It's a slow snowy day here in DC and so we went down this rabbit hole, curious to find out how many articles would come up if you searched "politicians" and "came to blows." The answer is, a lot more than you'd think. Expand that to general fighting in the political class, and it's hard to believe that legislators keep pining for the good old days when politicians "all got along." Here are a few of the most shocking moments of political boozing and brawling in American history.
1. Strom Thurmond chooses wrestling over filibuster
The preferred method for blocking a presidential nomination among Senators today is a filibuster. Now that the nuclear option has lessened the efficiency of that course of action, maybe they'll try Strom Thurmond's method of choice, wrestling. In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson nominated former Florida Governor LeRoy Collins to be the first employee for the Community Relations Service, created by the newly passed Civil Rights Act to resolve local racial disputes. Thurmond did not like the fact that Collins had once said mean things about South Carolina, and stood outside the Commerce Committee's office, hoping to scare senators away and prevent a quorum. As the Senate Historical Office goes on,
At that moment, Texas Senator Ralph Yarborough appeared. Yarborough had been the only southern senator to vote for the Civil Rights Act. The Texan laughingly said, “Come on in, Strom, and help us get a quorum.” In a similarly light-hearted manner, Thurmond responded, “If I can keep you out, you won’t go in, and if you can drag me in, I’ll stay there.” Both men were 61 years old, but Thurmond was 30 pounds lighter and in better physical condition.
After a few moments of light scuffling, each senator removed his suit jacket. Thurmond then wrestled the increasingly out-of-breath Yarborough to the floor. “Tell me to release you, Ralph, and I will,” said Thurmond. Yarborough refused. Another senator approached and suggested that both men stop before one of them suffered a heart attack. Finally, Chairman Warren Magnuson appeared and growled, “Come on, you fellows, let’s break this up.”
Recognizing a great exit line, Yarborough grunted, “I have to yield to the order of my chairman.” The combatants did their best to compose themselves and entered the committee room.
Although Thurmond had won the match, he lost that day’s vote: 16 to 1.
They made nice for a press photo after the fight.
2. "I don't know of another moment where a senator has hit another senator upside the head."
On the final day of the 2007 regular session of the Alabama Senate, Republican Sen. Charles Bishop punched Democratic Sen. Lowell Barron in the head. Barron allegedly made a comment to Bishop that he found offensive, and then, as Bishop puts it, "I responded to his comment with my right hand." He later added, "I was raised in the woods of Arkansas and people don't say that about your mom."
Barron remembered the incident differently, saying that Bishop swore and said, "you better watch your back," before graduating to a swing. No one else heard Barron provoke Bishop. They considered expelling Bishop from the chamber, but he decided to head home anyway. Another Democratic state senator said, "I've been down here 23 years. There have been many heated moments. I don't know of another moment where a senator has hit another senator upside the head."
3. The Ladies' German Schuetzenbund Benefit Society of Newark gets violent
In March 1887, the two factions of the Ladies' German Schuetzenbund Benefit Society of Newark engaged in a "hand to head hair-pulling match" -- complete with "shrieks, lamentations and yells" and a cat-o'-nine-tails. Men were the cause of the fight, especially the husband of Meta Hilson, who she elected Corresponding Secretary the previous year because she thought none of the women in the society were qualified. After his term was done, Annie Smith accused him of embezzling society funds. The next day, she had him arrested, although the male judge quickly acquitted him.
At the next week's meeting, Smith supporters and Hilson supporters fought over possession of the society's gavel, before descending into the aforementioned hair pulling. "Warrants were issued for some of the combatants on the complaint of those whom they vanquished."
4. Charles Sumner bleeds profusely all over the Senate chamber
The Senate Historical office sets the stage for this incident:
On May 22, 1856, the "world's greatest deliberative body" became a combat zone. In one of the most dramatic and deeply ominous moments in the Senate's entire history, a member of the House of Representatives entered the Senate chamber and savagely beat a senator into unconsciousness.
A few days earlier, Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner had given his "Crime Against Kansas" speech, which called out Sens. Stephen Douglas of Illinois and Andrew Butler of South Carolina for fighting to make Kansas a slave state. South Carolina Rep. Preston Brooks was not impressed, and sought to protect the honor of his fellow South Carolinian -- who was not in D.C. that week -- by beating Sumner over the head with a metal-topped cane for a solid minute. "Bleeding profusely, Sumner was carried away. Brooks walked calmly out of the chamber without being detained by the stunned onlookers. Overnight, both men became heroes in their respective regions."
Brooks resigned, but won re-election. He didn't get to enjoy his victory very long, since he died soon after, at the age of 37. Sumner, on the other hand, served in the Senate for 18 more years.
In 1798, there was another incident of caning in Congress. As UPI described it in 1984:
On Jan. 1, 1798, Rep. Matthew Lyon of Vermont, a former Revolutionary War soldier, became so angry at Rep. Roger Griswold of Connecticut that he unloaded a full mouthful of tobacco juice into Griswold's face. Angered that the House had refused to expel Lyon, three days later Griswold came up behind his opponent in the chamber and began hitting him with a hickory cane. Alvin Josephy Jr., in the congressional history, ''On The Hill,'' wrote that Lyon ''staggered to the fireplace on the House floor, seized the fire tongs and flailed back at his assailant. As the two men closed and wrestled each other to the floor, the other members cheered them on with partisan delight.'' The House subsequently defeated a motion to expel both members, but the Vermonter thereafter was known as ''The Spitting Lyon'' of Congress.
In 1845, Georgia Rep. Edward J. Black (D-Ga.) beat Mississippi Rep. William H. Hammett over the head with a cane. Hammett "threw his arms round [Black] and bore him off as he would a woman from a fire," according to John Quincy Adams' diary.
5. Brooks' accomplice strikes again
South Carolina Rep. Laurence Keitt helped Rep. Preston Brooks in his assault of Sumner by pointing a pistol at fellow politicians who rushed to Sumner's aid. Like Brooks, he resigned but was re-elected resoundingly. Two years later, he got in trouble again during a filibuster over, again, the slave status of Kansas. Things got messy, as American Heritage magazine recounted in 1975:
By 4 P.M. the few administration men remaining in the House were leading a desperate filibuster by invoking a running series of roll calls and quorum calls. The sergeant at arms was sent into the streets and unceremoniously led the absent members away from their dinner parties. At midnight the filibusterers were still in full cry. The exhausted representatives slept in their places, lounged along the back walls of the chamber, or, significantly, revived their flagging spirits with what one writer called “stimulants” in the cloakroom.
At about 1:30 A.M. , when some of the members were quite visibly drunk, Galusha A. Grow, Republican of Pennsylvania, wandered aimlessly across the floor to the Democrats’ side. Sober but testy as a result of the hour, Grow took exception to a motion offered by a Democratic rival. Immediately Laurence Keitt, a Democrat from South Carolina, who was half asleep at his desk, roused himself enough to order Grow back to his own side of the House, in the bargain calling him “a black Republican puppy.”
Bitterly angry, Grow replied, “No negro-driver shall crack his whip over me.” Struggling to his feet, Keitt shouted, “I’ll choke you for that,” and made for Grow’s throat.
In moments the floor was a sea of writhing bodies, a dozen Southerners pummelling—or being pummelled by—a dozen Northerners. The Speaker shouted and rapped for order, and the sergeant at arms, thinking he could make a difference, rushed among the combatants showing the House mace. One representative picked up a heavy stoneware spittoon and rushed into the fray. Several Quakers urged calm and peace.
In about two minutes it was all over, brought to a risible conclusion when Cadwallader Washburne of Illinois grabbed William Barksdale of Mississippi by a forelock in order to punch him in the face, let go a roundhouse right, and missed—because Barksdale ducked, leaving Washburne with Barksdale’s wig in his left hand. Since nobody in the chamber had known the Mississippian was bald and because the humiliated Barksdale restored the hair piece wrong end to, nearly everyone stopped fighting to gape and then roar with laughter.
Wisconsin Rep. "Bowie Knife" Potter, who United Press International contends ended up with the wig, said '''Hooray, boys. I've got his scalp!' That broke up the quarrel in a wave of equally riotous laughter.''
6. Election results in Maine delayed by fight with bear
In 1934, there were only 60 voters in the town of Woodville, Maine. There were also no phones or telegraphs or trains anywhere near Woodville. So, when the town held an election, they needed to take the votes by wagon to Lincoln, where they were then telephoned to Bangor. That year, the returns reached Bangor four days late. Jeptha Glidden and Issac Pond, who were charged with delivering the results, told a reporter why they were delayed over a snack and a smoke outside a store in Lincoln. They were headed down the road, making good time, when suddenly their horse started acting up.
I looked 'round to see what scairt 'em so, an' there, comin' down an old tote road, was the biggest b'ar I've seen for twenty year. 'Course, no man likes to mix in with a b'ar less'n he's got a good gun, leastways an axe.
Anyway, we wan't lookin' for no b'ars that day, me an' Ike, so we started off down the road to ketch our old hoss an' that took us till 'bout 10 o'clock that night. Found him an' the waggin all right, but 'twas too late to do any more trav'lin then, so we jest turned into a hovel up there an' slept sound till 'long 'bout 2 o'clock in the morning', when a great scratchin' at the door woke us up.
There was a b'ar tryin' to get in, prob'ly smellin' provisions that had b'en kept there -- an' our rifle was in the waggin outside! Wuss yet, there wan't no tellin' where that hoss an' waggin was by that time.
After awhile, the bear finally got shot, and they skinned it and ate it, and Jeptha Glidden and Issac Pond finally got to Lincoln to deliver the election returns. As Glidden ended his story, "Now, gents, that's what de-layed gittin' them re-turns f'm Woodville down to Bangor."
7. Family fight over politics ends with a gunfight
Farmer Tom Stewart and his son were having a fight about the upcoming election in Kentucky in 1903. The elder Stewart had originally said he would vote for the Republican ticket, but changed his mind and announced a flip-flop to the Democrats. This did not please Stewart the younger. They began punching each other. Stewart's son then threatened to go to the local magistrate and get his father arrested. Tom heard about this, and threatened to shoot the magistrate, Elijah Upton, on sight if he tried to arrest him. After Upton tracked him down and they yelled at each other in the streets for a bit, Upton killed Stewart.
8. Dan Sickles kills Francis Scott Key's son outside the White House
Former representative Dan Sickles caught Philip Barton Key trying to signal Teresa Sickles, his wife, out for a date one night in 1859. Having known about the fling for awhile, he was kind of ragey, which led him to grab two guns and rush outside, yelling “Key, you scoundrel, you have dishonored my home. You must die. You must die! You must die!” He then shot Key repeatedly in Lafayette Park in Washington, D.C., which led to the death of the songwriter's son. Sickles, who later served as a Union general in the Civil War and as ambassador to Spain, became the first person to successfully use a temporary insanity defense.