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June 11, 2013

NEW ALBANY BICENTENNIAL: Michael C. Kerr

NEW ALBANY —

Drapery was hung and flags lowered as life in New Albany came to a standstill on a Friday afternoon in August of 1876. Michael C. Kerr, speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and resident of the river town, had died only days before of tuberculosis at a spa in West Virginia, a place he had traveled to recuperate from his lengthy illness. He was only 49. 

So esteemed was he in government that the acting vice president at the time, Thomas White Ferry, accompanied Kerr’s remains on the long trip back to Indiana. Kerr had been second in line to the presidency behind Ferry, partially due to the death of the previous vice president and the unfilled vacancy. Many of his contemporaries, as well as subsequent historians, have speculated that had he lived longer, Kerr very well could have one day reached the Oval Office.

According to a newspaper report, more than 25,000 citizens of Indiana and Kentucky lined up along Main Street to see the funeral caravan. Local government, in fact, asked for shops and other businesses to be closed for the solemn showing and subsequent burial in Fairview Cemetery.

“The anvil became voiceless, offices were deserted, the whir of the engines was still, and for the time all commercial life was suspended. About the city, flags displayed at half mast,” reported an August, 1876 edition of The Daily Ledger. 

Even though New Albany embraced the speaker as a native son, Kerr hadn’t always been a Hoosier. Born on March 15, 1827, in Titusville, Pa., to parents of modest means, the young student journeyed to Kentucky to study law. In 1851, Kerr graduated from the University of Louisville School of Law and promptly moved to New Albany the following year. 

Known for his keen intellect, Kerr ran as a Democrat for city attorney and then Floyd County prosecutor, winning both. In 1856 he served in the state legislature, followed by the distinguished and lucrative position of recorder to the Indiana Supreme Court. With this added income and new prosperity, he and his wife built a Gothic Revival-Italiante style home in New Albany in 1864 now affectionately known as the Kerr House. 

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