Sockless Jerry Simpson
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Remembering "Sockless" Jerry Simpson
"Sockless" Jerry Simpson was one of the interesting characters in the early history of Barber County. Tom McNeal tells about Jerry and his politics.
"Among the unique and remarkable characters brought to public notice and notoriety by the political upheaval of thirty years ago, no one attained to greater fame or secured wider celebrity than ‘Sockless’ Jerry Simpson, of ‘Maidson Lodge.’ as the facetious newspaper reports dubbed him. Jerry was born in the province of New Brunswick in 1842, of Scotch ancestry. His father migrated to the United States when Jerry was a very little boy and settled in the state of Michigan. Although of an alert mind and possessed of a real hunger for knowledge, Jerry’s educational opportunities were exceedingly limited. He was illiterate so far as the branches taught in the schools were concerned, but a voracious reader and, endowed with a remarkable memory, he managed to store his mind with more than an ordinary equipment of really good literature, so that he was entitled to be called a well-read man. At the outbreak of the Civil War he enlisted, but served only a few months until discharged for disability. After the close of the war he became a sailor on the great lakes, and gradually rose to the position of captain on a lake freighter, a position which requires a large degree of resourcefulness and courage. During a fearful storm his ship was driven ashore near Ludington and it was largely owing to the masterful courage and coolness of Jerry Simpson that the lives of all the crew were saved.
"During the seventies he decided to come to Kansas and settled in Jackson County, where he engaged in farming and stock raising with some success, but concluded that there were better opportunities in the free-range country and came to Barber County along in ’83 or ’84. It was an unfortunate time to get into the cattle business. He had hardly got fairly started when the terrible winter of ’85-’86 came on and nearly wiped his herd off the face of the earth. His cows died faster than he could skin them and spring found him nearly broke. He had come to the county with some $10,000.
"In 1886 the Union Labor party was organized and the old-time Greenbackers, of whom Jerry was one, promptly joined it. Jerry had already demonstrated some ability as speaker in country lyceums and the like, and his party in Barber County selected him as its candidate for the Legislature. I happened to have the honor of running against him and while I defeated him it was not a victory to blow about.
"Two years later he was again a candidate and as that happened to be the year when Kansas rolled up a Republican party majority of 82,000, Jerry was buried under the general landslide. There were those who predicted that he would never come back again, but they had no vision of the future.
Eighteen eighty-nine was the greatest corn year of all Kansas history, but the price went down until corn sold at ten cents per bushel or less and was burned for fuel all over Kansas. A few years before the people of the state had plunged into debt with recklessness seldom if ever equaled and now pay day had come and ten-cent corn and forty-cent wheat to pay with. It is not very remarkable that the people saw red, and talked of the altar of Matmuon, the great red dragon, and the ‘crime of ’73.’ The words of the agitator fell on fertile ground. The Farmers’ Alliance spread like a fire on the dry prairie driven by the high wind. Too late the Republican leaders became alarmed and decided that the way to retain power was to get up a platform about as radical as anything suggested by the Alliance and then release the candidate from all party allegiance and authorize him to pay no attention to the party caucus. The concessions only caused derision and jeers on the part of the Alliance men and it was in this frame of mind that Alliance delegates met in the spring of 1890 to nominate a candidate for Congress."
"Jerry Simpson went to the (Farmers’ Alliance) convention as a delegate, but his name had not been mentioned as a probable candidate. S. M. Scott of McPherson, the author of a pamphlet on the sub-treasury, was the man to be nominated, but Scott could not get it into his mind that it was possible to overcome the majority of 14,000 rolled up by the Republicans only two years before and pushed the proffered honor aside. Jerry Simpson had been called on to make a speech and caught the crowd. With Scott out of it, the delegates turned to the ex-sailor and nominated him. They builded better than they knew. Under the conditions then prevailing Jerry Simpson was an ideal candidate. He wasa good talker, possessed of a ready wit, and with an instinctive and correct appraisement of the value of publicity. A correspondent of the Wichita Eagle accused him of wearing no socks. Jerry did not attempt to deny the charge and charged in turn that his opponent, Colonel J. R. Hallowell, wore silk’hose. He wove this skillfully into his speeches and roused unbounded enthusiasm by the turn. He confessed his poverty and his audience, carried away with the zeal of crusaders, threw the few dollars they had in their pockets on to the platform to help pay the campaign expenses of their Candidate.
"Jerry was a good storyteller. His stories were not new, but an old story well told is often as effective as a brand new one. He covered the Republican platform, adopted
in Dodge City, with ridicule and amid howls of delight told the following story: A Jew and an Irishman were crossing a stream in a boat when it occurred to the Irishman that he could convert the Jew. He demanded that the descendant of Abraham renounce his faith and acknowledge the divinity of Christ and the Virgin Mary. The Jew refused, whereupon the Irishman threw him out into the water. He came up choking and sputtering and tried to climb back into the boat, but the Irishman refused to let him in unless he would confess and give up his ‘dombed hathenism.’ The Jew still refusing, the Irishman shoved him under again and held him there until he was almost drowned. At last he let him come to the surface gasping and almost speechless. When he was able to talk, seeing no evidence of mercy on the part of the Hibernian he said that he would renounce and confess. ‘Oim glad to hear that,’ said the IriShman, ‘but 0im av the opinion that if iver yez git to land ye dombed sheeney, yez will take it back so 0im goin’ to drown yez now and save yure immortal soul.’ The application was that the Republican party should be killed while it was in a repentant frame of mind.
"The result of the election was a surprise even to the most sanguine of Jerry’s supporters. A Republican majority of 14,000 was succeeded by a Populist majority of more than 8,000 and Jerry Simpson suddenly found himself one of the most talked of men in the United States. To his credit let it be said that he did not lose his head. In Congress he rapidly acquired polish and was recognized as the leader of his party. His political views broadened; his crudities of speech were mostly abandoned. He held his own in the rough and tumble debates in the lower house and gained favor with the then speaker of the house, Tom Reed, of Maine. In 1892 he was re-elected, but the Populist party had already passed the crest and was on the decline. His majority of more than 8,000 was reduced to less than 2,000 and two years later was wiped out entirely, when Chester I. Long (of Medicine Lodge) defeated him by a comfortable majority.
"In his lake experience Jerry Simpson had learned to be a very fair rough and tumble fighter, although never inclined to quarrel. A burly blacksmith by the name of Corson became offended at a remark made by Jerry and announced that he intended to whip him and give him a plenty while he was at it. He attacked Jerry without warning, but got the surprise of his life. In less than a minute it was Corson who was whipped, while Jerry had not suffered so much as a scratch.
Afterward, Corson became one of Jerry’s greatest admirers and staunchest political supporters.