When politics was really toxic - in 1856 a pro-slavery anti-Irish politician killed Irish-born waiter Thomas Keating as his meal wasn't delivered "damn quick".
If you think the political atmosphere is bad these days, take a step back to 1856 and May 8 of that year for a most extraordinary occurrence.
That morning at about 11 a.m., pro-slavery and rabidly anti-Irish Congressman Philemon T. Herbert from California, came to the famous Willard Hotel just a short distance from the White House for breakfast. Herbert had been a professional gambler before becoming a member of the House of Representatives and had a reputation for a quick temper.
Jerry Riordan, an Irish-born waiter, approached him and his dining companion, was given their order and told, “Let us have it damn quick.”
Riordan replied that the breakfast serving time had passed but he would do his best.
Herbert stepped away to buy a newspaper from a vendor outside, and by the time he came back only part of the meal was ready. Infuriated, Herbert roared at the young Irish waiter, “Clear out, you Irish son of a bitch.”
When head waiter, Irishman Thomas Keating, approached to calm matters dawn Herbert screamed at him too.
“And you, you damned Irish son of a bitch, clear out too!”
He then jumped up and began pushing Keating away. Keating responded as did other members of the wait staff, and Herbert’s friend joined in.
Herbert grabbed Keating by the collar and held a gun to his chest and pulled the trigger. Keating went down and died shortly afterward.
Fellow waiter John Edbright testified that he tried to help Keating but all he saw was “blood run out of his coat.”
Herbert walked calmly away.
It was a time when beatings and fights were regular in Washington over the issue of slavery. A few weeks later South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks beat Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts senseless on the Senate floor after Sumner called pro-slavery supporters “the drunken spew and vomit of an uneasy civilization.”
Herbert, it turned out, was an “Alabama-born blueblood and an avid secessionist” who had been expelled from the University of Alabama for stabbing a fellow student. Yet the chances of convicting him were rated as uncertain.
Once the trial started it became clear why. The presiding judge was clearly pro-Confederacy and directed the jury to read only the defense’s argument. It resulted in a hung jury.
A second trial was heard before a jury consisting of 11 members of the Know Nothings, the viciously anti-Irish organization. Little wonder that Herbert was acquitted.
The Charleston newspaper in South Carolina heartily agreed with the verdict, noting that Keating had been wrong to put up resistance. “ Menials should accept their role quietly,” the editorial said.
The editor of the Montgomery Mail wrote, “It is getting time that hotel waiters a little farther north were convinced that they ARE servants and not gentlemen in disguise. We hope that this affair will teach them prudence.”
Herbert even continued to serve in Congress. “How he can sit there with the guilt of murder upon his hands, in the face of his fellow men, I do not see,” wrote one observer.
Folks back home in California were not so forgiving. Herbert gave up his seat and was advised to leave town which he did.
He died in the Civil War fighting for his beloved right to slavery. He was the poster boy for hatred and discrimination.
Thomas Keating's family was left destitute, but nobody cared.