“Poor Cur (or Kerr)”

January 8, 1876

Thomas Nast

“Poor Cur (or Kerr)”


Kerr, Michael;

No 'Places' indexed for this cartoon.

A Bad Beginning before the Democratic Race at Washington.

The featured cartoon depicts the political difficulties of the newly elected speaker of the house, Congressman Michael Kerr of Indiana. In the 1874 elections, Democrats won control of the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time since before the Civil War. They gained 93 seats to give them a 181-107 majority over the Republicans.  In the nineteenth century, new congresses (and presidents) were not sworn into office until March (rather than January, as today) and usually did not convene in session until the following December—in this case, December 6, 1875.

By November 1875, the behind-the-scenes struggle for the election of a new speaker of the house had become intense between the major Democratic candidates:  Kerr; Samuel J. Randall of Pennsylvania; Samuel S. Cox of New York; and Fernando Wood of New York.  On December 5, after an hour of debate and three ballots, Kerr emerged as the nominee. The minority Republicans nominated the current speaker, James G. Blaine of Maine, but the next day Kerr defeated him on a partisan vote in the full house. 

Michael Crawford Kerr was born on March 15, 1827, in Titusville, Pennsylvania.  He attended common schools and the Erie Academy, but was largely self-educated.  He studied law at the University of Louisville (Kentucky), paying for tuition by working as a schoolteacher, and graduating in 1851.  After admission to the bar the next year, he joined a law firm in New Albany, Indiana, across the Ohio River from Louisville.  He served as city attorney for New Albany in 1854 and prosecuting attorney for Floyd County in 1855.  The next year, he was elected to the first of two consecutive terms in the Indiana state legislature.  After serving as reporter for the state supreme court (1862-1865), he was elected to the first of four consecutive terms in Congress (serving, March 4, 1865 – March 3, 1873).  After losing his Congressional seat in 1872, he was reelected in 1874.

In the featured cartoon, Kerr is presented as a cur (i.e., a worthless, mongrel dog) being stoned by a crowd of onlookers.  A teapot or teakettle tied to an animal’s tail is a symbol of trouble that will eventually trip up the wearer.  The problem for Kerr is “The Committees of the House,” a reference to his difficulty in making committee assignments to satisfy the majority Democrats who had been out of power for so long.  According to Harper’s Weekly, the new speaker’s committee appointments “amazed every body.”<  In particular, he passed over prominent Democrats, such as Randall, Cox, Wood, and Lucius Q. C. Lamar of Mississippi, to choose an obscure congressman, William Morrison of Illinois, as chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee.

Kerr’s leadership abilities also suffered because of his declining health.  In his frequent absences over the ensuing months, Cox and Wood served alternately as speaker pro tem.  On August 19, 1876, four days after the adjournment of the opening session of the 44th Congress, Kerr died of tuberculosis.  In December 1876, the lame-duck session of Congress elected Randall to be speaker of the house.

Robert C. Kennedy

“Poor Cur (or Kerr)”
September 25, 2021

Home | About | Contact || Access | Features 

Website design © 2001-2008 HarpWeek, LLC
All Content © 1998-2008 HarpWeek, LLC
Please submit questions to