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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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.

Housewife Governor

Society in 1924 expected women to stay at home, run the household, raise the children, and follow the lead of their husbands. In that

Gov. Miriam "Ma" Ferguson

Gov. Miriam “Ma” Ferguson

atmosphere Miriam A. Ferguson became the first female governor of Texas. She ran her campaign while maintaining that she was just a little homemaker, and that when she was elected, her husband would be running the show. She used a two-pronged approach that appealed to newly franchised women and to men who continued to expect wives to remain in the background. She told women’s groups that she was running for governor to do what any wife and mother would do to restore her family’s good name. “Enemies” she said had conspired against her husband, James Edward Ferguson, the first governor in Texas to be impeached, convicted, and removed from office. Before male audiences she played the retiring wife, deferring to her husband who winked and nodded at the farmers and small business people who were reveling in the idea of turning the tables on the politicians that had declared Jim Ferguson ineligible to ever serve as governor. When a man asked Jim what he thought of women’s suffrage, Miriam kept a straight face when her husband delighted the male audience by saying, “If those women want to suffer, I say let them suffer!”

Miriam played down her background as the daughter of a wealthy Bell County family; a well-educated woman who had attended Baylor Female College before she married Jim Ferguson. A cultured and reserved woman, she felt the campaign slogan: “Me for Ma and I Ain’t Got a Durned Thing Against Pa,” didn’t suit her dignity, but she did not complain because it fit the role she was playing. Calling her “Ma” got started after a reporter for the Houston Press wrote campaign stories in which he referred to Miriam as M.A. Ferguson. Before long, “M.A.” became “Ma.” The campaign song, “Put on Your Old Gray Bonnet,” was another part of the image that Miriam endured because she and her husband understood how to make her more appealing to an electorate who believed women belonged in the kitchen. She told voters that, if elected, she would follow the advice of her husband and Texas would get “two governors for the price of one.”

Gov. James "Pa" Ferguson

Gov. James “Pa” Ferguson

She often delighted audiences by announcing that Jim would make the speech, and then she sat down. Those who knew her, especially her two daughters, claimed that she was anything but retiring. They said she was the strong one in the family, enforcing the rules, and Jim was the quite, pushover. The couple met after Miriam’s father died and her mother employed a young lawyer, James Edward Ferguson, to settle the estate. Jim Ferguson, the son of a Methodist preacher, was from the other side of the tracks, and he felt fortunate after a long pursuit to have finally won the reluctant Miriam.

When James Ferguson ran for governor as an anti-prohibitionist Democrat in 1914, Miriam remained silent despite her strong disapproval of drinking (No alcohol was ever served in the governor’s mansion, and she did not allow swearing or card playing.) During his second term, when he was impeached and convicted of ten charges, including misapplication of public funds and receiving $156,000 from an unnamed source, she continued to keep her silence.

Although Miriam was a teetotaler, she followed her husband’s policies and supported the “wets” in the fight against prohibition. She campaigned against the Ku Klux Klan that was gaining influence across the South. After her election she got an anti-mask bill passed, which was aimed at the KKK, only to have it thrown out as unconstitutional. Despite trouncing her Republican rival, or perhaps because of it, the rumors of wrongdoing plagued her two-year term as governor. The Fergusons were obsessed with the plight of prisoners, even going as a family to visit jails. Miriam Ferguson pardoned an average of 100 convicts a month (over 4,000 during her two non-consecutive terms), claiming many of them had only violated prohibition laws. Her fiscal conservatism led many to believe that her liberal acts of freeing prisoners were meant to relieve the cost of housing them in the penitentiary. Critics claimed that prisoners paid Jim Ferguson for their pardons and paroles and that Miriam should be impeached. No proof was ever presented. The accusations that she and “Pa” were accepting bribes from prisoners and that the Fergusons received lucrative kickbacks in exchange for state highway contracts allowed Attorney General Daniel Moody to beat Miriam Ferguson in the election of 1926.

When the Texas Supreme Court refused to allow Jim Ferguson to run for governor in 1930, Miriam Ferguson stepped forward, only to be defeated.  Again in 1932, after voters had experienced the full impact of the Great Depression, Miriam Ferguson won her second term by blaming then Governor Ross Sterling for the state’s woes. She promised to lower taxes and cut state expenditures, condemning Sterling for waste, graft, and political favoritism—many of the vices for which she was blamed in her first term.

The second time around, Governor Miriam Ferguson tried unsuccessfully to get a state sales tax and corporate income tax. She continued her liberal policy of pardons and paroles and did not suffer the attacks of her first term. She made one last run for governor in 1940, polling more than 100,000 votes, only to lose to W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel.

Miriam Ferguson listed the accomplishments of her administration as taxing gasoline for highway improvements and taxing tobacco for school financing. She signed a law establishing the University of Houston as a four-year institution and was most proud of a more strenuous bootlegging law. In her bias against alcohol, she had even demanded that Amon C. Carter, nationally known civic booster and founder/publisher of the Fort Worth Star Telegram, resign as chair of the Board of Directors of Texas Tech because he was seen drinking liquor (“drunk as a biled owl”) at the Texas-Texas A&M football game. He did not resign.

After all the years of being accused of getting rich at the public trough, financial troubles in 1935 caused the Fergusons to lose their Bell County ranch.

Governor James Ferguson suffered a stroke and died in 1944. Governor Miriam Ferguson, who remains a controversial member of the brand of populism known as “Fergusonism,” died of heart failure on June 25, 1961.