Sockless Jerry Simpson

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In Congress he spoke only on issues he knew about. When people tried to poke fun at him, he could be devastating. At one point, an opponent suggested to the Speaker of the House that Simpson’s ancestors were monkeys. “I should say to the gentleman,” Jerry responded, “Yes, your family ends where mine began.”

Always, he worked hard, earnestly, and well for the farmers who had put him in office. He rallied them against the Eastern bankers, against the men who owned the railroads: “This struggle is not between the People’s Party and the Republican Party, but between the People’s Party and the railroad corporations.” He urged his followers to take control of the railroads, and not to “let the technicalities of the law stand in the way. Call this revolution if you will.”

For a few years, people listened. But then, after its early triumphs, the People’s party declined in power and finally joined forces with the Democrats. In 1898, after an exhausting campaign that broke his health, Simpson was voted out of office. He went back to farming, but apparently had little taste left for it. Eventually he moved to New Mexico, where he worked as a real estate agent. He made friends there, and seemed to enjoy himself. But when, in 1905, he got seriously ill, he asked his wife to put him on a train; he wanted to die in Kansas.

He went to a Wichita hospital, and received old friends there with the same combination of rustic humor and political passion that he’d shown in Congress. He died on October 23.

Years earlier, Simpson had made a statement that explained his last journey, and something of the hold he had over his constituency. A reporter had interrupted his stream of goodnatured rural wisecracks to ask him why he’d come to Kansas. “The magic of a kernel,” said Sockless Jerry, “the witchcraft in a seed; the desire to put something into the ground and see it grow and reproduce its kind. That’s why I came to Kansas.”