Swiping the State Seal

June 23, 2018

Merle DeLeon’s drawing from Foster’s Comic History of Oklahoma by C. D. Foster. If not historically precise, it splendidly captures the swashbuckling—and surreptitious—nature of the Haskell Administration’s 1910 “transfer” of the state capital from Guthrie to Oklahoma City.

So you think that politics is a hardball game now? The pioneers who settled a dangerous frontier and built an American state from the prairie and plains might challenge that notion. Their unconquerable spirit inspired the rough-and-tumble political dialogue and actions that flew back and forth between Democrats and Republicans, as well as the vocal and growing Socialist Party, in early statehood Oklahoma.

 

The political frays of the time reflected a sort of mash up of tribal feelings that we moderns might possess not just in major political contests, but for our great athletic rivalries. They inflamed passions and often engendered enduring grudges. Two Oklahoma governors were nearly impeached in the 1910s, two others were impeached in the 1920s, and an array of other top state officials were removed throughout the first two decades of the twentieth century.

Downtown Oklahoma City in 1910. A breathtaking vista when considering that only two decades before, open prairie covered the area. OKC was the fastest growing city in America during that period. Courtesy Oklahoma Historical Society.

This spirit animated a June 11, 1910 election in which the people of Oklahoma determined their state’s permanent capital. Existing capital Guthrie, the state’s largest city Oklahoma City, and Shawnee, a hub of political activity, battled for the crucial designation. The contest proved fierce, not to mention expensive.

 

Oklahoma City, however, already possessed approximately six times the population of Guthrie, as well as a handful of freshly-erected “skyscrapers.” It won a landslide victory. OKC’s vote total more than tripled the combined numbers of Guthrie and Shawnee. Governor Charles Haskell thereupon acted on the prevailing Democratic notion that state capital Guthrie was, in his own words, “a nest of Republican vipers.” He engineered a middle-of-the-night heist of the capital seal to the rougher, more Southern (and Western) Oklahoma City, which was decried by many Republicans as nothing more than a vulgar cow town.

Governor Charles Haskell, who masterminded the “transfer" of the seat of state power from Guthrie to Oklahoma City in 1910. Apart from this sensational series of events, Haskell proved himself one of the great leaders in Oklahoma history.

“Get the Seal”

 

Fred Branson, first state chairman of the Democratic Party, and later chief justice of the Oklahoma Supreme Court, recalled the words of Haskell upon learning of Oklahoma City’s victory. According to Branson, Haskell gave these orders to his private secretary W. B. Anthony, on a long-distance phone call from Tulsa:

 

Get hold of Bill Cross, Secretary of State, go up to the Logan County Court House. Get the seal of state and bring it to Oklahoma City and meet me there in the morning . . . We are leaving here on a special train on the Frisco and will be in Oklahoma City by 7:30 A.M.

Old Guthrie City Hall. The Oklahoma State Constitutional Convention met on its second floor in 1906.

The position of “private secretary” in that era carried much weight and was the modern equivalent to a political leader’s chief of staff. Tennessee native Anthony’s resumé already included his eight years as mayor of Marlow, his founding the Marlow Review newspaper, and his stint in the Oklahoma House of Representatives. He proved equal to Haskell’s audacious challenge to physically move the seal that should abide in the head of state’s office to Oklahoma City.

 

How he did so makes for fact that is more dramatic than most fiction. Anthony took a car rented by the OKC Chamber of Commerce to Guthrie. He arrived at his rented room at 3:00 a.m. He never set foot near the capitol building, at which the suspicious Republicans had stationed a phalanx of deputy sheriffs as guards. Instead, he dispatched three other Haskell subordinates, ostensibly to fetch laundry and clothing he had indeed left in the governor’s office.

A pro-OKC billboard advertisement during the 1910 campaign for state capital.

“The seal of state and the recording book were concealed in the bundle of laundry and clothing and removed from the building to my room without anyone except the principals ever knowing what was going on,” Anthony later wrote, to correct a legion of mythologies the event spawned.

 

Oklahoma founding father and former governor “Alfalfa Bill” Murray claimed in 1952, for instance, that the plotters called upon Jim Noble to secretly carry the seal on his person to Haskell at the Lee-Huckins Hotel in Oklahoma City. Noble was a black messenger and custodian in the state offices of the era. According to this theory, a man of his race would not be questioned. A prior series of Daily Oklahoman newspaper articles and an enduring African-American oral history agree with Murray.

A humorous pro-OKC newspaper advertisement during the 1910 campaign for state capital.

Battle for Capital

 

Guthrie’s outraged fathers had no intention of giving up the town’s cardinal place in Oklahoma life and power without a fight, particularly considering the dirty and illegal manner they felt Haskell had employed to transfer the seat of government. They built their case on this provision of the 1906 Enabling Act that had cleared the state’s entrance into the Union: “The capital of said state shall temporarily be at the city of Guthrie. . .  and shall not be changed there from previous to Anno Domini 1913.”

A pro-Guthrie newspaper advertisement during the 1910 campaign for state capital.

The fight for possession of the state capital raged for nearly a year. Guthrie won a district court decision in its own Logan County. Then Haskell called the Oklahoma Legislature into an unusual special session. They passed a bill relocating the capital to Oklahoma City. Undaunted, Guthrie fought back. Branson described their efforts:

 

The books and records and offices of the officials, other than the governor and the secretary of state which were in Oklahoma City from the morning of the 12th day of June 1910, remained at Guthrie, by reason of another suit which was brought at the instance of the city of Guthrie.

 

When the case made its way to the Oklahoma Supreme Court, Oklahoma City won. It finally landed before the United States Supreme Court. There, the justices ruled that nothing contained within the Enabling Act or anywhere else prior to statehood could diminish Oklahoma’s right to govern itself on an equal basis with any other state in the Union. This endorsed the decision, by both the people and their elected representatives, to relocate their capital in Oklahoma City.

The splendid Lee-Huckins Hotel in downtown Oklahoma City. Governor Charles Haskell and Secretary of State Bill Cross in the “governor’s new office” inside the hotel.

 

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