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The Truth Of The Legend Of Key Pittman

key_pittman_in_1915.jpg

Key Pittman
Courtesy Wikipedia Commons

Did you ever see The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance? Remember the line? “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Nevada has many legends. One of them began 75 years ago this November, and it seems like a good time to remind you that it’s just that: a legend.

In 1940, Key Pittman was running for a sixth term in the U.S. Senate. He chaired the Foreign Relations Committee and was a power in the Democratic party. He had long been a leading advocate of the silver industry. He also was 68—older for that time—and alcoholic. But he appeared headed to victory.

He had come back to Nevada to campaign and was drinking a lot. At one point in the days before the election, he had been in Pioche, wasn’t feeling well, and was drinking heavily. In Reno, on November 4, Pittman suffered a heart attack. Two different doctors agreed: there was no hope. The election was the next day. The news appeared that Pittman was in the hospital. His personal physician said the problem was exhaustion and fatigue. Voters then went to the polls and re-elected Pittman.

On November 10, Nevada’s silver senator died. Governor Ted Carville was under a lot of pressure in appointing his successor. In a surprise, he chose the Assembly speaker, Berkeley Bunker, who was half Pittman’s age. Nevada’s other U.S. senator, Pat McCarran, wasn’t happy, nor were several Democrats who had wanted the job. Bunker served for two years and lost his election bid to finish Pittman’s term. Instead, the winner was James Scrugham.

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But that’s not the real story, or even the phony story. Instead, a story spread. A Nevada Democrat was asked why Pittman wasn’t seen in public in the days before the election. The reply? “We’re keeping him on ice.”

Whether or not that’s where it began, the legend grew that Pittman actually had died before the election. Nevada Democrats reasoned that re-electing him could be very difficult if the public knew he was dead. So, they, yes, put him on ice in a hotel room—in Reno, or possibly in Tonopah, the mining town where he had once lived. After Pittman had been re-elected, they announced he was dead, and that was that. The book The Green Felt Jungle included the tale, and it took on the appearance of fact.

But it was a legend … with a little truth to it. Some of you will be familiar with the name Guy Rocha. He was Nevada’s longtime state archivist and a dogged pursuer of the truth. He found Pittman’s doctor and interviewed him. The doctor confirmed that Pittman had a heart attack, regained consciousness, but had no hope of surviving. He did indeed die on November 10. Others at the hospital and the mortuary agreed with this account.

All of which proves that Nevadans did not elect a dead man to the Senate. But they did elect a dying man, with no chance of surviving, and whose condition was being kept a secret. The facts are interesting enough without any legends.

Nevada Yesterdays is written by Associate Professor Michael Green of UNLV, and narrated by former Senator Richard Bryan. Supported by Nevada Humanities

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