February/March 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 2
In late November of 1890, a newspaperman named Louis Post, who had just come west from New York to see what was going on in Kansas, heard a terrible story. He had been eating in the Union Station restaurant in Kansas City when an agitated man came over and told him about “a political episode of unprecedented degradation.” It seemed a prairie buffoon had been elected to Congress.“Why,” the unhappy man exclaimed,“they’ve elected a man … who doesn’t wear socks.” As the fellow rattled on, Post said, “there rose up in my imagination … a picture of a ragged and barefooted tramp, steeped in ignorance as well as poverty, ‘beating’ his way to Washington to take a seat in Congress. Such a Congressman seemed impossible. But my informant assured me that what he said was true, and that the man’s name was Jerry Simpson.”
Startled, Post investigated and soon heard a somewhat different story. Simpson, he was told, was “a very adaptable man,” who would be “as much at home with a swallow-tail coat in a Washington drawing room as he was … without socks on a Kansas prairie.” By the time he reached Topeka, Post found that Simpson had “grown larger” and that “anyone who had picked him … for a fool would make a mistake.”
That last was true; when Simpson got to Washington, many men treated him as a fool, and all of them did it to their sorrow. For Simpson was a canny, witty, able man who helped spearhead a powerful revolt of Western farmers against the money men of the East.
In 1887 and ’88 droughts burned away the Kansas corn crop, and helpless farmers watched the banks snatch up their land. In 1889 the crop did well, but the corn brought little money, and the railroads charged piratical rates to carry it to market. That winter, farmers found it more economical to burn the corn for fuel than sell it.
The next spring, angry Kansans joined together in a political movement that seemed almost a crusade. One observer saw it as “a religious revival … a pentecost … in which a tongue of flame sat upon every man, and each spake as the spirit gave him utterance.” Out of hundreds of tumultuous town meetings was born the Kansas People’s party, a populist group ready to do battle with the Republicans who had held the state since the Civil War. The time had come, said a vigorous fellow campaigner, Mary Ellen Lease, to “raise less corn and more Hell.”
Jerry Simpson was a good man to raise some hell. He knew farmers, had been one himself, and now he, too, had gotten angry. Born in Canada in 1842, Simpson had signed on as a deckhand on a Great Lakes steamship before he reached his teens. He eventually rose to captain, but in the late 1870’s, with a wife and a small daughter to look after, he quit the Lakes and bought a farm in northern Kansas. He did well enough there, but after he saw his child crushed to death in a sawmill accident, he pulled up stakes and moved to the southern part of the state. He bought a herd of cattle and prospered for a couple of years. But then he lost all his stock in a blizzard, and by 1890 he was earning forty dollars a month as the Medicine Lodge city marshal, taking time off from his light duties to pick up a little extra money digging sewers.
He had run for the legislature in 1882 and 1884, and had done respectably, but there was little to indicate the extraordinary showing he would make when he went on the stump for the People’s party during the blazing summer of 1890. His platform was a simple one: “Man must have access to the land, or he is a slave.” He told the Republicans, “You can’t put this movement down by sneers or by ridicule, for its foundation was laid as far back as the foundation of the world. It is a struggle between the robbers and the robbed.”
The Republicans put up a Wichita railroad lawyer named J. R. Hallowell, who campaigned from a private railroad car. Simpson tore into him. “This prince of the royal blood … is gorgeously bedizened, his soft white hands are pretty things to look at, his feet are encased in fine silk hosiery....” Hallowell, enraged, replied that it was better to have silk socks than none at all. Although its implication had no basis in fact, the hasty retort gave Simpson a nickname as enduring as Stonewall Jackson’s—forever after, he would be Sockless Jerry. He realized the uses of that name, and played the rube while he campaigned. He spoke nearly two hundred times that summer, and almost everyone in Kansas saw him, a man of medium height with big, hard hands, a quick, knowing grin, and pale blue eyes that nobody could forget. “Do you remember his eyes,” a newsman asked years later, “the eyes where lightning played fast and incessant from a hot heart and an electric mind?” At the end of the campaign, after wellwishers had given him more than three hundred pairs of socks, he whipped Hallowell and carried his district with more than seven thousand votes.
When he got to Congress, he still liked to act the hick. He would stand in doorways whittling, and, when one man asked him what he thought about an important bill, he drawled, “I am going to look into that little matter, and if I find [it] correct, shall vote that it be paid.” But when someone hectored him about Kansans burning corn, Sockless Jerry dropped the vaudeville: “Yes,” he snapped, “they did burn corn, and by the light of that burning corn, they read the history of the Republican Party. That is why the People’s Party carried the state.”
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.”