George Holden Tinkham: Boston’s Unabashed Eccentric

https://historycms2.house.gov/uploadedImages/People/Listing/T/T000283.jpg

The 1914 midterms were good for the GOP in the House: they won back 62 seats as the economy was doing well and voters attributed this to conservative policies of the previous administration. One of the more surprising gains was in Boston, in which George Holden Tinkham (1870-1956) won a seat held by Democrats for ten years. Although the voters of his district were largely Irish Democrats, he became so popular that during most campaign seasons he could go on safaris and bag big game instead of campaign: from 1918 until his retirement his share of the vote never fell below 56%. During the Wilson Administration, he backed the preparedness movement and was eager to counter the Central Powers. Tinkham was so eager, in fact, that he fired the first American shot in World War I: when he was visiting the Italian front, the commander invited him to fire a 149-millimeter gun, issuing forth a 110-lb shell that exploded in Austrian lines. He stated afterwards, “I did not go there with that particular idea in mind, but I could not resist the temptation” (U.S. House of Representatives, 2014).

Tinkham was a conservative (MC-Index life score: 90%) who regarded himself as being true to the foundational principles of the United States and opposed three constitutional amendments his party supported: Prohibition, women’s suffrage, and child labor abolition. For the former, Tinkham was beloved by his constituents and day after day he would ridicule Wayne Wheeler and the Anti-Saloon League on the floor of the House. He regarded Prohibition as “unconstitutional, oppressive, and tyrannical” (U.S. House of Representatives, 2014). Tinkham also thought of himself as an individualist and non-conformist, and believed that others should be free to live so as well. According to Will Lang of Life, “Opposition is Tinkham’s favorite attitude. He is against internationalism, feminism, pacifism, and the New Deal. He abominates reform” (Lang, 71). In the 1920s, however, he stood, along with Hamilton Fish of New York, Leonidas C. Dyer of Missouri, and Fiorello LaGuardia of New York, as one of the few legislators who would frequently speak for civil rights. Tinkham declared Southern voting laws to be “the most colossal election fraud the world has ever known” and repeatedly pushed for investigations of Southern states for violations of the 14th and 15th Amendments (U.S. House of Representatives). In addition to voting for anti-lynching bills, he attempted to reduce representation from the South as a penalty for their disenfranchisement of black voters, per enforcement of the 14th Amendment. Leaders from both parties, eager to keep the peace, rejected this idea.

Aside from his political advocacy, Tinkham became known for his eccentricity, his bald head and bushy beard, his lifelong bachelorhood (to which he credited his accomplishments in life), and his massive collection of stuffed head trophies from his safaris in Kenya. His Congressional office was filled with these trophies, which he named after political opponents. Tinkham was admired by the Congressional pages, who wanted to run errands for him whenever possible so they could behold his office. He also collected works of fine art in his worldwide travels and had a special apartment for storing them as well as other trophies from his safaris. He would give tours to visitors with the only source of light being Tinkham’s flashlight, as he believed the pieces to be best observed individually. Tinkham’s appearance and mannerisms could be a bit off, however, according to Ezra Pound’s daughter Mary, “How his dirty fingernails and his smacking the waitress’s young fanny were compatible with being a great man and a friend of Babbo’s [Ezra Pound] I could not quite figure out” (Wilhelm, 112).

Although the district easily voted for FDR three times, they continued to elect Tinkham as well, despite his staunch opposition to the New Deal…the only New Deal law of significance he ever voted for was Social Security. In 1936, he won a greater majority than FDR! Tinkham also became a notable foe of FDR’s foreign policy and to the delight of his Irish constituents he would rail against the British on the floor of the House and voted against all of FDR’s bills to dismantle the Neutrality Acts. He also maintained a friendly correspondence with poet and literary critic Ezra Pound from 1933 to 1941, with both men sharing antipathy to the League of Nations and admiration for Benito Mussolini. Tinkham stated about him, “Mussolini certainly has had a great triumph and is a great man. Any man who can successfully defy England and the League of Nations is a man of strength and he has my admiration” (Wilhelm, 112). During World War II, Pound would go much further than admiration…he would later be imprisoned for propagandizing over the radio for Mussolini.

Unfortunately for Tinkham, in 1942 the Massachusetts GOP leadership tired of his non-interventionist politics and changed the composition of his district significantly, moving out Irish neighborhoods that voted for him and moving in suburban districts. At that point, he decided to retire, being succeeded by Christian Herter, a far more moderate internationalist Republican who would serve as Secretary of State under Eisenhower. In retirement, he moved to North Carolina to live with his sister, and died in her home in 1956.

References

Black Americans in Congress, 1870-2007. (2008). Office of History and Preservation, Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives.

George H. Tinkham: The Subtitles Write Themselves. (2014, March 24). U.S. House of Representatives.

Retrieved from

https://history.house.gov/Blog/2014/March/3-24-tinkham/

Lang, W. (1940, December 16). Tinkham The Mighty Hunter: Boston’s Congressman Bags Votes Like Tigers But Never Campaigns. Life.

Retrieved from

https://books.google.com/books?id=QEoEAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA69&lpg=PA69

Wilhelm, J.J. (2010). Ezra Pound: The tragic years, 1925-1972. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press.

For a photo of Tinkham with his trophies:

https://history.house.gov/Collection/Detail/15032416283

 

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