I am surprised that nobody in Nebraska got shot during the winter of 1890-91. In fact, a few people may have; probably it just never made the papers. The problem was politics. On Tuesday November 4, 1890, the Republicans and Democrats spilt seven seats in the state senate and forty-six seats in the house. But every other seat, eighteen in the senate and fifty-four in the house, went to a third party, the so called “hogs in the parlor”, the People’s Independent Party. And the presence of that third party set the entire state on fire.
This alliance of destitute farmers was the political response to decades of corruption and corporate influence peddling, and a drought not equaled until the dust bowl of the 1930's. According to one Republican observer the "hayseeds" envisioned the world as a combination of a Victor Hugo plot and a Baptist revival meeting. And indeed, when the Nebraska legislature convened in joint session in January of 1891 things went from the melodramatic to the down right absurd.
To begin with, the new speaker of the House, farmer Sam Elder, decided he was going to bypass the acting President of the Senate, Republican George Meiklejohn, who was also the lieutenant-governor, and preside over both houses of the legislature all by himself. His plans for a grand investigation of election fraud and a remaking of state government were derailed when Meiklejohn grabbed the gavel off the podium and refused to return it. There was a shoving, grasping cat fight for the precious totem, which Meiklejohn eventually won. From this point the business of government in Nebraska got very noisy and ground to a halt, all over the issue of the certification of the new governor.
As these things were normally counted, the clear loser had been the Republican candidate L.D. Richards, who received just 68,878 votes. The Democrat, James Boyd, received 71,331 votes, and was, according to county election officials state wide, the winner. But Speaker Elder was certain the actually winner had been John Powers, of his People’s Independent Party. Officially Powers had received 70,187 votes, making him second by a mere 1,144 votes. But Elder believed with good reason there had been 2,000 fraudulent votes cast for Boyd in Douglas County, centered on Omaha, and Elder was pushing for an immediate investigation.
Neither side dared to adjourn. Elder presided from the podium, calling on speakers and announcing votes, while Meiklejohn sat at the clerk’s desk, doing the same, but for other people. Nobody got anything done because nobody could hear anybody else. Sometime after midnight, Elder ordered the doors locked and told the sergeant-at-arms to admit no one without a written pass - from him. Meanwhile, the presumed victor, Boyd, requested an immediate hearing before the state supreme court to require Speaker Elder to immediately certify his election as governor.
Boyd (above) asked for a writ of mandamus (“…a court order that requires another court, government official, public body, corporation or individual to perform a certain act”). His attorney argued his case before three judges of the Nebraska state Supreme Court, and a hearing room crowded with armed angry spectators. After the hearing it was expected that the judges would retire to consider the arguments.
Instead the justices held an immediate huddle and Chief Justice Cobb announced that the weighty issues of freedom and public order and good government were irrelevant. The court had decided that certifying election results was simply a clerical duty and not a matter of choice. Cobb signed the writ of mandamus on the spot. The spectators were so stunned they were frozen. And that was probably the only reason why none of freshly disenfranchised voters in the room started shooting.
The sheriff of Lincoln County, surrounded by deputies, smashed down the locked doors of the state legislature, charged to the front of the chamber and forcefully handed the writ to Speaker Elder. And to everyone’s surprise, Speaker Elder did as the law required. John Boyd was officially declared the official governor of the state of Nebraska. “Thus”, said Judge Bayard Paine forty-five years later, “tragedy was averted in Nebraska statecraft.” Instead, tragedy was converted into low comedy.
The outgoing governor, Republican John Thayer (above), was the most hated man in Nebraska, the man whose behavior over the past year had been most responsible for the defeat of the Republican Party in the past election. And he now refused to surrender his office, saying he would “hold on to the chair, the seat, and the office of Governor until the cows come home.” While the legislature bickered downstairs, Thayer barricaded himself in the governor’s offices. He called up a company of State militia and local police to stand guard. Having finally taken the oath, Boyd moved into other offices in the state house and dispatched the Lincoln County sheriff (again) to take procession of the executive suites. But this time the sheriff ran up against a militia and the local cops, who refused to surrender. Fist fights broke out.
On January 10th it finally occurred to Captain Rhody, in command of Thayer’s little army of 25 men, that he was out on a limb on by himself. Rhody announced to Thayer that “I saluted you for the last time.” He did, and then marched his little army back to their barracks. Abandoned, Thayer surrendered the offices, and Boyd moved in. But Thayer was far from ready to give up.
He hired his own attorney and on January 13th 1891, appealed to the state Supreme Court. His argument was inventive; John Boyd was not qualified to be governor because he was not an American citizen because he had not been born in America. And that made John Thayer the original “birther”.
Indeed Boyd had been born in Ireland in 1834. His family had emigrated to America when he was 14. His father had begun the naturalization paperwork in 1849 but events, both personal and political, had intervened. In 1856 the Boyd family had moved to Nebraska territory and had become involved in business and local politics. And then the Civil War and broken out.
The Boyd family were still residents in 1867 when Nebraska was admitted to the union. But Boyd’s father had never completed the naturalization paperwork. Ergo, argued ex-Governor Thayer, John Boyd was not qualified to be governor of Nebraska. And on May 5th, 1891 the State Supreme Court agreed with him. Boyd was out and ex-governor Thayer was Governor again. The Nebraska governor's office was beginning to resemble a game of musical chairs.
What Thayer had done was a desperate power grab and doomed to failure, if for no other reason than it assured that any Irish Republicans in Nebraska were not likely to vote Republican again in the near future.
More immediatly, Boyd appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Their decision was announced by Chief Justice Fuller: “Manifestly the nationality of the inhabitants of territory acquired by conquest or cession becomes that of the government under whose dominion they pass…The judgment of the supreme court of Nebraska is reversed…” It was that troublesome old 14th Amendment again, this time upheld in an 8 to one decision, issued on January 2nd, 1892. Boyd resumed his office on February 3rd of 1892.
But, since the Governor of Nebraska served just a two year term, the antics of Governor Thayer and his political allies had cut Boyd’s term in half. And that is the kind of political victory that only makes sense when figured by the quarterly profit and loss statements of a corporation, like the big railroads in the 19th century, or the big banks in the 21st century. And that kind of corporate influence left the citizens of Nebraska up the creek without a paddle for yet another generation.
- 30 -