10 August 2021
Frank D Comerford, Chicago
judge who was expelled
from the Illinois State Senate
My ‘road trip’ this summer has brought me to a number of former Comerford family homes in Co Clare and Co Galway. One member of the Comerford family in Kinvara who achieved fame or a level of notoriety in American politics and law, Judge Frank D Comerford (1879-1929), was a judge in Illinois, a Democratic politician, a journalist and an author.
Frank D Comerford is best remembered for his expulsion from the Illinois State Senate in February 1905 for allegedly besmirching the name of the Senate at a lecture in Chicago in which he accused the Senate of corruption. In this episode, Comerford became the first elected official expelled from the Illinois legislature.
Frank D Comerford was born on 25 September 1879 in Chicago. He was the son of Isaac Comerford (1829-1900) of Kinvara, Co Galway, and his wife Mary ‘Jane’ Linnane (1841-1914).
Isaac Comerford of Kinvara was a younger brother of Henry Comerford (1827-1861), a prominent Galway merchant and magistrate who lived at Merchant’s Road, Galway, and Ballkeel House, Kilfenora, Co Clare. Henry bought up the Gregory estate in Kinvara in the 1850s and his post-Famine efforts to impose exorbitant rent increases in the town brought financial ruin to Kinvara and brought the Comerford family to the brink of social and economic disaster.
Isaac Comerford remained in Kinvara as a shopkeeper for about a decade, and Mary Jane Linnane. Their first seven children were born in Kinvara: Henry (1858), John Henry (1859), Mary (1860), Bridget (1861), Michael (1862), Alice ‘Ella’ (1863) and George Henry (1865).
But Isaac and Mary Jane Comerford emigrated to the US around 1866, and settled in Chicago, Illinois, where their five more children were born in Chicago: Elizabeth (1867), Jane (1871), Thomas Joseph (1877), Anne (1878) and Frank (1879).
Frank D Comerford studied at Northwestern University and the Illinois College of Law in Chicago. After graduation, he was admitted to the Illinois State Bar in 1904.
Later that year, at the age of 24, Comerford was elected to the Illinois State Senate in November 1904 from the 2nd District, representing part of Cook County, Illinois.
Comerford was a member of the Illinois Senate for only a few weeks when he made a public speech at the Illinois College of Law in which he claimed the state senate was merely ‘a great public auction, where special privileges are sold to the highest corporation bidders.’
He made specific accusations of wrongdoing, named names, and gave dates and financial details. He tried to protect himself by saying these stories were ‘in common circulation at the Capitol.’
The Illinois legislature reacted forcefully. It quickly passed a resolution that accused Comerford of spreading ‘assertions, slanders, insinuations and incriminations’ that called into question ‘the honour and integrity of the Illinois General Assembly.’ A special committee of the Illinois House of Representatives was hastily established and took extensive testimony before deciding Comerford’s allegations were unfounded.
The report of the special committee was placed before the House on 8 February 1905, and Comerford was called before the bar to show cause as to why he should not be expelled.
Comerford waived the right to a delay for preparing his defence. Instead, he delivered an impassioned speech lasting more than an hour, in which he defended the veracity of his charges and severely criticised the investigative committee for the limitations it placed upon his testimony. A vote on Comerford’s expulsion immediately followed and the newly elected Senator was expelled by a vote of 121 to 13.
After Comerford’s expulsion, a special election was held in the 2nd Senate District to replace him. Unbowed, Comerford ran for the seat again – this time as an independent – and was re-elected. He was unsuccessful in an effort to win re-election in the 1906 campaign, however, and later accepted a position as police attorney of Chicago under the Democratic mayor, Edward Fitzsimmons Dunne.
Comerford sought the Democratic Party nomination for the US Senate in 1914. However, the party rallied around the Cook County Democratic Party boss, Roger C Sullivan, and Comerford ultimately decided not to run in the primary.
When Dunne’s administration in Chicago came to an end in January 1917, Comerford set up his own private practice as an attorney. When the US entered World War I in 1917, he tried to enlist in the military, but was rejected on medical grounds. He spent the rest of the war as a public speaker selling bonds on behalf of the Liberty Loan programme.
After World War I, Comerford travelled to London and Paris for six months in 1919. He witnessed at first hand the rapidly changing social and political situation and contributed news reports to the Chicago Tribune.
When he returned to the US, Comerford published The New World. In his book, he paid particular attention to the Bolshevik Revolution in Soviet Russia, which he condemned as a new form of minority rule. He described Lenin as a ‘practical machine politician’ and an ‘oracle-dictator’ and observed that legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government had been concentrated in a single set of hands, with no right of appeal.
Comerford was a vocal advocate of the US joining the League of Nations, noting Bolshevik opposition to the concept and charging that ‘the failure to establish a League of Nations would be a world tragedy and in its wake may come revolution.’
Comerford’s political views and legal expertise led to him being chosen as the special prosecutor in the 1920 case of William Bross Lloyd and members of the Communist Labor Party of America. The trial ran from 10 May to 2 August. Despite the best efforts of the defence attorney Clarence Darrow, Comerford secured the convictions of all the defendants, including William Bross Lloyd, millionaire heir to the Chicago Tribune fortune.
Later in 1925, Darrow defended teacher John T Scopes in the Scopes ‘Monkey’ Trial, in which he opposed the statesman and orator William Jennings Bryan.
Comerford was elected to the bench as a Superior Court judge in Chicago in June 1926.
Frank D Comerford was twice married. On 19 March 1906, he married in Saint Joseph’s Church, Berrien, Michigan, Jean Cowgill (1875-1948). They later divorced, and on 10 November 1926 in Manhattan, he married Lyela Edelman Brandeis (1880-1946), widow of a merchant from Omaha, Nebraska.
Frank Comerford complained of chest pain while visiting his brother’s home in Chicago on the afternoon of 29 August 1929. Two of his nephews, Dr Francis Xavier O’Malley (1895-1974) and Dr John Gabriel O’Malley (1888-1935), were medical doctors, and were called to the house. Neither doctor found anything obviously wrong, however, and he was not taken to hospital. At 8.55 pm, however, Comerford suffered a massive heart attack while still being attended by one of his nephews. He died five minutes later. He was 49 years old.
His widow Lyela later lived in Paolo Alto, California. She died on 30 July 1946 in Los Angeles and was buried in Omaha, Nebraska.