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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 403

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This is the grave of James and Miriam Ferguson, better known as Pa and Ma Ferguson.

James Ferguson was born in 1871 in Salado, Texas and Miriam Wallace in 1875 in Bell County, Texas. James drifted around for awhile and sowed some wild oats before ending up becoming a lawyer in Bell County, where he met Miriam. They married in 1899. But here’s the thing about his bar membership–he never took the test. Why? His father was friends with the chairman of the bar exam committee and, well, why bother with formalities. This sort of corruption really defined Texas life and would very much define the life of the Fergusons. James went on to become city attorney in Belton, Texas in 1903, established a bank in 1906, ran some newspapers, and became a political kingmaker. In 1914, he decided to run for governor on a platform opposing Prohibition. Of course, the winner of the Democratic primary was the governor and that’s where the battle between wet and dry forces took place. He won reelection in 1916 and then decided to take on the state’s higher education system. See, the University of Texas had professors on staff he didn’t like. He wanted them fired. One was his opponent for the governorship in 1914. So it was a blatant power play when he vetoed appropriations to fund the school until they were fired. The root of this as well is that his vote has slacked in the 1916 election and he was looking for someone to blame, finding it with UT because the school’s president had stood up to him on the terrible budget in 1916 and told him off. His attitude was basically “You can’t speak to me that way! I’m the governor!” But he way overplayed his hand. It didn’t make sense anyway. In the 1916 campaign, his opponent had accused him of misspending state funds and he even admitted it, though in the tradition of Nixon using his puppy to save his political career, Ferguson said he and his family needed the money for groceries. So that right there explains the relatively poor result in 1916. Anyway, the outraged response in the Texas legislature led to his impeachment in 1917. His conviction also found him guilty of misusing public funds and receiving $156,000 from an unnamed source. He was indeed pretty corrupt, even for a Texas politician of this era.

You would have thought this would be it for the family. And for Pa Ferguson, it kind of was. He lost in the primary for the governor in 1918 and then ran a ridiculous independent campaign for president in 1920 where he won nearly 10 percent of the votes in Texas and effectively none anywhere else. Then he lost the Senate race in 1922. But in 1924, Ma Ferguson ran. Now, she made no attempt to say she was independent. This was basically the beta testing of when George Wallace ran Lurleen to serve as his mouthpiece. She said openly that she was going to do whatever her husband wanted. Her campaign speeches consisted of her introducing him and then he did all the talking. Yet, she won the Democratic primary. Now, for the first time in a very long time, the Republicans had a chance to win. First, they ran a dean at the University of Texas, a reminder of the problem with Pa Ferguson in the first place. Thousands of usual Democratic voters came out for the Republican. But it wasn’t enough and she won 59-41. This made her the first elected female governor in American history and the second overall, as Nellie Tayloe Ross was appointed in Wyoming when her husband died, just a few weeks before Ferguson’s election. Not exactly a feminist triumph here. In 1926, Dan Moody, a reformer, ran against her and defeated her in the primary, gathering all the suffragists and other new voters in Texas disgusted by the corruption of the Ferguson family.

Yet even here, the Fergusons did not go away. The Texas Supreme Court denied Pa the right to put his name on the ballot, so Ma ran again in 1932 and won another two-year term. There were plenty of rumors that highway contracts only went to people who supported the Ferguson newspaper empire, but nothing was even proven. She did actually do some interesting things. Texas had really overcrowded prisons and so instead of funding more, she just pardoned thousands of people. On the other hand, there were lots of accusations that you could simply buy a pardon for a personal donation to the Ferguson accounts. She was a typical fiscal conservative but also embraced new taxes. She personally did not drink but opposed prohibition and those convicted of those laws made up a lot of her pardons. She also opposed the KKK. Basically, these were corrupt but anti-moralistic right-wing populists. In 1936, as a response to this, Texas voters passed a law stripping the pardon power from the governor.

In 1935, the Fergusons left politics except for a lame primary attempt for the governor in 1940, which was interesting only in that Ma’s plan to defeat Pappy O’Daniel was to run to the left and engage the support of organized labor, an unusual stance in right-wing anti-union Texas. They also had financial problems, losing their Bell County ranch in 1935. Pa Ferguson died of a stroke in 1944. Ma survived until 1961, when congestive heart failure finally felled her.

Texas still talks about Ferguson pretty frequently because every time the state has a corrupt governor who gets sort of caught doing sketchy things, which is basically every governor of Texas, they get compared to the Fergusons.

James and Miriam Ferguson are buried in Texas State Cemetery, Austin, Texas.

This grave visit was supported by LGM reader donations. If you would like this series to visit other colorful figures of Texas politics, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. John Nance Garner is in Uvalde and Pappy O’Daniel is in Dallas. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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