This Week in Indiana History - February 24, 1887 - Black Day of the Indiana General Assembly

Black Day of the Indiana General Assembly
Black Day of the Indiana General Assembly
Top Story of the Week in Indiana History
Fisticuffs, chaos and even gunshots ring out as Indiana chooses a new senator. 

February 24, 1887 - Black Day of the Indiana General Assembly
A legislative brawl in the Indiana Statehouse leads to fistfights, gunshots, and finally, the Governor calling the police to put down the riot in the State Capitol. The melee added fuel to the call for a Constitutional Amendment to end State Legislatures electing United States Senators.
The Governor Wants to be a Senator
Democratic Governor Isaac P. Gray wanted to serve as Senator in the United States Senate. In the days before the Seventeenth Amendment, State Legislatures chose the state's senators. Thus, the Indiana General Assembly would have to elect him. Gray's problem was, he had been a Republican and some of his actions taken as a Republican made the Senate Democrats hesitate to send him to the Senate. Democrats controlled the Indiana Senate while Republicans controlled the House.
A Day in Indiana History - February
A Day in Indiana History - February

Strategy Gone Awry
Senate Democrats convinced the Lieutenant Governor, Mahlon D. Manson, to resign. Their strategy was, if there were no Lieutenant Governor to replace the Governor, they could not elect a sitting Governor to the US Senate. To counter this move, Gray and the Indiana Secretary of State decided that a mid-term election for Lieutenant Governor was constitutional, so they scheduled a special election to fill the vacant Lieutenant Governor seat. Gray's wish that a Republican would win the special election was granted when Republican Robert S. Robertson won the election. Gray hoped that Republicans would support his election to the Senate, since his replacement would be a Republican. This placed the Democrats in a quandary.
Legal Conflicts
The Democrats deemed the special election unconstitutional and elected their own Lieutenant Governor, Alonzo Green Smith. The Republicans countered by filing a lawsuit against Smith, preventing him from taking his seat. The case went before the Indiana Supreme Court, who decided that, since he had won a popular election, Robertson could not be denied his seat.
Black Day of the Indiana General Assembly
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. The legislative session ended the next day. Gray's hope of becoming a United States Senator ended with the session.

Proponents of ending the State Legislature's role in selecting the United States Senators used the Black Day as one of their examples of why Senators should be popularly elected. The Seventeenth Amendment was ratified in 1913, providing for direct election of US Senators by the people.
© 2015 Paul Wonning

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