Ice Bath Saga: The Final Days of Senator Key Pittman

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In a tale shrouded in mystery, myth, and political machinations, the story of Nevada’s US Senator Key Pittman, who passed away a few days before his almost certain victory in the 1940 November reelection, is one for the books.

Despite his illustrious career as one of the longest-serving senators, Pittman’s life took a dramatic turn just before what would have been his sixth re-election in 1940. Famous authors Ed Reid and Ovid Demaris expounded this tale in their groundbreaking book, “The Green Felt Jungle,” though the duo was often criticized for their lax approach with facts.

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The story goes that following Pittman’s sudden death, his aides and Democratic party officials forged a bizarre plan to keep his body preserved in a bathtub full of ice in the Mizpah Hotel in Tonopah. This unorthodox method of preservation was allegedly chosen to prevent a coroner from determining a pre-election time of death, thus allowing Nevada’s governor, Edward Carville, to appoint a fellow Democrat as Pittman’s replacement.

This urban legend can be traced back to an offhand remark made by one of his aides mentioned in the 1995 book, “A Short History of Reno.” The aide had insinuated that the reason for Pittman’s sporadic appearances towards the end of the campaign was because his team was “keeping him on ice.”

Beyond this frosty tale, Key Pittman’s political career was defined by a mix of vigorous legislative service and ignoble personal deeds. The senator, a distinctive figure with his tall frame, Southern charm, and Mississippi drawl, held prestigious roles as the president pro tempore of the US Senate and chairman of its foreign relations committee under President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration. He was the name behind significant bills such as the Pittman Act of 1918 and the Pittman-Robertson Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937.

While he led a noteworthy political career, Pittman was also infamous for his alcoholic indulgences. Reminiscing his outrageous behavior at the London Economic Conference in 1933, stories abound of the senator engaging in audacious acts. On one night, he was reportedly found sitting naked in a kitchen sink, imitating a fountain; on another, he was seen shooting out street lamps.

Then, the tides turned on November 4, 1940. Despite his aides’ covering for him by telling reporters that he had been hospitalized for ‘exhaustion,’ Pittman had suffered a severe heart attack at the Riverside Hotel in Reno. His wife, Mimosa Pittman, who had visited him on Election Day, had been warned by the doctors that his life was hanging by a thread. Indeed, his death came six days later. Pittman, technically alive for the vote, won his sixth straight election before sliding into a coma and passing away on November 11.

Despite more than a dozen reliable internet history blogs debunking the ice bath saga, conspiracy theorists remain obstinately devoted to the incredibly more interesting tale of the frozen reelected Senator. As Michael Green, a UNLV history professor, aptly puts it, “Nevadans did not elect a dead man to the Senate, but they did elect a dying man, with no chance of surviving, and whose condition was kept a secret.” He concluded, “The facts are interesting enough without any legends.”