Mourning the Speakers of the House
In 1876, the House of Representatives experienced the death of a sitting Speaker of the House, Michael Kerr of Indiana, for the first time. That moment, at the height of the Victorian pre-occupation with mourning rituals, began the custom of marking a Speaker’s death visually. Speakers have always been identified with the House’s epicenter and symbol of authority – the rostrum – and remembrances have focused on the rostrum and spaces around the House Chamber, particularly when the House is not in session.
Customarily, the Speaker’s Chair on the rostrum is draped in black following the death of a Speaker or former Speaker. This practice was first documented in 1876, when Kerr died in office. Newspapers first noted the black draperies months later, remarking that they were already “sombre and dusty,” presumably from hanging in the crowded Capitol through the autumn.
Black drapery was used again following the deaths of former Speaker Samuel Randall of Pennsylvania in 1890. In addition, the rostrum was “adorned with a handsome floral design" and Randall's portrait in the Speaker's Lobby swathed in black, according to news accounts. Speaker Nicholas Longworth of Ohio died in 1931, and the rostrum held flowers and the gavel Longworth used to adjourn his last Congress. Thirty years later, Parliamentarian Lewis Deschler ceremonially placed a gavel atop the chrysanthemums on the rostrum when his long-time friend and colleague, Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas, died. Upon the death of former Speaker Thomas (Tip) O’Neill, a blanket of red and white carnations covered the upper rostrum, surmounted by a gavel tied in black ribbons. When former Speaker Thomas Foley died, a lone gavel on a black velvet cloth stood sentry on the rostrum before the black-draped chair, while black velvet swags around Foley's portrait in the Speaker's Lobby marked his demise.