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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Harry Potter and the Dusty Hollow


There once was a real Harry Potter in Wisconsin. He was the Capital correspondent for the Milwaukee Journal, and afterwards the city editor of the Wisconsin State Journal, in the 1880s and 1890s. Thirty years later he told historian Fred Holmes about the remarkable method lawmakers had to limit debate.

When the third Capitol was completed in 1869, its Assembly chamber featured a grand chandelier hanging from the room's domed ceiling. This massive light fixture required an entire hour to light, another hour to extinguish, and as the decades passed it became old, rickety, and unstable. Legislators grew so nervous about sitting beneath it that around 1890 it was removed, leaving a substantial hole in the ceiling.

That hole was surrounded by dust deep enough to shovel. One day a legislator (whose name was, unfortunately, not preserved) decided to take action against his colleagues' habit of long-winded pontification. He ordered a Capitol staffer to climb up into the dusty crawl space and angle a long, heavy plank above the hole. One end of the plank was propped up by a stick, and from this stick a cord descended into a closet just outside the Assembly.

The next day, when a member of the opposing party was droning endlessly on and on, the inventor left the chamber, slipped into the closet, and gave the rope a solid jerk. The plank crashed down across the ceiling hole, sending a shower of dust cascading over the lawmakers and ending the proceedings.

The explanation for the disruption soon got out, and the plank and stick were reset. Lawmakers were suddenly on their best behavior. A page was hired at $2.50 a day to keep the trap ready. Some legislators even brought umbrellas into the Assembly chamber.

Because any member of the Assembly could sneak out and pull the cord, speeches became shorter, voting went faster, and the people's business was conducted more efficiently. And whenever a member left the chamber during a session, everyone else instantly perked up.

The only authority for this story is Harry Potter, who related it to Fred Holmes in 1924 (read the original article here). By the time this 1899 photo of the Assembly was taken, the hole appears to have been patched and a modern light fixture had been installed in its place.


:: Posted in Bizarre Events on July 22, 2007

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