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Hiram Bingham III: Governor For A Day

Hiram Bingham III has been in the news lately. After years of negotiations, Yale University recently agreed to return to Peru a large collection of artifacts which he excavated in 1912 from the Inca ruins at Machu Picchu, artifacts claimed by the Peruvian government. (The Day, Sept. 17, 2007, “Yale, Peru agree on return of artifacts.”) His colorful years as an explorer may have been the model for the popular Indiana Jones movies. His life was filled with excitement and he achieved success in a wide variety of careers.

Consulting the latest edition of our Connecticut State Register and Manual, the famed “blue book,” I found that this college professor explorer, also an accomplished aviator, served as governor of our state for just one day, the shortest term in our history. (John Winthrop Jr., founder of New London, served the longest—18 years.) Bingham gave up this choice position in favor of the United States Senate. And that's not all he did with his life.

His story is not the usual tale of local boy makes good. Headlines were routine for him. To begin with, he was born in Honolulu, Hawaii on Nov. 19, 1875. His grandfather, also Hiram, was the first Protestant missionary to Hawaii. His father, Hiram Jr., was a missionary in the Gilbert Islands.

And our future governor, the third Hiram, supervised a Honolulu mission after his graduation from Yale in 1898 before he worked for the American Sugar Company. Later he studied at Berkeley and received a Ph.D. from Harvard.

In 1900 he married Alfreda Mitchell at the Mitchell home in New London, now part of Mitchell College. She was the granddaughter of Charles L. Tiffany, founder of Tiffany & Co.

The couple had seven handsome sons. It's probable that the Tiffany fortune may have had a part in shaping his many careers. After the marriage, with a new interest in South American history, Bingham began his period of teaching and exploration which led to the discovery of Machu Picchu during expeditions for Yale University. He published several books about his travels.

Ready for new fields with the outbreak of World War I in Europe, Hiram Bingham became interested in the preparedness movement. He joined the Connecticut National Guard in 1916, commissioned as captain. The following year at the age of 42 he decided to learn to fly, and won his wings as a pilot. He became chief of personnel in the Army Air Service and saw duty in France.

After the war he entered the political scene, attending the Republican national convention as an alternate from Connecticut. In 1922 he was nominated for lieutenant governor of Connecticut, receiving plaudits as a college professor running for public office. His slate easily won. Next, with the support of J. Henry Roraback, Republican party chairman, he was named Republican candidate for governor in 1924.

A handsome and appealing man, he campaigned vigorously throughout the state. My late husband, Burton Kimball, grew up in the little town of Scotland, Connecticut. He often recalled the day Hiram Bingham came there to speak at an outdoor meeting. Burton's parents were staunch Democrats, but my husband was greatly impressed with Mr. Bingham, who won the November election with a fine majority. Inauguration was set for January 1925.

However, in the midst of the campaign, Connecticut's U. S .Senator, Frank Brandegee, committed suicide. His vacant seat was to be filled in a special election a month after the regular election. Governor-elect Bingham was nominated for that vacancy by the Republican party. Although some newspapers criticized him for being overly ambitious, he won that election as well, though by a smaller margin. He agreed not to resign as governor till after his inauguration so the newly-elected lieutenant governor, John H. Trumbull, could assume the top office without a another special election.

I was in grade school at the time, and I remember being surprised by Bingham's choice. I told my mother I would much rather be governor of Connecticut than one of 48 senators in Washington. I thought being governor was much more important, presiding in the domed capitol all by himself.

Hiram Bingham was inaugurated on January 7, 1925 with traditional pomp and splendor including a parade by the Governor's Foot and Horse Guard. He and Alfreda danced at the glamorous inaugural ball that evening. The next morning he formally submitted his resignation as governor to the secretary of state and set off for Washington. “Within less than twenty-four hours he had held the offices of lieutenant governor, governor and U.S Senator,” his son Alfred wrote in the biography of his father, “Portrait of an Explorer.” This volume presents a great picture of his exciting and adventurous life.

Hiram Bingham died June 6, 1956 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. He's perhaps best remembered for his discoveries at Machu Picchu, but as mission director, college professor, explorer, aviator, war veteran, lieutenant governor, governor for a day and U.S. Senator, he may well challenge the record for packing the most varied careers into one distinguished life.
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