Saturday, June 27, 2015

This Week in Texas Methodist History   June 28

O. F. Sensabaugh’s Son-in-law Goes on Criminal Spree; Dallas Methodists Mourn.  July, 1915

One of the most bizarre stories in Texas Methodist history unfolded during the first week of July, 1915.  

President Robert S. Hyer was putting the finishing touches on the most important project of his  distinguished life.  Southern Methodist University would open its doors to its students for the first time in a matter of months.  Hyer had resigned from his position at Southwestern University and had built the Dallas university from the ground up.  He raised funds, built the campus, and hired faculty.  One of those initial faculty members was a son-in-law of the Rev. Oscar Sensabaugh, one of the founding trustees of SMU.  

The son-in-law was Frank Holt, who had married Leona Sensabuagh, at Polk Street, Amarillo, in 1910.   Frank was fluent in several languages and used that fluency to obtain positions in several colleges..  Frank’s academic posts included Methodist institutions, Polytechnic (now Texas Wesleyan in Fort Worth), Vanderbilt, and Emory and Henry.  In 1915, though, he was teaching at Cornell University when he received the job offer from SMU.  The new job must have thrilled Leona since it meant she and her two children, Oscar (b. 1913) and Daisy (b. 1914) would be living so near her parents.

Leona Holt left Ithaca, New York, with their two young children to set up housekeeping near the SMU campus.  Frank stayed behind and planned to come later, but Leona never saw her husband alive again.–His dead body arrived in Dallas by rail on July 11.  

Here’s the sad, strange story. . 

Frank Holt went to Washington D. C. on July 2.  He placed a very sophisticated bomb in the reception room of the U. S. Senate in the Capitol.  The timer was set to explode at midnight.  Holt waited outside until he heard the blast which fortunately did not cause any injuries in the deserted building.  He walked the few blocks to Union Station where he caught a train.  He  arrived in New York City where he placed another bomb on the USS Minnehaha, a munitions ship loaded with materiel headed for France.  That timer was set for a time when the vessel would be at sea.

He then made his way to the Long Island Estate of J. P. Morgan.  It was 9:00 a.m. July 3.  The Morgan family was still at breakfast.  Holt presented his card to the attendant and said, “I’m a friend.  I want to see Mr. Morgan.”  He was shown into the breakfast room where he fired two non-fatal shots into Mr. Morgan before being subdued.  

A letter to a Washington newspaper explained that the Capitol bomb was not intended to hurt anyone.  He just wanted to make people wake up to the horrors of the European war now raging.  In statement from his jail cell, he explained that the bomb on the munitions ship and the attack on J. P. Morgan were both intended to stop the war.  (Morgan had loaned both Russia and France vast sums to help their war efforts.)

As bizarre as this episode is, it becomes even weirder.  While he was in the Long Island jail, he revealed that he was not really Frank Holt.  His name was Erich Muenter, who had immigrated from Germany and lived first in Chicago, and later in Massachusetts where he had been an instructor in languages at Harvard.  He left Harvard soon after the funeral of his wife.  Her autopsy revealed death by arsenic poisoning, and police investigations revealed Muenter to be the poisoner.  He shaved his beard and fled to Mexico under the name of Frank Holt.  He worked in Mexico for a while before re-entering the US and working at various colleges.  In addition to those previously named, he also taught at the University of Oklahoma. 

Even his death was bizarre.  After a short time in the jail cell in which he wrote a letter to Oscar Sensabaugh, gave interviews, and tried to present himself just a concerned person who wanted to end the war in Europe, he climbed onto the door of his cell and dived headfirst onto the floor, thereby killing himself. 

Newspaper accounts of the funeral held at Brewer’s Chapel show that many Methodist and civic dignitaries attended the 6:00 p.m. interment at Grove Hill Cemetery (on Samuell just as it crosses White Rock Creek.  Look south from I-30 at Ferguson and you can see the cemetery.)  W. D. Bradfield, editor of the Advocate, conducted the service.  J. P. Mussett of Fort Worth delivered the eulogy.  How does one eulogize such a man?  Mussett did so be extolling the Senasbaugh family for the courage with which they were enduring the tragedy.  

The pall bearers constituted an interesting group of Sensabaugh friends, including   R. H. Shuttles (wholesale jeweler),  S. J. Hay (former mayor of Dallas and one of the founders of Trinity MECS where he sometimes preached),  and B. M. Burgher, postmaster and layman in Oaklawn Methodist.

What about the grieving widow---two small children, and having to live with the knowledge that her husband had pulled off one of the grandest deceptions in U. S. History and most audacious attacks ever?  

Leona enrolled in SMU and received a master’s in 1916.  She taught at Wesley College ( Greenville) then Alexander Collegiate Institute (later Lon Morris College in Jacksonville) before returning to SMU as language instructor and then  Acting Dean of Women.

Tragedy continued to follow her.   Her daughter Daisy died in dormitory fire at ACI in 1919.  Leona died on June 22, 1941 at the age of 54 and was buried in the same cemetery on Samuell, now called Oak Hill.   Flags on the SMU campus flew at half mast to honor her.   (a note of interest—both President Hyer and Gov. William P. Clements are buried in the same cemetery.)

You are probably wondering about whether the bomb on the Minnehaha exploded.  Yes, it did, after Muenter/Holt had already committed suicide.  Fortunately he had set the dynamite so far away from the munitions that the bomb did only minor damage.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

This Week in Texas Methodist History   June 21

Schuyler Hoes Signs Anti-Slavery Convention Proclamation, June 23, 1841.

The strong connections between New England Methodism and the Republic of Texas may come as a surprise to many readers.  After all, after the division of the MEC into northern and southern branches 1844-1846, Texas Methodism assumed a predominately Southern cast, and its preachers regularly denounced New Englanders as “radical abolitionists.”  

Before 1846, though, several prominent New Englanders came to the Republic of Texas.  Martin Ruter was born in Massachusetts and grew up in Vermont.  Abel Stevens left his family in Providence, R. I. when he came to Texas. Homer Thrall, who eventually wrote a history of Texas and another one of Texas Methodism, was born in Vermont.  Chauncey Richardson was also born in Vermont.  

Much of the connection was driven by the simple law of supply and demand.  Both New England and the Ohio Valley had a surplus of preachers, and the Republic of Texas had a large demand, and a very scant supply.  Why didn’t more Southern preachers come to Texas?  Because the theft of Native American lands in Mississippi and Alabama had produced a land rush and accompanying development boom in those states. 

One of the most interesting Methodist missionaries to Texas was Schuyler Hoes who came as an agent for the American Bible Society rather than under appointment as a missionary.  Hoes chose the river route, down the Ohio and Mississippi to New Orleans, then to Houston, arriving in November, 1838.  He cooled his heels in Houston for about a month, working with both Littleton Fowler and William Allen (Presbyterian missionary) waiting for the shipment of Bibles, New Testaments, and tracts to arrive.  Once they did, he set out on a grand tour of Texas settlements.  He organized local chapters of the American Bible Society in settlements from Nacogdoches to Texana.  He preached at camp meetings and solicited donations for the cause.  

Unlike so many missionaries, Hoes was a married man, having wed Minerva Falley in 1833.  Perhaps that was the reason he returned to New England after his organizing tour.  On the other hand, we can speculate that his tour through Texas gave him a close look at slavery, and he was repulsed!

In 1841 Hoes was living in Ithaca, New York, and was one of the signatories to the call for the Christian Anti-Slavery Convention to be held in Auburn, New York, June 23.  The next year he was appointed to Lowell, Massachusetts, and continued his abolitionist activism.  

When Littleton Fowler went to New York City as a delegate to the 1844 General Conference of the MEC, he reconnected with Hoes.  One of his letters from New York reports that they dined together.  Fowler wrote that Hoes was an abolitionist—one of the New England abolitionists who had actually seen the evils of slavery first hand.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

This Week in Texas Methodist History   June 14

Caldwell Methodists Protest Sunday Motion Pictures, June 14, 1934

One of the sources of continuing fascination for this Methodist historian is constantly changing list of social causes that have attracted the attention of the denomination.   Armed with Biblical justification and righteous zeal, Methodists have plunged into many social causes—and incidentally ignored others.  For example, the issue of the prohibition of alcohol consumed the social conscience of the church for more than a generation.  That same generation, with the exception of some brave women such as Jessie Daniel Ames, seemed to ignore the systematic terrorism of African Americans through lynching during the same period.   Why did the church participate in a crusade to rid the world of alcohol and turn a deaf ear to the cries of murder victims?  

Another issue that is only an historical footnote today is the drive to make the injunction of the 4th Commandment the law of the land—“Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.”

Methodism spread into a young nation divided on the subject.  In New England and states populated by descendants of Puritans there were usually “Blue Laws,” so called because they had been printed on blue paper.  These laws used the power of the civil authority to restrict activities on Sunday, bringing both commerce and recreation to a halt.  Presumably the citizens, freed from these distractions, would attend church and listen to the 3-hour sermons for which Puritans were famous.
The southern states, on the other hand, often had a different outlook on the Sabbath—in many southern states, including Texas, Sunday was a day for horse racing, wrestling contests, shooting at targets, --in other words excuses to get together and drink and gamble on the outcome of contests.  Horse racing for stakes was so popular on Sunday afternoons that the small town of Washington on the Brazos had two race tracks.  

Methodists were attracted to the restrictions on Sunday activities.  Travel diaries reveal that Methodist preachers usually refrained from travelling on Sunday, even if not doing so represented a hardship.  When Methodists and Baptists became predominate denominations, they used their new influence to enact blue laws. 
The enactment of blue laws was in some ways similar to the fight for prohibition in that the groups in that both were attempts to impose Anglo-Southern mores on the whole population.   Texans of Mexican and German ancestry were accustomed to spending Sundays shopping, socializing, visiting family, or participating in club activities such as the German Schutzen Vereins  (shooting clubs), nine pin bowling, or Turner Vereins (gymnastic, physical culture societies).   

Just at the battle for prohibition was won, so too was the campaign to enact Sunday closing laws.    By the 1920’s and 1930’s Methodist reformers could look with pride on the success of their efforts to create more wholesome communities.  It is difficult for someone of my generation (b. 1946) to explain to younger persons how thoroughly pervasive Sunday closing laws were as late as the 1950s.  

There were always problems in the details.  For example, our family sometimes patronized a cafeteria after Sunday morning worship.  Did not our patronage mean that food service employees had to work on Sunday?  

Another issue was motion pictures, and in 1934 the Methodist and Baptist preachers in Caldwell tried to get the motion picture theater, the Matsonian (so named because it was owned by the Matson family). Both preachers, Terry Wilson (Methodist) and W. O. Wright (Baptist), denounced the Matsonian’s Sunday showings from their pulpits on a Sunday morning.  After the Methodist service, the congregation asked Rev. Wilson to write a protest letter to Mr. and Mrs. Matson—which he did.
It should be noted that the Mr. and Mrs. Matson had already made concessions to the churches.  On Sundays, they had only two showings in the afternoon so that no one would skip Sunday nigh services to attend a movie.  

The flap over Sunday movies seems quaint in today’s world which seems to have discarded the 4th Commandment injunction.  There are a few relics of the era such as the Texas law that prohibits sale or public consumption of alcohol before noon on Sunday.  For the most part, however, Methodists ignore their tradition of Sabbath observance.  Just notice what happens on a Sunday after church in the fall when the Cowboys have a 12:00 game.  I recently heard of a Houston preacher who wears his Texans jersey under his clerical robes so he can rush to the stadium after pronouncing the benediction.  

On a personal note. . .   I would welcome a swing back of the pendulum toward recapturing the sacredness of the Sabbath.  If such a pendulum swing would occur, it could not be on the legalistic basis by which it was formerly justified.  Instead, recapturing the Sabbath rest would depend upon evidence from economics, sociology, and psychology that show the benefits of the practice as a social justice issue for workers. 

Saturday, June 06, 2015

This Week in Texas Methodist History  June 7

Abel Stevens Announces Plans for Celebration of Methodist Centennial  June 12,  1839

The Washington Circuit Spring, 1839,  Quarterly Conference directed its circuit rider, Abel Stevens, to write a letter to the newspapers of the region to announce the circuit’s plans to celebrate the Centennial of Methodism.

The celebration was world-wide and honored the formation of Methodist societies in and around London in 1739.   In 1839 Texas was a frontier of missionary activity stemming from those early societies that had turned into one of the great mass movements of the 19th century.  Methodist missionaries in that first century carried Wesleyan doctrines and practices to North America, Europe, the Caribbean, Liberia, Brazil, and the Indian subcontinent.  

Abel Stevens, the preacher for the Washington Circuit in the Republic of Texas, was just one of hundreds of devout preachers willing to volunteer for hazardous missionary duty.  Stevens was a well-educated New Englander, and unlike most mission volunteers, a married man.  He left his wife in Providence, Rhode Island, and arrived in Texas in December, 1838.  Littleton Fowler, the presiding elder, had assigned him to Galveston-Houston, but Stevens immediately began asking for a transfer to the Washington Circuit, which in 1838-1839 was the strongest Methodist circuit in Texas.  Fowler finally agreed to the request, so Stevens began riding the Washington Circuit in Feb. 1839. 

His letter to the Houston Telegraph and Texas Register which appeared on June 12, shows that Stevens threw himself into his duties energetically.  He began making plans for the centennial celebration.  Methodist preachers, then as now, realize that every celebration is an excuse for fundraising.  Stevens quickly learned that the Texas economy operated mainly on a barter system.  There was very little coin in the Republic.  Lots of paper currency circulated, both Texian and from “wildcat” banks in the United States.  Some of that paper currency was bogus, and even the genuine notes were highly depreciated and constantly fluctuating in value.

Texas did have one great resource—land.  Land scrip—that is promises from the government for land to be surveyed later—circulated widely.  Veterans of the War for Independence, new settlers, merchants who had supplied provisions to the Army—all received land scrip in payment.

Since that was the main form of wealth his parishioners possessed, that’s what Stevens asked for.  His letter of June 12 reveals the success of that campaign and incidentally gives the names of the most prominent churches on his circuit.
Independence, which was already in 1839 more Baptist than Methodist, was the only church to donate money  ($277 probably in notes), but the other donations were in land, as follows.

San Felipe—12 acres
This donation was for a parsonage.  The church was on public land owned by the municipality and shared by all denominations.  That church  still exists and is still used by a United Methodist congregation, and it is still owned by the city government. 

Piney Creek -50 acres for a camp ground
This site was adjacent to the home of  Rev. William Medford.  The settlement was eventually incorporated into Bellville. 

Center Hill--25 acres
This was about three miles north of Piney Creek and was the development project of David Ayres who thought it would anchor a Methodist settlement.  When it lost the county seat election to Bellville, the town was abandoned.  

Travis—2 acres
This town was about 8 miles northwest of Piney.  It was a thriving settlement until 1879-1880 when the Gulf Coast Santa Fe built its tracks about two miles to the east.  The town was abandoned in favor of the new stop at Kenney, named for Rev. John Wesley Kenney (1799-1865) who made his home in Travis.

Caney Creek—5 acres
This tract included the grounds where the 1834 and 1835 camp meetings were held. 

Halloway-2 acres

Cedar Creek==25 acres
This site was about 3 miles northwest of Chappell Hill.  When Chappell Hill was created, the settlement was folded into it.  On June 14, 2015 there will be an historical marker dedication at Cedar Creek.  The marker text acknowledges its importance in Methodist history.  

Independence –4 acres 

Stevens did not stay around long enough to see his efforts develop into churches.  In June, 1839, he returned to the United States.  He went by the Advocate offices in New York City and submitted the same article for publication in that denominational organ.  He also tried to get the Publishing House to print forms for the donation of real property—fill in the blanks.  He went on to become a famous Methodist historian.