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MEMORIES IN FOCUS: Marion lawyer was at center of Populist movement years ago

MARION HISTORICAL MUSEUM PHOTO

Frank Doster

Among the most colorful of Marion’s many impactful politicians of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was Frank Doster, a Civil War veteran who went on to serve as chief justice of the state supreme court from 1897 to 1903.

At one time or another, Doster, who eventually considered himself a socialist, belonged to almost every political movement ever to take root in the county.

A Virginia native who grew up in Indiana, Doster came to Marion Centre, as the town was known, in 1871 at age 22 after he had run away from home to join the cavalry in the Civil War, which cost the lives of both of his brothers.

“He enlisted in the country’s service at the age of 15, and for two years this brave and beardless boy was in the front of the battle, the closing few months of which time was served in Kansas,” the Marion Times later wrote in endorsing one of his many candidacies for statewide office.

Assigned by the cavalry to guard the Santa Fe Trail against a feared Indian uprising after the war, Doster served at Moore’s ranch near Durham and returned to the county as a lawyer after passing a bar exam in Illinois.

Originally a staunch member of the Republican Party, which at the time had left-leaning tendencies, he was elected as the youngest member of the state legislature in 1872.

He apparently was frequently confused for another fresh-faced young Republican from Marion — Record editor E.W. Hoch, who from 1905 to 1909 served as governor.

Hoch, who eventually became one of Doster’s fiercest political rivals, wrote about being mistaken for Doster in 1879.

“At first we bristled up and informed them, ‘This is not Doster,’” Hoch wrote “but when they kept coming and it began to look like we would have to fight the whole county to resent every insult, we submitted to the humiliation as gracefully as possible, while a bevy of our young lady friends stood by, giggling like idiots.

“We never know what moment some double-fisted witness he has badgered or litigant he has beaten will jump on us and pound the animation entirely out of our anatomy, so to speak. Besides, what editor likes to have another fellow’s old wash bills poked at him for payment while the other fellow rakes in the funds from delinquent subscribers.”

Doster unsuccessfully ran for U.S. Senate as a Republican in 1876 but left the party the next year in response to backroom dealings in which northern Republicans agreed to end Reconstruction in the South in exchange for awarding 20 contested electoral votes to Rutherford B. Hayes, who then won the presidency with the narrowest possible Electoral College majority — just one vote.

Doster switched first to the Greenback Party (an anti-monopoly group associated with the Grange) and then to the People’s Party, more widely known as the Populists, led nationally by famed orator William Jennings Bryan.

While his views generally were socialist and liberal, they also often were moralistic.

In 1880, for example, he campaigned for a proposed state constitutional amendment banning the manufacture and sale of intoxicating liquors except for medicinal, scientific, and chemical purposes. He also was an early advocate for women’s voting rights and a strong supporter of anti-monopoly laws and public ownership of utilities.

In 1887, declining offers of nomination from both the Republicans and the Democrats, he successfully ran as an independent for district judge.

Five years later, he again was an unsuccessful U.S. Senate candidate — this time on the Populist ticket.

“He is at once the brainiest, brightest, and most radical of the People’s Party leaders,” the Abilene Chronicle wrote.

The Times responded: “It requires radical leaders to work reforms. St. Paul was radical . . . and yet he was the greatest man of his day. John Brown was radical and impulsive . . . and yet his name will be held dear as long as the Union endures. Frank Doster may be in advance of the times. He is certainly not behind. But a leader of the people ought to be in advance. If not, how can he lead?”

Senators in those days were selected not by voters but by state legislators. The election was confused by the fact that two rival legislatures briefly were seated in Topeka. Eventually, Doster lost by a single vote.

Two years later, running on both the Democratic and the Populist tickets, he won election as chief justice despite failing to carry Marion County, where he garnered only 45 percent of the vote.

In 1914, Doster, who moved to Topeka while serving as chief justice, again was mentioned as a Senate candidate, this time on the Democratic ticket.

“Doster is acknowledged to be the ablest lawyer in the state by the lawyers themselves,” the Elk County Citizen wrote at the time. “Judge Doster was one of the first men in the state to see the wrong of corporation rule and to declare himself in favor of the people and against corporate control, and for that reason was the target of abuse of the corporation press and corporation speakers.

“During the past dozen years, a great change has taken place, and the things that Doster advocated 35 years ago and that, if his advice had been followed, would have saved thousands of people of Kansas their homes and much attendant misery are now popular.”

Doster, subject the 1969 book “Persevering Populist” by historian and Marion native Michael Brodhead, continued to be a popular orator on the lecture circuit, at one point expressing some support for Russian communism.

He died in 1933 at age 86 and is buried in Marion Cemetery.

Last modified April 25, 2019

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