Renaissance, Texas: Fantasy and Murder at the World's Biggest RenFaire [9]

The new season for the King of Texas is about to begin.

“Renaissance, Texas” is a nine-part, serialized story I’m running exclusively in my newsletter. To read from the beginning with Post 1, click here.

In the Todd Mission dream world, no one lives as well as the King. For the past 38 years, Coulam has lived in a sprawling estate, which he calls Stargate Manor, of his own elaborate design. Tucked away across the street from the festival inside the sprawling, loblolly pine forest, unicorn statues line his driveway and, across the grounds, there’s a cathedral, a meditation garden, and the mausoleum where he will be buried some day.

Inside the manor house, the Texas sun beams down through dozens of wide, stained-glass windows and skylights and the light switches are handcrafted from jewel-encrusted beetles. Rows of beaver pelts hung in the kitchen, stuffed pheasants in the living room and a jungle of plastic flowers crowded his bedroom.

During my visit in 2004, Coulam boasted of what he called his Throne Room — his master bathroom, decorated with Trumpian flair. The “throne” itself was a jet-black toilet with a golden flush handle, and the matching gilded toilet paper dispenser was decorated with giant tassels. The sloping ceiling was painted like a sky with fluffy clouds. When atop his perch, Coulam enjoyed a panoramic view outside to his ornately-tiled hot tub and crystal-clear swimming pool.


But in the years since Brandon Smith’s murder, the fantasy world that Coulam created has continued to unravel. The mythology of consequence-free sex, ale, and jousting seems increasingly stuck in the past.

In November 2020, Coulam’s personal assistant, Toni Ewton, filed a federal lawsuit against the Texas Renaissance Festival for sexual harassment, wrongful termination, and sexual discrimination. Ewton claimed that Coulam made her search for sexual and romantic partners on a variety of “sugar baby” dating sites, and that he fired her when she complained. Hers followed a similar lawsuit by another of Coulam’s personal assistants, in 2018. Both lawsuits were settled for undisclosed amounts.

One performer, Jeremy Bulloch told the Houston Press that “working at TRF is like working at WWE. They count on people living the gig and wanting it since they were kids. That way they can treat them like shit and underpay them.”

“People who are out might be happy to talk,” he added “but people still inside are likely to clam up so as to not jeopardize their plans for next season.”

“We're not showing as much bosom as we did. Times changed.”

Todd Mission continues to be plagued violent crimes that one would not expect to find in a town of only 107 people. Last April, investigators from the Grimes County sheriff’s office found human remains of a 21-year-old college student behind a Todd Mission home, and later charged three men with murdering the victim after a drug deal gone bad. And just this summer, on July 17th, police found a decomposed body in the woods across the street from the festival grounds. “We don’t know if it’s foul play,” said Sheriff Sowell, but the investigation is underway.

With the 47th annual Texas Renaissance Festival beginning October 9th, Sheriff Sowell hopes that the King makes some changes in his own domain. “I think he could do a lot more to help make a more safe environment,” he told me, including hiring additional security.

With battles over abortion and voting, Texas is in the spotlight more than ever these days. For this year’s Faire, other changes are afoot - including toning down on the bawdiness. The Faire’s wandering “wenches,” as they’re called, no longer leave lipstick traces on passersby or dress as provocatively. “We understand that times changed,” Baldwin says, “We're not showing as much bosom as we did. We're not being as racy with our humor or as sexual-oriented with the humor. We can't be.”

As for the future, Baldwin says plans are already in place for Coulam’s eventual successor. But King George won’t be relinquishing his crown anytime soon. ”He'll never completely retire completely,” Baldwin says, “I've likened him to Willy Wonka. He built this world of pure imagination and he'll never give it up.”

This marks the end of “Renaissance, Texas,” a nine-part, serialized story I’m running exclusively in my newsletter. To read from the beginning click here.