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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Long-Haired Judge

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
Just about every day a reporter for the afternoon Austin Daily Statesman walked from the newspaper office to the Driskill Hotel to see if anyone of interest happened to be staying there.

Whether the hotel manager routinely allowed the reporter to scan the guest register or whether the scribe merely hung around the lobby keeping his eyes open and ears alert would be conjecture at this late date. However he got his material, he wrote a column called "In Hotel Corridors... What People Have to Say Who Are Here, There and Everywhere in General." (Most reporters did not get bylines in the 19th century, so who the journalist was is not known.)

During the second week of January 1891, the reporter encountered at the Driskill a striking character, an older gentleman with very long, snow white hair and an unusually lengthy beard that was equally as white. Despite the man's apparent indifference to good grooming, he otherwise was impeccably attired in the dark suits of the time and carried himself in a stately manner.

Several other man had gathered around the man, who was clearly entertaining them with a string of anecdotes. The reporter listened in.

The man turned out to be Judge Anthony Banning Norton of Dallas, who had been staying in the Capital City for the last several days. Norton had served as a district judge in Dallas, later becoming postmaster and later still, he had been appointed U.S. Marshal for the Northern District of Texas. Earlier, he had been a newspaper editor. Now he was retired.

"The judge is a noted character throughout the state," the reporter wrote, "not only for his talent and wit but his many peculiarities..."

In the 1850s, the reporter learned, Norton had edited an Austin newspaper called The Southern Intelligencer. Later he served in the Legislature and in 1860 newly elected Gov. Sam Houston named him state adjutant general.

But neither he nor Houston held office long. Houston resigned in March 1861 after refusing to declare his allegiance to the Confederacy. The Ohio-born Norton left Texas only a few months after the beginning of the Civil War that he and Houston did not support and stayed gone until the conflict ended.

Thirty years later, standing in the hotel lobby, Norton could find some humor in recalling those troubled times. In particular, he regaled his audience with a story illustrating how words alone could lead to violence, or at least the potential for bloodshed.

"We used to have a little excitement in Austin once in a while," Norton began.

When he was editor of the city's Southern Intelligencer, he said, his newspaper competed with, and often argued vigorously with, Texas State Gazette editor John Marshall. The Gazette editor advocated secession. Norton did not.

"We were always fighting each other through our pages," the gentleman from Dallas continued. "I don't remember what it was now, but I said something about Marshall that got next to is skin, and the following day I received a challenge to fight him a duel. It will not be necessary to add that I accepted it."

Unfortunately for the two editors' plans to fight to the death, word of their pending encounter got out. Since dueling was illegal in Texas, law enforcement intervened and both parties were forced to post peace bonds. Accordingly, despite their differences, the pair agreed to have it out with each other at a place where there was hardly any law-north of the Red River.

"We were both anxious to kill each other," Norton continued, "so we finally agreed to go to the Territory [future Oklahoma]...and there get satisfaction. The day was set and seconds chosen."

Norton and his second made the long ride north to the selected meeting place. Soon after they arrived, Marshall's designated second (dueling's rough equivalent of a wedding's best man) and several of his friends arrived not long after.

"Well," Norton continued, "we expected [Marshall] would show up soon, so we all sat down on the prairie and talked of the war, swapped lies and became real good friends ere long."

Both parties waited several more hours but Marshall apparently had pressing business elsewhere. He stood up the man he had challenged. "Marshall and I never met after that," Norton said.

Not a bad storyteller himself, the reporter waited to the last paragraph of his column to explain why the judge had such unusually long locks and facial hair.

A fervent supporter of Kentucky Sen. Henry Clay, who ran unsuccessfully for President multiple times, Norton had vowed in 1844 that he would not shave or cut his hair until Clay occupied the White House. Clay never succeeded in his efforts to become commander-in-chief, so Norton kept his word. When he died at 72 in Dallas on Dec. 31, 1893, his hair was still long. "Never has razor touched his face...nor scissors clipped his hair," the Dallas Morning News said.
Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" July 1, 2019

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