‘Laughing stock of the Jazz Age’ Part III: Bromine gas bomb in the Senate
Then and Now
From its very early Colonial Period, Rhode Island has drawn the hatred, scorn and ridicule of its neighbors. While there are many episodes that have been noted to Rhode Island’s discredit, the 1924 Bromine Bomb fiasco ranks as one of the worst in the state’s history.
The Democratic filibuster tactics of 1924, led by Robert E. Quinn with the full cooperation of Lt. Gov. Felix Toupin, were very effective in keeping the Republicans in the R.I. Senate from passing the type of legislation they had planned. This filibuster lasted nearly six months before a bizarre event brought it to a close.
Toupin, as presiding officer of the R.I. Senate, successfully managed to keep his chair through the hectic days of May and early June. When threats of violence were heard, the Democrats formed a ring around Toupin to protect him and, according to David Patten, a dozen West Warwick men “with a store of blackjacks behind the draperies at Toupin’s back” appeared on the scene.
Republican senators, by this time very weary and on the verge of collapse, felt they were being threatened and reacted with strong measures. According to most versions of the events of June 18-19, 1924, G.O.P. chairman William C. Pelkey contacted gambler John T. Toomey of Johnston for some “guards” from outside the state. Help for the Republicans came from Boston when Joseph “Big Ike” McCarthy and some “toughs” arrived. What followed on June 19 is the episode that brought much unfavorable attention to politics in Rhode Island and made the small state “the laughing stock of the Jazz Age.”
In the two days preceding the 19th, Toupin never left the rostrum for 42 continuous hours. His food was brought in from the restaurant and a device was placed near his seat so that he could answer the calls of nature without relinquishing his chair. At 7:45 a.m. on June 19, 20 weary Republicans were in their seats, Robert E. Quinn and three other Democrats were at their desks, and a barber was brought in and began to shave Toupin. According to the official journal of that day, “gas escaped in the Senate chamber” at that time. David Patten, Providence Journal reporter at the scene, recalls that a Boston “gangster” and one of “Big Ike” McCarthy’s henchmen, William “Toots” Murray, dropped and crushed a vial about “five inches long and one inch in diameter...filled with bromine, a brownish red liquid which gives off a gas of the same color,” near Toupin’s chair. The object was to drive Toupin from the chamber so that the Republicans could assume the chair and end the filibuster.
Instead, Toupin, sitting up high and with a towel over his face as he was being shaved, was unaffected while Republican senators, weary from constant pressure, became violently ill. Medical assistance was necessary and the chamber was cleared. Quinn, who was present at the time of the bromine gas attack but not stricken, sensed that if the Republican senators could be made to return to the chamber, a call for a vote would make a Democratic victory possible as they could have outvoted the opposition at that instance. He successfully convinced Toupin that the Republicans were stalling for time and Toupin attempted to resume the session.
When the Republicans refused to reappear on medical grounds, Toupin had an arrest order issued against them. Before the order could be enforced, however, the Republican senators fled and found refuge out of Rhode Island’s jurisdiction in Rutland, Mass.
With the Republicans out of Toupin’s reach, it was impossible to get a quorum and no business, not even an appropriation bill to sustain state institutions or to pay salaries to state employees, could be passed. The combination of the ludicrous bomb attempt and the inability of the state to function drew nationwide attention and ridicule.
According to Prof. Charles Carroll’s Rhode Island, Three Centuries of Democracy, the monetary crisis was only resolved when “twenty-three banks joined a syndicate on June 23 to underwrite a credit of $400,000 to assist state employees and state institutions by loans to meet the situation for the remainder of the year.”
Carroll, in commenting further on the “bomb incident” says that “...on August 4, 1924, the grand jury returned indictments against William C. Pelkey, chairman of the Republican state central committee; John J. Toomey and William Murray, alias “Toots” Murray, all of whom were arrested and released on bail.” Despite the damaging evidence against them, no one went to jail for, as Carroll tells us, “The charges against the three defendants were dismissed on October 6, when the Attorney General was unable to produce one Lally, the principal witness for the prosecution.”
The failure to sentence the perpetrators of the “bromine gas incident” was but one of the disappointments that the Democrats were to face in the closing months of 1924. They had believed that the election in November would result in a definite Democratic victory. The party sent Patrick H. Quinn as chairman of the Rhode Island Delegation to the National Convention to nominate Alfred E. Smith as president. P.H. Quinn cast the unanimous vote of Rhode Island for Smith over 100 times in the bitter Smith-McAdoo struggle for the nomination. As the balloting continued to be deadlocked, however, neither Smith nor McAdoo could win the necessary votes. A somewhat disillusioned delegation returned to Rhode Island, very unhappy that the intellectual but colorless John W. Davis had been selected as the Democratic standard bearer.
Within the state itself, the Democrats had more success in selecting their heroes of 1924 as candidates for state officesToupin was nominated for governor and Robert “Fighting Bob” Quinn for lieutenant governor. More problems arose, however, over the nomination for the candidate for the U.S. Senate and, once again, the party was divided. Theodore Francis Green had hoped for that position but found he was running behind other Democrats such as Gov. William S. Flynn, Providence Mayor Joseph H. Gainer and Representative George O’Shaunessy.
Both Patrick Quinn, as one of the senior members of the party, and Robert Quinn soon discovered that they were fighting a losing battle as the campaign of 1924 mounted in intensity. The Republican Party in 1924 bounced back from the “bromine gas” fiasco and placed the blame on the Democrats, charging that the chaos was caused by the filibuster. Their U.S. Senate candidate, Jesse H. Metcalf, was totally free of any connection with past Republican failures and became successful in his bid for the Senate.
He conducted a vigorous campaign against “Toupinism” and called for a return to law and order. In addition to Metcalf, the Republicans ran Aram J. Pothier for governor to counteract Toupin’s appeal to the French-Canadian voters.
The election of Metcalf and Pothier made it obvious that the “bromine gas” incident worked to focus attention on the weaknesses of the Democratic party and the need for reform.