Kemmerer’s department store job must have seemed highly desirable at the time, as almost 1 in 4 Americans faced unemployment. Looking to speak up for those struggling during the Great Depression, Kemmerer withdrew his savings, packed his .38-caliber revolver and two sticks of dynamite, and set out for the nation’s capital.
Kemmerer’s family believed he was in the District to meet with a patent attorney regarding a new rifle attachment he had developed and to discuss plans with the editors of a firearms magazine, American Rifleman, to which he was a contributor. Instead, he holed up in a rented room on Massachusetts Avenue and spent four days crafting a 10-page speech he planned to deliver to the House.
On Dec. 13, 1932, Kemmerer’s boss — who assumed he had eloped when he didn’t show up for work — received a letter stating: “Will be back as soon as I can attend to business for the relief of the unemployed and the depression in general.”
That afternoon, minutes after House members voted down a resolution to impeach President Herbert Hoover, Kemmerer perched on the gallery railing and waved a revolver over his head, demanding the right to speak. A House page shouted a warning, and representatives raced for the exits. The House speaker pounded his gavel for order.
With the room emptying in a panic, Reps. Edith Rogers (R-Mass.) and Melvin Maas (R-Minn.) remained calm. Rogers, who had spent much of her free time counseling shellshocked World War I veterans at Walter Reed Hospital, later chuckled at her fellow representatives who fled.
Rogers approached Kemmerer as he brandished a pistol in the gallery. She looked up, and in a soothing voice, she told the troubled young man, “You won’t do anything.”
Maas, a Marine in World War I, stood next to Rogers and attempted to talk Kemmerer down.
“I demand the right to the floor for 20 minutes,” Kemmerer shouted.
“All right, son,” Maas said. “Throw down your gun first.”
Kemmerer hesitated before dropping the weapon into Maas’s waiting grip. Rep. Fiorello La Guardia (R-N.Y.), the future mayor of New York, rushed across the gallery to apprehend Kemmerer with an off-duty D.C. police officer. In Kemmerer’s possession, police found his speech attacking the conduct of the government and accusing elected officials of preventing America from returning to prosperity.
“Okay America! For the next 20 minutes you will listen to a speech which has the interest of the American people. The first man that tries to stop me will die. Is that understood?” Kemmerer’s notes read.
Shouting to reporters as he was dragged from the gallery, Kemmerer claimed not to represent any specific organization. “I am for all the people,” he said.
Investigators soon located the room where he had been staying and discovered the two sticks of dynamite and additional ammunition. Kemmerer initially planned to use the explosives on himself in case his House speech was interrupted but feared the potential collateral damage.
“I was afraid he might get excited and shoot somebody, so I just walked across the chamber and talked to him quietly,” Maas told reporters. “The man stood wavering for a moment or so and then decided to throw down the gun. When the gun came down, it was loaded and cocked. I turned it in to the Speaker’s desk.”
Kemmerer was held on $2,500 bail and charged with assault with a dangerous weapon.
“I got to thinking about the operation of the government and decided to make the speech. I thought the most effective way to get recognition was to bring the gun. I expected to get arrested,” Kemmerer told police, according to news accounts from the time. “My purpose was to boost industry in general. We have the best facilities for prosperity. I am going to prescribe a program calling for a public debts program, the equalization of working hours, and a wage scale based on the varying income of industry. I thought that by taking a gun I would have the best chance to be heard. I was not personally mistreated by the Congress, but Congress has mistreated the whole country.”
The day after the attack, members of Congress heightened security and began calling for improved safety measures. Most of the gallery guards at the time were aging Civil War veterans who could not be discharged due to an act of Congress.
Kemmerer was released on Jan. 13, 1933, at the request of House members. By the end of the month, he was once again competing in rifle competitions, placing second among local marksmen. He went on to marry and have two children. When he died on June 29, 2000, a small death notice in the Philadelphia Inquirer described him as a devoted father and grandfather of seven.
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