Murder & Mayhem in Houston / Vance & Lomax



If you think high levels of violence and  and low levels of justice in Houston are bad now, you should have been around to breathe them in during the early to later decades of the 19th century. Back at the very start of our city, in fact, Houston attorney John Hunter Herndon described our precious Bayou City as “the greatest sink of  [vice] that modern times have known. …. What a den of villains must be there.”

That colorful back cover quotation from “Murder & Mayhem in Houston: Bayou City Crime” by Mike Vance and John Nova Lomax pretty much sets the tone of their thematic true story of Houston at its worst – from the ooze of its hot, humid, mosquito and cockroach capitol beginnings – through the sentencing of their most recent criminal case example in 2000, the same old story prevailed. One is left with the impression from this well written and carefully documented 140 page romp through violent crime cases over linear time that says so much about the values of life in these parts. – Houston life always has been precious – unless somebody out there felt they had a good enough reason to kill you. Then the so-called legal justice system kicked in and the aggrieved might get justice in the form of appropriate punishment of the convicted killer, but only if there were enough citizens on the grand jury who didn’t feel “I’d-a-done-the-same-thing, if-I-had-a-been-the-shooter-in-this-case.” In these instances, charges in the 19th century would either be dropped, never filed, or simply thrown in the trash pockets of way too many short memories.

The authors note that the 19th century was “a bad time to be black”. If that statement does sort of ring with as much news value as “it gets cold at the north pole”, the crimes portrayed against blacks by whites in that earlier period are still startling and disgusting to read about. “Murder & Mayhem” does implicitly help the reader to see how easy it was for lynching to become an “acceptable to many” form of street justice as well as a sadistic form of recreation for the ghoulishly ignorant whites whose hatred for liberated slaves was so boundless. In those days. lynching didn’t look that different from the way the formal justice system dealt out “justice”, anyway – if you could really call it justice with a clear conscience.

The cultural picture on justice in the 19th century was pretty much the same as the one that I got in UT law school in 1965-66, the year I decided to get a law degree between getting my master’s and doctoral degrees in the fields of human behavioral sciences. At UT, we learned on the first day of class from Professor Gus Hodges that all attorneys have to get used to potential clients coming at them demanding justice. “When someone comes to you as an attorney, demanding justice,” Professor Hodges always said, “your first question to them as an attorney should always be – ‘Well, how much justice can you afford?’ ” After a year in law school, I felt that I had learned enough about the law to help me with the forensic psychology part of my work without spending two more years getting a degree for a field in which I had no intention or desire of actually practicing as an attorney.

As Vance and Lomax so clearly show in their book,  justice in the 19th century was very much about power – even then. Or especially then. Take your pick.

White monied landholders had the power to get away with murdering poor penniless whites and blacks in Houston, and often times – without ever going to trial for murder.

White monied landholders also sometimes had the power to get away with killing each other, when others among their power peers felt they had “good reason” to do so. Vance and Lomax cover a case in which a monied man gets away with killing a doctor who allegedly made inappropriate advances to his wife during an office visit. To make a more involved story brief, the man escaped going to trial and conviction because too many of the man’s peers felt they would have done the same thing, if they had been in his shoes.

Poor blacks could often get away with killing each other. Black lives simply didn’t matter to most of the segregationist whites who once ran Houston with little to no opposition.. For those of us who love the idea of Houston as our home – and for all the good fair things it strives to be, this dirty actual truth about our community’s cultural history is shameful, ignorant, and hard to digest. We’ve always known it was there among the most salacious records of of our city’s racist history. Now we simply need to thank Mike Vance and John Nova Lomax for making it possible for us to face this history as factual in their well done new book.

We found our copy of “Murder & Mayhem in Houston” in the checkout lane of the big HEB store on Bunker Hill @ Katy Freeway. This $20 priced 2016 paper back publication of the History Press is well worth your investment of reading time and money.

We feel  certain that the book is also available on and at other HEB grocery locations and book stores in Houston.




2 Responses to “Murder & Mayhem in Houston / Vance & Lomax”

  1. shinerbock80 Says:

    Glad you liked the book, BIll. It is also available from the trunk of my car.

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