VEGAS MYTHS RE-BUSTED: Dead Nevada Senator Kept on Ice for Reelection

Posted on: April 26, 2024, 08:24h. 

Last updated on: April 26, 2024, 09:57h.

EDITOR’S NOTE: A new “Vegas Myths Busted” publishes every Monday, with a bonus Flashback Friday edition. Today’s edition originally ran on April 21, 2023.

Nevada’s US Senator Key Pittman died a few days before the November 1940 reelection that he was favored to win in a landslide. But his body was preserved in a bathtub full of ice so his seat could remain Democratic. Or so the story goes.

Nevada Senator Key Pittman
Only two US senators served longer than Nevada’s Key Pittman at the time of his death in 1940. He could have served even longer if, according to a 1963 book, he hadn’t died before his sixth reelection. (Image:

This was the second busted myth of this series bolstered by authors Ed Reid and Ovid Demaris in “The Green Felt Jungle.” Their 1963 New York Times bestseller was the first book to expose the secret criminal ownership behind most of the Las Vegas Strip casino resorts, but it got a ton of its facts wrong.

According to the myth, Pittman’s aides and Democratic party officials kept his body on ice at the Mizpah Hotel in Tonopah during the 1940 election. That way, a coroner wouldn’t be able to establish a preelection time of death, and Nevada’s governor, Edward Carville, could appoint a fellow Democrat as Pittman’s replacement.

In their 1995 book, “A Short History of Reno,” authors Barbara and Myrick Land traced the myth of the frozen senator to a casual remark made by one of his aides, who allegedly told a reporter that the reason the senator made so few personal appearances in the last days of the campaign was because his staff was “keeping him on ice.”

Senator Steve-O

Pittman, a tall and lean upstanding Southern gentleman who retained the drawl of his Mississippi upbringing, rose to president pro tempore of the US Senate and chairman of its prestigious foreign relations committee during the first and second administrations of President Franklin Roosevelt. Several pieces of legislation bear the senator’s name, including the Pittman Act of 1918 and the Pittman-Robertson Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937.

But what really defined Pittman’s life and career was his alcoholism.

While part of a delegation representing the US at the London Economic Conference in 1933, which included President Roosevelt, Pittman behaved more like Steve-O from “Jackass” than a US official. One night, he was reportedly discovered by waiters at Claridge’s Hotel sitting stark naked in a kitchen sink, pretending to be a fountain. Another night, Pittman amused himself by walking down Upper Brook Street and shooting out street lamps.

Pittman’s reason for attending the conference was to promote the cause of silver, the cornerstone of Nevada’s pre-tourism mining economy. He took this directive a smidge too far, judging by a report of what occurred after a fellow American delegate dared to challenge Pittman’s opinion that silver be remonetized. Pittman pulled a gun on the poor guy and chased him through the hallways of Claridge’s.

The Chilling Truth

Having become accustomed to concocting cover stories for his drinking, Pittman’s aides told rightfully inquiring reporters on Election Day 1940 that the senator wasn’t around because he was hospitalized with exhaustion. The 68-year-old was really hospitalized for a severe heart attack he suffered on November 4 at the Riverside Hotel in Reno.

“He had come back to Nevada to campaign and was drinking a lot,” Michael Green, a UNLV history professor, told “At one point before the election, he wasn’t feeling well, was drinking heavily, and he suffered a heart attack.”

Though his wife, Mimosa Pittman, visited him on Election Day at Washoe Hospital and wrote in her diary that he seemed “happy,” she had already been told by doctors that his death was imminent – that the senator wouldn’t even survive the trip back to Washington, DC. Indeed, on November 10, Pittman slipped into a coma and died early the next morning. Having won his sixth election fairly since Pittman was technically alive for the vote, the governor got to appoint a successor after all.

Despite its debunking by more than a dozen reliable internet history blogs, and despite the true story being only slightly less shady than the myth, conspiracy theorists refuse to disbelieve the tale of Nevada’s reelected “Senator on ice.”

“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 being kept a secret,” Green said. “The facts are interesting enough without any legends.”

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