“all My Immense Labor For Nothing… ”


Within two years Kate died, after a brief illness- another severe blow. Three years later, then past sixtyfive, Donnelly regained a measure of happiness in marrying his twenty-one-year-old secretary, Marian Hanson. He founded another newspaper, served two relatively quiet years in the legislature, and wrote three more books. In 1896 the Populists stampeded with the Democrats for William Jennings Bryan, leaving only a splinter of anti-fusion Populists standing apart from the major parties, and in 1900 this group nominated Donnelly to run for the Vice Presidency of the United States. But by then his health was faltering, his brown wavy hair beginning to turn gray at last. He became briefly interested in spiritualism, and on one occasion believed he had communicated with his first wife.

On the morning of July 3, 1900, the Donnellys boarded a train for Decorah, Iowa, where he was to deliver the Independence Day oration. Marian noticed he was forgetful, unable to finish his sentences. She begged him to cancel the speech, but he would not hear of it. They spent a fitful night, awakened frequently by the noise of celebration. At ten o’clock the next morning he began the address. The words came haltingly—the ideas jumbled. The speech was a complete failure. He appeared less frequently after that, lost the election, and died January 1 the following year.

It is doubtful whether anyone today has the opportunity Donnelly enjoyed to display such amazing versatility. For all his variety, however, two themes are constant: he never attacked a small problem if a larger one was at hand; and he was happiest when attempting something his contemporaries were sure couldn’t be done.

He would be pleased, I think, if he could visit Nininger now. The fields—still farmland—raise seventy bushels of corn to the acre (corn replaced wheat as the main crop in the ig3o’s). But housing developers from Minneapolis and St. Paul come down more frequently to look with obvious interest at the magnificent river view. The price of land is rising once more and has already reached the level of those brief, hectic months of early 1857. This time it is not likely to collapse. The instinct and the energy and the audacity that went into Nininger had been right. Only the timing was wrong.