Frankly, today’s elections are absolute yawners compared to the voting squabbles of yore. Stolen ballots? Phony registrations? Dead voters? Cincinnati elections featured all of that and more. The 1885 contest, for example, was extreme in every respect.
For nearly 20 years, Cincinnati had been ruled by a corrupt Democratic political machine. The kingpin of this cabal in 1885 was John Roll McLean, publisher of the Cincinnati Enquirer. The machine owned the entire legal and judicial system in Hamilton County, with judges, prosecutors and even jurors on its payroll. The egregious mishandling of capital murder cases, in which obviously guilty criminals walked free, inspired the Courthouse Riot of 1884. Elections were flagrantly bought and sold. Charles Goss, author of the 1912 history, “Cincinnati—The Queen City,” could hardly contain his revulsion:
“Undoubtedly these miserable arrangements would have superinduced dishonesty in the most ethical of decades; but in one of so low a tone as the ‘eighties’ it was certain that the consequences would be appalling. And they were! The stories of ‘miscounting,’ of ‘repeating,’ of ‘stuffing,’ excite a feeling of amazement, while those of buying ballots and of breaking the heads of those who refused to vote the proper ticket awaken a feeling of horror.”
By 1885, Cincinnati reached the limits of tolerance and launched a reform movement aimed at ousting the Democrats by voting in a completely fresh slate of Republican office holders. The Cincinnati Post, at the vanguard of the reform movement, launched [9 October 1885] a bold attack against the machine:
“It is in the interest of good government that the infamous, abominable, disgraceful, coal-oil Legislature, and every similar Legislature, if (may God forbid) Ohio should ever elect another, should be deeply buried beneath the ballots of honest men, and the party rebuked by the election of its opponents. On this ground, and not on the personal fitness of the candidates, The Post earnestly advocates the election of the Republican Senatorial and Legislative ticket in Hamilton County and throughout the State.”
The McLean machine smelled trouble and poured money, booze, and muscle into its efforts to salvage its throttlehold on power. The Republicans, backed by some of Cincinnati’s wealthiest men who had lost patience with the arrogance of the Democratic machine, understood they would have to use every means—legal or not—at their disposal to depose McLean and his minions.
The lines were so clearly drawn that few of the newspapers even ran the names of the candidates. Voters in the 1885 election almost exclusively voted straight tickets—either Republican or Democrat. A few radicals “scratched” a candidate or two, but otherwise voted their party’s ballot in total.
Each party shouted claims of shameful electoral malfeasance and most of the accusations were true. In one precinct, Democratic poll watchers arbitrarily added 200 fake votes to their candidate’s tally. In another precinct, there were 131 more votes cast for Republican candidates than there were registered voters. Influential citizens reported having their arms twisted in private meetings with John McLean himself at his Enquirer office. Each party employed “booze and boodle”—free drinks and cash bribes—and imported “voters” from Kentucky and Indiana. Some polling stations reported fisticuffs between members of the Lincoln Club (Republican) and the Duckworth Club (Democrat).
One delicious bit of chicanery involved “Fort Metz,” the notorious bordello run by Louisa Metz on Walnut Street just above Fifteenth. The incident involved the official returns from the Ninth Ward’s Precinct F, an historically Democratic stronghold in the Over-the-Rhine. At the end of election day, Precinct F’s official tally sheet was nowhere to be found. Instead, in the official envelope, monitors discovered a handwritten tally on Duckworth Club stationery of what purported to be the votes for that polling station. It seemed obvious that the Democrats had mandated the outcome in advance, and their on-site flunkies were too stupid to transfer the phony results to the official reporting document.
Someone must have disposed of the authentic tally sheet. Where was it? Burned up? Tossed in the privy? In John McLean’s desk? A young Republican operative named Phillip Alberts appointed himself as an unofficial electoral investigator and went looking. Along the way, according to the Post [19 November 1885] Mr. Alberts acquired several unsavory sources:
“Among them is a woman going by the name Lillie, an inmate of Fort Metz, a disreputable saloon and bawdy house on Walnut-st., almost opposite Turner Hall. Several days ago she told Alberts that another inmate of the house, known as Leslie Herbert, had in her possession some election papers which she was trying to keep hidden.”
Alberts visited Mrs. Metz’s brothel—strictly in the interest of free and fair elections, of course!—and found Leslie Herbert perusing “a curious document.”
“Alberts quietly passed behind the woman, and, looking over her shoulder, was almost dumfounded at discovering that the paper was the missing tally sheet of Precinct F, Ninth Ward.”
Alberts asked for the paper, but Ms. Herbert spirited it away and her fellow “inmates” closed ranks and sent Alberts packing. He returned the next day with a Post reporter, who was informed that Mr. Alberts was sadly mistaken. Ms. Herbert had no election papers in her possession. The document he glimpsed was nothing other than the manuscript copy of a song, and a lyric sheet was produced to support this alibi.
After all the dust settled, the Republican party had demolished the Democratic machine. Joseph Benson Foraker of Cincinnati was elected Governor of Ohio and led a statewide Republican sweep. Among the first gubernatorial actions Foraker blessed was a “ripper” bill removing the authority of the Cincinnati Board of Public Works, an elective body, to dispense patronage jobs and conferring that power on a new Board of Public Affairs, appointed by the Governor. To head the new Board, responsible for some 2,000 patronage positions in the city, Foraker selected George Barnsdale Cox. The Governor’s plum appointment marked the beginning of “Boss” Cox’s long dynasty atop his own political machine.