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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spin Control

Spin Control Files: When the Legislature’s fight over prohibition came to blows

This is a 1928 photo of Joe Smith, who went on to become a famous journalist and political activist in Seattle. (University Library)
This is a 1928 photo of Joe Smith, who went on to become a famous journalist and political activist in Seattle. (University Library)

The relationship between the press and politicians is adversarial by nature. But anyone who believes it’s more contentious than ever should realize it has been worse.

Much worse.

In 1909, a legislator from Spokane and a reporter from The Spokesman-Review exchanged blows on the floor of the state House of Representatives, with one knocked to the floor and the other receiving a black eye.

That year’s session was contentious. There were questions of whether Japanese visitors to the upcoming world’s fair in Seattle should be barred or have to post bonds to ensure they would go home. The state had a new governor, who was so sick he could not take office, and new faces in many other top state offices.

But much of the 1909 regular session was devoted to the argument over prohibition, which was splitting the state along urban-rural and east-west lines. Shortly after the session started in January, fire-breathing evangelist Billy Sunday came to Spokane to preach against demon booze, drawing huge crowds and getting many to sign pledges to never drink liquor again.

The Spokesman-Review, which supported prohibition on its editorial pages, covered Sunday’s revival meetings somewhat breathlessly. The evangelist was big news wherever he went, but it didn’t hurt that some form of prohibition was part of the state GOP platform and the paper almost always supported Republicans.

In Olympia, lawmakers were locked in a battle over proposals to allow counties or cities an option to vote to be alcohol-free, or “dry.” Those opposed to the so-called local option were labeled “wet” or “the saloon lobby.” The debate was similar to contemporary discussions of whether cities and counties should be allowed to ban legal marijuana, but it was far more heated.

Spokane legislators were mostly dry Republicans but a few, like newly elected Rep. James W. McArthur, a druggist from Spokane’s 6th District, had reservations. The local option bill started in the House, where amendments were added and debate dragged on, sometimes into the evenings. Feb. 8 was one such evening, and as the House adjourned, Joe Smith, the correspondent for The Spokesman-Review, retrieved a petition from the clerk’s desk that McArthur had filed.

Smith, who was raised near Endicott, got his start as a reporter in Spokane, served as a war correspondent in the Spanish American War for the Seattle P-I, then returned to Spokane, where he married Emma Fonner in 1899. He started covering the Legislature for different papers in 1901, and on that evening was sitting at the press table taking notes on the petition when McArthur approached.

What ensued was what the Seattle Times called “a fistic encounter” and the Tacoma News headlined on its front page as “FIST FIGHT OVER LOCAL OPTION ISSUE.” Newspapers regularly published headlines in all caps those days, so it’s not like the News was shouting.

The Tacoma Times said McArthur accused Smith of misrepresenting him. Smith stood up and, according to the Seattle Times “quickly ordered him to a hotter clime.”

Accounts of what happened next vary, but McArthur snatched for either the petition or Smith’s notes and the reporter hit the legislator once or twice, possibly in the jaw – again, accounts vary as to number and location. But all accounts agree that McArthur went sprawling.

At that point the reporter and the legislator were separated by the sergeant-at-arms, according to the Seattle Times, or, according to the Weekly Standard, Smith merely picked up the petition and “walked over to the Senate chambers to complete his labors.”

A few minutes later, Smith returned to the House – to retrieve his hat, the Seattle Times said – and the fight resumed. McArthur hit Smith so hard the reporter got a black eye before the sergeant-at-arms broke it up.

Today, an event like that would hit social media with photos or video in seconds and drive chatter on talk radio and political blogs for days. But in 1909, some papers devoted just a few sentences or paragraphs to it the next day. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Morning Olympian ignored it.

The Spokesman-Review carried lengthy stories about the local option debate – probably written by Smith because they weren’t from a wire service - but newspapers rarely used bylines in those days. There wasn’t a word about the fight in that paper or the evening Spokane Chronicle.

The daily House Journal, a record of activity in that branch, made no mention of the fight on Feb. 8, but the next day’s Journal said Smith sent a communication “relative to the part he had taken in the altercation on the floor of the House last night.” The actual message wasn’t saved for posterity, although the Journal’s index lists it as an apology. The Seattle Times made note of Smith’s apology, adding, “McArthur made no statement.”

The next day, the local option bill passed 58-36. McArthur insisted he supported “a reasonable local option law” as prescribed by the Republican platform, but the bill wasn’t that, because it didn’t allow large cities vote to stay wet if a county went dry, or vice versa. He also opposed allowing the vote to come in special elections, which would create “an enormous, useless expense.”

The local option bill got watered down in the Senate and eventually passed, allowing voters of cities to make different decisions than their counties. Some parts of the state began to go dry, including rural areas and some towns in Spokane County, but not the city.

The fight over prohibition continued for years. But in 1914, supporters bypassed the Legislature and used the newly approved initiative law to pass statewide prohibition by some 18,000 votes. King, Pierce and a few other Puget Sound-area counties voted against the measure, but most others voted in favor.

Spokane was pretty evenly split, passing prohibition by only 950 votes out of some 40,000 cast. The law went into effect 100 years ago, New Year’s Day, some five years before nationwide prohibition took hold.

McArthur only served that one session. The pharmacist and drugstore owner didn’t run for re-election in 1910, but legislators rarely stuck around more than a session or two in those days. His concerns about tough liquor laws might have been tied to self-interest: His stores advertised a series of patent medicines, which in that era could have alcohol as an ingredient.

Update: At one point, McArthur's drug store was at 1001 Sprague, the current site of the Fox Theater, which meant his business was less than a block from The Spokesman-Review offices. His great-grandson, Tom McArthur, a longtime journalist and local historian, said James McArthur was the first president of the state Board of Pharmacy, and served on the city Park Board after leaving the Legislature. He moved to Seattle near the end of the decade after his legislative service, and opened drug stores there, including the Victory Drug Stores during World War II.

In 2015, a reporter who slugged a legislator might receive some sympathy from his colleagues, and possibly from other lawmakers, depending on who was involved. He’d also probably lose his press credentials, be fired and become an example of what not to do in college journalism classes. At the very least, he'd be required to take anger management courses by the newspaper's Human Resources Department.

Whether Smith finished covering the 1909 session for The Spokesman-Review isn’t recorded in the House Journal, and the newspaper’s personnel records don’t go back that far.

But he did cover legislative sessions for one paper or another for the next 10 years, became one of the most celebrated political journalists in Seattle, co-founded that city’s Municipal League, started several newspapers, worked for governors and mayors, and ran unsuccessfully for elective office several times. He died in 1962.

The Spokesman-Review's political team keeps a critical eye on local, state and national politics.