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Oklahoma Journeys

Al Jennings

2009-09-26

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Only in Oklahoma could a lawyer become a train robber, go to jail then to prison, and then run for governor, but that's what Al Jennings did and in the process was almost elected. Notorious Al Jennings...his story is our Oklahoma Journeys this week from the Oklahoma History Center.

From the Oklahoma History Center, this is Oklahoma Journeys. I'm Michael Dean.

Al Jennings' life story sounds like one of the dime novels he allegedly enjoyed reading. He was born in Virginia in 1863, studied law there, then in 1889 came to the territory to practice law when his father was appointed probate judge in Woodward. Al settled in El Reno and in 1892 was elected county attorney of Canadian County. In 1894 he was defeated for re-election then moved to Woodward to practice law with his brothers Ed and John. On October 8, 1895, the Jennings brothers were in court defending several young men charged with stealing a keg of dynamite from a Santa Fe train. Assisting in the prosecution was Temple Houston. The proceedings turned into an argument in which the hot tempered Jennings shouted "You're a liar!" That evening Temple Houston, who was as handy with a guns as he was with the law, along with Jack Love, confronted Ed and John Jennings; Ed was killed, and John was seriously wounded. When Al learned what happened he vowed to kill Houston and Love and later said "All of the ambition of life went out of me, the future, which had seemed so bright to me as a young lawyer in a new country, died there with my brother."

Jennings actual outlaw career officially spanned only four months. It was on October 1, 1897, that he and his gang flagged down a Rock Island train north of Chickasha, collected about 300 dollars from passengers, then dynamited the express car and stole a jug of whiskey and a bunch of bananas. For two months they eluded a posse, then finally in November Deputy Marshal Bud Ledbetter and his men surrounded the gang in a farm house in eastern Oklahoma. In February 1899 Al Jennings was sentenced to life in prison, but a year later President McKinley commuted his sentence to five years, and in 1902 he was released and returned to Oklahoma. In 1907 President Roosevelt issued a full pardon. Jennings opened a law practice in Oklahoma City and by 1912 was making about $5,000 a year. That year he entered politics again, running for county attorney in Oklahoma County. He lost, but then decided to run for governor in 1914. Running as a Democrat, he was in a race with J.B.A. Robertson, an attorney from Chandler, and Robert L. Williams, the Chief Justice of the Oklahoma Supreme Court. When the campaigning was done and the votes were counted, Williams had won and Jennings had finished third.

During the campaign, one newspaper editor wrote "It is the general expression that if Jennings could talk to all of the voters of the state, he would unquestionably be the nominee." Another editor wrote, however, that if he won the nomination youngsters would say "Papa, I'm going to be a train robber, and then I may get elected governor of Oklahoma."

You can learn more about the fascinating political history of our state and how it is intertwined with our criminal justice system by the visiting the Oklahoma History Center, NE 23rd Street, just east of the state capitol in Oklahoma City. Oklahoma Journeys is a production of the Oklahoma History Center, dedicated to collecting, preserving and sharing our state's past. I'm Michael Dean.