John Houston is seen in 1897 at the time he became Nelson’s first mayor. Prior to that

COLUMN: Young John Houston cheated death

Twenty years before he was elected Nelson’s first mayor, John Houston nearly died in a Texas saloon brawl.

First of two parts

Twenty years before he was elected Nelson’s first mayor, John Houston nearly died after being stabbed in a Texas saloon brawl.

At least that appears to be the case judging from items that have popped up on a series of digitized newspaper sites. According to Patrick Wolfe’s definitive biography of John Houston, published in the winter 1978-79 issue of BC Studies, Houston left Peel County, Ont. as a teenager in the 1860s, and apprenticed in a print shop in Chicago. “He spent a number of years working in the newspaper business in Missouri and Texas … [In 1883] he was in Dallas, where he was in charge of a $100,000 printing business for a short time.”

Wolfe cited an unpublished manuscript by early Nelson historian R.G. Joy and an account that appeared in the Nelson Tribune in 1905. However, I don’t think any contemporary accounts of Houston’s travels before arriving in BC in the late 1880s have ever turned up — until now.

The earliest item I came across actually places Nelson’s future mayor in Texas several years earlier than previously thought. An ad in the Dallas Daily Herald of June 23, 1875 says: “FOR SALE/Job Printing Office/I offer for sale my job printing offices, which is one of the most complete in the state. Price reasonable/JOHN HOUSTON/Cor. Elm and Austin sts., Dallas.”

The same paper noted on Feb. 8, 1876: “Mr. John Houston, formerly proprietor of a job office in this city, returned yesterday, after several months absence.”

Then grave news appeared on May 19, 1877: “Mr. William Apperson, who was in Weatherford at the time, gave us the following account of the stabling of the well known printer, John Houston, at that place. On Tuesday night last, Houston and a man named Gordon, from Fort Worth, got into difficulty at Dunn’s saloon, when Gordon drew a knife and assaulted Houston, getting him down, and cutting away.

“Mr. Dunn, the saloon man, told Mr. Apperson afterwards, that there were two policemen in the saloon at the time, and instead of attempting to stop Gordon, one of them threw up his hands and said, ‘Lord, he has got a knife!’ A gambler who was present pulled his pistol and drew down on Gordon and made him desist. He was then arrested and locked up.

“Houston received nine wounds. One in the side, penetrating the lung, the other in the neck, both of which are considered fatal. Mr. Apperson left Weatherford Wednesday at half-past one and Houston was still alive though his physicians had no hope of him. Gordon was brought out for examination, but the justice remanded him back to jail and put off the trial two weeks, to await the result of Houston’s injuries.”

Five days later, the Austin Weekly Democratic Statesman noted: “John had many friends in Dallas who lament his untimely death and the manner in which it was brought about, and weep that they voted against prohibition.”

Yet even death couldn’t keep Houston down, for as the Statesman reported on June 7: “John Houston, a printer, reported dead in Weatherford, is yet alive and kicking, having wholly recovered from his wounds.” The Daily Herald added: “We notice that John Houston, who was so severely stabbed a short time ago, is once more in good health, and has come back to see his old friends.”

What became of Gordon isn’t known. If this was, in fact, our John Houston, it was just the first of three times his death was prematurely reported. In 1906, a rumour circulated that he had been killed in Nevada, but it proved to be mistaken identity.

On May 4, 1910, his obituary appeared in several Victoria and Vancouver newspapers. Houston wrote to the Vancouver Province: “I didn’t know I was dead until your paper came out and even then I might have questioned the accuracy of the information if I hadn’t known its reliability. Don’t be putting in any correction — I’ll make good on the story.”

True to his word, Houston died on March 8.

Next: Houston goes missing.

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