Mary Evans Horne Coke, First Lady of Texas, was born on March 29, 1837, in Morgan County, Georgia, to physician and planter James L. Horne and Amanda Caroline (Evans) Horne. She was the second of five children. When Mary was ten years old, she and her family moved to Monroe County, Mississippi. There, according to the 1850 slave schedule, the family owned thirty-four slaves. In 1850 or 1851 the family moved to Waco, McLennan County, Texas, where her father purchased a plantation on the banks of the Brazos River. Soon after their arrival in Waco, she met Richard Coke, an attorney who had recently moved to Waco. According to several historians, he fell in love with her upon first sight of her foot and ankle as she stepped from a carriage and immediately remarked, “I am going to marry that girl.” In various accounts Richard was so enamored with what he referred to as her “Cinderella” feet that he insisted on selecting her shoes until his death. Richard and Mary, then fifteen years old, were married on August 5, 1852, shortly after their first meeting, in a ceremony conducted by Rufus C. Burleson. By 1854 the couple had more than 1,280 acres, including 640 acres on the Brazos River, a town lot in Waco, and in 1860, they had fifteen slaves.
Mary and Richard Coke had four children, all born in Waco, but only two lived to adulthood. Their first child, Amanda Elizabeth, was born in January and died on December 31, 1856. In 1857 she gave birth to their second child, Jackson, and their daughter, Mary Victoria, was born on April 9, 1861, a few days before the first battle of the Civil War. In spring 1862 Richard Coke enlisted as a private in the Confederate States Army and quickly was elected to the rank of captain. Nineteen-month-old Mary Victoria died in November of that year. Mary and Richard likely spent most of the war apart. During that time, her health deteriorated, and Richard requested and received leave from his military duties in 1864. Upon his return, he delved into conservative Democratic politics. He became a district judge in 1865, was elected to the Texas Supreme Court in 1866, then was removed from office by Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan during Reconstruction (see JUDICIARY). In 1869 Mary gave birth to their fourth child, Richard Coke, Jr., in Waco, and in 1870 the family purchased a summer home, possibly for Mary’s health, in Galveston from Lewis Carr.
In January 1874, after Coke successfully ran for governor of Texas as a Democrat, Mary and her children accompanied him to Austin for the inauguration and inaugural ball. According to Harriet Collins, whose parents were owned by the Cokes during slavery and continued to work for them after emancipation, Mary was too afraid to sleep during the stand-off between her husband and Governor Edmund J. Davis at the Capitol (see COKE-DAVIS CONTROVERSY and SEMICOLON COURT). With the potential for violence, an armed guard stood outside the inauguration. Richard and Mary lived in the Governor’s Mansion in Austin during his tenure. The move to Austin, the stress of the tumultuous political conditions, and the rigors of life as a first lady likely took a toll on Mary and left her health further weakened. In her position as first lady, she often managed the household staff and oversaw food preparation for receptions at the mansion. During her two years in Austin, Mary preferred visits with friends from Waco instead of Austin society functions, and frequently sought out family friends, Lawrence “Sul” Ross and his wife Elizabeth for company.
After Coke resigned as governor in December 1876 to take a seat in the U.S. Senate in early 1877, Mary spent most of her time at the family’s brick mansion on South Eighth Street in Waco, where she lived with her sons and youngest brother James E. Horne. She made frequent trips to Washington, D.C., to visit her husband. The couple’s oldest son, Jackson, a law student, died in Waco in 1880 after weeks of illness. She endured the funeral without her husband, who did not arrive from Washington, D.C., in time. Her husband retired from public life at the end of his term as senator in 1893. Richard Coke died in the family home on May 14, 1897. Mary planned a state funeral for him and designed his gravesite monument, which included a white marble statue in his likeness. She was also responsible for a similar gravesite statue of Dr. David R. Wallace, a longtime family friend, that now famously faces her husband’s. Richard Coke, Jr., died of influenza, which was widespread, in January 1899.
Mary Evans Horne Coke died on October 29, 1900. At the time of her death, she lived with her brother, James Horne, and his family in her home on South Eighth Street. She was a devout Baptist. At Mary’s request, the love letters she received from Richard were buried with her. Following her death, the Coke estate was divided among her brother, James Horne, and a number of her and Richard’s nieces and nephews. Mary Evans Horne Coke was buried at Oakwood Cemetery in Waco, Texas, alongside her husband and children. In her will she left a small endowment to cover the costs of maintaining the family’s burial site. Posthumously, she is represented in the Texas Woman’s University’s Texas First Ladies Historic Costume Collection through the display of a satin gown that was typical of the period.