February 24, 1887, became known as the “Black Day of the General Assembly” when political tensions devolved into an all out brawl. The following is from my bicentennial installment on Gov. Isaac Gray, “The Sisyphus of the Wabash.”
In 1884, Governor Gray had aspirations to have the General Assembly elect him to the U.S. Senate. Some of Gray’s fellow Democrats had no desire to see the former Republican elected to that post. (As a Republican state senator, Gray made a name for himself barring the doors against Democrats attempting to leave the Senate to break a quorum in an effort to prevent ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment.)
So, Gray’s (now) fellow Democrats were content when lieutenant governor Mahlon Manson accepted President Cleveland’s appointment to the position of revenue collector. This would leave Gray with no successor if he were elected to the Senate and, therefore, served to thwart his ambitions. Gray, however, asked the attorney general to give him an opinion that it was acceptable to have a special election for lieutenant governor in the 1886 mid-term election. The attorney general responded that this was permitted.
However, Democrat Alonzo Smith was the President pro tem of the Senate and he argued that there was no vacancy. Rather, he argued, the President pro tem was the acting lieutenant governor and would be until the term expired. Nevertheless, an election was held for lieutenant governor in 1886. The Republican nominee, Robert Robertson won the election — apparently with the support of Democratic governor Gray. He believed that, with a Republican lieutenant governor, he could get Republican support to send him to the U.S. Senate since that would get him out of the way and put a member of their party in the governor’s office. Meanwhile, Republicans also took control of the Indiana House in that election. Even though the wave was against them, Democrats held on to the Indiana Senate due to senators who had not been up for election.
When the General Assembly started its session, the minority senate Republicans caused a commotion and were ignored as the (Democratic majority) Senate re-elected (Democrat) Smith as President pro tem and acting lieutenant governor. Then, the House and Senate met in joint session and the (Republican) Speaker ignored the bitter protests of Democrats as the Speaker announced that (Republican) Robertson had won the lieutenant governor’s election. The Speaker turned the gavel over to Robertson (presiding over the Senate as the lieutenant governor). Robertson was shouted down by Democrats as he tried to speak and the joint session eventually adjourned in disorder.
The Marion County Circuit Court issued an injunction prohibiting Robertson from exercising power, reasoning that the mid-term election of a lieutenant governor was unconstitutional. However, on February 23, 1887, the Indiana Supreme Court reversed the Circuit Court saying that the Circuit Court did not have jurisdiction over the matter and neither did the Supreme Court. Rather, the court held, it was the General Assembly’s issue to resolve. One source (I’m not sure of that sources’ source, but it paints a picture) described the scene the next day as follows:
On February 24, 1887, Robertson arrived at the Senate Chamber to preside over the Senate. A group of Democratic Senators attacked him and beat him to the floor. The Senate president pro tempore ordered the doormen to expel Robertson. The doormen complied. Republicans soon raised a ruckus, demanding that Robertson be allowed to take his seat. When the Democrats resisted, fights broke out all over the Senate chamber. As the fighting progressed through the floor, one Democratic Senator pulled a gun and shot a hole in the Senate Chamber’s ceiling. He then threatened the Republicans, saying he would start killing them if they did not desist in fighting. This halted the conflict in the Senate, but people outside the chamber, alerted to the happenings inside the Senate, began fighting. The fight soon spread to the House of Representatives. They overwhelmed the outnumbered Democrats and ran through the Capitol, dragging Democrats outside to beat them. Another group broke down the Senate door and began dragging Democratic Senators outside. Governor Gray was compelled to send for the police, who came and brought the conflict under control. Four hours of chaos led to a total shutdown of legislative activity for that session, as the Democrats refused to communicate with the Republicans and the Republicans refused to communicate with the Democrats.
I read one source that said the General Assembly was deadlocked and no further business was done that session. However, I also see that the General Assembly passed a bill on March 3, 1887, to create the Indiana Soldier’s & Sailors Monument, so I’m not entirely sure what transpired after the ruckus.
Gray was, needless to say, not elected to the U.S. Senate and he earned the nickname “Sisyphus of the Wabash” for his extensive but ultimately futile labors. This incident was raised a quarter of a century later by advocates of the 17th Amendment arguing for direct election of U.S. Senators and to end the practice of state legislatures selecting them.