The career of Congresswoman Katherine Gudger Langley illustrates a highly unusual route to Congress. Her husband, John Langley, resigned his House seat after being convicted of violating Prohibition laws. Katherine Langley then defeated her husband’s successor and won election to the House in a “vindication campaign” designed to exonerate her disgraced spouse.
Katherine Gudger was born near Marshall, North Carolina, on February 14, 1888, to James Madison Gudger and Katherine Hawkins.1 Gudger graduated in 1901 from the Woman’s College in Richmond, Virginia, and went on briefly to Emerson College of Oratory in Boston. A short teaching job in speech in Tennessee ended when she left for Washington, D.C., in 1904 to become her father’s secretary when he was elected U.S. Representative from North Carolina on the Democratic ticket. That same year she met and later married John Langley, a former state legislator and attorney working for the Census Bureau. The couple settled in Pikeville, Kentucky, where John Langley successfully ran as a Republican for the House of Representatives in 1906. He eventually won re–election nine times in a safely Republican district that was an old unionist stronghold in eastern Kentucky.
Katherine Langley was well known in Washington society and on Capitol Hill, working as her husband’s secretary and administrative assistant. From 1919 to 1925 she was clerk to the Committee on Public Buildings and Grounds while John Langley was chairman. At the same time, Katherine Langley also was an active member in party politics, serving as the first woman member of the state central committee and founder of the Women’s Republican State Committee. She served as a delegate to the Republican National Convention in 1924.2
Katherine Langley claimed her husband’s seat in the House of Representatives under very unusual circumstances. “Pork Barrel John” Langley was convicted of “conspiracy to violate the Prohibition Act” by trying to sell 1,400 bottles of whiskey.3 He won re–election in 1924 while his conviction was being appealed. When the U.S. Supreme Court refused to overturn the decision, he resigned from the 69th Congress (1925–1927) on January 11, 1926, and was sentenced to the federal penitentiary in Atlanta for two years. “They believe he was the victim of a political conspiracy,” reported the Lexington Leader of the district’s reaction. The disaffection of Republicans in eastern Kentucky over the lack of effort by Senator Richard P. Ernst to defend John Langley contributed to Ernst’s re–election defeat in 1926 to Alben Barkley.4 Langley’s district manifested a persistent sense that Kentuckians were “drinking wet and voting dry.”5 On February 13, 1926, Republican Andrew J. Kirk succeeded Congressman Langley in a special election to fill out the remainder of his term in the 69th Congress.
Katherine Langley resolved to clear her husband’s name by running for his seat in the 70th Congress (1927–1929). With John Langley’s active help from prison, his wife defeated Kirk in the Republican primary. Langley asked voters to “send my wife, the mother of our three children, to Washington” because “she knows better than anyone else my unfinished plans.”6 Katherine Langley was active on the stump, drawing upon her experience as a speech teacher. She impressed voters with her efforts. “John Langley wears the breeches,” one voter commented, “but the lady has the brains.”7 Basking in the glow of her primary victory, she announced that her win proved her fitness for office and vindicated her husband. That fall she won election to the House with 58 percent of the vote.8 A little more than a month later, on December 18, 1926, John Langley was paroled from the Atlanta Penitentiary, having served 11 months of his sentence.9 Katherine Langley’s re–election in 1928 with 56 percent of the vote was more than respectable.10
John Langley’s conviction and resignation in disgrace left his wife socially ostracized in the conservative Washington social scene. Capital elite did not approve when Langley extended her family’s practice of patronage within the congressional office by hiring her married daughter as her secretary.11 Observers were quick to notice that the former speech teacher followed a more archaic rhetorical style than was favored at the time. “She came from the ‘heart of the hills,’” writes Hope Chamberlin. “Coal, ‘king of energy,’ was dug by ‘stalwart and sturdy miners.’” Sometimes given to verse, she described the Kentucky mountaineer as “‘a man whose grip is a little tighter, whose smile is a little brighter, whose faith is a little whiter.’”12 Her reputation grew when she interrupted a debate on tax legislation to praise a Kentucky basketball team.13 Her committee assignments were not impressive. She was appointed to the Committee on Claims, the Committee on Immigration and Naturalization, and the Committee on Invalid Pensions. In the 71st Congress (1929–1931) she also served on the Committee on Education.
In early 1930 Langley achieved an important first. She became the first woman Member to serve on the Republican Committee on Committees, succeeding John M. Robsion when he was appointed as U.S. Senator.14 As a member of the Committee on Committees, Langley served on the body that assigned Republican Members to the standing committees. The Republican conference specified that each state delegation with a party member would have a seat on the committee. The state’s representative on the committee would have a vote equivalent to the size of the state’s Republican delegation. Furthermore, each state party caucus would select its committee representative.15 Langley’s achievement is cast in a different light as a result. She was the most senior member of the Kentucky Republican caucus after Robsion left, and her appointment came after the committee assignments were made for the 71st Congress. To take full advantage of this position of influence, she would need to win re–election.
Throughout her House career, Langley continued her efforts to vindicate her husband. She succeeded in convincing President Calvin Coolidge to grant John Langley a pardon. It was issued on December 20, 1928, shortly after Katherine Langley had won her second term. The pardon apparently included an informal proviso that John Langley never run for public office again. Nevertheless, during the holidays in late 1928, he circulated a Christmas message to her constituents.16 A week later, John Langley declared his intention to seek his House seat again, denying that any condition had been set for his clemency. Katherine Langley issued a statement in Washington that she would not step aside “for John or anyone else,” and all talk of John Langley running for his old seat died away.17
The election of 1928, with Governor Al Smith of New York, a Catholic and an opponent of Prohibition, running as the Democratic presidential nominee, was devastating to the Democratic Party in Kentucky. Of 11 congressional districts where only two typically went Republican, all but two were lost by the Democrats in 1928. Without Smith at the head of the ticket, Kentucky Democrats expected to do much better in 1930. The continuing impact of the Great Depression hurt Republican congressional candidates, however, especially those from traditionally Republican districts. In those districts the longtime agricultural depression combined with the depressed coal industry to turn the voters against the Republican administration of President Herbert Hoover. Under these circumstances, Katherine Langley took her time to come to a decision about running for another term in the House. In late February 1930, she announced her plans for re–election.18 In the August primary, Langley faced two opponents.19 By the fall of 1930, she faced a growing Democratic tide at the polls, and some observers had placed her on the list of vulnerable incumbents.20 She narrowly lost to Andrew Jackson May, a Democrat, in her bid for a third term, gaining only 47 percent of the vote.21 Later the New York Times would characterize the 1930 Republican losses in Kentucky as “one of the biggest political form reversals of its history.”22
Congresswoman Langley retired to Pikeville, Kentucky, where John Langley had earlier resumed his law practice. John Langley died in January 1932 of pneumonia, still arguing that he had been sent to prison unjustly.23 Katherine Langley served as a postmistress and was twice elected as a district railroad commissioner. She died in Pikeville, Kentucky, on August 15, 1948.24
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
[ Top ]