Mystery of Sen. Thomas Walsh’s death

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His sensational investigation of the Teapot Dome scandal made Montana U.S. Sen. Thomas Walsh a national figure, known for his ironclad honesty, and his earnestly disciplined approach to his senatorial duties. There is no known picture of him smiling.

With my interest in Montana history, I’ve made a practice of meeting and interviewing Montana historical figures. I met Walsh’s granddaughter, Elin Gudger Parks through my acquaintance with the family of Walsh’s contemporary U.S. Sen. Burton K. Wheeler. The Walshes and Wheelers had neighboring cabins on Lake McDonald in Glacier Park.

Several years ago, I recorded an interview with Elin Parks, which is on permanent file at the Mansfield Library archives at the University of Montana. Elin passed a few weeks ago at the age of 99. I was greatly honored when her family asked me to speak at her recent memorial service in West Glacier.

Elin was 13 when the senator died. She remembered him as studious, serious, and meticulously proper. He always wore a necktie for his evening meal.

Elin lived a glamorous life that included an Ivy League education and appeared on the covers of fashion magazines Vogue and Mademoiselle. She radiated beauty, charm and sophistication. She delighted her many friends with her outspoken and sometimes irreverent sense of humor.

Elin’s grandfather, Senator Walsh, died under mysterious circumstances, and she entrusted me with a bulging folder primarily about the senator’s death which she carefully kept with her through her long and active life. It is now in the Montana Historical Society.

Elin was convinced her grandfather was murdered. The facts are that the 73-year-old widower Walsh, died with his much younger bride on a train en route to Washington D.C., where he was to be sworn in as attorney general in the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The family of his new wife was embroiled in the turbulent Cuban politics of that time. The Walshes had been married days before at her family estate, which a few years later became the Tropicana Casino in Havana.

A physician on the train speculated the cause of death to be a heart attack. (There have been jokes over the years about the notoriously stern old Senator dying, at last with a smile on his face.)

With no autopsy, the senator’s body was immediately embalmed in North Carolina where he died. Later, suspicions circulated that Walsh was poisoned by the Cuban faction opposing the one allied with his wife.

Elin Parks went to her grave suspecting another theory. Hours after Walsh’s death, but before the train carrying his body arrived in Washington, Elin’s parents, Genavive Walsh Gudger and Navy Captain Emmitt Gudger, went to the senator’s office to gather his personal effects. To their astonishment they found the office files ransacked. This occurring on the night of the senator’s death seemed an unbelievable coincidence. It was soon discovered that the senator’s extensive files on his unpublicized investigation of corruption in the steel and emerging aluminum industries were missing.

Could the targets of the senator’s investigation have acted to prevent him from becoming attorney general, and to steal evidence he had obtained to prevent it from ever being used against them?

That’s what his granddaughter, the last witness to his history, died believing.

— Bob Brown is a former Montana secretary of state and State Senate president. He lives in Whitefish.

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