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  • In the Governor’s Shadow: The True Story of Ma and Pa Ferguson by Carol O’Keefe Wilson
  • Patrick Cox
In the Governor’s Shadow: The True Story of Ma and Pa Ferguson. By Carol O’Keefe Wilson. (Denton: University of North Texas Press, 2014. Pp. 400, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index.)

Miriam and James Ferguson are among the most colorful and controversial politicians in Texas history. Both supporters and detractors knew them as “Ma and Pa—colloquial monikers that have carried forward to this day. Notable contemporary southern politicians of the Fergusons included Huey Long, Theodore Bilbo, and Ben Tillman. Each gained prominence and success while they utilized populist and often racist appeals. The Fergusons employed similar appeals but held the distinction of being a husband and wife duo that retained political power in Texas for nearly four decades.

Carol O’Keefe Wilson, a historian who has worked as a Certified Fraud Examiner, has applied her analytical skills at unearthing the business and political dealings of the Fergusons. In particular, the author researched and analyzed the extent to which James Ferguson comingled his business, real estate investments, political appointments, contributions, and loans in a manner that exceeded even the lax ethical standards of the era. His ever-present personal financial distress, which the author described as “perilous,” was always at the forefront throughout his checkered political career (140). Jim Ferguson’s shaky financial condition and shady reputation also contributed to Miriam’s political problems during her two terms as governor.

James Ferguson’s unlikely ascent to the governor’s office ended almost as abruptly as it began. Governor Ferguson initially worked to improve public education, expand some state services, and establish the State Highway Commission. But from the beginning even noteworthy achievements involved cash exchanges, questionable loans, contributions or payments from officeholders and those who received state contracts. While many of these Progressive Era advancements were commendable, many illegal and questionable schemes connected to Governor Ferguson ultimately led to his downfall. As Wilson correctly stated, his personal financial catastrophe combined with his impeachment by the state legislature forced him from office in 1917.

In Miriam Ferguson’s highly publicized race for governor in 1924, she received considerable attention for both her gender and for being the anti-Klan candidate. The author correctly noted that her photo appearing on the family farm with two mules and wearing a tattered bonnet may have helped her with the rural vote but forever left her with the matronly, homely image. Notably, she gained the nickname Ma to accompany Pa. Thus Miriam Ferguson gained notoriety as a result [End Page 330] of increased media exposure that coincided with the national mood during the 1920s. People wanted to see and know more about their candidates—especially one of the first women in the nation to run successfully for a statewide office.

Wilson reminds readers that among the many admirers the Fergusons maintained throughout the years included their friends Sam Ealy Johnson and Lyndon Johnson. However, during the hotly contested, controversial 1940 U.S. Senate election between Congressman Johnson and Texas Governor W. Lee O’Daniel, Ferguson turned his back on his old family friends and threw his support to O’Daniel. As Wilson asserts, O’Daniel’s narrow come from behind victory may be attributed to Jim Ferguson.

Thanks to Wilson’s extensive research and use of newspapers, legislative and court records, the author has compiled the most far-reaching study of Miriam and Jim Ferguson to date. In the 100 years since James Ferguson first took office, the Fergusons are still remembered as among the most infamous southern officeholders of the era. Placing the Fergusons in this historical realm would have provided the reader with additional context that would have improved this study. However, Carol O’Keefe Wilson has provided a solid, comprehensive study of the Ferguson phenomenon and their gilded influence.

Patrick Cox
Austin, Texas


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pp. 330-331
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