John Pinckney, a Texas congressman, was noted for his fairness and his willingness to defend a cause in his short 59 years. In 1905, his stance against alcohol cost him his life and became one of the few instances of the assassination of a sitting congressman.
John McPherson Pinckney was born into a farming family in 1845 outside of Hempstead in what is now Waller County. He was a middle child between an older sister and brother and a younger brother. As a youth, he attended school and also received private tutoring. His sister, Susanna, became a noted writer in the 1890s and early 1900s.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, the 16-year-old Pinckney and his brother Thomas both enlisted, serving in Hood’s Texas Brigade. The two fought for the Confederacy in some of the bloodiest battles of the war, including the Second Battle of Bull Run, Antietam and Gettysburg. Pinckney rose in rank from private to first lieutenant. When the Confederate army surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse in 1865, Pinckney was part of the surrender ceremonies.
After his return to Waller County, his popularity led area residents to elect him justice of the peace by the early 1870s. In Texas, a justice of the peace is essentially a small-claims court judge. Though Pinckney had a reputation for intelligence and fairness, he had no legal education. His sister reportedly inspired him to go further and study law. He was admitted to the state bar in 1875.
He moved to Hempstead, the county seat, and began working as an attorney. In 1890, he was appointed district attorney. He served in the position for the next decade. In 1900, Pinckney was elected county judge for Waller County, the chief administrative official for the county.
U. S. Rep. Thomas Henry Ball had represented the area in Congress since 1897. The Eighth District included much of the area of Southeast Texas just to the north of Houston. A few months after Ball began his fourth term in 1903, he announced his resignation. Pinckney announced his candidacy to succeed him and ran as a supporter of prohibition like Ball. The attempt to ban alcohol sales and consumption had gained momentum in the years after the Civil War. Though there were many opponents to prohibition, Pinckney was a respected figure and won the election in November 1903.
His time in Congress was short and uneventful. The Democrat was re-elected to a full term easily in 1904. After he was sworn in for his new term in March 1905, he returned to Texas. On April 24, he went to the Waller County Courthouse where the Prohibition League held a rally. The organization had a petition to ask the Texas Rangers to come and enforce a new prohibition law. The topic had become very controversial in the area, and the rally drew many opponents.
Pinckney prepared to give a few remarks in support of prohibition but was shouted down. A scuffle broke out in the crowd. Local attorney J. N. Brown pulled out a revolver and began firing. His own son, Roland Brown, also pulled his gun and began shooting. In the chaos, prohibitionists pulled their guns and started firing wildly. Pinckney dived into the crowd to stop the fighting. In the process, he was shot in the back. His brother Thomas was shot and killed trying to shield him from the gunfire. Four men were dead, and the courthouse walls were riddled with 75 bullet holes.
It lasted less than a minute.
Roland Brown, himself injured, was charged with murder but acquitted. No one was convicted in connection with the crazed gunfight.
John Pinckney was only the third congressman to be assassinated while in office. The first two, U. S. Rep. James M. Hinds of Arkansas and U. S. Rep. Thomas Haughey of Alabama, were shot and killed during Reconstruction. Other members of Congress would succumb to the wounds of assassins in the twentieth century, among them Sen. Huey Long of Louisiana in 1935 and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy of New York in 1968.
The two Pinckney brothers had lived their lives together, defended each other in war, and died together. The two were buried in Hempstead. Hempstead was saddled with a reputation for violence in the years afterward and given the derisive nickname “Six-Shooter Junction.” The courthouse itself was torn down in 1955.
The Eighth District seat stayed empty for nearly eight months until former legislator John M. Moore was elected to fill the remainder of Pinckney’s term.
Pinckney’s death only fueled the demand for prohibition. It would come to Texas in the coming years. By 1918, the state legislature had ratified the national Prohibition amendment and passed a statewide ban on alcohol. The debate over local alcohol sales is still a divisive question in many Texas communities.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org