Ken Bridges Johnston embarked on an influential newspaper career

Rienzi Johnston was the powerful editor of the Houston Post, one of the most influential newspapers in the state. Although mostly forgotten today, he was once one of the most widely read men in state, and his words could make or break political careers. He led a life that took him from a humble background in Georgia that fled as a child to fight in the Civil War to become the editor of one of Texas’ most influential newspapers. 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 records are unclear and birth certificates were unknown at the time. He was the eldest 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 printing alongside his father and was involved in the newspaper industry from his early years.

When the civil war broke out, he was still a child. At age 12 in 1862, he ran away from home and attempted to enlist in the Confederate Army. Although officially the Confederacy would only take men over the age of 18, Civil War historians note that thousands of soldiers on both sides were underage. Realizing his young age, the army made him a drummer instead of putting him into the infantry or sending him home. He served for a year, was discharged, 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 work as a journalist. In 1870 Johnston moved to the bustling port city of Savannah and became editor of the Savannah Morning News. In 1878, Johnston moved to Texas and obtained a job as editor of the little Crockett Patron. His skills were in demand and he moved to Corsicana the following year to become editor of the Corsicana Observer. He soon branched out and started his own newspaper, The Independent. In 1880 he moved to Austin, where he obtained a position with the Austin Statesman.

Meanwhile in Houston, a group of investors were trying to revive the short-lived Houston Post. Johnston had already established a high reputation among Texan journalists and he was hired as editor when it was restarted in 1885. The Post quickly became one of the most important newspapers in the state, mainly due to the editorial and the management of its newsroom by Johnston. Johnston’s editorials were regularly published in newspapers across the country and quoted by politicians and businessmen. He often wrote impassioned defenses of freedom of speech and freedom of the press as well as opinions on current events. In 1898, Texas Democrats offered to appoint him lieutenant governor, but he declined.

In September 1912, Senator Joe Bailey of Gainesville, hurt by corruption charges, announced his resignation from the Senate, effective January 3, 1913. Governor Oscar Colquitt appointed Johnston to serve the remainder of the term, although he would only be a few weeks. Johnston agreed and headed to Washington. There was very little activity in the Senate, and Johnston’s term passed largely without incident.

His service ended Jan. 29, replaced by newly elected Morris Sheppard of Texarkana, a popular congressman who will serve 28 years in the U.S. Senate.

Johnston’s 25 days in the Senate was nearly the shortest term of any senator up to that time, certainly of any Texan. However, on January 3, Senator Jeff Davis of Arkansas died suddenly. Not to be outdone (or underestimated), John Heiskell was nominated by the Governor of Arkansas to fill the position on January 6th. Heiskell, an influential editor like Johnston, also stepped down on Jan. 29, giving him 23 days in the Senate. The two men, however, far surpassed the ultimate short-term record holder: 87-year-old Senator Rebecca Latimer Felton of Georgia, who served just one day in November 1922, becoming the first woman to sit in the Senate and the oldest person ever appointed to that position.

Johnston didn’t just quit politics altogether. In 1916, he was elected to the Texas State Senate, representing Harris County. He was elected president pro tempore of the Senate in 1918, the highest-ranking member of the legislature, second only to the lieutenant governor. He retired completely from the Houston Post in 1919, and in 1920 Governor William P. Hobby appointed him to head 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 fierce competition from the Houston Chronicle and closed in 1995.

Ken Bridges is a writer, historian and native Texan. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of North Texas. Bridges can be contacted by email at [email protected]