News & Politics

Bloody Brawls in Congress: Three Times Things Actually Got Violent

Joanne Freeman's new book uncovers the Capitol's most intense conflicts.

Photograph via iStock.

Yale professor Joanne Freeman’s new book, The Field of Blood, looks at violence inside the Capitol before the Civil War. Things got intense.

Biggest battle

During a late-night House session in 1858, Pennsylvania Republican Galusha Grow objected to an out-of-order motion. South Carolina Democrat Lawrence Keitt decided to challenge that by getting in Grow’s face. Grow slugged him, and soon about 30 men were “punching each other, tossing spittoons, [and] caning each other,” says Freeman.

Funniest fight

In 1849, William Duer, a Whig from New York, accused Virginia Democrat Richard Kidder Meade of being a “disunionist” and a liar. Meade jumped at Duer, and a set-to ensued. The sergeant at arms tried to calm things down by grabbing the ceremonial House mace. It didn’t work, “but I love the fact that they tried,” the author says. One reporter at the time wrote that “the House was like a heaving billow.” Sounds bad.

Scariest shot

After Kentucky Whig John White and New York Democrat George Rathbun got into a fistfight in 1844, a visitor—overtaken by the spirit of things—fired a gun. “Congressmen were very afraid that people from the gallery would rush onto the floor and begin fighting if a debate got too fierce,” Freeman says. The bullet went through the House door and hit an unlucky guard in the leg. The government compensated him $150.

This article appears in the September 2018 issue of Washingtonian.

Rosa is a senior editor at Bitch Magazine. She’s written for Washingtonian and Smithsonian magazine.