A pianist, a professor, and an anthropologist walk into the Capitol. It sounds like the set up for a bit joke. However, in researching the institution, we occasionally stumble upon a few stories that prove once again that sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. This edition features a well-known Member and his lesser known musical career; a tenthidean cephalopod on the House Floor; and the weight of a Members’ brain.
On March 4, 1931, a special pianist entertained the House as the 71st Congress (1929—1931) adjourned. This talented musician was no other than Speaker of the House Nicholas Longworth of Ohio. An hour after the House formally adjourned the merriment of the end of session continued. Representatives Clifton Woodrum of Virginia and Ruth Bryant Owen of Florida led the Members in a chorus of songs, while Fiorello La Guardia of New York conducted the Marine Band orchestra. (Don’t ask, where the orchestra or piano appeared from . . . we don’t know). At this point, Woodrum requested the Speaker join in: “Speaker, who works when we work, ought to play when we play,” he bellowed. Longworth cheerfully replied, “Motion’s out of order.” “Overruled; overruled,” shouted fellow Members. Longworth then declared, “That’s the second time in my life I’ve been overruled,” and then began to play the piano.
This musical interlude was not the Speaker’s first concert. Nicholas Longworth was an accomplished musician. Although he is best remembered for his politics, for marrying Alice Roosevelt (the daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt), and being the namesake of a House Office building. Longworth was also a violin virtuoso and a fine pianist. Society papers of the day often mentioned his talents. While studying at Harvard, Longworth was “very popular as a singer of rattling good songs, playing his own accompaniment on the piano.” He was so talented, that any time he visited the home of Uncle Joe Cannon as a young Congressman, Cannon insisted that Longworth play the piano. One reporter noted that Longworth could play any instrument, including a saxophone, an oboe, and a squash, which was either a hollowed out vegetable or a type of accordion. Sadly, Nicholas Longworth died a month after his performance at the close of the 71st Congress. A musical foundation was set up at the Library of Congress in his honor.
Members often argue about politics and procedure during congressional debates. However in one instance in 1894, the Members quibbled over pronunciation. In polite company, one usually overlooks a mispronounced word, but in the heat of debate the Members were not being polite.
First term Member, Representative William Everett of Massachusetts, known for his intellect (as well as being the son of a well-respected former Member Edward Everett) earned instant notoriety for his excellent House Floor speeches. On May 14, 1894, Everett was contributing to a debate on street cars when he used the example of the Boston city transit system referring to it as an “octopus.” The Congressional Record leads one to think that was the end of the debate. However, future Speaker Champ Clark of Missouri reminisced about the “off-the-record” stir a few years later. What the Record did not capture was Everett’s pronunciation of the word “octopus” with an emphasis on the second syllable. The pronunciation must have sounded strange enough to those in the chamber that they quickly trotted off to check a dictionary. Led by Speaker Charles Crisp of Georgia, Members reviewed the dictionaries they could find near the chamber. Much to their delight, the accent was on the first syllable. The gaggle of Members quickly returned to Everett to prove him wrong. The “Capital Chat” section of the Washington Post commented on Everett’s folly and the incident, only to correct itself the following day. Everett was pronouncing “octopus” following Greek rules, since the word is Greek in origin.
The press covered the discussion for nearly a week, when Dr. Everett decided to appear back on the House Floor. On May 22nd, Everett stated, “Having introduced on the District day, some comparison to a peculiar species of tenthidean cephalopod, I pronounced it in a way which has proved unsatisfactory to various persons” adding, “although they are not quite so sure I was wrong now as they were a week ago; therefore I will state once and for all the proper pronunciation of the name of that beast is ‘cuttlefish;’ and with that I propose to go on seriously.” Perhaps the incident soured Everett on the House; he chose not to run for re-election and returned to teaching in Massachusetts. No doubt his students knew how to properly say “octopus.”
In 1925, an enterprising, scientist had a hypothesis. Dr. Arthur MacDonald believed that an individual’s mental capacity was linked to the weight of their brain. Using calipers and algorithms, he claimed that he could measure the average brain weights of living humans by studying the brains of cadavers. MacDonald could think of no better group to serve as a control group than Members of Congress. These Members would serve as a source of comparison in his study against the brains of the patients at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital (a government hospital for the mentally ill in Washington, D.C.). MacDonald reported, “As the largest number of insane is about the age of 40 and the average age of members [of Congress] is between 40 and 50 such a control experiment will be of great value.” Furthermore, MacDonald added that his study will also expose the, “inner activities of Congress and would help the people to understand Congress better.”
Members not only agreed to the study, in 1926 they tried to fund it with separate House and Senate appropriation bills (H.Res. 304 and S. Res. 255), but neither measured up. Representative John Kindred of New York and Senator Royal Copeland of New York, who were also physicians, supported Dr. MacDonald’s efforts. Newspapers reported that Dr. MacDonald was given a quiet, research space in the “Congress Library” on the Capitol campus to complete his study (possibly in the Capitol attic or in the Jefferson Building). Inspired by the quack science, a Boston Globe reporter penned an entire article about a fictional Senator and Representative named Dumm and Dummer. In the story, the two subjects run from Dr. MacDonald fearing their brains would not be up to snuff, and that politics will skew the doctor’s research.
News on Dr. MacDonald’s results appear haphazardly years after the start of his study. In 1932 and 1933, we learn Dr. MacDonald has an office at 314 East Capitol Street (two blocks from the Capitol) and that Members are not happy with his findings. One report states that based on his results measuring the brains of 18 Senators and 71 Representatives, that Senators have an average brain weight of 52 oz. and Representatives 50 oz. The results suggested that, “it took more brains to be in the Senate.” House Members were none too pleased with this. On two separate occasions in the Congressional Record, Members urged other House Members to participate in the study. Representative Anthony Griffin of New York stated, “I have spoken to some of our Members, both those with small heads and those with big heads and found them somewhat suspicious . . . Doctor MacDonald assures me there is no ground to fear.” Surprisingly, Senator Royal Copeland of New York requested that Dr. MacDonald’s findings be “withdrawn from the files of the Senate.” We're not sure what that meant, but we do know that MacDonald suggested that Members from Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma had longer heads and possibly bigger brains. Perhaps that did not weigh well on the brains of the Northern Members?
These little snippets of history add color to an often imposing and opaque institution, but the dutiful research does well to follow Representative Everett’s lead and to “go on seriously.” Back to the stacks…
Sources: Congressional Record, 71st Cong., 2nd sess. (4 March 1931); Congressional Record, 53rd Cong., 2nd sess. (14 and 22 May 1894); Congressional Record, 69th Cong., 1st sess. (21 and 22 June 1926); Congressional Record, 71st Cong., 2nd sess. (27 February 1931); Congressional Record, 72nd Cong., 1st sess. (26 February and 18 June 1932); Boston Daily Globe, 7 October 1925, 4 December 1925, 17 January 1926, 31 December 1931; Chicago Daily Tribune, 5 March 1931, 31 December 1933; Indianapolis Star, 7 August 1910; Los Angeles Times, 19 August 1934; New York Times, 5 May 1931, 7 October 1925, 25 June 1926; The Sun, 18 February 1906; Washington Post, 10 April 1932, 15 May, 17 May, 18 May, 19 May, 22 May, 23 May 1894, 30 September 1900; Popular Science, January 1926.Follow @USHouseHistory