Burnett, Mary Couts (ca. 1856–1924)

By: Debbie Mauldin Cottrell

Type: Biography

Published: May 1, 1995

Updated: October 12, 2020

Mary Couts Burnett, philanthropist, was born in Parker County around 1856, one of five daughters of James R. Couts, a banker. She was raised in Weatherford, married Claude Barradel, and was widowed. Around 1892 in Weatherford she married Texas rancher and widower Samuel Burk Burnett, after which the couple settled in Fort Worth. Mary apparently was never comfortable with the frontier life, and tensions also resulted from Burk Burnett's close relationship with his granddaughter, Anne Burnett Tandy, the daughter of Thomas L. Burnett, Burk's son from his first marriage. Mary and Burk had one son of their own, Samuel Burk Burnett, Jr., who died in their Fort Worth home in 1917. During the course of their marriage Mary became convinced that her husband was trying to kill her. He attributed these fears to hallucinations, had his wife declared legally insane, and confined her in a private home in Weatherford.

She stayed there until the day of her husband's death in 1922, when she escaped from her confinement, returned to Fort Worth, and quickly succeeded in having her insanity status revoked with the assistance of her physician, Dr. Charles H. Harris. She next challenged her husband's will, in which he had left the bulk of his estate to his granddaughter Anne, and in 1923 was awarded half of his $6 million fortune. She then began organizing her plans for the distribution of her inheritance upon her death. She ultimately decided that Texas Christian University in Fort Worth would receive most of the $3 million. Though she had no immediate ties to the school, her father had been an admirer of Addison Clark, cofounder and first president of the school, which was then located at Thorp Spring; James Couts had, in fact, contributed money to the school. Moreover, Mary was interested in seeing her money remain in Fort Worth and had expressed, in the deed of trust, an appreciation of TCU's recognition of a broad range of religious faiths, despite its denominational ties to the Christian Church (Mary was Episcopalian). Both Dr. Harris and her lawyer, William J. Slay, approved of her decision, and she probably found no small satisfaction in leaving her money to a university to which her husband had declined to contribute. Her gift to TCU, at that time one of the largest fortunes ever left to an educational institution in Texas, was announced in December 1923, and a board of trustees, which she chaired, was established to administer it. Other trustees were Harris, Slay, Mrs. Ollie Lake Burnett, Mrs. Ella Bardin, and John Sweatt. Although at her death Mary's sisters and their representatives challenged her will by claiming she was insane when she authored it, an out-of-court settlement was reached, with TCU retaining the majority of the initial gift. Included in Mrs. Burnett's decision to leave TCU her estate was the stipulation that part of the bequest be set aside for the construction of a building bearing her name. Work on this building, a new library, began soon after the gift was announced, and she had the satisfaction of seeing the Mary Couts Burnett Library partially constructed by the time of her death. The library was dedicated in March 1925.

She was described by one historian as a woman of refinement and culture with a strong interest in education. In addition to her gift to TCU, the trust also provided $12,000 for the Dixon Colored Orphanage in Gilmer, for the teaching of domestic science. Because she was believed to have had a heart condition, Mrs. Burnett stipulated that her body be made available for medical researchers at her death. She died in Fort Worth on December 16, 1924, shortly after suffering a stroke. Her funeral was held on December 18 in her Fort Worth home, where those who paid their last respects to her included about 100 female students from TCU. She was ultimately buried with her son and husband at East Oakwood Cemetery, Fort Worth.

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Betsy Colquitt, Prologue: The TCU Library to 1983 (Fort Worth: Mary Couts Burnet Library, Texas Christian University, 1983). Fort Worth Star-Telegram, December 16, 17, 1924. Colby D. Hall, History of Texas Christian University (Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1947). Jerome A. Moore, Texas Christian University: A Hundred Years of History (Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1974).

  • Women
  • Patrons, Collectors, and Philanthropists
Time Periods:
  • Progressive Era
  • Texas in the 1920s
  • Dallas/Fort Worth Region
  • Fort Worth
  • North Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Debbie Mauldin Cottrell, “Burnett, Mary Couts,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 28, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/burnett-mary-couts.

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May 1, 1995
October 12, 2020

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