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The mysterious death of Sen. Thomas Walsh

The mysterious death of Sen. Thomas Walsh

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On a crisp Thursday morning in March 1933, Montana buried a loyal friend, U.S. Sen. Thomas J. Walsh. Mourners by the thousands climbed the front steps of the state capitol to file through the rotunda. There, the open casket afforded a last view of the renowned statesman whose sudden death was proclaimed a national calamity.

Innuendo and political intrigue surrounded Walsh’s demise. Events recorded in the press and some unpublished papers of Helena Judge Lester H. Loble at the Montana Historical Society library raise interesting questions about Walsh’s death. The circumstances and coincidences were strange to say the least.

The world was in dire trouble in February 1933. Hitler was a familiar name as headlines documented his rapid, frightening rise to power. The United States was in the throes of a desperate economic depression. As Washington prepared for the upcoming inauguration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, officials were still reeling from an attempted assassination of the president-elect, which had occurred in Miami on Feb. 15.

Mayor Anton Cermak of Chicago was among four people wounded in the failed attack on Roosevelt. A woman standing next to the would-be assassin had jostled his elbow, causing the shots to be fired wildly into the crowd.

On Friday, Feb. 24, while his friend Cermak clung to life in a Miami hospital, Sen. Thomas Walsh of Montana announced plans to marry Mina Perez Chaumont de Truffin. The wedding was to take place on Monday, Feb. 27, in Havana. Walsh, 73, and his considerably younger bride-to-be, the widow of a wealthy Cuban banker and sugar grower, had known each other for several years. Their families seemed to approve the match.

General Gerardo Machado, the president of Cuba and family friend of the Truffins, issued a special decree waiving the 15-day marriage notice required by law. The wedding was abruptly moved up to Saturday, Feb. 25, at the secluded, vine-clung home of the bride in a Havana suburb. President Machado, who was to have been a witness, did not attend because he claimed he had not enough notice to travel to Havana from his country estate. Walsh’s explanation to the press for the sudden change in plans would prove hauntingly prophetic: “I have little time left before March 4.”

On Sunday, the day after the wedding, President-elect Roosevelt announced his cabinet members naming Walsh as attorney general. Walsh announced his resignation from the senate, noting that he had known of the appointment for several days. Walsh was to be sworn into office at the presidential inauguration on the coming Saturday, March 4. His appearance at the ceremonies in the senate chamber would coincidentally have marked 20 years to the day since his first appearance there as a newly elected senator on March 4, 1913.

Public announcement of the appointment came as the newlyweds were en route from Havana to Miami. During the couple’s 24-hour stay in Florida, the senator visited Miami’s Jackson Memorial Hospital where Mayor Cermak was battling complications from the assassin’s bullet.

Twice during a short stay in Daytona Beach, Dr. Harry L. Merryday was called to attend to the senator who was suffering from “a mild angina pectoris and intestinal indigestion.” The doctor advised Walsh to stay in bed and not to continue his trip. Walsh declared that he had to continue to Washington.

As the train bound for the nation’s capital approached Wilson, North Carolina, on Thursday morning, March 2, Mrs. Walsh awakened around 7 a.m. to find that her husband had left his berth and was lying unconscious on the floor of their compartment. The porter summoned Dr. Richard Costello, who was a passenger on the train. By the time the doctor reached the Walshes’ suite, the senator was dead.

Dr. M.A. Pittman of Wilson signed the death certificate listing the cause of death as “unknown, possibly coronary thrombosis.” Pittman believed the cause of death to be “failure of blood vessels to the heart, apoplexy or some circulation failure.” Mrs. Walsh gave her permission for an autopsy, but officials determined it unnecessary. The body was taken from the train at Rocky Mount and embalmed while a federal agent kept watch outside Mrs. Walsh’s compartment.

Instead of taking the oath of office, Walsh lay in state on March 6 in the senate chamber, attended by President and Mrs. Roosevelt and other high officials. During the service, Mrs. Walsh herself purportedly suffered a mild heart attack. Newspapers reported that doctors advised her not to accompany her husband’s body back to Helena. President Roosevelt gave the senator’s daughter use of his private railroad car for the long trip home. Mrs. Walsh remained in Washington.

On Thursday, March 9, as the funeral train sped across Montana from Billings to Helena, farmers in the fields paused and crowds shivering in the early morning cold stood quietly in tribute at every station platform along the way. A huge crowd waited at the Northern Pacific depot in Helena. Public schools were dismissed that morning, and the superintendent requested that all schools take “time to consider the character and greatness of the late senator.”

After the public viewing in the capitol rotunda, more than 2,000 crowded into St. Helena Cathedral for the final obsequies. The senator was then interred next to his late wife in Resurrection Cemetery. In a strange coincidence, as the Helena services were being conducted for Walsh, similar services were held in Chicago for Mayor Cermak, who had passed away on March 6.

Certainly there were some who did not share the national affection generally accorded Walsh, but his achievements, discussed by the late Richard Roeder in “More from the Quarries of Last Chance Gulch, Volume II,” were undeniably far-reaching. The quiet statesman from Montana won greatest recognition as head of the senate committee that exposed fraudulent oil leases in the Teapot Dome scandals of President Warren G. Harding’s administration a decade before. Walsh’s investigations led to the conviction and imprisonment of Secretary of Interior Albert B. Fall.

A few months before the wedding, Fall had been released from the penitentiary. As the press commented on the ramifications of Walsh’s death, the Baltimore Sun went so far as to declare that Walsh “was inviting personal and perhaps even physical, as well as political, destruction” when he undertook those investigations. All agreed that as attorney general, Walsh would have made a difference in Roosevelt’s administration. The press pronounced his death a national misfortune.

Walsh’s longtime friend, Judge Lester Loble, wrote in 1970 that Senator Walsh’s son-in-law, Captain Emmit C. Gudger of the United States Navy, believed that a Cuban attendant of Mrs. Walsh’s had poisoned his father-in-law. According to Captain Gudger, this woman was loyal to Machado’s opposition. Captain Gudger tried to insist that an autopsy be performed and when that was not done, he later tried unsuccessfully to have the body exhumed.

Genevieve Walsh Gudger, the senator’s daughter, disagreed with her husband’s theory. In a letter to Judge Loble dated Nov. 17, 1970, Mrs. Gudger acknowledged that “feelings were running high” because of the Depression and therefore “suspicions were rampant.” Mrs. Gudger also went on to say that her father had long suffered from high blood pressure and so the “heart attack was not a great surprise.” Nevertheless, Mrs. Gudger did not further argue against the theory that her father might have been poisoned.

As attorney general and personal friend of the president, Walsh would have been in a position of influence in the Roosevelt administration. He could well have been a victim of either domestic or international political intrigue.

Julio Morales, a successful lawyer who fled Cuba in 1960 and later served as Helena City Judge, wrote to Judge Loble that “rumors were started by both parties, alleging that the opposite party had poisoned Senator Walsh.” Reports from Havana on the Monday after the wedding indicated that “something approximating a revolution” was occurring after a violent weekend. Could this have had something to do with the rather odd marriage of a prominent American and an equally prominent Cuban who might have represented different political points of view?

It was no secret that Roosevelt was opposed to Machado’s government, and Mrs. Walsh herself had recently been touched by a tragedy bred of political associations. The de Truffins’ adopted daughter, Regina, had been recently widowed. Her husband, Clements Vazquez Bello, was president of the Cuban senate under Machado.

Touted as Machado’s political heir, Bello was assassinated by the opposition just six months previous to the Walsh wedding. Surely the astute senator realized that there was some risk in marrying this charming woman whose family was so embroiled in dangerous diplomatics.

Helenans heard the rumors too and wondered. Judge Loble reported that a well-known fellow member of the bench stopped him on the street to comment that Walsh had made a poor matrimonial choice. The rumors quieted down, but speculation has continued. As late as 1985, the daughter of another highly esteemed political colleague of Thomas Walsh’s remained convinced that the senator was poisoned.

Elin Gudger Parks, daughter of Captain and Mrs. Gudger, remembers the Cuban woman who married her beloved grandfather as high strung and melodramatic. Mrs. Parks, who was about 12 at the time, admits that children remember strange things. She vividly recalls thinking it peculiar when the new Mrs. Walsh refused to sleep without a silver chamber pot under her bed.

Although the family liked the new Mrs. Walsh, they speculated that perhaps Mina de Truffin mistook Senator Walsh for another very wealthy gentleman with the same last name. The widow was very upset to learn that her half of the inheritance consisted of the senator’s Washington D.C. town house. Mina traded the property for other more portable items in the estate and returned to Cuba. Among the things she took with her was a prized painting by C. M. Russell. It grieves the family to this day that its whereabouts are unknown. Mina Walsh soon sold her Havana home to developers who converted it into a gambling resort, but what became of the lady herself remains a mystery.

There is one final thread to this story. In preparing the move from the senate to the attorney general’s office, Walsh’s two longtime trusted employees carefully packed and boxed his files, entrusting them to a trucking company. They were to have been delivered to the House of Justice by the time Walsh assumed his new duties. Among these were files in progress concerning the Harding administration and the American aluminum industry, against whom Walsh intended to proceed. These personal files never reached their destination; in fact, they were never seen again.


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