Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,137

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,137


This is the grave of Royal Copeland.

Born in Dexter, Michigan in 1868, Copeland grew up in the area, reasonably off. He graduated from high school in Dexter and then went off to nearby what is today Eastern Michigan University. This was the normal school in Michigan at the time. He did teach school for a year but decided he wanted something more. So he enrolled at the University of Michigan to become a doctor. He acquired a degree in medicine in 1889 (I don’t know how long this degree program took but it sure couldn’t have been too long!). Whatever the quality of said degree, Copeland was able to go to Europe and do a bit of graduate work. He was primarily interested in the quack side of medicine and in 1890 became part of the Homeopathy Society of Michigan, rising to be an officer in the organization in 1893. But he was good enough at medicine to be hired by the University of Michigan in 1895 to be a professor of ophthalmology and otology. He stayed in that job until 1908.

So at the age of 40, Copeland was just a guy, a well-off doctor of questionable methods. He was also involved in Republican politics, but just at the local level. He was mayor of Ann Arbor between 1901 and 1903, but that’s certainly not exciting enough to merit a post in this series. He was also president of the Ann Arbor Board of Education and headed the Ann Arbor Board of Park Commissioners. But OK, whatever.

In 1908, Copeland got a new job as the head of the New York Homeopathic Medical College and Flower Hospital. Today, this oddly named institution is New York Medical College. He did that for a decade, still just a player. He was involved in public health issues in New York and stepped down in 1918 to head the New York City Board of Health. This put him on the front lines of the flu epidemic just starting to sweep the world. He played a very active role in managing this pandemic and that gave him a new level of regional and national prominence. Generally, his position was to keep everything open, including movie theaters and schools. The idea here was that if public transportation was going to remain open, there wasn’t much reason to close anything else. Plus in terms of schools, he figured children would be better off under supervision than doing who knows what while their parents worked. As we’ve learned ourselves, making smart policy choices during a pandemic isn’t all that easy and it was even tougher then. Not like the government of 1918 was going to give everyone salary to stay home!

In any case, Copeland generally was seen as one of the more effective managers of the pandemic and it improved his political standing. Chairing the Board of Health was only a one-year term, but he managed five of them. But in 1922, now a Democrat, he decided to run for the Senate. This was a pretty big jump for someone who had never held elected office. But he not only succeeded, he ousted the incumbent Republican William Calder to do so. Mostly, Copeland was a backbencher in the Senate. He was a Tammany type of guy and was close to the state party insiders. So he did what they wanted but although he served three full terms, it’s hard to think of many twentieth century New York senators less remembered today. He was the kind of guy who thought was nice and so you patted on the head and put him on the Rules Committee, which he later chaired.

Copeland’s other contribution to the Senate was the Copeland Committee, which investigated flight safety. Let’s just say that early air safety was not exactly safety at all. This happened after a TWA flight carrying Bronson Cutting, a senator from New Mexico, crashed in 1935. Losing one of their own was too much for the Senate and so Washington began to go after the airlines. This led to the creation of the Civil Aeronautics Authority in 1938, which is the precursor of today’s Federal Aviation Administration in 1958, which swallowed up the CAA.

Otherwise, Copeland basically was a crappy conservative Democrat. He didn’t like the New Deal and was much closer to Tammany than he ever was to FDR. The irony of this is that FDR, being a good Democrat at heart, had served a really important role in the original fight to get Copeland into the Senate. This was not repaid. The president couldn’t rely on his home state senator as an ally even at the peak of the New Deal. Copeland did all he could to protect homeopathic medicine, one of the only things he really cared about. He succeeded in this with the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938. This was an update of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. Copeland wasn’t responsible for the needed upgrade of the law. But he used its occasion to get strong protections for homeopaths in the bill. This has led to many decades of ridiculousness in public health, a huge exception for quacks. A 2016 bill did finally force more accountability on homeopaths, but that this clown show “medicine” is taken seriously today is both ridiculous, deadly given all the bullshit fake medicine around Covid, and lays heavily on the decomposed shoulder bones of Royal Copeland.

Oh, Copeland also led the charge to bring air conditioning to the Senate. He claimed, using his homoepathic methods, that the bad air in the Senate building had led to the death of 34 senators over the past 12 years. At this time, air conditioning was really very new and Copeland had to overcome some opposition to putting it in, given that he held up other improvements to the body in order to see it through. But he won this and then worked with the Carrier Corporation to have the experimental system installed. It worked out for the whole air conditioning industry and Carrier became one of its leading corporations.

Probably the only thing Copeland really deserves credit for is leading on anti-lynching legislation, which he sponsored several times only to see the South filibuster it.

Copeland did have ambitions to go even higher but he didn’t really have the political acumen to see it through. In 1937, New York City was electing a new mayor. Copeland decided to run. But which party? How about both! He registered to run in both the Democratic and Republican primary. He came in second in both of those races. In truth, he was probably to the right of both candidates given that the Republican was Fiorello LaGuardia.

In any case, Copeland dropped dead of what was probably a heart attack or stroke in 1938, after a long day in the Senate. He was 69 years old. I guess maybe it wasn’t the air in the Senate after all.

Royal Copeland is buried in Mahwah Cemetery, Mahwah, New Jersey, which is just a mile or so over the New York border.

If you would like this series to visit other senators elected in 1922, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Lynn Frazier is in Hoople, North Dakota and John Kendrick is in Sheridan, Wyoming. Only the finest and most remembered senators for this series! Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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