The Populist Pioneer: The life and legacy of “Sockless Jerry”

Born on March 31, 1842, in Prince Edward Island, Canada, Jeremiah Simpson moved with his family to Oneida County, New York, at a young age. Despite his modest education, he exhibited remarkable intelligence and was an avid reader. At the age of fourteen, Simpson became a sailor, dedicating himself to nautical pursuits from 1856 to 1879. This seafaring experience would later prove invaluable.

Jerry Simpson, 1890’s
Courtesy: Library of Congress

During the Civil War, he served in the Illinois Volunteer Infantry but had to leave due to medical reasons. After the war, Simpson’s adventurous spirit led him to work as a deckhand on Great Lakes steamships, eventually becoming a captain. He settled down by moving to Jackson County, Kansas, where he purchased a farm and started a family.

In 1870, Simpson tied the knot, but life took a challenging turn in the late 1870s with both agricultural difficulties and the tragic loss of a child in a sawmill accident. Seeking a fresh start, he relocated to Barber County, Kansas, where he acquired a ranch and cattle herd.

Jerry Simpson

Unfortunately, harsh winter conditions in 1883 and 1884 wiped out his entire cattle herd, forcing him to become the town marshal in Medicine Lodge, Kansas. Frustrated by his circumstances, Simpson delved into politics, organizing for the Union Labor Party, a local branch of the Greenback Party to which he had previously belonged. He ran as their candidate for the state legislature in 1886 and 1888 but was defeated.

In 1889, economic challenges hit Kansas as the price of corn plummeted. This spurred the formation of the People’s Party, and Simpson eagerly joined their cause. At the Kansas People’s Party convention, he was selected as their congressional candidate.

Jerry Simpson
Courtesy: Unknown

Simpson’s nickname, “Sockless Jerry,” came about during his campaign for Congress when his opponents tried to ridicule him for not wearing socks. He cleverly embraced the nickname, turning it into an advantage and proudly referring to himself as “Sockless Jerry.” According to the Wichita Eagle in 1890, Simpson famously criticized his opponent, Colonel James Reed Hallowell, known as “Prince Hal,” as a privileged figure with “fine silk hosiery,” to which Hallowell retorted that having silk socks was better than none at all. With the support of populist campaigner Mary Elizabeth Lease, Simpson gained the moniker “Sockless Jerry” and secured victory with an 8,000-vote margin.

In Congress, Simpson emerged as a vocal advocate for populist causes, becoming a national figure as the party’s congressional leader. Despite a close re-election in 1892, his popularity waned, and he lost his seat to Republican Chester I. Long in 1894. However, he staged a comeback in 1896, defeating Long but was ultimately defeated again in 1898.

Jerry Simpson
Courtesy: U.S. House of Representatives

In later years, Simpson moved to New Mexico, where he worked as a real estate agent. Sadly, he suffered a debilitating aneurysm and decided to return to Kansas, where he passed away at St. Francis Hospital on October 23, 1905. He rests at Maple Grove Cemetery in Wichita, leaving behind a legacy as a key figure in Kansas politics and the populist movement.

Reflecting on his life, Simpson had once explained his deep connection to Kansas, saying, “The magic of a kernel, the witchcraft in a seed; the desire to put something into the ground and see it grow and reproduce its kind. That’s why I came to Kansas.”