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"sockless country bumpkin" who became a respected U.S. Congressman
Jeremiah Simpson was born on Prince Edward Island, Canada, on March 31, 1842, and grew up after age six in Oneida County, New York. Although formal educational opportunities were limited for him, Simpson was a voracious reader and absorbed all the literature he could get his hands on. He became a deckhand on a Great Lakes freighter in his late teens, and eventually rose to captain. He enlisted in the Illinois Volunteer Infantry upon outbreak of the Civil War, but only served a few months before being discharged for medical reasons and returned to his "sea career."
In 1879, with a wife and little daughter support, Simpson decided to give up the "sea" and bought a farm in Jackson County, Kansas. He prospered as a farmer, but decided in 1883/1884 to move to Barber County, Kansas, and raise cattle. He prospered as a cattleman for a while, but a blizzard wiped out most of his stock in 1889/1890, leaving him almost destitute. By 1890 he was earning $40 a month as City Marshal of Medicine Lodge. He supplemented this income by digging sewers in his spare time.
Simpson began his political career in 1886, when he was a Union Labor Party candidate for the Kansas State Legislature. He lost that election, as well as the election of 1888, to Republicans.
Originally a party favored by farmers, the Republicans began to lose support in Kansas after a series of droughts devastated Kansas corn crops in 1887 and 1888, and the majority party failed to offer assistance to hard-hit farmers. Those same farmers saw a greatly improved corn crop in 1889, but the railroads were charging such high freight rates and the Eastern markets were paying such a small price that most farmers found it more economical to burn their corn for fuel than to sell and ship it. In 1890 a group of angry Kansas farmers formed the Kansas People's Party (part of the Populist Party) to oppose the Republican majority, and Simpson was nominated as the party's candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives.
Although he had all the appearances of a true country bumpkin with little chance of defeating a major party candidate, Simpson proved to be an excellent campaigner. His chief opponent was James R. Hallowell, a railroad lawyer from Wichita who campaigned from a private railroad car. During a campaign speech Simpson derided Hallowell for his shows of wealth and accused him of wearing silk hosiery. In response, Hallowell remarked that it was better to have silk socks than to have no socks at all. It was from this exchange that Simpson got the nickname "Sockless Jerry," a term he used to his great advantage. Although the Republicans put up a good fight that year, Simpson won his seat in Congress with more than 7,000 votes; he subsequently served from 1891 to 1895, and again from 1897 to 1899.
Simpson had won his Congressional seat by playing the "country bumpkin" routine to the hilt, but once in Congress his intelligence and wit came through. He spoke only on issues he knew about, and supported farmers against Eastern bankers and railroad owners. The Populist Party had run its course and joined with the Democratic Party by the end of the 1890's, however, and Simpson was voted out of office in 1898.
Simpson returned to farming after leaving Congress, but soon gave up that profession and moved to New Mexico and became a real estate agent. In 1905 he got seriously ill and asked his wife to put him on a train so he could die in Kansas. He got his wish, and died in a Wichita hospital on October 23, 1905.
Library >> American History >> United States: General History and Description >> Late 19th Century, 1865-1900 >> Biography, A-Z
This page was last updated on April 11, 2017.