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MEMORIES IN FOCUS: When politics really were rough and tumble years ago

A wave of Populism after an economic downturn in the 1890s led to a bizarre and violent confrontation in February, 1893, in Topeka in which several Marion County residents played a role.

Populists had won control of the governor’s office and the State Senate and claimed to have won control of the House of Representatives, where Republicans argued that they still maintained a majority.

For a while, Kansas had two separate Houses of Representatives. Both parties elected a speaker and conducted separate sessions in the same hall of the Capitol until mid-February, when the Populists barricaded themselves in the hall and refused to allow the Republicans in.

Former Republican governor Lyman Humphrey endorsed a call by the sheriff of Shawnee County for a special militia of sheriffs and other law-and-order supporters from around the state, including several from Marion County, to assemble in Topeka, march to the Capitol, and break down the door to the House chambers with picks and sledge hammers.

The Kansas Supreme Court ultimately decided on a 2-1 partisan vote after the raid to side with the Republicans and declare their speaker and House to be the winners of the previous fall’s election.

But the Marion Headlight, which supported the Populist cause before eventually merging with the Marion Record, regarded the “sheriffs mob” as shameful and castigated Marion Countians who participated.

Under the headline “Picturesque if not sweet smelling,” the Headlight wrote:

“A.B. Campbell, Humphrey’s odoriferous adjutant general of unsavory reputation in addition to his fame as a frequenter of bawdy houses, was chosen as leader of the sheriffs mob at Topeka last week.

“As chief deputy and captain of the sheriffs’ forces which went about disarming Populists, intimidating law-abiding citizens, maltreating women and otherwise demeaning themselves to the disgrace of the state, he was successful as a recruiting officer in luring many good citizens of the state to enlist under his banner and go to Topeka under the mistaken notion that the sheriff of Shawnee County was the governor of the state.

“As a matter for the future historian of Marion County to take cognizance, we give the following roster of the deputies from this county, enlisting under Campbell’s banner as sergeants at arms: Col. J.W. Moore, Col. J.S. Dean, Ex-sheriff Ben Davis, Sheriff M.H. Dawson, Privates R.L. King, Fred L. Frazier, Ferd Funk, W.V. Church, Harvie Jetmore, and Al Christ.

“On their return to the privacy of private life, each was accompanied by a trophy of their exploits in the shape of a pick or sledge hammer handle or a splinter from the battered-down door of the State Capitol.”

The Populists were swept from power in the next election, but they weren’t the only losers. Campbell ended up institutionalized three years later in an insane asylum in California.

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MARION HISTORICAL MUSEUM PHOTO

The civilized dress of Catlin Township farmer Benjamin R. Davis, who served from 1888 until 1892 as Marion County sheriff, belies a role he played in one of the state’s strangest political showdowns. Davis, who came here from Illinois in 1877, returned to Illinois in 1897.

Last modified Jan. 17, 2019

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