As I’d written last week, Mary and I went to Baton Rouge last weekend to see a performance by Louisiana Cajun French musician and historian Zachary Richard. The show, essentially a history of the Cajuns in music, was terrific.
While there, we revisited the Old State Capitol Museum, that wonderful old structure that resembles a medieval castle. Mark Twain disparaged its architecture, but it’s a fascinating structure, even more dazzling inside than outside.
Originally erected in the 1840s, burned in the Civil War, it again served as the capitol from the 1880s to the early 1930s when Huey P. Long had the “new” capitol built. After having suffered some years of neglect in the mid 20th century, it’s now a museum of politics and whenever you are in Baton Rouge I highly recommend a visit.
Our own recent visit refreshed my memories of the history of our governors and reminded me of one of the more bizarre episodes of Louisiana history — and we have had plenty of those.
If you can believe it, between the years 1932 and 1936, we actually had five different governors. This phenomenon was caused by political manipulation by Huey Long and a death in office. Here’s how the strange scenario played out.
Huey, elected governor in 1928, was elected to the US Senate in 1930, but he chose not to take his seat in Washington right away because he and Lt. Gov. Paul St. Cyr were political enemies and he did not want St. Cyr to step into the governor’s chair.
St. Cyr claimed, however, that when elected to the Senate, Long had given up the governorship and proclaimed himself as the new governor. Long put armed guards around the capitol and governor’s mansion to prevent the “coup.”
The stalemate continued for some time before Huey turned the tables on St. Cyr. Saying St. Cyr had left the lieutenant governor’s position vacant, Long had Alvin O. King of Lake Charles, the president pro tem of the Louisiana Senate, sworn in as lieutenant governor on Oct. 14, 1931.
Huey finally resigned the governorship on Jan. 25, 1932, and King was sworn in as governor to fill the rest of Long’s term, which expired later that year. So far, now we have two governors in 1932 (if you don’t count St. Cyr, which nobody did anyway.)
Huey then managed to have his handpicked candidate, O.K. Allen, elected governor in the regular 1932 gubernatorial contest. Allen, who like Long was from Winnfield, was sworn in on May 16, 1932. That’s now three governors since the beginning of that year.
By the way, Allen was such a puppet of Huey Long’s that younger brother Earl Long made one of the funniest quips about Allen in the history of Louisiana politics. Known for unthinkingly doing whatever Huey told him, Allen, said Earl, once signed a leaf that had been blown onto his desk from an open window.
Well, Gov. Allen did not make it through to the end of his term. The man who had put up with so much humiliation because he thought Huey was one of the greatest men who had ever lived, died of a hemorrhage on Jan. 28, 1936, four months before he was due to exit the office.
The death meant that Lt. Gov. James A. Noe of Monroe became governor and served out the rest of Allen’s term. Strangely enough, he was in that position only because of another of the many political moves going on at that time. Lt. Gov. John Fournet took a seat on the state Supreme Court in 1935 and, as president pro tem of the state Senate, Noe because acting lieutenant governor.
Okay. Now we’ve had four governors since 1932, with one more to come before the end of 1936. That would be Richard W. Leche of New Orleans, who was nominated by what was left of the Long gang following Huey’s assassination in September 1935. Leche was, of course, elected by the people and took office in May 1936.
And that’s how we had an average of more than one governor a year from 1932 to 1936. By the way, with Huey gone, his old gang couldn’t handle the political empire that the King Fish had built up and Leche ended up resigning from office in 1939, being convicted by the feds for mail fraud and ended up serving six years until President Truman pardoned him in 1945.
The evidence rather tended to point to his guilt. On a yearly salary of $7,500, he accumulated a fortune of $450,000 in his three years as governor.
So, Dick Leche goes off to federal prison and guess who, as lieutenant governor, took over the now vacant governor’s seat? None other than Earl Long, the King Fish’s little brother, who had somewhat of an interesting future ahead of him, too.
Ain’t Louisiana politics grand?