Q: Seeing the terrifying images of what happened in Washington, D.C., recently, I was wondering if the Texas Capitol has ever been the site of any violence?
Joel Fischbacher, Austin
A: Before he proceeds to answer your question, Mr. Fischbacher, the Texanist would be derelict in his duties to not say out loud what many Texans have been thinking: the events that unfolded in our nation’s capital on January 6 were shocking and sad. Until the Texanist witnessed on television the mayhem that ensued that day, he had been under the impression that he was a fairly imperturbable sort. He was wrong. The horrific barbarity of the insurrection left him completely perturbed.
And insult was added to the injury every time he spied a Texas flag being flown that day at our nation’s capitol. Just one would have been too many, but there were, sadly, a number of Lone Star flags visible in the horde. One of them, in fact, was attached to its makeshift flagpole upside down—though the Texanist suspects that this positioning was accidental and not an intentional distress signal, as would be typical of a flag hoisted in such a manner. The whole situation was distressing, but nobody who was watching needed a flag to tell them that.
But enough about the Texanist and his perturbations. You came here with a question, an interesting and pertinent question about violence at the Texas Capitol. And the last time the Texanist checked he was still in the business of providing answers to such queries—no matter the peril in which our republic may find itself.
It turns out that relatively few violent events have taken place within any of Texas’s capitol buildings, including the small 1839 cabin of rough Bastrop pine that served as both the Republic of Texas Capitol and the first Texas state capitol; the Old Stone Capitol that supplanted the log cabin Capitol in 1853; the current 1888 domed pink granite structure that succeeded the Old Stone Capitol after it burned down in 1881; and, less notably than all of the above, the temporary capitol that served as the seat of government in the interim.
That said, “relatively few violent events” does not mean no violent events. There were, in fact, enough of them to fill a Texas-sized Texanist column, which the Texanist has duly filed and you are duly reading. And one of those events (warning: foreshadowing ahead), though more violent-adjacent than actually violent, bears some eerily uncanny echoes of today.
Chronologically speaking, the first truly violent Capitol episode the Texanist found in his researches involved state comptroller Robert Love, who, in 1903, was murdered in cold blood by William Hill, a man whom Love had recently fired. Apparently disgruntled by his dismissal, Hill showed up at Love’s Capitol office (now office number 1N.12) and put two bullets in his chest, before being chased down by the state’s chief bookkeeper and succumbing to a gunshot wound himself.
Nearly two decades later, in 1922, a painter named Ed Wheeler accidentally fell from scaffolding inside the rotunda and plunged some 160 feet, crashing through the glass-block floor to his death in the building’s basement. A memorable story to be sure, though the Texanist feels compelled to debunk the widely believed legend that the visible crack in the state seal in the rotunda’s terrazzo floor was caused by Wheeler’s fall. The current floor wasn’t installed until 1936, fourteen years after Wheeler’s death; the crack is actually the result of the floor settling, which isn’t nearly as good a story but has the advantage of being true, which, in the Texanist’s book, still counts for something these days.
In 1977, fifty-five years after Wheeler’s demise, the rotunda was the site of yet another fatality. This time, a young man with mental health issues reportedly fell (some say jumped) to his death from the third floor.
Then, a scant six years later, in 1983, a fire that broke out in Lieutenant Governor Bill Hobby’s apartment (it’s a little-known fact that both the Speaker of the House and the lieutenant governor are provided such accommodations in the Capitol) resulted in the death of a 23-year-old horse trainer from New Caney, as well as extensive damage to the building’s east wing.
In addition to this quartet of tragedies, the Texanist also uncovered a number of minor fracases between legislators, such as the 1985 midnight dustup between Fort Worth senator Hugh Parmer and Port Arthur senator Carl Parker. With the chamber deep into a marathon filibuster over a shrimping bill, Parmer reportedly made a thinly veiled crack about Parker’s recent felony indictment on cocaine and pornography charges, which did not sit well with the Port Arthur legislator, who invited his Cowtown colleague to step outside and discuss the comment further. On the way out, Parker apparently shoved Parmer against the wall hard enough to knock his glasses off. But other senators intervened and that’s where this piddling rumpus ended; with the steam released, the two made up and decorum was quickly restored. The shrimping bill, by the way, was approved.
That same sixty-ninth legislative session, an unusually lively one, also saw a tussle between Houston senator Craig Washington and Houston representative Clint Hackney, who mixed it up over a minority contracts issue. Just one day before, there was yet another comically inconsequential contretemps: Edmund Kuempel, a Republican representative from Seguin, chased a student protester who had gotten in his face about proposed tuition increases up a tree on the Capitol grounds. The Texanist was himself a student living in Austin at the time of these events, and though he doesn’t remember having any real concerns about the proposed tuition increase, he does hazily remember that it was a pretty crazy time in general. Texas Monthly writers Paul Burka and Alison Cook summarized the session thusly: “Passions were spent not on issues but on personal hostilities; there were more fistfights and near fistfights than anyone could remember.”
More recently, in 2017, the Capitol was the site of a shoving match on the floor of the House of Representatives that pitted Eagle Pass’s Poncho Nevárez against Irving’s Matt Rinaldi. It was the last day of the legislative session and a group of largely Hispanic protesters had occupied the rotunda and House gallery to voice their opposition to a sanctuary cities bill that the House had just passed. In response, Rinaldi called U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on the group, things got out of hand, and cussing and shoving ensued. (Today, neither man serves in the House, which may partly explain the relative comity of the current, Eighty-seventh Legislature, at least of this writing, which is, admittedly, taking place a mere week after the start the biennial assembly.)
There are certainly numerous similar skirmishes that have taken place at the Texas Capitol over the years that the Texanist has overlooked, but there are only so many hours in the day. So the Texanist will move on to the one event he has left out of the above account of the Troubles at the Capitol, the one that might cause the hairs of anyone who followed the recent events in Washington to stand on end a little bit. To understand this episode, we have to go way, way back to the waning days of Reconstruction-era Texas. So please now join the Texanist as he takes a stroll down memory lane.
The era is the late nineteenth century. The place? The Old Stone Capitol. The issue at hand? A contested election.
In December of 1873, incumbent Reconstruction-era governor Edmund J. Davis, a former Union officer who supported civil rights for Blacks, lost his reelection bid when he was walloped (85,549 to 42,663) by Democrat Richard Coke, a fierce opponent of Reconstruction policies who advocated the disenfranchisement of Texans of color. Accusations of fraud and intimidation were levied by both sides; lawsuits were filed, one involving a Houston man who was accused of voting twice; the Texas Supreme Court invalidated the election based on the placement of a semicolon in the Texas Constitution (eternally earning that panel of judges the nickname “Semicolon Court”); Governor Davis refused to leave office; and a days-long armed confrontation took place right there in the halls of the Capitol, which was occupied by militias backing each man. (One of the members of one of those militias, incidentally, was none other than future comptroller and Capitol shooting victim Robert Love.)
Eventually, Davis telegrammed President Ulysses S. Grant for assistance and received the following reply: “The act of the legislature of Texas providing for the recent election having received your approval, and both political parties having made nominations and having conducted a political campaign under its provisions, would it not be prudent, as well as right, to yield to the verdict of the people as expressed by their ballots?” (Translation: Forget this “Stop the Steal” business and give it up, hoss.) Ultimately, Davis and his men give in and Governor Coke was sworn in on January 15, 1874, ushering in a century of Democratic dominance in Texas politics.
Though the parallels between the aftermath of the 1873 Texas gubernatorial election and the 2020 United States presidential election are not exact, they’re close enough—the claims of fraud, the lawsuits, the armed confrontation in the Capitol—that the Texanist gets the willies when he thinks about it.
Yet once the willies pass, the Texanist finds a glimmer of hope in this tidbit of historical Texas arcana. As dire as the situation must have seemed at the time, all these 147 years later the State of Texas still stands. If past is prologue, then perhaps Americans today can hold out some hope that our nation, too, will survive its recent tumult and may—fingers crossed—find itself still going strong another 147 years from now.
At least that’s how the Texanist is going to choose to think about it, because he really can’t take any more God dang perturbations.
Have a question for the Texanist? He’s always available here. Be sure to tell him where you’re from.
This column originally published online on January 17, 2021. It appeared in the March 2021 issue of Texas Monthly. Subscribe today.