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November 8: Twin Deaths of Langer and Townley

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Two North Dakota political giants died hours apart, decades after their parallel rises to power during a remarkable period in state history.

U-S Senator Bill Langer died in his sleep on this date in 1959 in Washington, D-C. He was 73 years old. Hours earlier, Arthur Townley died in an automobile crash near Makoti, North Dakota. Townley, who was 78, had founded the populist Nonpartisan League in 1915. With their deaths, North Dakota lost two prominent and controversial figures.

Langer’s political career was long and colorful, spanning 45 years, starting as Morton County state’s attorney and ending as U-S senator. In 1916, he was the League’s candidate for attorney general, and won two terms. In the tumultuous 1930s, he served nonconsecutive terms as governor, remembered for his ouster from the governor’s office and later comeback. Langer’s subsequent Senate career faced an early storm with a long battle over his seat due to “moral turpitude” charges, but he would later win three more Senate terms.

Townley founded the League as an answer to farmers’ economic disadvantages. League candidates took over the state government and legislature, creating institutions such as the state-owned Bank of North Dakota and State Mill and Elevator during the League’s heyday from 1916 to 1921.

In 1919, Langer and Townley publicly attacked each other over political disagreements. Langer broke with League leaders on various issues, including a banking scandal and his defense of the woman who won the state superintendent’s race in 1918 against the League incumbent, a man who refused to leave office. In 1920, Langer ran against the League’s candidate for governor, and lost – but years later he rejoined the League and won its endorsement for his successful run for governor in 1932.

Newspapers took notice of Langers’ and Townley’s twin deaths. The chief of the Minneapolis Star Washington Bureau eulogized that “a political era of agrarian radicalism came to an end” with their deaths, calling them “the last of a long line in the ‘farm revolt.’”

After his death, Langer’s body lay in state in the U-S Senate Chamber, then in the North Dakota Capitol before funeral services in Casselton. More 400 people, including national figures, attended the funeral.

Meanwhile, the Associated Press reported on Townley being buried in a “lonely country cemetery” in Minnesota, with 40 people attending his funeral.

Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura


  • Geelan, A. (1975). The Dakota maverick: The political life of William Langer, also known as ‘Wild Bill’ Langer. Kaye’s Printing Company: Fargo, ND
  • The Bismarck Tribune. 1916, November 5. Page 1: No division in Morton County
  • The Nonpartisan Leader. 1916, October 5: The League’s candidates
  • Grand Forks Herald. 1919, March 25. Pages 1, 3: Townley has real fight on his hands when he attempts to put Langer in the discard
  • The Bismarck Tribune. 1919, April 30. Page 1: Langer hurls defy in teeth of big boss – demands that he make good his charges – will resign if they are proven
  • The Bismarck Tribune. 1942, March 28. Page 1: Senate seats William Langer
  • The Bismarck Tribune. 1959, November 9. Pages 1, 2: Senator Langer dead; A. C. Townley, founder of NPL, dies in car crash
  • The Bismarck Tribune. 1959, November 9. Page 11: Storms marked Langer career
  • The Minneapolis Star. 1959, November 9. Page 14: Battling champions of farm reform die
  • The Bismarck Tribune. 1959, November 9. Page 9: Name of Townley firmly stamped on history of politics in North Dakota
  • The Minneapolis Star. 1959, November 10. Page 12: North Dakota political era ends
  • The Bismarck Tribune. 1959, November 10. Page 1: Langer lies in state in darkened Senate
  • The Bismarck Tribune. 1959, November 11. Page 1: Minister eulogizes Langer
  • The Bismarck Tribune. 1959, November 12. Page 1: Last respects
  • The Bismarck Tribune. 1959, November 13. Pages 1, 2: Townley, onetime political giant, buried in lonely country cemetery
  • The Bismarck Tribune. 1959, November 14. Page 1: Langer funeral attracts 400
  • “Wild Bill”: senate.gov/artandhistory/history/minute/Wild_Bill.htm
  • William Langer: findagrave.com/memorial/7929257/william-langer
  • ndstudies.gov/gr8/content/unit-iv-modern-north-dakota-1921-present/lesson-4-alliances-and-conflicts/topic-2-two-party-political-system/section-3-william-langer
  • Summary of North Dakota history - Nonpartisan League: history.nd.gov/ndhistory/npl.htm
  • Summary of North Dakota history - The Great Depression: history.nd.gov/ndhistory/depression.html

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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