A reporter in the 1962 motion picture, The Man who Shot Liberty Valance, tells Jimmy Stewart "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." The writer of this line may have been reflecting on the final days of Senator Key Pittman in 1940.
Born in Vicksburg, Mississippi in 1872, Pittman was on his way to becoming a lawyer when he was bitten by the gold fever bug. In the early 1900's, he left Mississippi and headed north to the gold fields of Alaska. After failing to strike it rich, he moved to Tonopah, Nevada to try his luck at silver mining. When this did not work out, he returned to practicing law and became a successful attorney before turning to politics. In 1913, his long career as a United States Senator began with he election to fill the Senate seat left vacant by the death of Senator George S. Nixon, a Democrat.
Pittman held his senate seat for the next 27 years, rising to become a mover and shaker in the Democratic Party. He returned to Nevada in 1940 to run for a sixth term. As the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and strong proponent of the silver industry, he was virtually assured of reelection. However, the 68 year old Senator was a heavy drinker and during a drinking bout on November 4th, the eve of the election, he suffered a major heart attack. He was examined separately by two different doctors who concurred that death was imminent. With the election the next day, his doctor released the news that he was in the hospital suffering from fatigue and exhaustion. Voters, assuming that Pittman would recover, reelected him to his sixth term. After the election, rumors began to spread like wildfire that not only had he died before the election, but that party leaders had kept his body on ice in a bathtub at the Mizpah Hotel. What started all this? When Democratic officials were questioned about Pittman's failure to appear in public prior to the election, they responded: "We're keeping him on ice." Given the lack of specific details regarding Pittman's condition, rumors began to spread: eventually the rumors grew into a story that evolved into the Legend of Senator Key Pittman.
According to the legend, Pittman died sometime before the election and the Nevada Democratic Party concluded that if the public knew he was dead, they probably would not vote for him and his Republican opponent would be elected. To prevent this, Pittman was taken to a room on the third floor in the Mizpah Hotel in Tonopah, and placed in a bathtub filled with ice until after the election, when his death was announced. Various versions of this story were circulated for years. With the publication of a bestselling book, The Green Felt Jungle (1963), the death of Key Pittman moved from fantasy to believability and a legend was born.
Some say the truth is that Senator Key Pittman died in the Washoe General Hospital in Reno, Nevada on November 10, 1940, six days after suffering a heart attack. What do you think?
Attributed to various authors.