Lister, Ernest (1870-1919)

  • By Phil Dougherty
  • Posted 2/12/2024
  • Essay 22913
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Ernest Lister served as Washington's eighth governor from 1913 to 1919. Born in England, he is one of two governors in the state's history who was not born in the United States. His candidacy in 1912 came about only because the first-place finisher in the Democratic primary was disqualified by the Washington Supreme Court from running in the general election, in which Lister was the only Democrat elected in any of the statewide races that year. A social progressive but economic conservative, one of his biggest successes was turning a deficit in the state's general fund into a comfortable surplus and maintaining it during his tenure. He also steered the state through the twin perils of labor unrest and the Great War (now known as World War I). He died in office in 1919 during his second term.

Coming to America

Ernest Lister was born June 15, 1870, in Halifax, West Yorkshire, England, to Jeremiah Lister (1830-1904) and Ellen Hey Lister (1833-1893). He was the youngest in his family and had at least three siblings: Ada (1859-1916), Arthur (1861-1929), and Alfred (1867-1945). In 1884, when he was 14, the family immigrated to the United States and settled in Tacoma, where Jeremiah Lister's brother, David (1821-1891), had established a successful iron foundry. Ernest Lister learned the trade, joined a union, and grew into an energetic and "quickly magnetic" young man. ("Lister in …"). He obtained a high school degree and took at least one college-level business course, but he did this more to advance his career than to get credits toward a degree.

He joined the Independent Order of Good Templars – one of many fraternal organizations of the day – and became president of the Tacoma lodge while still a teenager. He also joined the Freemasons and became a high-degree Mason. He developed a fondness for bridge and golf, and later became a member of the Tacoma Country and Golf Club.

Lister's outgoing personality made him a natural for politics, and in 1894 he became a Tacoma city councilman. A lifelong prohibitionist, he is said to have voted against every saloon license that the council granted during his two years on the council. He also married and started a family. He wed Alma Thornton (1867-1923) on February 28, 1893, and they would have two children: Florence (ca. 1894-1925) and John (1903-1930).

Early Politics

Lister played an active role in the 1896 gubernatorial election in Washington state. It was a turbulent time not only in the state but in the country, which was in the grips of a serious depression. An alliance of Democrats, Progressives, and free-silver Republicans formed a short-lived coalition that succeeded in electing its gubernatorial candidate, John Rogers (1838-1901). Lister worked with Rogers during the campaign and served as a committee chairman, and the new governor rewarded his protégé the following year with an appointment to the newly formed Board of Audit and Control (subsequently shortened to Board of Control). Lister drew up the framework for the board to handle the state's financial matters, and in 1899 became its chairman.

Rogers died in office in December 1901 and was replaced by his lieutenant governor, Henry McBride (1856-1937), a Republican. McBride removed Lister as the Board of Control chairman in March 1903, and he briefly took a break from politics. He and his brother Alfred became co-owners of the Lister Construction Company later in 1903, and in 1910 they organized the Lister Manufacturing Company, a lumber enterprise that specialized in manufacturing porch columns and other finished wood products. But by the end of the 1900s Lister was flirting with politics again. In 1909 he ran in a special election for the U.S. House as a representative from District 2 after the death of Congressman Francis Cushman (1867-1909). Though he lost, he made a good showing – good enough that people began bandying his name about as a potential candidate for governor.

The 1912 Election

Lister did indeed run for governor in the next gubernatorial election, in 1912. He came in second in a field of seven candidates in the September primary, just four-tenths of a percentage point behind the winner, W. W. Black (1856-1932), a judge on the Snohomish County Superior Court. But Black had a problem; the state constitution prohibited a jurist from running for a nonjudicial office during his term. A Seattle attorney, Charles Reynolds, promptly filed suit with the state supreme court, which handed down its decision on October 10. The court held in a 7-2 vote that Black could not proceed with his candidacy, dismissing his argument that his term as judge would expire two days before his term as governor would begin, assuming he won the election. On October 12, the state Democratic committee selected Lister to replace Black as its gubernatorial candidate. He had just over three weeks to campaign in an election that was unique enough by itself.

The Progressive movement split the Republican party in 1912, and in addition to the traditional Republican gubernatorial candidate, Governor Marion Hay (1865-1933), there was a third-party Progressive candidate, King County Sheriff Robert Hodge, on the ballot. Allegations of infidelity and spousal neglect doomed Hodge's candidacy, but he nonetheless received nearly a quarter of the total vote in the general election in November. Some of these 77,000 votes otherwise would have gone to Hay, and it made a difference. It took four days to determine the winner, but Lister prevailed by 622 votes out of more than 318,000 cast, a margin of less than two-tenths of one percent.

Lister was the first of two foreign-born governors to be elected in Washington state; Roland Hartley, elected in 1924, was the second. (Two territorial governors, William Pickering [1798-1873] and Edward Salomon [1836-1913], also were born in other countries.) Additionally, Lister was the first Democrat to be elected governor in the state since John Rogers was reelected as a Democrat in 1900 (he was first elected in 1896 as a Populist). And in a coda to an already unusual election, Republicans won every other statewide race in Washington in 1912.

Social Progressive, Economic Conservative

Lister was sworn in on January 15, 1913, by Washington Supreme Court Chief Justice Herman Crow (1851-1915) on a specially built platform at the south entrance to the state capitol in Olympia. In his inaugural address he called for limited state spending, a theme that he repeated often during his administration. In keeping with his message, he argued against calls for massive government funding for highway construction in the state to handle the growing use of the automobile, favoring instead a pay-as-you-go approach, another theme he repeated until his final months in office.

He called for a presidential primary law in the state (one would not be enacted until 1989), and asked the legislature to approve a national constitutional amendment providing for the direct election of U.S. senators (senators at the time were chosen by state legislatures), which did so with alacrity. He recommended that the state tax commission be abolished and replaced by a small, unpaid commission of three state officers, and a deputy for the secretary of state to serve as the commission's secretary and statistician. (He made the same recommendation in 1915, but to no avail.) He was more successful with his proposal to enact legislation to create the Washington State Department of Agriculture, which subsequently passed and led to the establishment of the agency later that year.

His inaugural address did not mention another big issue that came before the 1913 legislature, which was the abolition of capital punishment. The legislature passed a bill during the session to abolish the death penalty in the state, and Lister signed it into law in March. But this was short-lived, and in 1919 the legislature passed another bill that restored capital punishment.

Lister began his 1915 message to the legislature by showing that the general-fund deficit which he had inherited two years earlier had turned into a surplus, but he quickly segued into a complaint about the increasing cost of state government, and said that even the smallest towns needed to reduce spending. He also suggested that Washington should have a unicameral legislature consisting of no more than 25 members, which he argued would better deal with budget and other issues. He proposed a constitutional convention to draft an amendment to the state constitution that would create this body, as well as come up with a plan to cut government expenditures and simplify government generally. As he had in his 1913 message, he advocated non-partisanship in state and local elections. He continued to eschew large and expensive highway projects and to advocate for a pay-as-you-go approach.

Lister went into his reelection campaign in 1916 with various successes to his credit. His biggest was turning a $370,000 deficit in the state's general fund at the end of 1912 into a surplus of more than $1 million by the end of 1916. During his first term he also signed a minimum-wage law for women (his campaign team in 1916 claimed Washington women had the highest minimum wage in the nation), and he vetoed bills that would have weakened citizens' rights in the state. Yet his support as the governor's campaign unfolded was tepid. He won the Democratic nomination handily in the September primary, but the November election, against his old rival Henry McBride, was a bigger challenge. Ten days before the election The Seattle Times predicted a McBride victory, and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer was similarly unenthusiastic about the governor. In a late-October editorial the paper complained that he changed positions based on political sentiment, and sneered "was ever another political conscience so elastic? Or an exhibition of humbuggery and deceit so rank and odorous?" ("Lister Then and Now"). Despite the criticism, Lister was reelected by a margin of about three-and-a-half percent.

Prohibition, Labor, and The Great War

Lister began his 1917 legislative message by touting how the state's finances had improved during his tenure because of his policies, and he continued to recommend a conservative economic approach. He again suggested a constitutional convention and a proposed amendment that would have required one went to the voters the next year, but was defeated. A more pressing issue in 1917 was statewide prohibition. Though Washington had outlawed the sale of liquor a year earlier, there were various loopholes in the law. Lister favored closing one of these loopholes, which allowed for the importation of liquor into the state. The legislature complied, passing House Bill 4 (nicknamed the "bone-dry" law), which the governor signed into law in February.

There were other issues. Labor unrest in the state was seething, and during 1917 and 1918 Lister employed what he subsequently described as a "secret service" ("Speed Up …") with a chief and ten deputies, later reduced to four. Their mission was to infiltrate areas they felt had a potential for labor unrest and gather what information they could in order to alert the authorities if trouble was brewing.

Lister dealt with an even bigger issue when the United States entered the Great War in Europe in April 1917. The resulting state responsibility to contribute to the war effort added another layer of duties to his already full schedule. The governor's small staff had not changed a great deal since Washington became a state in 1889, and he took on many of the additional duties himself instead of hiring more staff or delegating any duties. During 1917 he began showing symptoms of both kidney and heart disease, which the stress of his job exacerbated. Nevertheless, he was able to conceal his symptoms from the public for about a year.

On the afternoon of March 13, 1917, Lister was in his office in conference with State Adjutant General Maurice Thompson when he heard a commotion in the hall. The capitol already was on edge – six weeks earlier the insurance commissioner, E. W. Olson (1873-1917), had been shot to death at his desk by an injured logger who was angry with what he believed was the state's low valuation of his worker's compensation claim. When Lister looked out of his office, he saw a man with a gun backing toward him. He and Thompson raced out of the room and hid for a time, while the would-be assailant eventually was talked down by A. W. Calder, the assistant chief clerk of the House of Representatives. The man, identified as Charles Lorenz Wagner, was judged insane in a superior court hearing four days later. The episode led Lister to instruct the Board of Control to provide armed guards in and around the executive offices, and the incident as well as the Olson murder contributed to increasing talk to reinstate capital punishment in the state.

In April 1917 Lister and his family moved into the Capitol Apartments in Olympia, eight blocks from his office. This had nothing to do with the threats at the capitol. The legislature had responded to Lister's constant counseling for economic prudence with allegations that he was overspending, particularly when it came to maintaining the governor's mansion. (For example, he was said to have added a garage at state expense and without legislative approval.) Lister responded by saying that his salary and the legislative allowance for upkeep were insufficient to maintain the mansion unless he were allowed to live in it as a private citizen would, and not be expected to hold social functions and other events that were typically expected of the executive. The mansion sat vacant for nearly two years, until the Listers returned in March 1919 during the final months of the governor's illness.

A Premature Ending

Lister gave his last message to the legislature on January 15, 1919, against the twin backdrop of the recent Allied victory in the Great War and the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic. He urged the legislature to approve the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and it did, leading to national prohibition between 1920 and 1933. He observed that the state general operating fund remained in the black by more than $880 million. And he finally called for more aggressive highway construction, pointing out that a well-designed highway plan was now in place and with the war over, development should proceed quickly. It did: The 1920s saw the birth of Washington state's modern highway system.

By this time his health issues had become more difficult to hide – it was known that he had spent some time in the hospital the previous autumn – and he was visibly weak as he worked with the legislature. One report claimed that he collapsed several times during the few weeks that he worked during the session. Unable to continue, he last worked in his office on January 30. The next day he began working from home, assisted to some extent by Attorney General William V. Tanner and Henry Suzzallo (1875-1933), University of Washington president.

This arrangement lasted until February 12, when Lister asked Lieutenant Governor Louis Hart (1862-1929) to assume the duties of acting governor. He subsequently was taken to Western State Hospital in Steilacoom for treatment. Though Western State was a psychiatric hospital, it was explained that he went there because "greater conveniences were available there for his special treatment" and that "he was not afflicted with any mental disease" ("Governor Ernest Lister …"). He was there for a month, then rejoined his family at the governor's mansion.

He seemed to have improved, but it proved temporary. On May 20 he was transferred to Swedish Hospital in Seattle, where he died at 8:30 a.m. on June 14, 1919, one day shy of his 49th birthday. Hart was sworn in as governor at 10 a.m. and issued a proclamation in tribute to Lister which read in part: "He attempted to carry a load that should have been shared by others and one which was too much for even his wonderful strength" ("Hart Pays Tribute …"). He had served as governor for more than six years, the longest of any Washington governor up to that point.


Edmond Meany, Governors of Washington (Seattle: Department of Printing, University of Washington, 1915), 111-114;  Gordon Newell, Rogues, Buffoons & Statesmen (Seattle: Superior Publishing Company, 1975), 153, 178, 280, 283-284, 293, 295; "Big Crowd Sees Lister Sworn in as New Governor," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 16, 1913, pp. 1, 9; "Lister Then And Now" (editorial), Ibid., October 25, 1916, p. 6; "Armed Lunatic Seeking Lister Alarms Capitol," Ibid., March 14, 1917, pp. 1, 12; "Man Who Hunted Lister With Gun Found Insane," Ibid., March 18, 1917, p. 20; "Governor Ernest Lister Passes Away Following Lengthy Illness," Ibid., June 15, 1919, pp. 1, 26; "Lister Again Seen in Political Arena," The Seattle Times, December 26, 1909, p. 11; M.M. Mattison, "Judge Black Ineligible Rules Supreme Court," Ibid., October 11, 1912, p. 10; "Reynolds Indignant at Black's Assertion," Ibid., October 11, 1912, p. 10; M. M. Mattison, "Lister Takes Place of Black as Nominee of State Democrats," Ibid., October 13, 1912, p. 5; "Lister Takes Oath at Capitol Before Enormous Gathering," Ibid., January 15, 1913, pp. 1, 2; "Advancement To Be Slogan of Lister's Work, Says Message," Ibid., January 15, 1913, pp. 15-18; "Each Hamlet And Town Must Save," Ibid., January 12, 1915, p. 13; "Vote for Governor Lister"(advertisement), Ibid., November 3, 1916, p. 10; "The Candidates" (editorial), Ibid., November 5, 1916, p. 6; "Executive Wants Bone-Dry Law and Nonpartisanship," Ibid., January 10, 1917, pp. 14, 15, 22; "Preparedness Now Keynote in Olympia," Ibid., March 14, 1917, p. 16; "Lister Will Quit State Mansion April 1," Ibid., March 24, 1917, p. 3; "Speed Up Construction, Urges Governor Lister," Ibid., January 15, 1919, pp. 18-19; "Lister Returns to Olympia Home," Ibid., March 14, 1919, p. 9; "Lister Coming to Seattle Hospital," Ibid., May 20, 1919, p. 9; "Lister in Political Arena Since Youth," Ibid., June 14, 1919, p. 1; "State's Chief Executive Succumbs After Valiant Battle Against Disease," Ibid., June 14, 1919, pp. 1, 3; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Governors of Washington Territory and Washington State," (no author), "Hay, Marion East" and "Liquor becomes legally available in Seattle for the first time in more than 15 years on December 31, 1932" (by Phil Dougherty), (accessed December 16, 2023); "Ernest Lister," Find A Grave website accessed December 21, 2023 (; "Elections Search Results, September 1912 Primary," Washington Secretary of State website accessed December 27, 2023 (; "Elections Search Results, November 1912 General," Washington Secretary of State website accessed December 27, 2023 (; "Elections Search Results, September 1916 Primary," Washington Secretary of State website accessed December 27, 2023 (; "Elections Search Results, November 1916 General," Washington Secretary of State website accessed December 27, 2023.

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