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Fistfights and Fury in the Capitol Rotunda


A wild series of events in the North Dakota Senate ended in thrown punches and sensational newspaper headlines on this date in 1921. In all caps, The Fargo Forum reported “SENATE SESSION COMES TO END AMID BRAWLS, FIST FIGHTS AND SCENES OF WILDEST DISORDER.” And that was only the sub-headline! Across the banner the paper trumpeted: League Senators Try to Get Rough With Two Irishmen And regular Movie Comedy Results.”

So, what was the impetus for the fisticuffs that echoed within the hallowed halls of legislative decorum? It began with the Non Partisan League Senate investigating a controversial House of Representatives audit. The Senate called for the arrest of the House’s two attorneys, who were brought into the senate to testify – but refused.

Here’s the original reporting: “State Attorney General William Lembke thought it would be a fitting climax to the session to grill Attorneys Francis Murphy and John Sullivan … He didn’t grill them but after about as ludicrous an exhibition as one could image the state senate sent John Sullivan to jail without a hearing.”

Supreme Court Judge Birdzell set that arrest aside calling it illegal. Another warrant was issued by the Senate – but was ignored. Words flew, followed by fists.

Back to the original story: “One public fight (began) at the doors of the senate chamber as Murphy departed, with (the) former states auditor, and an unidentified leaguer as the principals in which the aforementioned unidentified leaguer was the loser.”

More punches were thrown in the Capitol corridor between a former Golden Valley County sheriff and a Bismarck steamfitter while one of them was being escorted from the Senate by the sergeant of arms. A third fist fight between two men started, in the meantime, but was almost overlooked when yet another more interesting one exploded. That brawl began in the Capitol rotunda between two men that sent one to his knees when hit from behind. After popping to his feet, the two continued their battle across the rotunda and through the doors into the Supreme Court Library. There, with the law books in the background, the two traded blows until one cried “enough!”

The Forum reported: “And, like the old story, it is said he had been trying to think of the word a long time before it arrived.”

Interesting North Dakota politics – 1921 style.

Dakota Datebook written by Steve Stark


North Dakota 100 Years: The Forum 1988 Forum Publishing Co. p. 29.