Sensational political scandals are popular fodder for the media in Washington, D.C. and Florida these days, especially ones involving illicit romances or bizarre behavior. Such scandals may seem to be the product of our modern morals and culture; however, one of the most bizarre of political scandals occurred during the prim and proper Victorian Era of the 1880’s, and involved a very popular and prominent U.S. Senator from Pensacola, Florida.
Following ten years of distinguished service in the United States Senate, Senator Charles W. Jones of Pensacola was in a strong position to serve Florida and the Nation when the Forty-ninth Congress convened on December 7, 1885. As an Irish immigrant, he had used his connections and prominent standing with the Irish-American community to aid Grover Cleveland’s successful 1884 presidential campaign. A well-publicized trip to Ireland in the summer of 1883 and numerous addresses to large audiences of Irish-Americans had channeled large numbers of Irish-American votes into the Democratic Party. As a result, Jones was regarded as a rising star in the party.
Charles William Jones (1834-1897) was born at Balbriggan, Ireland on December 24, 1834. His father was an army surgeon who died when Jones was a child. Jones immigrated to the United States in 1844 with his mother, and settled in New York City. After attending schools in New York and St. Louis, he moved to Louisiana in 1848, then to Mississippi, and settled in Santa Rosa County, Florida in 1854. He worked as a carpenter and studied law at night. Jones was admitted to the Florida Bar in 1857, opened a law practice in Pensacola, and was appointed Tax Assessor for Santa Rosa and Escambia County. He married Mary Ada Quigley in 1861, and they had four children before her death in 1880. He was an unsuccessful Democratic candidate for election to the Forty-third US Congress in 1872, but was elected to the Florida House of Representatives in 1874. He was elected to the United States Senate in 1875, was reelected in 1881, and served in the United States Senate from March 4, 1875 to March 3, 1887.
The Senator Charles W. Jones House
located at 302 N. Barcelona St. in Pensacola, Florida
was built around 1869.
The inauguration of President Grover Cleveland, whose election Jones had greatly assisted, vaulted Jones into a powerful position in Florida and Washington, D.C.. Senator Jones was popular in Florida for having obtained appropriations for the Pensacola Naval Base, additional postal routes and many public buildings. Furthermore, as the first Democrat elected to the United States Senate after the Civil War, he was symbolic of the end of Republican “carpetbagger” rule in Florida. In the Senate, he served as Chairman of the Committee on Public Buildings and Grounds, and as a member of the committees on Naval Affairs and Territories. He was also Chairman of the Revolutionary Claims Committee.
Jones’s impressive political record, and his stated plans for the future, promised a continuation of his exemplary Senate service. There was no hint of behavioral or personality problems with Senator Jones before 1885. Following the adjournment of the Congress in the spring of 1885, after a hectic and tiring session, he decided that he would take a rest in Canada and Detroit. In September 1885, the Detroit Free Press reported an interview with him. When his vacation in Detroit extended on into the autumn, it attracted neither much attention nor comment. When Congress reconvened on December 7, his Senate colleague Wilkinson Call explained that Senator Jones was absent because of illness.
The Florida Times-Union correspondent in Washington reported in January that Jones was “still mysteriously absent.” By that time, gossip about his sanity had begun to circulate in both Washington and in Florida. The Baltimore Sun reported that speculation in Washington was that Senator Jones was pursuing the hand of a wealthy spinster reputedly worth $2,000,000, and that he would not be leaving until she “yields.” According to the Jacksonville paper, his amorous adventures were nothing new: two summers before he had followed a Boston beauty around the various watering spots until he had been threatened with force to restrain his advances. “He is now off with the old love and on with the new, but with no better success, as it appears.”
When a Detroit Evening News journalist inquired why he had not returned to Washington, “the Senator made an eloquent and convincing talk on the silver question, but as to his reasons for preferring Detroit to Washington, he would not say.” The reporter noted, “It is to be regretted that the Senator from Florida, who is so well-equipped for the intelligent discussion of this great question, does not see fit to deliver these lucid observations from his place in the Senate of the United States instead of from the privacy of his room in the Russell House in Detroit.”
Several of his Republican Senate colleagues, who were in Detroit in late February 1886 on political business, called on Senator Jones to urge him to join them on their return to Washington. He refused, wondering why after ten year’s devotion to his senatorial duties, he “should not now spend in relaxation and recreation without criticism.” He named other senators who had remained away from their offices without incurring criticism. North Carolina’s Senator Zebulon Vance also visited Jones, suggesting his return, but with no results. Jones “waived the subject,” saying that he “didn’t see why he should not have the privilege of a little rest if he choose to take it.” The Florida Times-Union found this excuse “too thin,” and demanded that he “either resign or go to a hospital for repairs.” Rumors were circulating that Jones had become mentally unbalanced and that Vance had really gone to Detroit to take charge of him. Vance denied this, stating that Senator Jones appeared “rational enough on general topics.”
In April 1886, the Florida Times-Union revealed details of Jones’ pursuit of Miss Clothilde Palms, “a plain looking woman of 35 years,” with whom the Senator was reportedly madly in love. She and Jones had met at a dinner in the home of Detroit Mayor Thompson, a relative by marriage. When Jones first arrived in Detroit in the fall of 1885, he had called on her daily. “At first he was pleasantly received,” but when he kept on “calling at all sort of inopportune times, sent passionate notes and bouquets, until the violence of the courtship showed that he was not a fit person to be received . . . Mr. Francis Palms, her father, put a stop to it.” A Jacksonville paper described the source of information as “a prominent Detroit gentleman.” According to him, the Senator was no longer troubling the Palms family; he was spending most of his time in the lobby and on the steps of his hotel.
A Grand Rapids, Michigan, newspaper had a different story. It reported that the Senator did not even know Miss Palms by sight, and that he had passed her twenty times upon the street without recognizing her. Yet, dressed “like a dandy,” he would walk up and down in front of the Palms mansion, and would send the object of his affection flowers and “billets-doux.” The latter were quickly rejected. In his rooms, the paper claimed, the Senator made “long, vigorous and lusty” speeches in front of a large mirror, and people on the street outside could observe him. “His self vanity is boundless. He struts up and down before the glass in a pompous manner, making sweeping gestures and oratorical flourishes.”
The Roman Catholic Church found itself involved in the growing scandal. Jones, it was reported, had sought assistance when Miss Palms, also a Catholic, had refused him. Jones had quarreled with two priests over the matter, but when he appealed to the Right Reverend Bishop Borgess, he was reprimanded in “one of the most scorching replies ever penned by mortal man.” A William H. Hughes wrote to the Grand Rapids Weekly Leader in rebuttal, and denied the Bishop’s reprimand, which the paper had printed under the headline, “Love-Mad Man.” Nor, the writer continued, had the Senator “denounced the whole Catholic Church as a vast conspiracy to prevent his marrying an heiress.” According to Hughes, Jones was a “high-minded and courageous gentleman,” and the abuse that he had been receiving was “unwarranted and scandalous.”
Although newspaper accounts of the meeting of Jones and Miss Palms appear factual enough, the reported daily deluge of flowers and billets-deux, and her father’s actions seem to be fabrications, especially the latter, since Francis Palms had suffered a paralytic stroke in 1875, a full ten years before Jones arrived in Detroit. Whatever the truth may have been in regard to Charles Jones’ unsuccessful courtship, the headlines and news stories effectively destroyed his political career, reputation and personal life. Governor Edward A. Perry of Florida, a long-time friend of Jones, was asked if he thought the Senator was insane. Perry diplomatically replied that, while he did not wish to believe so, neither did he like to believe that “in his right mind he would thus subject the State to inconvenience and probable loss, and himself and friends to merciless ridicule and destroy his own political future.” Perry urged that the “painful subject” be dropped. In contrast, William G. Thompson, former mayor of Detroit, and also reportedly a friend of Jones, said that people in Michigan thought the Senator was mad.
The Senate leadership, on April 12, 1886, ruled that Jones’s place on the various committees was “temporarily” vacant, and began assigning others in his stead. His position on the Commerce Committee was vital to Floridians, since the committee had charge of all river and harbor legislation. When Jones learned what had happened, he wrote that he was “very much hurt at the action of the Senate in filling his place on the Commerce Committee with Senator Randall Gibson.” He wanted to know whether his “removal” was not an action without precedent. He was informed that he had not been removed, and that upon his return to Congress, he would be reinstated to his committee posts. Jones’s Democratic colleagues were of the opinion that the threat of losing his committee posts would bring him to his senses.
The New York Tribune reported that he felt “his enemies were dogging him,” but who his antagonists were was never made clear. Jones, according to the Times, was “pursued with the idea that some enemies, whom he never names, are following him, and that he will yet ‘down them.’” Once, when asked why he had absented himself from Congress, Jones claimed that six of his juniors, “none of them my superiors in any respect,” were promoted over him on the Judiciary Committee. He was in line for the Chairmanship of the Committee on Naval Affairs, and he was passed over. Just as the Committee on Public Lands was to begin an investigation of railroad grants, “I was taken from my place on that committee next to the Chairman, which it took me 10 years to reach, and placed as the heel on the Committee on Territories.” It would appear that Jones, while in Detroit, had begun to think that he was being discriminated against, even being threatened with political destruction. However, the Congressional records do not list Jones as a member of the Judiciary Committee during the sessions that he served. Presumably, his belief that he had been passed over was a mental delusion. His one communication with the United States Senate in April 1886 had been to inquire about the permanence and legality of his committee replacements, after he had been absent from Washington some four months. Jones complained that he was being unjustly criticized for his “vacation” while other senators often absented themselves without comment.
The Florida Times-Union viewed the situation as a “pretty conclusive indication of the view the Senators take of his willful and prolonged absence.” The paper urged Governor Perry to declare Jones’s seat vacant and to appoint someone to fill the vacancy. The Florida Times-Union had called for a replacement as early as February 1886: “No man is so highly placed that he can afford to assume this lofty air of indifference to legitimate criticism of his conduct as a public man…If vacancies happen by resignation or otherwise during the recess of a Legislature of any State, the Executive thereof may make temporary appointment until the next meeting of the Legislature, which shall then fill such vacancies.”
Governor Perry did not act on the Florida Times-Union suggestion. Instead the Governor announced that he had written Jones a “warm, friendly letter urging him to repair to his post,” but that he had received no reply. There was no established procedure for replacing a senator who had not been declared physically or mentally incompetent by medical authorities. Perry contended that he could not legally declare a vacancy because he did not have any definite knowledge that the Senator was incompetent nor had he resigned. “I know of no way in which the Governor of the State can interfere officially.” Perry argued that he could not interfere officially in a matter in which he lacked the power to enforce his decrees. To declare a vacancy “would be an assumption of power, and not the exercise of a prerogative of my office.” The only thing to do, he felt, was to “wait with patience until the Senator himself, the Senate, or death makes a vacancy, or he returns to duty.”
As it turned out, nothing was done to relieve Senator Jones of his post, and Florida remained without his services until his term expired in March 1887. Governor Perry appointed General Jesse J. Finley, of Civil War fame, to fill the Senate seat during the interval between the expiration of Jones’s term and the election of a new senator. The Times-Union stated: “Exit Senator Jones; Enter Senator Finley…a good change for Florida.” It was sad, the paper noted, that Senator Jones’s career “should close thus, amid the shadows of public disapprobation … and yet, if we refuse to accept the theory of mental unsoundness, it must be admitted that few men have been more distinctly the architects of their own misfortunes.” The kindest view to be taken was that the former senator was “mentally irresponsible.”
The Russell House Hotel in Detroit
With the expiration of his term, Jones’s salary was terminated, and his standard of living quickly plummeted. In November 1887, it was reported that he had reached the limit of his credit and that he was in “absolute want.” The proprietors of the Russell House in Detroit had evicted him two months before, and he had taken up residence at the cheaper Griswold House. He was turned out from that establishment also, together with his son, for not paying his bills. He was in debt to many restaurants, which refused now to serve him. Detective Patrick O’Neil, a prominent worker in the Irish cause, took him in for a few days. A New York paper wrote: “For months he has done nothing but eat, smoke, and walk with little sleep. He is a vigorous eater and sits down to the table as many as six times a day. The ex-Senator is a wreck mentally.” Another announced that he was “practically a beggar upon the streets.” The New York Times wrote, in the spring of 1888, that he had become “seedy and would not be recognized by anyone who previously knew him.” Unshaven and wearing threadbare clothes, he had become an object of charity.
The story continued towards its tragic end. In November 1887, physicians attending Jones had informed his son, John B. Jones, that they would sign a certificate of insanity to the probate court. The family was still unable to convince Jones to return to Florida, and so the probate court in Detroit, in May 1890, granted the son’s petition to restrain his father. At the probate hearing, “It was shown conclusively that he was a monomaniac.” While the proceedings were underway, Jones walked in and handed the judge his petition in the form of an affidavit, “asserting that he was about to be adjudged insane and deprived of his liberty on false testimony.” Then he turned and walked out of the court. Shortly after the court’s ruling, the Sheriff took Jones into custody and transported him to a Roman Catholic institution for the insane near Detroit. Jones remained for seven years at the St. Joseph’s Retreat in Dearborn until his death on October 11, 1897, at the age of sixty-three. His only daughter, Mary Ada, accompanied his body to Pensacola, where it was interred in St. Michael’s Cemetery.
There remains much mystery about Senator Jones’s sudden decline. There is no logical explanation for his strange behavior, unless he was a victim of some physical or mental disorder. Years later, one report stated that, soon after the beginning of Cleveland’s administration, Senator Jones’s “health began to decline, the result of overwork.” A contemporary explained that Jones had found it “beneath his dignity” to seek out places and appointments within the government. So long as the Republicans were in power, there was little pressure from individuals seeking jobs and favors. Then, with the election of a Democratic president, “the pressure from his constituents became so tremendous and urgent that he fled from Washington in disgust and is himself away beyond the reach of personal visits and letters.”
The central question remains unanswered: Was Senator Jones’ sudden decline the result of intense political pressure and over-work, or was he truly “love-mad” ?