We just published this striking photo of the late Sen. Byrd (D-WV) lying in state in the Senate chamber today. Now I know the usual routine is for revered political leaders to lay in the Capitol Rotunda. And I thought it was either rare or unprecedented for someone to lay in the Senate. So we looked into who the last person was. And it turns out it was Sen. William “Wild Bill” Langer (R-ND).
Now I think of myself as pretty up on American history. But I’m not sure I’d ever heard of him. And that surprised me since I’d figure someone who got such an honor would be a pretty big deal. But apparently not.
He served in the Senate for 18 years after a lengthy and garishly colorful run in state politics. But his time in the Senate doesn’t appear to have been particularly distinguished. And there’s decent evidence that he was a crook.
His wikipedia entry contains this paragraph …
Langer eventually mended his rift with the NPL and was elected governor of North Dakota in 1932. However, he was removed from office by the North Dakota Supreme Court for allegedly pressuring recipients of governmental aid to donate money to his private newspaper and for allegedly forcing state employees to give funds to the state Republican party. . He was found guilty of fraud in 1934, in a trial presided over by Andrew Miller, a longstanding political rival. The North Dakota Supreme Court ordered him removed from office due to his conviction on a felony charge, and on July 17, 1934, the Court declared Lieutenant Governor Ole H. Olson the legitimate governor. Langer gathered with about ten friends, declared North Dakota independent, declared martial law, and barricaded himself in the governor’s mansion until the Supreme Court would meet with him.  Langer eventually relented, and Olson served the remainder of Langer’s term as Governor.
Late Update: Okay, we’ve now done a little more research. And I think we’ve got a bit better understanding of the history. Before Langer, the most recent guy was Sen. Joe McCarthy in 1957, who’d just become one of the few senators to be censured only a few years before. So what’s the story?
It seems that up until the middle of the last century most or at least a lot of the senators who died in office had some sort of ceremony in the Senate chamber. In the distant past, it was often the funeral itself. The Senate historians office gave us a list of 44 senators who’ve been so honored. In other words, all you really needed to get the honor until about 50 years ago was die on the job. Which explains Langer and McCarthy.
Dr. Betty K. Koed, Associate Historian of the United States Senate explained the transformation as follows, in an email to our reporter Brian Beutler …
n the 19th and early 20th century, such services were more common. Transportation was more difficult at that time, and members often did not have homes in the area (many lived in boarding houses). When a senator died in office, a funeral ceremony was sometimes held in the Senate chamber followed by a local burial service. In the 20th century, as transportation improved allowing for burial of deceased members in their home towns, the chamber ceremony ceased to be necessary. On July 1st, the tradition was revived due to Senator Byrd’s great love for the Senate and its chamber.
Later Update: Langer fans speak out.
Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.