1918: The Year 7 US Senators Died in Office

Though none of these seven deaths were attributed to Spanish flu

A handful of members of Congress have thus far been diagnosed with COVID-19 and that number is expected to grow in the coming weeks.

Kentucky Republican Rand Paul is currently the only U.S. Senator to test positive for the virus.

COVID-19 has frequently drawn comparisons to the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918 which killed millions of people worldwide.

The largest number of U.S. Senators to pass away in office also occurred in 1918 – but none of these lawmakers perished from the Spanish flu.

Seven sitting U.S. Senators died during a seven and one-half month span that year – the most in U.S. history.

Six members in the chamber died in 1954 with five each passing away in 1908, 1925, 1936, 1941, and 1945.

The 1918 outbreak hit Washington, D.C. hard during the fall of that year. An article on the U.S. House website states:

“(M)ost sources attribute approximately 675,000 deaths in the U.S. alone to the Spanish flu. Washington, D.C., swollen by an influx of government workers during the First World War, was particularly hard hit. Medical facilities were stretched beyond capacity. Four hundred deaths were reported in the District of Columbia during the second week of October; 730 were reported the following week.”

No U.S. Senators died during the flu’s peak, and those members of the upper legislative chamber who did die in 1918 were reported to have passed away for other medical reasons:

  • Idaho Republican James Brady (January 13, 1918): Died at the age of 55 from a heart attack
  • New Jersey Democrat William Hughes (January 30, 1918): Died at the age of 45 after a year-long illness from septic poisoning (in his teeth) and bronchial pneumonia
  • Louisiana Democrat Robert Broussard (April 12, 1918): Broussard was ill for several years and died due to complications from multiple diseases at the age of 53
  • Missouri Democrat William Stone (April 14, 1918): Had a cerebral hemorrhage which paralyzed his left side and died one week later at the age of 69
  • South Carolina Democrat Benjamin Tillman (July 3, 1918): Tillman also had a cerebral hemorrhage at the end of June and died one week later at the age of 70
  • New Hampshire Republican Jacob Gallinger (August 17, 1918): Gallinger was the oldest member of the U.S. Senate and died at the age of 81 from arteriosclerosis
  • Kentucky Democrat Ollie James (August 28, 1918): James had been hospitalized since April and died at the age of 47 from Bright’s Disease

There was a 5 year, 2 month, 22 day gap between the last two deaths to occur in the U.S. Senate: New Jersey Democrat Frank Lautenberg (June 3, 2013) and Arizona Republican John McCain (August 25, 2018).

That marked the third longest stretch without a sitting U.S. Senator dying in office in the history of the chamber.

There was 7 years, 1 month, and 17 days between the passing of North Dakota Democrat Quentin Burdick (September 8, 1992) and Rhode Island Republican John Chafee (October 24, 1999) and a 5 year, 3 month, 1 day gap from the death of Alabama Democrat James Allen (June 1, 1978) and Washington Democrat Henry Jackson (September 1, 1983).

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8 Comments on "1918: The Year 7 US Senators Died in Office"

  1. John Chessant | April 1, 2020 at 11:48 pm | Reply

    Also dying less than a year before the last of the 1918 deaths were Sens. Paul Husting (D-Wis.) and Francis Newlands (D-Nev.), on October 21 and December 24, 1917, respectively. Husting was replaced by a Republican appointment, which turned out to be consequential, since the GOP won a one-seat majority in the 1918 elections.

    In addition to the five deaths in 1945, there were also four resignations: Monrad Wallgren (D-Wash.) resigned on January 9 to become governor of Washington; Harry Truman (D-Mo.) resigned on January 17 to become vice-president; Harold Hitz Burton (D-Ohio) resigned on September 30 to become a U.S. Supreme Court justice; and Happy Chandler (D-Ky.) resigned on November 1 to become commissioner of baseball. The nine deaths/resignations seems to be the most of any year since direct election began, if one doesn’t count resignations slightly before the end of a term to give the successor a seniority advantage.

    The year 1921 saw two deaths and four resignations: Warren G. Harding (R-Ohio) resigned on January 13 to become president; John Nugent (D-Ida.) resigned on January 14 to accept a lame-duck appointment to the Federal Trade Commission; Albert Fall (R-N.M.) resigned on March 4 to become U.S. interior secretary; and Josiah Wolcott (D-Del.) resigned on July 2 to become chancellor of Delaware (the chief justice of the state’s court of chancery).

    The year 1933 saw four deaths and three resignations: Cordell Hull (D-Tenn.) and Claude Swanson (D-Va.) resigned on March 3 to become U.S. secretary of state and navy secretary, respectively; and Sam Bratton (D-N.M.) resigned on June 24 to become a U.S. appellate court judge.

    The year 1941 saw five deaths and three resignations: Matthew Neely (D-W.V.) resigned on January 12 to become governor of West Virginia; John Miller (D-Ark.) resigned on March 31 to become a U.S. district court judge; and James Byrnes (D-S.C.) resigned on July 8 to become a U.S. Supreme Court justice.

    The year 1949 saw three deaths and four resignations: Alben Barkley (D-Ky.) resigned on January 19 to become vice-president; Robert Wagner (D-N.Y.) resigned on June 28 due to ill health; Howard McGrath (D-R.I.) resigned on August 23 to become U.S. attorney general; and Raymond Baldwin (R-Conn.) resigned on December 16 to become a state supreme court justice.

    Recent years, for the most part, have not seen nearly as many deaths/resignations per year. The record in recent times is the year 2009, which saw one death (Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.)) and four resignations: Joe Biden (D-Del.), Ken Salazar (D-Col.), Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), and Mel Martínez (R-Fla.). The year 2018 saw one death (John McCain (R-Ariz.)) and three resignations: Al Franken (D-Minn.), Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), and Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.).

  2. John Chessant | April 1, 2020 at 11:49 pm | Reply

    Two other milestones about Senate deaths:

    The six deaths in 1954 include senators from both seats from Nebraska; Dwight Griswold on April 12, and Hugh Butler on July 1. Indeed, the class II seat was occupied by *six* different senators in the single six-year term from 1949 to 1955: Kenneth Wherry, who entered the Senate in 1943 and died in 1951; Fred Seaton, who was appointed until the 1952 special election; Dwight Griswold, who won the special election and died in 1954; Eva Bowring, who was appointed until the concurrent special and general elections in 1954; Hazel Abel, who won the special election and resigned to give her successor a seniority advantage; and Carl Curtis, who won the general election and served in the Senate until 1979. [Moreover, as a result of the death in the class I seat, Nebraska saw *six* total senators serve in 1954, with a would-be seventh (Carl Curtis) beginning his term on January 1, 1955.]

    The seven deaths in 1918 include two which occurred just two days apart. Senators died on consecutive days on three occasions: Andrew Butler (D-S.C.) (co-author of the Kansas-Nebraska act) and James Bell (R-N.H.) on May 25 and 26, 1857; Samuel McEnery (D-La.) and John Daniel (D-Va.) on June 28 and 29, 1910; and Lee Metcalf (D-Mont.) and Hubert Humphrey (D-Minn.) on January 12 and 13, 1978. Senators died four days apart also on three occasions: Ephraim Wilson (D-Md.) and George Hearst (D-Calif.) (father of William Randolph Hearst) on February 24 and 28, 1891; Robert La Follette (P-Wis.) and Edwin Ladd (R-N.D.) on June 18 and 22, 1925; and Pat Harrison (D-Miss.) and Andrew Jackson Houston (D-Tex.) (son of Sam Houston) on June 22 and 26, 1941.

  3. H H Burton was a REPUBLICAN who was nominted by his former colleague (and fellow Midwesterner) Harry S Truman for a SCOTUS seat, in a gesture of bipartisanship. Those were the days indeed.

    A few decades on, Richard Milhous Nixon would appoint another R senator from OH, this time from Class 3 seat held by William Bart “Bill” Saxbe, for the position of attorney general of the US. In both cases, selections were made with the full knowledge that the vacated seat would switch, at least temporarily, to the main opposition party – a phenomenon that would not haved occurred if the state had a ‘same-elected-party-successor’ provision, a la WY and HI.

    • John Chessant | April 2, 2020 at 11:14 pm | Reply

      Ah, good catch!

      The converse of this phenomenon nearly happened in 2009. President Obama nominated Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) to be secretary of commerce; his successor would have been chosen by the Democratic governor, John Lynch. A Democratic replacement would have effected a 60-vote supermajority once Al Franken (D-Minn.) was seated; no one had known at the time that Alan Specter (R-Penn.) would switch parties. However, Gregg received assurance that Lynch would appoint Bonnie Newman, a Republican, before he announced he would accept the appointment. A few days later, citing political differences, he withdrew his name from consideration (the second of Obama’s initial commerce secretary candidates to do so, after Bill Richardson).

      Another state that has the same-party successor provision is North Carolina. Were newly-embattled Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) to resign, his successor would be chosen by the Democratic governor, Roy Cooper, from a list of three candidates supplied by the executive committee of the state Republican Party. [This rule, also in place in Wyoming and Hawaii, was instituted in 2018 over Cooper’s veto, upgrading from a 2015 enactment which merely mandated that the appointee be of the same party as the departed senator.]

  4. It could be cogently argued that same-party-successor provisions are both unconstitutional and unenforceable.

    Unconstitutional, because states may not require qualifications for members of Congress beyond those enumerated in the Constitution. U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton, 514 U.S. 779 (1995).

    And laws requiring the governor to choose from a list drawn up by someone other than the governor may also run afoul of the 17th Amendment, which provides that “the legislature of any State may empower the executive thereof to make temporary appointments.”

    Unenforceable, because if a governor chose to defy the law, and the Senate chose to seat the appointee, the courts couldn’t intervene, as the Senate is the sole judge of its members’ qualifications.

    I suppose a legislature could impeach the governor if it felt strongly enough about the matter. Which would raise the interesting question: Is it constitutionally permissible for a legislature to impeach a governor for noncompliance with an unconstitutional law?

    • John Chessant | April 5, 2020 at 7:24 pm | Reply

      Quite convincing! To me, at least.

      As for the question you raised, I know of only one relevant case, which is the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, ostensibly over his non-compliance with the Tenure-of-Office act, which was instituted over his veto. The act was repealed in 1887 and was declared invalid by the Supreme Court in 1926 during the review of a similar law. The 1868 acquittal, by one vote, hinged not only on the constitutionality of the act and on separation of powers, but also on the political popularity of Johnson versus his would-be successor, Benjamin Wade.

  5. (Senate vacancies, part two) Perhaps one day the SCOTUS will actually find the ‘same Elected Party successor’ provisions of state election laws in violation of the federal Constitution.

    A compelling case may be made that they in fact respect the “will of The People”. Had they been in effect in every State, the NJ ‘2’ seat in 2013 would have been filled by a fellow Democrat, and the GA ‘3’ seat in 2000 would have been filled by a fellow Republican, when the respective seats were won at the ballot box by a D in ’08 and a R in 1998, to cite two more recent examples.

    MA in 2004 could very well have adopted this – without regard to the presidential prospects of then-D Senator John Forbes Kerry. Instead, the heavily Democratic “General Court” (i.e. legislature) first revoked the gubernatorial power to fill such vacancy altogether (as with NC recently, the change of election law was passed over the veto of the opposition-party governor). Just a few years later, now with a D governor, it shamelessly reversed field and restored that appointment power, albeit accompanied by an ‘accelerated’ special election schedule. And selecting from the list of nominees (typically 3) by the central committee of the party which most recently won the election for the seat involved likely would have prevented Governor Blagojevich of IL in 2009 from allegedly maneuvering to ‘horsetrade’ a recently opened up Senate seat for the personal benefit of the former amateur pugilist and future contestant on “The Celebrity Apprentice”.

  6. “A compelling case may be made that they in fact respect the “will of The People”. Had they been in effect in every State, the NJ ‘2’ seat in 2013 would have been filled by a fellow Democrat, and the GA ‘3’ seat in 2000 would have been filled by a fellow Republican, when the respective seats were won at the ballot box by a D in ’08 and a R in 1998, to cite two more recent examples. ”

    🙂

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