A series where we take a #lookback at the stories and history of our community, brought to you by Mick Pryor, Financial Advisor with Edward Jones.
On the morning of June 19th 1954, a shot rang out in the US Senate office building. Wyoming Senator, Lester Hunt was found slumped at his desk with a self-inflicted bullet wound to his head. Earlier that morning, a police officer had noticed the Senator carrying a .22 rifle and offered to hold it while Hunt juggled other packages, and an elevator operator had noticed it under his coat. Neither man dreamed of confronting or questioning a US senator. He was from Wyoming after all. Who was Senator Lester Hunt, and why did he take his own life?
Lester Hunt was born in Edgar county Illinois in 1892. He put himself through dental school and after graduating in 1917 moved to Lander, Wyoming and set up a dental practice. He served in the US army from 1917 to 1919 and then returned to Lander and his dental practice. He married Nathelle Higby and they had two children, Eloise born in 1922 and Lester Jr. born in 1928.
Hunt ran for representative in the Wyoming House of Representatives for Fremont County as a Democrat in 1933 and was swept into office on Franklin Roosevelt’s coattails. He served as Wyoming Secretary of State for eight years from 1935 to 1943. As Secretary of State, he commissioned the Bucking Horse and Rider that adorns the Wyoming license plate. In those days the design was so popular when Wyoming drivers left the state their license plates were frequently stolen. They were popular collector’s items. Hunt also found the original State constitution and the first bill passed by the Territorial Legislature giving women the right to vote. These two documents had been misplaced for years.
Lester Hunt served as governor of Wyoming from 1943 to 1949. One of his main focuses was to support the war effort and help returning soldiers reenter society. He also started a retirement system for teachers, and tried but failed to pass a retirement system for state workers as well.
Hunt was elected to the US Senate in 1948 defeating an incumbent by a wide margin. As a US Senator Lester locked horns with Wisconsin senator, Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy headed a movement to root out communists and homosexuals from the military and the civil service. McCarthy’s Red Scare and the Lavender Scare ruined many careers in Washington D.C. and Hollywood. Hunt campaigned hard for a law to restrict congressional immunity thus allowing citizens to sue members of congress for slander. This made Senator Hunt a prime target for McCarthy and his followers.
On June 9th 1953, Lester Hunt’s son, Lester Jr. or “Buddy” was arrested by a male undercover vice officer for soliciting prostitution in Lafayette Park. Ordinarily, for a first time offense this matter would have been handled quietly, but Republican supporters of McCarthy heard of the Buddy’s arrest and were determined to use it to their political advantage. McCarthy’s cronies tried to blackmail Senator Hunt into resigning his office, with the senate was split 47 to 47 and with a Republican governor Hunt’s resignation would have switched the balance of power in the Senate. Hunt refused to resign and Buddy’s case was taken to trial. Buddy was convicted, but it was not widely publicized.
Next, McCarthy’s cronies tried to blackmail Senator Hunt into not running for reelection. They threatened to distribute 25,000 leaflets to Wyoming voters outlining Buddy’s conviction. The day before Hunt’s suicide, McCarthy publicly accused an unknown senator of “just plain wrong doing.” Hunt may have thought he could protect his family from damaging publicity by committing suicide.
Soon after Senator Hunt’s suicide, the Senate censured McCarthy. His involvement in the suicide of Lester Hunt added to the damage of McCarthy’s reputation and contributed to the end of his reign of terror.
In a mock trial in 2013 with former governor Dave Freudenthal acting as prosecutor, Joseph McCarthy and his cronies were “found guilty of a variety of charges including blackmail and causing bodily injury.” The mock trial coincided with the publication of “Dying for Joseph McCarthy’s Sins” a book by Rodger McDaniel about the Lester Hunt Story.
Lester Hunt is buried in Cheyenne. The town of Lander honored their favorite son, Lester Hunt by naming the municipal airport Hunt Field.
Next up for the Fremont County Museums
March 14, 6:30pm at the Riverton Museum “Carol L. Deering: Havoc & Solace Poems from the Inland West”
Wyoming Community Bank Discovery Speakers Series
April 11, 7pm at the Pioneer Museum, “Lander in 1919”
Wyoming Community Bank Discovery Speakers Series
April 13, 2pm at the Riverton Museum, “Paint a Birdhouse”
Bailey Tire/Pit Stop Children’s Exploration Series
April 13, 10am at the Pioneer Museum, “Noble Hotel Walking Tour”
Wind River Visitors Council Adventure Trek Series
The Dubois Museum, the Pioneer Museum in Lander and the Riverton Museum need your financial support. In the current economic environment the museums are more reliant than ever on donations from the private sector to continue to provide the quality programs, collections management, exhibits and services that have become their hallmark over the last four years. Please make your tax deductible contribution to be used specifically for the benefit of the museum of your choosing by sending a check to Fremont County Museums 450 N 2nd Rm 320 or taking it directly to the museum you choose to support.