Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

The Mysterious Ballots of 1855

A Dishonest Democrat and a Radical Republican

Close Vote & Mysterious Ballots in 1855 | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeExterior view of the birthplace of the Republican Party, located on the Republican House grounds.

Birthplace of the Republican Party

Exterior view of the birthplace of the Republican Party, located on the Republican House grounds, in Fond du Lac. Photo ca. 1950. View the original source document: WHI 39662

An election over 150 years ago was so close that both candidates claimed victory and Wisconsin briefly had two governors  until one was exposed for tampering with ballots. Here's how it happened.

A Radical New Party

Democrats had controlled the state for years, so when incumbent governor William Barstow ran for re-election in 1855, he assumed an easy victory. The only serious opposition came from Coles Bashford of Oshkosh. He was the candidate of a little-known extremist party that had recently adopted the name "Republican" and championed such radical notions as freeing the nation's slaves. The well-oiled Democratic machine prepared to roll over the upstarts.

But on election day the fledgling Republicans took everyone by surprise. Democratic incumbent Barstow won by such a slim margin that the Republicans claimed victory themselves and charged the incumbents with ballot-tampering. On January 7, 1856, Barstow and Bashford each held a swearing in ceremony and claimed to be the real governor.

EnlargeFormal quarter-length daguerreotype portrait of Governor William Barstow.

Governor William Barstow

Formal quarter-length daguerreotype portrait of Governor William Barstow. The incumbent governor resigned against mounting evidence of vote-tampering. 1853. View the original source document: WHI 32642

Tampered Ballots

When the Supreme Court investigated the vote-tampering allegation, it discovered that returns supposedly sent from outlying counties had in fact been written on paper used only in the Capitol. Votes for the incumbent had been tallied from northern townships where no voters actually lived.

As the evidence of fraud mounted against Barstow, he threw in the towel on March 21, 1856, and left his Lieutenant Governor, Arthur McArthur, as the state's chief executive. On March 25th, the Supreme Court gave its final ruling in the case, and named Coles Bashford Wisconsin's legal governor.

EnlargePortrait of Coles Bashford, Wisconsin's fifth governor.

Governor Coles Bashford

Portrait of Coles Bashford, Wisconsin's fifth governor. Though his opponent would resign due to accusations of tampering with votes, Governor Bashford would soon prove similarly dishonest. View the original source document: WHI 2537

Tensions had run so high that when Bashford arrived at the Capitol that day to assume office, he brought along a sizable contingent of muscular friends. After calmly hanging his coat in the official gubernatorial closet, he told McArthur that he'd come to take possession. "Will force be used?", McArthur asked. "I presume no force will be necessary," Bashford replied, "but in case any be needed, there will be no hesitation whatever, with the sherriff's help, in applying it." McArthur beat a hasty retreat to the sound of jeers and hoots from the assembled crowd.

Disappointment

Unfortunately, Bashford turned out to be as dishonest as Barstow. During his administration, which lasted from 1856 to 1858, the legislature distributed two huge grants of land awarded to Wisconsin by the U.S. government for building railroads. In 1858 an investigating committee uncovered a series of frauds committed during this parceling out of railroad lands.

Legislators and other officials had received bribes proportionate to the importance of their positions, but the prime beneficiary was Gov. Bashford himself. From the La Crosse railroad alone he had received $50,000 in bonds, which he later converted into $15,000 cash. Although he managed to serve out his term, Bashford retired in disgrace and in 1863 fled to Arizona Territory, where he died in 1878.

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