Saturday, November 5, 2016

Election Day in Swain County - 1884 (Another scandalous election!)

In what is sure to be one of most scandalous elections in history, I thought it might be interesting to get a view of what an election looked like in Swain County in the 'Old Days'. This account comes from the observations of a traveler coming through Swain County on Election Day, November 4, 1884. But first, a little background......

Grover Cleveland (1837-1908)
Source: Library of Congress
James Blaine (1830 - 1893)
Source: Library of Congress

The race for the presidency was a very tight one, waged primarily between the Democrat nominee, New York governor Grover Cleveland and the Republican nominee, former U.S. Senator James Blaine of Maine. It was also an election notorious for partisan mudslinging. Below is a brief look at the papers of the day (I've put some links for further reading in blue).

"Mr. Simeon in this city, and being approached on the subject of New York politics, said, "Yes, I know Cleveland, perhaps better than any man living. Maria Halpin is my sister-in-law. The story told in the newspapers is literally true, and the half has not been told. Grover Cleveland did seduce my sister-in-law under a positive promise, while she was living in Buffalo. This I know to be true, and Cleveland afterward paid the $500 to me for Maria Halpin when legal proceedings were about to be instituted against him......about six weeks ago, Cleveland wrote me a letter urging me to make a statement showing that he had always treated Mrs. Halpin well, and promised me anything I would wish in case he was elected."
The Leavenworth Weekly Times, October 9, 1884

'Another Vote for Cleveland' political cartoon by Frank Beard
Source: 'The Judge' (New York), September 27, 1884

"The man to withdraw, if anybody, is Mr. Blaine. The propriety of his withdrawing is no longer a matter of argument. The missing Mulligan letters printed this morning showed that he used his high office in the House of Representatives to advance his personal interests, that he peddled information of contemplated legislation to speculators, the understanding being that he should share their profits.........he begged his partners in business in the most humiliating terms to spare him the penalty of an exposure - in fine, that he knew when he did it that if the fact were to become public it would ruin his political fortunes forever." 
The New York Graphic, October, 1884

James Blaine Political Cartoon by F. Oppen

Considering the geographical isolation of most of the men of Swain County at the time (the reader is reminded that women did not have the right to vote until 1920), it can't be known to what extent these scandalous charges might have influenced their decisions. Regardless, they turned out to play their role in an historic election, as noted in our traveler's account (and drawing), which was printed in 'Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper' on November 29, 1884.

'North Carolina - Scene at a Mountain Election Precinct in Swain County'
Source: Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, November 29, 1884
"The polling-places of such out-of-the-way districts as Nantahala precinct, Swain Co., N.C. (note to the reader: this would have taken place at Judson), where our sketch was made on the day of the late Presidential election, are not provided with all the modern conveniences, nor are the honest voters addicted to vain pomp and personal display. The sacred privilege of the franchise is exercised in an old wagon-shed, adjoining a corn crib. The 'judges' - he is a small man, indeed, in that section of the country, who bears a less important title than that of judge or colonel - seated on a bench, are the inspectors of election. Each guards a tin coffee-pot, which serves for a ballot-box. Occasionally a judge leaves his seat and circulates amongst the crowd, electioneering, coffee-pot in hand. Refreshments, in the form of ginger-cakes and cider, are to be had on the premises, and such a thing as a drop of blockade whiskey is not, we presume, wholly unobtainable. The gathering is a mixed one, and includes a paroled convict in uniform, who probably is employed in the construction of a railroad in the vicinity. There is not much style about the balloting up there in the mountains, but in the great national result the votes count just the same as though they had been cast in a crystal and nickel-plated ballot box in a brownstone-front polling place in the city." 

A total of 10,060, 145 voters across the country (and 268,356 in North Carolina) turned out for the vote. Over 60% of Swain County's electorate (I do not have the voter numbers at this time) voted for Cleveland, contributing their share to North Carolina's 11 electoral college votes that went to the Democrat. Cleveland won the popular election by relatively little (48.85% of the electorate, compared to Blaine's 48.28%) but won in the electoral college by 37 votes (219 to 182). The election proved historic in that it was the first time a Democrat had been voted into the highest office in the land since the election of 1856.  

Graphic of 1884 Vote by County (Swain is the eagle-shaped county on the Tennessee border)
Source: by Tilden76 (located on Wikipedia)
No matter what your political leanings or possible disgust with the current candidates, if you've not already done so, get out there and vote. November 8, 2016, should be just as interesting as November 4, 1884.

An interesting note for the reader: Apparently the 'judges' in the Nantahala district decided that tin coffee pots were no longer suitable for voting after the 1888 election. On January 7, 1889, the Swain County Commissioners provided Amos Ashe (most likely one of the 'judges' described in the short article as he lived in Judson) $4 for making election boxes. 

Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, November 29, 1884
Getty Images (
Library of Congress
National Historical Geographic
"Presidential Ballots, 1836-1892" by Walter Dean Burnham. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1955, pages 247-57.
Swain County Herald, January 10, 1889
'The Judge' (New York) September 27, 1884
The Leavenworth Weekly Times, October 8, 1884
The New York Graphic, October, 1884
Wikipedia (


  1. Don't you reckon that's Roundtop above the roofline in the illustration? If so, the shadows suggest early to mid-morning, since you'd be looking SW from Judson to Roundtop.

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