“Old Man Eloquent,” “Sunset Cox,” “Czar Reed,” “Uncle Joe,” “Vinegar Bend,” “Mr. Sam,” the “Little Giant.”
Since the earliest Congresses, Members of the House have earned—or received—nicknames based on their careers and interests, monikers that have long outlived them. Some are obvious—John Quincy Adams was called Old Man Eloquent because he was relatively old (he served from age 66 until his death at the age of 80) and because he was eloquent (he was a former President and a poet who often spoke passionately about abolishing slavery). Others are equally reasonable—Sunset Cox’s real name was Samuel Sullivan Cox, but earned the name Sunset after once giving a radiant description of a sunset he had witnessed.
Still other Members brought more obscure nicknames with them to Congress. Vinegar Bend was actually named Wilmer David Mizell, an all-star pitcher in Major League Baseball before serving in the House from 1969 to 1975. His nickname came from his hometown: Mizell had been born in the town of Vinegar Bend in far southwestern Alabama.
In another baseball connection, House Speaker Thomas P. O’Neill of Massachusetts received the nickname “Tip” as a boy and carried it with him for the rest of his life: Tip was itself the nickname of the legendary hitter James Edward O’Neill, a once-in-a-generation baseball player from Ontario, Canada, who, after his retirement in the 1890s, was once called “the ex-monarch of sluggers” by the Washington Post. Even today, the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame gives out the Tip O’Neill Award to Canada’s best player.
The “Little Giant,” meanwhile, was the contradictory but also completely understandable name given to House Speaker Carl Albert of Oklahoma. Albert stood barely five-feet-two-inches tall, but in high school he had been student body president and his outsized intellect had catapulted him to valedictorian. In his senior yearbook, Albert’s list of accomplishments and activities stretched for a whole paragraph. At the bottom, the yearbook’s editors added a three-word epigram: “A little giant.” Albert never grew any taller. But his nickname stuck and assumed new meaning during his 30-year House career. Albert, especially during his three terms as Speaker, had more influence over American politics in the decades following World War II than all but a few lawmakers.
Other Members of the House had distinctly nineteenth-century nicknames. But no matter how folksy and colloquial they sounded, they were often calculated for maximum political benefit, helping legislators and candidates seem simultaneously relatable and unique. Two Members, both populists, help demonstrate how nicknames—and the stories behind them—blended fact and fiction to create something entirely new. The cases of both J.H. “Cyclone” Davis of Texas and “Sockless” Jeremiah Simpson of Kansas make us wonder whether a Member by any other name would be remembered as readily.
Standing six-feet three-inches tall, and sporting “a long billy-goat beard,” James Harvey Davis had no problem standing out in a crowd. But it was his oratory that often drew the most attention and earned the lanky Texan the nickname “Cyclone.”
Born in South Carolina in 1853, Davis moved with his family to the Lone Star State around the age of four where he attended school, became a lawyer, and later a judge. A prairie populist, Cyclone found himself stirring the pot on behalf of Texas growers with the Farmers’ Alliance as the nineteenth century came to a close. In the 1890s he helped found the Populist Party and served as an organizer and committeeman. He had run unsuccessfully for the House as a Populist in 1894 and later turned down the appointment as superintendent of agriculture in the Philippines, which was then an American territory. While on a speaking tour in the 1890s, Davis swung through Kentucky. A journalist there witnessed him in action during a debate and dubbed him the “Texas cyclone.” With that, Cyclone Davis was born.
In 1914, Davis ran for and won one of two of Texas’ At-Large seats in the U.S. House of Representatives for the 64th Congress (1915–1917). When he arrived at the Capitol, however, Cyclone seemed a little less breezy. Reporters noted that he refused to walk under the fancy chandeliers and that he seemed unusually quiet for a man called Cyclone. The tall Texan refused to wear a collar and a tie (the typical dress of lawmakers) and insisted on a large neck muffler. When he did finally don the era’s standard attire, it caused such a sensation that a 1916 photograph bore the title Cyclone Davis “Wearing First Collar.”
Officially, the House refused to refer to him as Cyclone. Davis’s election certificate from Texas listed him as “J.H. (Cyclone) Davis,” but federal publications like the Congressional Record and the Congressional Directory used the name “James Harvey Davis.” Nevertheless, any mail that arrived addressed to “Cyclone” was delivered to him in the House Office Building straight away.
Although he started off uncharacteristically quiet, Davis made his first speech in the House on January 6, 1916: “The Farmer and Wage Earner.” In true Cyclone form, he was so animated that at one point a floor clerk discreetly moved a table out of the way because “he hated to see good furniture broken up.” Laced with criticism of his Republican colleagues and punctuated by racist laments, Cyclone held forth for an hour about society, the economy, history, the power of corporations, the importance of America’s farms, and everything between. “I have been a national character for 30 years,” he said at one point, eliciting laughter from the chamber. “I remember 20 years ago papers like the St. Louis Globe Democrat were cussing me by note, and my Republican friends if I put a blister plaster on you this afternoon it is not because I hate you, because I am like our much beloved Lord—‘those whom I loveth I chasteneth.’” Later, when interrupted by a colleague and asked if he intended to request more time to finish his remarks, Davis declined. “Thank you, my friends,” he said. “When I once get folded up it takes some time to get unfolded.”
The next month, in March 1916, Cyclone got folded up again and was accused by other Members of using language unbecoming of a Congressman. As a result, the House put together a select committee to debate whether he should have his “words taken down”—parliamentary speak for deleting them from official House records. His remarks were partly in response to an article criticizing him in a Houston newspaper following a speech of his own in which he described the big corporations and “syndicated wealth” of the early twentieth century “as far more reprehensible and destructive of human liberty than that cabal of slave power . . . when the slave power was designing to annex Cuba and Mexico.” “Some of the milder terms used by ‘Cyclone’ in describing his enemy are ‘skunk,’ ‘feathered buzzard,’ and ‘a creature so low that to call him a child of the devil would be to slander the devil,’” reported the New York Times. A few days later, Davis gave the special committee his “consent and approval” to delete part of his speech.
In July 1916, Cyclone failed in his bid for re-nomination to the House for the 65th Congress (1917–1919). He partly attributed his loss to the fact that state officials did not list his name as Cyclone on the primary ballot. Davis argued that voters for his At-Large seat would know Cyclone but would have no idea who J. H. Davis was. The Texas Congressman, who earlier in his career helped regulate saloons, also pointed to what he said was a larger conspiracy against him. “It was booze, boodle, and big business that brought about my defeat.”
After leaving Congress, Davis farmed for a number of years. Preparing for his triumphant return to Congress amid the Great Depression, Davis legally petitioned the court to have his named changed to “Cyclone” in 1932. But in December, he lost the Democratic primary for another Texas At-Large House seat. Davis died eight years later in 1940. His modest headstone read “James Harvey Davis” on the top. “Cyclone” had been etched across the front.
As a young boy, Jeremiah Simpson was never far from the water. Born on Canada’s Prince Edward Island in 1842, Simpson moved to Oneida County in upstate New York with his parents around the age of six. At the precocious age of 14, he became a sailor and spent more than 20 years captaining ships on the nearby Great Lakes, taking a brief break to fight in the Civil War with an Illinois regiment. Eventually, Simpson gave up the rolling waves of world’s largest freshwater lakes for the rolling plains of America’s Midwest, settling in Medicine Lodge, Kansas. He started a farm before drifting though handful of other jobs.
After failing twice to win a seat in the Kansas legislature, Simpson ran as a Populist for the U.S. House in 1890. Campaigning one day in Sterling, Kansas, Simpson was forced to prove his common man bona fides. Sterling and much of the surrounding area had been heavily leveraged, and one person in attendance accused Simpson of wearing “silk socks like the mortgage sharks.” Without missing a beat, Simpson pulled up his pant legs and said “My friend . . . them are all the socks I ever wore. If you can’t see them from there, come up and feel them.” His socks were apparently so low in his shoes that they were difficult to see; such attire hardly befitted the vested financiers of the time. Another origin story claims that Simpson once said, “Look at us poor people who do not even have socks to wear.” And in an even different account, Simpson—apparently in an attempt to impress a girl—supposedly refused to wear socks as a young man so his feet could fit into tighter boots. Either way, Jeremiah Simpson was forever after known for his socklessness.
As the “sockless statesman,” Simpson won the general election for 52nd and 53rd Congresses (1891–1895), and later the 55th Congress (1897–1899). Though his opponents tried to portray him as dimwitted, Sockless Jerry was an occasional debating opponent of House Speaker Thomas Brackett Reed of Maine. Reed notoriously eviscerated Members whom he felt were not up to the challenge of debate. In most cases, Simpson and Reed were amicable. But in one instance in April 1897, Simpson challenged the Speaker’s authority regarding a question of privilege on the floor and debate became contentious. Reed was in no mood, and onlookers in the gallery watched as the sockless statesman shrunk in his seat while Czar Reed ruled against him in the chamber, only to see Simpson “rise again in his inimitable [sic] manner.”
Simpson’s clothing-related antics went beyond socks. In 1894, he arrived on the House Floor wearing a “farmer’s suit” as a prop for a dramatic speech against tariffs. He had traded a Maryland farmer a new suit in exchange for an old, tattered one. Despite his effort to show how the American farmer suffered under high tariffs, his gag seemed to generate more scorn than praise. “The Hon. Jerry Simpson, the sockless swell of Medicine Lodge, tried to give an air of probability to his tariff speech on Friday by exhibiting a suit of old clothes which he had procured from a Maryland farmer,” the New York Sun reported. “Now we have no doubt that the farmers must be wretched, if they know they are being robbed and spoliated, but this man from Maryland may have been having fun with Jerry.” The Boston Herald was even less charitable. “Uncle Jerry Simpson’s fame as a sockless statesman has passed. He now looms up as shoddy overcoatless.”
Nevertheless, Simpson’s supposed socklessness remained his calling card. Once, when visiting an Army base in his district a few years later in 1898, a colonel stationed there presented Simpson with a pair of standard issue Army socks knowing that his political opponents would drudge up the old story in the approaching election. “Tis not alone, my sockless feet, Good Colonel,” the Congressman said in thanks, reciting a poem infused with populist doctrine about the suffering of other people.
Simpson died in 1905. In the opinion of one obituary he had been “one of the most unique characters adorning the history of congress. He was swept into the fifty-second congress by a wave of Kansas populism, charged with reforming the whole government and living down the only information his colleagues had of his personality—that he wore no socks.” Simpson, of course, had worn socks during his House career. But the name had stuck, and had helped draw attention to matters of inequality he championed. His headstone made no mention of “Sockless Jerry.”
Sources: Congressional Record, House, 55th Cong., 1st sess. (7 April 1897): 650–652; Congressional Globe, House, 64th Cong., 1st sess. (6 January 1916): 631–632; Congressional Record, Extension of Remarks, 64th Cong., 2nd sess. (24 March 1916): 625; Congressional Directory, 64th Cong., 1st sess. (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1916): 109; House select committee, “Speech of Hon. James H. Davis, Representative from the State of Texas,” H. Rept. 329, (27 March 1916); Atlanta Journal Constitution, 18 January 1894; 24 October 1905; Los Angeles Times, 23 March 1892, 23 January 1923; New York Times, 25 May 1916; New York Tribune, 8 April 1897, 25 July 1916; The Ottawa Citizen, 22 December 1991; Washington Post, 3 July 1898, 26 September 1899, 29 July 1905, 26 May 1932; John A. Farrell, Tip O’Neill and the Democratic Century (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2001); Carl Albert with Danney Goble, Little Giant: The Life and Times of Speaker Carl Albert (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990); Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present,” https://history.house.gov/Institution/Election-Statistics/. For a list of Tip O’Neill Award winners, see Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame, “James ‘Tip’ O’Neill Awards,” accessed 16 January 2020, https://baseballhalloffame.ca/museum/awards/.Follow @USHouseHistory