History's Most Colorful, Forgotten Character

This is the story of the only U.S. Congressmen ever sent to an insane asylum.
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Marion Zioncheck is the most colorful character in American history that you've never heard of. I'm resurrecting him in order for you to think about him, before you forget about him again.

This is the story of the only U.S. Congressmen ever sent to an insane asylum.

Zioncheck was an ambitious and charismatic young man growing up in Seattle in the 1920s. He was only in his twenties when he led a successful recall election against Seattle Mayor Frank Edwards after Edwards dared tinker with the city's utilities company in ways that hurt regular citizens. Soon after that Zioncheck was running for Congress. Few in establishment politics took him seriously, but he got media attention by visiting the local jail and passing out cigars to inmates while asking for their vote. When he won, in 1932, people attributed his victory to the force of his personality alone.

Zioncheck was one of a small group of radicals who tried to push the New Deal faster than President Roosevelt would go. He spoke passionately about economic and social justice and the rights of the common man. He was so outspoken and so driven that at one point his name was discussed as a third-party candidate for president.

But Zioncheck wasn't interested in a third-party candidacy; he wanted to work within the system. And so he started playing by the rules. Because he was so hard-working, he was soon assigned by Democratic leaders to fill the position of party objector. The objector's job was to read every piece of legislation coming before the House and to object to any proposal that didn't conform to the party's platform. This was tedious, difficult work, but it was crucial for the party, and for a political climber it was a major opportunity to rise within party ranks.

But Zioncheck still held radical change in his heart. He saw how people were starving during the Great Depression, and he felt it personally, and deeply.

He felt it so personally and deeply that it drove him mad.

The first incident happened in the early morning hours of New Year's Day, 1936. Zioncheck was drunk and looking for some friends in a hotel. Not finding them, he woke up everyone in the building by throwing the operator's switchboard open and wishing all the guests a Happy New Year. He spent a few hours in jail and was fined for drunk and disorderly conduct and for disturbing the peace.

That was just the beginning. Drunken arrests, bad driving, unconfirmed rumors about biting someone on the neck, a marriage to a zany Washington, D.C., secretary after only dating her for three days -- the rest of the story is told in detail in my book, Grassroots. In any case, Marion Zioncheck the idealist quickly became Marion Zioncheck the uncontrollable tabloid politician.

He was finally sent to a sanitarium after driving onto the White House lawn. A few days of observation in the hospital was all it took to declare him insane.

But he broke out of that sanitarium. Not much later, he returned to Seattle. Once there, he killed himself, throwing himself out the window of a fifth-floor building downtown.

The story doesn't end there. Zioncheck left behind a suicide note that elevated his tale from a sad mental breakdown to a romantic activist allegory. "My only hope in life," he wrote, "was to improve the condition of an unfair economic system that held no promise to those that all the wealth of a decent chance to survive let alone live..."

He may have been writing hastily and desperately, but it's obvious what he meant: I tried to save the world, but...

I think about Zioncheck whenever I hear of another activist defeat, most recently when a friend of mine, visiting from Wisconsin, told me about his frustrations as a grassroots activist in the recall efforts against Gov. Scott Walker. He was so adrenalized by bitterness that there was no getting in a word during the entire lunch. I'm not worried about my friend's mental health, as he's a pretty stable guy, but I can only imagine the legions of other volunteers in Wisconsin who are not taking defeat well. How many other would-be Zionchecks are out there, thinking that, if they just put in enough of their own time, energy, and ferocious willpower, they could make things right?

Society has forgotten Marion Zioncheck because, in the end, he was a failure. The Hollywood movie starring Jason Biggs that's adapted from my book leaves him out, too -- his story is too complicated a tangent to put in a feature film, apparently, and the aim of Grassroots the film is to inspire young people to get involved in politics, not scare them away.

Marion Zioncheck's zealous, take-it-personally activism is a powerful warning to anyone who fancies him- or herself the lone David capable of defeating all the Goliaths the world has to offer. I included Zioncheck in my book because I think that's a lesson worth remembering, however uncomfortable a lesson it might be.

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