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Senate “Kidnapping” of 1911

By John Lilly


Governor William E. Glasscock (1909-1913). Photograph courtesy of the West Virginia State Archives.

The recent legislative impasse in Wisconsin, in which 14 state senators fled the state to avoid a vote on contentious legislation, reminds us that history does repeat itself. The same thing happened in 1911 right here in West Virginia, 100 years ago.

The trouble started in November 1910, when the state’s general election yielded an even number of Republicans and Democrats in the state senate – 15 apiece. As the time came for the legislature to convene in early January, several difficult matters faced this divided chamber. First, there was the issue of organizing the senate – selecting who would serve as senate president, which senators would sit on which committees, and who would serve as committee chairs.

Perhaps more important, however, was the selection of two seats in the U.S. Senate. At this time, U.S. senators were selected by the state senate, and both West Virginia seats were vacant. Ties were decided by the House of Delegates, where the Democrats held a majority. This worried the Republicans.

Governor William E. Glasscock, a Republican from Monongalia County, said following the election: “I am very sorry that the next legislature will be Democratic, but we must be good losers as I know we would have been good winners had the result been different. We must be patriots before we are partisans, and so far as I’m concerned I shall go ahead and work for what I believe to be the best interests of the people of the state just as I would have done had there been a Republican legislature elected.”

The governor must have felt differently upon further reflection, because on January 11, 1911, he summoned all 15 Republican senators to his chambers, where they were sequestered under guard of state Adjutant General Charles D. Elliott and state mine inspector John Laing. Without a quorum of at least 16, the senate could not conduct business. The Republican senators wanted assurances that they would be equally represented in the senate organization and that all disputed matters would be decided by the Committee on Privileges and Elections, made up of five members from each party. A particularly sticky point was the appointment of the senate president, who stood next in line of succession to the governor. The Republicans sorely wanted to control this position − Glasscock and the three previous governors had all been members of the GOP.

The Democrats felt that the November election had provided them with a popular mandate and pleaded with Secretary of State Stuart Reed to call the roll and allow them to proceed. Reed, a Republican, refused.

A bitter impasse ensued. Men with clubs guarded the recalcitrant senators as they barricaded themselves in the governor’s reception room. On January 13, arrest warrants were issued for the absent legislators, charging them with obstructing the state’s business. Senator Dr. Henry D. Hatfield, Republican from Logan County, pledged not to be taken alive.

Negotiations continued for the next three days, leading to what was termed an armistice. This temporary peace allowed now-weary Republicans to move about freely without fear of arrest while legislative leaders tried to hammer out a compromise. To nearly everyone’s surprise, the Republicans took this opportunity to board a train and flee to Cincinnati in the early hours of Tuesday, January 17. While the Republicans settled into the relative comfort of the Hotel Sinton, the Democrats moved quickly in their absence.

In the First Senatorial District election, Republican Julian Hearne had narrowly defeated Democrat Charles F. Caldwell. Caldwell had contested the results. In exile in Ohio Hearne was neither available to take the oath of office nor refute the contested election results. The Democrats therefore seated Caldwell, providing the elusive sixteenth member and the constitutional quorum necessary to conduct business. From their perch in Cincinnati, the Republicans denounced the move as illegal.

Governor Glasscock refused to recognize the legislature, though both chambers determined to carry on with or without the governor’s approval. At their first session, the reconstituted senate filled the two vacant seats in the U.S. Senate by appointing Democrats William E. Chilton and Clarence W. Watson.

In the early hours of Tuesday, January 24, the 15 absentee senators returned to Charleston. A deal had been struck that guaranteed them immunity from prosecution and established an arbitration agreement on all other disputed matters.

Peace did not come easily, however. Nearly a week of contention and continued conflict prevented the senate from organizing. Finally, on Saturday, January 28, the 15 Republican senators entered the senate chamber and took their seats. Republican Henry D. Hatfield assumed the role of senate president. Julian Hearne reclaimed his seat in the state senate, while Chilton and Watson retained their seats in the U.S. Senate. Other committee appointments and chairmanships were worked out in a generally bipartisan fashion. Dr. Hatfield was elected governor the following year and later served in the U.S. Senate.

The events of January 1911 were unprecedented in U.S. history at the time. As recent events in Wisconsin illustrate, however, even the most unexpected of developments can occur again, given the right circumstances and enough time. As West Virginia’s own Buddy Starcher said in his popular 1966 song, “History does repeat itself!”

You can read the rest of this article in this issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.