Sunday, April 25, 2010
The first scandal to put John Ward Hunter's name down in newsprint involved a much more serious charge than the blemish his brief congressional career would later receive. In 1864, he was charged with forging checks during his duties at the United States Custom House in New York City, where he had been employed for over 30 years. Upon looking through a bundle of checks received by the Custom House, an assistant auditor had caught a couple of suspicious ones, one for $4,200 and another for $5,600. Both checks had been presented to assistant treasurer John J. Cisco but not paid over; the checks also bore the signature of Hunter, then serving as assistant auditor.
The case went to trial in April. Cisco was the star witness for the prosecution, saying the handwriting on the checks was a perfect match for Hunter; he testified that the assistant auditor wrote with certain peculiarities that he had not seen replicated anywhere else. Hunter's bank accounts had also shown a recent increase through large cash deposits. "The defense might bring all the world here with speaking trumpets to swear that Hunter was an angel, but it would all turn finally upon the question of his signature," the New York Times summarized in an account of a cross-examination where Cisco was essentially asked if Hunter was a decent person. "It was agreed that the prosecution should concede that Mr. Hunter had always borne a good character."
The defense lawyer proved masterful enough that Hunter's character was not his primary argument in the case. Instead, he focused on Cisco's steadfast testimony that the signatures on the checks belonged to Hunter. A stockbroker and photography analyst both testified that the signatures themselves were forged. The latter witness was especially compelling, as he compared prints of a genuine signature and the ones on the checks. Under magnification, the characteristics on the check suggested that the signature had been constructed from multiple pen strokes rather than a natural flow. A bookkeeper in the Custom House was also able to forge an impressive copy of Cisco's signature; the imitation put the assistant treasurer's recognition skills into question, as he was forced to admit that the forgery looked identical to his own.
The prosecution's case crumbled under further arguments by the defense. The defense explained the cash deposits as a result of many years of savings on his wife's part, combined with Hunter's duties as the executor of an estate. They also questioned why investigators had not taken a serious look at other men in the Customs House who would have had access to Hunter's signature. Cisco was accused of putting pressure on District Attorney E.D. Smith to issue a warrant of arrest for Hunter, and Smith took the stand himself to confirm that he acted on urgent requests from Cisco. Hunter himself testified very briefly. When asked if he wrote the two signatures, he replied, "I never did, nor did I ever see them before the day of the discovery." He answered only one other question, saying he did not know who wrote the signatures.
Immediately after Hunter's testimony, Smith asked for Hunter to be found innocent. He asked for reparations to be paid to him "for the wrong that has been done to him." Cisco also softened in his opinion on the matter. Three months after the trial, he wrote an apology to Hunter and included a check covering the assistant auditor's legal expenses. "Not a doubt rests on my mind of your entire innocence, and I deeply regret the erroneous theory on which I acted," said Cisco. "It was a serious mistake, which I regret should have been made."
Hunter was born in Bedford (now part of Brooklyn) in New York in October of 1807. After his school days, he began working as a clerk in a wholesale grocery store in 1824. From there, he made the switch to banking work and his long career with the U.S. Custom House. He started out as a clerk in 1831, and five years later he was appointed assistant auditor. He only stayed on for about a year after his success in the trial, then resigned to take a position as treasurer of the Dime Savings Bank in Brooklyn.
By some accounts, Hunter first entered the House of Representatives in 1864. However, these seem to be mistaken, as contemporary newspapers fail to mention such an election result. More likely, he first came to Congress following the death of Republican Representative James Humphrey in June of 1866. Successfully running as a Democrat to fill the vacancy, Hunter did not try to keep the seat in that year's regular election. He only served for a matter of months, from December of 1866 to March of 1867.
Hunter did not make much of a lasting impression during this service, but he did manage to earn a rebuke during a heated debate. On January 26 of 1867, Republican Representative Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania said that he intended to press his Reconstruction bill to a vote on the 28th. By the New York Times account, Stevens didn't sound so enthusiastic about it, since he didn't think the proposition was ready and didn't expect to get much done; he also said only five minutes would be allowed for each congressman to speak on the matter. Other Republican congressmen also suggested that the bill was somewhat unsound, but that they would get behind it. Roscoe Conkling of New York criticized Stevens, claiming he was responsible for delays on the vote because the committee on Reconstruction that Stevens chaired had failed to assemble in time to be productive. James Mitchell Ashley of Ohio supported a final vote on the measure, but admitted that the GOP had not arrived at a conclusive policy. Ashley chaired the Committee on the Territories, and had previously backed a substitute plan they were working on as advocated by the Southern Republican Association; however, he said he figured recommitting the bill to committee would kill it. Stevens added that his measure had passed muster with his committee on Reconstruction, and that the House could vote it down if they so desired.
The discussion on the issue ended up devolving into a racially-charged war of words over the Civil War and the proposed reform measures for the South. Elijah Hise, a Kentucky Democrat, suggested that the Republican Party was in favor of disenfranchising the majority and only favored suffrage for those they deemed loyal, including "Negros and interlopers in the Southern states." John Winthrop Chanler, a Democrat from New York, asked Ashley whether he would recognize a state government if it were based solely on the black vote. After a back-and-forth exchange, in which Chanler suggested that Ashley was reluctant to answer, the Ohio congressman finally proclaimed, "If there is a single state of the American Union in which there is not a loyal man except black men, I would clothe them with the right of franchise and every other right under this government."
Under these provocations, Ashley launched an attack on the more conservative elements of the Republican Party as well as the Democrats in general. He raised the question of whether deposed Confederate president Jefferson Davis and other such rebels would be worthy of sitting in Congress, and accused Republican President Andrew Johnson of being a leader of a negative campaign that was just as injurious as the war. "The assumption, the brazen-faced assumption, of men here, who, during the entire war, were in secret alliance with the rebels, coming here now and joining hands with the apostate at the other end of the avenue [Johnson], who is their leader, the recognized leader of a counter-revolution or negative rebellion, as I said awhile ago, passes comprehension."
Charles Winfield, an outgoing Democratic representative from New York, demanded an explanation for the remark. Ashley clarified that it was something of a blanket denunciation, encompassing draft dodgers, conspirators against the North, and people who had been opposed to further funding or manpower for the war. When further pressed by Winfield, Ashley admitted that he could not indict specific members of the House with these accusations, but supposed by their votes that such people might be sitting in the chamber. "I do not propose to be tried on general reputation," Winfield shot back. "I desire to say for myself, and so far as I know for my associates on this floor of my own school of politics, that the insinuation that we are or ever have been in alliance with the rebels is utterly untrue, and if intended to apply to us it is a base and unfounded slander."
At that point, Hunter chimed in, "And I say that, so far as I am concerned, it is a base lie."
Schuyler Colfax, an Indiana Republican and Speaker of the House, chided Hunter for speaking out of order. Hunter was backed up by Samuel Jackson Randall, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, who also spoke out of turn to say that Hunter's statement was truthful even if it didn't abide by the House rules. Ralph Hill, an outgoing Indiana Republican, took a different opinion. He immediately made a motion to censure Hunter because he "transgressed the order of this body."
Most of the representatives didn't care about the squabble. A vote to table Hill's resolution failed with 75 opposed and 32 in favor, but 84 congressmen didn't even participate. The discussion on the censure resolution dissolved into another scene of bedlam. Francis Celeste Le Blond, an Ohio Democrat, suggested that Ashley's statements were far worse than Hunter's passing remark. "When you come down to the debate today in which my colleague participated, using the language which has been just read from the Speaker's desk, I ask the gentlemen what more offensive language could be used to any man who was an American citizen and willing to abide by the laws and the Constitution of his government," Le Blond concluded. The argument brought applause from the galleries, and Schuyler promptly scolded the spectators. When William Elias Niblack, an Indiana Democrat, muttered that the applause was on the Democratic side, Schuyler took offense. Apparently thinking that Niblack was hinting that he only tried to quell the applause supporting the Democrats, Schuyler said he had always asked the galleries to be decorous and threatened to have the spectators removed if they did not quiet down. Niblack apologized, saying the remark was meant to be private and that he did not mean to offend.
In response to Le Blond's suggestion, Hill said the House had allowed similar language to slide in recent debates and that he was getting tired of it. "I thought they had gone far enough; that when we had reached such a point that every day or two we must hear the epithets 'lie' and 'liar' bandied in this House it was time someone should interpose," he said. When Niblack asked if being labeled a traitor was also an example of offensive language, Hill replied that the term could be seen as a compliment depending on the circumstances. Being called a liar, by contrast, was offensive under any circumstances and he wanted the House to make an example to prevent further incidents.
The censure carried 84-34, with 81 congressmen not voting. The tally took place after one representative tried unsuccessfully to be excused, reasoning that he could support neither Hunter's outburst nor Ashley's insinuations. Schuyler delivered the brief punishment: "No deliberative body can preserve its self-respect, or command the respect of its constituents, which tolerates the use of offensive language, condemned by gentlemen everywhere, as well as by parliamentary law. For having transgressed the rules of the House it is resolved that you shall be censured by the Speaker. Having thus declared the censure of the House, you will resume your seat."
Hunter gave a similarly brief address, explaining that he meant no disrespect to the House and spoke in a "moment of irritation at a false charge." Hill was satisfied enough with his contrition that he asked for the censure proceedings to be stricken from the record, but other representatives objected. One was Ashley, who got in the last word by essentially reiterating his earlier argument and delivering his own rebuke to Hunter. He said that men often speak on the spur of the moment in a heated debate, but that he had not been called to order himself during any of his eight years in the House; Ashley added that he had not meant any offense either, but in clarifying his list of Union enemies he gave the same categories, complete with the Congress-encompassing qualifier "here or elsewhere."
The New York Times reported that Republicans "generally voted for the resolution, yet Hunter had the sympathy of many of them who considered the language of Mr. Ashley totally uncalled for, and though, according to the ruling of the chair heretofore, not strictly out of order, yet as great a violation of the dignity and the decency of the debate as was Mr. Hunter's impulsive remark." The newspaper added that the debate "furnished an unusual amount of interest to the galleries, which were well filled in anticipation of a debate on the Reconstruction question."
After leaving Congress, Hunter made an unsuccessful bid for state assembly and served on the Board of Education. He was nominated for the postmaster's position in Brooklyn, but not confirmed by the Senate. Then in 1873, Hunter won the race for Brooklyn mayor, serving from 1874 to 1875. He apparently lost this job after crossing Democratic party boss Hugh McLaughlin by refusing to appoint a certain water commissioner. The Bankers' Magazine reported that he was instrumental in supporting the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge while in office, and he became a stockholder in the endeavor. In 1886, former commissioner of the Brooklyn public works Thomas W. Adams sued Hunter for $10,000, saying Hunter had publicly accused him while mayor of allowing fraud and corrupt contracts; the outcome of the suit was not reported.
Hunter left politics in favor of a return to his work as treasurer of the Dime Savings Bank. National Magazine claimed that it is "to his financial skill and his reputation for unswerving integrity, much of the success of that bank is due." He became the bank's director as well as the director of a trust company and two insurance firms. In his spare time, Hunter was active in the Old Brooklynites and the Tree Planting and Fountain Society. He suffered a series of personal tragedies in 1881. Three of his children died over the course of a four-month period, including a naval lieutenant who died of poor health and a commission merchant who killed himself in a park in Fall River, Massachusetts. When Hunter died in Brooklyn in April of 1900, he was survived by only one child (a daughter) as well as five granddaughters.
Sources: The Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, "The Custom-House Forgeries Cross-Examination of John J. Cisco" in the New York Times on Apr. 12 1864, "The Custom-House Forgeries" in the New York Times on Apr. 14 1864, "The Sub-Treasury Forgeries" in the New York Times on Apr. 21 1864, "Conclusion Of The Hunter Case" in the New York Times on Apr. 24 1864, "Close Of The Hunter Case" in the New York Times on Apr. 25 1864, "Vindication Of Assistant Auditor J.W. Hunter" in the New York Times on Sep. 24 1864, "Excitement In The House" in the New York Times on Jan. 27 1867, "Thirty-Ninth Congress, Second Session" in the New York Times on Jan. 27 1867, "Review Of The Week" in the Lewiston Evening Journal on Jan. 30 1867, "Brooklyn City Government For 1874" in the New York Timeson Jan. 1 1874, "Suicide Of Mr. W.A. Hunter" in the New York Times on Mar. 25 1881, "Death Of Lieut. Hunter, U.S.N." in the New York Times on Jul. 19 1881, "Thinks His Character Defamed" in the New York Times on Mar. 4 1886, "John W. Hunter Dead" in the New York Times on Apr. 18 1900, National Magazine: A Monthly Journal of American History Volume 19, Bankers' Magazine Volume 60, The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge by David G. McCullough, Record of an Examination Under a Warrant by Kenneth G. White, Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States Being the Session of the Thirty-Ninth Congress, Record of an Examination Under a Warrant by Kenneth G. White, The Congressional Globe Volume 58 Part 2
Saturday, April 3, 2010
The conclusion of the attempted flight of Marshall Tate Polk Jr. from the country sounds like it could have inspired a Wild West movie. Running from charges that he'd stolen funds from Tennessee while acting as the state's treasurer, Polk wound up on a train making its way through Texas. The conductor of his sleeping coach happened to recognize him from the notices posted along his likely route. Once Polk got off at a station, the conductor disembarked as well, gathered a companion, and told another person to contact the authorities. The conductor then took off after Polk, who had left with his servant on horseback.
The conductor and his friend gave chase. Somewhere in the Texas scrub, the conductor managed to get the drop on Polk, stepping out from behind a bush to confront him. Both Polk and his servant pulled their revolvers on the intruder, but the conductor remained steadfast. He warned that the surrounding countryside was crawling with rangers. "Put up your guns, or I'll have your heads blown over into Mexico," the man warned. Sufficiently intimidated, both Polk and his servant handed over their weapons. It was a bold maneuver, and one that paid off well. The conductor had been unarmed until the two men surrendered their guns, and he and his companion promptly used the revolvers to hold the two men until the rangers actually arrived.
Most of these details come from a New York Times article featuring the conductor's story, so it is quite possible that the trainman chose to embellish the details. The underlying facts are sound, however. Suspected of embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars in state funds, Polk had been riding the rails through Texas. And he was indeed captured not far from the Rio Grande while fleeing with his servant on horseback.
Marshall Polk, who sometimes went by the abbreviated name M.T. Polk, was also somewhat notable due to his relationship to a former President. Polk's father died about a month before he was born in Morgantown, North Carolina, in May of 1831. His uncle, James Knox Polk, was a U.S. Representative from Tennessee at the time, and he took his nephew under his wing; this elder Polk would go on to be the Governor of Tennessee and eleventh President of the United States.
Marshall Polk attended Georgetown University, and graduated from West Point in 1852. He joined the Confederate army during the Civil War as a captain of artillery, and was seriously wounded at Shiloh. The injuries were bad enough that he had to have a leg amputated, but he remained in the service and was promoted to colonel, serving on the staff of General Leonidas Polk (presumably another relative). After the war, Marshall Polk lived on a farm near Bolivar, Tennessee and published the Bolivar Bulletin. He first entered the political field in 1876 by attending the Democratic National Convention as a delegate, and the next year he began serving the first of three terms as Tennessee state treasurer.
It was later determined that Polk had been embezzling for five of his six years in office. The action most cited after the discovery of this crime was the One Hundred and Three Funding Bill to settle the state debt. Polk was given $600,000 to pay interest on the bill, but left in possession of the money after an injunction was started and the bill declared unconstitutional. It was also mentioned that Polk had another $400,000 under his control when the actions regarding the bill took place. As a customary inspection was about to take place in January of 1883, Polk quietly disappeared from the state. The study found that hundreds of thousands of dollars were missing, mostly due to the lack of caution in the banks where the state funds were deposited. Polk had managed to deposit several checks, despite the fact that they lacked the signature of the state controller. With this lack of oversight, it wasn't difficult for the treasurer to withdraw the funds for his own personal use.
When it became clear that Polk had absconded from the state, the Tennessee house of representatives considered offering a $20,000 reward for his capture. That idea fell through after one legislator said the treasurer had nothing with which to repay the state, and so the reward would only add to the financial burden caused by the embezzlement. Polk's bond was good for $100,000, something of a small amount considering the amount of money he had control over. There had been a proposal in the legislature to increase the bond, but the bill had been stolen from the desk of the state senate clerk the day before it was supposed to go to a final vote. In the wake of the embezzlement, the legislature resolved to seize Polk's assets and thoroughly examine the state's books to find if anyone else was involved in the theft. In the midst of the upheaval, reform proposals come fast and heavy in the legislature. They included suggestions to increase treasurer's bond to $500,000 and have the treasurer make a monthly report to the Governor, controller, and secretary. Another proposal would have the treasurer deposit funds in banks with sufficient bond coverage within three days of receiving them, with the checks countersigned by the Governor and controller and marked to show what they would be used for.
Captain James Fleming, Polk's clerk and bookkeeper, helped investigators determine how the money went missing. One popular suggestion was that Polk had diverted considerable funds to political allies, and newspaper reports anticipated further criminal charges. Despite his cooperation, Fleming was arrested the next year as he was tried to leave the state. He was accused of making false entries totaling $40,000 on behalf of Polk, but the case faded from the public eye soon after. It seems no other potential co-conspirators, estimated to number about half a dozen when the scandal first broke, were charged. "Throughout the city in circles where Mr. Polk was known and liked for his generosity, there is universal regret at his disgrace which has come upon him, and perhaps no man's fall was ever more generally regretted," the New York Times declared.
Polk's point of destination was more obvious than that of the Kentucky treasurer who shared one of his names and would take flight five years later. Mexico not only contained a silver mine owned by the treasurer, but also had no extradition policy with the United States. Warrants of arrest were sent to cities along his probable escape route. Polk's wooden leg would provide a ready clue for law enforcement authorities. Five days after his departure on January 2, it was announced that he had been arrested in San Antonio, Texas by a Pinkerton detective.
Much to the horror of authorities and citizens in Tennessee, Polk got away again. The one-legged man claimed he was not Polk, but his cover story wasn't exactly convincing. He gave his name as "Tate" and said he was simply a wealthy man going to look over his mining interests. Outgoing Democratic Texas Governor Oran M. Roberts said he had no authority to hold Polk unless someone made a charge against him while under oath, and the detective said he had no authority to hold the man. When Polk was finally arrested again, about 18 miles shy of the Rio Grande, the detaining marshal suggested that the treasurer had paid off the Pinkerton detective. At the time of his arrest, Polk had several state checks with him.
As Polk was being returned to Nashville, the legislature appointed attorney Atha Thomas as a replacement on the 22nd ballot. Polk told reporters on his arrival that several reports about his journey were false, including allegations that he had been drinking heavily the entire time. He also seems to have tripped over his words, saying both that he was taking a routine trip to Mexico to check up on the mine and that he intended to raise the defaulted money in order to repay the state in full. The same month that saw Polk's defalcation revealed and his subsequent dash for the border also brought his indictment, which charged that he acquired $484,000 from the state treasury through embezzlement and larceny.
An investigation determined that by 1878, about a year into his job, Polk was defaulting $20,000 to $40,000. By April of 1882, the amount was up to $216,520. The probe blasted the banks involved in the case, since they had extended false credit to Polk. In doing so, committee members determined, the banks had failed to stop the embezzlement when they could have staunched the loss at only $200,000. The banks had honored several checks not countersigned by the state controller, and Polk had distributed the money in several ventures. These included $50,000 for the silver mine, $10,000 to the Nashville American publishing company, and investments in North Carolina lumber and Alabama iron. He also loaned money to Democratic politicians.
Fortunately, Polk's theft was softened by both the attachments against his property and $150,000 which was legitimately owed to him by various people. In February of 1883, his friends proposed a payment schedule to free Polk and the state from debt, but it came to naught. The next month, however, the legislature passed an act allowing settlement. It said Polk could pay $100,000 on genuine bonds and another $150,000 on internal improvement bonds. When paid, the sureties against his property would be relieved. The act specifically stated that the settlement would not absolve him from criminal prosecution. By late June, Polk's friends had paid $75,000 toward the settlement, and there were rumors that the prosecution could be dropped. However, Polk had been arrested again only the month before. He had been granted release due to health reasons, but a $20,000 bond he had given was found to be insufficient and he was suspected of making another run for it.
Polk's trial began in June of 1883. The case was well-known enough that over a thousand people were rejected for jury duty, since they knew all about the matter. A panel was finally assembled from 12 illiterate country bumpkins. An Iowa newspaper, the Carroll Herald, clearly clearly took exception to the claim that an intelligent body had been chosen. "Tennessee has about as much reason to be proud of this phenomenal jury as of the criminal it is to try," the article sniffed. It didn't matter much in the end, as the entire jury was dismissed and a new one assembled before the trial was through. There were lingering concerns about the ability of the jurors to fairly hear the case, with one member in particular having been employed by the widow of former President Polk.
Defense attorneys argued that Polk was only guilty of "default of pay." They said large deficits against the treasurer were common enough, and could be explained through legal reasons consistent with the treasurer's duties. They added that $50,000 had already been put into the state via sureties, with another $10,000 on the way and significant sums available through the sale of the silver mine and lumber interests. The lawyers said the jurors needed to give the ex-treasurer a chance to make good the defalcation. "If he has got that money in his pocket, you can't send him to prison without first giving him a chance to pay it," they said. "He cannot be accused of refusing to pay when no one has demanded of him to pay." The jury agreed with the prosecution's assessment that Polk's actions were embezzlement through and through. He was found guilty in July, and sentenced to serve 20 years in prison with a fine equal to the amount stolen.
In February of 1884, the New York Times reported that his sentence was only 13 years; this may have been a result of an appeal or an error on the paper's part. It added that his mining interests in Mexico had been sold for $2 million, and that his health was very poor. Two days after the article was published, with an appeal set to go before the Supreme Court, Polk died of heart disease in Bolivar, Tennessee. Even this latest development was in doubt, at least in some circles. In 1887, a report claimed that Polk may have faked his death. An Alabama citizen returned from Mexico, saying he had met Polk there. The item apparently did not gain much credibility, and it was not considered any further.
Sources: The Political Graveyard, "A Deficit In Tennessee" in the New York Times on Jan. 6 1883, "Empty Vaults" in the Aurora Daily News on Jan. 6 1883, "Polk Still A Fugitive" in the New York Times on Jan. 7 1883, "Treasurer Polk Arrested" in the New York Times on Jan. 8 1883, "Treasurer Polk Escapes" in the New York Times on Jan. 9 1883, "Treasurer Polk Recaptured" in the New York Times on Jan. 10 1883, "Treasurer Polk's Recapture" in the New York Times on Jan. 13 1883, "Some Of Polk's Methods" in the New York Times on Jan. 13 1883, "Ex-Treasurer Polk Indicted" in the Reading Eagle on Jan. 14 1883, "How The Conductor Captured Polk" in the New York Times on Jan. 15 1883, "Ex-Treasurer Polk's Friends" in the New York Times on Feb. 22 1883, "Settling With Polk" in the New York Times on Mar. 24 1883, "M.T. Polk Again In Jail" in the New York Times on May 4 1883, "Polk's Case To Be Called" in the New York Times on Jun. 25 1883, "Marsh T. Polk On Trial" in the New York Times on Jun. 27 1883, "A New Jury To Try Polk" in the New York Times on Jul. 4 1883, "Polk On Trial" in the New York Times on Jul. 16 1883, "The Polk Trial" in the New York Times on Jul. 22 1883, "Was It A Farce?" in the New York Times on Jul. 23 1883, untitled brief in the Carroll Herald on Jul. 25 1883, "Ex-Treasurer Polk, Of Tennessee" in the New York Times on Feb. 27 1884, "Death of Ex-Treasurer Polk" in the New York Times on Mar. 1 1884, "Mr. Polk Is Living" in the Meriden Daily Republican on Sep. 6 1887, The Banker's Magazine and Statistical Register Volume 37, James K. Polk: A Biographical Companion by Mark Eaton Byrnes
Thursday, April 1, 2010
Americans accused of a crime or malfeasance are innocent until proven guilty, but inevitably the very fact that a person is being accused leaves a stain on their image. When Jefferson Smith, an independent Senator from the state of Capra, was charged with misusing his office for personal gain after only a matter of months in the position, the case against him seemed open and shut. It was only after a grueling test of endurance that Smith was vindicated, proving that he was not only innocent but a model for good government.
Smith was born in May of 1908 in Jackson City, Capra. After his graduation from high school, he worked in a printing office for some time before joining the Civilian Conservation Corps. The service was a perfect match for a man who grew up loving the outdoors, and he concluded his long days of planting trees and fish stocking to read books on nature and conservation. With the support of friends and investors, Smith launched two ventures. One, an organization called The Boy Rangers, provided nature workshops, camping outings, and other activities to introduce young men to the outdoors. The other, a magazine entitled Boy's Stuff, featured articles by Smith and contributions from his fast-growing group of readers. He became a hero to boys across the state, and his status was further solidified when he and a group of Boy Rangers fought tirelessly to snuff a wildfire around the town of Sweetwater. Smith and the group were camping nearby when the fire broke out, and they were honored for saving lives and property from the blaze. Smith was also a student of history, and enlightened his proteges with the inspiring speeches of the Founding Fathers and other renowned American figures.
Smith was perfectly happy with his lot in life when Republican Senator Sam Foley died in October of 1939. The decision of who would replace Foley fell to Republican Governor Hubert "Happy" Hopper. The Governor was so nicknamed for his enthusiastic demeanor, and it was with a wide grin that he announced his choice for a replacement: Horace Miller. The crowd assembled for the press conference dissolved into an uproar. Miller was decried as a stooge of real estate tycoon and party boss Jim Taylor. Foley had always voted in line with Taylor's interests, and there was no reason to believe that Miller, a land speculator firmly in Taylor's pocket, would perform any differently. Abashed, and concerned for his own approval ratings, Hopper put the nomination on hold. Democrats promptly offered up their candidate, a former Progressive congressman named Henry Hill.
Hopper was used to falling in line with Taylor's wants, but the upheaval at the press conference made him terrified that putting Miller into office would send him out of office at the next election. By contrast, naming Hill would surely lose him Taylor's backing. At the urging of his children, Hopper chose a third path and surprised the state by choosing Smith. Both Democrats and Republicans shied away from criticizing Smith due to his popular status in Capra. Taylor, at first outraged that Hopper had defied him by naming a "squirrel chaser" to the seat, was mollified when he decided he could mold Smith into another cog in his machine. The state's other Senator, a Republican named Joseph Paine, happened to be Smith's deceased father's best friend. He was also firmly in Taylor's pocket. He promised Taylor that he would be able to manipulate Smith with ease.
Unaware of Paine's machinations, Smith caused the Senator a bit of discomfort at a dinner held following the nomination by recalling his father saying, "Joe Paine was the finest man he ever knew." It so happened that Smith's father, the publisher of a small newspaper, was murdered after his publication vociferously supported the rights of a single miner over a powerful syndicate. In his speech, Smith went on to declare, "I don't think I'm going to be much help to you down there in Washington, Senator. I'll do my best. And with all my might, I can promise you one thing: I'll do nothing to disgrace the office of United States Senator."
Upon his arrival in Washington, D.C., he was so awed by the monuments to the nation's leaders and government that he briefly went missing on a self-guided tour. The incident did nothing to improve his image in the minds of reporters. The capital's newspapers took the opportunity to mock Smith as a bumpkin unfit for the job, often printing little of the introductory interview aside from photos of him demonstrating his nature know-how with mocking headlines. The coverage was enough that Senator Pierre Barnes, a Louisiana Democrat, questioned whether Smith was fit for the job since his "astounding and shameless performance for the newspapers" brought his rank "down to the level of a sideshow entertainer."
The barb was the only one directed against Smith that day, and he was swiftly sworn in after a curt defense by Paine. Smith recalls that he confronted the members of the National Press Club (and took swings at quite a few of them), but that they also let him in on the unsettling fact that he would be perceived as little more than a second vote to whatever Paine decided. When he told Paine of this concern, his colleague encouraged him to propose a bill in support of his novel idea: a National Boys' Camp, basically an extension of the Rangers to allow young men to experience nature and learn about the nation's history. Smith followed through on the recommendation, to the laughter of Senators amused by Smith's nervousness but the terrific applause of Boy Rangers who had made it to appear in the galleries. He proposed that the government could make a loan for the project, to be repaid by the contributions of boys across the country who would donate whatever nickels or dimes they could. The bill also stipulated that the camp would be situated on the headwaters of Willet Creek.
Smith happened to be out of the Senate, being wooed by Paine's daughter, when the Senate took up discussion on a deficiency bill. A wide-ranging act to provide funding for public works projects, it also called for the creation of a dam at the exact spot where Smith hoped to build his camp. The bill itself had been heavily influenced by Taylor, who was hoping to award the construction bids to some of his closest political allies. Paine, who supported the bill, had reluctantly sent his daughter to seduce the greenhorn Senator away from his duties. It was only by the intervention of Clarissa Saunders, Smith's chief of staff, that Smith found out about the dupe.
Smith questioned Paine on why the dam wasn't going up in a place where the water would do more good. He also became more suspicious of Taylor, realizing that the appropriation for the dam may have been specifically to benefit the man. Thinking Paine could not be trusted to control Smith, Taylor came to Washington to meet with Smith one-on-one. Taylor bluntly told Smith that he could ensure his political destiny if he agreed with his agenda. It was a rather foolish move in light of the fact that Smith was in Washington for moral reasons.
Determined to expose the corruption, Smith asked to be heard on the $45 million appropriation for the Willet Creek dam in the deficiency bill. He yielded the floor after he was interrupted by Paine, who stunned the Senate by declaring that Smith was not worthy to hold office. Smith, Paine charged, had proposed to build the National Boys' Camp on land he had owned all along. Expecting to expose Taylor's graft, Smith suddenly found himself on the defensive, with Paine openly charging that he was using his office to "legalize an outrageous profit for himself out of the purchase of that land through the nickels and dimes scraped together by the boys of this country."
The matter went before the Committee on Privileges and Elections, where the evidence against Smith was compelling. Kenneth Allen, the owner of the land at Willet Creek, told members that Smith had held camping outings there for many years. He also said he had agreed to deed the land to Smith after the Senator promised he could flip it for a substantial profit and split the money with him. The committee also heard from Governor Hopper, the Register of Deeds of Jackson County, and Senator Paine. All testified that the purchase had taken place, or that Smith had some interest in the land. Paine even said that the placid Senator had raged at him to move the dam when told about the deficiency bill, and that he had found out about the land transfer afterward. A handwriting expert testified that the signatures on documents recording the transfer belonged to Smith. Irked, Smith simply walked out of the committee hearing without saying a word.
The committee promptly recommended the expulsion of Smith, and the next time the Senator spoke in the Senate chamber it was to defend himself against the charges. He managed to gain the floor by becoming the first Senator to speak on the motion, and didn't stop speaking on the issue until over a day later.
Encouraged by Saunders, both before the discussions and from the Senate galleries, Smith showed that he had become quite familiar with the rules of the chamber. He rebuffed attempts by Paine to regain the floor, and assailed the deficiency bill as a graft-riddled fraud. When Paine questioned why he could not have given a defense before the committee, Smith roared back, "I have no defense against forged papers!" He also related his account of Taylor making an offer to keep him in office, which Paine disputed by saying he and Taylor had simply urged Smith to resign in light of the evidence against him. Paine said he felt Smith was insinuating that he was involved in corrupt practices, and declared himself so offended of his "contemptible" counterpart that he walked out of the chamber. After Smith said he would not yield the floor unless both the deficiency bill and expulsion resolution were stayed to give him a week to return to Capra and work things out.
The other Senators showed their scorn by walking out as one body, but Smith promised he would keep up a filibuster. He also managed to get the Senators back into the chamber by calling for the sergeant-at-arms to compel a quorum. As Smith began his long monologue, he alternated between a defense against the corruption charges, criticism of the deficiency bill, and patriotic discussions of the nation's ideals.
The press in Jackson City and other areas of Capra was merciless. Backed by the Taylor machine, they accused Smith of holding up funding for numerous essential public works projects and other essential services to defend his own selfish interests. A spirited defense of Smith came from an unexpected source. The small printing press which produced Boys' Stuff was swiftly converted to a political organ, and it proclaimed Smith innocent. The periodical saw some distribution, but the Taylor forces resorted to reprehensible means to silence them. Public rallies in support of Smith were broken up by the police, and Boy Rangers holding shows of support for Smith were violently attacked. The outbursts, coupled with the later events in the Senate, ultimately led the Taylor machine to collapse in a hailstorm of public contempt.
In Washington, Smith's filibuster ground on past 23 hours. The other Senators, initially ignoring Smith and doing their best to whittle away the time, seemed to become more uncertain of his guilt as the exhausted Senator refused to give up the fight. "There's no place out there for graft, or greed, or lies, or compromise with human liberties. And if that's what the grown-ups have done with this world that was given to them, then we'd better get those boys' camps started fast and see what the kids can do," he said. "And it's not too late, because this country is bigger than the Taylors, or you, or me, or anything else. Great principles don't get lost once they come to light. They're right here; you just have to see them again!"
However, Smith's faith in his home state seemed misplaced when Paine delivered thousands of telegrams to the Senate floor demanding that Smith yield. Visibly distraught as he took up and perused the papers, Smith nevertheless vowed to continue even in the face of the opposition, which he denounced as "lies." Instead, he collapsed soon after of exhaustion.
That may have marked the end of Smith's effort for good government but for what happened next. Several gunshots rang out in the hall outside the Senate. Soon after, Paine ran back into the chamber, shouting that Smith's accusations were true and demanding that he be expelled instead. Consumed with guilt over his complicity in the frame-up, Paine had tried to commit suicide but was restrained by other Senators in the hall. The Senate retired for the day, and the deficiency bill was promptly returned to committee for extensive revisions. The expulsion resolution was also taken up, and unanimously defeated. Paine, hospitalized for exhaustion, resigned the same day. He died in 1967.
Hopper promptly took credit for appointing a man as exemplary as Smith; he vowed to support other such men in Congress and rid the state of its Taylor machine. Though the declaration was clearly another example of Hopper swaying to whichever end public opinion favored, he made good on his promise and remained a steadfast Smith supporter. Smith pondered leaving the Senate to return to his work with the Rangers, but bowed to the Capra chorus for him to keep up the good work in Washington. It wasn't long before he married Saunders, the woman who had helped him carry out his famous feat. He easily won election to a six-year term when the seat was opened again in 1942, and remained in office until resigning in 1960 to take up the reigns at the National Boys' Camp he had helped to establish. While in office, he became an outspoken proponent for clean government and conservation. Smith died in Jackson City in July of 1997.
Sources: The Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, "The Boy Rangers" in the Jackson City Star on May 3 1939, "Smith Shuns Spotlight" in the Jackson City Star on Aug. 6 1939, "Happy Pick Assailed" in the Jackson City Star on Oct. 14 1939, "Democrats Propose Hill For Foley Seat" in the Washington Herald on Oct. 16 1939, "Ranger Named To Senate In Surprise Pick" in the Jackson City Star on Oct. 18 1939, "First 'Whiff' Of Washington" in the Washington Herald on Oct. 23 1939, "Smith Proposes National Boys' Camp" in the Jackson City Star on Nov. 5 1939, "Paine Accuses Smith Of Land Fraud" in the Washington Herald on Nov. 12 1939, "Smith Walks Out Of Committee Hearing" in the Jackson City Star on Nov. 14 1939, "Witnesses Testify Against Smith" in the New York Times on Nov. 14 1939, "Filibusters In The Senate" in the New York Times on Nov. 17 1939, "Smith Charges Graft, Seizes Floor" in the Pittsburgh Press on Nov. 17 1939, "Stubborn Smith Stalls Bill" in the Jackson City Star on Nov. 17 1939, "Dramatic End To Smith Filibuster" in the New York Times on Nov. 18 1939, "Smith Charges Thrown Out" in the Washington Herald on Nov. 19 1939, "Paine Resigns" in the Jackson City Star on Nov. 19 1939, "Smith Elected In Landslide" in the New York Times on Nov. 8 1942, "Smith To Leave Senate, Lead Camp" in the Jackson City Star on Jun. 20 1960, "Jefferson Smith, Champion Of Clean Government, Dead at 89" in the New York Times on Jul. 3 1997, One Man by Jefferson Smith, The Lady on the Capitol Dome by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Senator Smith by David McCullough, Ethics in the Senate by Michael Clifford, Jackson City Notables by John Herbert