Dakota Datebook

Brawling Bill-Makers

Monday, March 4, 2013


Fist-fights and hilarity reigned at the State Capitol on this date in 1921. While Non-Partisan Leaguers attempted a political coup, their rivals, led by two Irish attorneys, fought back long into the night. The entire comedic drama ended well past midnight in the chambers of State Supreme Court Justice Luther Birdzell.

The entire charade began as a minor political maneuver on the part of Attorney General William Lemke. Lemke, a staunch League member, hoped to discredit political rivals serving in the House of Representatives. The League-controlled Senate, led by Lemke, brought up charges against the House and proposed an investigation into expenses, issuing subpoenas for attorneys Francis Murphy and John Sullivan, two local Irishmen who served as counsel for the House Audit Committee.

Murphy and Sullivan were to appear before the Senate at 7 p.m., but the two men believed the actions of the Senate to be unconstitutional and ignored the requests. At 9 p.m., Lemke ordered their arrest, and they were quickly found in a Bismarck theater. When arraigned before the Senate, however, both men refused to testify. A shouting match ensued, with League members calling for the belligerent attorneys’ imprisonment, and others calling for their release. Several motions were made and ignored, and although the warrant against Murphy was dismissed, a second warrant was issued for the re-arrest of Sullivan, who refused questioning once again. A fist-fight erupted between former State Auditor Carl Kezitzky and a Leaguer at the doors of the Senate chamber. Despite Kezitzky’s victory, League members won a vote to jail Sullivan.

While he was being escorted from the chamber, a second fight broke out in the corridors of the building between Seaman Smith, former County Sheriff of Golden Valley, and a local steamfitter. A third fight was also recorded in the Supreme Court Law Library between the former State Auditor and the son of the State Bank Examiner.

Finally, shortly after midnight, the matter was brought before Supreme Court Justice Birdzell. Birdzell ruled in favor of Sullivan and the House of Representatives and ordered Sullivan’s immediate release from jail. He ruled that the Senate had no basis to investigate the House and condemned the “…brawls, fist-fights, and scenes of wildest disorder” that reigned in the Capitol that evening.


Dakota Datebook written by Jayme L. Job



Dill, Joseph (ed.). 1988 North Dakota: 100 Years: p. 29. The Forum Publishing Company: Fargo, ND.

The Forum and Daily Republican. Saturday (Evening ed.), March 5, 1921; XLIII(91): p. 1.


This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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