The Story of Kansas

Ad Astra: Kansas elections that changed history

Radio broadcaster John Brinkley lost the governorship of Kansas by 35,000 votes, but it was estimated that between 30,000 and 50,000 ballots for him were discounted.
Radio broadcaster John Brinkley lost the governorship of Kansas by 35,000 votes, but it was estimated that between 30,000 and 50,000 ballots for him were discounted. Courtesy photo

From its earliest beginnings, Kansas has had passionate, controversial political moments.

Consider the election of March 30, 1855, when Kansas was still a territory.

Missouri “border ruffians” invaded the territory to cast ballots in favor of a pro-slavery legislature and to intimidate abolitionist voters.

In her book “Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era,” Nicole Etcheson writes that “Missouri River ferries carried eight hundred men a day, for three days prior to the election across the river. ... At the Leavenworth election, there appeared five times the number of voters recorded in the census. ... A report from Lawrence estimated that from seven hundred to three thousand Missourians had come to vote, forcing the judge to hand over the poll book.”

From 1854 through 1861, Kansans battled and wrestled over whether their territory would enter the Union as a pro-slavery or free state. Kansas entered the Union as a free state on Jan. 29, 1861.

Three decades after it became a state, there was a legislative showdown in Topeka over who would rule the Kansas House in the Legislature. Angry words and fists flew in a showdown between the Republicans and the People’s Party, also known as the Populists. For Lorenzo Lewelling, a Populist and the first Wichitan to become governor, the Legislative War of 1893 was a chance to show that his party could play a vital role in Kansas politics.

The incident became known as the Lewelling War.

On the first day of the session, Jan. 10, 1893, both Republican and Populist parties were determined to be the majority party – so each elected its own speaker. Neither party recognized the other. Each was afraid to adjourn for fear the other would seize control.

By February, no one had yielded, so Lewelling called in 250 militiamen from across the state – plus a battery of Gatling guns.

It would take the state Supreme Court to finally resolve the conflict by encouraging the Republicans to meet in the House while the Populists met elsewhere.

In the governor’s election of 1930, there were – at first – two candidates. There was Republican Frank Haucke, a farmer from Council Grove who was a World War I veteran and a former state commander of the American Legion. The Democratic contender was Harry Woodring, a banker from Neodesha.

But 42 days out from the election – on Sept. 23, 1930 – John Brinkley, the famous goat gland doctor and radio giant, announced he was running for governor as an independent.

His platform was simple: free textbooks in schools, free tags for vehicles, lower taxes, better times for the working class, a lake in every county and more rainfall.

At the same time, the Kansas Board of Medical Registration and Examination began proceedings to revoke his license.

The Federal Radio Commission refused to renew his broadcasting license.

William Allen White, editor of the Emporia Gazette, began writing editorials exposing him as a fraud.

And the Kansas attorney general declared that in order for Brinkley’s ballots to be counted, they had to be written in exactly as “John R. Brinkley” – any variations were to be thrown out.

Unfazed, Brinkley barnstormed the state in his airplane. He made speeches in big and little towns, championing the little people and railing against big government.

Brinkley lost by 35,000 votes. Election results from that year indicate that between 30,000 and 50,000 votes intended for him were thrown out.

“It is generally believed that Brinkley won the election, but so many of his ballots were discredited for various reasons,” said Thomas Averill, a Kansas historian and professor of English at Washburn University in Topeka. “The interesting thing is he is responsible for so many good reforms we have to do.”

Almost everything the Federal Communications Commission regulates as to what can and cannot be said over the airwaves comes from Brinkley prescribing medications over the air, Averill said. And rules and regulations concerning the Kansas Medical Association as well as the American Medical Association were written to prevent bogus and unqualified people from practicing medicine.

Woodring was declared the winner.

“There were rumors that bales of ballots were seen floating in the Kansas River,” Averill said. “The ballots were destroyed so there could be no recount.”

And finally, there was the “Triple-Play of 1956.”

That’s when then-Republican Gov. Fred Hall resigned just days before his term was to end. He had been defeated in the primary election. Hall appointed Lt. Gov. John McCuish as governor. And McCuish then appointed Hall as the chief justice of the Kansas Supreme Court.

“We have had so many times when elections have made a difference both negative and positive,” Averill said. “All were based on ideology. It was based on what people were voting about. Kansas has always been known as a place where causes are happening.”

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or Follow her on Twitter: @beccytanner.

Ad Astra

This is one in a series of vignettes celebrating Kansas history. The series' name comes from the state motto, Ad astra per aspera: To the stars through difficulties.