Whereas: Stories from the People’s House

George H. Tinkham—The Subtitles Write Themselves

George H. Tinkham/tiles/non-collection/3/3-24-text-tinkham.xml Image courtesy of Library of Congress Whether on safari or fighting Jim Crow laws, Representative George H. Tinkham of Massachusetts brought a colorful presence to the House of Representatives.
Once storied but now largely forgotten, the life and times of Representative George Holden Tinkham of Massachusetts beckon an enterprising biographer. Were someone to take up the call, the list of amusing subtitles might include: The Shot Heard ‘Round the World, Gone on Safari or The Congressman Who Rarely Campaigned.

A Republican who represented Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood for nearly three decades (1915–1943), Tinkham was a lonely congressional voice in the 1920s in defense of black voting rights in the South during an era when no African Americans served on Capitol Hill. Tinkham called Jim Crow laws that disenfranchised African Americans “the most colossal electoral fraud the world has ever known,” and he pilloried House leaders as “the real leaders of lawlessness” for ignoring the problem.

That free-swinging quality characterized most of Tinkham’s legislative exploits. Described by the press as the “wettest Wet in Congress,” he opposed Prohibition as “unconstitutional, oppressive, and tyrannical.” Though he’d enthusiastically backed U.S. intervention in the First World War, he became an unrepentant isolationist in the 1930s—assailing revisions to neutrality laws and blasting the Lend-Lease Program in 1941 as the “totalitarian dictator-ship bill.” Tinkham’s foreign policy views were so unfashionable that the GOP-controlled Massachusetts legislature carved up his safe district to force his retirement from the House the next year.

But Tinkham’s most colorful undertakings happened far from the House Floor. During World War I, he was widely reported to have fired the first American shot of the conflict. On December 11, 1917 (just days after the U.S. declared war on Austria-Hungary), while on an official trip to inspect the Italian front, Congressman Tinkham was invited by an Italian artillery commander to pull the firing lanyard on a 149-millimeter gun. The 110-lb high explosive shell crashed into Austrian lines. “I did not go there with that particular idea in mind,” Tinkham told the press, “but I could not resist the temptation.”

Big guns weren’t foreign to Tinkham, whose personal wealth financed numerous African safaris. But it was the timing of his hunting trips, rather than his destination, that in retrospect seems most remarkable. With the exception of a couple of close elections during his long career, Tinkham ritually sailed for Africa each campaign season. Typically, he disappeared into the African bush and didn’t come home to Boston until Election Day. Campaign stumping, Tinkham explained, would be a less “humane” treatment of his constituents.

While voters may have been safe, big game animals weren’t. Tinkham prowled the African savanna with ruthless efficiency. His 1923 safari, the Boston Globe noted rather romantically, consumed “51 days under canvas in the blue.” During that time Tinkham bagged an elephant (with ivory tusks weighing 122 pounds), a lion, rhino, water buffalo, cheetah, a record-setting gazelle, six leopards, and all manner of smaller equatorial game. Trophies nicknamed for his political opponents ringed the walls of his office and animal skin rugs of every variety lay on the floor of his office in what is now the Cannon Building. John Dingell, Jr., who served as a House Page in the final years of Tinkham’s career, recalled that Pages vied for the chance to run errands for him: “All the Pages loved to go over to his office, so that they could look and see these stuffed trophies that he had. There [were] a lot—and he was a great hero” to the Pages.

When Tinkham died in August 1956, normally sedate wire service reporters employed rarely-used superlatives to eulogize him as “the wettest, most adventurous and most picturesque congressman.” Yet another fitting subtitle for that would-be biographer.

Sources: Washington Post, 2 January 1918; Washington Post, 29 August 1956; Baltimore Sun, 29 April 1956; Oral History Interview with Representative John D. Dingell, 3 February 2012; Boston Daily Globe, 25 November 1923; Daily Boston Globe, 10 June 1939; Richard N. Gentile, “Tinkham, George Holden,” American National Biography 21 (New York: Oxford, 1999): 696–697.

Categories: Members of Congress