Charles Jones: The senator who went on vacation and never came back
In 1885, the maritime town of Pensacola had a population of nearly 10,000 people and was growing at a pace never before seen in its history. The city was experiencing explosive growth in the wake of the Civil War brought by the timber and exports boom that made Pensacola into one of the largest ports on the Gulf Coast.
This growth put Pensacola on the map, and so too, it would thrust a Pensacolian named Charles W. Jones into the chords of power in the nation’s capitol.
But Jones, known to friends as C.W., would have to travel a long and arduous path before arriving in the halls of congress. Born in 1834 in Balbriggan, Ireland, Jones immigrated to the United States with his mother when he was just 10-years-old. His father, a British Army surgeon, had died when he was just a child.
After attending schools in New York and St. Louis, Jones moved to Louisiana in 1848 and soon after to Mississippi. By 1854, he had settled in Santa Rosa County, Fla. where he began working as a carpenter and read law in his spare time. By 1857, his studies had paid off and he was admitted to the Florida Bar. With his new legal career, he moved to the bustling port town of Pensacola, where he began to build a large and lucrative practice. This eventually led to his appointments as tax assessor for Escambia and Santa Rosa counties during the Civil War, during which he would marry his wife, Mary Ada Quigly of Mobile, Ala. They would have four children together before her death in 1880.
For Jones, it seemed politics was his destiny. In 1872 during Reconstruction, he emerged into the political arena as a Florida delegate at the Democratic National Convention in Baltimore. He would suffer a defeat that year in his first race for Congress.
By 1874, Jones was elected to the Florida House of Representatives by a margin of just five votes. In the state house, the freshman Democrat would become a symbol for the resurgence of the Democratic party in the closing years of Reconstruction. This would be just the first step for Jones into what would become an infamous political career.
Prior to passage of the 17th Amendment in 1913, U.S. Senators were elected by state legislatures rather than by voters directly. For the state of Florida in 1875, this meant that it was up to the bitterly-divided legislators to come to a consensus in electing a new senator. In a last minute effort, at the shock of other more-established candidates, legislators chose Jones to represent Floridians in the nation’s capital — making Jones the first Democrat to serve in the U.S. Senate following the Civil War.
In hindsight, the election of the young, 41-year-old Jones in 1875 was an opportune moment for power players in the state, which had been decimated in the Civil War just a decade prior. Jones represented the deeply Conservative faction of the Democratic party, which bears little resemblance to the party of the same name today. The party saw his election as the “overthrowing of the Carpet-Bag rule in Florida,” the Tallahassee Weekly Floridian would write.
Jones would soon prove his allegiance to the party, condemning Louisiana for its continuing of progressive Republican policies just two months after his election. Two years later, in 1877, he would refuse to count Florida’s electoral votes for Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in the disputed election controversy.
A Senator in pursuit of love
By 1885, Charles Jones had been elected to his second term in Congress. It was in this year that the prominent, successful congressman took a turn in what would become one of the most bizarre political sagas in American history.
Following the adjournment of Congress that spring, Jones took a vacation to Detroit that extended into the autumn, which attracted little attention. By the time Congress reconvened in December of 1885, Senator Jones had still not returned and his Senate colleagues explained that his absence was due to illness.
However, by January, the Florida Times-Union reported that Jones was “still mysteriously absent.” By that time, gossip about his sanity had begun to circulate in both Washington and in Florida. The Baltimore Sun reported that the rumors in Washington were that Jones was pursuing the hand of a wealthy young daughter of a millionaire and that he would not be leaving until she “yields.”
A Detroit Evening News reporter would later ask Jones why he had not returned to Washington. “The Senator made an eloquent and convincing talk on the silver question, but as to his reasons for preferring Detroit to Washington, he would not say,” the reporter wrote. “It is to be regretted that the senator from Florida, who is so well-equipped for the intelligent discussion of this great question, does not see fit to deliver these lucid observations from his place in the Senate of the United States instead of from the privacy of his room in the Russell House in Detroit.”
Several of his Republican Senate colleagues, who were in Detroit in late February 1886, visited Senator Jones to convince him to return to Washington. He refused, insisting he “should now spend in relaxation and recreation without criticism.”
The Florida Times-Union demanded that Jones “either resign or go to a hospital for repairs.” By now, rumors were circulating that Jones had become mentally ill.
In April 1886, the Florida newspaper disclosed the details of Jones’ pursuit of Miss Clothilde Palms, “a plain looking woman of 35 years,” with whom the senator was reportedly madly in love. She and Jones had supposedly met at a dinner in the home of Detroit Mayor Thompson, a relative by marriage. When Jones first arrived in Detroit in the fall of 1885, he had called on her daily, the newspaper reported. “At first he was pleasantly received,” but when he kept on “calling at all sort of inopportune times, sent passionate notes and bouquets, until the violence of the courtship showed that he was not a fit person to be received . . . Mr. Francis Palms, her father, put a stop to it.” The newspaper attributed the source to, “a prominent Detroit gentleman.”
A Michigan newspaper account differed from this story. It was reported that Jones did not even know Ms. Palms by sight and that he had passed her countless times upon the street without recognizing her. Yet, dressed “like a dandy,” he would walk up and down in front of the Palms mansion, and would send the object of his affection flowers and “billets-doux.” The latter were quickly rejected. In his rooms, the paper claimed, the senator made “long, vigorous and lusty” speeches in front of a large mirror, and people on the street outside could observe him. “His self vanity is boundless. He struts up and down before the glass in a pompous manner, making sweeping gestures and oratorical flourishes,” the paper reported.
Although newspaper reports of the meeting of Jones and Miss Palms appear factual, the reported daily inundation of flowers and her father’s actions seem to be fabrications, especially the latter, since the elder Mr. Palms had suffered a debilitating stroke in 1875, a full ten years before Jones arrived in Detroit. Whatever the truth may have been, the newspaper headlines essentially destroyed the senator’s political career and personal life. William G. Thompson, former mayor of Detroit, would be reported as saying that people in Michigan thought the senator had become “mad.”
“A most unprecedented situation”
The continued absence and alleged mental situation of Jones presented the Senate leadership with “a most unprecedented situation,” as reported by the New York Times in the spring of 1886.
On April 12, 1886, the Senate ruled that Jones’s place on the various committees were now “temporarily” vacant. When Jones was informed of the actions taken against him, he wrote that he was, “very much hurt at the action of the Senate.”
The Florida Times-Union viewed the situation as a “pretty conclusive indication of the view the senators take of his willful and prolonged absence.” The newspaper demanded that Governor Perry declare the senator’s seat vacant and appoint someone to replace him.
The governor did not act on the demand. Instead, the governor announced that he had written Jones a “warm, friendly letter urging him to repair to his post,” but that he had received no reply. There was no precedence or process to replace a sitting senator who had not been officially declared physically or mentally incompetent.
“I know of no way in which the Governor of the State can interfere officially,” Perry argued. The only thing that could be done was to, “wait with patience until the senator himself, the Senate, or death makes a vacancy, or he returns to duty.”
The people of Pensacola and Florida would remain without the senator’s service until his term expired in March 1887.
From U.S. Senator to a “beggar upon the streets”
Upon the expiration of his term, Jones’s salary was terminated, and without a steady income, the now ex-senator quickly ran out of money to support his new-found alcoholism. By 1888 — just one year after leaving the Senate — the owners of the Russell House in Detroit evicted him and he soon became homeless.
A New York newspaper wrote: “For months he has done nothing but eat, smoke, and walk with little sleep. He is a vigorous eater and sits down to the table as many as six times a day. The ex-senator is a wreck mentally.” Another newspaper stated that he was “practically a beggar upon the streets.” The New York Times wrote in the spring of 1888 that he had become “seedy and would not be recognized by anyone who previously knew him.”
It soon became clear that Jones would never return to his home in Pensacola. By 1890, five years after he first went to Detroit for what he described as a “vacation,” Jones was arrested and sent to a Detroit insane asylum.
Jones remained confined for seven years at the St. Joseph’s Retreat in Dearborn until his death on October 11, 1897, at the age of sixty-three. His only daughter, Mary Ada, accompanied his body to Pensacola, where it was interred in St. Michael’s Cemetery.
There is no logical or proven explanation for what would become of the life of C.W. Jones and the story behind the decline of the once prominent senator from Pensacola remains a mystery. Some reports would later state that his deterioration was the “result of overwork.” Others state that Jones was simply not prepared for the duties before him as he rose so quickly from a carpenter in rural Northwest Florida to one of the most prominent politicians in America. Some defenders of Jones even became convinced that an entirely different explanation was cause for the events that led to his ultimate death — that he was sabotaged by political insiders from within the government.
So then, the mystery remains, was Jones’ tragic personal and political decline the result of intense over-work, political scandal, or was he truly “love-mad?”
Excerpts of this report were collected from the Library of Congress and the Florida Historical Society at State University System of Florida