In light of the seditious riot by a group of alt-right extremists and conspiracy theorists who participated in the “Stop the Steal” rally on Capitol Hill on January 6th in which they stormed the Capitol, my thoughts go to other times in which it has come under attack. I already wrote about the 1954 Capitol Hill shooting by Puerto Rican terrorists that injured five representatives. However, there’s another story, one that involved great courage.
On December 13, 1932, the nation was in turmoil with the Great Depression and one disturbed man demanded to be heard. This was Marlin Kemmerer, a 25-year old department store clerk from Allentown, Pennsylvania, who chose to do so by pulling a gun in the House visitors’ gallery. He shouted that he demanded to be allowed to address the House on the depression. Most members fled the chamber, but three decided to stick around.
Edith Rogers (R-Mass.) and Melvin Maas (R-Minn.) spoke with the gunman. Rogers, who had experience dealing with shell-shocked war veterans, calmly said in a reassuring voice, “You won’t do anything” (Waters). Maas told him that by the rules of the House members can’t speak unless they are not armed. Kemmerer shouted in response, “I demand the right to the floor for 20 minutes” and Maas said, “All right son. Throw down your gun first” (Waters). He initially hesitated but dropped his gun to Maas. Fiorello La Guardia (R-N.Y) rushed to apprehend him along with a D.C. Capitol police officer.
In response to the event, Rep. Thomas Blanton (D-Tex.) proposed that people who visit the gallery of the House should be properly vouched for and comes with a legitimate purpose and that “all this countenancing of cranks and crooks ought to stop. An anarchist has no business in a gallery of this Capitol of the people” (Petersen & Manning, 5). Ultimately no change occurred.
Kemmerer was incarcerated for a brief period but was released on January 13, 1933, on the request of the representatives. He ended up making good of his life: by his death on June 29, 2000, he had been married and had two children and seven grandchildren. Maas would receive a Carnegie Hero Fund silver medal for his courage and although he had lost reelection in 1932, he won again in 1934. Despite serving in the Democratic district of St. Paul he would continue to be reelected in three-way races as the Democrats and Farmer-Laborers would split the liberal vote. He would later serve in World War II from its start until fall 1942, and then again after his reelection loss in 1944 when the Democrats and Farmer-Laborers united behind a candidate. The flash from a bomb in his subsequent service would damage his optic nerve and over a four-week period in August 1951 he went completely blind. Already a champion for disabled veterans as a member of the Committee on Employment of the Handicapped, Maas continued his work and in 1954 President Eisenhower appointed him chairman. He carried out his duties energetically until his death on April 13, 1964, from complications of heart disease and diabetes at the age of 65.
A Gunman in the House Gallery in 1932. House of Representatives.
Nelson, P. (2015, May 4). Maas, Melvin (1898-1964). MNopedia.
Petersen, R.E. & Manning, J.E. (2017, August 17). Violence Against Members of Congress and Their Staff: Selected Examples and Congressional Responses. Congressional Research Service.
Waters, D. (2020, January 19). The Depression-era gunman who tried to hold the House of Representatives hostage: ‘I demand the right to the floor for 20 minutes.’ The Washington Post.