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The Governors Burke

Posted by Bill Vossler 10/31/2016 3:34:25 PM

The Governors Burke
Andrew Burke – from street urchin to second governor
No governor of North Dakota had ever endured a more difficult early life than Andrew Horace Burke before he began serving as the second chief officer of the state in 1891. Burke’s was a true American rags-to-riches story.
In 1854, when Burke was four years old, New York City boasted a population of 500,000. What it did not boast was its number of homeless children. “Such was the severity of child poverty,” says Renee Wendinger in Extra! Extra! The Orphan Trains and Newsboys of New York, “that there were 34,000 homeless youngsters.”
The epidemic of homeless children had exploded for several reasons, says Andrea Warren in Orphan Train Rider: One Boy’s True Story. Farm machinery requiring fewer workers; migration of these workers to city factories, where they lacked family and friend support; the influx of many thousands of immigrants seeking work; and lack of housing, which meant workers with large families were jammed into tiny apartments with two or three other families. “Some families even lived in cardboard boxes or coal cellars,” she wrote.
So when the unexpected occurred – illness, work accidents, rent increases, births, or deaths – there wasn’t enough money available for food. Children as young as five were turned out into the streets to fend for themselves.
Orphaned at four
In 1850, Burke’s mother, Mary, died in New York City while giving birth to Andrew. While his father, John, worked for very low wages in a factory, people in Burke’s tenement took turns taking care of young Andrew.
When Burke was four, his father also died, writes Curt Eriksmoen in the third volume of his book, Did You Know That...? “Andrew was taken to a nursery at Randall’s” (sometimes written ‘Reynold’s’) Island, as a ward of the Children’s Aid Society, “and when he became old enough, began hawking newspapers on the streets,” writes Eriksmoen. He was five years old, and became a member of a class of kids called “waifs of the city,” or “the dangerous classes.”
Like other ragamuffins, or street merchants, Burke’s life was hard, a brutal survival of the fittest. Homeless children worked in mills, collected rags, sold newspapers, or begged.
They hawked matches or gum on street corners, shined shoes, ate out of trashcans, or stole food or items to sell to junk shops.
Some ended up in prison, as children as young as seven were treated as adults. Twelve-year-olds and older could be put to death for theft, writes Warren. At night they slept in doorways or cardboard boxes, on steam grates, in empty buildings or wherever they could find an undisturbed spot.
Burke at work
To make money to pay for his room and food at the Children‘s Aid Society lodging house, Burke sold The Tribune at an assigned corner in New York City. Dorothy A. Lund Nelson writes in Burke’s Journeys that each day “the older paperboys would sound out the words of the headlines for the five-year-old, who couldn‘t read. When Burke had the correct words, he would go to his corner and yell, ’Extra, extra, read all about it,’ finishing his shout with the headline for that day,” taught to him by the older boys.
“Each house provided clean beds,” writes Alice K. Flanagan in The Orphan Trains, “a dining hall, and a reading room filled with newspapers, books, and Bibles.” Eventually Burke learned to read the short sentences found under photographs or in boxes in the paper.
Burke worked as a newsboy until he was nine years old. By this time, Charles Loring Brace’s Children’s Aid Society had begun “placing out” orphans. Brace’s idealized view believed the West had plenty of food with good-hearted and generous people, writes Wendinger. He was certain Westerners would accept homeless children to help with daily chores.
In 1859, Burke was placed on an orphan train, which went from town to town, essentially peddling the children. On the train he met John Brady. “The two boys had a great deal in common,” writes Stephen O’Connor in Orphan Trains, “not only their Irish Catholic backgrounds, their institutionalization, and their shared anxieties and hopes about what would happen to them in their new homes, but also unusual intelligence and determination. They became fast friends on their ride, and would stay in touch throughout their lives. Perhaps partly by mutual influence, they would also end up fulfilling startlingly similar destinies” – Burke as governor of North Dakota and Brady as governor of the Territory of Alaska.
At each stop, the youngsters were examined, and some chosen. “A good-looking boy with a sunny disposition,” writes Annette Fry in The Orphan Trains, “Andy Burke received several offers of a home when he reached Noblesville,” Indiana. Eventually Burke went to a young farming couple from the area.
Later, Burke wrote about the long railway ride “on the Erie route, the tearful eyes, the saddened hearts, the arrival at Noblesville on that clear, sun shining day, the dread I experienced on awaiting to be selected by one of those who had assembled in the Christian Church at that place, and how my heart was gladdened by Mr. D. W. Butler, for his appearance indicated gentleness. All those scenes will live in memory.”
Military experience
Depending on the reference, in 1862 Burke either asked the Butlers for permission to join the 75th Indiana Regiment as a drummer boy in the Civil War, or he ran away. He was 12 years old. After a year, weak, undernourished, and sick with a form of tuberculosis of the lymph nodes, he was mustered out and sent home.
Back at Noblesville, he completed his public school education, enrolled at Asbury College (now DePauw) sawing wood to make money to pay for his classes. Eriksmoen writes that, “The strain of work and school took a toll and his health, and Burke was forced to drop out of school after his second year,” after which he worked for The Evansville Courier newspaper.
Eventually he moved to Minneapolis, finding work as a laborer. While there, he met Caroline “Carrie” Cleveland, and they were married in 1879. A year later, Burke and his bride moved to Casselton, Dakota Territory, sporting $65 in his pocket. He found work as a bookkeeper with Hibbard and Parlin, who operated a general store. Six months later, he became a cashier at the First National Bank of Casselton and made important connections with Republican Party leaders.
Burke was elected Cass County treasurer twice, and when the state’s first governor, John Miller, decided not to seek re-election, Burke became the unanimous nominee of the Republicans, “Burke was popular when he first became governor,” Eriksmoen writes. “The rags-to-riches story about how a street orphan from New York rose to become a state governor was printed in newspapers across the United States.”
The new governor was even offered Alexander McKenzie’s huge Bismarck house to use as a residence. During Burke’s tenure, laws were enacted to authorize $150,000 in state bonds to pay North Dakota’s share of the indebtedness of the Territory of Dakota. Also enacted were a general election law, one to promote irrigation, and a law empowering the governor to appoint a commission to compile the laws.
“This commission,” writes C. A. Lounsberry in History of North Dakota, “discovered ... that there was no law for the election of presidential electors. The absence of which debarred the people from voting for the President...” and others. A hastily-called special session of the Legislature solved the problem.
During his first year, the state was visited by the Rocky Mountain Locust, Melanoplus spretus, as well as 19 other species of the huge grasshopper, some up to four inches long. According to the U.S Department of Agriculture, this species had entered North Dakota the previous fall from the northwest ... just east of the Turtle Mountains, and leaving the first batch of eggs near Cando.”
Luckily, the locusts could be fought. “Not only did Burke recommend state money to be spent to exterminate the insects; but used some personal money,” writes Nelson. Using mixtures of arsenic with wheat bran or molasses and sawdust, 20,000 acres of wheat alone was saved, worth some $400,000.
Tension and strife
At the behest of railroad baron Alexander McKenzie, Burke vetoed a bill which had been passed by the 1891 legislature and favored by the Farmers Alliance, “that required railroads to lease sites on their right of way,” writes Eriksmoen, “for the construction of elevators and warehouses to store grain. These facilities were to be free from any unfair practices on the parts of the railroads.” Burke considered the bill unconstitutional.
Many Alliance members quit the Republican Party and started their own, putting up their own candidate, Eli Shortridge, for governor against Burke, the 1892 Republican nominee. Burke had angered enough people that he lost the governorship to Shortridge.
Life after Governor
Burke attempted a foray into the grain dealership business in Duluth, Minnesota, but so many farmers were angry with him that he did not do well, unlike former Governor John Miller, who had made a fortune at it. He was appointed inspector for the U.S. Land Office in Washington, D.C., in 1895.
Burke died in Roswell, New Mexico, on November 17, 1918, having risen through sheer will from a homeless orphan peddling newspapers on the streets of New York City, to the highest office in the state of North Dakota.
In his own words
Years later, Burke wrote to the Children’s Aid Society about his life:
“Tell the boys I am proud to have had as humble a beginning in life as they, and that I believe it has been my salvation. I hope my success in life – if it can so be termed – will be an incentive to them to struggle for a respectable recognition amongst their fellow man. In this country family name cuts but little figure. It is the character of the man that wins recognition, hence I would urge them to build carefully and consistently for the future, by being obedient, studious, and manly, thereby inculcating the attributes which tend to make the coming years’ efforts successful. Tell them that no one can wish them more happiness than I.
“To the boys now under your charge, please convey to them my best wishes, and that I hope their pathways in life will be those of morality, of honor, of health and industry. With these four attributes as a guidance and incentive, I can bespeak for them and honorable and happy and successful life. The goal is for them, as well as to the rich man’s son.
“They must learn ‘to labor and to wait,’ for ‘all things cometh to him who waits.’ Many times the road will be rugged, winding and long, and the sky overcast with ominous clouds. Still, it will not do to fall by the wayside and give up. If one does the battle of life will be lost. I attribute my little success in life to a few simple rules, to wit: To be honest, to be truthful, to be industrious in all the byways of life; to be a student, even in a small way, when the opportunity presents itself; to be forgiving and generous to mankind in general; and to follow the golden rule –‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ It is not always sunshine and balm. ‘Some days will be dark and dreary and into each life some rain must fall,’ ‘tis then that the philosophy of life confronts us, and we take our reckonings, and find whether we are adrift.”
John Burke – a superb governor and stellar man
By 1905, North Dakota was in turmoil. Alexander McKenzie, political agent for the Northern Pacific Railroad, ensured from 1890 to 1905, “that every political decision, from the location of the state capital to appointment of state Supreme Court justices, favored the railroad,” according to Breaking the Machine from Prairie Public’s television program on the history of the Bank of North Dakota.
With only four good crop years from 1890 to 1901, the state was hurting for revenue. The show tells how “the railroads were not paying their tax obligations.” The North Dakota Farmers Alliance tried to make reforms, but the “McKenzie Machine” prevented them.
McKenzie was described as “the polished secret agent of ruthless railroads and milling corporations. North Dakota had passively submitted to the domination of the McKenzie Machine,” in an article written about him in the Renville County Farmer on March 6, 1963.
Man of the hour
Enter John Burke. Born in Keokuk, Iowa, Burke, a near-penniless 29-year-old lawyer, moved to Dakota Territory in 1888. He began his life of public service when elected county judge of Rolette County in 1889, and served as a Democrat in the North Dakota Senate and House of Representatives before running for governor in 1906.
Though a Republican state, the parties were united in the early 1900s against common enemies: corruption, and the McKenzie machine. Historian Curtis Ericksmoen writes that “the railroad, through McKenzie, offered free rail passes to politicians willing to vote on measures favorable to railroads.”
McKenzie stranglehold
Democrat Burke and his Republican friend Usher Burdick saw this as bribery, and wanted it outlawed. The tide of anger against national corruption as well as McKenzie’s scandals drove the parties to work together.
When McKenzie was sent to prison for an Alaskan gold scandal, Lounsberry writes that “The people of North Dakota were shocked, but when President McKinley pardoned McKenzie soon after, his influence in North Dakota did not seem much damaged.”
Although he had raised the ire of both Democrats and Republicans, McKenzie had enough political clout to get his own hand-picked man, former Hillsboro, North Dakota mayor Elmore Y. Sarles, to run and be elected in 1904.
Two years later, Burke ran for governor on a reform platform stating, “The political affairs of the state of North Dakota are controlled by the railroads.” In his History of North Dakota, Elwyn B. Robinson wrote, “Thin and angular, (Burke) stood over six feet. His rough-hewn features, large ears, and homely, gaunt appearance seemed to reveal his integrity.”
“A modest man, he disliked his nickname, ‘Honest John,’ with its recollection of ‘Honest Abe’ Lincoln. He was fond of reading, especially the poetry of Robert Burns, and he felt a deep sympathy for people,” wrote Lounsberry about Burke. Describing it as “a strenuous campaign,” Lounsberry wrote about how Burke canvassed the state so skillfully that he secured “the endorsement and the support of the radical progressive element in the Republican Party, as well as the Prohibition Party. This coalition stood with him throughout his gubernatorial career.” Burke, a Catholic, was even supported by some Protestant churches.
Although Burke was sworn in as North Dakota’s first Democratic governor in 1907, Republicans under the sway of McKenzie controlled the Senate. Many anti-railroad bills were introduced, but lobbyists and McKenzie forces defeated them, along with at least one progressive legislator who voted against those bills, Lounsberry writes.
“Usher L. Burdick, a member of the House, has recalled that railroad lobbyists photographed a progressive legislator with a nude woman and then forced him to vote against the railroad bills or risk exposure.”
Enough bitterness lingered that Lounsberry wrote about when the legislature met in January 1907 and, “McKenzie and a prominent Democrat had a fist fight in the lobby of the Grand Pacific Hotel.”
Nevertheless, several landmark bills were passed – a direct primary election law that meant the beginning of the end of the McKenzie Machine, and no-party ballot, voting for senators, public library commission law, and laws to enforce prohibition.
During this time Burke burnished his own credentials. As Lounsberry writes, “A feature of Burke’s administration which won him the confidence and commendation of the people, was his unremitting attention to his public duties.” All his energies were devoted to work for the state. He paid no attention to his law practice, and he demanded that all state officers would do the same, rather than have deputies run the offices while they pursued their private businesses, as had been previously done. That “was also a feature that contributed largely to his popularity with the people,” according to Lounsberry.
Re-election victories
In 1908, running against McKenzie‘s chosen candidate, Charles A. Johnson, Burke was re-elected, once again with the help of Republicans and Prohibitionists. Usher Burdick was elected Speaker of the House, and Ericksmoen writes that “together they were able to get some reform measures through the legislature.”
These included a game and fish board, a law for pure seeds, serum institute for animal vaccines, limits on child labor, and a tuberculosis sanitarium. But the real changes came when Burke was re-elected for an unprecedented third term in 1910. The lieutenant governor was Republican Usher Burdick, making the state truly bipartisan.
Bipartisan political changes good for North Dakota
Other political reforms during Burke’s three terms included a corrupt practices act, lobbying limitations, anti-pass bill (no more free railroad passes to legislators,) a hail insurance department, tax commission, and boards for controlling North Dakota normal schools, and managing charitable, reformatory and penal institutions. A public library commission was also set up, along with public health laboratories, juvenile courts and workmen’s compensation, as well as legislation for sanitation inspection and public health, and regulation of public utilities, medicine, and surgery.
During these years Burke also made bipartisan appointments to North Dakota’s courts. He was also one of the first advocates for control of the Missouri River. “His list of constructive laws would fill pages,” notes The Statue of John Burke pamphlet.
“It has been written that ‘Burke changed North Dakota from colonial possession of wealthy plutocratic interests into a free democratic community,’” writes Ericksmoen. In recognition for his service and the effect he had on the state, the 1909 Legislature carved out a new county, naming it Burke County.
Burke’s Phase II
Although Burke did not run for a fourth term as governor, he was far from done with politics. He enthusiastically supported the presidential candidacy of Woodrow Wilson at the 1912 Democratic National Convention, and swung North Dakota’s votes to Wilson on the first ballot. In gratitude for his support, Wilson appointed Burke as U.S. Treasurer in 1913.
Burke was unsuccessful in a 1916 attempt to run for the U.S. Senate, and stayed on as U.S. Treasurer until 1921, when new U.S. President Warren Harding selected a replacement. He then joined the New York private stock brokerage firm, Kardos Co., and renamed it Kardos & Burke to take advantage of Burke’s name. He received $500 a week for the honor.
Unfortunately, by 1922 the company declared bankruptcy and could not repay its creditors some $2 million. The New York Times of December 9, 1922, reported that, “Checks issued by the firm were in payment for $2,550 in jewelry which alleged to have represented a birthday gift to Kardo’s sister in April 1921, and a wedding present to the broker’s wife in October of the same year.”
According to the firm’s counsel, Arthur L. Ross, “ one had questioned the personal integrity of Mr. Burke and he was probably the chief loser in the failure of his firm. Bad management and over-rapid expansion to take care of a fast-growing business caused the collapse.”
The New York Times reported on June 29, 1922, that “Officials of the Progress National Bank declared to a reporter ... last night that the wind-up of the brokerage firm’s brief career disclosed an amazing situation in which they insisted that Burke had been an innocent dupe. They declared that the fact that Burke’s name is ‘on all the money’ – the Treasurer of the United States signs the currency – had been used by Kardos in exploiting his partner. They asserted that Burke never knew what was going on...” Kardos had also hoped Burke’s name would get the firm admittance to the Stock Exchange, which never happened.
“The whole thing reminds me of the old adage,” Burke was quoted as saying in the February 24, 1922, Schenectady Gazette “that a cobbler should stick to his last. I am a lawyer by profession. I made a mistake going into the brokerage business, about which I find I knew too little.”
The situation bothered Burke so much that “he felt obligated to make it right with the investors,” Ericksmoen writes. “Burke sold his real estate, cashed in his life insurance policy, and sold his seat on the stock exchange and turned all of his wealth and possessions over to the creditors.”
He returned to North Dakota at the age of 63, again nearly penniless. In 1925, “Honest John” Burke was elected to the North Dakota Supreme Court, where he served as chief justice from 1929 to 1931, and again from 1935 until his death on May 14, 1937.
After Burke’s death, Judge George M. McKenna said, “We need build Governor John Burke no great mausoleum. Physical monuments perish, but a true and noble character perpetuates itself and endures through all future ages. His greatest monument has been erected in the hearts of his people ... which will endure so long as the name North Dakota shall continue in the annals of men.”
In Memoriam
Even after his death, honors continued to accrue for Burke. In 1942, a liberty ship, the SS John Burke, was named after him. In 1960, he was chosen “a hero of his generation,” and was chosen to be the first of two North Dakota historic figures to be honored in National Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol. A replica of the statue also stands near the entrance of the North Dakota State Capitol building in Bismarck.
The state pamphlet about him describes the impact of Burke’s life, “For the greater part of John Burke’s political life he was a member of the minority political party. Despite this, his courage of conviction, combined with a deep human sympathy and high ability won for him a place in the hearts of the people of North Dakota. His outstanding public service was known throughout the nation.”
The Bismarck Tribune has called Burke “the greatest statesman North Dakota ever produced.” Based on his record, John Burke was one of North Dakota’s most stellar politicians, but his actions proved he was an even more stellar human being.
Bill Vossler is a native North Dakotan who taught in the state for many years. A frequent contributor to North Dakota Horizons, he lives in Rockville, Minnesota. He can be reached at

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