It’s the stuff of Texas folklore. A nearly 200-year-old holy text with missing pages, stories of a thieving custodian and bickering history experts sounds like a decent plot of a made-for-TV movie.
This drama, however, can’t be seen on cable. It’s playing out in the sterile archives of the Texas Supreme Court and the main actor is none other than Huntsville’s namesake, Sam Houston.
On Tuesday, incoming Governor Greg Abbott placed his hand on the tattered cover of Sam Houston’s Bible as he took his oath of office on the steps of the state capital. The historic tome has felt the palms of more than 30 governors and countless state officials as they continued one of the longest running inaugural traditions in the U.S.
Over the past five years, caretakers of the text have collected evidence questioning the age-old story of it’s provenance and now suggest that the time-honored tradition is based on botched information.
Initially, the book was believed to be from Sam Houston’s personal library and writing on the flyleaf matching his style corroborated that tale. Houston was said to have given the book to the Texas court in the late 1800s, but no concrete record of that gift exists. The real kicker is that Houston’s signature is mysteriously absent, as the bottom half of the page was torn off long ago.
It was long-believed that the page was ripped off by a thieving janitor, who stole thousands of pages of Supreme Court scripts in the 1970s. However, a recently discovered news article from 1941 that describes the torn page in great detail has exonerated the janitor, but still sheds no clarity on the whereabouts of the signature or whether or not the book belonged to Houston in the first place.
Despite the controversy, the historic significance of the text is without question. The book’s publishing date is in 1816, an undoubtedly formative time for the nation and a mere 20 years before the creation of the Republic of Texas. By it’s very age and period, it is an artifact that represents a fascinating time in the history of our nation.
While the debate rages on, many scholars still believe that the text was Houston’s own. Mac Woodward, the director of the Sam Houston Memorial Museum, had the chance to see a copy of the flyleaf firsthand.
“As far as I could tell, it was Sam Houston’s writing. … I had the chance to compare it with other copies of his writing and it is identical,” Woodward said Tuesday.
Prominent Houston scholar and biographer James L. Haley also agrees that the proof is in the writing. In an article on the Texas Supreme Court website Haley confirmed “I can say with a high degree of confidence that the inscription is indeed in his hand. The formation of the letters is uniformly consonant with all that I have seen, and the rubric, especially, is unquestionably his.”
Even still, neasayers cite that the writing has never been fully examined by a forensic document examiner and that concrete proof of Houston’s ownership is still up in the air. The court would love nothing more than to see this mystery come to an end, but that doesn’t seem likely.
Amidst all the debate and mystery, one fact remains true, the book is at the very least historically relevant.
“It’s not important to classify it.” Woodward said. “Whether it was his Bible or the one he used shouldn’t be important. The Bible is important because of it’s connection not only to him but it’s connection to the state of Texas and the surrounding community.”