Gov. John Burley Swainson was a fan of Michigan’s Highland
After all, his ancestors hailed from the auld sod. But he never wore a
kilt to the festivities that celebrated the state’s Scottish heritage.
“I don’t have the legs for it,” Swainson claimed.
He lost both limbs in World War II.
Sixteen years later, at age 35 years, Swainson became the
second-youngest governor in Michigan history. Because of his youth and
Democratic politics, he invited comparison to President John F. Kennedy.
Both were elected in 1960. The duo campaigned together in
Swainson’s home state.
“Swainson overcame his disability to not only dance the jitterbug,
but rise to the state’s highest office,” wrote Paul Egan of the
Before he was governor, Swainson was a state senator and lieutenant
governor. Afterwards, he was a circuit court judge and state Supreme Court
justice. However, he was forced off the bench when a federal court jury found
him guilty of perjury.
To the day he died at age 77 years, Swainson maintained his innocence.
Many people believed — and still believe — he was framed by a
Republican prosecutor who wound up disgraced himself.
© Governor John B. Swainson; (BL006590) Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan
Swainson’s story is “about recovery, about coming back from
terrible wounds,” his biographer told Dome, an Internet magazine
about Michigan politics and public affairs. “In the first case, from
physical wounds. In the second case, from psychic wounds.”
Added Lawrence Glazer, author of Wounded Warrior: The Rise and Fall
of Michigan Governor John Swainson: “In Swainson’s opinion, the
latter was much worse than the former. He went from a respected figure with
important work to do to a guy without a job, who was disgraced. He hit bottom,
he definitely hit bottom. But he came back. He didn’t quit…”
Swainson was born in Windsor, Canada, but moved with his parents to Port
Huron, Mich., when he was 2 years old. “As a teenager, he was a star
athlete and captain of his football team at Port Huron High,” wrote Mike
Connell in the Port Huron Times Herald. Swainson was also an Eagle
He graduated from high school in 1943, became an American citizen and
joined the Army.
Swainson shipped out to Europe with the 95th Infantry Division, part of
Gen. George C. Patton’s storied Third Army. The GIs of the 95th were
dubbed the “Iron Men of Metz” for liberating that ancient French
fortress city from the Germans.
On the night of Nov. 15, 1944, Swainson, a machine gunner, stepped on an
enemy land mine near Metz.
“He was on a volunteer mission to take ammunition and food” to
stranded soldiers, according to an Associated Press story.
The blast killed three of Swainson’s fellow soldiers, the story
said. Swainson’s legs were so badly mangled they had to be amputated below
the knees to save his life.
He came home a war hero, earning French Croix de Guerre and US Purple
Heart medals plus sharing a Presidential Unit Citation. In civilian life,
Swainson often sported a tiny Purple Heart pin on the lapel of his suit coats.
Fitted with artificial limbs, Swainson recuperated at the Percy Jones
Army Hospital in Battle Creek, Mich. He learned to walk so well that many
people did not know he was a double amputee.
After he was discharged from the Army, Swainson went to Olivet College
in Michigan, got married and graduated in 1947. After earning a law degree from
the University of North Carolina in 1951, he returned to Michigan and entered
When Swainson became Michigan’s 42nd governor, he was 11 years
older than Stevens T. Mason, the state’s first governor. Dubbed the
“Boy Governor,” Mason was 24 years old when he was elected in 1835.
Connell wrote that one of the oddest events in Swainson’s term as
governor came on Feb. 28, 1962, when the federal government ordered Michigan to
stop collecting tolls on the Blue Water International Bridge, which connects
Port Huron and Canada.
“Moments before midnight, Swainson went to the bridge and paid the
final toll. As he handed the money to the toll collector, he said, ‘Well,
Dad, I guess this puts you out of a job.’”
The toll taker was the governor’s 57-year-old father who had
“collected tolls on the bridge for four years before his son laid him
Voters laid off Swainson in November 1962, when he tried for a second
term. He lost a close race to Republican George Romney.
The civil rights movement was in full swing in the early 1960s. In 1963,
Swainson joined the famous Detroit “March to Freedom” led by Dr.
Martin Luther King Jr. The ex-governor said he became keenly aware of racial
prejudice in America while he was in the army hospital. Many of his fellow
patients were Japanese-Americans and African Americans. Glazer said Swainson
was “shocked by other people in America whose advancement was
In 1965, Swainson was elected a circuit court judge. In 1971, voters
elevated him to Michigan’s high court.
Four years later, he was accused of taking a bribe. He was found not
guilty in federal court, but was convicted of lying to the federal grand jury
that indicted him. Forced off the state Supreme Court, he was sentenced to
serve 60 days in a halfway house in Detroit.
Some of Swainson’s supporters suspected higher ups in President
Richard Nixon’s administration encouraged Assistant US Attorney Robert
Ozer to ruin Swainson. Allegedly, the Michigan GOP brass feared Swainson would,
in 1976, succeed the retiring Sen. Philip Hart.
In the Dome interview, Glazer, a former circuit judge himself,
said he would let his readers decide if they thought Swainson was framed.
“The book lays out the information, including new evidence I’ve
uncovered,” he said.
But he added that Swainson’s “indictment for bribery was based
almost entirely on the words of a person who never testified under oath, who
was never cross-examined, and whose own lawyer told the jury he was lying. And
on the perjury charge, his lawyer made some serious mistakes in the trial.
Swainson was the victim of an extremely zealous prosecutor who saw corruption
wherever he looked. And he put Swainson into what’s called a perjury trap
as part of that process.”
Also in the book, Glazer wrote that Ozer once bragged he practiced
“prosecution by terrorism.”
Glazer also wrote that Ozer was fired in 1976. Three years later, while
heading a Medicare fraud investigation in Colorado, Ozer was cited for criminal
contempt by a federal judge. He had given the names of some grand jury targets
to a reporter, according to Glazer.
Road to recovery
In the end, the perjury conviction devastated Swainson. His life
spiraled downward into despair and alcohol abuse. Ultimately, he recovered and
became an avid student of Michigan history, leading Gov. James Blanchard to
appoint him to the state historical commission.
His work on the panel did not go unrecognized. The commission’s
“John B. Swainson Award” was named for the former governor who was
proud of his family’s Scottish roots. Swainson died in 1994. He was buried
in Manchester, Mich.
For more information:
Glazer L. Wounded Warrior: The Rise and Fall of Michigan Governor
John Swainson. Michigan State University Press; First Edition, 2010.