Thursday, October 31, 2013

Ghosts at the Mansion House

We've added a new story for this year's Ghost Walk and it has to do with this very respectable building at the northeast corner of Congress and Milam.

The first building was erected here by Robert Boyce in 1837. It was the Mansion House, one of Houston's first hotels. 

In 1910, the Henry A. Henke Building was designed by architect R. D. Steele. Henry A. Henke was one of the founders of the Henke & Pillot Grocery Co., whose flagship store was at the southwest corner of Congress and Milam, where the Market Square Garage now stands. The building was remodeled in 1924 and again in 2000. In the 1980s, it was home to the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau. Today, the ground floor is occupied by Barnaby's Cafe and Fusion Taco.

Can't get more respectable than that.

Unless you know about Pamelia Mann, the lady who built the Mansion House.

When you think Pamelia Mann, think Belle Wattling from Gone with the Wind. She was rumored to be Houston's first and finest madam and the Mansion House was considered the town's best bordello.

Because her birthdate is not recorded, it's hard to know Pamelia's age. She was married successively to a man named Hunt, to Samuel W. Allen, to Marshall Mann, and to Tandy K. Brown. She had two sons, Flournoy (Nimrod) Hunt and Samuel Ezekiel W. Allen.

With her fourth husband, Marshall, Pamelia and her two boys immigrated to Texas in 1834 and settled near San Felipe. She temporarily ran an inn at Washington-on-the-Brazos during the Convention of 1836. She left her farm and joined with other settlers as they followed Sam Houston’s Texian Army in what became known as the Runaway Scrape -- an attempt to cross the Sabine River into the United States ahead of the advancing Mexican Army under President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna.

In April 1836, near Groce’s Ferry on the Brazos River, the army and its followers, including Mann, set up camp at Groce's plantation, where the soldiers spent twelve days drilling and training. During this time, two cannon, cast in Cincinnati and known as the Twin Sisters, traveled from Galveston to Groce’s Ferry, finally reaching the army on April 11, 1836.

A thirty-man artillery corps was immediately formed to service the guns, the only artillery with the Texas army. The corps was placed under the command of Lt. Col. James Clinton Neill. Their transportation was the responsibility of the army’s wagon master, Conrad Rohrer.

Pamelia Mann had oxen, just what Rohrer needed for the Twin Sisters. She agreed to donate the oxen to the army, which she believed was heading toward Nacogdoches, the Sabine River, and the safety of the United States.

On April 12, the Texian Army took to the road again. Two days out, they reached a fork in the road, the left fork heading to Nacogdoches and safety; the right fork heading toward Harrisburg. They took the right fork.

Gary Foreman, Out of Harm’s Way, accessed March 30, 2013.

At this point Mrs. Mann demanded the return of her oxen. The wagon master refused her request and, cracking his whip, urged the oxen on in his colorful trail drivers language. Mrs. Mann then pulled a pistol and vented her frustration using language with a vocabulary matching the wagon masters. Sam Houston, although himself rather proficient in the art of swearing, had never heard anything like the oaths she poured forth and finally threw up his hands and told her she could take the oxen back. She then cut them loose and retired in triumph. 
Gary Foreman, Out of the Quagmire,, accessed March 30, 2013.

Houston shrugged it off, dismounted from his horse and helped some men pull the cannon. Many tales would be told later of the woman who had "bested" Sam Houston.
On November 9, 1838, the Treasurer of the Republic of Texas issued Pamelia Mann a warrant for one-hundred dollars from its Treasury for the payment of the Military for a yoke of oxen.” The warrant was signed at the bottom by the Comptroller, and signed on the reverse with her mark x,” with Pamelia Mann, her mark, written around it in another hand. This warrant became part of the Robert E. Davis Collection and was put up for auction with other items in the Davis Collection in November 2011. The warrants current location is unknown.

After the battle of San Jacinto the Mann family lived briefly in the Lynchburg area, where Mrs. Mann made free use of captured Mexicans as a labor source. The family then moved to the vicinity of Harrisburg and by early 1837 had settled in the new town of Houston. Here, they established the Mansion House Hotel, which soon welcomed congressmen, government clerks, and army officers. It was also the site of much boomtown rowdiness. 

According to James Haley's recent biography of Sam Houston, in all of Houston in 1837-1838, “there were only three stoves, so a public fire was often made on the street. . . . To the horror of Lamar and the other stuffed shirts, [President] Houston passed away cold evenings consorting with commoners, downing hot toddies and regaling the ruffians with his oratory. If the weather was too inclement for the public fire, resort could be had to the Mansion House, a tavern of exotically dubious repute” [p. 198].

To this day, scholars debate as to whether the Mansion House was a brothel or a boarding house or both.

Houstons Red Light Districts May Have Had Their Start at Congress and Milam. It is supposed that the ter“red-light district” originates with railroad hands who carried lanterns with red lights. They would hang the lanterns on a horse post in front of a bordello to let their coworkers know where they were. They even took turns; while one was busy upstairs, the other manned the lanterns. One author described the Mansion House as having a “downstairs stocked with whiskey and an upstairs stocked with fawn-necked damsels.’” Controlling her clientele required a constant exercise of Mann’s frontiersmanship. The Mansion House “was a gaudy, baudy, rowdy, hotel and restaurant and a center of much activity in the new capitol of the Republic, frequented by those with both questionable and high-class reputations.”

Between 1836 and 1840 Pamelia Mann became involved in numerous legal cases, both as plaintiff and as defendant. She was indicted for a variety of crimes, ranging from larceny and assault to fornication. In 1839 she was convicted of forgery, a conviction that carried a mandatory death penalty. After spending six months in Harris County’s jail, upon the recommendation of the jury, she was awarded executive clemency by President Mirabeau B. Lamar and released.

In spite of her notoriety, she was accepted in the community. The attendants at her older son Nimrod’s wedding to Mary Henry, held at the Mansion House, included President Sam Houston as best man.

Pamelia Mann died on November 4, 1840, of yellow fever. Having tripled her net worth since arriving in Houston, she left an estate of more than $40,000.