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The Death of Speaker William B. Bankhead

September 15, 1940
The Death of Speaker William B. Bankhead Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
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Representative William Bankhead of Alabama served in the House for over 20 years. He was elected Speaker during his last three terms, from the 74th through 76th Congress.
On this date, Speaker of the House William B. Bankhead of Alabama, 66, died at the Naval Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland. A few days earlier on September 10, Bankhead, who had been suffering poor health, left for Baltimore to speak at a political gathering against the advice of the Capitol physician, Dr. George W. Calver, and lost consciousness shortly before arriving. Calver immediately arranged for Bankhead’s return to the Washington area for medical treatment. Over the next several days Bankhead regained consciousness and his wife Florence, daughter Eugenia Hoyt, and brother, Alabama Senator John Bankhead II, were able to visit. His other daughter, the actress Tallulah Bankhead, was on her way from New Jersey. Late on September 14th, Bankhead lost consciousness and died early the next morning. Calver’s announcement listed the cause of death as a ruptured blood vessel in the abdomen, but he also said that the Speaker died “a martyr to his determination to do a good job for his political party.” The following day Bankhead lay in state in the House Chamber. “The major objective of both parties,” he had said not long before his death with a wearied eye toward the war raging in Europe, “must be unity and solidarity of purpose in preserving inviolate the structure of our Government and the perpetual freedom of its people.” With Clerk of the House South Trimble presiding over the day’s proceedings absent the Speaker, Democratic Caucus Chairman John McCormack of Massachusetts nominated Democratic Leader Sam Rayburn of Texas to be the next Speaker. Republican Leader Joseph W. Martin Jr. of Massachusetts had earlier announced that the GOP Conference would not offer a candidate of its own. Rayburn was elected Speaker by acclamation. He became the longest-serving Speaker in House history, holding the seat for a total of 17 years.

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