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The Lonely Death of Anson Jones

January 9, 2010, 8:12 am

Of all places, however, the Republic of Texas (1836-1845) was the undisputed champion of political suicide during the 19th century. No other state witnessed the self-murder of so many of its early leaders, with no fewer than five prominent Texans taking their own lives between independence and the end of the US Civil War. George Childress, for instance, one of the republic’s founders, gutted himself with a Bowie knife in 1841 after three attempts at establishing a law practice came to naught. Two other founders, Thomas Jefferson Rusk and Royal Tyler Wheeler, shot themselves in 1857 and 1864, respectively.

In mid-July 1838, the republic’s presidential campaign — a contest to succeed Sam Houston — was thrown into chaos when two of the major contenders committed suicide within a span of 48 hours. On July 8, Peter Wagner Grayson — Houston’s attorney general and heir apparent — ended his two-decade long struggle with mental illness by shooting himself in Bean’s Station, Tennessee, one day after complaining in a letter to a friend that his mind had been taken over by “fiends.” On July 11, James Collinsworth, another notable founder and member of the republic’s first senate, concluded a week-long bender by launching himself into Galveston Bay. (Mirabeau B. Lamar — a bitter enemy of Houston’s wound up with the presidency, an outcome that so irritated Houston that he delivered a three-hour farewell address at Lamar’s own inauguration.)

When statehood came in 1845, Texans named entire counties in honor of Collinsworth, Grayson and Wheeler. Rusk and Childress were commemorated with counties as well as towns.

Anson Jones, the last president of the Republic of Texas, was similarly honored.  Jones County, Texas — one of 46 dry jurisdictions in the state — was named after him, with the town of Anson serving as the county seat.  A physician by training, Jones had renounced medicine and migrated from Great Barrington, Massachusetts to Texas during the early 1830s and played important roles both the war with Mexico and — a decade later — the annexation of the republic by the United States. After Texas’ absorption into the union in 1845, Jones was bitterly disappointed not to be appointed to the US Senate. Sam Houston and Thomas Jefferson Rusk were awarded the seats instead. In a spite-soaked letter to a friend, Jones predicted that his tombstone would someday read, “Murdered by a Country He Served and Saved.”

During the last decade of his life, Jones wallowed in his disappointment, which was only accentuated by a crippling arm injury that came when he fell from his horse in 1849. In 1857, Rusk vacated his seat by committing suicide; his wife had recently died of tuberculosis, and a tumor was discovered in his neck. Coupled with Sam Houston’s decision to run for governor, the death of Thomas Rusk meant that Anson Jones’ senatorial ambitions suddenly appeared nearer to realization. Buoyed by misplaced optimism, he returned to the state capital, where he expected a triumphant welcome and a quick election to the upper house of Congress. Instead, Jones’ arrival was virtually unnoticed in Austin, and he spent his days in his hotel room, brooding over his memorabilia from days gone by, ruminating over newspaper clippings and old letters that he believed would vindicate him in the eyes of history. He received exactly zero votes in the state legislature, which instead preferred James Pinckney Henderson, another former attorney general whom Jones dismissed as a “gamester and a sot.” (Henderson enjoyed the briefest of terms in office, dying of pleurisy in August 1858.)

Rejected by the country he served and saved, Jones’ life spiraled toward its conclusion. After selling his plantation for a quarter of its value, Jones traveled to Houston in January 1858 and sequestered himself in the Old Capitol Hotel for four dismal, lonely nights. There, he opened a letter from his wife, Mary, who expressed confidence “this little trip will be of service to you.” She urged him to “blot out the past” and forget Texas’ “ingratitude toward you.”

On the morning of January 10, it was reported that the forlorn Texas statesman had been discovered “lying across his bed this morning at half past 8 o’clock, a discharged pistol in his hand and his brains blown out. This is all the particulars of this lamentable affair we have been able to obtain.”

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