The Most Disgraceful Election in American Politics

4, April 2017

One of the beautiful things about the Missouri History Museum’s Library (aside from the setting, of course), is that sometimes you can come across some pretty cool stuff by accident. While working on a long-term project of inventorying and rehousing single-issue newspapers from our collections, we recently stumbled onto some amazing headlines from the front page of The St. Louis Chronicle concerning St. Louis’s mayoral race in 1901. Three candidates were vying for the city's top governmental office: Meriwether Lewis was the Public Ownership candidate, George W. Parker the Republican candidate, and Rolla Wells the Democratic candidate. By the looks of it, 1901 was a very contentious election year—and that might be putting it mildly. The day’s events were so outrageous that the Chronicle put out three different editions on April 2, 1901, each with a rather attention-grabbing headline.

Scan of first "St. Louis Chronicle" headline from April 2, 1901The first of the Chronicle's three headlines from April 2, 1901. Missouri History Museum.
Scan of second "St. Louis Chronicle" headline from April 2, 1901The Chronicle's second election-day headline. Missouri History Museum.
Scan of third "St. Louis Chronicle" headline from April 2, 1901The Chronicle's final headline for April 2, 1901. Missouri History Museum.

After seeing the Chronicle’s coverage, I was curious whether other local newspapers covered the election in the same manner. As it turns out, The St. Louis Republic and St. Louis Post-Dispatch weren’t quite as dramatic.

Headline from "St. Louis Republic" story on April 2, 1901A 1901 election-day headline from The St. Louis Republic. Missouri History Museum.
Headline from "St. Louis Republic" story on April 2, 1901A second headline from the Republic. Missouri History Museum.
Headline from "St. Louis Post-Dispatch" story on April 2, 1901A less-dramatic take from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Missouri History Museum.

By reading only the front pages of the papers, I learned a few interesting things:

  • Each party could have challengers at the polling places to dispute any wrongdoing. 
  • The mayor gave out permits to certain people to carry concealed weapons at the polls while acting as challengers.
  • A U.S district attorney acting as a challenger was shot. 
  • A ward candidate was shot at, perhaps by a rival during a challenge.

The root cause of it all? Carrie Nation, known for “smashing” saloons, would have blamed alcohol. As she was passing through town, she was reported to have said, ”What kind of town is this? Saloons open on election day!” Or perhaps it wasn’t the best idea to allow challengers from each candidate’s party at the polling places and then give permits to some to carry concealed weapons.

Black-and-white photo of Carrie NationCarrie Nation, 1910. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

One thing is certain: You’d be hard pressed to find such a scenario in a modern election. Also, it’s amazing to see that in a little over 100 years we’ve gone from having a number of daily newspapers in St. Louis to having a single daily paper. I focused on three papers for this post, but there were a few more that also likely had coverage of “the most disgraceful election in American politics.”

You can find out for yourself by visiting MHM’s Library. We have various St. Louis newspapers available on microfilm, in hard copy, and sometimes both. When researching inside the Library you can also take advantage of our subscription, which provides access to digital versions of more than 150 Missouri newspapers, including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (1874–1922 only).

—Randall Blomquist, Assistant Librarian

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