Oklahoma’s Crazy Congressman: Manuel Herrick
By Ray Hill
If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard someone suggest a member of Congress was crazy, Elon Musk would be a pauper by comparison. Yet in the case of Manuel Herrick of Oklahoma, it was not simply the opinion of one voter, but rather that of a judge. When he was seventeen years old, Manuel Herrick was arrested for attempting to rob a train in Oklahoma. A court of law adjudged him to be insane and promptly sent him to an asylum. As the Washington Post’s writer John Kelly wrote, Manuel Herrick “was one of the oddest ducks ever to paddle in the capital’s political pond.”
What brought Manuel Herrick to the U.S. House of Representatives was a death and a Republican tidal wave inside a traditionally GOP district. Incumbent Dick T. Morgan was so popular no person had bothered to file to run against him save for Herrick, who had become a perennial candidate for public office, high and low. On the very last day to file one’s candidacy, Dick T. Morgan died, leaving Manuel Herrick as the lone Republican candidate on the ballot in the GOP primary. The candidate was shrewd enough to attach himself to the rest of the GOP ticket in a Republican district, urging support for “Harding, Harreld, and Herrick.” Warren G. Harding was the GOP nominee for president, while John W. Harreld was the Republican candidate for the United States Senate. Both Harding and Harreld carried Oklahoma in the general election. The people of Oklahoma’s Eighth Congressional District also decided they preferred a crazy Republican to a relatively sane Democrat and voted accordingly. Manuel Herrick was on his way to Congress.
For a congressman who served but a single term in the U.S. House of Representatives, Manuel Herrick certainly got quite a lot of attention. The Washington Post recently revisited Herrick’s time in Congress and he was the subject of a biography, “The Okie Jesus Congressman; The Life of Manuel Herrick” by Gene Aldrich. John Kelly, who writes a highly entertaining regular column about Washington in the Washington Post, authored a couple of excellent columns about Manuel Herrick.
John Kelly’s article in the Post noted Herrick’s last day serving as a congressman was March 3, 1923, with the following day being the beginning of “Anti-Flirt Week.” The former congressman gave vocal support to the movement by speaking at a meeting at the home of one of the sixteen women who had founded the organization. According to Kelly, Herrick complimented the ladies for their toil in “putting down ‘mashers’,” saying “I could not resist coming out here to talk to you and advise you to put a little pepper in your organization and to expect to fight a powerful foe.”
John Kelly later discovered the founder of the “Anti-flirt” movement was Alice Reighly, who was employed by a movie company and suspected her motivation was to promote a motion picture entitled “The Flirt.”
Herrick had been born into a family which made its living through farming in Ohio. Herrick’s upbringing very likely had much to do with his mental state. Some referred to his mother Belinda as “simple-minded.” Belinda Herrick thought her son was Jesus Christ come back to Earth in the flesh and named him “Immanuel.” Manuel agreed with his mother’s assessment and thought himself to be Christ. It is hardly surprising he became a preacher, although no church would have him. When Oklahoma achieved statehood in 1907, Manuel Herrick began his career of constantly seeking to be elected to some public office, usually in Noble County. Two years before the 1920 election, Herrick had run for Congress against Dick Morgan as an Independent and polled an embarrassing fifty-six votes.
The Republicans in Congress likely knew Herrick’s reputation before he arrived in Washington, D.C. If any congressman had more assignments to solely minor and largely meaningless committees it has escaped the notice of history. Most probably the Republicans in the House didn’t want Manuel Herrick to be much noticed by the public and voters. Their worry was not unfounded.
Herrick did at least have the good sense to hire Harry Gilstrap as his personal secretary or chief of staff. By profession, Gilstrap had been a newspaperman and he was very loyal to his employer and worked hard to staunch the constant flow of ridicule thrown at Manuel Herrick.
Herrick was a devotee of all things involving aviation and flew his airplane from one stop to another during his 1920 congressional campaign. John Kelly quoted one of the eccentric congressman’s better quotes following a crash: “I may be a nut, but I’m going to be a hard one to crack.”
Herrick’s involvement with the “Anti-flirt” movement was especially ironic as the worry of the Republican congressional leadership about the newly elected congressman was quickly proven to be fully warranted. Evidently, Congressman Herrick had obtained the names and addresses of forty-nine women who had participated in a beauty pageant in Washington, D.C. Herrick sent each of the women a letter, offering what he likely thought was an offer no intelligent woman could possibly refuse: “the hand in marriage of one of the 15 men who is now living on the earth who can look God in the eye and say ‘Against my body and against my soul there rests no moral stain, for I have kept my soul and body free from all moral stain in order that I may look my virgin bride in the eye without guilt and shame in my heart.’” Today, the episode would still be deemed both bizarre and disturbing, but it was probably that time’s version of not only unwanted attention but also stalking. Clearly, Manuel Herrick had big things in mind for himself as Kelly wrote the Oklahoma congressman hinted to the ladies he “was destined to become president.” One very irate husband threatened Congressman Herrick with bodily violence while another woman turned over the letter to the District of Columbia Police Department.
When the unwanted publicity hit Manuel Herrick like a lightning bolt, the congressman was ready with an answer. John Kelly quoted a story in the Washington Times, saying, “His claim was that the medium was resorted to for the benefit of decrepit millionaires, unwholesome and immoral characters, and moral lepers to get the names of pretty young girls. His idea, he said, was to save the girls from the stage and movie lore.”
Herrick was at least smart enough to acknowledge his methodology might “be a little bit underhanded” according “to some people,” but the congressman stoutly maintained “it is for the protection of these girls, it is for their own good, and for a worthy cause.”
The press of the day lambasted the Oklahoma congressman with a flood of denunciation, as well as a lashing of ridicule. The people of Oklahoma were asked repeatedly how they could possibly have elected such a man as Manuel Herrick to Congress.
The Sooner State congressman pointed to his bill to outlaw beauty pageants, which went precisely nowhere in the House. Even worse publicity was in the offing when Anna Niebel, a showgirl performing in the Ziegfield Follies, sued the congressman for breach of promise. Ms. Niebel wanted $50,000 (about $870,000 today) in recompense for her embarrassment, pain, suffering, and having been jilted. According to Ms. Niebel, the lovestruck congressman had promised to marry her. “Mr. Herrick called on me and told me he was very rich, and proposed marriage to me.”
The exploits of Congressman Manuel Herrick did him little good at home. During the 1922 election, local Republicans made certain they fielded a qualified and quality candidate for the GOP nomination for the House of Representatives. Herrick faced Charles Swindall, who had briefly served in Congress after winning a special primary and general election immediately following the death of Congressman Dick T. Morgan. In that same special primary, Manuel Herrick had garnered a mere 1,062 votes running fifth out of seven candidates. That term only ran from November of 1920 through March 3, 1921, when Herrick was sworn into office. While five candidates filed to run. the contest essentially became a three-way race when Milton C. Garber entered the GOP primary. Garber was a well-known figure inside Oklahoma’s Eighth Congressional District, having been elected or appointed to a variety of judicial offices, including a stint on the Territory of Oklahoma’s Supreme Court.
Manuel Herrick ran third, winning less than 20% of the ballots cast in the Republican primary. Garber was elected to Congress in the fall election and remained in the House of Representatives for a decade before losing in the 1932 Democratic landslide.
Perhaps Herrick thought if he could regain his office he could then fulfill his destiny of becoming President of the United States. Herrick ran for Congress again in the GOP primary in 1924, 1926, 1928 and 1930, losing badly. In 1930, Manuel Herrick won less than 3% of the vote against Congressman Garber and another opponent.
Herrick haunted the halls of the House, virtually penniless. Manuel Herrick sued the Tulsa Daily Oklahoman who he claimed had damaged him by publishing a photo of what was purported to be his home on his farm. Herrick claimed the newspaper had taken a picture of his chicken houses and represented it as his home. The former congressman claimed he was about to marry an attractive young stenographer in Washington, D.C. who took one look at the picture and icily informed him she would not marry him. Herrick then sued her for having jilted him, saying his “value on the matrimonial market” had been knocked in the head.
Apparently, it finally dawned upon Manuel Herrick he could not win back his old seat in Congress, and in 1933 he moved to California where he lived in a rustic cabin. There the former congressman subsisted by working at odd jobs. Yet Herrick evidently never lost his hope as one of those jobs was mining for gold.
Manuel Herrick ended both his political career and life in California. Herrick waged one more losing bid to return to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1948. In California, candidates could “cross-file” in both the Republican and Democratic primaries and potentially win the nominations of both major parties. Herrick filed in both the Republican and Democratic primaries, faring about the same. Herrick won less than 3% of the vote in the Republican primary while winning 3.27% in the Democratic primary. The 72-year-old former congressman’s political career had realistically long been over. The 1948 election merely confirmed the fact Manuel Herrick was done as a candidate for public office.
George L. Welch lived in Colfax, California, and became a partner and companion of Herrick as they were both growing old and worked the mining claim the former congressman had in the Golden State’s High Sierra mountains. That claim was 9 ½ miles northeast of Quincy. Rodney Alden, a newspaper publisher in Quincy, drove the 78-year-old former congressman and the 73-year-old Welch within 3 ½ miles of the claim. It was later that evening that the High Sierras were being covered by snow from a blizzard. Herrick had been warned not to go into the mountains where the snow was already knee deep.
As weeks passed and the former congressman had not come to the post office to pick up his mail, the local postmaster notified Sheriff Mel H. Schooler. Sheriff Schooler formed a search posse which found George Welch’s body, along with a knapsack belonging to Manuel Herrick, which contained food and blankets. Schooler theorized the two had grown tired and tried to turn back when Welch collapsed. Schooler said he believed Herrick had propped Welch up against a tree and then went to seek help. Quite nearly blind, Manuel Herrick had lost his way in the heavy snow.
By early February, Oklahoma newspapers were reporting Manuel Herrick was missing and believed to be dead. The frozen body of Manuel Herrick was found on February 29, 1952.
© 2023 Ray Hill