Gideon Moody: Scrupulous Senator, Knife Fighter
Jan 18, 2012
Don’t let anyone tell you that Facebook and Twitter are worthless wastes of time. As it turns out, you can learn a lot about important figures in South Dakota history through social media. For example, this week I learned that one of the most scrupulous politicians in South Dakota history was once prepared to plunge a bowie knife into a fellow legislator.
My research into the life of Gideon Moody began a few days ago when a friend posted this to his Facebook and Twitter accounts: “Apparently, the gov of Indiana recently described a famous duel w bowie knives involving former SD Senator Gideon Moody. Anyone hav details?”
My friend was referencing a speech delivered by Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels. The fight Daniels alluded to involved Moody, and occurred while the Republican served in the Indiana state House of Representatives in 1861.
In his History of South Dakota, state historian Doane Robinson explained that the issue was states’ rights, an especially hot button topic in the months preceding the Civil War. One legislator attacked the governor and Moody came to his defense so vociferously that he was challenged to a duel using bowie knives. They crossed the border into Kentucky to consummate the challenge and were promptly arrested and fined $500 each. The bowie knives remained in their sheaths.
Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that Moody was willing to fight. Duels and other physical confrontations were common solutions to problems among men, particularly politicians, in the 19th century. Stories abound involving territorial legislators engaged in barroom brawls in Yankton over disagreements large and small.
It appears Moody’s fighting spirit (at least in the physical sense) abated when he came to Dakota Territory with his family in 1864 to supervise construction of the Sioux City to Fort Randall military road. When he discovered the road could be built for far less than the money already appropriated, he paid the farmers he had recruited to work on it double the money originally intended. It raised the ire of the federal government, but he earned the respect of thousands of South Dakotans.
Moody served in the House of Representatives, was a judge in Deadwood and became one of our first U.S. Senators in 1889. He cultivated an unparalleled reputation for honesty. During one court case in Deadwood, litigants worried over the trial’s probable outcome against them tried to find someone who would bribe Judge Moody. They found an old law partner of Moody’s from North Dakota and brought him to town. When he heard their plan, he shouted, “My God, men! Do you expect me to tackle that man on any such proposition? Why, I should be in the penitentiary in 48 hours. If that is what you got me here for, I might as well leave for home on the coach tomorrow.” And he did.
When he faced defeat in his bid for re-election to the Senate in 1891, several legislators suggesting supporting Moody in exchange for certain privileges. “He told them that if one dollar were used in buying a vote for him he would refuse to qualify for the office or accept it, and more, that he would assist in prosecuting both the man offering the money and the man accepting it,” Robinson wrote.
Moody ultimately lost the election. He practiced law before moving to California in 1900. He died four years later.
Were all our founders so bold? Watch Facebook and Twitter and maybe you’ll find out.