Skip directly to content

Louis Washington Turpin

Eliza Colbert, University of Mobile
Louis Washington Turpin
Louis Washington Turpin (1849-1903) represented Alabama in the U.S. Congress as a member of the Democratic Party, aligning himself with the Bourbon Democrats of the late 1800s. He was elected first from the Fourth Congressional District and then from the Ninth District after the state was redistricted in 1892. He served from 1889-1895 in the Fifty-first, Fifty-second, and Fifty-third Congresses and was involved in several contested elections. At an early age, Turpin was orphaned and moved to Alabama where he grew up in the household of a wealthy planter. Once he retired from politics, Turpin turned to agricultural pursuits and became a successful planter.
Turpin was born in Charlottesville, Virginia, on February 22, 1849, to hotel keeper George William and Malinda Bennett (Dickerson) Turpin; he was the youngest of eight siblings. His parents died when he was just nine years old, and he soon moved to Perry County with his elder sister Anna Marie. By 1860, they were living with the family of Asbury Hayne de Yampert, a wealthy planter who then participated in the Civil War. Yampert's father, Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus de Yampert, helped found Southern University (present-day Birmingham-Southern College) in Greensboro, Hale County. One of Turpin?s older brothers, John Henry Turpin, served in the 28th Alabama Infantry Regiment during the Civil War and later was tax collector of Hale County for 28 years. Louis Washington Turpin married Sarah Archer Christian, daughter of Archer Hunt and Sarah Freeman (Pierce) Christian on July 28, 1870. The couple had four children (two daughters and two sons) and resided in Greensboro.
After obtaining an education, Turpin served as tax assessor of Hale County from 1873-80. Turpin?s residence in Hale County placed him squarely in the Black Belt of Alabama, an area that was almost universally Democratic owing to the high concentration of plantation agriculture that had relied on enslaved labor. The Democrats of the Black Belt, specifically the planter elite, were known as Bourbon Democrats, a political group committed to conservative government, most notably political conservatism and white supremacy.
As an avid supporter of the Democratic Party, Turpin quickly became involved in politics and served as the chairman of the Democratic Executive Committee of Hale County for six years. He first ran for Congress in 1882 but was unsuccessful, and the incumbent Democrat, Charles Miller Shelley, retained the seat after the election was contested and declared vacant. In 1888 he ran again and defeated incumbent Alexander Caldwell Davidson and was seated in the Fifty-first Congress. At the time of his election, the Fourth District consisted of Dallas, Hale, Lowndes, Perry, and Wilcox Counties. He served on the Post Office and Post Roads Committee. Turpin was unseated by Republican John Van Patter McDuffie, who challenged the election, as the Republicans still had limited political power at this time. Turpin successfully contested McDuffie in the following election and reclaimed his seat, serving on the Indian Affairs and Patents Committees.
In 1892, Alabama gained an additional congressional district as a result of the growth of Birmingham. Turpin was nominated to the Fifty-third Congress from the newly created Ninth District, which then consisted of Bibb, Blount, Hale, Jefferson, and Perry Counties. He was opposed by more progressive Democrats, including Birmingham attorney Oscar W. Underwood, who chaired the district's Democratic Committee. It was during this election that Turpin received a higher majority than any other candidate from the Democratic Party, including the candidate for governor, Thomas Goode Jones. In 1894, however, Turpin was defeated for renomination by his old rival, Underwood, who in turn lost the seat to Republican industrialist Truman Heminway Aldrich in a contested election. Turpin left Congress in March 1895.
The Marion Times Standard at the time noted how Underwood defeated Turpin in a hotly contested election. The race between Turpin and Underwood highlights the growing variation within the Democratic Party as politicians lobbied for the votes of both African Americans and supporters of the expanding Populist Party. Alabama politicians such as Underwood learned to adapt their platforms to win these votes, all while trying to remain loyal to their white supporters. As a staunch Bourbon Democrat, Turpin was unwilling to compromise his white supremacist stance by appealing to African American voters through agricultural reform and protecting their voting rights. His reluctance, as well as his failure to follow through on political promises, notably pledges of patronage jobs under Pres. Grover Cleveland's administration, led to his defeat. He had apparently given up hope of being nominated, as he was reportedly drunk at the district's September 1894 Democratic convention held in Blount Springs. Despite his loss, Turpin maintained party loyalty, giving several speeches in support of Underwood.
Having lost the bid for renomination, Turpin retired from politics in 1895. Although his decision was almost certainly related to his political defeat, some newspapers attributed his retirement to his dimming eyesight rather than his failure to regain nomination. Despite his retirement, Turpin continued to take an interest in ongoing politics, supporting the Democratic Party until his death. Turpin turned his attention to agricultural pursuits and managed several successful plantations. Although he had stepped away from active politics, Turpin was still a notable figure in Hale County and throughout the Ninth District. He died in Greensboro, on December 10, 1903, and was buried in City Cemetery.

Additional Resources

Johnson, Evans C. "Oscar W. Underwood: A Fledgling Politician." Alabama Review 13 (April 1960): 109-26.
Published:  August 1, 2022   |   Last updated:  August 1, 2022