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  • Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

    The opium war,
    Texas style

    by Clay Coppedge

    The slandeourous and libelous who lurk among us today have unprecedented avenues for any and all spurious allegations cast upon the character of any individual, public or private. In days of yore, the avenues were few but the character assasins were just as relentless.

    Take Sam Houston, revered father of Texas. In his day, he was as despised as any man in the state. Some people genuinely disliked him, others sought to discredit him only to advance their own careers, and some were simply unwitting dupes. Othes thought Ol’ Sam was all right. Let’s not forget that Texans elected him President of the Republic. Twice.

    Old Sam gave people on both sides of the fence plenty of ammunition to fire back and forth. Tales of drunkeness and debauchery appeared in newspapers and pamphlets all over the state and much of the country. His mysterious and brief marriage provided additional fodder. Even the Cherokees, whom he lived with for several years, gave him the name Big Drunk. And they liked him.

    One of the most common charges was that in addition to his many sins he was also an opium addict. The fact that he and Mexican general Santa Anna shared a plug of opium after the Battle of San Jacinto fueled rumors that eventually turned him into a hophead. One of Houston’s keenest and sleaziest rivals, Robert Potter, probably had a lot to do with it.

    Potter employed a spy by the name of James Hazard Perry in the Houston camp. Perry’s assignment was to dig up some dirt on Houston and report on him at his worst. Houston found out about it when he randomly opened up a letter from Perry to Potter. Here’s what he read:

    “We are in striking distance of the enemy and there are no signs of moving. Our men are loitering about without knowing more of military tactics at evening than they did in the morning.

    “While the general either for want of his customary excitement – for he has entirely discontinued the use of ardent spirits – or as some say from the effect of opium is in a condition between sleeping and waking which amounts nearly to a constant state of insanity.”

    Perry left camp when Houston reprimanded him but Perry was present and accounted for at San Jacinto, site of Houston’s victory over Santa Anna and the Mexican army, which gave Texas its independence from Mexico.

    An 1837 pamphlet titled “Houston Displayed: Or Who Won the Battle of San Jacinto” was a tour de force of slander and libel that haunted Houston all the way into the history books. The author was listed as “A Farmer in the Army” but another “loyal” aide, Robert Coleman turned out to be the culprit. Coleman pegged Houston as a drug-crazed lunatic.

    “[Houston's] whiskey and opium gave out, and none could be procured; so that, from disappointment and the want of those stimulants, he became deranged,” Coleman wrote.” In one of his moments of delirium he drew a pistol and attempted to blow out his brains, but was prevented by the untimely interference of [Jim] Bowie.”

    Untimely?

    Coleman went on to say that Houston spent his nights in the grog shops of Washington-on-the Brazos and his days were devoted to sleep. “[Houston] had the unblushing impudence to acknowledge to the bystanders that he did not recollect to have set out from any place sober or free from intoxication during the last five years; but on that occasion he considered himself sober.”

    Anson Jones, a surgeon for the Texas army, wrote in 1855 that Houston was “stupefied and stultified with opium during the San Jacinto campaign.”

    The reason Houston was never charged with possession of opium was because it was legal and sold over the counter in 19th century Texas. Opium was one of the medical options available to the military. Having some around wasn’t illegal or even unusual. Houston was wounded during the battle at San Jacinto and was given some opium to help with the pain while he negotiated terms of surrender with Santa Anna, who apparently wanted some, too.

    Santa Anna suffered the same slings and arrows as Houston in regards to the opium thing. Here is a description by one of his biographers of when Santa Anna was to be taken ashore from the ship carrying him to Vera Cruz after his surrender to Houston: “No amount of explanation could persuade him that he would be safe ashore. He rushed around and took some opium – more opium, he said – he had taken so much, he averred, that he would soon die anyway.”

    Since then, opium and rumors of opium have continued to dog both the victor and the vanquished. A 1991 book, “A Duel of Eagles” by Jeffrey Long cast the battle of San Jacinto as a case of two drug addicts chasing each other around Texas with guns.

    Even admirers of Sam Houston bring up his alleged opium use from time to time. Musician, author and former gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman, when asked if someone with a past history of drug use (like him) could be a good role model, said, “The only great governor we’ve had was an opium addict and a drunkard. And that was Sam Houston.”


    © Clay Coppedge
    May 11, 2013 Column
    More "Letters from Central Texas"
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