December 26: Connecticut’s “Crowbar Governor”


While the state — and colony — of Connecticut has been helmed by a number of colorful personalities over its long history, few of them can compare to the widely-accomplished Morgan G. Bulkeley: Civil War veteran, financier, insurance executive, baseball enthusiast, and strong-arm politician who earned himself the nickname “the Crowbar Governor” while in office.

Morgan Gardner Bulkeley was born in East Haddam, Connecticut on December 26, 1837, the son of Eliphalet Adams Bulkeley, one of the co-founders (and later president) of Hartford’s Aetna Insurance Company.  After working as a janitor at his father’s insurance company as a teenager, Bulkeley moved to New York City to work in the world of finance alongside his uncle, taking a seven-month hiatus to serve in the Union Army under General George McClellan after the Civil War broke out in 1861.  After the war, the indefatigable Bulkeley remained in New York until the 1870s, when he returned to Hartford and promptly chartered a new bank, founded the Hartford Dark Blues professional baseball team, became actively involved in city politics by joining the Board of Aldermen, and, upon his father’s death in 1872, worked his way up the executive ranks at Aetna Insurance.  He became the insurance company’s president in 1879, and was elected mayor of the city of Hartford the very next year — a post he held for the next eight years.

Morgan G. Bulkeley in 1908.

Bulkeley’s insatiable ambition, fueled by a string of political and commercial successes, led him to seek the office of Governor, a feat he accomplished in 1888 on a technicality, with the General Assembly electing Bulkeley Governor after both he and his opponent failed to win a clear majority of votes.  Two years later, Bulkeley’s term was up, and although he declined to seek re-election, he ended up playing a crucial role in that years’ gubernatorial election.  In 1890, the Connecticut political scene was extremely polarized, and when the Democratic and Republican candidates once again failed to gain a clear majority of votes that November, the decision once again fell to the General Assembly.  This time, however, the Republican-controlled lower house and Democratic upper house refused to work together to pick a single candidate.  The political posturing and gridlock carried over into January, with no clear winner of the gubernatorial election.

Given the unusual circumstances, Morgan Bulkeley decided to remain the de facto acting governor until his successor was officially chosen, in hopes of providing the state capital with a sense of political stability.  However, one morning, he returned to his office to find that the locks had been changed — likely by a custodian fearful of recent threats by political activists from both parties started threatening to install their candidate as governor by force.  Furious, Bulkeley found a deputy sheriff and demanded he break the locks open with a crowbar, and proceeded inside to continue business as usual, earning him the nickname of Connecticut’s “Crowbar Governor.”  Later that year, the gubernatorial deadlock was decided by the state Supreme Court — which decided to name Bulkeley as acting governor for the remainder of the two-year term!  A tall tale led to a memorable nickname for one of Connecticut’s larger-than-life political personalities, who got his start on this day in Connecticut history.

Further Reading

Morgan Gardner Bulkeley: Governor of Connecticut, 1889-1893,” Museum of Connecticut History

Peter T. Zarella, “‘Crowbar Governor’ Played Key Part in Connecticut History,Journal Inquirer

Pictures: Morgan Bulkeley and His Legacy,Hartford Courant