Early Victorian Houston and Texas: Suicide City for the Elite

Categories: Cover Story

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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.

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Tarlton Law Library
James Collinsworth:Galveston Fourth of July electioneering got way, way out of hand.
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.


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2 comments
stitchedj
stitchedj

When you consider these stories, the fate of the men at the Alamo and Goliad, as well as the intermittent melancholy and self-loathing that undermined significant portions of Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston's lives, it makes you think there was a fatalistic streak that played a part in the making of many of early Texas' great men. 

 

Anson Jones, in particular, was among the most talented statesmen of Texas, and his importance is indeed often overlooked. Still, if only someone would've told him, "Lighten up, Francis ..."

 

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