Killing the Filibuster — Literally!

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U.S. Capitol building under construction. National Archives.

This past election season, one of the major issues up for debate was the filibuster. Were one party able to gain a super-majority in the Senate, it’s possible that they could end the age-old practice of filibustering: a senator speaking so long and without yielding the floor that they thereby prevent a vote on a given bill.

Little did pundits know that a century ago, someone literally tried to kill the filibuster. The filibuster-er. You know what we mean.

In his book Wicked Washington: Mysteries, Murder & Mayhem in America’s Capital, historian Troy Taylor takes us on a tour of the scurrilous, scandalous, and downright shocking accounts of bloodshed in the halls of power. Revisiting famous incidents such as the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the duel between Hamilton and Burr, Taylor offers many lesser-known anecdotes as well: including the attempted murder of Wisconsin senator Robert M. Lafollette, directly on the Senate floor.

The murder of Philip Barton Key. Harper’s Weekly.

In May 1908, Lafollette was leading a filibuster against the Aldrich-Vreeland bill, a bill seeking to change currency policy. That day, on May 29, he began speaking around noon, and by evening began to request concoctions of milk and raw eggs from the Senate kitchen to keep up his strength. Around 10 or 11pm, Taylor records, Lafollette received his latest drink—but on downing it, he tasted something amiss and quickly discarded it. Lafollette was known as a senator of staunch integrity; if supporters of the bill in question could not buy his loyalty, might they find other ways of dispensing with him instead?

Yet the damage was done. Taylor: “A few minutes later, Lafollette, still leading the filibuster, began to feel nauseated. His symptoms quickly got worse. His stomach churned, his bowels rolled and shooting pains stabbed his abdomen. Although hunched over and wincing in pain, Lafollette refused to leave the Senate. Heroically, he stayed on for another half dozen hours. Finally, he surrendered at exactly 7:08 in the morning.”

Map of the city of Washington, 1851. Lloyd Van Derveer, Camden, N.J.

According to Taylor, Lafollette—despite his ailments—had filibustered for nearly seventeen hours, a Senate record at the time. And his suspicions? Sending the suspect sample away to a lab, investigators found that Lafollette’s cocktail of raw egg and milk indeed contained a third ingredient: ptomaine, a deadly poison, with a dosage high enough to kill a grown man. Though no suspects were ever apprehended in the crime, the case made history nonetheless.

And perhaps the worst part of it all? All Lafollette’s misery was for nothing—damned if the bill didn’t pass.

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Wicked Washington: Mysteries, Murder & Mayhem in America's Capital

Wicked Washington: Mysteries, Murder & Mayhem in America’s Capital

An addictive and fascinating read that traces the criminal history of our nation’s capital, from the bloody site of the city’s most famous murder to dark deeds involving politicians from both sides of the aisle. Includes a look at the mysteries surrounding the Lincoln assassination, death by duels and the infamous Washington Vampire,