Thursday, May 25, 2017

Gianforte, Quists, and "Little Hitler."

An excerpt from Pardon Me, Mr. President: Adventures in Crime, Politics and Mercy, P.S. Ruckman, Jr., forthcoming.

When Francis Shoemaker of Minnesota ran for Congress in the late 1920s, the world of political campaigns was forever changed. The man who was proud of the fact that his education had not been “retarded” by public schools was one to decorate public speeches with profanity and animated floor-spitting. He was inclined to label his political opponents as “rodents,” “jellyfish,” “alley rats” and “ravenous fiends.” For special critics, he reserved “looting, thieving liars,” the name “Judas” and the color “yellow.”

Shoemaker raided the classrooms of the very high schools his mother would not let him attend, distributing campaign literature and screaming this and that until he had to be physically removed. When one Matt Quist expressed his own opinion about the fine details in a Shoemaker campaign speech, he was unceremoniously knocked unconscious … by the speaker.

Shoemaker once addressed a letter to a Minnesota banker whom he labeled (on the outside of the envelope) a “Robber of Orphans and Widows.” The banker’s mailing address was identified as the “Temple of Greed and Chicanery.” U.S. Attorney General William D. Mitchell decided the inscription was “scurrilous” and “defamatory” and a violation of federal law. District Court Judge John B. Sanborn agreed and on December 22, 1930, he gave Shoemaker a suspended sentence of one year and one day in the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth. Shoemaker was also fined $500 and warned by Judge Sanborn that he would be “watched closely in the future.”

Despite Sanborn’s leniency and strict tone, Shoemaker wrote a scathing review of his own trial in a subsequent edition of Organized Farmer. The angry judge thus reinstated the sentence on December 29 and Shoemaker was (in his own words) “railroaded” to the penitentiary. At one point during the term, Judge Sanborn actually supported an early release for parole but changed his mind. Shoemaker (prisoner no. 38163) was eventually released in November of 1931.

In May of 1932, Shoemaker announced his candidacy for the Seventy-fourth Congress. There would be an at-large election in Minnesota that year, so the top nine vote-getters would be seated. Shoemaker finished eighth and promptly started setting up district offices. He also ordered special license plates bearing his prison number and tried, unsuccessfully, to have his prison record inserted into his Congressional Directory biography.

Some, however, were generally wary of the idea of seating an ex-convict in Congress. Indeed, Representatives Albert Carter (R-Cal.), Robert Luce (R-Mass.) and Alfred Bulwinkle (D-N.C.) recommended caution in the matter and called for an investigation by a House committee. Shoemaker’s defenders argued the crime that he had committed was not really all that serious and that a felony under federal law was not necessarily a felony under Minnesota state law. Some speakers stood on the House floor and waxed eloquent on such topics as “crooked bankers,” “flat-headed judges” and “little district attorneys” who always seemed to have a way of doing the “wrong thing.” For style points, one speaker loudly asked House members if they wanted to “debar a man for defending orphans and widows.”

The vote was not immediately taken, but Shoemaker was reported to have smiled “in appreciation” of the “oratory” delivered on his behalf. On March 10, 1933, an overwhelming majority of the House of Representatives voted to seat him. Christian Century applauded both the decision of the House and the “unholy pride” that Shoemaker had in his criminal record. He had, after all, not been found guilty of a crime involving “moral turpitude.” As far as the periodical was concerned, the current number of “prominent” bankers who were under indictment at the time for “various forms of betrayal of trust” strongly suggested there were “too many” bankers who really were “robbers of orphans and widows.”

But now, looking back, well after the fact, it is difficult to withhold praise for the intuition of Representatives Carter, Luce and Bulwinkle.

In little over a month, the ex-convict Congressman punched a neighbor in the face because he (the neighbor) refused to turn off a radio. Shoemaker later explained his actions by noting that he had “sick people” in his family and the neighbors had been partying for three straight nights. He found particularly annoying the constant singing of the wildly popular barbershop quartet hit, “Sweet Adeline.” Shoemaker told reporters that he was approached by the neighbor “in a threatening manner” but, afterward, was gentlemanly enough to fetch a doctor to “sew up” the fellow’s eye.

The neighbor, one Theodore Cohen, saw things differently. He claimed Shoemaker first called him on the phone and cussed him. Shoemaker then came into Cohen’s apartment with the announcement that he was a “hard-boiled” man and the “only ex-convict in Congress.” According to Cohen, Shoemaker yelled out that he knew how to “handle” Jews as he was “another Hitler.”

Shoemaker made a faint attempt to look more “congressional” two days later by standing on the floor of the House and calling for the creation of a special committee and an “investigation” of “revolutionary plotting against the government of Cuba.” Shoemaker’s formal resolution noted New Jersey “underworld characters” were heading toward the island. He also expressed great distress that public attention was being distracted from the matter.

Representatives Carter, Luce and Bulwinkle were probably not too terribly impressed.

Three days later, Shoemaker was dealing with the distraction of an assault charge. On April 24, he pled not guilty and demanded a jury trial. The New York Times reported Shoemaker had disregarded “the advice of many colleagues” in doing so.

But Franklin D. Roosevelt was so impressed by Shoemaker’s story and his clear progress toward rehabilitation and reform that he granted a full and unconditional pardon for the crime that had been committed four years earlier. In addition, the President’s July 9 clemency warrant remitted Judge Sanborn’s $500 fine. Time magazine also reported that Roosevelt pardoned Shoemaker’s personal secretary, a former acquaintance at Leavenworth. Shoemaker bragged, “Not only am I the only ex-convict in Congress, but the only man to emerge from the White House with two pardons as well.”

Roosevelt’s clemency decision settled the protest against Shoemaker’s election once and for all and the recipient quipped – at every opportunity - “I go from the penitentiary to Congress, not like a great many congressmen who go from Congress to the penitentiary.”   But, one month after Roosevelt’s pardon, some had to wonder if Francis Shoemaker’s career path was something more akin to a revolving door. The Minnesota congressman angrily confronted laborers in front of his hotel one morning because they were using various torches and lanterns. By the time the discussion was over, Shoemaker personally smashed six lanterns and found himself arrested. He was later released, and the charges were dropped.

1934 was a banner year for the pardoned ex-convict-congressman. In March, Shoemaker was arrested and charged with assaulting one Charles Newman, a “diminutive” cab driver. Newman claimed the congressman rammed his car while it was sitting at a red light. Shoemaker then supposedly threatened his life, cursed him and beat him up. Indeed, a policeman quoted Shoemaker as saying, “Yes, I hit him and I’ll kill him.” The warrant for the congressman’s arrest was served right outside his suite in the House Office Building.

Shoemaker’s initial court appearance set the tone for a case that would drag on for months. The Times reported the congressman insisted on parking his car right in front of the court building “in defiance of police orders.” When he was told to move the vehicle, Shoemaker responded, “I can park where I want to. I’m a congressman.” Inside the building, Shoemaker managed to obtain a one-week postponement of his assault trial by complaining to the judge that he was unable to find a lawyer. As the postponement was granted, he learned that the cab driver (Newman) would also be suing him for $100,000.

Shoemaker’s legendary sense of focus could not have been more evident the following day, when he formally threw his name in the hat for a seat in the United States Senate. Representatives Carter, Luce and Bulwinkle may not have been amused.

In preparation for trial, Shoemaker stood on the floor of the House of Representatives and impeached Joseph W. Molyneaux, a federal judge in his own state. Some newspapers sarcastically labeled Shoemaker “Solon” in their headlines. But the “fighting” Congressman was not joking. He said Molyneaux was “crazy” and “not in his right mind.” He said the judge has also “discredited the judiciary” and called for an investigation.

The assault trial resulted in a hung jury and a new trial was scheduled for May. That was also about the time when three motorists in Minneapolis claimed their own congressman damaged their cars in hit-and-run chases. Ralph Jacobson said Shoemaker rammed his car twice from behind and broke his bumper. Jacobson claimed Shoemaker then sped away from the scene of the accident. W.L. McComber claimed that he agreed to help Jacobson catch Shoemaker in an automobile chase. The two men managed to stop the congressman and demand an explanation for his actions. But Shoemaker simply took advantage of the fact that they were out of their automobiles and sped away, damaging the cars of two other individuals in the process. At the police station, Shoemaker explained that the men were “impeding” his “progress” and that he just gave their automobiles a “jar” to “take them out of the way.” He added that he had not “hurt their cars any.”

On May 21, 16 policemen and 19 strikers were hospitalized in Minneapolis when violence broke out during a truck deliverers’ strike. Several truckloads of produce charged into a blockage of six to seven thousand strikers, and hundreds of police were called to the scene. C. Arthur Lyman was beaten and later died of a fractured skull. More than forty others suffered “minor hurts” from rocks, ice, “crude clubs” and iron pipes. Seventy-five people were arrested in relation to the day’s activities, and among them was Rep. Francis H. Shoemaker.

The distinguished congressman from Minnesota was seen stomping through the crowd “without tie or coat,” chanting and carrying a broom handle. When authorities asked him to “move on” from a particular spot, Shoemaker responded, “You can’t make me move.” Shoemaker told the Associated Press that he was acting “in the public interest” when he was arrested for the fourth time and that he had actually taken the broom handle from a striker so “he wouldn’t start any trouble.” Shoemaker also complained that he was “manhandled” by police and that his injuries would require treatment from a physician.

Looking very congressional, Shoemaker made public a telegram that he had personally sent to President Roosevelt. It spoke of commercial transportation, committee meetings, and arbitration, but said nothing of the riots, the violence, his most recent arrest or the broom handle.

Representatives Carter, Luce and Bulwinkle may have been skeptical.

Shoemaker’s service in the public interest and incomparably heroic update to the President did not fend off a conviction for “disorderly conduct.” Judge Fred B. Wright sentenced him to 10 days in the municipal workhouse or a fine of $50. The sentence was stayed, however, in consideration of Shoemaker’s bid for a seat in the Senate.

On the first day of the following month, Minneapolis Traffic Judge W. C. Larson found Shoemaker guilty of “failing to stop after an accident.” The punishment was 30 days in the workhouse or a fine of $75. In his pronouncement of sentence, Larson also seemed to take issue with Congressman Shoemaker’s general car parking hypothesis, stating that an individual’s “social or political position” made “no difference” in traffic court.

Despite his various arrests, Shoemaker imagined himself a suitable opponent for incumbent Senator Henrik Shipstead. But Shipstead won the primary vote by a margin of three to one. Whatever one might say of Francis Shoemaker, there was little doubt that he was a man of deep-seated, unyielding political conviction and not a “quitter.” His four subsequent attempts at re-election (as a Farm Laborite, an Independent, a Democrat and a Republican) also failed.

July of 1934 brought a summons and complaint in a divorce action filed by Mrs. Lydgia Shoemaker. In the complaint, the former congressman’s wife hurled the preposterous charge that she had been subject to “cruel and inhumane treatment.” Judge Byron B. Park fell for it, however, as Shoemaker did not contest the divorce and was not represented in court. Judge Park granted the divorce in August, ordered alimony payments of $200 a month, and had this advice for Shoemaker’s ex-wife: “If I were you I wouldn’t work.”

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