Harmon’s Histories: mudslinging and scandal still part of presidential politics

Tammany Hall Boss Tweed

By Jim Harmon

Ah, fall. The weather turns crisp, the leaves turn color, and the political campaigning begins. Well, that’s how it used to be. No more.

Campaigns, now, seem constant with neither a discernible beginning nor end, and no apparent relationship with an election date.

It feels like my absentee ballot should have arrived months ago, given the endless percussive political pandemonium.

Then, there are the candidates and all the mudslinging. Some folks say they’re disgusted and may not vote at all.

It’s a mess, to be sure, but that’s no reason to give up. All we need is a little perspective.


We’ve had some real doozies over the years. New York’s William “Boss” Tweed, Louisiana’s Huey “Kingfish” Long, and Tennessee’s Ray Blanton. Ulysses S. Grant’s administration was enveloped with scandal. Warren G. Harding had its “Teapot Dome,” Nixon had Watergate and Reagan had Iran-Contra.

We’ve seen it all: scoundrels, rogues, corruption, bribery, misconduct, quid pro quo exchanges, racketeering, fraud and extortion.

Mudslinging? It’s always been an ingredient in the American political pie. Our history is filled with examples of nasty campaigns.

In 1828 supporters of John Quincy Adams labeled Andrew Jackson a “slave-trading, gambling, brawling murderer.” Jackson backers countered that Adams “provided a young virgin for the czar of Russia during his tenure as a diplomat.”

Then, there was 1844. James Polk’s backers claimed Henry Clay “had sex with whores and… broke all 10 of the commandments.” Clay’s backers called Polk “a puppet of the ‘slaveocracy’ and a product of racist southern self interest.”

In 1876, nasty rumors were spread that Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, in a drunken “fit of insanity,” had once shot his mother! The Republicans dredged up the recent Civil War, claiming, “Not every Democrat was a Rebel, but every Rebel was a Democrat.”

If you’re looking for parallels to today, 1888 was a fascinating year.

Initially, there were more than a dozen candidates for the Republican presidential nomination. Foreign trade, jobs, personal integrity (or lack of it) and big money were major issues in the campaign. Sound familiar?

Grover Cleveland, a Democrat, was challenged by Republican Benjamin Harrison. There were allegations of voter fraud. There were leaked letters (in the days before e-mail). The campaign was intense and too close to call. In the end, the popular vote went to Cleveland, but the electoral vote went to Harrison.

That same year in Missoula, there was an incredibly tight race for Sheriff. Lifelong Democrat and incumbent Daniel J. Heyfron was challenged by Republican Cain B. Mahoney.

The two had been at odds long before the campaign ever began.

Mahoney had part ownership in a flatboat used as a ferry across the Bitter Root river near the Buckhouse ranch. In 1887, Sheriff Heyfron, enforcing a court order against Mahoney’s partner, seized part of the property used in the ferry operation. Mahoney sued Heyfron over the seizure. The boat-battle continued for years, finally being settled in 1890 in Mahoney’s favor for $300.

Meantime, back to 1888, and the local election. It was a nasty campaign. The Missoulian newspaper backed Mahoney and claimed Sheriff Heyfron had abused his office and wasted taxpayers’ money, pointing to an expensive, month-long search for some murderers that resulted in no arrests.

The newspaper, noting the Sheriff had taken along his 12-year-old son, charged, “The next time Heyfron summons up a posse to go all-out on a month’s fishing and hunting excursion he will pay the fiddler himself, and not charge the expense up to the County.”

Mahoney won the election by less than 20 votes.

Heyfron immediately cried foul, filing a lawsuit claiming voter fraud. He charged roughly 100 ballots cast by men working on the Marshall railroad grade just east of Missoula were illegal and had the men arrested.

That ticked off the Missoulian, again. The paper charged Heyfron, “… conducted as reckless, dishonorable and venal campaign as was ever made in the territory of Montana.”

“This same shameless Heyfron, guilty of 20 times as much dirt and crime as any man at Marshall grade, is the man who swore out the complaints against them. Living in a house of tissue paper himself, he recklessly hurls stones at all his neighbors.”

Mahoney and the Missoulian claimed Heyfron had “run a gin mill” at one of the precincts. In fact, when election judges arrived at that polling place, west of Missoula, they did find a large amount of whiskey in the house and the home-owner in “a state of intoxication.” As a result, the polling place was moved to another location. But, a direct connection to Heyfron was never made.

Andrew Jackson

In the following two-year court battle, the district court initially ruled in favor of Heyfron and awarded him the Sheriff’s position. Mahoney appealed, but the court denied the appeal.

The case then found its way to the Montana supreme court, which noted numerous irregularities, ranging from fraudulent voting, to miss-spelling of Heyfron’s name on various ballots, to illegally moving that previously-mentioned-precinct.

Ultimately, the court affirmed Heyfron’s election.

Do we always have the most highly qualified candidates, the cleanest campaigns and the most honest and productive political administrations? No.

But, the voters still have the final word.

And, as Winston Churchill said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

Jim Harmon is a retired journalist whose 50-year career included nearly three decades at KECI-TV, Missoula in roles ranging from news anchor to weather forecaster. In retirement, Jim is a landscape gardener and history buff who’s spent years reading historical micro-film newspapers. You can read his weekly history column at the Missoula Current.