In this masterful biography, Robert L. Dorman traces the career of William H. “Alfalfa Bill” Murray from his hardscrabble childhood in post–Civil War Texas to his remarkable ascendancy as a nationally known political figure in the mid-twentieth century. The first comprehensive portrait of Murray to be published in fifty years, Alfalfa Bill is both the exploration of a larger-than-life personality and an illuminating account of the birth of political conservatism in Oklahoma.
As Dorman reveals, no political label readily fit Murray. The core conservatism of his Texas years was caught up in the ferment of three major periods of American reform—the Populist uprising, the Progressive Era, and the New Deal. Over his long career, Murray strongly advocated for states’ rights, limited government, and strict constitutionalism, yet he was also a consistent foe of corporations and concentrated wealth. The society he sought was small-scale, decentralized, agrarian—and racially segregated. Although he claimed to represent high principles, Murray as a politician was an opportunist, loved a good fight, had a flair for the theatrical, and hungered for power.
Dorman depicts Murray from his days as a political operative in the Chickasaw Nation to his leadership of the Oklahoma Constitutional Convention, and from the Speaker’s chair of the Oklahoma legislature to the halls of Congress. The book follows Murray’s quixotic attempt to found an agricultural colony in Bolivia, and chronicles his amazing Oklahoma comeback in the 1930 gubernatorial election. The final chapters detail Murray’s legendary term as state governor, his failed candidacy for president, and his emergence as a fierce critic of New Deal liberalism and racial desegregation.
Unlike earlier biographies of Murray, Alfalfa Bill brings issues of race, class, and gender to the forefront, often in surprising ways. On the surface, the Murray saga was an American success story, yet his rise came at a price for Murray himself, his family, and the people of the state he helped to create. An indelible portrait emerges of an ambitious, domineering, relentless, and unapologetically racist figure whose tarnished legacy seems painfully relevant in America’s current political climate.
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CHILD OF DESTINY
On Sunday night, September 18, 1881, eleven-year-old Henry Murray and his two elder brothers "left home to attend church and never returned for nine years." Up to that point in his life Henry had received only a few weeks of formal education. He had "escaped death by an 'inch'" on several occasions — the usual hazards to be found on a farm. For much of his childhood he had been "tallow-faced" and logy from a chronic case of the stomach worms. Over the past two summers he had been hired out to work in a brickyard. All of these circumstances Henry had endured, but what ultimately drove him away from home, he later wrote, was "my stepmother's treatment of me."
At age twenty-one Murray published a first edition of his biography. The closest that he could come to a birthplace was "the eastern part of Cooke County, Tex." He gave his birthday as "November 21, 1867," two years off from the officially accepted date. In truth, we are not exactly sure where or when William Henry David Murray was born. It is fair to say "in obscurity." Such was life on the Texas frontier.
Murray did not mention his stepmother in that first biography; it was still too soon. He noted that his biological mother had "departed this life while he was an infant" and that his father, Uriah Dow Thomas Murray, had remarried. Through all of the versions of his biography that appeared over the next six decades, Murray could not quite bring himself to blame his father for what happened. Yet that he "never returned for nine years" showed the depth of their estrangement.
Their broken home had political as well as personal consequences. Everything with Murray was political. Dow used to say, "Money is nothing more than a convenience, not the thing primarily to be sought for but to enable achievement in development of manhood." Of course a poor man would say something like that, deprecating the money that he did not have. And by his own words, then, without money, where was his manhood? Henry must leave, or he would never better himself.
Dow became an object lesson, all right. Born in Jackson County, Tennessee, in 1839, he had moved to Texas at age nineteen with apparently no great passion for farming; he tried every other available means of livelihood instead. The 1860, 1870, and 1880 censuses record his occupations as "day laborer," "miller," and "mechanic," respectively. Some of his other jobs included freighter, sawyer, grocer, butcher, and wagonyard operator. There was usually a plot of land, to be sure, a dozen acres or so, unclear whether owned or rented. Besides a garden, the Murrays raised corn, hay, or millet as feed for Dow's various ventures, including milk cows and ten head of oxen that he deployed to haul freight or turn a gristmill. In this latter capacity Dow had met Murray's mother, sixteen-year-old Bertha Jones, and they were married on November 28, 1861, in Fannin County.
The Murrays' world encompassed two tiers of counties, including Fannin, lying immediately south of the Red River and running westward until they reached a blank space on the map. Indian attacks from that quarter or across the Red were a possibility that had to be lived with. Most of the region lacked railroad or telegraph service, and life moved at the pace of a horse or a person on foot. Many of the settlers in the area were nonslaveholders like Dow who had come from the upper South or Midwest. They raised grains and livestock. There was also a dominant minority of southern-style planters with cotton and slaves. When the issue of secession was put to a vote of the people in February 1861, Fannin, Grayson, and several other of these "Unionist" counties rejected the idea, while Texas as a whole voted in favor.
With the Civil War under way it was hardly a propitious time for newlyweds. Texas saw no great battles, but less than a month after the September 1862 birth of the Murrays' first son, John Shade, the Unionist counties were swept up in the madness known as the Great Hanging at Gainesville. Forty-one Union sympathizers were hanged (and two shot) in what was the largest mass lynching in American history. Dow, according to Murray, "was opposed to Secession and opposed to slavery," even though his grandfather had owned slaves back in Tennessee. Consequently, he made himself scarce at various jobs in and around Cooke and neighboring counties during the first year of the war, including a two-week jaunt north to Indian Territory. After his return, he took another mill job in Denton County, where in October 1862 — the time of the Great Hanging — he was approached to provide flour and meal for some needy widows in the area. The mill owner, a man by the name of Keep, made it known that they would supply flour or meal on credit to those in hardship, which is what they proceeded to do for the next year or so, nearly eight thousand dollars' worth Confederate. In a later reminiscence, Dow acknowledged that altruism was not their sole motive: "Keep, we've not been targets for some other man's bullets," he said. At the end, they burned their ledger and never collected the balances due.
Finally there was nothing for it but Dow was obliged to enlist. As his son wrote, "My father was a Confederate soldier, but a Union man." The safest thing for someone of his views to do — unless he were willing to uproot his family and leave the country — was to join the Texas State Troops patrolling the frontier, thereby able "to avoid fighting white men." Dow would later say, "I was a soldier in the service of the Confederacy, but fought Mexicans and Indians, and I am proud I never fired on the citizens of any other state." It was also possibly the steadiest work that he had had to that point, though he was not home much during those months in 1864 and 1865. Bertha, Shade, and a second son, George Thomas, were often living with his in-laws.
Sometime during the war or soon after, the Jones-Murray clan relocated to the vicinity of western Grayson County. There John Jones, Bertha's father, is credited with coining the ludicrous place-name of Toadsuck, Texas, the evanescent village near where Henry Murray was born in 1869. (Murray later claimed that the name derived from a local schoolhouse, while an authoritative account links it to a saloon.) That details were sketchy in those years is not surprising; it was difficult to tell that the war had ended. Grayson County was at that time the vortex of the Lee-Peacock Feud, a local outbreak of brutal counterrevolutionary violence that had erupted across Texas, aimed at maintaining white supremacy. Hundreds of black freedmen and white Unionists were murdered during what was supposed to be the postwar Reconstruction period. An 1868 report described a typical incident from the Murrays' vicinity: "In Oct. 1867 a white man was traveling in Grayson county and met a freedman; after passing him a few yards, he turned and fired upon him, hitting him in the back. The freedman died in a few hours; he had not spoken a word to the murderer — had never seen him before."
Was Dow to blame if his prospects were mixed in such chaos? Then things got worse: Bertha died in childbirth in 1871. He took all of the boys — Shade, George, and Henry — to live with the Joneses while he figured out his life.
The situation didn't speak well for Dow; such dependence was to be avoided. To his credit, he reclaimed his children immediately after he was married to Mary Jane "Mollie" Green in 1873, whisking them off to one more mill job in Montague County. Perhaps Dow thought that the boys needed a woman around the house or else they would run wild. "I heard him say he never attended school but six months," Murray recalled. "His university was the Mountains of Tennessee, his Mother, the Faculty." And look at how he turned out: "I remember him as a man silent and meditative, very seldom laughed. ... We never saw him drunk and never heard him swear. ... I am sure he never gambled. ... However, he was a great reader." Haplessness, poor luck, restlessness, the bleak and brutal times — these seem to account for Dow's scattershot résumé.
Dow and Mollie's growing second family pressed hard on his limited means, five (and counting) extra mouths to feed when Henry ran away in 1881. The three Murray brothers were hired out to work at a very young age, a fairly common practice among large families in those days. It meant that there was little time available for the schoolhouse. "I learned my alphabet in Sunday School," Murray noted. "My Father taught me numbers, and how to count." Sometimes at night and when it rained, Dow "stood us in a row and taught us sundry things we ought to know," like the days of the week or the major characters of the Bible. On these occasions, the aphorisms fell from Dow's lips: "'You will in youth think yourselves very intelligent and smart; but at later years you will find yourselves believing that at that very period you were but a consummate fool.'— All that I find to be true," Murray admitted in the Memoirs.
Dow also began Henry's political education, teaching the boys "sundry public questions on the simple forms of government," and that "men always develop more rapidly under freedom." Beyond these generalities, however, Dow — lacking zeal himself — refrained from anything approaching partisan indoctrination, according to Murray. "I never heard the names of the two parties before I left home," he asserted. "I am not a Democrat because my father was" — or if his father was, beyond a pro forma commitment. How such a political animal as Murray emerged from the diffident Dow's household remains a puzzle.
Murray always liked to claim that his political beliefs were the result of prolonged study and careful reflection, the rational analysis of "governmental science" by the future Sage. But there were other kinds of political education, prior to partisanship, the kinds of things learned earliest and most enduringly, fixed in place at the gut level: fears, prejudices, faiths, passions. As Murray once acknowledged, "Man's convictions, life-time training, develop often a bias beyond which he cannot analyze or perceive." In Henry's case, probably the earliest of all such training would have been his tutelage in white supremacy. Murray does not say precisely when it happened or in what form, it was so self- evident and reflexive — what southern white boy could remember the first time that he heard the n-word? He lived as a child in a milieu that could explode violently when white rule was threatened, as had happened during the Great Hanging and the Lee-Peacock Feud. The area was an outpost of southern culture — already violence-prone — on the western frontier. Gordon Hines, who wrote Murray's authorized "intimate" 1932 biography, described it generously as an "environment that would nurture men of steel." Murray called it the "fighting West."
In tracing a second indelible political lesson from Murray's youth, we are left with something still more furtive, indirect, and oblique; perhaps it is not there at all. Yet it is difficult to believe that young Henry knew nothing of the atrocities in his backyard, like the Great Hanging. In the Memoirs, Murray writes that he was first told about the episode by Meredith Crow, a former Texas desperado who, after going to prison for murder, moved to Tishomingo to become a longtime well-respected justice of the peace. (Indian Territory was good for second chances, as Murray would find.) In his wilder days, Crow had prowled back and forth across the Red River, including in the Montague area, so it is at least possible that young Henry encountered him, particularly after he became footloose himself. That his parents and other adults were silent about what happened in Gainesville is not surprising, as was Murray's own later reticence. This was neighbors killing neighbors in mass numbers, too disturbing a spectacle for the rural idyll that he tried to weave into his writings, too dark to contemplate even for someone given to frequent apocalyptic musings. An eyewitness account first published in 1885 (around the time that Henry became a great reader) described the opening scene in Gainesville — ten miles from future Toadsuck — one morning in October 1862: "When I arrived near town there were crowds in sight in every direction, armed, pressing forward prisoners under guard. The deepest and most intense excitement I ever saw prevailed. Reason had left its throne. The mind of almost every man I saw seemd [sic] to be unhinged, and wild excitement reigned supreme." After the dozens of victims were hanged and shot, the excitement had spent itself. Was none of this later whispered about by the rough-and-tumble boys of Henry's neighborhood?
What Murray did choose to write about hangings was disturbing in its own way. He began by describing the controversial execution of an ordinary outlaw at, yes, Gainesville, but in a twist, the angry crowd was trying to stop the proceedings, which were carried out anyway. "I believe this incident was the cause of Texas' passing a law prohibiting 'public hanging,'" Murray wrote, "and I certainly heartily approve of it." To explain his reasoning, he recounted a hanging at Montague that he and his brother George had personally witnessed when Murray was just ten years old. The condemned man seemed to be "self-possessed and brave," he remembered, but after the man fell through the scaffold "two lengths of himself" at the end of the rope, "his boots were full of water" (his bladder or bowels had evacuated). "That sight had a great impression, not for good, upon George and me," Murray confessed. "For two years nearly, we were always studying to hang something," such as chickens (their heads popped off) or his stepsister's cat. As the two brothers matured, however, they felt revulsion at what they had done, and so Murray applauded the fact that public hanging "does no more in Texas instill into the mind of the youth, cruelties and cruel practices." The power of such public spectacles to "instill into the mind" ugly and uncontrollable passions like those he saw in himself — this was the lesson that would linger with Murray across his political career: abhorrence of the mob.
A third primal political lesson of childhood was brought home to Henry, the hard way, by Stepmother Mollie: the subordination of women. Much like Dow, she was a cautionary tale of violated social norms. Dow's expectations of family harmony presupposed that Mollie would willingly assume the duties of Victorian motherhood for her stepsons, but things did not turn out that way. Mollie was nowhere to be seen during Dow's impromptu homeschooling sessions, for example, at least in Murray's depiction. We have only his side of the story, filtered through a considerable degree of sexism if not misogyny. In his Memoirs, Murray seemed to go out of his way to present Mollie as a ridiculous figure. "My stepmother was a very large, corpulent woman," he wanted readers to know, "with a surplus of avoirdupois," he added redundantly, in case they missed the point. Gordon Hines was harsher (with Murray's approval), and he claimed to have interviewed Mollie. She "often 'felt the call of the spirit' and retired to an outbuilding where she poured out her soul in long and loud supplications," he wrote. "These intensely emotional experiences were exhausting and she suffered from nervous headaches and pains and 'miseries.'" As a consequence, Hines reported, Mollie could not stand the smell of cooking food, and Henry and his brother George were detailed to kitchen duty.
It was not to be borne: women's work. "She's makin' a pair of sissies out of us," they vented to Shade.
This account of Mollie cleaves a bit too closely to the stereotype of the wicked stepmother. Nevertheless, it seems plausible that something went on in the dysfunctional Murray household. In the 1930s, people spoke much less openly about being victims of child abuse, certainly not tough- guy politicians like Alfalfa Bill. Hines introduced the very word "abusive" while seeking to downplay the situation; Mollie at least made things "most unpleasant." Like many a petty tyrant, she was self- involved, neglectful, and at the same time a "stickler for unflinching discipline." But by now the boys had lost all respect for her maternal authority: "George and I avoided obeying her all we could," Murray wrote, because "her exactions did not jibe with good sense." In fact, Murray added, "We even lied to her" (and killed her daughter's cat). Whippings — usually administered by Murray's father — were not infrequent, until a final crisis in which Henry was beaten with a strop twice in succession on the orders of Mollie, who did not consider the first round sufficiently severe. Dow, "who stood in awe of demanding women," did as he was told, Hines noted. And so, on that fateful Sunday night in 1881, the three brothers fled, lest they also be unmanned. Mollie the stepmother was the last woman to rule over William H. Murray (until he encountered Kate Barnard).(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Alfalfa Bill"
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations,
1. Child of Destiny,
2. School of Politics,
3. By Other Means,
4. Rule or Ruin,
7. Sight Unseen,
8. Man of the House,
9. Cocklebur Kate,
10. Mr. Murray of Oklahoma,
11. A Very Faithful and Militant Friend,
12. Something Better Ahead,
13. Almost a Seer,
14. Candidate for Impeachment,
15. One-Man Government,
16. One Darn Thing after Another,
17. Favorite Son,
18. The Whole Show,
19. Quite a Vicious Slap,
20. Down in Night,