Research on the most benign topics can uncover a gem or two when least expected. Sometimes it’s just a random piece of trivia that adds a little bit of detail to the rich history of the institution. And then there are the other times . . . the times when you question the validity of the material and think to yourself, “This is so good it’s better than fiction.” Here are a few examples that fall into the “believe it or not” category.
In November 1934, the Brooklyn constituents elected a surgeon to the House. Dr. Joseph L. Pfeifer worked at St. Catherine’s Hospital and specialized in appendectomies. Once elected, the good doctor continued his former day job . . . as a night job. Pfeifer was a highly regarded surgeon and doctors from all around New York referred their patients to him. According to newspaper articles, Representative/Doctor Pfeifer set a steady routine of performing surgeries in New York until 2 am, then returning to Washington via plane or train to attend to his congressional duties. In the evening, he would return to New York to start the whole process over again. One should also mention that Joseph Pfeifer had five children and in his “spare time” also raised homing pigeons. Pfeifer served eight terms in the House. He lost his primary in 1950, and returned once more to being a full-time surgeon.
In 1888, the Atlanta Constitution recounted the story of a colorful Representative who served in the House from both Ohio and New York. Between 1857 and his death in 1889, Samuel Sullivan Cox won election to 15 non-consecutive terms (four in Ohio and 11 in New York). His soaring oratory earned him the nickname Sunset Cox (a sobriquet given to him for an over-the-top description of a sunset). Serving as chairman of five different committees, Cox also wielded considerable influence, but that is not what makes him interesting.
Sunset Cox loved to play cards and unfortunately Mrs. Julia Cox did not approve of Mr. Cox’s pastime. The powerful Congressman occasionally went to great lengths to attend his card games. This elaborate ruse included getting into his bed clothes and slippers to turn in unusually early. Then, from out the blue, a very insistent aide banged on the front door and summoned Cox to an important caucus meeting. Kicking, screaming, and complaining, Cox reluctantly complied and left his cozy bed, all the while telling Mrs. Cox he should quit the institution. The meeting, of course, featured a deck of cards and cigars. It also had very little to do with the important business of the House. Sunset Cox returned to his home at sunrise the next morning, and he claimed the dear Mrs. Cox was none the wiser.
First elected to the 46th Congress (1879–1881) Representative Leonidas Campbell Houk of Tennessee served seven terms in the House of Representatives. A former Union soldier and judge, Houk cut his political teeth in the Tennessee state legislature, where he earned a reputation for being a party tyrant.
In May 1891, Representative Houk started to feel ill while visiting a friend in Nashville. Houk walked to the local pharmacy to get a glass of ice water (ice water was hard to come by in 1891) and perhaps some medicine. The drug store clerk poured a glass of water and placed it on the counter for the Congressman. Unfortunately for Houk, the druggist set the water glass next to a glass of arsenic that happened to be on the counter. Before he could stop him, Houk downed the arsenic. The clerk quickly summoned physicians to aid Houk, but it was too late. The Congressman died the next morning. The local coroner quickly gathered a jury who declared the death an “accidental poisoning” and exonerated the druggist.
While truth is sometimes stranger than fiction (not to mention more engrossing), the dutiful researcher must return to the files to search again. Back to the stacks . . .
Sources: Atlanta Constitution, 5 February 1888, 26 May 1891; Baltimore Sun, 26 May 1891; New York Times, 26 May 1891; Washington Post, 27 May 1891, 4 May 1936, 24 August 1950.Follow @USHouseHistory