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A Deadly Drink

May 29, 1908

Photo of Senator Robert La Follette of Wisconsin

Consider this setting for a dastardly deed! The time is midnight. The place is the floor of the Senate. The Chamber's interior temperature has reached 90 degrees. The Senate is ready to wrap up its business in order to adjourn from June until December. Last-minute legislation awaits final passage. But, for the past 12 hours, the physically fit freshman senator from Wisconsin, Robert M. La Follette, has been conducting a filibuster hoping to block adoption of a conference report. Two years earlier, Senator La Follette had delivered a maiden speech that lasted three days and filled 148 pages of the Congressional Record.

On May 29, 1908, La Follette was at it again. Several dozen irritated members stood by to answer quorum calls. Nothing would have pleased La Follette more, in the classic tradition of filibusterers, than to catch the Senate without a quorum. This would have allowed him to hold the floor—under the practices of that era—during extended quorum calls, conserving his energy as the clock ticked toward adjournment.

La Follette's successful requests for quorum calls—29 in all—prompted the Senate to affirm that a further quorum call would not be in order until some "business" had taken place. Mere "debate" would no longer be considered the kind of business necessary to trigger another quorum call. This left La Follette with but one option—keep talking.

To maintain the strength necessary to continue until morning, the senator sent a page to the Senate restaurant for a turkey sandwich and a glass of milk fortified with eggs. Kitchen workers, none too happy to be held into the early morning hours, may have taken a little extra time in filling the senator's order. Perhaps they let the eggnog sit unrefrigerated.

Shortly before 1 a.m. on May 30, La Follette took his first sip. The eggnog did not taste right. He took a larger sip and promptly thrust it aside. Soon, he experienced digestive difficulties. A subsequent analysis revealed that the mixture contained enough toxic bacteria to kill anyone consuming the entire glass. Tired, drenched in perspiration, and feeling increasingly ill, the iron-willed La Follette continued speaking until after 7 a.m., when a colleague arrived to relieve him. Although his filibuster subsequently failed, La Follette set a single-speech record of 18 hours and 23 minutes. His record would stand for nearly half a century. Who had a motive to poison the senator? Perhaps the kitchen staff—or, at least half the Senate. Most likely, however, the culprit was the searing heat that, until the 1950s, usually guaranteed senators the summer away from Washington. History has been good to Robert La Follette. Recently, former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky characterized him as "among the most admired and forceful United States senators ever to hold office