We Kansans know about Dodge City and the cattle drives. We know about homesteaders, and some of us are descended from those courageous settlers. We know about the cowboys and Indians, even if much of what we think we know comes from the movies. But how much do we know about the late 1800s, when the progressive movement swept across the heartland.
I have shared in this blog that after the Civil War many Union soldiers came to Kansas to claim a homestead, and the legacy of those men who fought in Lincoln's army in defense of the Union partially explains why Kansas remains such a dependable Republican state. But what is less known about Kansas history is the importance of Kansas during the populist movement. Because Isaac B. Werner kept his journal during this period of Kansas history, I have learned a great deal.
Many of the leaders of that movement were Kansans, and several lived in or visited the communities in our region. The Kansan I am going to share with you this week lived in Barber County, and he was a very colorful fellow. Some even thought he might have been President had he not been born in Canada, although he came to America with his parents when he was six. During the Civil War he served with the Illinois Volunteer Infantry, and after moving to Indiana he signed on as a deckhand on a Great Lakes steamship and rose to the position of Captain. It was after his marriage in 1870 that he and his wife came to Kansas, eventually settling in Barber County on a ranch. The deadly winter of 1884 killed his entire herd, and he first dipped his toe into politics, serving as sheriff in Medicine Lodge.
Like many populists, Simpson first joined the Greenback Party, then Union Labor, then through activity in the Farmers' Alliance he found his way to the People's Party. His career as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Kansas included service from March of 1891 to March of 1895, and after a two year interruption, from March of 1897 to March of 1899. He liked to portray himself as a country bumpkin, catching political opponents off guard because they had underestimated his intelligent ability.
When his service in elective office ended, he and his wife moved to New Mexico, but when he suffered a brain aneurysm he asked his wife to return to Kansas, realizing he didn't have much more time and wishing to die in Kansas. He died in 1905 and is buried in Maple Grove Cemetery in Wichita.
But, the question asked in the title of this blog is whether he was really sockless, so I will answer that question, although the explanations for how he got the name "Sockless Jerry Simpson" vary. Some say that Jerry mocked his well-to-do political opponent by describing his feet as 'encased in fine silk hosiery,' to which the man fired back, silk socks were better than wearing none at all. Instead of taking offense, Jerry used the name to contrast his down-home common sense and honesty with his opponent's fancy talk and empty promises.
Another version has Jerry giving himself the name by directly pointing out that his opponent wore silk socks while he didn't wear any. A third version claims that a newsman accused Jerry of wearing no socks and Jerry didn't deny the charge, turning the remark on his opponent by referring to his silk hose.
Exactly how he got the nickname may be uncertain, but the fact that he used it to appeal to his audiences of debt-burdened farmers to establish their common economic struggles is clearly agreed. As a candidate, he was a good story teller with a ready wit, and if he played up his rural background by sometimes whittling in the doorways of Congress, opponents were foolish if they assumed this canny, well-read Kansan was the fool.
The answer to the title's question is "probably not," but if having you think he was sockless helped him win your vote or pass a populist bill in congress, he didn't care a bit if you called him "Sockless Jerry."