William Henry Davis “Alfalfa Bill” Murray generally wins the prize for Oklahoma’s most colorful and eccentric public figure. Born in Toadsuck, Texas, he became an intermarried citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, was president of the Oklahoma constitutional convention and first speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives. He served in Congress, started an ill-fated agricultural cooperative in Bolivia and hitchhiked his way to victory in the 1930 gubernatorial election.
Gruff, profane, ill-kempt, Murray denounced the Ku Klux Klan, called African Americans “coons” and sent the National Guard to keep Texas from opening a toll bridge across the Red River. He tromped around the governor’s office in his stockinged feet, had the executive mansion’s lawn planted to potatoes and made a delusional run for the presidency in 1932.
So yeah, he was pretty far out there.
But for sheer unadulterated weirdness, Henry S. Johnston runs a close second. A Biblical scholar, he also dabbled in Rosicrucianism, an esoteric and obscure philosophy allegedly based on “ancient truths” passed from Middle Eastern mystics to a medieval German named Christian Rosenkreutz. Johnston attended seances with his wife, consulted astrologers and numerologists, claimed to have been reincarnated at least twice, and counted his secretary’s canaries among his closest advisers.
In the end, it wasn’t the canaries that proved his undoing. It was the secretary.
These were hazardous times for Oklahoma governors. The previous elected chief executive, Jack Walton, last just 10 months before the Legislature removed him from office. Impeachment proceedings were initiated against two more of the state’s early governors, and a third had been indicted on federal fraud charges.
Johnston was elected governor in 1926. A dapper, scholarly man, he had been the first president pro tempore of the Oklahoma Senate, and for a short while it appeared his term as governor would be a successful one. At his urging, the Legislature increased appropriations for common education and authorized the construction of a crippled children’s hospital.
But lawmakers used to speaking to the chief executive whenever they liked were at first annoyed and then outraged by Johnston’s appointment of an executive secretary, Mayme Hammond, who blocked the door to the governor’s office. More than that, they believed, she exercised undue and possibly even mystical influence over Johnston, and at times acted as the de facto governor. At the end of the 1927 legislative session they demanded Hammonds be fired.
Johnston, in his typically meandering manner, refused.
“If you came to me with a thousand sheep,” he said, “and I had only one ewe lamb and you wanted me to destroy that, do you think I would be so base as to destroy it? I repeat, gentlemen, it would be yellow, it would be unjust to Mrs. Hammonds to sacrifice her and her character on false charges.”
Thus began what became known as the Ewe Lamb Rebellion.
Hammonds’ opponents labeled her a “She-svengali” and initiated a special session for the purpose of driving her and Johnston from office. Hammonds probably didn’t help herself any by explaining her ability to keep track of goings-on all over the state through astral projection. It also didn’t help that her relatives, including her husband Dr. O.O. Hammonds, began showing up and the state payroll.
The initial attempt to oust Johnston failed, but the continued presence of Hammonds and Johnston’s support of the Al Smith, the Democrats’ Catholic, anti-Prohibition candidate for president in 1928, eventually led to his undoing. In 1929, Johnston was convicted on a single count of incompetence and removed from office.
Thus, Oklahoma became and remains the only state to impeach and remove from office two consecutive elected governors.
Lieutenant Governor William J. Holloway, a level-head former state Senator, replaced Holloway and was able to put through several significant reforms during his short time in office. More importantly, he instilled a sense of order to state government despite the turmoil of the onset of the Great Depression.
But the Oklahoma constitution barred Holloway from seeking election to a full term in his own right, thus opening the way for Alfalfa Bill Murray — an eccentric, to be sure, but an eccentric no one dared impeach.