The Man Who Beat “Ma” (Miriam) Ferguson

Dan Moody

Daniel James Moody, Jr. set records for being the youngest, at age twenty-seven, elected as Williamson County Attorney; the youngest district attorney elected at twenty-nine; the youngest attorney general of Texas at thirty-two; and the youngest governor of Texas at thirty-four. He won the governorship by beating “Ma” (Miriam A.) Ferguson, Texas’ first female chief executive. Ma had won election after her husband Governor James Ferguson had been impeached and removed from office for corruption.

Dan Moody was a tall, redheaded young man in a hurry. He entered the University of Texas at age seventeen and began taking law courses two years later. He passed the state bar without graduating law school and served in the National Guard and the U.S. Army during WWI. When he returned to his home in Taylor after the war, 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, whose route through the area included staying at the home of a young widow. A Baptist preacher and anti-Catholic lecturer sent a note to Burleson that bore the seal of the Georgetown KKK No. 178. The note warned Burleson to end his relationship with the young woman. Burleson burned the note and threatened to kill any Klan member who bothered him.

On Easter Sunday in 1923, 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 their cars, and took off with his feet still hanging out the door. They placed a heavy trace chain around his neck and tied him 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 a light in 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 in 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 often lurid testimony in the trials 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 one million of the state’s cash and securities that had been paid for the contracts. Armed with claims of Ferguson fraud, the following campaign for governor was one of Texas’ nastiest.

As the campaign got underway, Moody married Mildred Paxton, a newspaperwoman, 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 re-election in which he

Dan Moody and his wife, Mildred Paxton Moody

called Mildred a “lipstick” that would chase Moody around the governor’s Mansion with a rolling pin.

When Moody became Texas’ youngest governor, the 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. He ended the Ferguson’s convict-pardon policies, reorganized the state highway department, including a program for a connected network of roads, and cut 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. He came in third in the 1942 race for the U.S. senate, his only political defeat, and 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 Dwight D. Eisenhower for both his presidential victories and Richard M. Nixon for president in 1960. Dan Moody represented the conservative faction in the party that eventually led with the Nixon campaign to the wholesale movement in Texas of Democrats to the Republican Party.

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