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The Election Case of William Lorimer of Illinois (1910; 1912)

Photo of Senator William Lorimer of Illinois

Electoral misconduct; bribery and corruption

Chronology #1
Request for investigation: May 28, 1910
Referred to committee: June 1, 1910
Committee report: Dec 21, 1910
Senate vote: Mar 1, 1911

Chronology #2
Referred to committee: June 4, 1911
Committee report: May 20, 1912
Senate vote: July 13, 1912

Result: Unseated

William Lorimer, a self-educated immigrant from England who arrived in the United States as a youngster, climbed from extreme poverty to affluence and prestige. He acquired wealth through his brick manufacturing and real estate businesses and power through his political organizing skills and machine connections in Illinois. The vibrant and forceful Lorimer, affectionately known as the "blond boss," was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives at thirty-three. He entertained his constituency with bands, circuses, and moving pictures, and they rewarded him by repeatedly reelecting him to the House, where he served from 1895-1901 and 1903-1909. In 1909, the Republican Lorimer sought a seat in the United States Senate and was elected after months of deadlock in the legislature with the help of many Democratic votes.

Statement of the Case
On June 18, 1909, William Lorimer presented his credentials and was seated in the Senate. Nearly a year later on May 28, 1910, Lorimer asked the Senate to investigate allegations by the Chicago Tribune that he had obtained his seat by bribery and corruption, charges that he vehemently denied. The Senate referred the matter to the Committee on Privileges and Elections on June 1, 1910, and on June 20 the Senate agreed with a committee request to conduct a full-scale investigation into Lorimer's campaign activities.

Response of the Senate--First Investigation
When the committee reported on December 21, 1910, a majority report exonerated Lorimer. In previous bribery cases, the report noted, the Senate had held that an election would only be invalidated if the senator involved had participated in or sanctioned an act of bribery or if bribery committed without his knowledge or sanction affected enough votes to change the outcome of the election. In this case, a subcommittee had held hearings in Chicago and received no testimony that implicated Lorimer himself in any acts of bribery, although four legislators claimed to have received bribes to vote for him. Several of these, however, had later changed their stories and denied receiving any bribes, and the three legislators accused of giving the bribes also denied any involvement. The committee therefore found no reason to believe that the Democrats who voted for Lorimer had been bribed to do so.

One committee member, Albert J. Beveridge (R-IN), despite his party affiliation with Lorimer, refused to sign the majority report and submitted his own minority report. In it he contended that the four legislators had repeatedly testified under oath that they had been bribed and that they were found to have "unusual sums of money in bills of large denominations" right after the bribes were said to have occurred. The fact that the three legislators accused of giving the bribes denied the charge he considered unconvincing, since they would naturally not want to admit to a crime. Thus, he considered that seven of the votes for Lorimer were tainted by bribery, enough to invalidate the election, since Lorimer had won by only six more than a majority of those voting. Beveridge also differed with the majority report regarding the precedents from previous cases, asserting that it was time to establish a new precedent that "if only one case of bribery be clearly established in the election of a Senator," even without the knowledge of that senator, "this invalidates the entire election." Such a policy, he declared, would send a clear message to legislators to clean up elections. "Our business," he continued, "is to guard the purity of election." Adding that he found it unlikely that Lorimer, who carefully oversaw all aspects of his campaign, was truly ignorant of the efforts at bribery, Beveridge concluded that Lorimer's election was invalid. In separate reports, three other committee members joined Beveridge in this conclusion. When news that Beveridge was preparing a dissent leaked to the press, a deluge of supporting mail descended on the Indiana senator, since progressives viewed his denunciation of Lorimer as a holy crusade.

The Senate debate began on January 18, 1911, and continued for six weeks. When Beveridge rose to deliver his oration against the majority report, packed galleries awaited him. At the completion of his attack, divided into two segments titled "The Issue" and "The Evidence," Beveridge had demolished Lorimer's case and denied his colleagues an easy dismissal vote. Despite the power of Beveridge's logic, the Senate on March 1, 1911, refused, by a vote of 40 yeas to 46 nays, to declare Lorimer's election void.

The committee's recommendation had unleashed a torrent of protest across the nation. During the long Senate investigation, public sentiment against Lorimer mounted as the Illinois press relentlessly chronicled the flagrant campaign abuses of his supporters. The American public, riding the crest of progressive reform, heightened its condemnation of William Lorimer when, at the investigation's midpoint, former President Theodore Roosevelt refused to be seated at a Chicago banquet table with the senator.

Second Investigation
Beveridge's Senate term ended on March 3, 1911, but the public uproar over Lorimer's campaign tactics lingered. On April 6, 1911, at the beginning of the Sixty-second Congress, Robert M. LaFollette (R-WI) urged the Senate to reopen the case on the basis of reports in the Chicago newspapers indicating that $100,000 had been spent on bribes to secure Lorimer's election. Six weeks later, the Illinois state senate buttressed La Follette's position with a report tying Lorimer and high-ranking Illinois executives to the campaign corruption. After considerable debate, the Senate on June 7, 1911, authorized a special committee of eight members of the Privileges and Elections Committee to conduct a second investigation into the 1909 Lorimer election.

Almost a year later, on May 20, 1912, the committee returned a majority and a minority report of its findings. After hearing 180 witnesses and amassing eight volumes of testimony, the majority stated that it had "failed to find any evidence that a fund" had been raised to be spent in connection with Lorimer's election, nor did they find evidence of "any corrupt practices" in that election. Once again, the majority argued that, despite the extensive testimony about illegal money transactions, no evidence directly linked Lorimer to the wheeling and dealing. The three minority members dismissed arguments from Lorimer's counsel that the matter had already been adjudicated by the 1911 Senate vote. They contended that the second investigation added substantive new information about the scope of Lorimer's involvement and established "conclusively that at least ten of the votes cast" for Lorimer were corruptly obtained. Led by Albert Beveridge's replacement, Indiana Democrat John Worth Kern, the minority therefore demanded that Lorimer's election be ruled invalid.

William Lorimer was the last senator to be deprived of office for corrupting a state legislature, since in May 1912 the Seventeenth Amendment providing for direct election of U.S. senators was finally passed by Congress and sent to the states for ratification. In May 1913 the amendment became part of the U.S. Constitution, and in November of that year the first senator was elected under its provisions, permanently ending the role of state legislatures in the election of U.S. senators.

The special investigating committee attempted to provide $35,000 for the ousted senator's expenses incurred from two investigations, but Congress adjourned without acting on the resolution, and the matter was not taken up at any future session.

William Lorimer, unrepentant and undaunted, returned to Chicago, where a loyal population greeted him with festive celebrations. Soon after, however, his financial affairs faltered. Although unsuccessful in his efforts to be elected to the Senate in 1916 and in 1918 to the House of Representatives, Lorimer continued to circulate among powerful business and political associates. He died in 1934 at the age of 74.


Source: Adapted from Anne M. Butler and Wendy Wolff. United States Senate Election, Expulsion, and Censure Cases, 1793-1990. S. Doc. 103-33. Washington, GPO, 1995.

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