The 12 Most Corrupt Public Officials In Illinois History: William Lorimer

A hundred years before Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. allegedly tried to buy a U.S. Senate seat, another Chicago congressman actually did it.

In 1909, senators were still elected by state legislatures, and the gentlemen who met in Springfield were wide open to monetary persuasion. Republican Sen. Albert Hopkins’s term was up for re-election, and the legislators were deadlocked over whether to send him back to Washington for another term or to replace him. After 94 ballots, Lorimer decided the job might be his for the taking, if he was persuasive enough.

With money raised by Edward Hines, the founder of Chicago’s Hines Lumber Co., Lorimer began buying off Democratic legislators. On May 26, 1909 -- two-and-a-half months after Hopkins’s term expired, 33 Democrats switched their votes to Lorimer, sending him to the Senate.

Lorimer’s election was considered hinky even at the time. The Tribune looked into it, and found a legislator who admitted to selling his vote for $1,000.

President Theodore Roosevelt, who had urged Parsons’s re-election, roared that the Illinois General Assembly was “guilty of the foulest and basest corruption, and therefore of the most infamous treason to American institutions.” In other words, business as usual in Springfield.

The Senate investigated the Tribune’s allegations, but voted 46-40 to allow Lorimer to keep his seat. Then the Illinois Senate held its own hearings, which turned up another bombshell witness: International Harvester executive Charles S. Funk, who testified that Hines had asked him to contribute to a Lorimer campaign fund that was nicknamed “the jackpot.”

With this new evidence, the U.S. Senate reopened its hearings on Lorimer. This time, Lorimer was busted. On July 13, 1912, the Senate voted 55-28 to adopt a resolution “that corrupt methods and practices were employed in his election, and that the election, therefore, was invalid.”

Lorimer went back to Illinois, and the General Assembly elected Lawrence Sherman to take his place.

“That was the last time any state legislature elected anyone to the U.S. Senate,” wrote historian Robert Loerzel. “Even before the Lorimer scandal, many people had been calling for a change in the way senators were chosen. Congress approved the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1912, in the midst of the Lorimer case, and it was ratified by the states in 1913. From now on, the people of the United States would vote directly for their senators.”

Lorimer was so corrupt that the U.S. Constitution was changed to prevent politicians from committing the type of bribery that he (briefly) got away with. For that, he’s number 9 on Ward Room’s list of the Most Corrupt Public Officials in Illinois History.

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