Friday Q&A: Why is Phoenix the capital of Arizona?
And does the story really involve a working girl and a glass eye?
Welcome to the Friday Q&A, a recurring feature where we answer your questions about Arizona government and politics.
If you have a question, we’re all ears! There’s no question too basic or silly; in fact, the weirder, the more niche, the better. Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll get cracking.
Today’s question: Why is Phoenix the big metro and capital when it’s so hot here compared to other parts of the state? (I understand part of the story includes a hooker and a glass eye.)
We’ll admit, we were vaguely familiar with Arizona’s history of moving the territorial capital so often during the late 1800s that it became known as the “capital on wheels” before it finally settled in Phoenix. But we had never heard the story of “Kissing Jenny” the sex worker who swallowed a lawmaker’s glass eye.
So we called up official state historian Marshall Trimble, author of several books about Arizona history and a columnist at True West Magazine, to ask how this scorched desert city became the capital — and did that thing with the glass eye really happen?
His short answer to the first question was politicians politicking. And the second question? Well, we should probably let Trimble explain the legend first. Here’s our favorite version of events, pulled from an article he wrote for True West.
There’s an enduring legend surrounding Maricopa County getting the capital in 1889 that concerns a Yavapai County legislator with a glass eye and a good time gal named Kissing Jenny.
It seems this legislator had a habit of heading over to Whiskey Row each day after the group convened. After a few drinks, he would walk to the “District” on Walnut Creek, where he spent the evening with Kissing Jenny. After he blew out the candle, he always placed his glass eye in a glass of water beside the bed. Knowing their colleague from Yavapai County was extremely vain and would never be seen in public without the glass eye, some Maricopa County legislators lured Jenny into a scheme of theirs.
They convinced Jenny to take a drink that night, quaffing down both water and glass eye. The next morning, a vote was going to be taken regarding the location of the capital. The Yavapai County delegates, desperately needing every vote, went in search of their missing peer. Finding him at Jenny’s, they could neither convince the lady to “pass” the eye to them (no pun intended) nor persuade the legislator to accompany them. And that is how Phoenix became the capital of Arizona.
Before we get to that fateful vote, a little historical context.
The territorial capital ping-ponged between northern and southern Arizona several times between the 1860s and 1880s.
Throughout the Civil War, the area that’s now Arizona was divided between Confederate and Union sympathizers.
For brevity’s sake, let’s start in 1863, near the war’s end. The territory needed a capital, and it was between Tucson and Prescott. The U.S. government officially recognized Arizona as a territory with boundaries that we would recognize today, and named Prescott — which had been on the Union side of the war opposing Tucson’s confederate sympathizers in the south — the first capital city.
“Prescott wasn’t even a town yet,” Trimble said. “Gold had just been discovered there, but they had great, high hopes for Prescott turning it into something. It was really in the wilderness when it was made the capital.”
Tucson was the older and larger town, and its residents were “outraged,” Trimble said.
The battles between Tucson and Prescott over the capital city designation continued for decades.
After the war ended, southern Arizona lawmakers in the Fourth Territorial Legislature successfully lobbied to make Tucson the “permanent” capital in 1867. But it didn’t last. By 1877, Prescott had considerable political power and northern Arizona lawmakers successfully lobbied to move the capital back north.
“Lobbied” in this sense is a loaded word, Trimble said, as bribery, dirty tricks and extortion were the name of the political game at the time.
“They kept fighting to get the capital every year, and all kinds of shenanigans were pulled to get the votes,” he said.
Perhaps no legislature embodied that crooked Wild West nature, and highlighted the contentiousness of the fights for the capital, better than the 13th Territorial Legislature of 1885, which was nicknamed both the “Bloody 13th” and the “Thieving 13th” for its penchant for fist fights on the floor and spending public dollars.
“A whole lot of that money was spent on quote-unquote secretaries who couldn’t type,” Trimble said of the bunch.
That legislature again featured a big fight for the capital, as the Tucson delegation was handed a bag of $4,000 to throw the biggest, best party and an order to bring home the capital.
“It wasn’t for bribing like pressing these palms with cash —it was for parties,” Trimble said. “Prescott was throwing parties to keep the capital, and Pima County was gonna throw parties to keep the capital.”
But a flooded Salt River waylaid the Tucson delegation, which was forced to take a train to Los Angeles and travel back through the Northern Arizona route to get around it.
“By the way, they’re getting something like 30 cents per mile in per diem. So they’re having a grand old time,” Trimble said. “Some things never change.”
The delayed Pima County delegation missed out on getting the capital. As a consolation prize, it was awarded what would later become the University of Arizona.
“When the delegation returned to Tucson, they were greeted with an angry crowd. People were throwing vegetables at them,” Trimble said. Someone allegedly threw a dead cat.
One prominent bar owner reportedly cried that a university was useless, as college kids didn’t buy booze, he said.
“Little did he understand college kids,” Trimble chuckled.
Tucson never got the capital back, as Phoenix, at the time a new but quickly growing upstart, made a bid for the title.
That’s where Jenny — and the story of her swallowing a glass eye — comes in.
After years of research, Trimble knows the tale isn’t true. But he keeps it alive, with a wink and a nod, because it’s a typical Arizona myth — and people enjoy hearing it.
Like all good tales, there is a hint of truth to it. There was a lawmaker with a glass eye. Lawmakers frequently visited the red light district in Prescott.
But even if “Kissing Jenny” did somehow swallow a glass eye, it didn’t sway the vote.
The vote to move the capital to Phoenix wasn’t even close after several northern Arizona legislators supported Phoenix’s push in an effort to keep the capital from moving back to Tucson.
“There was one absentee (legislator), but it wasn’t the guy with the glass eye,” Trimble said.