Saturday, December 02, 2006

This Week in Texas Methodist History Dec. 3

Texas Conference Expels Presiding Elder and Station Preacher--December 4-9, 1895

When the Disciplinary question, "Where will the next conference be held?" was asked in Cameron at the close of the 1894 Annual Conference, no one could appreciate the drama and irony that would result from the answer. "Brenham would be honored to host the 1895 Annual Conference." was the reply. While meeting in Brenham, the Conference would expel both the Brenham District presiding elder and the Brenham station preacher in one of the greatest scandals ever to rock the Texas Conference.

The preachers in question were the Rev. E. H. Harman (P. E.) and the Rev. W. W. Wimberly (P. C.). Their expulsion resulted from events which occurred in Galveston the previous August. Ostensibly in Galveston to attend the Epworth League Convention, the two divines went on a spree of drinking, cursing, and visiting "sporting houses." They would probably have escaped detection had they not tried to stiff a hack driver out of his fare. The hackman reported the incident to the police who roused the sleeping preachers from the beds in the Beach Hotel and took them to the police station. Although they were able to avoid prosecution by belatedly paying the fare at the police station, a reporter for the local newspaper smelled a good story.

Even though the Galveston News did not publish the names of the miscreants, they were soon identified. A church trial was held only two months after the incident. The prosecution was able to present testimony and despositions from hotel staff, madams of three Galveston brothels, the hack driver, police, private detectives, street vendors, and bar tenders. Physical evidence presented included the bar tab showing purchase of bottles of champagne. About fifty different persons testified for the prosecution.

The defense thus faced an uphill battle. Wimberly and Harman produced several character witnesses, but could not rebut the eye witnesses. They relied on an alibi even more bizarre than the facts of the case. The two men admitted going to the "sporting houses," but said they went in search of Wimberly's sister to try to rescue her from a life of sin. Earlier that year, her husband, a Louisiana physician, had shot her lover, killed him, and thrown his unfaithful wife out of the house. Wimberly had heard a rumor that his now homeless sister was now living in a brothel. He asked Harman, his presididng elder, to help him find her.

Wimberly's closing statement was four hours fifteen minutes in length. He ended on one knee with an open Bible in his hand. Even his defense counsel, the Rev. H. V. Philpott, was disgusted by the scene. The alibi was unconvincing. The two men were fouind guilty in the church trial. That set the scene for the Annual Conference--meeting in Brenham--home to both Harman and Wimberly--to expel them.

George Rankin, pastor of Shearn (now First UMC, Houston) who served as Wimberly's prosecutor, wrote in his memoirs that two months later Wimberly came to his office to ask for train fare to get out of Texas. Rankin obliged, and as Wimberly was leaving, asked, "You two maintained your innocence. You can tell me the truth now. Did you do it?" According to Rankin, Wimberly replied, "You guys didn't find half of what we did."


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