Not a "paragon of representative democracy, " but "more like a western saloon." The House Historian tells the story. https://t.co/CG8jBPIVqb— U.S. House History (@USHouseHistory) February 6, 2015
In the early morning hours of February 6, 1858, a fight erupted between South Carolina Fire-Eater Laurence Keitt and Republican abolitionist Galusha Grow of Pennsylvania on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. As Members from each side joined the fray, Wisconsin Representative John F. Potter, the “Western Hercules,” snatched the toupee from atop Mississippi Representative William Barksdale’s head and the House erupted in laughter at the absurdity. “Horray, boys! I’ve got his scalp!” shouted Potter with perfect rhetorical flourish.
Or so we thought!
For more than a century, that story of the most infamous brawl on the House Floor was gleaned and recounted from the reminiscences of former Representative Henry Watterson in O.O. Stealey’s Twenty Years in the Press Gallery (1906). Watterson had been a newspaper correspondent before his single term in Congress, and he claimed to be in the press gallery during the early-morning fracas over the Kansas Territory’s pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution almost 50 years prior.
The complicated reality of the fight, however, reveals how bitter differences over slavery altered a wig’s journey through history. Newspapers’ political agendas shaped various accounts at the time of the brawl, and the fading memories of the participants altered its retelling. Multiple accounts of the melee proliferated. A close reading of a wide-range of contemporaneous newspaper accounts, as well as the letters of the belligerents, causes us to rethink a well-worn, but too-good-to-be-true, tale.
The first broadsheet to cover the melee, former Representative Horace Greeley’sNew-York Daily Tribune, published its account just hours after it happened. Its blow-by-blow stated that the brawl began as Grow objected to a Southern Democrat’s request from the Democratic side of the House Chamber. This prompted a profane exchange of words between Grow and Keitt, and the Northern paper portrays the Republican floor leader as the clear victor by knocking Keitt down. There was no mention of the hairy end to the fight or the famous “scalp” quote.
Nineteenth-century news cycles were measured in days rather than hours, so it took two more days for the New York Times to first report the hirsute angle to the fight. Its correspondent’s account was reprinted multiple times and would become the leading description for years immediately after the affair. The Times description, though, says that Cadwallader Washburn of Wisconsin, not Potter, nabbed the Southerner’s wig when Washburn came to the aid of his brother, Elihu, a Representative from Illinois. “Horrible to relate,” the Times wrote, “Mr. Barksdale’s wig came off in Cadwallader’s left hand—and his right fist expended itself with tremendous force against the unresisting air. This ludicrous incident unquestionably did much towards restoring good nature subsequently,—and its effect was heightened not a little by the fact that in the excitement of the occasion Barksdale restored his wig wrong side foremost.” This is the first mention of the wig, although the account mentioned nothing of the famed “scalp” quote.
While the Times’ account dominated in the North, in the South, The Charleston (South Carolina) Mercury took a decidedly muted perspective on the incident, failing to mention the wig episode at all. Grow objected “a little tartly,” according to The Mercury’s account, but the “whole thing was sudden and over in a moment. There was not much excitement prevailing before or afterwards. This is a succinct statement of the whole affair, which will, doubtless, be greatly exaggerated by Black Republican prints.” The Baltimore Sun also predicted “the affair…will no doubt be greatly magnified by letter writers.”
Presciently, Wisconsin's then-Governor Alexander W. Randall summed up the dilemma when he wrote to Potter just days after the melee, “There is a serious question here, growing out of the conflicting accounts of the letter writers, as to whether you or Washburn got the wig. Do have it settled or the future historians will have the same difficulty that has been encountered in determining who killed Tecumseh.” Accordingly, Randall made both Potter and Washburn honorary colonels in the state militia for their “noble and fearless conduct.”
Whether Potter replied to Randall with a precise accounting of the fight is lost to history, but he did provide a vivid description in a letter to his brother. In it, he forcefully says that he “hit no friends,” which is important because Potter was friendly with many Southerners, including Mississippi’s Barksdale. But the staunch abolitionist and pioneer settler ends his letter by foreshadowing the fratricidal conflict ahead: “But such as the state of things here they understand that if I am attacked by them I will not hesitate to take the life of my assailants.”
Sources: O.O. Stealey, Twenty Years in the Press Gallery (New York: Publishers Printing Company, 1906); “A Free Fight in the House,” 6 February 1858, New-York Daily Tribune: 5; “Detailed Account of the Keitt and Grow Fight—Prospects for Mr. Harris’ Motion,” 8 February 1858, New York Times: 4; “The Fracas at Washington,” 8 February 1858, The Charleston Mercury; “Disgraceful Row in the House of Representatives, 8 February 1858, The Baltimore Sun: 1; Alexander W. Randall to John Fox Potter, 12 February 1858, John Fox Potter Papers, Wisconsin Historical Society; John Fox Potter to his brother, Edward Potter, 14 February 1858, John Fox Potter Papers, Wisconsin Historical Society.