Wyoming schoolchildren are taught that Lester C. Hunt was the man who designed the bucking bronco on their license plates. They are taught that he was a governor, a senator and an all-around good and decent man. They are taught, on occasion, that he ended his own life with a gunshot to the head.
Sometimes, older students are taught that the senator’s son, Lester “Buddy” Hunt Jr., walked into a Washington, D.C., park almost a year before his father’s death and solicited an undercover male police officer for sex. Buddy was arrested and later convicted.
Rarely, if ever, are students taught how the senator’s political adversaries used the incident against him.
It is a curiosity, in some respects, that so little has been written about the death of the legendary Wyoming lawmaker. Hunt’s story is as remarkable as it is tragic, complicated as it is compelling. He is one of six sitting U.S. senators to take his life while in office.
In T.A. Larson’s “History of Wyoming,” the book used to teach generations of Wyoming schoolchildren the history of their state, there is one line about the senator’s suicide: “On June 19, 1954, Senator Lester C. Hunt, overwhelmed by political and personal problems, committed suicide.”
Perhaps no other sentence better describes the silence of the historical record.
A mock trial
On a Sunday afternoon earlier this month, some 400 people packed the pews of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Cheyenne, 59 years after Hunt’s suicide.
The old legal axiom holds that justice delayed is justice denied, and so may it have been in Hunt’s case. No charges were ever filed in relation to his suicide, no investigations conducted or hearings held. But these people, nonetheless, came to see if some good might be done in the name of the dead senator.
Three men said to have tormented Hunt in his final days sat on the stage. They were Sens. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, Styles Bridges of New Hampshire and Herman Welker of Idaho. Together they faced charges of blackmail, causing bodily injury and aggravated blackmail in relation to Hunt’s suicide.
The crowd was in a jovial mood. They laughed at former Gov. David Freudenthal, acting as prosecutor, when he jokingly badgered the witnesses on the stand. They booed when Robert “Yogi” Allen, playing Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, rose from his chair to feign disgust at the allegations levied against him. And they cheered loudly when the jury announced a guilty verdict.
The whole thing felt almost flippant. Almost.
“I’ve been involved in Wyoming politics and law all my life, and I hadn’t heard this story,” said Rodger McDaniel, author of a new book on Hunt’s death. “I was really shocked to learn that a senator from Wyoming had committed suicide.”
McDaniel is a 10-year veteran of the Wyoming Legislature and a former Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate. He later served as the director of Department of Family Service and the head of the Department of Health’s substance abuse programs in Freudenthal’s administration.
He organized the mock trial to coincide with the publication of his book, “Dying for Joe McCarthy’s Sins: The Suicide of Wyoming Senator Lester Hunt.”
He first learned about Hunt’s death nearly a decade ago when he was told about an article written for the “Annals of Wyoming.”
“As I started to look more deeply into it, I thought, you know, I need to write this story,” he said.
Why is Hunt’s story so poorly known?
“I think both his family and his supporters, as well as his political enemies, had reasons to cover it up,” McDaniel said. “They both worked to make sure the story did not get told.”
A senator’s suicide
On the morning of Lester Hunt’s death in 1954, the U.S. Senate was divided by a lone vote: 48 Democrats, 47 Republicans and one independent. (Alaska and Hawaii were not yet states.)
Hunt was a Democrat. Wyoming’s governor, C.J. Rogers, was a Republican and his office granted him the authority to appoint Hunt’s successor.
That dynamic may have played a large role in the withering attacks Hunt faced in the preceding weeks, and why, on the morning of June 19, he entered the Senate office building with a rifle, McDaniel wrote in his book.
The senator also carried a stack of papers that morning, his full hands forcing him to momentarily hand the rifle to a young Capitol police officer. He took the elevator to his office, forgoing the normal banter about baseball with the elevator operator. In his office, he placed two photos of his children on the front of his desk, sat down in his old leather chair and shot himself.
Hunt was a dentist. He had moved from Illinois to Lander in 1911 to play baseball and stayed. He rose from the Legislature — where his most notable action was sponsoring a eugenics bill — to secretary of state. As governor, he helped steer Wyoming through the Great Depression and World War II. Hunt was elected to the Senate in 1948.
By the early 1950s, McCarthy was at the height of his influence, seeking to expose suspected communists in all aspects of American life. But, as McDaniel shows, much of what McCarthy actually did was target homosexuals.
McCarthy contended gays were a national security risk, susceptible to spying on their country for the Soviets. Stalin, McCarthy said, had come by a list of gay spies willing to spy on America originally compiled by Hitler.
A federal employee could be fired for being gay. The police officer who arrested Hunt’s son was a part of a moral vice task force participating in a “Pervert Elimination Campaign,” targeting homosexuals.
The charges against Buddy Hunt were initially dropped — until Sens. Welker and Bridges learned of his arrest. (McDaniel tracked down Bridges’ notes on the arrest from his papers in New Hampshire.) They called Roy Blick, of the D.C. police’s moral vice squad, into Welker’s office to explain why the charges were dropped.
When Blick said Hunt was a seminary student facing a first charge, Welker asked if Blick had taken a bribe. The detective said he had not, but was later removed from the case. Buddy Hunt was recharged and convicted, paying a small fine for the transgression. Welker and Bridges then badgered Sen. Hunt to resign.
They promised to use Buddy’s conviction in the 1954 election should Hunt run, threatening to print 25,000 fliers to publicize the incident. McDaniel also details correspondence from the Eisenhower White House offering Hunt a job on the Federal Tariff Commission — a position with a $3,000 pay raise — on the condition he never run for Senate again.
McCarthy’s direct role is less certain. His personal papers are sealed until his last living daughter dies. But on the day before Hunt’s death, he announced he would open an investigation into a U.S. senator accused of bribing police. He did not name the senator, but it was widely speculated that he was referring to Hunt, McDaniel said.
Such events appear to have weighed heavy on the Wyoming senator. Drew Pearson, Hunt’s friend and a newspaper columnist, wrote after the senator died that Hunt told him, “If the opposition brings this up in the Senate race, I shall withdraw.”
A death untold
To say there is a void in the historical record surrounding Hunt’s death would be a stretch, but not by much.
Buddy Hunt’s trial was widely publicized by newspapers in the state, said Richard Ewig, who wrote his graduate thesis about Hunt’s suicide in 1983. The thesis attracted a smattering of newspaper articles and, every year since, Ewig fields one or two calls from researchers inquiring about Hunt. Ewig is now the associate director of the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming.
“It comes up periodically,” Ewig said. “It never was a really well-known story.”
T.A. Larson, the author of “The History of Wyoming,” was a UW history professor. Many called him the dean of Wyoming history. Larson knew the story of Hunt’s suicide, and he even wrote it up. Larson sent a manuscript to Hunt’s wife, Nathelle, asking if he could print it. She threatened to sue him if he did. Larson never published it.
Larson declined to share what he knew when Ewig was doing his research years later. The former history professor has since died. It was McDaniel who uncovered Larson’s research after accessing his personal files at UW.
No one may ever know what drove Hunt to kill himself, said UW History Professor Phil Roberts. He agreed with Ewig’s analysis that what happened to Hunt was likely known by some people in the years immediately after his suicide, but forgotten over time.
“It usually takes a book like Rodger’s to remind people of some of those things, because invariably in a couple generations, they will be forgotten again,” Roberts said.