Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Governor’s Illness Leads to Lieutenant Governor Position

Gov. John Sebastian Little

Among Arkansas’s 46 elected governors, Gov. John Sebastian Little stands out, not for his accomplishments, but because his time as governor was crippled by illness that led to voters approving the office of lieutenant governor.

On Jan. 18, 1907, Arkansas inaugurated John Sebastian Little as the state’s 21st governor. Little had a distinguished public career, having served as a state lawmaker and as a United States congressman for years. Voters hoped Little would usher in an era of calm by replacing Gov. Jeff Davis, who was controversial. Davis’s time at the Capitol had been turbulent, so by the time Little was elected to the U.S. Senate, Arkansans desired tranquility.

During Little’s inaugural speech, he promised to reform the state’s education system, to end the controversial system of leasing prison labor to private companies and to enact financial reforms. In all, it was a bold agenda that offered a vision for progress in the state. But, it was not to happen.

Three days after his inauguration, Little stepped from his car in front of the Old State House for his first full day of work and collapsed on the sidewalk. Immediately, his son, Paul Little, rushed to his side. The governor was unresponsive, but Paul Little and several other people helped him to his feet and carried him to his office. Once there, his staff laid him on a couch and called a doctor.

Dr. Ed. Dibrell arrived minutes later and attempted to revive the governor with no success. Believing the governor’s condition to be the result of a nervous breakdown, the doctor ordered total silence and rest. An hour later, the governor’s staff loaded him into a car and drove him to his home a few blocks away.

Dr. Dibrell ordered more rest and quiet and prohibited Little from trying to attend to his government duties until he had totally recovered. The next day, his son drove him to his second home in Greenwood, far away from the stress of political life.

Those who knew Gov. Little’s past knew he had suffered from mental health issues previously. While running for congress in 1890, Little abruptly withdrew from the race citing illness, which according to press coverage of the time may have been a nervous breakdown. This illness kept him out of the public eye for four years before he felt well enough to return to the political stage.

The governor’s son, acting as the governor’s secretary, told the press the governor was improving but would remain in Greenwood. The legislature was in session, however, and the governor would need to sign bills issued.

Paul Little seemingly organized a system that would ensure the governor would be able to sign the appropriate legislation. The system seemed to work, with Paul Little shuttling bills from Little Rock to Little’s home in Greenwood. Every morning, Paul Little would follow all the news in the legislative session. At the end of the day, he would forward the bills to Greenwood with information about the day’s debates. 

But, questions remained about Gov. Little’s health. The governor’s staff informed the press he was resting nicely and would likely return to work before the end of the session. However, staff was adamant no one from the press bother the governor. They said any stress might cause a relapse, therefore the press was banned from talking to him. The doctor even ordered the telephone at the governor’s Greenwood residence be removed so as to not jar Mr. Little’s delicate disposition.

As the weeks rolled by without any public appearances, the state’s political rumor mills went into action. Some of the rumors claimed that the governor was an invalid, and some even went so far as to claim that the governor was dead. His true condition was further clouded by claims made by the governor’s staff that he was improving.

By May 1907, it was clear that the governor’s condition was likely worse than his staff had told the press. It was especially apparent when the governor, through his son, appointed John Ike Moore, president of the Senate, to take the reins of government while he recuperated at a resort in Corpus Christi, Texas.

His time in Corpus Christi was filled with walks on the beach and lots of medication. The governor’s doctor, W.P. Hailey, wrote Paul Little on March 24, 1907, “He is better than at any time since I have been here…. This improvement makes me feel more confident than ever that he will soon be his old self again.”

However, the press learned the governor’s condition was far worse than what his son had told them. Gov. Little’s mental illness was physically apparent. The governor had gone from 170 pounds to just under 100 pounds in a matter of a few weeks. He was unable to walk without help. An observer wrote to the Arkansas Democrat, “[Little] is mentally and physically a wreck… his condition will never be improved. He appeared like a little child; at times, he hardly appeared to know that there were people with him, and at other times he would speak about the big crowd.”

When Little did not return by May 14, 1907, the president pro tempore of the state senate took over as acting governor, followed by a string of other short-term acting governors. The number of acting governors created tension and revived the discussion to elect a lieutenant governor in case the governor became incapacitated. Voters approved the new position in 1914, which was confirmed by the state Supreme Court in 1926.

Little died on Oct. 29, 1916, at the State Hospital for Nervous Diseases. Despite hopes his administration would bring stability to state government, it only added confusion. Politics remained tumultuous until 1909, when a new governor, George Washington Donaghey, was elected and began enacting the reforms Governor Little had promised.

For more information on Arkansas history, visit the Arkansas State Archives at 1 Capitol Mall, Suite 215, or call 501-682-6900.