John Wesley Langley resigned from Congress (R., Kentucky 10th Congressional District) in January 1926, after losing an appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States to set aside his conviction on charges of conspiracy to violate the Volstead Act. He’d been caught trying to bribe a Prohibition officer and sent to the federal penitentiary in Atlanta. From his jail cell he made a plea to his constituents to elect his wife to vindicate his name. He claimed that he was ‘practically penniless’ and that the only hope of saving their home was to send his wife to serve a term in Congress while he sat in prison.
When Katherine Langley (1883-1948) hit the campaign trail that spring, her husband’s conviction was a cause celebre—the feeling was widespread that her husband had been the victim of a political conspiracy. She delivered over 100 speeches, each time glorifying the name of her husband and promising to carry out his goals.
Katherine Langley was well prepared to for the task. She had worked as secretary to her husband during his 18 years in office; was an active member of the Kentucky Republican Party; was the founder of the Women’s Republican State Committee; had served as a delegate to the Republican National Convention in 1924; and had served on the Kentucky Railroad Commission. “John Langley wears the breeches,” winked one newspaper editorialist, “but the lady has the brains.”
Original photo caption reads: Both Once Congress Members – They Celebrate Silver Anniversary; Mr. and Mrs. John W. Langley as they appeared on the celebration of their silver wedding anniversary at their home in Pikeville, Ky. Mrs. Langley is a Congresswoman from the 10th Kentucky Congressional district, having succeeded her husband after he was charged with violation of the prohibition laws. At left is their two daughters, left to right: Miss Susannah Langley and Mrs. Katherine Bentley., 11/29/29.
She won the Republican primary election against a field of seven other candidates, including Andrew J. Kirk, who had been elected to finish out Langley’s unexpired term; and that fall she defeated her Democratic opponent to become the seventh woman elected to the House. Because of the growing controversy over Prohibition, her victory attracted wide editorial attention. Most comment was favorable; major Kentucky newspapers expressed the view that Mrs. Langley’s election was traceable to “the inherent loyalty of the mountain folk.”
Not all her congressional colleagues accepted her, politics being what it is. “She offends the squeamish by her unstinted display of gypsy colors on the floor and the conspicuousness with which she dresses her bushy blue-black hair,” one newspaper sniffed. She was also criticized for her flowery oratory on the House floor, a result of her earlier career as a speech teacher. These issues had no affect on the voters she served, however; she was re-elected to the 71st Congress in 1928 by a larger vote than she’d received in her first run.
Mrs. Langley lobbied President Coolidge to grant clemency to her husband, which he did with the understanding that John Langley never again seek office. However, in 1929 Mr. Langley chose to disregard that understanding and announced his intention to regain his former House seat. When Katherine Langley said she had no intention of stepping down for her husband or anyone else, the result was a publicly aired domestic quarrel that doomed the political futures of both husband and wife. When election day arrived, it was Mrs. Langley’s name that appeared on the ballot, but many Republicans stayed away from the polls, insuring victory for the Democratic candidate.
Sources: Notable American Women, 1607-1950, by Edward T. James, Janet Wilson James, Paul S. Boyer, Radcliffe College
Biographical Dictionary of Congressional Women, by Karen Foerstel