Minnesotans have sent hundreds of representatives to Congress, now meeting for the 114th time. But only once, back in the 73rd Congress, did state voters elect a U.S. House member just after his stint in Leavenworth penitentiary.
Francis Shoemaker, a radical farm organizer, oft-arrested brawler and outspoken (to put it mildly) Red Wing editor, rode to Washington in 1932 as the deepening Depression left voters in a bitter, shake-it-up mood.
Shoemaker was among a wave of Farmer-Labor Party victors in the early-1930s, including Gov. Floyd Olson. Minnesota’s nine U.S. House seats in 1932 were all up for grabs on an at-large basis and Shoemaker earned the eighth most votes — Leavenworth be damned.
He wound up in that federal prison in Kansas for nearly a year on charges of sending scurrilous, defamatory material through the mail. The crux of the case: He had addressed a letter to prominent Red Wing banker Robert W. Putnam thusly: “Robber of Widows and Orphans, Red Wing, Minn., in care of Temple of Greed and Chicanery.” Postal authorities successfully sought an indictment.
In his weekly newspaper, the Organized Farmer, Shoemaker called Putnam a tyrant, dictator and shatterer or families, challenging the banker to sue.
U.S. District Judge John Sanborn ruled there was no basis in fact for the slurs and no doubt about Shoemaker’s guilt. He fined him $500 and suspended a yearlong sentence to Leavenworth on grounds there be no more similar behavior.
Covering his own case, Shoemaker showed no remorse. He ripped the judge for denying him a chance to address the court before sentencing. Among other things, he wanted to stage a “He Started It” defense, arguing that the banker had sent him a letter to F.H. Shoemaker, “Any Place But” Red Wing.
Irate, the judge unsuspended the sentence. Even Shoemaker’s (aptly named) lawyer, Arthur LeSueur, said the judge was fair “and I have gone the limit with this man.”
When he was released from Leavenworth on Nov. 4, 1931, Shoemaker quickly mounted his second congressional bid. He had failed to unseat August Andresen in 1930, despite labeling his opponent a “rodent, jellyfish and Wall Street tool.”
When Shoemaker won on his second go-round, he quipped: “I go from the penitentiary to Congress, not like a great majority of Congressmen who go from Congress to the penitentiary.”
His first summer in Washington, Shoemaker went to the White House and received a pardon from President Franklin Roosevelt — not to mention a second pardon for his secretary, Franklin Wolf, whom he’d met behind bars. “Not only I am the only ex-convict in Congress,” he said, “but the only man to emerge from the White House with two pardons as well.”
His unbridled behavior never abated. As congressman-elect, he maintained he was beaten by seven orderlies, handcuffed and put in a straitjacket after winding up in a Minneapolis hospital when a tooth extraction went awry.
Removing his shirt in front of reporters at Gov. Olson’s office to show off his bruises, Shoemaker said he escaped thanks to some tips he learned from a neighbor named Harry Houdini in the 1920s when Shoemaker was a farm organizer in Wisconsin.
Some fellow congressmen tried to bar him from taking his seat with a felony on his résumé. “He brazenly and flauntingly refers proudly to his conviction and imprisonment as a badge of distinction,” said U.S. Rep. Albert Carter of California.
Others carried the day, arguing on Shoemaker’s behalf that the voters had spoken. By the end of his first term, Shoemaker was scheming to take on U.S. Sen. Henrik Shipstead in 1934. And his wacky antics only intensified.
He started a predawn fight outside the Hotel Ritz in Minneapolis, confronting workmen who apparently woke him up with an acetylene torch. Despite busting up a half-dozen lanterns on the job site, charges were dropped. Back in Washington, he reportedly smashed into a taxi cab and then punched the cabbie in the face. That case ended with a hung jury.
His Senate campaign unraveling, Shoemaker acknowledged his “pugilistic proclivities” but said there was a conspiracy to frame him and the taxi driver was a Marine middleweight boxing champ.
Then there was a high-speed chase down Hennepin Avenue on May 5, 1934, and his disorderly conduct conviction during a violent confrontation at the Minneapolis truckers’ strike that year.
Not surprisingly, he was outvoted 3-to-1 in his Senate primary. His wife divorced him on grounds of cruelty and infidelity the same year.
When he told reporters he had been hired as a correspondent for a European news agency, the St. Paul Pioneer Press said: “Never have the citizens of the state more anxiously and passionately desired to believe the Congressman’s word.”
He would run in the next four congressional elections and lose. He was arrested on assault charges three more times in the 1930s and died at 69 near his birthplace in Renville County.
Minnesota politics is punctuated with both heroes and scoundrels. Among the latter, Shoemaker stands out. But his story is worth retelling because he was a political byproduct of his times, according to Red Wing teacher and historian Fred Johnson, who detailed Shoemaker’s rise and fall in a 1989 Minnesota History magazine article, “From Leavenworth to Congress: The Improbable Journey.”
“Demagogue or drunkard, crusader or charlatan, good guy or gadfly,” Johnson wrote, “Shoemaker did reflect the restlessness and unease of the early 1930s. He appealed to the widening circle of have-nots … ready for radical solutions.”
Curt Brown’s tale on Minnesota’s history appears each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org