Texas Myth #665
SAM HOUSTON’S GHOST HAUNTS THE GOVERNOR’S MANSION.
Sam has reason to lurk posthumously around the Austin White House: He was governor in 1861 and was kicked out of office for refusing to swear allegiance to the Confederacy. But the mansion’s moaning ghost is said to be that of a nephew of Governor Pendleton Murrah’s; in 1864 the lovesick nineteen-year-old fatally shot himself in a guest room. Austin was scandalized; even 141 years later, some gubernatorial staffers consider the subject, well, ta-boo.
Q: What was Dale Evans’s real name? It seems that no one knows for sure.
A: She didn’t either, for more than forty years. When the Queen of the West, a.k.a. Mrs. Roy Rogers, applied for a passport in 1954, she suffered instant identity crisis. Though she had adopted “Dale Evans” as a stage name while in her twenties, she had grown up in Uvalde as Frances Octavia Smith, born on October 31, 1912. However, the birth certificate she obtained from Uvalde County listed her as Lucille Wood Smith, born on October 30, 1912. Presumably her parents decided, when she was still an infant, that “Frances Octavia” made a better moniker and Halloween a better birthday. Regardless, Dale got her passport, and she and Roy (real name: Leonard Slye) happily traveled foreign trails.
Q: What was the first prison in Texas?
A: In early days, rooms in missions and presidios substituted for cells when necessary. But the first structure built specifically as a state prison was the looming Walls Unit, in Huntsville. Named for its twenty-foot-high expanse of windowless brick, it admitted its first prisoner, a horse thief, on October 1, 1849. (At the time, young Texas may have seemed a bit ambitious in its penal planning, as the Walls now holds 1,598 inmates. But that number is about one percent of Texas’s total prison population today.) Among the Walls’ many residents were Kiowa chiefs Big Tree and Satanta, blues singer Leadbelly, and gangster Clyde Barrow. The unit itself became a celebrity in 1974, when drug lord Fred Gomez Carrasco and two fellow inmates attempted to escape by ambushing fifteen people in the prison library, sparking an eleven-day siege that ended in the death of four people, Carrasco included. But international attention has hit the Walls chiefly because it is Texas’s death house. It has been picketed by thousands of capital punishment foes and appeared in documentaries and movies such as Kevin Spacey’s The Life of David Gale (2003). The Walls has witnessed 709 executions so far: 361 by electric chair (“Old Sparky”) and 348 by lethal injection (as of August 2005). Necktie-party note: Before 1924, when the state took over the execution of executions, each county carried out its own by means of public hanging.
Q: I always thought the town of Floydada was the Pumpkin Capital of the United States, but a relative of mine says that some town in Illinois is.
A: Gourd forbid! Two towns, in fact—Morton, Illinois, and Half Moon Bay, California—both claim the title “Pumpkin Capital of the World,” but neither can squash Floydada’s reputation for carveable crops: Its annual yield of homegrown pumpkins averages some 10 million pounds. That’s about 1 million individual jack-o’-lanterns, ranging from minis (a few ounces each) to Big Macs (one hundred pounds or more). Floydada pumps the crop for all it’s worth on Punkin Day (October 8 this year).