had brains in it."
While that was a little beyond the pale, Herndon apparently saw nothing amiss with keeping two rotting heads in his room for days. He recorded that after pickling Jones' brain, he sat down and cranked out an article for the Telegraph, called on one young lady and wrote a love poem to another.
The next day, Herndon visited two associates, curled up with a good book in the late morning and then went for a ride in the country before flirting with more young ladies. After that, it was off "over the prairie beautifully clad with grass and wild flowers" to a Mrs. Smith's, "where we had an excellent supper and fine society." Herndon was back in town by 8:00 p.m., he recorded. "Had several calls," he wrote, before closing out his affairs of the day: "Buried the remains of Quick's and Jones' heads."
The crania were no doubt quite "ripe" by then — a full three days after the hanging. Hardin also believes that Herndon did not reunite the heads with the rest of the bodies.
"Most likely," he wrote, "he traipsed out behind Floyd's Hotel, dug a hole and plunked them in. In morose moments, one wonders if the skulls are still there, forlorn, forgotten, shrouded under the blacktop of a frenzied, modern city."
Early Houston was not the easiest place to live, even for the successful. 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.
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 who were 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' 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 because Grayson soon became Texas attorney general and minister plenipotentiary to the United States. After that, he became Houston's handpicked 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. The Lamar presidential juggernaut helped push him over the edge — they found out that 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 fifty 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. 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 James Collinsworth as Lamar's sole remaining prominent electoral foe, but even as Grayson breathed his last, Collinsworth was five days into a weeklong Fourth of July whiskey bender in Galveston that would end his young life.
Collinsworth and Houston were both lawyers and fellow Tennesseans, and Collinsworth had nominated the Raven 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.
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 and 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 Sam Houston and James 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 baby-faced 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 1841, Childress was at the end of his rope. The thirty- seven-year-old was living in Mrs. Crittenden's boardinghouse in Galveston. President Lamar had refused his plaintive entreaty for a government job. His brother had gambled away his pitiful nest egg. He was eight hundred 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 time 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 10 Street; a cenotaph in Galveston's Episcopal Cemetery was erected 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 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 having reached adulthood.
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 after 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 United States Senate, and members honored Rusk by wearing black crepe for the next thirty days.
The final member of this quintet of talented, terminally depressive men is Dr. Anson Jones, a man who had noted the deaths of the others in his own diary.
Born into 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 himself "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 hotheaded 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 and 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' 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.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Murder & Mayhem in Houston"
Copyright © 2014 Mike Vance and John Nova Lomax.
Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1. Rowdy Beginnings,
2. Civil War and Reconstruction,
3. Sweet Revenge,
4. Heights House of Horrors,
5. The Roaring Twenties Fade,
6. Bonnie and Clyde in Houston-or Not,
7. The Beatnik Killers Gun-Torch Murders,
8. Beaver Cleaver's America,
9. Stacy and Bunni,
10. Two Candy Men,
11. The Todville Murder Mansion,
12. The Wig Shop Murder,
About the Authors,