The Man Who Beat “Ma” Ferguson

Last week’s blog post covered the political career of Ma Ferguson, the Housewife Governor of Texas. This week we are going to talk

Gov. Dan Moody

Gov. Dan Moody

about the man who beat her in the bid for a second term. Ma Ferguson was Texas’ first female governor. Daniel James Moody, Jr. set a record number of firsts: the youngest, at age twenty-seven, elected as Williamson County Attorney; the youngest district attorney at twenty-nine; the youngest attorney general of Texas at thirty-two; and the youngest governor of Texas at thirty-four.

Dan Moody was a tall, redheaded young man in a hurry. He entered the University of Texas at seventeen and began taking law courses two years later. He started practicing law before he finished school, and then served in the National Guard and the U.S. Army during WWI. The year he returned to his home in Taylor after WWI, his political career got underway. The circumstances that propelled him into state and national attention occurred while he served as district attorney of Williamson and Travis counties at the peak in 1923 of the Ku Klux Klan’s resurgence.

The national KKK preached white supremacy and hatred of blacks, Jews, Catholics, immigrants, gamblers, and people who broke the law. In Williamson County the Klan targeted a young salesman, R. W. Burleson, who stayed on business trips at the home of a young widow. A Baptist preacher and anti-Catholic lecturer sent a note that bore the seal of the Georgetown KKK No. 178 to Burleson in which the preacher warned Burleson to end his relationship with the young widow. Burleson burned the note and threatened to kill any Klan member who bothered him. On Easter Sunday in 1823, Burleson, the widow and another couple were stopped on a country road by two cars bearing eight or ten men wearing robes and hoods. The men dragged Burleson from his car, hit him with a pistol, threw him in one of the cars, and took off with his feet still hanging out the door. They placed a heavy trace chain around his neck and tied it to a tree. Holding a pistol to his head as warning not to cry out, the KKK members removed his clothing, and used a four-foot long, three-inch wide leather strap to lash Burleson’s naked back with about fifty licks. Throughout the beating Burleson was questioned and threatened. Finally, he was loaded into a pickup, driven to the lawn of the Taylor City Hall and fastened by the chain to a tree. They poured tar or creosote over his head and body and left him there in the darkness of early evening.

Burleson freed himself, and with the chain still around his neck, he walked toward the light at a nearby boarding house. The law officers who were called testified that Burleson had cuts and bruises all over his body, that his back was raw. He had creosote or tar on his hair, ears, face, shoulders, and body. A machinist cut the chain from Burleson’s neck and the doctor used oil to remove the tar. The constable testified that blood soaked through the mattress on which Burleson was placed—the worst beating the constable had ever seen—“as raw as a piece of beef from the small of his back to the knees; and in many places the skin had been split and the flash was gaping open.”

Five men were arrested, the local Klan collected funds to retain the best legal team, including a state senator and his brother. Enormous crowds and media from all over the United States came to hear the trial of each defendant. By the time the last man was sentenced to prison, District Attorney Don Moody—the first prosecuting attorney in the United States to win a legal battle against the Ku Klux Klan—had launched his political career.

Despite the Klan’s opposition, Dan Moody was elected Attorney General in 1925 at the same time Miriam “Ma” Ferguson won her first election as governor. Within a few months scandals began developing over highway contracts.  Moody took the case to court and proved that $32 million in contracts—three times their actual value—had been awarded to Ferguson friends. He sealed his political future by traveling to Kansas City and Dallas to retrieve about $1 million of the state’s cash and securities that had been paid for the contracts.

Gov. Daniel Moody and his wife, Mildred Paxton Moody

Gov. Daniel Moody and his wife, Mildred Paxton Moody

Armed with claims of Ferguson fraud, Dan Moody challenged the sitting governor in one of Texas’ nastiest political campaigns. Moody had married Mildred Paxton, a newspaperwoman, just as the campaign got underway, and the press labeled it the “Honeymoon Campaign.” While Dan Moody focused his charges against the Ferguson’s corruption, Jim Ferguson made speeches for his wife’s reelection in which he called Mildred a “lipstick” that would chase Moody around the governor’s Mansion with a rolling pin. On a platform  supporting prohibition, woman suffrage, and other positions that the Fergusons opposed, Daniel Moody handily beat Miriam Ferguson.

In addition to becoming Texas’ youngest governor, Moody’s inauguration was the first to be held outdoors; it was the first to be broadcast on the radio and received national coverage because of Moody’s fame; and it was the first Texas election that denied a sitting governor a second term. As a reform governor, Moody served two terms—ending the Ferguson’s convict-pardon policies, reorganizing the state highway department, including a program for a connected network of roads and cutting the cost of highway construction by almost half. He also created an office to audit state accounts.

At the end of Moody’s second term, he returned to a private law practice, and after coming in third in the 1942 primary for the U.S. senate, his only political defeat, he never again ran for public office. He became known as an opposition leader to the New Deal and to the renomination for a fourth term of President Franklin Roosevelt. He supported Lyndon Johnson’s rival in his election to the U.S. Senate in 1948. As a Democrat, Moody supported Republicans Dwight D. Eisenhower for both his presidential victories and Richard M. Nixon for president in 1960. Dan Moody represented the conservative faction in the Democratic Party that eventually led, with the Nixon campaign, to the wholesale movement in Texas of Democrats to the Republican Party.


4 thoughts on “The Man Who Beat “Ma” Ferguson

  1. Myra,     I have been enjoying your blogs and learning a lot.  Thanks.     By the way, I highly recommend an article in the most recent “Smithsonian” by Paul Theroux titled “Soul of the South.”  It is a sort of memoir of his visits with people as he traveled through the South.  Most of it reflecting on the Civil Rights struggles and the changes since 1964.  Reminds me a little of Steinbeck’s  “Travels With Charley.”  It is interesting content, extremely well written.                    Jim


  2. Myra,
    “…a tall, redheaded young man in a hurry” is the perfect choice for an ambitious politician, is the essence of ‘politician’..and a lawyer to boot; so many politicians are/were lawyers..politician and lawyer, politician cum lawyer..are they inseparable?
    Another fine offering from a lady who knows her stuff. This is great!


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