The spoken word can be forgotten the moment it is uttered, but the printed word lives for generations. A century ago, people relied on the printed words of the newspaper to inform them. Though mostly forgotten today, Texas newspaper editor Rienzi Johnston was one of the most respected of these writers. He led a life that brought him from a modest background in Georgia who ran away as a child to fight in the Civil War to becoming editor of one of the most influential newspapers in Texas. Along the way, he also embarked on one of the most unusual careers in the United States Senate.
Rienzi Melville Johnston was born in eastern Georgia in 1849 or 1850, but the records are not clear. He was the oldest of four children, and his father was a printer. Johnston’s family had deep roots in Georgia, including a great-grandfather who had fought in the American Revolution. He learned about printing at his father’s side and became involved in the newspaper business.
When the Civil War erupted, he was still a child. At the age of 12 in 1862, he ran away from home and tried to enlist in the Confederate Army. Though officially the Confederacy would only take men over the age of 18, Civil War historians note that thousands of troops on both sides were underage. Realizing his young age, the army made him a drummer instead of putting him in the infantry. He served for a year, was discharged, and then re-enlisted in 1864 for the remainder of the war. At the age of 14, he was already on his second tour of duty.
After his return to civilian life, he resumed his newspaper work. In 1870, Johnston moved to the busy port city of Savannah and became the city editor for the Savannah Morning News. In 1878, Johnston moved to Texas and secured a position as editor of the small Crockett Patron. His skills were in demand, and he moved to Corsicana the next year to serve as editor of the Corsicana Observer. He soon branched out and started his own paper, the Independent. In 1880, he moved to Austin, where he secured a position with the Austin Statesman.
Meanwhile in Houston, a group of investors were attempting to revive the short-lived Houston Post. Johnston had already established a great reputation among Texas journalists, and he was hired as editor when it restarted in 1885. The Post soon became one of the most important papers in the state, mostly because of Johnston’s writing and management of his newsroom. Johnston’s editorials were routinely run in papers across the nation and quoted by politicians and businessmen. He often wrote impassioned defenses of the freedom of speech and freedom of the press as well as opinions of current events. In 1898, Texas Democrats offered to nominate him for lieutenant governor, but he declined.
In September 1912, Sen. Joe Bailey of Gainesville, wounded by accusations of corruption, announced his resignation from the Senate, effective January 3, 1913. Gov. Oscar Colquitt appointed Johnston to fill out the remainder of the term, even though it would be only a few weeks. Johnston accepted and headed to Washington. There was very little activity in the Senate, and Johnston’s term was largely uneventful.
His service ended on January 29, replaced by the newly-elected Morris Sheppard of Texarkana, a popular congressman who would serve 28 years in the U. S. Senate.
Johnston’s 25 days in the Senate was almost the shortest tenure of any Senator up to that time, certainly of any Texan. However, on January 3, Sen. Jeff Davis of Arkansas died suddenly. Not to be outdone (or underdone), John Heiskell was appointed by the Arkansas governor to fill the position on January 6. Heiskell, an influential newspaper editor like Johnston, also ended his service on January 29, giving him 23 days in the Senate. Both men, however, far exceeded the ultimate record-holder on the shortest term: the 87-year-old Sen. Rebecca Latimer Felton of Georgia who served only one day in November 1922, becoming the first woman to serve in the Senate and the oldest person ever appointed to the position.
Johnston was not content exit politics entirely. In 1916, he was elected to the Texas State Senate, representing Harris County. He was elected as president pro tempore of the Senate in 1918, the highest-ranking member of the legislative body, second only to the lieutenant governor. He fully retired from The Houston Post in 1919, and in 1920, Gov. William P. Hobby appointed him to serve as head of the Texas Prison Commission. He continued to serve until his death in February 1926.
Decades later, the Houston Museum of Fine Arts named one of its buildings after him. The Houston Post, however, fell victim to the fierce competition of the Houston Chronicle and was shut down in 1995.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at email@example.com.