We hear a lot in the news today about election fraud (real or imagined). Our President has asked for election rolls from the states, and luckily our state’s attorney general has declined to provide them. Even Mitch McConnell says Kentucky has a history of voter fraud. Of course it does. Does any state not? But the truth is, our elections are pretty safe these days. I know with electronic voting there can be hackers (ahem, lookin’ at you, Russia), but in Louisville, at least, we still use pencil and paper.
It wasn’t always that simple. Did you know that in 1907 the Kentucky Court of Appeals actually threw out the results of a mayoral election in Louisville? Just chucked it. Nope. No mayor for you!
Robert Worth Bingham, whom we’ve briefly discussed before, was appointed mayor to serve out the term and try to bring some stability to the city and it’s crazy elections. It didn’t really work out that way.
In Deliver the Vote: A History of Election Fraud, an American Political Tradition-1742-2004, Professor Tracy Campbell of the University of Kentucky, devotes Chapter 5 to this crazy election. How did it happen? Here’s the short version.
Stealing an election wasn’t that difficult
As Campbell said, Louisville is not normally thought of as a “cesspool of corruption.” But in the late 1800s, elections were blatantly fraudulent. A self-appointed committee overseeing the 1887 election said it was “without parallel in the history of Louisville for fraud and corruption.”
One of the committee members, Arthur Wallace, learned of a new type of ballot used in Australia — the secret ballot! When I first read this, I was amazed that the balloting before this wasn’t secret! So, everybody knew who voted for whom. Amazing.
The Australian ballot, as it was called, was used in Louisville in December 1988, and by all accounts it was a success. One Louisvillian wrote in The Nation that it was “the first municipal election I have ever known that was not bought outright.” But it wasn’t as clear and easy as that. There was still vote buying, and those who wanted to control elections would find a way.
Enter John Whallen, a burlesque theater owner who in the 1890s became Louisville’s Democratic Party boss. Whallen once called his theater “The political sewer through which the political filth of Louisville runs.”
In one primary where his candidate wasn’t likely to win, he proposed a new system with a house-to-house canvas. Voters were told to stay home one of two nights, and pollsters would visit and ask their vote. He argued that it would prevent the crowds at the polls where “liquor, money and bullying can get in their work.” But the plan disenfranchised 13,108 eligible voters. Going door-to-door ensured that if a vote was bought that the voter followed through — and if he didn’t, he might lose his city job.
In the 1890s, Whallen’s supporters began a new method of getting the votes he wanted: intimidating African-American voters. Police used billy clubs to threaten voters and clerks checked registration lists slowly, making voters in some districts take hours to vote. Many got to the front of the line and found that the polls had closed. The losing Republican candidate said he lost nearly 4,500 votes in the ninth and tenth wards and proclaimed “we were cheated on every side.”
At that time, African-American voters typically voted Republican because Republicans had been abolitionists and were more sympathetic to black issues. By 1900, African-Americans were nearly 14 percent of the Louisville population. They weren’t legally disenfranchised in Louisville like they had been in the Deep South, but voter intimidation made voting difficult for black Louisvillians. Whallen employed “black shadies” to form Democratic clubs that were actually Democratic voter intimidation machines, according to historian George C. Wright, author of Life Behind a Veil: Blacks in Louisville, Kentucky, 1865-1930. One Whallen crony even created a portable polling place on a train car in the 11th and 12th wards. When lines of voters showed up, they simply moved the train car.
One local blacksmith said that he was given a stack of cash to buy votes by the “Honest Election League.” He said that within the league’s offices, there were stacks of cash being given out — by Arthur Wallace, the proponent of the Australian ballot 11 years earlier. I guess the cash lured him in, too.
By 1903, the Democratic vote-buying machine was in full effect. In the sixth ward, one person questioned 25 black voters on their credentials while they waited in line. A police officer stopped him and said, “You damn fool! Those n****** you’re throwing out isn’t Republicans; they’re our own repeaters!”
Frustrated Democrats joined with some Republicans to create a separate party called the Fusionists. Their own candidate, Joseph T. O’Neil, was put up for mayor in the 1905 election against the Democratic candidate, Paul Barth. Their objective: “To destroy the system or political machine which has brought such evil to our City, and the perpetuation of which is so fraught with menace for the future.” So, they wanted to end the corruption. A noble plan.
But Whallen had other ideas. He employed “repeaters,” who voted more than once, to crowd out registered voters, as well as policemen to intimidate Fusionists who questioned voting practices at the polls. A man named Arthur Allen was hit with a billy club, knocked unconscious and thrown in jail. He was charged with disorderly conduct.
Another African-American was offered $2 to not register.
In the tenth ward, a Fusionist registration officer, William O’Mara, claimed that John Keane, a Democratic committeman, offered him a glass of lemonade on registration day. After taking a sip, he was “whirling around and I thought the house was falling in.” After several minutes, he was taken outside where he was assaulted and his records were purloined. When he saw the official roll in the paper, he noticed that 65 names had been added.
Election blatantly bought
In the 1905 election, Democrats spent about $72,000 dollars around election day. That money came mostly from candidates for city office and employees of the police department. They gave money, based on their rank, essentially to keep their jobs. Fred R. Bishop, treasurer of the Democratic campaign fund, distributed money the night before the election to various ward captains, some as much as $2,500, based on the size of the ward’s voting rolls.
Some voters were told they couldn’t vote because someone had already voted using their name. In one precinct in the third ward, armed gunmen took the ballot box, loaded it up in a wagon and left with it. Afterward, one African-American saw the wagon and said, “That looks like the wagon that stole our rights.”
One Whallen crony, former firefighter John Barry, stole the ballot box of the 12th ward, took it to another location and stuffed the ballot box with hundreds of his own votes.
In the sixth ward, a police officer refused to allow some people to vote because they lived in a “disreputable place.” Their landlord came and vouched for them, but the police officer said they “ought to be disenfranchised,” and just wouldn’t let them vote. Someone told him that he should uphold the law, and he said, “To hell with the law, what do I care for the law?” and said that no African-American was going to vote on his watch. Several others around town took a similar approach. One, Pat Hartnett, even said, “God damn the law, we are Democrats!”
Democrats win, of course
Barth won by about 4,800 votes, and humbly thanked the Democrats of Louisville. The Courier-Journal, a strongly Democratic paper, reported the results and blamed election issues on the Fusionists, claiming they committed acts of violence on Democrats.
The Fusionists continued to resist. They created the Committee of One Hundred, a group organized to raised funds to challenge the election results. Helm Bruce, a lawyer, along with a few friends, began deposing witnesses to prepare a case in the Jefferson Chancery Court. In 1907, the court refused to turn over the election, saying that though there was fraud, it only accounted for about 9 percent of the vote. One of the judges refusing to overturn it had been supported by Whallen. Bruce took the case to the Kentucky Court of Appeals, and waited.
In April 1907, the court heard the case and ruled that the fraud was significant and had affected the outcome. Governor J.C.W. Beckham appointed an interim mayor to hold office until another election could be held in November 1907. He appointed Robert Worth Bingham — the father of Henrietta Bingham, whom we’ve discussed in a recent post.
In 1907, the Democrat Owen Tyler lost to Republican James F. Grinstead, for whom Grinstead Drive is named.
Paul Barth, in 1907, killed himself in his office bathroom, over the ridicule he received for a scandal involving his purchase of an expensive saddle horse he justified as his mayoral transportation around the city.
Because of the Court of Appeals’ ruling Whallen had to change tactics to win the next election, so he went with an old standby: white supremacy.
The Courier-Journal ran a letter the day before the election written by “Pinky,” an African-American who said “if the Republican Party wins this fall, we will have everything. … people of our color will be on an equality with any dam [sic] white person.” As Campbell notes, it was a blatant forgery.
The Kentucky Irish American, which supported Whallen, said “Do you want Negro domination or do you want Louisville to remain a city of white people, for the white people, and governed by white people?”
One person campaigning for mayor told a crowd of white German-Americans that he had seen a black man in charge of some white workers on a city street. “A Negro was bossing them around and was cussing one of the men. Do you want that condition of affairs to continue in this city?”
Of course, Whallen’s candidate won. Bingham was disgusted (rightfull so). African-Americans realized that one Court of Appeals ruling would not change their disenfranchisement.
When Whallen died in 1913, his funeral procession was one of the largest in city history. When his brother Jim died in 1930, one of his pall bearers was Arthur Wallace.
Both were buried in St. Louis Cemetery.
The only solace I take is that his estate, Spring Bank Park, was later turned into Chickasaw Park, which was a black-only park from 1924 to 1955. So, technically, black Louisvillians were partying on his land. Rock on, and keep voting in John Whallen’s honor.
This post is long, but there is a lot more in Campbell’s book. He also writes about election history in several other parts of the U.S. It’s an easy read and highly recommended for those interested in serious election fraud.
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