James Robinson, North Dakota Supreme Court Justice
James Robinson was eccentric North Dakota Supreme Court justice who opposed vaccinations. He also peddled booze as a cure during the 1918 flu pandemic. Justice Robinson was a Civil War veteran and was first elected at age 73 in 1916. He is remembered for going barefoot and bareheaded outside, even in winter. He rang cowbells to draw crowds for his campaign speeches.
During the flu pandemic, Justice Robinson touted liquor as a cure. He railed against North Dakota’s so-called “bone-dry statute,” which made importing liquor illegal. Robinson said the 1917 Legislature didn’t properly pass the law. In columns in the Bismarck Tribune, he pestered Attorney General Bill Langer over the issue. “Booze would help to beat Spanish flu” read a front-page headline – on the same date that five new flu deaths were reported. Justice Robinson wrote the flu was “reaping a harvest of death.” By one estimate, 5,100 people died in North Dakota as a result of the pandemic, which lingered into 1920.
Robinson wrote: “It is doubtless true, that many deaths have resulted and people are suffering and die all over the state because of a supposed bone-dry law denying them the right to obtain the best possible medicine.”
Acting on physicians’ recommendations, the attorney general ordered that whiskey and brandy could be brought into the state to use as flu medicine, but only registered pharmacists could dole it out.
Justice Robinson ordered a bottle of whiskey, which an express agent withheld from him until he could present a doctor’s note.
Much earlier, in the 1880s, Robinson had skipped vaccinations for his children, which led to them being excluded from public schools. He thought vaccinations only served to enrich the “young doctors on the school board.”
In 1918, the Supreme Court heard a case that challenged a State Board of Health rule requiring schoolchildren to be vaccinated for smallpox. In his opinion, Robinson wrote: “The chances are that within a generation vaccination will cease to exist. It will go the way of inoculation, bleeding, purging, and salvation. The vaccinators must learn to live without sowing the seeds of death and disease.”
Weeks later, the 1919 Legislature passed a law banning vaccination requirements for school admission.
In 1975, the Legislature enacted new school immunization requirements after decades of epidemics among children, including polio.
Justice Robinson lost reelection in 1922. On this date in 1933, Bismarck Tribune readers learned of his death at age 89.
Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura
Rhea v. Bd. of Educ. of Devils Lake Special Sch. Dist., 41 N.D. 449,171 N.W. 103 (1919)
Jamestown Weekly Alert. 1917, November 8. Page 6
The Bismarck Tribune. 1918, October 22. Pages 1, 5
The Bismarck Tribune. 1918, October 23. Pages 1, 2
Jamestown Weekly Alert. 1918, October 31. Page 10
The Bismarck Tribune. 1918, November 1. Pages 1, 7
The Bismarck Tribune. 1919, January 24. Pages 1, 6
Jamestown Weekly Alert. 1919, February 13. Page 3
The Bismarck Tribune. 1919, March 3. Page 2