In politics as in life, everyone discovers that they have to choose their battles, deciding when to fight and when to walk away. The lucky ones get to learn this lesson early and in private. Then there are others, like Ohio Representative William Sawyer.
On Wednesday, March 4, 1846, the House of Representatives finished its daily business. At this point, an angry William Sawyer of Ohio rose and demanded recognition “to make an explanation personal to himself.” He brusquely sent to the House Clerk a recent copy of the New York Tribune which he declaimed had a “personally abusive” article and demanded that the article be read for the record.
The article was from the February 27 issue in the form of a letter signed by “Persimmon.” The writer described Sawyer’s daily routine of flouting House Rules while feeding his appetites. “Every day at 2 o’clock he feeds,” the article began, noting how Sawyer moved to “a window back of the Speaker’s Chair, to the left.” Persimmon proceeded to describe how the former blacksmith would bring out his meal, wrapped in “greasy paper” which also served as his napkin before being chucked out the window at the end of lunch. “What little grease is left on his hands he wipes on his almost bald head which saves any outlay for Pomatum.” Sawyer’s “coat sleeves and pantaloons being called into requisition as a napkins” for any excess—all this finished with “a jackknife for a toothpick” before returning to his desk and his duties.
When the Clerk finished reading Persimmon’s letter Sawyer rose and noted that no one admitted to being the writer and warned that any future attacks would force him to “take the matter into his own hands.” A motion was then made to expel the reporters and writers for the New York Tribune from the House Press Gallery. It was adopted on a recorded vote, 122 to 48.
Whatever satisfaction Sawyer sought from taking this action, however, was short-lived. The Clerk’s reading of the “Persimmon” letter was accompanied by laughter and merriment among Sawyer’s colleagues. The Speaker was forced to call for order to allow the reading to be completed. Indeed, several of his fellow Members had read the article and regaled others about the Ohioan’s eating habits. The press soon followed. “If Mr. Sawyer had taken no notice of the matter the fact of his existence would scarcely have been known even to the readers of The Tribune,” reported the New Bedford Mercury. “But Mr. Sawyer was resolved to go down to posterity in some shape, and he will henceforth be known in history as ‘the man who boarded himself in the Hall of Representatives.’” The Providence Journal was satisfied that all would come out well with Sawyer eventually having his duel with “Persimmon” with “his mouth full of cold sausage and his fingers so greasy that they slip on the trigger.” An opposition paper from Sawyer’s own state, the Ohio State Journal, took the opportunity to tell its readers what it thought of the Congressman: “a man who is, emphatically, ‘a brute in manners and a booby in brains.’”
Sawyer served another term, but now that his daily eating habits had become nationally known, the glamor of Washington had faded. “Sausage” did not run for reelection in 1848, returning to Ohio where he was able to eat in peace.
Sources: The Sun, 9 March 1846; New York Daily Tribune, 10, 13, 16, 18, 23 March 1846; Donald Ritchie, Press Gallery: Congress and the Washington Correspondents (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993).Follow @USHouseHistory