The Precedent for Don Blankenship: James A. Haley of Florida

Today, there is a possibility convicted former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship will get the Republican nomination for the Senate in West Virginia. For those who don’t know about him, he served a year in prison for conspiracy to violate mine safety rules, which led to the deaths of 29 miners in an explosion in the Upper Branch Mine in 2010. If he wins, he would not be the first convict to have been held at least partly responsible for deaths to get a nomination nor would he be the first to be elected to federal office. The precedent is James A. Haley (1899-1981) of Florida.


Before Haley entered the world of politics, he was an accountant, and easily his most prominent client was the Ringling Brothers Circus. He grew close with the family, and in 1942 he married Aubrey Ringling, the widow of Richard T. Ringling, son of one of the original Ringling Bros. In 1943, he became the first vice president of Ringling Circus and director of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. The following year, he would preside over the worst fire in circus history, the Hartford circus fire.

The cause of the fire remains unknown, but the use of paraffin and gasoline wax as a waterproofing agent for the tent canvas inadvertently spread the fire, with falling pieces of the tent severely burning audience members. A total of 169 people were confirmed to have been killed in the fire, over half of them being children. Haley and other Ringling Bros. executives pled “no contest” to charges of involuntary manslaughter given the use of the wax. He served eight months in prison, being released in 1945 and pardoned by Florida Governor Millard F. Caldwell. However, many people in Haley’s home district in Florida did not hold him responsible, and believed that people needed someone to blame for the fire because they couldn’t find an arsonist. Not held responsible by the people of his state, Haley was elected to the House as a Democrat and served from 1953 to 1977. He voted as a conservative and was a forceful advocate for veterans. Today, he has a veterans hospital named in his honor in Tampa, Florida.

While I have pointed out the similarities, there are some differences between Haley and Blankenship. First, Haley was pardoned while Blankenship remains on probation. Second, Haley didn’t run in Connecticut where the fire occurred, he ran in his home state of Florida. Third, Haley didn’t try to shirk blame afterwards, he and his fellow executives had pleaded “no contest” while Blankenship continues to blame the government. And fourth, there is a difference in intention. Although the fire killed far more people, the use of the flammable paraffin wax was not legally prohibited for use. The explosion was a product of intentional violations of the law.


Cavanaugh, J. (1994). The Hartford Fire, 50 Years Later. The New York Times.

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The Life of James A. Haley of Florida. U.S. House of Representatives.

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Zines, J. Congressman James A. Haley: An Overview. Florida Southern College.

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