What Gov. James S. Hogg orchestrated that long ago evening in a Southeast Texas river bottom would today be unthinkable gubernatorial conduct.
For one thing, it would be patently illegal, a flagrant misuse of state property and personnel. For another, the news media would be beyond ecstatic if word leaked out about it. Finally, the opposing political party surely would demand an immediate resignation, if not impeachment or commitment to the state hospital.
But in the 1890s, journalists and politicians didn’t worry so much about ethics and legal technicalities. A governor could get away with a lot of things simply because he was governor.
That said, historians consider Hogg one of Texas’ best governors. A populist who served from 1891-1895, he is best known for spearheading creation of the Texas Railroad Commission. He also possessed one of the best senses of humor of any occupant of the governor’s mansion before or since. He particularly liked practical jokes.
One man who could testify to that was a fellow East Texan, longtime U.S. District Judge T. Whitfield Davidson. Two years after his death at 98 in 1974, a collection of his writings was published in Marshall. In that thin book, “Stealing Stick: The Folklore of Pioneer East Texas,” Davidson offered an excellent example of Hogg’s prankish nature.
To set the stage, ever-frugal Texas lawmakers wanted the state’s prison system to be as self-supporting as possible. By the time Hogg assumed office, two prison farms had been established so convicts could raise everything from the vegetables and cattle they ate to sugar cane and cotton.
One of those farms, Davidson wrote, lay “in the rich bottom land of the Brazos and Trinity rivers.” (The judge didn’t name it, but from the description it was probably the Harlem Plantation, established in 1885 or 1886 in Fort Bend County. Today it is the Jester State Prison Farm.) Not only was that piece of state land extremely fertile, it offered ample habitat for migratory waterfowl and other game animals.
On the plantation, mules did what work the convicts didn’t. But times were changing. Northern industrial interests were developing steam-powered machines that had more horsepower than the four-legged set. Hearing of the relatively new prison farms in Texas, one manufacturer dispatched two of its crack salesmen to the Lone Star State in the hope of inducing the government to invest in some of their equipment.
Wanting to start at the top with its sale pitch, the manufacturer contacted the governor’s office. Hogg — born in Rusk County in 1851 — had grown up when mules were a farmer’s only option. Still, he was open-minded and agreed to give the Northern salesmen an audience.
Hogg decided to meet the pair at the prison farm. Presumably they intended to demonstrate their machine for the governor and prison officials.
Though eager to land a big sale for their parent company, the two out-of-staters had heard stories about wild and wooly Texas. Being on a prison farm among robbers and killers made them even more nervous. Hogg picked up on their concern and decided to have a little fun with the drummers, as traveling salesmen were then called.
The governor magnanimously invited the two visitors to join him on a duck hunt on the prison farm. Not only was the governor going to host a hunt on public property, he had the prison staff set up a camp in the woods and requisitioned a prison wagon with a trustee as driver to transport he and his guests. Hogg also had a private word with the prison warden about something else.
The wagon carrying the 300-plus pound governor and the two Northerners made it only a couple of miles from camp before six masked and heavily armed horsemen appeared and surrounded Hogg and his party. One of the men leveled a Winchester at the governor.
“Governor Hogg,” he yelled, “my brother is a convict in this prison. He is innocent, sir, and you know it, but you haven’t got the guts nor the honor nor courage to parole him. You are not worthy of being governor of this state and this is your end.”
With that, as the salesmen watched in horror, a rifle shot echoed across the swampy landscape. The governor cried out, clutched his chest, and slumped over in his seat.
Quickly levering another round into his rifle, the gunman turned his attention to the pair of terrified salesman.
“You two men jump out of this wagon right now!” he ordered.
Having just witnessed the assassination of the chief executive of Texas, the men did not hesitate. Flying from the wagon like startled mallards, they hit the ground hard. As the men got to their feet with their hands up, the wagon driver lashed the team and shot off with the wounded or dead governor. At the same time, the riders spurred their mounts and disappeared into the thick woods.
Alone in the middle of nowhere but grateful to be alive, in the fading light the two stunned salesman managed to backtrack through the swamp to camp. Staggering toward a flicking light, the men were shocked to find a perfectly healthy Hogg relaxing next to the camp fire smoking a cigar.
Davidson didn’t say whether the drummers ended up landing a state contract, but they left with a story to tell — assuming they were willing to own up to it.
Mike Cox – CLM Contributing Writer