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 Four Gospels Railroad

The twenty-two mile rail line did not begin in 1909 as anything other than a central Texas business scheme to move Williamson County’s huge cotton crops to the Missouri-Kansas and Texas

The Bartlett-Western Railroad

The Bartlett-Western Railroad

“Katy” Railroad at Bartlett.  Granted, farmers and residents along the line were so happy to have a railroad that when the last of the track was laid in Florence on December 27, 1911, an excursion train arrived loaded with 250 to 300 people who paid $1 for the round trip. They dressed in their Sunday best and enjoyed the daylong celebration.

It was after The Bartlett-Western Railroad changed owners a couple of times and was sold in 1916 to Thomas Cronin that the route took on a new flair.  Cronin had retired from a highly successful career with the International and Great Northern Railroad and was looking for a new challenge.  He found it in the BW.  Cronin began by turning the operation into a family affair naming his daughter Marie the vice-president, his daughter Ida became treasurer, Ida’s husband William Branagan served as general manager, and nephew Thomas Wolfe who had been injured in his former railroad position came along in a wheelchair and may have simply supervised.  The entire clan moved into an apartment on the second floor of a brick commercial building next to the Katy Railroad and a few blocks from the Bartlett-Western depot.

Marie and Ida Cronin grew up in the East Texas railroad town of Palestine, but both girls studied in Paris.  Marie had remained in Paris until the beginning of World War I and earned an international reputation as a fine portraiture. Upon her return home, she won commissions for many of the portraits in the Texas State Capitol.  Ida, a gifted singer-organist, studied music in Paris, retuned to Palestine, married William Branagan and became very active in Catholic women’s work.  This rather unusual family set about developing a relationship with the 2,200 townspeople of Bartlett and soon found the community welcoming, if not a little surprised by their new neighbors.

Marie Cronin, called “Mamie” by her family, took the town by surprise with her flamboyant European-style clothing, wide-brimmed Parisians hats, and way more makeup than women of Bartlett found acceptable.  She moved her art studio to the second floor of the BW depot where she could perform her duties as vice-president for the railroad and continue with her painting. Ida Cronin Branagan, as BW treasurer, set about renaming four of the small flag stations for the “Four Gospels.”  The small flag stations were not actually towns; they were locales where farmers waited to load their cotton or other produce for market or to catch the train for a trip to Florence or Bartlett and consisted of a roof with benches on each side.  Ida had the gospel names framed along with the verses for each gospel to offer passengers an opportunity to read while waiting for the train.  For instance, the first stop after Bartlett was Caffrey and it became “St. Matthew.”  At the John Camp station, which became “St. Mark,” there was a small store.  A surplus car stood on an extra railroad siding at Atkinson that was designated “St. Luke.”  “St. John” was the stop on Salado Creek where the train engines refilled at a water storage tank.  Passengers began calling the line the “Four Gospels Railroad,” but it also became know as the “Bullfrog Line” because it jumped the track so often.  The folks in Florence called it the “dinky” and others said the initials BW stood for “Better Walk.”

Despite derisive remarks, the BW in 1916 earned $3,817 in passenger revenue and $30,327 from freight.  Cronin set about improving the BW service and maintenance of its equipment, bridges, and roadbed.  At some point a tractor was fitted with flanged wheels, allowing it to pull flat cars loaded with up to 130 bales of cotton.  Crews carried sand to sprinkle on the tracks when the train, carrying a heavy load, had difficulty gaining traction on the up or down grade.  When the BW secured the mail contract, it used Ford trucks equipped with railroad wheels to carry the mail.  Although cotton was the largest commodity transported over the BW, it also carried the needs of the communities along its route including lignite, livestock, forest products, fruits, vegetables, drugs and, furniture.  Cronin overhauled the trolley-style passenger car and tried, unsuccessfully, to get financing to extend the line to connect with the Santa Fe in Lampasas.

Ironically, Ida Cronin Branagan fell in 1926 while getting off the BW and died from her injuries.  That same year Thomas Cronin died, leaving Marie to serve as president of the BW while William Branagan continued as general manager.  Marie, William, and cousin Thomas remained as a family living in the old commercial building.

Marie Cronin relished her role as president of a railroad, even riding the BW to give attention to every detail.  She appeared perfectly confident in herself and her abilities and showed more self-assurance than the people of Bartlett expected from a woman.  One person said she “always dressed like she was going to meet the Queen.”  Others said her strong voice dominated the room and she showed other eccentricities such as her long-time desire to be a lawyer.  Despite never having studied the law, she took the bar exam many times without success.  Many others found Marie friendly and generous to everyone without regard to race.  One account claims she gave her Willys-Graham to her chauffer because he needed a car for his family.

In the 1920s and 30s the BW struggled with damage from frequent flooding that tore out the tracks and continually drained the family’s savings.  The boll weevil spread across Texas by 1926 causing cotton prices to drop from $1.59 to forty-five cents a bale, starting the downward spiral of revenue for the BW.  Some family members have said Marie enjoyed being president of a railroad so much that she waited longer than reasonable to admit that the BW needed to be shut down.  One nephew says Marie was what would be described today as a Type-A personality.  The Texas Railroad Commission finally granted Marie Cronin’s request to close the BW on October 11, 1935.  No one denies, however, that Marie Cronin and her family added color, charm, and a sense of excitement to life along the Bartlett-Western Railroad.