Cincinnati’s 1884 Election Was a Real Riot

Democratic city officials and Republican federal authorities duked it out (literally) at local polling stations that fall.

If you think this year’s political campaigning is contentious, you might be amazed by Cincinnati’s 1884 city election. It was a real riot. In 1884, Cincinnati was ruled by a mostly Democratic political machine. The ringleader—he wasn’t quite a “boss”—was the Publisher of The Enquirer, John Roll McLean. The machine controlled the courts, the police, patronage jobs, and even elections. For years, the Democratic organization in Cincinnati flagrantly encouraged fraudulent elections.

The Cincinnati Graphic carried scenes from the November 1884 election, including a poll monitor shot by a policeman (lower left) and an angry voter stabbing a policeman (lower right).

Image digitized by the Cincinnati and Hamilton County Public Library

Most Cincinnatians have heard about the Courthouse Riot of March 1884, but few recall the other riot that year. It was, in many ways, an echo of the more famous spring rebellion. The Courthouse Riot inspired the Cincinnati upper class—capitalists, businessmen, clergy, professionals—to mobilize for better government and honest voting, and this progressive groundswell inspired the local Republican Party to break a decade and a half of Democratic control. Cincinnati citizens organized an Honest Election Committee, which invited a force of U.S. marshals to supervise that fall’s contests. Cincinnati businessmen backed the committee. The federal government (Republican at the time) paid for 700 marshals to ensure accurate balloting.

Ohio elections were ripe for corruption and vote tampering. In 1884, the state didn’t require registration or proof of residency to vote. Prospective voters went to the polls, announced their residence and—if they lived within that precinct—dropped a ballot in the box. At least that’s how it was supposed to work.

In practice, Democratic functionaries staffed the polls and controlled the vote outcome. Lot Wright, U.S. Marshal for Southwest Ohio, described some of their methods in a letter to his superiors in Washington, D.C., asking for help in 1884:

“All methods that can be thought of are resorted to. The colonization of voters, repeating, refusing to let men vote who are entitled to vote, intimidating, counting improperly, recording the count reversed what it ought to be, improperly certifying, stuffing, changing ballots, buying votes, and last, but most infamous of all, scratching with chemicals in place of ink, which at first is not detected by the voter [disqualifying the ballot].”

U.S. Marshal Lot Wright, a Republican appointee, recruited 700 sworn deputy marshals to counteract election interference by the Democrat-controlled Cincinnati Police and Hamilton County Sheriff.

Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

In those days, Ohio elected congressmen through a special election in October. Wright asked for special deputies to monitor the Congressional election on October 14, 1884. The national Republican Party pressured Marshal Wright into making the request and then raised funds to hire an additional 700 deputies and to ship 600 brand-new bulldog revolvers to Cincinnati. Wright and his deputy marshals served under the authority of the federal election supervisor, William Howard Taft. In his 1939 biography of Taft, Henry Pringle describes the disaster:

“[The marshals] were to take their posts at the polling places and keep the peace. Taft hoped, he said in his official announcement, that they would ‘encounter no opposition, especially from the municipal or county authorities.’ This was a hint that the police, controlled by the Democratic city administration, might get tough. If opposition came, however, Taft’s marshals were to ‘treat them as you would any other citizens committing crimes against the United States and have them arrested.’ The inevitable result was bloodshed. A Negro was slain, apparently without reason, by one federal marshal.”

It is impossible to tell, looking back 136 years, whether Wright’s armed deputy marshals ensured a fair election. Rumors claimed that Cincinnati counted 7,000 more votes than the city had voters. It is entirely possible that all the marshals did was replace Democratic thugs with Republican thugs. That, at least, is how the (Democratic) Enquirer saw it [October 15, 1884]:

“The history of yesterday’s election in Hamilton County will forever remain a foul blot upon the fair fame of Ohio’s metropolis. Such scenes were witnessed at the polls as brought the cry of shame from every honest man. Riot and bloodshed held sway at many of the precincts, while intimidation was practiced on all sides by the paid hirelings of a Republican National Government.”

The Republican-leaning Cincinnati Commercial Tribune, of course, saw things differently [October 15, 1884]:

“The election yesterday was a Waterloo for the local and State Democracy, and that in spite of their preparations for fraud and the most flagrant outrages on Republican voters, white and colored. In spite of the best work of the Deputy Marshals the Democratic police perpetrated some of the most foolhardy outrages and, in defiance of all warnings, put themselves in direct offense with the Government of this country.”

Throughout the day, skirmishes between the sheriff’s deputies (Democratic) and the deputy marshals (Republican) erupted into melees, often involving gunfire. According to The Enquirer, chaos was widespread:

“In the lower precinct of the Sixth Ward several hundred [deputy marshals], all colored, blocked the street and fired off their revolvers at random. Respectable people were insulted and mistreated. In the Eighth Ward it was only by a superhuman effort that the liquor-crazed deputies were driven from the polls, after having fired a volley into the crowd. The scene was repeated in the lower precinct of the Fifth Ward, while in Precinct A of the Eighteenth Ward the imported thieves took possession of the polls and installed three Republican Judges, thus leaving the Democrats without representation.”

Despite all of the combativeness and outbreaks of gunfire, only one death resulted from the competition between parties. Two armed poll watchers, one of the sheriff’s and one of the marshal’s, both African American, argued over access to a polling place in the Eighteenth Ward and the deputy marshal shot and killed the deputy sheriff.

The national Republican Party shipped 600 bulldog pistols to Cincinnati to arm deputy marshals hired to oversee the 1884 Congressional election.

Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

The Enquirer, vehemently opposed to integration or equal rights for African Americans, used the election conflicts to promote its racist vision of savage Blacks insulting their white superiors. Here is The Enquirer’s front-page commentary:

“It was indeed humiliating to honest men to be compelled to crowd through a dirty, smelling crowd of ignorant negroes, who invariably kept their clubs and revolvers exposed, in order to exercise their rights of franchise.”

When the presidential election came around in November 1884, both sides stood down—somewhat—and there were fewer incidents of riotous behavior. Nevertheless, a Republican poll monitor stabbed a city policeman, gangs of Democrats attacked any Black voters attempting to cast ballots, a Covington “floater” brought in to illegally vote was murdered, and a Cincinnati police sergeant shot and killed a man who refused to leave a polling station.

Democrats took office in Washington that year with the election of Grover Cleveland. The new administration immediately launched an investigation of Marshal Lot Wright. The blatantly prejudiced inquest found so much blame on both sides that they ended up slapping Marshal Wright on the wrist for sloppy expense accounts and not much more. Still, Wright was replaced by a Democrat as Marshal for Southwest Ohio.

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