by Karl Kurtz
In follow-up to recent postings on legislative filibusters and walkouts, University of Miami Prof. Gregory Koger, who is the author of Filibustering: A Political History of Obstruction in the House and Senate and has reviewed hundreds of historical filibusters in all kinds of legislatures, sent a description of "my favorite filibuster." It's a combination of a filibuster and a walkout that involved shutting down the Rhode Island Senate for an entire session, a gas bomb, and fisticuffs among the members. Here is Koger's summary from an early draft of his book that was trimmed in the final version:
In January 1923, the Democratic minority in the Rhode Island Senate began a low-intensity filibuster against all major legislation in an effort to force the Republican majority to call for a new constitutional convention. They were aided by a Democratic Lieutenant Governor presiding over the Senate, Felix Toupin, who refused to recognize any Republicans seeking to make motions, except a motion to call for a convention. This conflict reached a peak in June, 1924 when the Rhode Island Senate stayed in continuous session for 22 hours until the Republican majority simply got up and left. Three days later they returned for a 42-hour day-and-night session which began with a mass fistfight over control of the gavel and ended when Republican operatives placed a poison-soaked rag behind Toupin to gas him out of the presiding officer’s chair. No one was permanently harmed, but the Republican majority relocated to Rutland, Massachusetts for six months until Republican victories in the 1924 elections put an end to the struggle.
This sounds a lot like the Alabama Senate fight of 1999, described in "Legislative Walkouts are Nothing New," in which a lieutenant governor from the minority party refused to recognize majority legislators for motions, leading to a walkout by the majority party. Minus the gas and the punches.
Here's a screen shot of an excerpt from a November 16, 1924 article from the New York Times (again courtesy of Greg Koger) about the Rhode Island filibuster. It provides more color about the issues involved, as well as a flavor of the Times' reportage and writing style of the time:
I searched online for a photo of Lt. Gov. Felix Toupin to illustrate this posting and found an intriguing one of him with two senators. I didn't reproduce the photo here, though, because I didn't want to pay $35 for the right to do so. But the best part of this photo, which you can view online at Corbis Images, is the original caption, which read:
Photo shows, Mrs. Isabella O'Neil, Rhode Island's only woman Senator, Senator Austin, and Lieutenant Governor Toupin. Mrs. O'neil has been watching out for the food of Lieutenant Governor Toupin, so that it is not tampered with.
Modern legislatures would have to go a long way to top this story!