I sympathize with the stupid, stupid thing Governor William Langer (above) did on the night of Tuesday 17 July, 1934. He was frustrated. He had been outmaneuvered, railroaded and thoroughly screwed over by his political opponents. Even his friends. The North Dakota Supreme Court had just validated his exile and he was facing two years in prison and disbarment. He'd spent the day commiserating with ten friends in the governor's mansion. The dedicated temperance man might even have been a little drunk. If he did that would help explain why, late that night, “Wild Bill” locked the font door of the executive mansion and signed a declaration that he was succeeding from the Federal union, and taking 680,000 people and 71,000 square miles with him. North Dakota was now a brand new country, where the national tree was the telephone pole, and the national motto was “I'm not paying for that.”
“Wild Bill” lived up to his nickname during his 1932 gubernatorial campaign, telling voters, “Shoot the banker, if he comes for your farm. Treat him like a chicken thief.” It was a popular message. That year 76,000 North Dakota farms had been sold at bank auctions, but the repossessions were not helping the small banks: of the 900 banks operating in North Dakota in 1920, by 1933, barely a third were still open, and that number continued to drop. Nationally, $140 billion – $2.5 trillion in today's money - in uninsured customer deposits had simply vanished. Almost every farmer in the cash starved North Dakota was “upside down” on their loans The unemployment rate in the state would rise from 9.4% in 1930 to 27.3% in 1933. Wild Bill goaded his supporters, “There can be no return to prosperity in North Dakota that does not begin with the farmer.” But Governor Langer was just trying to catch up to a radicalized public.
In February a crowd of a thousand stopped a farm seizure and sale, and in March a group pulled guns on a sheriff, burning the foreclosure papers on another farm. In response Governor Langer called up the National Guard – and ordered them to stop all such sales. Then, in October, with the price of wheat hitting an all time low, Langer closed the state's borders to all wheat exports. The embargo was short lived, ending before the railroads and banks got a court order over turning it. While the price of wheat rose only a few cents, he had convinced farmers the government was on their side. The governor did not have the legal authority to do such things, and in traditional Republican circles Langer was denounced as a dictator. Amazingly, neither extra-legal action had anything to do with his 1934 indictment.
Winning the 1932 election had almost bankrupted the Republican Non Partisan League of North Dakota. Governor Langer even had to loan his party $21,000 out of his own pocket. And if the party was to survive a rematch with the traditional Republican establishment in 1934, they were going to have to raise cash. That summer Langer began republishing the old NPL weekly newspaper “The Leader”. And he pressured state employees to buy a year's subscription, equal to 5% of their salary. It was a common practice in many states at the time to require workers to donate to the party in power, but at least in North Dakota, for every additional subscriptions a state worker sold, an equal dollar amount would be returned. It made every state worker a salesman for the NPL.
The Governor's plan might have worked except for fellow NPL Republican and U.S. Senator, Gerald P. Nye (above), aka “Gerald the Giant-Killer”. He earned his nickname by uncovering the Tea Pot Dome scandal in the Harding administration. He and Langer were both afflicted with the puritanical egotism that had repeatedly splintered the NPL and prevented it from dominating North Dakota politics. Nye began urging the federal Justice Department to investigate his old political "frenemy", William Langer.
After reviewing Senator Nye's allegations, newly appointed federal prosecutor, Democrat Powless William (P.W.) Lanier (above) thought he'd found “an offense...that is indictable.” Roosevelt's New Deal was funding 2,300 miles of road improvements and 60 new bridges across North Dakota. And that made the members of the state highway department technically federal employees, covered by federal corruption laws. A federal Grand Jury was convened in Bismark to hear the evidence on 8 March, 1934. They refused to return an indictment. So P.W. convened a second jury on 10 April, but this time, carefully selected its members. Of the 23 jurors, twenty were city residents, in a state that was still heavily rural, and 22 had previously made public statements opposed to the NPL. P.W. kept the hand picked juries' indictment a secret until 16 May, the same day Governor Langer announced his campaign for re-election. But the case was really decided when it was assigned to the court of federal Judge Andrew Miller.
Judge Miller (above) was another Harding appointee, but before that, as a private attorney, he had defended the railroads when the South Dakota Attorney General had sued them for $2 million in back taxes. The A.G. who won that judgment and humiliated Andrew Miller had been William Langer. And even though Federal Prosecutor Lanier agreed to postpone the trial until after the Republican primary - with so few Democrats in North Dakota, winning the primary was paramount to winning the general election - Judge Miller refused to delay the trial. In an arraignment that took only fourteen minutes, Miller went a step further, ruling the defense could not mention Langer's loan to the NPL, making it seem “The Leader” subscriptions were pure graft. And then he required the sitting Governor, accused of a non-violent crime, to post bail.
The trial, which opened on Tuesday, 22 May, 1934, charged Governor Langer (above) with two related offenses: conspiracy to extort funds from federal employees, and blocking the orderly operation of an act of congress. As the case was handed over to the jury, Governor Langer could sense what was coming, and on Thursday, 12 July, he tried an end run. Arguing that only the legislature had the power to remove a sitting governor, “Wild Bill” called for a special session to investigate his actions.
Tensions began to mount while Bismark filled with Langer supporters (above) and opponents. Then, after sixty hours of deliberation, at 12:26 in the morning of Sunday, 17 July, the jury convicted William Langer on both counts.
Judge Miller could not help gloating, admitting he was delighted and pleased by the verdict. “You have earned the confidence and respect of the whole state,” he told his jury, adding for some reason, “Your verdict...(is) the result of honest conviction without fear or favor.” Then, bright and early Monday morning, Lieutenant Governor Ole Olson (above), asked the state Supreme Court to answer a simple question – since the state constitution said convicted felons lost all rights of citizenship, was the newly convicted William Langer still Governor? The court had to answer “No”. But they also refused to rule on William's ability to stand for re-election until after his sentencing.
And as his first official act, “Governor” Ole Olson rescinded the call for a special session of the legislature. The next day, Tuesday, 18 July, “Wild Bill” Langer, easily won the Republican primary for Governor.
About 10:30 that night, with ten friends as witnesses, “Wild Bill” (above left) declared himself and his state a new nation, conceived in bitterness and dedicated to the proposition that William Langer was getting screwed. Luckily somebody convinced “Wild Bill” not to tell many people about his bold move, or he might have been removed for mental incompetence. On Sunday, 22 July, Governor Langer assured the 94 out of 159 members of the legislature who showed up for the special session anyway, “I want this legislative assembly to investigate how the federal government and officials have persecuted me with the advice and aid of Senator Gerald P. Nye...I am still your governor. If I have been guilty of any corrupt conduct...I want this legislative assembly to impeach and remove me from office.” Dutifully, his supporters voted to begin impeachment proceedings against not only Ole Olson, but the entire State Supreme Court too.
That night there was a quiet meeting between a calmer William Langer and the entire state supreme court. They managed to reason with “Wild Bill”, who moved the sofa away from the front door of the executive mansion, and resigned. The constitutional crises in North Dakota had been averted. The union of states was saved, again. Of course, William Langer still refused to leave the mansion (above) until what would have been the end of his term.
That fall Senator Nye and the “Governor” Olsen threw their support behind Democrat Thomas Moodie (above) for Governor...
allowing him to beat Lydia Langer (above, right), “Wild Bill”'s wife. Then, in February of 1935, the State Supreme Court ruled that Moodie had not met the five year residency requirement for state office holders.
That made Lieutenant Governor Walter Welford (above, seated) the fourth Governor of North Dakota in four months.
It wasn't until 7 May, 1935 that the Federal Appeals Court overturned “Wild Bill”'s conviction and ordered a new trial. Judge Miller refused to recuse himself, and at the new trial managed to at least get a hung jury, 10 to 2 for conviction. Langer immediately appealed again, and the Appeals Court again ordered a new trial, this time ordering Judge Miller to step aside. Prosecutor Lanier responded by charging Langer with committing perjury in his appeal filing. First a new trial jury, under an impartial judge, found William Langer (above, left) “not guilty” of corruption. Then the judge in the perjury trial found the supposed falsehoods were merely personal opinion, and ordered a directed verdict of not guilty. The following year, in 1936, William Langer ran again for Governor, and won again. Senator Nye growled, “Langer has more lives than a cat.”
While these intense political battles were raging, the state of North Dakota was burning up and blowing away. The dry year of 1933 (just 13 inches of rain) was followed by the drought year of 1934 (9.4 inches). That September a plague of locusts descended on the state . There were 4 inches of grasshoppers on the streets of Killdeer. After the Dust Bowl Years, North Dakota lost so many citizens, the population would not return to 1930 levels until the year 2010. But the politicians are just as corrupt, partisan and irrational. Did anybody expect them to change?
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