When Rhode Island politicians became the ‘laughing stock of the jazz age’
Then and Now
Some of the events that occurred on the political scene in Rhode Island in 1923 and 1924 were so bizarre and juvenile that the small state attracted nationwide attention. When some of the schemes concocted by the leaders in the Rhode Island Senate backfired, Rhode Island politicians became objects of ridicule. The most ludicrous of all events was the so-called “Bromine-Gas Bomb” or “Stink-Bomb” incident that occurred on June 19, 1924.
This strange act by allegedly responsible representatives of the people of the state focused attention on the worst in Rhode Island politics. While much of the background that led to the bombing was prompted by genuinely good intentions, gamblers, racketeers, mobsters and thugs soon changed the atmosphere of the legislature.
Much of what happened harkens back to the election of 1922, when the Republican Party began to lose its long tenure in office. Largely because of the Textile Strike of 1922, voters turned against the GOP and elected Democrat William T. Flynn as governor. This was the first time in l5 years that a Democrat was chief executive. Felix Toupin, that “little unknown” Democrat from Manville, became lieutenant governor and therefore presiding officer of the Rhode Island Senate.
Even more significant was the fact that the GOP control of the legislature was in jeopardy. Their number in the Rhode Island House of Representatives was cut to 49. The Democrats held 48, and three “independents” controlled the remainder. In the Rhode Island Senate, a long-time Republican stronghold, the GOP majority was reduced to one, and it was in this body that the major action of the next two years would take place. With a Democratic governor holding the veto power and a Democratic lieutenant governor, by law the presiding officer of the Senate, there was the threat that the strong political structure that maintained the power of the party of Henry B. Anthony, Nelson Aldrich and Charles R. Brayton, “the bosses,” could be changed.
The key to this change depended upon the determination of the lieutenant governor to faithfully attend all meetings, to preside and not yield to pressure. As presiding officer, he decided who would have the floor and he could ignore senators of the opposite party if he wished. If he failed to be present, however, the Republican majority would be able to place their own leader, Arthur A. Sherman, in the chair and with their slim majority control legislation. Toupin proved equal to the task and surprised members on both sides of the aisle by his tenacity and ability to wield the gavel with power to silence the GOP senators.
What would determine if the Democratic minority in the Senate could affect practical results, even with the help of Toupin, would depend upon the caliber of the senators themselves. What was necessary was a dynamic, aggressive, articulate and knowledgeable leader. The Democrats found that leader in the young senator from West Warwick, Robert E. Quinn. From the beginning, in January 1923, Quinn led the way to show that the minority could so harass the majority that changes would have to be made. Erwin L. Levine, in writing about the session, says, “The lieutenant governor and the Democratic senators, led by Robert E. ‘Fighting Bob’ Quinn of West Warwick, the nephew of Patrick H. Quinn, organized a veritable Weber and Field routine in the upper house...”
The first confrontations began on Jan. 9, 1923. The session began with the Republicans hoping to adopt rules of procedure within a few days. Instead, thanks to Robert E. Quinn, David Coggeshall, John J. McGrane, John H. Greene and other young rebels, the Republicans were stalled and frustrated for a full month before the rules could be adopted. Quinn set the pace on January 9 by reading a text book on cold storage then yielded the floor to a retired Episcopal clergyman, Frederick B. Cole, who kept the filibuster going by reciting parts of “Romeo and Juliet.” As a result, it took over a month to merely adopt rules and set up committees.
The Republican majority, not daring to leave for fear a vote would be called, were forced to sit there day after day as Quinn recited a poem by Whittier, McGrane enlightened them on Oar Chem, and Cole quoted Shakespeare. All this was possible as Toupin, as presiding officer, ignored the Republicans and allowed the Democrats to continue the filibuster for as long as he could. When the Republicans finally succeeded in gaining control of the committees, they kept legislation from appearing on the floor and, by April 13, 1923, the battle began in the Rhode Island Senate. When the Republicans refused to bring out the Democratic bills such as the 48-hour law, a constitutional amendment, and the abolition of property qualifications, Robert E. Quinn led the attack against Sen. Howard Peckham from Middletown, who refused to call a committee meeting.
Democratic senators such as John H. Greene said of Peckham, “There sits the Nero of Rhode Island,” and went as far as to say that Peckham hadn’t “the intellect of a flea” and “If I had the votes I’d impeach him. He is guilty of treason to this state.”
This was but the beginning of arguments and vituperative language that eventually led to fisticuffs. As Toupin wielded his gavel in dictatorial fashion and Quinn and Greene continued the filibuster, some dissension began to appear within the Democratic ranks. Senators Cole and Hopkins bolted from the party, causing angry Democrats to levy charges of alcoholism and membership in the Ku Klux Klan against them. Issues became cloudy and confused as the press increased their sensational coverage of the events at the State House.
Crowds began to jam the Rhode Island State House. The proceedings in April and May continued to please the public and kept the press busy as Quinn relentlessly pressed the attack. At times the proceedings were serious, and at other times ludicrous. The Democrats successfully filibustered to the point where they managed to keep all-important appropriations bills from being voted upon. The monies necessary to pay state employees and for other governmental functions were held back and tensions mounted. Finally, the Republicans yielded and, by May 11, they released the bills on the 48-hour law, the constitutional convention, the abolition of the property tax and the redistricting of the Senate. Quinn and the young rebels had succeeded in the first stage of their plan.
As was expected, the Republicans voted against all these bills calling for what the Democrats termed “necessary reform.” They had been forced to publicly go on record on issues that would become significant in the next election. The filibuster had been a success and Quinn had emerged as the young firebrand who was recognized as the new leader of the Democrats in the Senate and a reformer.
This was, however, just the first stage of the battle and, within a short time, thugs, mugs, rowdies and juvenile delinquents of all ages converged upon the State House and made Rhode Island a scene of some of the worst political machinations of the country.