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Democratic National Convention: a wild ride in 1924

In 1924, the Democratic National Convention featured non-stop fighting and multiple gaffes.

By Randy Dotinga / September 6, 2012

The Democratic National Convention in 1924 included accidental swipes at the South and several very loud sirens. One of its attendees was U.S. Congressman John Nance Garner (pictured at the convention).

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Almost nine decades ago, the Democrats got together in New York City and tore themselves apart.

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They fought over civil rights and the Ku Klux Klan. They fought over religion. They fought over legalizing liquor. And they did it for more than two whole weeks while botching everything from the music to the celebratory fire sirens.

The Democratic National Convention of 1924 remains the most destructive of all time. "During its 16 days and 103 ballots, the party virtually committed suicide," writes historian Robert K. Murray.

The players included a future president who'd lose that November, a Catholic governor, a KKK sympathizer and the ultimate nominee, a man who described the chaos, in a bit of understatement, as "a three-ring circus with two stages and a few trapeze acts."

The best and most deliciously readable account of the Mammoth Mess at Madison Square Garden appears in Murray's 1976 book The 103rd Ballot. As the Democrats anoint their nominee in Charlotte tonight, here's a look back at the ultimate height of conventional dysfunction, courtesy of a master historian:

Hey! Let's Insult the South, Part I: When a favorite son from Virginia was nominated, the convention band struck up an awkward selection: "John Brown's Body Lies A-Mouldering in the Grave," a favorite of the North during the Civil War.

It was not, as you can imagine, a chart-topper in the Old Dominion. The band quickly changed its tune, literally, to "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny."

Hey! Let's Insult the South, Part II: Later, during a discussion about the KKK, the band played "an ancient hymn of hate" of the Union Army called "Marching Through Georgia." This "monumental gaffe" infuriated the Southern delegates, who were less than pleased to be reminded of the work of General Sherman.

The Sound of Flee-Dom: After a man named Franklin Delano Roosevelt urged his fellow Democrats to support Al Smith, the New York governor, the "Garden turned into a cauldron of sound and movement."

That's not unusual at a political convention. But this was: a man had hired a bunch of people to turn on battery-powered fire sirens, which turned out to be an extremely bad idea. The noise was so sharp and loud that "men and women sitting in front of these machines were blown out of their seats and staggered around shell-shocked. Children in the audience screamed with fright."

The sirens blared for more than 30 minutes. A radio announcer was so disturbed by the din that he told listeners he worried the hall's skylights would fall in.

Tangled Up over Racism: One top hopeful, former secretary of the treasury and Californian who had the unlikely name of William Gibbs McAdoo, played footsie with the Ku Klux Klan and even got support from it. He didn't turn it down because he wanted the South's support.

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