Senator Joseph R. Burton Is Convicted of Bribery Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

U.S. senator Joseph R. Burton was indicted for illegally accepting fees from the Rialto Grain and Securities Company and then was convicted of bribery, the first time a senator was convicted of a crime. Burton, acting as an attorney for Rialto while in office, attempted to influence pending federal legal action against the company. The political scandal led to a federal law that prohibits members of the U.S. Congress from serving as attorneys for businesses having interests with the federal government.

Summary of Event

U.S. senator Joseph R. Burton of Kansas was caught up in a swirl of controversy that included an extended trial and his dismissal from the Senate. Burton’s case is notable because he was the first U.S. senator to be convicted of a crime. As a consequence, federal law now mandates that senators and members of the House of Representatives—as well as federal department heads and other high-level officials—cannot legally represent any business with whom the U.S. government has an interest. Burton was charged with illegally accepting fees from a company that had a vested business interest with the U.S. government. [kw]Burton Is Convicted of Bribery, Senator Joseph R. (Jan. 23, 1904) [kw]Bribery, Senator Joseph R. Burton Is Convicted of (Jan. 23, 1904) Burton, Joseph R. Rialto Grain and Securities Company Roosevelt, Theodore [p]Roosevelt, Theodore;and Joseph R. Burton[Burton] Congress, U.S.;Joseph R. Burton[Burton] Bribery;Joseph R. Burton[Burton] Burton, Joseph R. Rialto Grain and Securities Company Roosevelt, Theodore [p]Roosevelt, Theodore;and Joseph R. Burton[Burton] Congress, U.S.;Joseph R. Burton[Burton] Bribery;Joseph R. Burton[Burton] [g]United States;Jan. 23, 1904: Senator Joseph R. Burton Is Convicted of Bribery[00020] [c]Corruption;Jan. 23, 1904: Senator Joseph R. Burton Is Convicted of Bribery[00020] [c]Business;Jan. 23, 1904: Senator Joseph R. Burton Is Convicted of Bribery[00020] [c]Government;Jan. 23, 1904: Senator Joseph R. Burton Is Convicted of Bribery[00020] [c]Politics;Jan. 23, 1904: Senator Joseph R. Burton Is Convicted of Bribery[00020] [c]Law and the courts;Jan. 23, 1904: Senator Joseph R. Burton Is Convicted of Bribery[00020] Adams, Elmer Bragg

A colorful character, Burton was born in Mitchell, Indiana, in 1851. He practiced law in Indianapolis the year that he was accepted to the Indiana bar—1875. Three years later, he moved with his wife to the new territory of Abilene, Kansas, during the state’s struggle for identity as either a free state or a slave state. He set up legal practice there, and, as in Indiana, became involved in state politics as a Republican. He was elected to the Kansas legislature in 1882, reelected for two additional terms, and appointed a member of the World’s Fair Columbian Commission at Chicago in 1893, representing Kansas. In 1901, he was elected to represent Kansas in the U.S. Senate. Before Burton resigned in 1906, he served as chairman of the Committee on Forest Reservations and Game Protection.

Burton and U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt had a long-standing rivalry, and Burton was known to harbor deep-seated animosity toward Roosevelt. One of Roosevelt’s major presidential efforts was to cultivate economic relations with Cuba Cuba on several levels. On one level, Cuba could fill America’s ever-growing addiction to sugar. However, the United States had its own sugar-producing regions—of which Kansas was a part. Kansas and neighboring states were part of the sugar-beet industry. Burton considered Roosevelt’s promotion of relations with Cuba as a direct attack on the economic strength of the state he represented. Additionally, Burton had sought appointment for some of his friends to the Roosevelt administration. Roosevelt not only refused but also reprimanded Burton publicly. In no time, Burton became one of Roosevelt’s most vocal opponents.

It was in this tense political climate that Burton was exposed for his relation to a certain private company in 1904. He was found to have accepted nine checks from the Rialto Grain and Securities Company, a St. Louis-based brokerage firm. Rialto had been under investigation for several months for internal monetary problems. Investors had concerns about the company’s solvency, and investigators scoured the company for possible corruption. It was soon realized that Burton had a hand in this tangle.

Rialto earlier had hired Burton as its attorney, a sort of side job for the senator. Between November 22, 1902, and March 26, 1903, Burton accepted several five-hundred-dollar checks issued by the company’s president, Dennis, Hugh C. Hugh C. Dennis, and company officer Mahaney, W. B. W. B. Mahaney. Rialto had been investigated for financial troubles earlier, and Dennis and Mahaney were indicted in both state and federal courts and convicted on several counts.

Dennis’s and Mahaney’s testimony implicated Burton, who was then indicted by a federal grand jury in St. Louis on January 23, 1904. The case against him in the U.S. District Court of St. Louis ended on March 25. The court convicted him of illegally accepting fees. During the trial Burton contended that he had “lost heavily in a financial panic” and needed the monthly fee of five hundred dollars. Apparently, he had assured company officials that his job as a senator had no bearing on his job as a company attorney.

Testimony by Dennis and Mahaney, however, revealed that they had sought someone in government who could intercede with the postmaster general, the chief postal inspector, and other upper-level post office officials to prevent the issuance of a fraud order against the company, which would have restricted the company’s use of the postal system. In other words, they were looking to hire someone with connections to Washington, D.C., and to the political process. Burton was the one they hired.

Burton testified before Judge Elmer Bragg Adams of the District Court that he had inserted specific language in his contractual agreement with Rialto, which stated he would not represent the company before any U.S. government body. However, letters written by Burton were presented in court, showing that the senator was using his influence in Washington to prevent the issuance of the fraud order against Rialto. Rialto employees testified that they were ordered to destroy Burton’s letters to avoid a paper trail. Ultimately, however, enough incriminating letters were preserved, leading to much testimony against Burton.

Burton stood in his own defense and maintained that he had asked the chief postal inspector, Cochran, W. E. W. E. Cochran, in Washington to notify him if his actions as a Rialto general counsel and senator conflicted. Cochran testified in court that Burton had not approached him with such a request—in fact, quite the opposite happened. Cochran said Burton had interfered in post office operations and sought favorable treatment for Rialto.

Burton ultimately fought the case and demanded a speedy trial. During sentencing, Judge Adams criticized Burton for using his trusted name and elected position for personal gain. It became clear that Burton lied about his motives, was self-serving, and sought personal wealth behind the guise of legitimate political office. He also was exposed as a vindictive politician who sought favors for himself and political allies. He was punished for his failure to uphold the obligations that he had agreed to undertake as a senator.

Burton was fined and sentenced to six months in the state penitentiary in Ironton, Missouri. He then appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reversed the district court’s decision. A second trial followed, in which he again was found guilty. A second appeal to the Court sustained the lower court’s decision, and Burton’s conviction was secured. He resigned as senator on June 4, 1906, and then returned to his home. In late March of 1907, he spoke to a packed theater, where he castigated President Roosevelt on a number of counts. Burton took up legal practice and also the newspaper business in Abilene. He died in 1923.


Burton’s indictment and conviction affected American political history on a number of levels. Even though Burton was immune to arrest while the Senate was in session, he still faced indictment later and became the first U.S. senator convicted of a crime. Second, Burton’s case prompted a federal law that forbids members of Congress, heads of federal government departments, and all other government officers from serving as attorneys or legal counselors in cases involving the U.S. government. Burton, Joseph R. Rialto Grain and Securities Company Roosevelt, Theodore [p]Roosevelt, Theodore;and Joseph R. Burton[Burton] Congress, U.S.;Joseph R. Burton[Burton] Bribery;Joseph R. Burton[Burton]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“Bailey’s Administration.” Kansas: A Cyclopedia of State History, Embracing Events, Institutions, Industries, Counties, Cities, Towns, Prominent Persons. Chicago: Standard, 1912. An extremely detailed account of the Burton scandal by contemporaneous authors. Dated but still an important primary resource.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carson, Jamie L., and Jason M. Roberts. “Strategic Politicians and U.S. House Elections, 1874-1914.” Journal of Politics 67, no. 2 (2005): 474-496. Although not directly about Burton, this article provides a useful discussion of political strategy during the elections of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wolfensberger, Don. “Punishing Disorderly Behavior in Congress: The First Century—An Introductory Essay.” Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 2006. A wide-ranging discussion of corruption in Congress, including Burton’s bribery indictment and conviction. Based on a paper prepared for the seminar Congressional Ethics Enforcement: Is Congress Fulfilling Its Constitutional Role?

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Categories: History