During intense political battles, particularly in the legislative branches of government, shouting matches sometimes turn into full on fights on the floor. This is especially evident with the intense, but weirdly funny, videos of legislators beating each other up. One from Time magazine, called “Politician Brawls Caught on Tape around the World,” displays this weird juxtaposition of suited politicians acting like completely foolish children. However, it would be naive to think that this type of behavior is limited to the present. In fact, one incident in Indiana’s legislature during the late nineteenth century demonstrates that political brawls go back much further.
Beginning as an electoral dispute that turned into outright violence, the “Black Day” of the Indiana General Assembly remains one of the darkest moments in Indiana political history. In 1885, Governor Isaac P. Gray, who had recently assumed the office, expressed public interest in an Benjamin Harrison’s U. S. Senate seat when Harrison’s term expired in 1888. The Republican-turned-Democrat Gray’s aspiration hit a snag when his lieutenant governor, Mahlon D. Manson, resigned. Some critics charged that Gray could not vacate the governorship if there was no successor in place. After consulting with Attorney General Francis T. Hord, Hord recommended that the lieutenant governor’s vacancy be filled at the next election in 1886. Gray trusted that the Democratic nominee for the office, John C. Nelson, would win. Instead, the Republican challenger, Robert S. Robertson, won the election, thereby yoking the Democratic Gray with a Republican successor.
The Republican controlled house recognized the election, but the Democratic controlled senate fought the outcome. As a countermeasure, Democrats defended their own Senate President, Alonzo Green Smith, and backed his move to be lieutenant governor, instead of Robertson. As the Indiana State Sentinel reported, “Indiana presents the singular spectacle of a State having an acting Democratic Lieutenant-Governor and a claimant for his seat in the person of a gentleman recently elected Lieutenant-Governor by Republican votes.”
The 1886 lieutenant governor’s race contentiously pitted Democrats against Republicans. Smith even “appeared in the Circuit Court and instituted proceedings to restrain Robertson from assuming any duties of the office to which he claims to have been elected.” The court ruled against Robertson, but its decision was overturned by the Indiana Supreme Court on February 23, which gave Robertson the impetus to try to take his seat as president of the senate. The situation reached a tipping point on the morning of February 24, 1887. Lieutenant-Governor Elect Robertson tried to be seated in the chamber as president of the senate, but Smith would not allow it. Robertson pushed through the crowd into the chamber and demanded his seat, but Smith again denied him. At this point, according to the Indianapolis Journal, doorkeeper David E. Bulger stopped Robertson, catching him “by the throat, and with the other hand by the shoulder. Holding him thus for an instant, he threw him some fifteen and twenty feet from the steps” of the chamber’s dais. Robertson defended his right to be there, his “position to which the people elected me.” After some more rumblings inside the chamber, Smith declared, “If this man persists in speaking, remove him from the floor.”
Robertson was forcibly removed from the chamber, and fighting and chaos broke out in the Senate chamber and its nearby hallways. Some legislators were even seriously injured. In regards to one incident, the Indianapolis News reported:
The trouble between Senators McDonald and Johnson occurred in about this way: . . . McDonald took hold of him, probably with no belligerent intention, and he was pushed over the arm of the sofa, near the door, when he got up. McDonald still had hold of him and Johnson struck him between the eyes, and then each man tried to impair the facial beauty of the other, but the crowd prevented. . . .Doorkeeper Pritchett [who] looked like he had been through a thrashing machine.
It led to a complete breakdown of the state legislature that lasted throughout the 1887 session. As the Indianapolis News noted, “The one universal comment is that all legislation is now at an end. The two houses are running counter, or at least independent of each other. The house will never recede from the position taken yesterday, and advice is coming in from all directions that there must be no compromise now.”
The next day, Robertson attempted to be seated again but was “denied by the doorkeepers.” Not furthering legal action again Green and the Democrats, Robertson was never seated, and his election as lieutenant governor was never formally recognized. These ruckus machinations ruined Governor Gray’s campaign for the U.S. Senate and even fueled the campaign for the direct election of senators, which became the Seventeenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution in 1912. Overall, the “Black Day” of the General Assembly remains one the darkest and most unsettling moments in Indiana political history. It reminds us that while the rancor and partisanship of our own time is certainly upsetting, historically speaking, it’s been much worse.
- Justin E. Walsh, The Centennial History of the Indiana General Assembly, 1816-1978 (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Bureau, 1987).
- Mitchell Walsh, Dennis L. Walsh, and James E. St. Clair, “Isaac P. Gray,” in The Governors of Indiana, ed. Linda C. Gugin and James E. St. Clair (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society and Indiana Historical Bureau, 2006).
Some material for this blog originally appeared on my other historical blog, IGA History: http://bit.ly/2lzzZrJ.