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Published July 02 2010

Politician from North Dakota last to lie in repose

More than a half-century has passed since a late politician last lay in repose in the U.S. Senate chamber.

Before West Virginia’s Robert Byrd on Thursday, there was Casselton native William Langer, or “Wild Bill,” one of North Dakota’s most colorful and controversial statesmen. By the time Langer died in 1959, the practice of lying in repose, once popular, had mostly lost traction.

Langer’s special connection to his 19-year stomping ground might explain the stopover in the Senate on the way to a Casselton burial.

“He loved serving as senator,” said Langer’s daughter, Mary Gokey of Fargo. “He worked hard, and he really enjoyed it.”

Langer cut a fearless, larger-than-life figure in state and national politics.

As North Dakota attorney general, he became known as a fierce enforcer of Prohibition, once taking Mandan’s telephone exchange at gunpoint to prevent a tip-off to suspects. As governor, Langer was convicted on corruption charges, acquitted at a later trial and promptly re-elected.

When he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1940, a group of detractors petitioned to have him removed. Among a litany of accusations, they claimed that as attorney he’d kidnapped a client from jail and persuaded his ex-wife to remarry him so she wouldn’t have to testify against him in a murder trial. The effort failed.

But beyond the controversies, Gokey, 85, recalls her father as a no-nonsense problem-solver who cared deeply about his constituents. She said, “I remember him saying, ‘Oh, I feel so sorry for these men out of California and New York. They don’t know who votes for them. In North Dakota, I know everyone who votes for me.’ ”

Once, Gokey recalls, a farm widow consulted Langer on where to move her outhouse in a letter.

“I know this farm very well,” he said to her surprise. “I know exactly where she should put her outhouse.”

Langer died of a heart attack in his Washington, D.C., apartment just months after he lost his wife, Lydia, to cancer.

Betty Koed, U.S. Senate associate historian, says through the 19th and early 20th century, lying in repose was common practice. Transporting bodies to their home states wasn’t feasible without proper refrigeration. In those earlier days, senators spent only part of the year in Washington, often without their families. The Senate became an obvious setting for services.

“That became one of the standard options for senators who died in office,” Koed says.

But as transportation became less of issue into the 1940s, says Koed, “these services start getting fewer and far between. It just fell out of practice.”

Langer’s body lay in repose on the Senate floor for an hour or so. It also lay in state at the State Capitol in Bismarck. Langer was buried in the cemetery of St. Leo’s Church in Casselton after his daughters slipped one of his favorite cigars in his jacket pocket.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529