(subtitle: Politicians Behaving Badly)
Reports of politicians behaving badly are as common as the common cold. Transgressions of politicians span the spectrum from minor (“Throw the bum out!” blogs a self-righteous observer) to egregious (“Today, so-and-so was sentenced to x years in federal prison…”).
There are many individual instances where a larger-than-average ego is a driving force that leads to unlawful behavior. Former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich is one such example. In 2010 and 2011, he was found guilty of and convicted on 18 federal extortion charges for famously attempting to “auction President-Elect Barack Obama’s U.S. Senate seat to the highest bidder,” – all the while proclaiming his innocence and insisting he would be vindicated.
On the other hand, some questionable actions often times merely reflect a subset of people in society at large. Take former Wisconsin State Representative Jeff Wood, for instance. In 2008, he was arrested (again) for drunk driving and possession of marijuana. Despite efforts by the state assembly to remove him from office, he refused to step down. When his term ended two years later, he chose not to run for re-election. It’s likely that his transgressions were newsworthy only because he was in the public eye. Had he been an ordinary citizen, we probably would never have heard about his troubles.
One of the saddest obituaries I’ve ever read appeared in the newspaper a couple of weeks ago. The text told of the man’s dying from congestive heart failure brought on by years of alcohol abuse. It’s quite unusual for an obituary to be so blunt about the deceased’s shortcomings. The family stated he was a good-hearted man but that he could also be ornery and difficult to deal with at times. But something changed in the last few months of this man’s life, the obituary said. His anger and bitterness faded and were replaced by kindness, sincerity and gratefulness. The family said they were able to spend quality time with him that they had spent a lifetime longing for and that he was a joy to be with.
Unlike Mr. Wood in the public sphere, were it not for the obituary, we would never have known of this man and the difficulties he faced in life because of alcohol. Some people who have difficulty with alcohol lead private lives and some lead public lives. There is a perception these days that the sins of politicians are more frequent than they used to be. Is this perception accurate? Likely not. I’ll introduce you to a Mr. Henry Ernst Nicholas Lexius, elected in 1893 to the La Crosse (Wis.) city council to represent the eighth ward.
I learned of Mr. Lexius in the course of my research to identify the mystery man from the brewery worker photo. Mr. Lexius’s name appears in La Crosse city directories in the 1880s and 1890s, including as an employee of the John Gund Brewing Company beginning with the 1891 directory. In the 1893 directory, he is listed for the first time as an alderman for the eighth ward:
Mr. Lexius was born January 25, 1855 in Denmark. He and his wife Katharine came to the United States in 1879, settling in La Crosse. He worked first at the C & J Michel Brewing Company, then for the U.S. Post Office, and later still at the John Gund Brewing Company. He was elected in 1893 as alderman to represent the eighth ward of La Crosse. Early into his term, he was portrayed in the local newspaper as a politician behaving badly. Like Mr. Wood and the deceased man described in the recent obituary, it seems Mr. Lexius may have had trouble handling his alcohol. The following account was published in the Daily Press on September 28, 1893:
WILD AND WOOLY
The Time Had Down in the
Eighth Ward Last Night
AN ALDERMAN A FOOTBALL
Handed Around By Three Men and
Punched By Each – The Whole Neigh-
borhood was Out of Doors
to See the Sport
Talk about wild and wooly times! They had one last evening down towards the Green Bay depot, and half of the city is talking about it today. The principal actor in the affair is an alderman, and on that account the Press would fain suppress the facts; but, as above stated, half the people are talking about it already and it will do no harm to tell the balance.
The hero of the affair is Alderman Lexius, a representative of the John Gund Brewing company. He had been down town during the afternoon and is supposed to have fallen in with a number of friends; for, as he hailed Contractor A. Siebucht [sic], who was driving home, and asked for a ride, it was observed that he was enjoying an exhilarating state of spirits.
Mr. Siebrecht had two of his imployes in the seat with him and a carpenters chest behind; but he granted the alderman’s request and told him to seat himself on the chest. In that fashion they proceeded until Fifth and Cameron were reached; here the horse started forward suddenly and the alderman was as quickly unseated and deposited in the bottom of the wagon.
Finally Mr. Siebrecht and his guest arrived at the latter’s house and in attempting to alight the alderman stepped on a loose board in the wagon and was thrown to the ground. These series of uncomfortable happenings evidently aroused his ire, for he began to abuse his guest and threatened to whip him.
Mr. Siebrecht laughed at the threat and drove on; but the alderman followed him and, it is said, ended by calling Mr. Siebrecht a s– of a b–. Naturally, the sturdy house builder’s ire was aroused at this and he jumped out of the wagon; the alderman, nothing daunted, closed in and struck him a blow on the face.
Mr. Siebrecht then took a hand in the fun and gave the alderman several smart blows on the side of the face. He didn’t try to injure his opponent greatly, but he evidently convinced him on the question of who was the superior. The alderman then broke away and, like the man who kicked his enemy’s dog, ran across the street and attacked Mr. Siebrecht’s brother, who was shoveling dirt.
But he was no more fortunate here than he was in the altercation with the contractor, for the brother easily vanquished him and threw him out of the way. Then a fourth figure came upon the scene; it was that of one of the Darlings, who lives near by. It couldn’t be learned whether there was any bad blood between the alderman and himself, but there probably was.
“Here, you fellows,” he is said to have cried, “step out of the way while I take a turn at this fellow.” And he “took a turn.” The alderman was then taken home and it was thought the riot over, but from all accounts – though just what did happen couldn’t be found out – it was some time before the neighborhood was quieted down.
After supper Alderman Lexius went down town and attempted to have warrants issued for the arrest of Messrs. Siebrecht and Darling but was unsuccessful. By morning he had probably changed his mind, for a reportorial round of the justice offices today failed to find that any warrants had been issued.
The trouble, some believe, is a result of the election last spring, when Messrs. Lexius and Siebrecht were rival candidates for alderman. The ward was much excited at the time, it will be remembered, and the feeling engendered then has not yet subsided.”
What do you know about that – evidently, like politicians behaving badly, contentious election campaigns are not anything new either!
But there is more to Mr. Lexius’s story. The next day, the newspaper published a different account of what happened, according to a witness who wished to remain anonymous:
’TOTHER SIDE TOLD
Second Chapter on the Scrap in the Eighth Ward
ALDERMAN LEXIUS IS DEFENDED
One of His Friends, an Eye-Witness, Tells
His Version of the Trouble – Mr. Sie-
brecht Endorses the Article of
Last Night in Detail.
The story of the altercation between Alderman Henry Lexius and several others as published in the Press of last evening, failed to meet the approval of that gentleman. He claims that he had not been drinking, as the article implied, that he did not use bad language and, instead of being the aggressor, was actually obliged to act on the defensive against the other three men at one time, only the timely assistance of a number of woman neighbors, he said, saved him from serious injury at their hands.
As it always does, the Press tried to get the truth of the story before writing it up and there are many reputable persons who will vouch for the truth of the story printed last night; however, Mr. Lexius is entitled to a defence, and we make room today for a version of the affairs as told by one of his friends, who was present at the time, but who would not allow the use of his name:
“Of course I do not know,” said the friend, “what transpired before the arrival of the party at Mr. Lexius’ home; but I do know that Mr. Lexius got off the wagon and started into his house when Mr. Siebrecht called to him. Lexius went back, asking, ‘What do you want?’ I will show you what I want,” answered Siebrecht and picked up a shovel which he held as if intending to strike Lexius. At that point Siebrecht’s brother walked over and took hold of Lexius by the throat. Lexius drew back as if to defend himself but didn’t strike a blow. Mrs. Boeck, a neighbor, then caught hold of the shovel which Siebrecht had, while others parted the other men. Lexius then started to walk away, but Darling followed him, using the most abusive kind of language. Lexius walked on without making reply and Darling was induced to go home by his wife. From first to last Lexius was the aggrieved party. He was sober, didn’t use bad language and didn’t follow anybody; Siebrecht, on the other hand, called Lexius a liar, s– of b–, etc.”
It is only simple justice to Mr. Siebrecht to say that he denies the accuracy of the above and endorses the article of last night in detail.
In support of Mr. Siebrecht, too, Mr. Joseph Riley a prominent resident of the locality and a reputable citizen, authorizes us to state that he was a witness of the trouble, that Alderman Lexius did follow Mr. Siebrecht, did call him bad names and did strike in – in fact, that every word of the article last night, so far as it related to the two men named, was absolutely true. He says, further, that the testimony of one who is afraid to give his name is not entitled to credence.
Alderman Lexius says he has no intention of causing the arrest of his opponents.
The account from Mr. Lexius’s friend causes one to wonder whether the truth lies somewhere inbetween.
Mr. Lexius’s troubles made the papers a few months later, as reported in the La Crosse Daily Press on December 30, 1893:
AFTER HIS SCALP
An Incident Without Parallel in
The City’s History
ALD. LEXIUS ASKED TO QUIT
Mass Meeting of Voters Down
In the Eighth Ward
The Alderman Condemned By a Vote of
Twenty-Eight to Seventeen – The De-
fendant Makes Several Brief
Speeches, But Refuses
Flatly to Resign.
Probably never before in the history of La Crosse was there a parallel to the incident which transpired last night at the Saloon of John Strasser on Denton street between Thirteenth and Fourteenth, when, in answer to a call duly published on handbills, the citizens of the Eighth ward met to discuss the representative of that section in the council, Alderman Henry Lexius. The saloon where the meeting was held is not a large one, and when, at eight o’clock, the meeting was called to order, there was hardly a foot of available space left. Both sides of the case were represented, but it was an extremely orderly gathering.
Without loss of time, Mr. Fred Schnell was elected chairman and Mr. Mont Darling secretary. The first name stated the purpose of the meeting and called for remarks.
C. A. Bartlett said he was a Republican, while Ald. Lexius is a Democrat and he did not like to talk on the subject for fear his motives would be construed as purely political. He would say, however, that the recent conduct of Ald. Lexius had brought disgrace to the ward and to the voters who elected him.
Robert Stogdill was then called up, whereat he replied: “Please excuse me; I am prejudiced. [A voice, ‘We all are.’] I will only say that we have a crank for an alderman, and he belongs to the Prendergast stripe.”1
Mont Darling was called upon to tell what he knew about the matter. He said he knew all about it, but didn’t think it would do any good to tell what everybody else knows. “I think it a disgrace,” he said, “to be represented in the council by such an alderman as we have. I do not attack the voters who elected him, for I know we are all liable to make mistakes. And I do not know what we can do except to express our dislike of the alderman’s conduct; maybe, after he hears from us he will do better.”
Asked to Resign
At this point the voice of Joseph Heffner was heard: “I move that he be asked to resign,” he said. The motion was seconded by C. A. Bartlett, after which it was put and carried with only one dissenting vote.
Merss. [sic] Bartlett, Heffner and Gilles were appointed a committee to wait upon Mr. Lexius and request him to appear. They returned in a few minutes with the alderman, who requested to know what was wanted of him.
“It is to tell you, Alderman Lexius, that it is the sense of this meeting that you resign your seat in the council,” answered Chairman Schnell.
“Then allow me, Mr. Chairman, to ask you a few questions,” rejoined the alderman. “Gentlemen,” he continued, “Never anything so foolish ever passed upon my personality like that I see here tonight. I wish the chairman would give me the names of the men who printed that circular in my name.2 It is my right to know, and I shall know.”
The chairman: “I am one of them.”
Mr. Stogdill: “I wish I had been one of them, too.”
Ald. Lexius: “Now, what am I asked to resign for?”
Mr. Stogdill: “For getting drunk, carousing, etc.”
The Chairman: “It is the opinion of the people of the ward that you resign, or do better.”
He Refuses to Resign
Ald. Lexius: “Gentlemen, in electing me to the common council of this city you elected me to stay for four years and I am going to stay: I will never resign.”
Mr. Darling: “The people elected you, but there is such a thing as people getting sick of a bargain. I have known of such things in horse trades.”
A voice: “I move you, Mr. Chairman, that when Mr. Darling speaks again he get up on his hind legs, as he ought to.”
Ald. Lexius: “Gentlemen, I am one who takes pride in his friends and faces his enemies. If I have a friend I stick to him, and if I have an enemy I face him. I don’t believe the good, thoughtful people of the Eighth ward feel discouraged over me. There are 400 voters in this ward and there is a very small portion of that number here. This is all politics. I don’t think the people ask me to resign because I don’t know anything; the real reason is that they fear me, because they know I am honest, speak and vote heartly [sic] and stand like a man. The politics now being played in the Eighth ward is not Democratic politics. The free, thinking citizens of the ward voted for me; the Republicans voted for me. They voted for me because they feared me. Calling this meeting, gentlemen, is out of order; it is a scandal upon me and my family, than whom there are no better in the Eight [sic] ward. I ask you to give me and my family the respect due us. It is a shame the way I have been treated by some; but I have friends and they will stick by me.”
Mr. Lexius Suppressed
At this point he was interrupted by Mr. Stogdill: “I don’t think,” said that gentleman “that the alderman has any right to talk here. The meeting was not called for the purpose of listening to a speech from him. He has given us his answer, and the more he talks the deeper he gets in the muddle.”
The chairman sustained the point raised by Mr. Stogdill and told the alderman that they didn’t care to listen to him any longer. Ald. Lexius said that was all right, but he was elected to serve as alderman for four years and he was going to do it. “Moreover,” he concluded, “this is a public place and I can talk as long as I please.”
Mr. Stogdill then moved that the action of the meeting be laid before the council.
A motion was made to reconsider, another to lay on the table and still another to move to a more respectable place. All this time the bulk of the crowd had remained near the bar and refused to leave; so, some bright-minded fellow moved that the chairman move his position to that end of the room, which was done.
Martin Raibold moved that a ballot be taken on the proposition before the house and that it be an aye and noe a [sic] vote. He also moved that the lights be blown out in order that the voters might write their ballots as they pleased. The voters then filed by the table and deposited their ballots.
The Lines Drawn
When the ballots were counted, the chair announced that forty-five votes had been cast, of which twenty-eight were ayes and [seventeen] noes. A committee to lay the matter before the council, consisting of Chairman Schnell and Joseph Heffner, was appointed, immediately after which the meeting quietly adjourned. Ald. Lexius disappeared while he ballots were being counted, with a pleasant, “Good night, gentlemen,” to all.
1 Most likely a reference to Patrick Eugene Joseph (John?) Prendergast who, that very day just hours before, had been convicted of assassinating Chicago’s mayor, Carter Harrison, two months earlier. Prendergast was deemed a little nutty, though not so much so to keep him from being hanged seven months later for the murder.
2 Two days earlier on December 28, the Daily Press reported of a petition circulating in the eighth ward calling for Alderman Lexius’s impeachment.
The news account does not reveal what Mr. Lexius is alleged to have done, aside from being drunk and carousing. It’s kind of humourous, too, how everyone apparently knew what had happened but no one wanted to say it out loud. The petition to impeach Mr. Lexius – “not couched in polite language by any means; it is blunt, out-spoken to almost a cruel degree, and bears charges of a very serious nature” – charged him with “drunkenness, illiteracy, etc.” Again, the ‘etc.’ as though everyone knew what was going on. And illiteracy – really? I don’t understand how that could be construed to be a crime. Yet it strikes me that Mr. Lexius had a strong personality that served him well in standing up for himself.
Was Mr. Lexius impeached? Did he resign? Did he take Chairman Schnell’s advice to “do better”? On the third question I don’t have enough information to say. As to the first two, evidently not. Some ten years later, Mr. Lexius was killed in a freak accident when visiting Milwaukee. While driving a buggy, the horse became frightened at something and took off at great speed. Mr. Lexius tried to slow the horse’s pace by steering into a vacant lot. His buggy crashed into a tree, and Mr. Lexius was hurled over the dashboard, his neck broken upon crashing to the ground. The news article reporting his tragic death states that “he was elected alderman of the Eighth ward and served in that capacity for four years, being succeeded at the end of his term by the late John Falk.” No mention is made of the neighborhood meeting in 1893 or of the efforts to impeach him. Indeed, the article mentions that two years before his death, “he was again nominated on the democratic ticket and elected. He was active in all municipal campaigns and made campaign speeches in foreign languages throughout the county.”
The report a few days later of Mr. Lexius’s funeral was nothing but laudatory:
“The funeral of Alderman Henry E. Lexius yesterday afternoon was attended by several hundred friends of the deceased, and the line of carriages which followed the remains to their last resting place in Oak Grove cemetery was one of the longest seen in the city in years.
Short services were conducted at the home of the deceased on West avenue south by Rev. Andreas. Among those in attendance were nearly all of the aldermen, city officials and many business associates and old friends of the deceased. The floral tributes were numerous and included a beautiful bouquet from the common council….
Several hundred more people were gathered at the grave to do honor to the deceased alderman. Brief but impressive services were conducted by Rev. Andreas and then the remains were committed to their last resting place and the grave covered with flowers.”
Mr. Lexius and his wife Katharine had six children, five of whom were living at the time of Mr. Lexius’ death.
Probably the thing that fascinates me the most about these accounts is the way a heretofore inconsequential name printed in a city directory a century and a quarter ago emerged before my eyes into a living, breathing person. I found myself unexpectedly feeling an empathy toward this man I never knew.