In 1924, violence in the Rhode Island Senate attracted large numbers of sensation seekers to watch the drama of the struggle between the Democrats and Republicans as they sought power over the state legislature. Only one vote separated the Republicans and the Democrats in the Senate. While the Republicans had the narrow majority, the Democrats controlled Lt. Gov. Felix Toupin who, as presiding officer, was in a position to give invaluable assistance to Democratic filibusters.
The Republicans were led by GOP chairman William C. Pelkey, who tried desperately to establish the iron control once held by Charles Brayton and other political bosses, but he fell far short of his ambitions. The Democrats found a champion to lead them in their fight in the senate and that was Robert “Fighting Bob” Quinn, senator from West Warwick.
In the turbulent sessions at the General Assembly in 1923 and 1924, Quinn replaced John J. Barry of Central Falls as the leader of the Democrats in the senate. He organized and kept the filibuster going even when it was necessary, in his opinion, to turn to physical force. On more than one occasion, Quinn was threatened with bodily harm. The most well known episode occurred during the mammoth filibuster of 1924, when Quinn had difficulties with the notorious gambler John F. Letendre of Woonsocket. David Patten, in his Rhode Island Story, alleges that Letendre was a gambler and racketeer and often was armed.
The problem began when tempers flared as a result of the grueling filibuster that began on Tuesday, June 17, 1924. On that day, Toupin was late in arriving at the senate chamber. At 2:05 p.m. Republican leader Arthur A. Sherman assumed the chair and ordered the reading clerk, James E. Dooley, to call the roll. Realizing that this could upset the Democrats’ filibuster, Quinn rushed on him (Dooley) and tried to wrest the roll from his hand. As the two men struggled for the roll, Willis Drew, Republican senator from Barrington, grabbed Quinn by the collar and tried to pull him away. According to David Patten, “Quinn wheeled and swung on Drew.” Excitement and confusion followed and, Patten tells us, “Senators and spectators interposed...the crowd pressed in. Everyone, man or woman, seemed pushing someone around.” Even innocent bystanders were involved as “one of the women rushed screaming on a Journal reporter and clawed his face with her nails.”
Finally, Sheriff Jonathan Andrews and three deputies, one of them armed, came in and were able to separate Drew and Quinn. Toupin returned to the Senate and took his place at the rostrum. By this time, everyone was upset to the point that Governor Flynn appeared in the Senate to warn Republicans that he would support Toupin and told Sheriff Andrews that his duty was to carry out the lieutenant governor’s orders. Before the day was over, Andrews, fearing more violence, asked for help from the Providence police and 15 uniformed officers were assigned to the State House for three days.
Once Toupin presided, the filibuster began. Led by Quinn, who gave speeches, read from books and novels, and led the Democrats in their effort to bring about reforms in the state constitution, the Democrats kept the floor as the hours passed. On Wednesday afternoon, June 18, 1924, everyone was tired and tempers grew shorter. Patten tells us, “The crowd grew larger...those who couldn’t rush their way in mobbed the lobby, lounge, corridors and the rotunda...the crowd breathed the same air over and over. It was like a tomb, insufferably hot and suffocating.”
At 6 p.m., as Robert E. Quinn was getting a breath of fresh air on the balcony outside the Senate lounge, “Big John” Letendre made a “disparaging” remark about West Warwick. The remarks were directed at Senator Quinn, who quickly remarked, “If we had you in West Warwick, you’d have been in jail long ago.” Letendre was not a man to be taken lightly, however, and before long the Woonsocket gambler resorted to violence. Patten tells us that after Letendre punched the West Warwick senator, Quinn bounded back and came in swinging. His blow knocked the big man down and took all the fight out of him.”
Letendre, bleeding from Quinn’s punches, left the area threatening revenge. Later on Wednesday, many of “Fighting Bob’s” supporters began to fear more trouble as a number of Letendre’s “minions came from Woonsocket.” Providence Police detectives were alerted and appeared at the State House to search a number of “suspected characters” for firearms. When the news of what was happening reached 11 McNiff Street in West Warwick, Quinn’s father rushed to the State House, as did a number of West Warwick supporters. Republicans, hearing that some of Dick and Derrick’s Iron Battalion, which had been defended in court by Quinn in 1922, had arrived armed with blackjacks, decided to get some help from Federal Hill and Boston.
The scene had become so tense and dangerous that the Providence Journal, on Thursday, reported, “A spark would have started a conflagration.” In the midst of all the threats of violence, Quinn and the Democrats continued the filibuster.
The Democrats hoped to use their negative power to stop all bills from passing the legislature to force the calling of a constitutional convention. The filibustering continued for six months as tough characters, often obviously armed, walked around in the State House. Republicans had to remain in the vicinity at all times fearing that if they didn’t Toupin would take advantage and call for a vote.
As the tension built in the State House, Rhode Island began to attract national interest. As Quinn and his colleagues continued to frustrate the Republican majority, many began to see the beginning of the end of the stronghold held by the Republican Party. For the first time since Henry B. Anthony first molded his powerful political machine in the mid-19th century, the combination of rural Yankee farmers, mill owners and powerful banking interests began to falter. The strong political leadership provided by Anthony, Brayton and Aldrich could not be maintained by the Republican leaders of the 1920s. The long filibuster and the tension within the state capitol continued until the infamous “Bromine Gas” incident of June 19, 1924.
Part 3 of this episode will be continued.