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.
The Evansville Daily Journal of Vanderburgh County was established in 1834 by William Town but did not appear as a daily until 1848, a year after Evansville was recognized by official charter as a city of Indiana. Town relocated to Evansville from the east and worked as both a grammar school teacher and printer. In March 1834, he disseminated the first issue of the Evansville Journal and General Advertiser [LCCN: sn84023915], which was a pro-Whig (later Republican) paper. He remained the newspaper’s owner until his death in 1839.
William H. and John J. Chandler became the joint owners and editors of the paper in 1839. Under their management the paper was published as the Evansville Journal and Vanderburgh Advertiser. The title was eventually shortened to Evansville Journal. A year later John left the paper and his brother William became the sole owner, publishing the paper under the firm name of WM. H. Chandler & Company. William Chandler debuted the Tri-weekly Journal in 1846 and the Evansville Daily Journal in 1848.
In 1848, Addison H. Sanders purchased the Journal from William Chandler. Sanders oversaw the increased circulation of the Journal throughout southwestern Indiana between 1849 and 1856. He focused on improving the city department portion of the newspaper. The expansion of the paper paralleled the economic growth of Evansville during the 1850s, when the population of the city grew to 4,700. White newcomers were attracted to jobs with railroad firms, saw mills, and factories. Free blacks living in Evansville (about a hundred) also held both skilled and blue-collar jobs despite being barred from coming into Indiana in 1851 by Article XIII of the state constitution.
In October 1856, the Journal passed to Francis Y. Carlile. By April 30, 1858, Carlile had partnered with Indiana printers Frank M. Thayer and John Henderson McNeely. They formed the Evansville Journal Company (later Evansville Journal-News Company) and started to publish the paper under the name of that firm. Among the improvements the new proprietors made to the newspaper office was the installation of a steam engine and power press. Before more improvements could be made the newspaper office was destroyed in a fire. Its proprietors immediately arranged for the Journal to be printed from another newspaper office until it could be relocated. The company ultimately purchased a building located on Fifth Street between Main and Sycamore.
Carlile left the Journal in November 1859, selling his interests to James H. McNeely. By 1860, Evansville was the third largest city in Indiana behind Indianapolis and New Albany with a population of 11,484. Under the maintenance of the McNeely brothers and Thayer the Journal advocated for the election of Abraham Lincoln for president and unflaggingly supported the Union side during the Civil War.
John W. Foster purchased the interest of James McNeely and replaced him as partner in June 1866. Edward Tabor, a former bookkeeper for the paper, subsequently joined Frank M. Thayer, John McNeely, and John W. Foster as a partner in the Evansville Journal Company. In 1869, the Journal reported a circulation of 2,000 for its 8-page daily issues and 5,000 for its weekly issues.
Claude G. DeBruler purchased Foster’s interest and replaced him as partner in November 1872. Thayer left the Journal in 1883. James McNeely purchased DeBruler’s interest in 1885 although he had been listed in the newspaper as a proprietor since 1883. Following the departures of Thayer and DeBruler as well as Tabor’s death, the McNeelys became the joint owners of the Journal in March 1885. By 1889, James McNeely was editor-in-chief while his brother John fulfilled the role of river editor. Jessie McDonald (later Mrs. William Torrance) eventually oversaw the society department of the newspaper.
The Journal published a “Colored News” column in or near the want ads section between the early 1890s and 1909. The column had a black editor and covered goings-on in the black community such as church events as well as illnesses and funerals. Outside of the short, segregated column the newspaper’s derogatory tone towards blacks reflected the intense racial bigotry that affected the city’s black population, which at 7,405 approximated that of Cleveland, Ohio.
During the McNeely brothers’ maintenance of the Evansville Journal-News Company the circulation of the Journal grew to 9,844 for daily and Sunday issues, which were 8 and 16 pages respectively, by 1900. That was more than the Evansville Courier the Journal’s pro-Democratic competitor, which had a circulation of 8,555 for dailies 10-20 pages and Sunday issues 24-36 pages, in the same year. By 1920, the Journal had a circulation of 15,765 for week-days and 12,232 for Sunday issues. The Courier surpassed the Journal that year with a circulation of 23,893 for week-days and 20,978 for Sunday issues.
In 1923, the McNeely brothers sold the Journal to the Evansville Courier Company. The Courier office published its Sunday edition together with the Evansville Journal as the Sunday Courier and Journal between June 24, 1923 and 1936. The Evansville Courier Company suspended the Evansville Journal in November 1936. The newspaper’s masthead displayed slightly different titles over the course of its run including the Evansville Daily Journal, Daily Evansville Journal, Evansville Journal, Daily Journal, and the Evansville Journal-News. A former city editor at the Journal during the 1880’s characterized the paper as “a power in the republican party of the state” that supported the elections of several Republican candidates for state and federal offices including Benjamin Harrison (Senator from Indiana 1881-1887; President 1889-1893) and Charles Warren Fairbanks (Senator from Indiana 1897-1905; Vice President 1905-1909).
Bigham, Darrel E. We Ask Only A Fair Trial: A History of The Black Community of Evansville, Indiana. Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1987. Published in association with the University of Southern Indiana.
Bigham, Darrel E. An Evansville Album: Perspectives on a River City, 1812-1988. Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1988.
Esarey, Logan. History of Indiana from its exploration to 1922. Rochester, Indiana: Tombaugh Publising House, 1981.
History of Vanderburgh County, Indiana, From the Earliest Times to the Present, With Biographical Sketches, Reminiscences, Etc. Madison, Wisconsin: Brant & Fuller, 1889.
Iglehart, John E., ed. An Account of Vanderburgh County from its organization. Dayton, Ohio: Dayton Historical Publishing Company, 1923.
Patry, Robert P. City of the Four Freedoms: A History of Evansville, Indiana. Evansville: Friends of Willard Library, 1996.
Thornbrough, Emma Lou. “African-Americans.” In The Encyclopedia of Indianapolis, ed. David J. Bodenhamer and Robert G. Barrows, 5-14. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.
U.S. Bureau of the Census. “Population of the 100 Largest Urban Places: 1860.” Internet Release date June 15, 1998. https://www.census.gov/population/www/documentation/twps0027/tab09.txt .
Evansville—Vanderburgh County. Newspaper histories. Library Development Office, Indiana State Library, 315 W Ohio St, Indianapolis, IN 46204.
Geo. P. Rowell and Company’s American Newspaper Directory. New York: Geo. P. Rowell & Co., Publishers & Newspaper Advertising Agents, 1869.
Geo. P. Rowell’s American Newspaper Directory. New York: The Printer’s INR Publishing Company, 1909.
N.W. Ayer & Son’s American Newspaper Annual and Directory: A Catalogue of American Newspapers. Philadelphia: N.W. Ayer and Son, 1920.