I want to take you back to a time when there were just two million Hoosiers in the whole wide world, and yet Indiana had 13 seats in the United States House of Representatives and 15 electoral votes. Today they have just nine, and 11 electoral votes. Even more improbable to modern ears, this smallest state west of the Allegheny mountains was a crucial "battleground" state, oscillating like a bell clapper, clanging first Republican and then ringing Democratic, changing six times between 1876 and 1888, swinging each time at the whim of some 6,000 reasonably fickle independent voters.
As part of these rhythmic revolutions was the winter of 1885 when the dynamic Democratic Governor Isaac Gray (above), dreaming of being President of the whole United States, decided that after being Governor, he wanted to be a United States Senator. And since Senators were elected by the legislature, which was split pretty evenly along party lines, he came up with a clever plan to ensure himself the stepping stone post of Senator. First he jammed through a gerrymander redistricting of the state legislative offices, re-designing ten traditionally Republican state assembly seats so they would more likely elect Democrats instead. This would prove to be such an outrageous power grab, a Federal court would declare it unconstitutional in 1892. But that was all part of Gray's plan, because he knew the voters would take their revenge far sooner than the courts.
So, in the summer of 1886, Grey convinced his Democratic Lieutenant Governor, Mahlon Manson. to take early retirement. Then he scheduled a mid-term election to refill that. And as Gray had expected, the Republican base was so energized by the Democratic gerrymander, that their party was swept back into power that November with a 10,000 vote majority, recapturing seven of those redistricted Assembly seats that were supposed to go Democratic. (The state Senate, remained 31 Democrats and 19 Republicans.)
But more importantly for Governor Gray, the newly elected Lieutenant Governor was a Republican, Robert Robertson. Thus, should Democrat Gray offer his resignation as Governor in exchange for being elected U.S. Senator, the Republican dominated Assembly would probably go along because that would make the Republican Robertson the new Governor. Now, it was not an impossible dream, as another Hoosier politician would shortly prove – one Benjamen Harrison.
Yes, Grey (above) had a nifty plan, clever enough to be worthy of Machiavelli. But it faced one insurmountable hurdle. Governor Isaac Grey was without doubt the most hated Democratic governor among Democrats, in the entire history of the state of Indiana. He was the original DINO - a Democrat in Name Only.
Twenty years earlier, at the close of the Civil War, this same Isaac Grey, had been the Republican Speaker of the state Assembly (above). To pass the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, making ex-slaves American citizens, and giving black males the right to vote, Speaker Grey had literally locked the doors, preventing Democrats from bolting the building and thus denying a quorum to the Republican majority. While the trapped Democrats sulked in the cloak room, Speaker Grey staged successful votes for the three amendments. It had been a brutal scheme, again worthy of Machiavelli, like his latest plot.. But racists in the Democratic party never forgot Grey had counted them as "present but not voting", even after he had switched parties and gave them the governship. And as the Assembly session for 1887 opened, these hard liners were willing to set the state on fire if they could also burn up their Governor's Presidential dream boat.
The Indiana State Senate (above) was about to come into session at 9:35 on the morning of Saturday 24 February, 1887, when Republican Lt. Governor Robertson entered the second floor chambers to take his seat as the new President pro tempore of the Senate. But a flying squad of Democrats physically blocked him from reaching the dais. He shouted from the floor, "Gentlemen of the Senate, I have been by force excluded from the position to which the people of this state elected me.” But at this point the out going President pro tempore, Democratic Senator Alonzo Smith, ordered doorkeeper Frank Pritchett, to remove the Lt. Governor, “...if he don't stop speaking.”
As the doorkeeper and his assistants advanced on Roberts, he announced, “They may remove me. I am here, unarmed.” Smith testily responded, “We are all unarmed. We are fore-armed, though.” That belligerent mood was now general in the chamber. Republican Senator DeMotte from Porter county shouted something from the floor, and acting President Smith ordered him to take his seat. Responded DeMotte, “When he gets ready, he will.”
As the Lt. Governor was dragged toward the rear doors of the Senate Chamber a Republican Senator shouted that if he went, all the Republicans were going with him. President Pro tem Smith shouted back, “They can go if they want to. They will be back, ” he predicted. At this point Republican Senator Johnson challenged the chair directly, telling him, “No man will be scared by you.” “You're awfully scared now, “ said the Democrat. “Not by you”, answered the Republican. It sounded like five year olds had taken over the state senate.
A general fight now broke out in the Senate chamber, with the outnumbered Republicans giving such a good account of themselves that one Democrat drew a pistol and – BANG! - shot a hole in the brand new ceiling of the still unfinished statehouse. Into the acrid gun smoke and sudden silence this unnamed Democrat announced that he was prepared to start killing Republicans if they kept fighting.
With that, Lt. Governor Robertson was thrown out of the Senate and the doors were locked and bolted behind him. As the official record notes those were “...the last words spoken by a Republican Senator in the 55th General Assembly.” The Senate then tried to get back to business, appropriately taking up Senate bill 61, setting aside $100,000 for three new hospitals for the mentally insane. It was decided it was self evident the state was going to need them, and the measure was approved by a vote officially recorded as 31 Ayes, 0 nays and 18 “present but not voting”. Ah, revenge must have seemed sweet for the Democrats – for about half an hour.
Outside in the central atrium, the gunshot had attracted a crowd, mostly from the Republican controlled House on the East side of the capital. Faced with a bruised and enraged Robertson, the Republicans caught his anger. Similar fights sparked to life in the chamber of the House of Representatives, and a “mob” of 600 angry Republicans descended upon every wayward Democrat in the building, punching and kicking them, and, if they resisted, beating them down to the marble floors of the brand new “people's house”.
Eventually, the pandemonium returned to its source; the Republicans laid siege to the Senate chamber. They beat against the doors, and smashed open a transom. Vengeful Republicans poured in and the haughty Democrats were assaulted in their own chamber and thrown out of it. By now Governor Grey, down in his offices on the first floor, had heard the ruckus upstairs, and had called in the Indianapolis Police. Four hours after the legislative riot had begun, order was restored to the capital of Hoosier democracy. History and many newspapers would record it as the “Black Day of the Indiana Assembly.”
The following Monday the triumphant Republican dominated Assembly dispatched a note to the battered Democratically controlled Senate, that the Repubs would have no further correspondence with the Dems. Snap of finger dismissal. The Senate counter-informed the lower house, ditto, and same to you.. State government in Indiana had ground to a halt. Lt. Governor Robertson never presided over the Senate, and Governor Gray never served as a Untied States Senator. He came to be known as the “Sisyphus of the Wabash”, after the legendary Greek king, renown for his avariciousness and deceit. A few years later Hoosiers elected to choose their Senators by popular vote, I suppose under the theory that the general population of drunks and lunatics could do no worse then the professional politicians had already done. And they were most certainly correct.