History’s Mysteries : General Houston (part two)

When last we blogged, General Houston’s life was taking a tragic turn. The devastating Hill’s Block fire in February 1876 must have been a terrific blow to him both professionally and personally and no doubt created hardship within his marriage. Ah—marriage. His Daily Times obituary revealed that Houston was married three times. Houston married first wife, Lizzie, shortly after the Civil War. They moved from Rockford, Illinois to Davenport sometime following the August 1870 federal census, but Lizzie is thought to have died around 1871 after only four years of marriage.

A second marriage to Malvina Kelley was to change the course of his life. Malvina was only about 18 years old when she and General Houston married at the Muscatine County home of her father, Henry Kelley, in December of 1873. It must have been Malvina’s clothing that was mentioned as completely lost in the Hill’s Block fire. Devastated by their losses, perhaps the young woman felt trapped in the marriage and sought refuge with her parents, perhaps the significant age difference created some difficulties between the couple as suggested in newspaper accounts, or perhaps Malvina was “high spirited” as noted in a West Liberty History. Regardless, the August 3, 1876 issue of the Davenport Democrat newspaper sported the headline “General Houston Murders His Father-in-Law, Henry Kelley, at West Liberty”. The Muscatine Daily Journal of the same date led with “Murder at West Liberty. A Negro Barber Kills his Father-in-Law, Shooting him Three Times”.

“He lived fast, drinking and gambling, and his wife being rather handsome and he not overly attractive, and very jealous withal, it is not at all surprising that serious quarrels marred the peace of the household.” (Muscatine Daily Journal, Thursday August 3, 1876, page 4.)

The newspapers clearly drew fast conclusions and rumors fed upon other rumors regarding what had occurred in West Liberty that night. It was reported that General Houston was an abusive, jealous husband.

The implication was that Malvina was living in her father’s home, Henry Kelley defended his daughter, and General Houston killed him in cold blood. One paper said Houston continued firing until he had emptied the contents of five barrels into the old man’s body. Another claimed we drew a revolver and shot Kelley three times in the back. Elaborate tales of premeditation were printed. As for General Houston, he said he shot Kelly in self-defense.

A Muscatine County District Court Grand Jury returned an indictment for murder against Houston on August 29th. The case of the State vs. “General” Houston was set for Friday, September 1st, but the trial of two men who had robbed a tramp occupied the entire day. Finally, on Monday the trial began.

“The courtroom is crowded with spectators. Mrs. Houston and Mrs. Kelly, her mother, are in attendance. The latter testified this afternoon.” (Muscatine Daily Journal, Monday September 4, 1876, page 4.)

“A sensation occurred in the court room during the trial of the Houston murder case this afternoon. The grand jury came in with a recusant witness who refused to answer the question ….The witness would not say a word…He says he will “rot in jail” before he will answer.” (Muscatine Daily Journal, Tuesday, September 5, 1876, page 4.)

“Judge Brannan made the closing argument in the Houston case today and at 4 o’clock the jury retired, but up to the hour of going to press it had not returned a verdict.”
“P.S. Just as we were closing our forms the report was brought in that the jury in the Houston case returned a verdict of ………(Muscatine Daily Journal Wednesday, September 6, 1876, page 4)

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