The Black Day of the Indiana General Assembly

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INDIANAPOLIS (WEHT) – A heated election has voters and lawmakers on edge one side claims fraud and hundreds of angry Republicans demonstrate outside the capitol. But we’re not talking about what happened in Washington D.C. last week, this happened in Indiana’s capitol in the 19th century.

It was 1887 and unlike today, the governor did not get to pick his lieutenant governor. The lieutenant governor was elected separately which sometimes meant there was a governor of one party and a lieutenant governor of another.

In 1886, sitting Lt. Gov. Mahlon Dickerson Manson resigned, so the state held a midterm election to select a new lieutenant governor. Voters selected Republican Robert Robertson to serve with Democratic Governor Isaac Gray, which did not set well with the Democrat majority in the state senate.

When Roberts showed up to take his spot, senate Democrats deemed the election unconstitutional declared the lieutenant governor’s seat vacant, and appointed one of their own as the new lieutenant governor, which did not set well with republicans. A raucous debate on the senate floor ensued and turned into a physical altercation.

“There were fistfights, a doorkeeper shoved Robertson out the door and at one point someone shouted ‘Stop, I’m armed and I’ll shoot the first person that touches me,” said James St. Clair, a professor emeritus at Indiana University.

The problem did not stop at the chamber walls.

“About 60 angry republicans were outside in the corridor ready to storm the doors to the senate and 50 armed doorkeepers inside, and the threat of more violence seemed likely,” said St. Clair.

However, it was Robertson who stepped in and calmed things down.

“He said to them do nothing of which you will be ashamed of in your cooler moments,” St. Clair said.

That ended the situation – but it made national news. The incident was on the front page of the New York Times the next day.

“It’s not quite on par with what happened in Washington Wednesday, but it did create a lot of fireworks,” said St. Clair.

It also ended Robertson’s hope of becoming lieutenant governor – he was never sworn-in.

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(This story was originally published on January 13, 2021)

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