Houston Deplored: Our Wretched Mudhole Through History

A "city without a single good restaurant," and "infested with Methodists and ants" to boot.

By John Lomax February 27, 2014

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Houston weather: Stan the Man was not a fan.

Back in the late 1960s, Houston Post city columnist George Fuermann released a series of pamphlets on various aspects of local history. The series included one on early motoring in Houston, another on O. Henry's brief stint at the Post, and another called "Houston in Song and Verse."

I've read a few of them, and my favorite is "Houston Deplored," his round-up of a century-plus of barbs and slams against Houston, a place one early Texas legislator called "this detested, self-poluted [sic], isolated mudhole of a city."

Fuermann introduces us early on to Ezekiel Cullen, who in addressing the Third Congress of the Republic of Texas in 1841, spoke thusly: "That abominable place—that wretched mudhole—that graveyard of men—the City of Houston." (Zeke's grandson Hugh Roy Cullen thought more highly of Houston, luckily.)

Early legislators and other members of the upper crust apparently competed to come up with the ultimate insult, like they were battle-rappers. In 1837, Kelsey Hariss Douglass, the representative from Nacogdoches, called Houston "the most miserable place in the world," and lamented that "we live like hogs."

"Drinking, fighting and rangling [sic] is the order of the day at this place," Douglass added.

In the late 1830s, John Hunter Herndon, an attorney, famously called Houston "the greatest sink of dissipation and vice that modern times have ever known." Sighed Herndon: "What a den of villains must there be here."

A prim historian by the name of Erasmus Mumford weighed the Capital of Texas in the moral balance and found the city wanting. "A moral desert, a hell on earth," he intoned, where "vice of most every name and grade reigned triumphantly." (Mumford also wrote that Sam Houston, though a great speaker, also swore too much.)

A French Catholic missionary by the name of Emmanuel-Henri-Dieudonné Domenech came through town in 1848 and pronounced that "Houston is a wretched little town composed of about twenty shops, and a hundred huts, dispersed here and there, among trunks of felled trees. It is infested with Methodists and ants."  (If it makes you feel any better, Father Domenech was no more impressed with Austin,  "a small dirty town" with "only one wretched hotel.")

Jumping ahead almost 100 years, journalist John Gunther showed that outsider opinion of Houston had not improved much. In 1946, Gunther called Houston a place "where few people think about anything but money." It was also America's "noisiest city" and was beset “with a residential section mostly ugly and barren." That Houston was also, according to Gunther, "a city without a single good restaurant" and full of "hotels with cockroaches."

Frank Lloyd Wright diagnosed us with the clap.

Frank Lloyd Wright was unimpressed with our 1950s skyline: "Houston is an example of what can happen when architecture catches a venereal disease."  

Inspired by Fuermann, we've been collecting this invective from other sources. The next two come from Douglas Milburn's two books about long walks in 1970s Houston.

One of our favorite quotes came from St. Louis Cardinal legend Stan "The Man" Musial: “Houston has three seasons. July, then August, followed by Summer.” 

Did you know Houston made it in to Allen Ginsberg's "Howl"? "I saw the best minds of my generation...who lounged hungry and lonesome through Houston seeking jazz or sex or soup."

Fifty-five years later, the best minds of this generation can easily feast on sex and soup here, but jazz is still somewhat rare.

All the Grateful Dead had to see about us was that we are "too close to New Orleans," but Hunter S. Thompson was more effusive in a 2004 article: 

"Houston is a cruel, crazy town on a filthy river in East Texas with no zoning laws and a culture of sex, money and violence. It's a shabby, sprawling metropolis ruled by brazen women, crooked cops and super- rich pansexual cowboys who live by the code of the West -- which can mean just about anything you need it to mean, in a pinch." (That was one of his last great quotes, looking back.)

Houston seemed to hold a special, very dark place in Thompson's heart. He once contemplated setting a twisted and violent novel in a sleazy motel on South Main and on the Galveston Seawall, and it was in the downtown Hyatt that he came up with "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro." 

Thomas Pynchon is another titan of 20th Century American literature with a strange penchant for the Bayou City. Because of his references to local landmarks and musicians, some believe he might have lived here incognito for a time. Sure enough, we were mentioned in Bleeding Edge, the master's 2013 opus, and we'll close with that one:

"'He's a greedy little shit,' Eric's head now in a halo of Daffy Duck froth droplets, 'eternity in a motel lounge in Houston Texas with a Andrew Lloyd Webber mix repeating forever on the stereo is too good for his sorry ass.'" 

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