Culberson, Charles Allen (1855–1925)

By: Robert L. Wagner

Type: Biography

Published: 1952

Updated: February 20, 2021

Charles Allen Culberson, state attorney general, governor, and United States senator, son of Eugenia (Kimball) and David Browning Culberson, was born in Dadeville, Alabama, on June 19, 1855. His father was active in Texas and national politics. Eugenia Culberson belonged to the Crawford family of Georgia, a member of which, William Harris Crawford, had been a United States senator, minister to France, secretary of war, and secretary of the treasury in the early nineteenth century. The Culbersons moved to East Texas in 1856. Charles attended school at Gilmer and Jefferson, entered Virginia Military Institute in 1870, graduated in 1874, and later graduated from the University of Virginia law school. He was admitted to the bar at Daingerfield, Texas, in 1877 and was elected county attorney of Marion County shortly thereafter. He married Sally Harrison, daughter of William M. and Elizabeth Ann (Epperson) Harrison of Jefferson, in 1882. The couple moved in 1887 to Dallas, where Culberson practiced law in the firm Bookout and Culberson.

After being elected attorney general in 1890 by an overwhelming margin, Culberson was involved in several landmark federal cases, including the successful defense of the newly established Railroad Commission. He was reelected in 1892. Two years later, with the help of Edward Mandell House, he became governor. The People's party was at the height of its popularity in the 1890s, but Culberson, conservative and penny-pinching in a period of mostly national depression, and his efficient political allies easily beat back the Populist gubernatorial challenge in both 1894 and 1896. The most talked-about event of his administration was the proposed prizefight featuring James J. Corbett, heavyweight champion of the world, and Bob Fitzsimmons, challenger (1895). An old political foe from East Texas, Dan Stuart, and others had already expended a fortune promoting the fight in Dallas when Culberson called the legislature into special session and passed a law making prizefighting a felony. Corbett later described the action as nothing but a grandstand play for the voters, but the fight was cancelled. The next year Roy Bean staged an outdoor "championship" fight just across the border in Mexico.

During the hectic days of the Spanish-American War, E. M. House was quietly working to get Culberson into national office. On January 25, 1899, the Texas House and Senate sitting jointly elected Culberson to succeed Roger Q. Mills as senator. Thus was launched a senatorial career that lasted twenty-four years. Culberson served as Senate Democratic minority leader from 1907 to 1910 and served on numerous legislative committees, the most important of which was the Committee on the Judiciary, of which he was chairman from 1913 to 1919. He was forced to resign as minority leader in 1910 due to physical problems exacerbated by alcoholism. One Democrat stated in 1910 that Culberson had been "in a comatose state for five years." Periodic trips to health resorts and spas earned him the derisive title "sick man of the Senate." Culberson announced early for reelection in 1910 and drove potential contenders from the field, but persistence of frailties including Bright's disease made rivalry certain in the campaign of 1916. Because another "breakdown" in April 1913 had left him unable to campaign, he depended on seniority, friends, and inertia to carry him through and never set foot in Texas during the campaign. Voters were not told of his illness or dependence on alcohol. Culberson's duties increased sharply in 1917. He introduced measure after measure regarding espionage, foreign relations, sabotage, and other wartime matters during Woodrow Wilson's presidency. At last the senator's health, never robust, broke under the strain. He was unable to take to the stump for the campaign of 1922. His illness and the opposition of the Ku Klux Klan brought about the first political defeat he had ever suffered.

Any evaluation of Culberson is difficult because of his caution and a reserve bordering on aloofness. These qualities with his intellect and good looks made him a tempting target for opponents. Many contemporaries speculated on how far he could have risen had he been a brash, forceful politico with more "color." In his favor were the respect in which the king-maker House and other prominent men held him, his undoubted abilities as a lawyer, his reputation for adhering to party discipline, his honesty, and his ideas regarding strict accountability for the public purse. While residing in Washington, Culberson died of pneumonia on March 19, 1925. He was returned to Fort Worth for burial in the Harrison family plot. He was survived by his wife, their only child, Mary, and his only sibling, Robert Upton Culberson.

Lewis L. Gould, Progressives and Prohibitionists: Texas Democrats in the Wilson Era (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1973; rpt., Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1992). James William Madden, Charles Allen Culberson (Austin: Gammel's Bookstore, 1929). Charles Seymour and Edward M. House, The Intimate Papers of Colonel House (4 vols., Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1926). Robert Lancaster Wagner, The Gubernatorial Career of Charles Allen Culberson (M.A. thesis, University of Texas, 1954).

  • Law, Law Enforcement, and Outlaws
  • Lawyers
  • General Law
Time Periods:
  • Late Nineteenth-Century Texas
  • Progressive Era
  • Texas in the 1920s
  • North Texas
  • Dallas/Fort Worth Region
  • Dallas

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

Robert L. Wagner, “Culberson, Charles Allen,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 23, 2022,

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February 20, 2021

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