In 1954, one of Wyoming's U.S. senators committed suicide rather than face re-election.
On June 19, 1954, Democratic Sen. Lester Hunt drove from his Washington, D.C., apartment to the Capitol. He hid a .22-caliber rifle under his coat as he walked to his office, and once there he shot himself in the head and died a few hours later.
"There are some similarities between 1954 and 2004. Then, as now, the U.S. Senate was evenly divided and every seat hotly contested, which led to the use of win-at-all-cost tactics," said Rick Ewig, author of "McCarthy Era Politics: The Ordeal of Senator Lester Hunt" and associate director of the University of Wyoming's American Heritage Center, where Hunt's papers are archived.
Today, there are 51 Republicans, 48 Democrats and 1 independent in the Senate; in 1954, there were 48 Republicans, 47 Democrats and 1 independent.
"Hunt fell victim to that atmosphere of intimidation and threats," Ewig said. If Hunt resigned, Wyoming's Republican Gov. C.J. Rogers could appoint a Republican senator to finish Hunt's term, giving the Republicans an immediate advantage.
Republicans threatened to publicize the arrest and conviction of Hunt's son for soliciting homosexual prostitution.
Lester Callaway Hunt was born on July 8, 1892, in Isabel, Ill. To put himself through dental school at St. Louis University, he worked as a switchman on the railroad. From 1911, Hunt spent summers in Lander, where he pitched for a semi-pro baseball team. After graduating in 1917, he opened his dentistry practice there.
He continued dentistry until 1933, when he was elected by Fremont County as a Democrat to the state Legislature. Hunt was secretary of state from 1935 to 1943 and governor from 1943 to 1949. He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1948.
Hunt's accomplishments as governor and senator included an Army-Navy pay raise and a million dollars for disaster relief. The Wyoming Education Association commended him on his pro-education policies. There were other successes.
"I had no idea that you'd follow-up on my letter to you about my husband - or do it so quickly," Mrs. Milford Williams wrote to Hunt in 1951. "I cannot express my gratitude for your interest in a manner that would seem to trivial to you."
Hunt worked to get her husband quickly discharged from the Army at Fort Hood, Texas.
Among Hunt's papers are lots of personal letters thanking him for help. While a senator, he explained to one man how to get a hardship discharge, and for another he helped get a tax extension. He helped people get jobs and receive rural mail delivery. He helped the city of Casper transfer the Casper Air Base property to Natrona County.
These examples seemed the most important to Hunt. They are on the top of his informal typed list of accomplishments.
Hunt opposed Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin during famous congressional hearings.
On Feb. 9, 1950, in Wheeling, W.Va., McCarthy claimed that there were 205 known communists in the State Department. Later on the Senate floor, he reduced this number to 57. That led to the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings and McCarthy's continued attacks.
In 1951, Hunt noted that "there have been many suicides due to the smearing received either in Committee hearings or from remarks made in the United States Congress." He introduced a bill providing for lawsuits against the United States for those who were defamed by members of Congress. The bill did not receive enough support.
Hunt also personally disliked McCarthy. "He is an opportunist, and liar, and drunk," Hunt's son reported him saying. When the grounding of plane stranded both Hunt and McCarthy in Pittsburgh, they were forced to share a hotel room. Hunt Jr. said, "You would have thought he had just been with a murderer or a Nazi."
In an effort to retain power, Republicans threatened Hunt that if he did not resign they would expose the arrest and conviction of his son, Lester Hunt Jr., on morals charges the previous July.
Hunt Jr., president of the Episcopal Theological School of Cambridge student body, was arrested for soliciting prostitution from a male plain-clothes police officer in Lafayette Park, near the White House. Because the charge was a misdemeanor and his first offense, Hunt Jr. was fined $100.
Three weeks after Hunt Jr.'s arrest, Republican Sens. Herman Welker and Styles Bridges and the right-wing newspaper Washington Times-Herald printed the story, but in Wyoming only the major state newspapers ran it - and then only as a short paragraph.
At first, Hunt resisted pressure to resign, and Wyoming voters supported his decision. A poll taken on April 5, 1954, gave Hunt 54.5 percent of the vote, with the nearest opponent at 19.3 percent.
As the 1954 election neared, Hunt's column, "This Week in the Senate," became more gloomy. He opened a June 1954 column in the Wyoming Stockman-Farmer with the words, "The 2nd session of the 83rd Congress convened in an atmosphere of foreboding. In some respects its temper seemed to present a challenge, and in others a feeling of more difficult things to come."
Republicans then threatened to take their campaign to every mailbox in Wyoming.
Finally, on June 8, 1954, one day before McCarthy's humiliation on the Senate floor, Hunt resigned, pleading ill health.
During June 9-11, at least 90 people wrote letters asking Hunt to reconsider or wishing him well, among them historian T.A. Larson, and Roy Peck, a Riverton newspaperman.
"I believe that you have served Wyoming most conscientiously and effectively," Larson wrote. "You deserve a hearty 'Well done' from all of our citizens."
On June 10, Hunt sent a letter to the University of Wyoming Library arranging to archive his papers there. On June 19, 11 days after he resigned, Hunt committed suicide.
Hunt left several letters on his desk, but none explain his reasons. According to his wife, Emily, his letter to her was "an ordinary sort of note." To his son, he wrote that it had nothing to do with him. He also wrote a letter to Sinclair Oil President Percy Spencer asking him to help Hunt Jr. find a job.
Although the reasons for Hunt's suicide are uncertain, clearly he was under immense personal and political pressure.
In the following election, Democrats took the Senate with 48 seats to the Republicans' 47.
Many of the issues surrounding the 1954 election parallel the current election
* Soviet atomic bomb test spreads fear of attack
* Investigation of previous election (Maryland)
* The Red Scare
* Aftermath of Korean War
* German prisoner abuse scandal
* Republican president (1954 was a non-presidential election)
* Senate: 48 Republicans, 47 Democrats, one independent
* House: 221 Republicans, 213 Democrats, one independent
* 9/11 spreads fear of further attack
* Investigation of previous election (Florida)
* The war on terror
* Aftermath of Iraq war
* Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal
* Republican incumbent president
* Senate: 51 Republicans, 48 Democrats, one independent
* House: 227 Republicans, 205 Democrats, one independent, two vacancies