The Famous Defense by Oklahoma Territory’s Silver-Tongued Attorney Temple Houston

Oklahoma and Indian Territories were among the last frontiers of the wild and woolly American West. Hordes of legal fugitives and an assortment of unsavory characters flocked to the region when it was thrown open for settlement during a series of land runs. Col. D.F. MacMartin describes it best in his book “Thirty Years in Hell: Or, the Confessions of a Drug Fiend”:

“History has never recorded an opening of government land whereon there was assembled such a rash and motley colony of gamblers, cut-throats, refugees, demimondaines, bootleggers and high hat and low pressure crooks.”

With this population came an unprecedented wave of crime, which afforded criminal lawyers like Temple Houston ample opportunities for a steady clientele.

Houston was the youngest son of Sam Houston—the famous general, senator, and first president of the Republic of Texas. The young man distinguished himself as a cadet at what is now Texas A&M University, graduating at 17 as a second lieutenant. He moved on to Baylor University, where he completed a bachelor’s in philosophy in 1880, at the age of 19. He was admitted to the Texas bar soon after, two years before the required age of 21. Then, he embarked on a legal career in Brazoria County, Texas, served as district attorney, and was elected to the Texas State Senate in 1884, serving four years. He moved from his native Texas to Woodward, Oklahoma Territory, in 1893, shortly following the Cherokee Strip Land Run.

Finding His Place in the Oklahoma Sun

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Temple grew restless and possibly felt that as long as he remained in Texas, he would labor in the shadow of his famous father. In Oklahoma Territory, he could carve out his own reputation, based on his own accomplishments.

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In the courtroom, he soon did. There, Houston cut an imposing figure. Western writer Glenn Shirley describes his appearance:

“His auburn hair now swept his shoulders … his dress was a mixture of legal dignity and western informality, a white Stetson, a black frock coat [that] tended to accentuate his slender height, and shop-made boots with square toes and riding heels that made his feet look sizes smaller. He wore a black cravat and a miniature gold saber tiepin that had belonged to his father.”

He soon developed a reputation as one of the region’s most brilliant, popular, and eccentric lawyers. He defended some of the worst criminals in the territory, including murderers, stock thieves, and gunfighters. But it was Houston’s extemporaneous defense of Minnie Stacey that enshrined him forever as one of the great orators in American jurisprudence.

One of the finest examples of American oration, the “Soiled Dove Plea,” delivered by attorney Temple Houston, left few dry eyes in the Oklahoma courtroom. (Biba Kayewich for American Essence)

Minnie’s Plight

Like most frontier towns, Woodward had its share of bordellos. To “clean up the town” in 1889, the civic-minded citizens of Woodard saw that charges were brought against Minnie Stacey for prostitution and operating a brothel; the good citizens further sought to confiscate her property and drive her out of town penniless. Minnie couldn’t afford a lawyer, and she prepared for the worst. On the morning of May 26, 1899, Houston knew that Minnie’s case was to be heard that day. After knocking back a couple of shots of whiskey in a Woodward saloon, Houston informed his drinking companion of poor Minnie’s plight. He concluded, “She doesn’t have any money to hire a lawyer, but I am going to defend her, and I’m going to raise the roof!”

When the judge called Minnie’s case, he learned that she had no lawyer and informed her that he would appoint one for her. Temple rose from his seat and announced, “Please your Honor, and I’ll defend the lady if she will allow me.” Minnie accepted Houston’s offer without hesitation. Houston bowed dramatically. The judge allowed a 10-minute recess for Houston to confer with his client and prepare his case. After a few minutes, he declared himself ready. The prosecution quickly outlined the case against Minnie. Houston offered no defense, which seemed out of character for him. The prosecution then moved for a conviction; to everyone there, it looked like an open and shut case.

But then Temple rose for his closing argument.

Sermon on the Bench

Houston briefly reviewed the legal aspects of the case and the evidence presented. Then, as a reporter for the Kansas City Star, who happened to be in the courtroom, and a court stenographer transcribed his words, Houston delivered a masterpiece:

“Gentlemen of the jury: You heard with what cold cruelty the prosecution referred to the sins of this woman, as if her condition were of her own preference. The evidence has painted you a picture of her life and surroundings. Do you think that they were embraced of her own choosing? Do you think that she willingly embraced a life so revolting and horrible? Ah, no! Gentlemen, one of our own sex was the author of her ruin, more to blame than she.”

Houston surveyed the jurors, seeing that he had their full attention before he continued.

“Then let us judge her gently. What could be more pathetic than the spectacle she presents? An immortal soul in ruin! Where the star of purity once glittered on her girlish brow, burning shame has set its seal and forever. And only a moment ago, they reproached her for the depths to which she had sunk, the company she kept, the life she led. 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.” She has indeed labored, and is heavily laden, but if, at this instant she were to kneel down before us and confess to her Redeemer and beseech His tender mercies, where is the church that would receive her? And even if they accepted her, when she passed the portals to worship and to claim her rest, scorn and mockery would greet her; those she met would gather around them their spirits the more closely to avoid the pollution of her touch. And would you tell me a single employment where she can realize “Give us our daily bread?”

“Our sex ruined her once pure life. Her own sex shrinks from her as they would the pestilence. Society has reared its relentless walls against her, and only in the friendly shelter of the grave can her betrayed and broke heart ever find the Redeemer’s promised rest.”

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Temple, son of the famous Sam Houston, was one of the most eccentric lawyers in Oklahoma Territory. (Public domain)

Some of the jurors were shifting uncomfortably in their chairs, hoping that Houston was about finished.  But he was just warming up.

“They told you of her assumed names, as fleeting as the shadows on the walls, of her sins, her habits, but they never told you of her sorrows, and who shall tell what her heart, sinful though it may be, now feels? When the remembered voices of mother and sisters, whom she must see no more on this earth, fall again like music on her erring soul, and she prays to God that she could only return, and must not—no—not in this life, for the seducer has destroyed the soul.

“You know the story of the prodigal son, but he was a son. He was one of us, like her destroyers; but for the prodigal daughter there is no return. Were she with her wasted form and bleeding feet to drag herself back home, she, the fallen and the lost, which would be her welcome? Oh, consider this when you come to decide her guilt, for she is before us and we must judge her. They sneer and scoff at her. One should respect her grief, and I tell you that there reigns over her penitent and chastened spirit a desolation now that none, no, none but the Searcher of all hearts can ever know.

“None of us are utterly evil, and I remember that when the Saffron Scourge [yellow fever] swept over the city of Memphis in 1878, a courtesan there opened wide the doors of her gilded palace of sin to admit the sufferers, and when the scythe of the Reaper swung fast and pitiless, she was angelic in her ministering. Death called her in the midst of her mercies, and she went to join those she tried to save. She, like the Lord forgave, was a sinner, and yet I believe that in the day of reckoning her judgement will be lighter than those who would prosecute and seek to drive off the earth such poor unfortunates as her whom you are to judge.”

Houston slowly walked over to where Minnie sat, her head down, tears streaming down her face. He paused for a moment and continued:

“They wish to fine this woman and make her leave. They wish to wring from the wages of her shame the price of this mediated injustice; to take from her the little money she might have—and God knows, gentlemen, it came hard enough. The old Jewish law told you that the price of a dog, not the bite of such as she, should not come within the house of the Lord, and I say unto you that our justice, fitly symbolized by this woman’s form, does not ask that you add ought to the woes of this unhappy one, one only asks at your hands the pitiful privilege of being left alone.”

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Street scene of Woodward, Okla., 1910. (Public domain)

Handkerchiefs appeared throughout the courtroom as the sniffling sounds gradually increased. Houston sensed that the moment was right to conclude his summation.

“The Master, while on earth, while He spake in wrath and rebuke to the kings and rulers, never reproached one of these. One He forgave. Another he acquitted. You remember both—and now looking upon this friendless outcast, if any of you can say to her, “I am holier than thou” in the respect which she is charged with sinning, who is he?

“The Jews who brought the woman before the Savior have been held up to execration of the world for two thousand years. I always respected them. A man who will yield to the reproaches of the conscience as they did has the element of good in him, but the modern hypocrite has no such compunctions. If the prosecutors of the woman whom you are trying had brought her before the Savior, they would have accepted His challenge and each one gathered a rock and stoned her, in the twinkling of an eye.

“No, Gentlemen, do as your Master did twice under the same circumstances that surround you. Tell her to go in peace.”

When Houston took his seat, there were few dry eyes in the courtroom. Tears ran unashamedly down the cheeks of old Judge John H. Burford. Everyone in the courtroom was spellbound, aware that they had just witnessed an inspired delivery by Temple Houston that was nothing short of miraculous. Needless to say, the jury acquitted Minnie Stacey in a matter of minutes.

A friend of Houston’s, Logan Coffee, later stated that Houston’s speech had such a profound impact on Minnie that she moved to Canadian, Texas, joined the Methodist Church, took in washing for a living, and remained a Christian for the rest of her life.

The public response to Houston’s extemporaneous plea was overwhelming. Thanks to the Kansas City Star reporter who took down every word, thousands of copies were printed and distributed. Ultimately, a framed copy found its way to the Library of Congress, where it was displayed with the simple explanation, “One of the finest examples of American oratory ever uttered.”

Houston continued to practice law until he died suddenly from a cerebral hemorrhage in 1905. He was at the peak of his career and only 45 years old. One of the most colorful lawyers of the Old West had passed from the scene, but he lives on through his masterful oration defending Minnie Stacey.

This article was originally published in American Essence magazine. 

J.D. Haines

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