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Joseph "Holy Joe" Wingate Folk is Born

Today in Masonic History Joseph "Holy Joe" Wingate Folk is born in 1869.

Joseph "Holy Joe" Wingate Folk was an American politician.

Folk was born on October 28th, 1869 in Brownsville, Tennessee. He was raised in a strict Baptist home. He attended the Brownsville Academy for his early education. After working as a clerk and bookkeeper in various companies he went on to Vanderbilt University. He graduated in 1890 with a law degree. He went to work initially in his father’s law practice, focusing on criminal law.

In 1892, Folk ran, unsuccessfully, for a seat in the Tennessee House of Representatives. He also wrote newspaper articles and spoke on special occasions. In 1893 he moved to St. Louis, Missouri where he joined his uncle’s law firm.

In St. Louis, Folk made a reputation for himself. His reputation was helped during the 1900 St. Louis Streetcar Strike. The strike involved unionized streetcar workers. By the end of the strike 14 people had been killed and 200 wounded. Folk made his name during the strike by representing transit workers. His skill as a mediator earned him the Democratic nomination for circuit attorney. He won the election for the position in 1900.

Folk earned the nickname “Holy Joe” by attacking local corruption and party machines. Party machines, sometimes political machines, are political organizations that are generally run by single individuals or small autocratic groups of people. In St. Louis at the time the Democratic political leader was Col. Ed Butler, who Folk investigated. Folk also investigated the “boodle ring”, corporate bribery that was occurring in state and municipal government. Although some of his convictions were overturned on appeal, Folk gained National and International attention for his work.

Republican President Teddy Roosevelt even took notice of, and respected, Folk for his efforts. Folk is considered to be part of the larger Progressive movement of the early 1900’s which included the muckraking journalists, journalists who went after established institutions and leaders as corrupt. When Folk went after the Suburban Railway Company, it spawned a change in treaties between the United States and Mexico when it came to extradition. The treaty was expanded to include bribery as grounds for extradition.

Folk encountered resistance from many businessmen and politicians, believing that his prosecutions were harming the reputation of the city of St. Louis and by extension the Democratic Party and business climate.

In 1904, Folk was elected the 31st Governor of Missouri. He served from 1905 to 1909. He advocated the “Missouri Idea” which had Missouri leading in Public Morality through popular law and strict enforcement. Despite resistance his administration successfully conducted antitrust prosecutions, ended gratis railroad passes for state officials, extended bribery statues, improved election laws, required formal registration for lobbyists, made racetrack gambling illegal, and enforced the Sunday-closing law. Sunday-closing laws, sometimes called Blue laws, are laws that require people and businesses to keep the Christian Sabbath.

In the second half of his term, Folk had a Democratic controlled legislature which allowed him to further the laws that were passed in the first half of term. This included further regulation of elections, education, employment and child labor, railroads, food, business, and public utilities.

After Folk left office his focus on morality and unwillingness to compromise caused him to become politically unpopular. He had two failed attempts to be elected to the United States Senate. He gained the Democratic nomination in only one of his attempts. He campaigned for President Woodrow Wilson and Wilson appointed him as a solicitor for the United States State Department, where he investigated railroad companies. Afterward he opened a law practice in Washington, D.C.

In March of 1922, Folk suffered a nervous breakdown, which is believed to have come from overwork. He passed away just over year later on May 28th, 1923.

Folk was a member of Occidental Lodge No. 163 in St. Louis, Missouri.