The New Jersey Governor who shot himself in the head

The race for Governor of New Jersey in 1919 centered around the national debate on prohibition, with Democrats running as the wet party and Republicans taking the dry position. One week before the election, the Republican-controlled Congress passed the National Prohibition Act, overriding Woodrow Wilson’s veto.

The winner was Democrat Edward Edwards, a 56-year-old former banker who had been elected to represent Hudson County in the State Senate two years earlier. He defeated Republican State Chairman Newton Bugbee by a 49%-46% margin. Edwards called himself “as wet as the Atlantic Ocean,” while Bugbee said he was personally wet but politically dry. (He even drank a beer at a public event in Clifton to demonstrate his point.

Edwards won with the Democratic primary with the strong support of Jersey City Mayor Frank Hague; he beat former Democratic State Chairman James Nugent, the Essex County Democratic boss, by a 54%-42% margin (with 5% of the vote going to perennial candidate Frank McDermit).

On the Republican side, Bugbee defeated William Runyon, who became Acting Governor when Walter Edge resigned in March 1919 to take his seat in the United States Senate, by a 38%-34% margin. Bugbee had the backing of key party bosses in South Jersey, while Runyon, the Senate President from Union County, had to share North Jersey votes with a third candidate, Newark Mayor Thomas Raymond. Raymond, who ran as the lone wet candidate on the Republican side, took 23% stateewide; Warren King, a self-financed political newcomer from Middlesex County, won just 4%.

As Governor, Edwards pushed the Republican-controlled Legislature to pass a bill that allowed for the sale of beverages with 3.5% alcohol — causing a rift between wets and drys in the state GOP. In 1920, Republicans won 59 of sixty Assembly seats, and repealed Edwards wet laws when they took office in 1921.

Edwards, term limited in 1922 (New Jersey Governors were permitted just one three-year term until the new State Constitution was adopted in 1947), ran for the United States Senate against incumbent Joseph Frelinghuysen. Edwards again campaigned against the national GOP platform, criticizing Warren Harding’s push for Prohibition, Sunday closings (aka Blue Laws), compulory english lessons for immigrants, and strong restrictions on immigration. Running on the slogan “Wine, Women and Song,” Edwards ousted Frelinghuysen with 56% of the vote.

But six years later, Edwards lost to Republican National Committeeman Hamilton Fish Kean, the grandfather of the future Governor. Kean, sensing New Jersey leaned toward the wet side on the Prohibition issue, announced during the campaign that he was as wet as Edwards. Kean beat Edwards by a 58%-43% margin.

Edwards suffered severe personal and political problems after leaving the Senate. His wife died during his re-election campaign, and he lost much of his personal wealth in the 1929 stock market crash. He split with Hague politically, and was blocked from getting a government job. In January, 1931, less than two years after his political career ended, Edwards committed suicide, shooting himself in the head with his revolver.

The New Jersey Governor who shot himself in the head