Campaigning on the Comstock: Virginia City and the Hayes-Tilden Election


Volume VII, Number 1
Fall, 1987

The 1876 presidential election proved more controversial than perhaps any other in American history. Democrat Samuel J. Tilden, governor of New York and Tweed Ring prosecutor, outpolled Ohio Governor Rutherford B. Hayes by more than 200,000 votes after a campaign waged mainly on the issues of reform and loyalty to the Union during and after the Civil War. Hayes, however, won the electoral college and the presidency; twenty votes from South Carolina, Louisiana, Florida, and Oregon remained in dispute almost until the inauguration and still provoke historiographical debate. But historians have largely ignored the West's, and especially Nevada's, response to the politics that preceded the voting and continued long afterward.1 After the canvass, returning congressmen found the West "more excited than any other portion of the Union," but Nevada historians have insisted that national political issues hardly affected the state's electoral activities and that the 1876 vote was "a comparatively quiet political tournament."2 As "Queen City of the Comstock," Virginia City played a dominant role in late nineteenth century Nevada politics, and a study of the response of that city and its intensely partisan newspapers to the events before and after the balloting shows that Nevadans were deeply interested in the Hayes-Tilden race and its effect on national and local affairs.

Even before the sectional bloodshed that provided one of the most important issues of the 1876 election, Virginia City was attracting men and women deeply interested in making money. The migration of miners across the Sierras from California began in 1859 and became a stampede by the summer of 1860. The booms and busts that accompany a mining economy had alternately boosted and buffeted Virginia City for a dozen years by 1873, when the "Big Bonanza" was located in the claims owned by the Comstock's Big Four: miners John Mackay and James Fair, and stockbrokers James Flood and William O'Brien.Within the next decade their mines produced more than $100 million in ore and paid dividends of nearly $75 million. Yet, despite the influx of people that followed - Virginia City's population approximately doubled due to the mineral find - the Comstock's citizens remained predominately Republican. Once Nevada became a state in 1864 after only three years as a territory, Virginia City voters remembered that they owed statehood to Republican Abraham Lincoln's need for electoral votes and support for the Thirteenth Amendment. This usually enabled Republicans to enjoy a majority at the polls in November.3

But as America celebrated its centennial, Virginia City was rebuilding in more ways than one. An October 26, 1875 fire destroyed the city's center, already reeling from the nationwide Panic of 1873 and the Mint Act, which demonetized silver shortly after the "Big Bonanza" was located and made John Sherman of Ohio, the senator responsible for the measure, a villain in the Silver State. While the approximately 15,000 residents of Virginia City restored their town and prepared to vote in the 1876 presidential election, they also relied for entertainment and information upon three daily newspapers: the Republican Daily Territorial Enterprise, the Democratic Virginia Evening Chronicle, and The Footlight, an avowed independent with Democratic leanings that included political news and comment amid reports and advertisements about local theatre. These publications, and their readers, carefully followed political developments at home and elsewhere, alternately rejoicing and mourning over their favorite candidates and their campaigns.4

Neither Nevadans nor the two parties lacked presidential aspirants. The Chronicle vowed to support any Democrat, preferably Tilden or Senator Thomas Bayard of Delaware, but looked askance at rumors that Associate Justice David Davis would quit the bench and run because Supreme Court justices "should be out of politics." Although the Republican Enterprise expected the Democratic nominee to come from Ohio or Indiana - and the Chronicle assumed that a dark horse was likely - the evening daily's Washington correspondent reported as early as March 20 that Tilden would be the choice, and the paper grew more certain of his nomination as the date of the July convention in St. Louis approached.5

The Republican candidate's identity was less certain. Opposing former United States Minister to England Charles Francis Adams and eventually Secretary of State William Evarts because they had "nothing in common with the masses," the Enterprise praised other Republican aspirants. Predictably, the Chronicle attacked them. The Republican daily praised front-runner James G. Blaine of Maine despite charges that railroads had bribed him; its Democratic counterpart scorned him as "a thief among thieves" and "the Honorable Hyena from Maine." When Blaine fell ill soon after defending himself, the Chronicle claimed that he exaggerated his ailment to gain votes while its competitor said, "In the old days, [Democrats] would have sought means to legally assassinate him." Announcing as his problems mounted that Blaine "has never been our favorite candidate," the Enterprise lauded Pennsylvania Governor John Hartranft and Secretary of the Treasury Benjamin Bristow, the Whiskey Ring investigator whose chances the Democratic daily discounted because he was too honest for the Republican party. In contrast, the Chronicle attacked Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York as a "staunch upholder of the present rotten administration" and the Enterprise hyperbolically described him as a possible president who "in every attribute of the perfect man, never had but two superiors - Jefferson and Lincoln . . ." Before the Republicans met in Cincinnati, the Enterprise also identified as a likely compromise candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes, who had been quietly organizing his forces for the convention.6

Virginia City was ready for the convention. Storey County and Nevada Republicans had met to name their six national convention delegates and had angered some party members when the state central committee made the choices rather than holding a primary. At the convention, Nevada's delegates shifted between Hayes, Bristow, Conkling, and Hartranft through the first six ballots until uniting behind the Ohio governor on the seventh and final vote. The city's Republicans found the selection "at first quite a disappointment" because they preferred Blaine, but they quickly regained their enthusiasm. Their organ found no "suspicion of stain upon his [Hayes's] character," and about 500 people cheered, built bonfires, fired guns, and heard longtime Nevada politician Charles E. DeLong, a former United States minister to Japan, laud the ticket.7

Virginia City's Democrats evinced equal interest in their party's choice. When the delegates in St. Louis quickly nominated Tilden, the Chronicle heralded him as a great reformer and reported that the news of his selection" has been received with the greatest enthusiasm all over the Pacific coast." It urged its Democratic readers to "show [the Republicans] . . . what a ratification meeting is." That night on C Street, Virginia City's main thoroughfare, cheering Democrats listened to ten speakers attack Republican corruption and praise Tilden and vice-presidential candidate Thomas Hendricks, the governor of Indiana.8

Almost immediately the bitter attacks, and the ensuing defenses and counterattacks, began. The Chronicle accused Hayes of wartime cowardice and irregularities - one story claimed that he shot a deserter and took $400 earmarked for the man's mother - and lying abut his wealth. It contended that the Republican nominee was a tool of his party's corrupt leaders and did nothing in congress except vote himself back pay. Championing him as a reformer, Enterprise editors Charles C. Goodwin and William S. Wood denied the reports of Hayes's cowardliness and described him a "another Lincoln. He is more scholarly, more polished, but he has the same gentle ways, the same unswerving purpose to do right, the same undemonstrative courage which . . . never falters when duty is to be done . . ." The Chronicle's opinion of Hayes's running-mate, William Wheeler of New York, was similar: besides claiming that he stole a client's property, the Chronicle dismissed and criticized his letter of acceptance - which, according to the Enterprise, "contains more principles of real reform and good government than all the platforms and speeches of the Democracy have contained in fifteen years."9

The opponents received equal doses of editorial venom and praise. The Chronicle recounted Tilden's reformist deeds as New York governor; its competitor claimed that he raised taxes as governor and turned against Boss Tweed only because of public opinion. When the Enterprise charged Tilden with opposing the Civil War by endorsing an 1864 peace resolution, its counterpart excerpted letters and speeches showing its favorite's loyalty. Both papers accused the opposing candidate of tax fraud. The Chronicle's Denis McCarthy, a Democrat who once had been one of the Enterprise's owners and the Enterprise's Goodwin and Wood also found other means of expressing their views, reprinting editorials from other journals and attacking the other paper's - and its candidate's - tactics. The periodicals also included Hendricks in their comments: the Democratic editor hailed one of the vice-presidential aspirant's talks as "probably the finest campaign oration ever delivered"; the Enterprise questioned his honesty and loyalty to the Union.10

Yet, the campaign also dealt with substantive issues, particularly reform. In the wake of Ulysses S. Grant's maladministration, including the Credit Mobilier and Whiskey Ring scandals that involved such leading politicians as cabinet members and congressmen, both parties professed interest in clean government. But in public meetings and in the press, Virginia City voters differed over which was truly the reform party. Dismissing the opposition's interest in reform as "the standing joke of the age," the Enterprise cited Tilden's connection with Tweed and Tammany Hall and the alleged extravagance of the Democratic House of Representatives. Comstock Democrats "want, and are going to have, the same kind of reform that the Republicans have been promising without performing," the Chronicle said. It listed Republican officials - especially Secretary of War William Belknap and Orville Babcock, Grant's private secretary - accused of or convicted of corrupt dealings, even claiming Grant himself profited. And, the Chronicle noted, when the Republicans chose a presidential nominee, they ignored Bristow, a reformer, while the Democratic party chose Tweed's prosecutor.11

The corruption accompanying Reconstruction was a crucial campaign issue in the South and in Virginia City. When South Carolina Republicans refused to hired[sic] Democrats, the Enterprise reminded unhappy Democrats that the spoils system developed under Democrat Andrew Jackson. Both sides bemoaned the indebtedness of the carpetbag governments, Democrats attributing it to dishonesty and Republicans to the woeful condition of state services when they took over from their opponents. Both parties accused the other of causing and condoning violence and intimidation to gain votes. "Republicans are called cruel in their treatment of the South. There never was a viler slander," the Enterprise complained, lauding Republican rule and military Reconstruction for bettering Southern life. The Chronicle countered,

If it [not] be cruel to rob a war stricken people of its last dollar, to plunge into debt that politicians may roll
in luxury and buy votes, and after all to slander, through a partisan or ignorant Northern press, the very
people who have been robbed and burdened with unwarranted debt, the Republicans have not been cruel
to the South.

Despite Nevada's illiberal racial views, Virginia City Republicans and their organ staunchly defended Southern Blacks and their party's policies toward them. They also alleged that Democrats had engaged in acts of violence toward the freedmen, while Democrats claimed Blacks were abandoning the party of Lincoln for a party of genuine reform.12

The cause for which the South fought provided campaign fodder for both parties in Nevada. As Keith Ian Polakoff stated in The Politics of Inertia, "the 'bloody shirt' set the tone for the closing weeks of the Republican campaign" across the nation, but it dominated Nevada politics throughout the year. The Enterprise frequently attacked the "Confederate House of Representatives" and it "treacherous and insincere" Democratic members as "traitors," proving the Chronicle's prophecy that Republicans would use the "cruel" tactic of accusing Democrats of disloyalty during and after the war. Thus, when Blaine fought the inclusion of Jefferson Davis in an amnesty bill, the Republican daily lamented that the president of the Confederacy "was not hung long ago" and called Democratic replies to the congressman's speech "a fresh exhibition of that spirit which has caused the Northern Democracy to excuse, justify or applaud every act of the Southern Democracy, whether it has been insurrection and murder in open war, or oppression and murder of negroes . . ."13

Comstock partisans found a related issue that would aid both the South and Nevada: longtime railroad executive Thomas Scott's plan to build the Texas and Pacific Railroad as part of a second transcontinental railroad, a plan that underlay C. Vann Woodward's classic work on why Northern Republicans and Southern Democrats united behind Hayes. The Enterprise disliked Southern Democrats, but it heartily endorsed Scott's quest for a federal subsidy, printing favorable editorials and news stories and devoting much of its front page to the text of a supportive speech by Nevada's lone congressman, Republican William Woodburn. While aware that Scott's plan would help the South, the Enterprise was more concerned with the "tyranny and heartless acts of oppression heaped upon us by . . . Central Pacific Railroad managers" whose monopoly enables them to impose discriminatory rates. Although not opposed to another line, the Chronicle still questioned Scott's need for federal money and accused Woodburn of seeking political favor.14

Nevada partisans sought voter favor by attacking the Chinese railroad workers. Amid anti-Chinese editorials and mass meetings in Virginia City and around the state, Nevadans at both the national conventions supported immigration limits. The Enterprise claimed that Democrats failed to fight the Chinese "evil." In turn, the Chronicle warned on election eve that Republicans hired "filthy, ignorant and depraved" Chinese, moving The Footlight, which professed independence but blatantly preferred the Democrats, to chortle that McCarthy's publication employed four Chinese to do odd jobs.15

The intolerance Virginia City citizens revealed in their relations with the Chinese was mirrored in their religious views. Both papers accused the opposition candidate of bigotry. The Chronicle harped that Hayes was a "Know-Nothing" not only when the nativist party won support during the political party convolutions of the 1850s, but also as a presidential candidate in 1876. Worse, from the standpoint of editor McCarthy, an underground group known as the "Crescents" had organized throughout the state to keep Catholics out of key positions in the Democratic party; his paper was relieved when their efforts failed. Enterprise editors, Goodwin and Wood, denied the charges against Hayes and instead accused Tilden of supporting anti-semitic legislation, a claim that Comstock Democrats denied.16

Another locally important issue was silver. Virginia City Democrats reminded voters that Republicans controlled Congress in 1873 when it enacted the Mint Act that demonetized silver and "stove to ruin the silver industry of this State." Denying that charge, Nevada Republicans countered that Democrats were split between hard (specie) and soft (paper) money advocates. Yet Virginia City's press and public were able to ignore party affiliation in common cause. Even Democrats lauded the pro-silver efforts of Woodburn and Senator John P. Jones, who delivered a 463-page speech in Congress for remonetization, although the Chronicle added that Jones, "of course, consult[ed] his own interests while defending ours." Each paper attacked Greenback candidate Peter Cooper, "an amiable old fossil, who passes his spare time riding the inflation hobby," but remained partisan. Amid rumors of Cooper's withdrawal from the race, the Enterprise said, "That would be too bad. Hayes ought to have one honest opponent."17

Nevada's congressmen did not oppose Hayes, but their direct impact on Virginia City voters was small. After backing Conkling for the nomination, Jones stayed in Washington to work on a silver commission. Woodburn toured Nevada for the Republicans and wrote a lengthy anti-Tilden letter that the Enterprise printed and the Chronicle attacked, but his influence was debatable. He did not seek re-election and reportedly expressed displeasure with the lack of help he received from Nevada's senators. Woodburn's vote against Blaine's amendment to the aforementioned amnesty bill also angered some of the state's less forgiving Republicans. "There ought to be left enough of the blood of his Irish forefathers in his veins to coagulate and choke him to death when he thinks of the way he in that vote represented Nevada, taking from her even her claim to courage, self-respect and manhood," the Enterprise fumed.18

The Republican daily was far kinder to junior Senator William Sharon. The longtime Bank of California, and Virginia and Truckee Railroad official, hated and feared for the power he had wielded over Comstock mining companies and their employees, joined Indiana's Senator Oliver P. Morton on an eleventh-hour stop in Virginia City to stump for the Republican ticket. But Sharon also provided an issue for Virginia City Democrats who, frequently pointing out that he resided in California, passed a resolution demanding that Nevada's senators live in the state. They also condemned his failure to occupy his Senate seat. By contrast, the Enterprise lauded Sharon's actions and foresight as bank executive and reported favorable comments about him whenever he stopped in Virginia City. The Republican daily also had to defend itself. Sharon owned 79.7 percent of the politically influential paper, and the Chronicle and its readers, and fellow Democratic publications disparaged the Enterprise as "Sharon's organ" and his "circular." Nonetheless, Sharon's only interest in his paper's operations appears to have been its support for his earlier senatorial campaign and his other business activities. The Enterprise long had been Republican under Joseph T. Goodman, a Sharon enemy whom the Republican Senate aspirant bought out to eliminate his harshest critic, and it remained Republican under its new, usually absentee owner.19

The candidates within Nevada also provided topics for Virginia City partisans and their newspapers to discuss. Aspirants for federal and state offices addressed meetings and rallies, speaking for themselves and their presidential standard-bearers. Democrats attacked Republican House candidate Thomas Wren, a lawyer from the eastern Nevada city of Eureka, for cutting his miner's pay from four to three dollars a day, a charge he denied. Republicans, in turn, questioned the loyalty of Wren's opponent, Adrian C. Ellis, because he had served in the Confederate army. Both parties claimed that the other was divided over the congressional candidates and stoutly defended their own hopefuls. The Chronicle and the Enterprise also urged readers to remember the importance of electing good legislators to vote on future United States senators. Even the presidential electors caused controversy. Former Virginia City mayor J.C. Currie urged his fellow Democrats to deny patronage to the Enterprise, which accused another Tilden elector, Edwin Blennerhasset, of conspiring against the Union cause while living in California during the Civil War.20

Clearly, the Enterprise and Chronicle - and to an extent The Footlight - devoted considerable space and vituperation to the presidential campaign and the issues surrounding it. Despite the editors' political interests and involvement, these papers would have been less attentive to the national election had they lacked a readership that was equally excited about local and national politics. Indeed, the Comstock's electorate revealed almost daily its active and consuming concern with Virginia City and Nevada hopefuls - and with the battle between Hayes and Tilden.21

In a time of more limited entertainment, citizens turned to politics as an outlet and an amusement. Tilden-Hendricks Clubs in the First and Second Wards and Hayes-Wheeler Clubs in the Third and Fourth Wards met weekly at City Hall, National Guard Hall, or Athletic Hall during the campaign's final three months. The Chronicle and Enterprise religiously covered their party's meetings and printed notices predicting or seeking a large crowd. Bands and singers performed for partisans who attended the regularly scheduled weekly meetings as the election approached. Club members signed membership rolls, contributed funds for expenses and literature, and took part in torchlight parades. The local party organizations oversaw and underwrote the club's operations. The Republicans hired the Virginia and Cornish glee clubs at five dollars per member and imported longtime Nevada politician and former congressman Thomas Fitch for $500 to make four speeches in the surrounding area. Usually a minimum of three speakers praised their party and ticket as anti-Chinese, pro-silver, and reformist - issues the Enterprise and the Chronicle often addressed. The clubs had favorite speakers, but they welcomed visitors: Democrats heard congressional candidate Ellis, electors Blennerhasset and J.C. Hagerman, and Senator Henry Cooper of Tennessee, while Oliver Morton, Congressman George Gorham of California, Thomas Wren, and Fitch spoke to Republicans. The long gatherings - the Chronicle finally urged Democrats to limit their talks to fifteen minutes each - always ended with three cheers for the presidential ticket.22

Further details were less certain. "The great unwashed rallied . . . last evening," the Enterprise said of one meeting in which Democrats "poured the loose expectoration of their speech upon those present," while "attendance was poor and the lies a little gauzier than usual" at another. Chronicle stories were equally biased, calling one Hayes-Wheeler gathering a "mass fizzle" and claiming the crowd left early to watch a more interesting nearby dogfight. The two partisan papers also differed in describing reaction to visiting dignitaries. When Gorham spoke, the Democratic daily reported that the Republicans set up a band on the street and herded the accumulated crowd into the National Theater to drum up attendance. Both publications enthusiastically described their party's activities, while accusing the other journal of inaccurate reporting.23

But Virginia City's populace did far more than attend club meetings. Local reporters heard political discussions as they walked their beats, or at the Cosmopolitan Debating Society, which asked whether "the Republican party is unworthy of further continuance in power." Republicans and Democrats sent telegrams seeking news from other states or awaited results at their favorite saloon or newspaper. Fish-net banners across C Street and silk badges announced their preferences, as did such songs as "Sowing Hayes' Seed" and "Go Down Tilden."24

The voting created economic blessings as well as problems. Merchants linked advertisements to the election, one clothier suggesting, "The great . . . question at issue is not who shall be our next President, but who sells the best clothing." Bettors took advantage of profitable opportunities. The Enterprise's Wood bet $500 against a saddle horse; others wagered mining stock, a hundred-pound sack of flour that the loser was to wheel from Virginia City to nearby Gold Hill and donate to the poor, and silk hats, while saloons sold pools. Virginia City's retail liquor dealers, who numbered more than 100, benefitted monetarily from candidates buying drinks for potential supporters and voters reacting to their favorite's latest gain or defeat. These habits also prompted partisan reporting; as when the papers attributed a reduction in public drunkenness cases in the courts to depression over the other party's latest setback.25

Nor did Virginia City ignore the more mundane preparations for voting. Local officials announced that banks and bars would be closed for election day and order maintained. Four deputies and four special policemen were added to each precinct, and anyone arrested would be held without bail until the polls, which opened at eight a.m., closed at six p.m. Printers produced uniform ballots and voter lists. Newspapers and their parties encouraged the faithful to recruit registrants, and justices of the peace recorded them. Eventually, 5, 692 enrolled - the highest ever, prompting the Third Ward's division into two precincts so that the polls, located at City Hall, a store, an enginehouse, and a courtroom, could handle the rush.26

Of course, both parties were certain of the outcome. The Chronicle and Enterprise consistently predicted victory for their candidate in key states and doubted that the opposing standard-bearer could carry his home state. Each party charged the other with intimidating or buying voters, especially in the South. When the editors were not deprecating each other's claims, they were accusing their competitor of misinterpreting or misusing news stories to magnify his faction's gains or reduce its losses. While Hayes and his advisers listed Nevada as doubtful, the Enterprise reminded readers that Nevadans voted for the person and the platform, not the party. After hesitating out of a "desire to foster no false hope," the Chronicle assigned the state to the Democrats' column because of their pro-silver and anti-Chinese stands: "The men of Nevada will not show the sound common sense for which they are noted unless they do their best to aid the party that has done its best to aid them," the Democratic daily declared.27

With these admonitions in mind, Virginia City voters went to the polls on November 7. The weather was pleasant; no drunkenness or fighting was reported, despite the availability of liquor - which, notwithstanding anti-drinking ordinances, was plentiful. Both parties deployed bands and teams with the candidates' names, but many voters scratched their tickets to cross party lines. Except for a few lulls, lines were long and balloting heavier than in the May municipal canvass. Betting continued all day. A starred Democratic ticket led to the only controversy, Republicans vainly objecting that the mark violated a city statute. The latter's candidates were more successful. They lost only one of the five precincts: George Tufly, W.W. Bishop, and former Enterprise editor Rollin M. Daggett averaged one hundred votes more in Virginia City than did Democrats Currie, Blennerhasset, and Hagerman; and the Hayes electors carried Nevada by about one thousand votes while Wren defeated Ellis.28

The outcome nationally proved less certain due to charges of fraud in Louisiana, Florida, and South Carolina. The Chronicle claimed victory for Tilden, and Comstock Democrats exulted while the Enterprise considered it an "infinitely sadder day . . . than . . . the day that Abraham Lincoln died." As conflicting dispatches arrived, the Enterprise's hopes rose, but it conceded the election on November 11. Virginia City's Democratic editors were accordingly jubilant: The Footlight proclaimed, "At length the chain is broken; the ring of corruption and fraud is no more, and we are to have a Democratic President," and the Chronicle adorned its columns with a crowing rooster. Unsure that Republicans would permit Tilden's inaugural, the latter complained, "Nevada has deliberately voted to support the party . . . now seeking to cheat the people and seize the Presidency by fraud."29

Comstock residents revealed as much interest in the results as did the editors. As news arrived in saloons and crowded telegraph rooms, partisans alternately rejoiced and mourned. "What is the latest news from the East?" was a question often asked of reporters and politicians. "Not until the result is definitely known will our people get squarely back to [mining] stocks," the Enterprise said. When it conceded, the Chronicle enthused that Virginia City Democrats "are the happiest . . . men in the world this morning" and [f]lurries of snow this morning had the effect to cool the ardor of the Hayes men."30

The celebrations abated as the result remained uncertain. The disputed Southern states submitted two sets of electoral votes. As politicians of both parties visited the South to probe charges of vice and violence, the press tried magnanimity: "So far as we are concerned, and we fancy we speak the sentiments of the majority of Republicans in Nevada, we would rather see Tilden wrongfully made President than . . . Hayes inaugurated with a taint of fraud upon his election," the Enterprise said. The Chronicle added, "If it can be shown that the Democratic party committed or aided and abetted frauds during the late canvass, or during the count, we hope to see Hayes inaugurated." Yet both papers predicted their candidate's inauguration and attacked the opposition for causing or contributing to the problems accompanying the voting and its aftermath.31

The press and its readers carefully followed events in Louisiana, South Carolina, and Florida. Both parties accused the other of stealing votes and fomenting violence and sought a fair count, welcoming Northern observers or "visiting statesmen" to Louisiana. As the Enterprise bemoaned stories of intimidation and defended the Republican returning board, the Chronicle responded, "Hayes' friends claim for him honesty . . . The Louisiana vote was stolen for him - everybody knows that - and the receiver is as bad as the thief," labeling Tilden's opponent "Returning Board Hayes." The Enterprise believed that investigators would "find so much fraud . . .they will determine that the returns furnished by the Returning Board are as nearly correct as any that any investigation could produce." Florida and South Carolina caused less agitation, but reaction was equally biased: the Chronicle expected a "bare-faced robbery" because Hayes's party controlled the latter; the Enterprise defended its faction, claiming that Democrats caused the problem.32

Another disputed electoral vote materialized closer to home. Oregon Governor L. F. Grover disqualified one of his state's Republican electors because he was a federal postmaster and replaced him with Democratic runner-up E. A. Cronin. The Chronicle applauded Grover, but it concluded that the vote belonged to Hayes. Attributing to the Democrat a desire for a probe of the constitutional provision involved, and denying that the national party paid off Cronin, the Democratic daily argued that Republicans faced a contradiction: if they investigated Oregon, they would be going behind the returns, which they had refused to do - to their benefit - in the South, where they accepted the reports of the Republican returning boards at face value. When Cronin told Congress that he had indeed received money for his efforts, the Enterprise claimed that what Democrats found "shameful" about Cronin was his honesty.33

Congress finally created the fifteen- member Electoral Commission to decide which candidate should receive the four disputed states' twenty electoral votes and the presidency. The board - ten congressmen divided evenly by house and party and five Supreme Court justices - seemed to the Chronicle unconstitutional and "a weak way of escaping a difficulty," but "[w]hatever may be the result of the compromise, the Democracy will have the credit of having consented to it when it was not necessary that they . . . do so." Equally unhappy, the Enterprise felt "an immediate concession is made by Republicans - none at all by Democrats" and "[t]he result might be an outrage," but "the people . . . demand . . . the vexed question shall be speedily and peacefully settled." Whether it would indeed be peacefully settled was debatable. The Enterprise warned that Democrats might repeat their acts of 1860 and 1861 and fight over a presidential election. Frowning on its party's discussions about massing in Washington as a show of solidarity, the Chronicle agreed that war should be avoided and disclaimed Democratic interest in renewing hostilities over the commission's ruling.34

Yet that board's decision created great hostility. Consistently dividing eight-to- seven by party, the commission gave all twenty votes - and the presidency - to Hayes. Angered by the partisanship, the Chronicle heaped abuse on Supreme Court Justice Joseph Bradley, a New Jersey Republican appointed after Justice David Davis, a political Independent whom Congress had expected to be the swing vote, accepted a Senate seat from Illinois. The Democratic daily asked, "What would have become of the Republicans had Bradley not been available?" adding, " A popular majority of 260,000 American citizens has no rights that Joe Bradley is bound to respect." The Footlight agreed: "The clearly expressed wish of the American people . . . has been defeated . . ." But Virginia City's Republican voice reminded its readers that justices are "men only. They have their passions and prejudices like other men, and they have been so since . . .first elected or appointed."35

Yet Virginia City's press realized that other forces, particularly those cited by Woodward, affected the outcome. As early as December, the Enterprise praised Southern congressmen for "acting splendidly" in seeking "an amicable settlement." In mid-February, a Chronicle dispatch reported that Northern Republicans and Southern Democrats had allied to elect Hayes and build the Texas and Pacific. "'Alliance' is apparently the latest euphonism [sic] for bribe," the Chronicle complained, explaining,

It was not so much against Republicanism as for the South that they fought through the
Presidential campaign; and once assured that they had more to gain by allowing Hayes
to steal the Presidency than by allowing Tilden to honestly win it, their Democratic
enthusiasm cooled very rapidly. They want "internal improvements." Put in plainer English,
they want money down South.36

Even Nevada proved to be a potential participant in the electoral vote controversy. Republican elector Daggett had been Nevada's United States Circuit and District Court clerk, resigning just before election day. Some Nevada Democrats wondered about his eligibility due to his federal employment. Despite its Democratic leanings, the Chronicle defended Daggett, who as Enterprise managing editor had had a seemingly unusual relationship with McCarthy. As members of different parties, they often clashed in editorials, yet they were personally friendly. The evening daily reported that his votes would have been thrown out had he not resigned. Yet congressional Democrats objected to the elector during the electoral count, but only as a delaying tactic. Nevada's three electoral votes for Hayes were duly registered. In response to these reservations, some of the portly elector's Virginia City friends telegraphed to Woodburn, "Is there no way of getting that fat old rascal, Daggett, into jail." The reply - "He has proved contumacious and recalcitrant, and is under arrest for contempt" - prompted a dispatch informing Daggett, "Your constituents approve of your course. Stay where you are and hold the fort if it takes all Summer." Suspecting a joke, Daggett wired a lengthy, collect reply that cost his friends forty dollars.37

That forty dollars was not the only money lost due to the electoral controversy, for the Virginia City partisans who had placed their bets before the election continued to do so afterward. The flow of conflicting dispatches promoted many bettors to draw or collect their wagers, but others were undeterred. One bet required the loser to transport the winner in a wheelbarrow from a C Street saloon to Gold Hill as a band serenaded them and girls collected funds for the state orphanage. Several girls learned of the latest news and "rushed off immediately to bet a dozen consecutive kisses against almost anything" on the outcome. One week after the election, Comstock saloonkeepers were estimated to be holding $90,000 in their safes, pending payoffs on the Hayes-Tilden race. The Delta Saloon allowed pool buyers to withdraw, and less than a month after the election half of the bettors, tired of waiting, called it even, while newspaper "locals" reported never having seen so many new hats.38

Bettors were not alone in their interest in the election. Schoolchildren in a spelling bee asked to be divided into the two parties, causing concerns that they were publicizing their parents' leanings; a letter from their teacher reassured readers that her pupils had only tried to enliven their school work. Advertisements frequently contained references to the electoral controversy. At least three fights, two involving guns, resulted from debates over who had won. As the weather grew colder, Hayes and Tilden supporters unsuccessfully suggested a snowball fight. Letters of up to sixty-eight pages poured into the newsrooms. A baby was named Rutherford B. Hayes Wilson. Amid rumors of Cronin's arrival at the depot, Democrats rallied there, only to learn it was someone who resembled the elector. Indeed, after waning early, excitement about the vote increased, providing topics for discussion in Virginia City's saloons and promoting the Chronicle to warn:

When a Chronicle man takes his usual morning rounds he is accustomed to meet
about 687 men, who grab him by the coat, lead him to one side and proceed to ask
him about the latest news . . . [A]bout half-past 10 a sandy-complected man rudely
stopped a Chronicle reporter in the street, dragged him into a door-way and asked
him to give the exact figures on the remaining 36 parishes in Louisiana. The reporter
paused a moment, prayed to be forgiven, and then sent six shots from a self-cocker
into the man's bowels. He died without a struggle . . . 39

When the struggle to elect a president ended with Hayes's inauguration, local partisans reacted with relative restraint: flags flew throughout the city, a band played, and a torchlight parade marched outside Republican offices. Several Democrats claimed a willingness to pay off bets. But the press was another matter. While the Enterprise expressed high hopes and The Footlight doubts about Hayes, the Chronicle accepted the result but attacked "the Villainy Consummated" and "Returning Board Hayes" as "His Fraudulency." As for the betting, "Democrats will gracefully surrender the stakes, and the Republicans will take them as they would any other stolen property," the Chronicle said. "No honest man who is a Republican from principle will accept a wager won as these wagers will have been won."40

Whether he won or stole it, Rutherford B. Hayes defeated Samuel J. Tilden for the presidency in a battle marked by violence, controversy, and fraud. Nevada and its biggest town, Virginia City, lacked the influence of states with large populations or disputed electoral votes in determining the victor. But to argue that the state and its queen city were unimportant and unconcerned, as many historians have through historiographical neglect or inaccuracies, would be incorrect. Had Nevada's three electoral votes been cast for Tilden or one elector disqualified - both possible scenarios - the race might have ended far differently. Moreover, Virginia City voters and their highly partisan press revealed a keen interest that the former expressed through participation, betting, and discussion, and the latter in pungent and frequent editorials. Politics in Virginia City, as elsewhere, was not only a business and a duty, but also entertainment and recreation, and those who lived on the Comstock enthusiastically took part in all aspects of political life. Virginia City's overall impact was small, but its interest in the 1876 presidential election was great, indeed.41


The author wishes to thank Dr. Ralph J. Roske of the History Department at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and the students in Dr. Roske's graduate seminar on the Civil War and Reconstruction, for their help in the preparation of this paper.

1The three main works on the battle are Paul L. Haworth, The Hayes-Tilden Disputed Presidential Election of 1876 (New York, 1966 [originally published Cleveland, 1906]); C. Vann Woodward, Reunion and Reaction: The Compromise of 1877 and the End of Reconstruction (Boston, 1951); Keith Ian Polakoff, The Politics of Inertia: The Election of 1876 and the End of Reconstruction (Baton Rouge, 1973). 

2Virginia Evening Chronicle, January 12, 1877, hereafter cited as VEC; Myron F. Angel, ed., History of Nevada, with Illustrations and Biographical Sketches of its Prominent Men and Pioneers (Berkeley, 1958 [originally published Oakland, 1881]), 94; Hubert Howe Bancroft, Bancroft's History of Nevada, 1540-1888 (Las Vegas, 1981 [originally published as History of Nevada, Colorado and Wyoming, 1540-1888 (San Francisco, 1890)]), 198: Russell R. Elliot, History of Nevada (Lincoln, 1973), 152-169. 

3Accounts of Virginia City's halcyon days are endless and varied. Elliott, History of Nevada, 61-169, is useful. The earliest outstanding summary is William Wright [Dan DeQuille], The Big Bonanza (New York, 1947 [originally published San Francisco, 1876]). For background on elections in Virginia City, see the appropriate issues of such local newspapers as the Territorial Enterprise and Gold Hill Daily for November in even-numbered years. go 

4John S. Wright, "The Centennial in Nevada," Nevada Historical Society Quarterly, XIX:2 (Summer 1976), 95-104; Elliot, History of Nevada, 144-151, 396; James W. Hulse, The Nevada Adventure: A History (Reno, 1981), 110-115; Richard E. Lingenfelter and Karen Rix Gash, The Newspapers of Nevada: A History and Bibliography, 1854-1979 (Reno, 1984), 253-255, 261-263; Lucius Beebe, Comstock Commotion: The Story of the "Territorial Enterprise" and "Virginia City News" (Standford, 1954), 98-108; William D. Swackhamer, Political History of Nevada 1979 (Carson City, 1979), 203-04. 

5For the sake of simplicity, until otherwise noted, all citations of newspaper publications shall be from 1876. VEC, March 20, March 25, April 28, May 3, May 5, May 11, May 22, June 7, June 22, June 24, June 27; Daily Territorial Enterprise, February 10, February 16, April 5, May 12, hereafter cites as DTE; Polakoff, The Politics of Inertia, 70-83. 

6DTE, January 12, February 11, March 1, March 5, March 29, March 31, April 4, April 13, April 22, April 26, April 28, April 29, May 10, June 2, June 3, June 6, June 7, June 8, June 13, June 15, June 25; VEC, January 12, January 14, February 24, March 11, March 17, April 12, April 13, April 15, April 20, April 25, April 26, May 5, May 6, May 11, May 12, May 13, May 16, May 18, May 19, May 25, May 26, May 27, May 29, June 2, June 3, June 6, June 8, June 9, June 12, June 13, June 15, June 15, June 22; The Footlight, June 13; Haworth, The Hayes-Tilden Election, 10-25; Polakoff, The Politics of Inertia, 16-39; T. Harry Williams, ed., Hayes: The Diary of a President, 1875-1881 (New York, 1964), 15-27. 

7DTE, March 11, March 17, March 19, June 14, June 15, June 16, June 17, June 20, June 28; The Footlight, February 15, March 29, June 2; VEC, March 16, June 14, June 15; Polakoff, The Politics of Inertia, 63. 

8VEC, February 29, March 25, March 26, May 12, May 16, May 26, June 26, June 28, June 29, June 30; DTE, May 13, June 22, June 27, June 28, June 29, June 30, July 7; Polakoff, The Politics of Inertia, 91; Haworth, The Hayes-Tilden Election, 26-35. 

9VEC, June 23, July 1, July 5, July 6, July 7, July 10, July 14, July 15, July 18, July 20, July 21, July 26, July 29, August 1, August 2, August 10, August 23, August 28, September 1, September 5, September 8, September 23, September 28, October 2, October 14, October 21, October 23, November 3, November 6; DTE, June 20, June 21, June 24, July 6, July 7, July 11, July 21, July 27, August 5, September 8, September 9, September 26, September 29, October 5, October 14, October 22, November 3. 

10Both newspapers devoted at least two columns to a series of short editorials in each issue from the conventions to the election. It is no exaggeration to say that every issue commented about the candidates of their party. For their comments on Hendricks, see, for example, VEC, August 5, August 9, September 1, September 4, September 29, October 31; DTE, July 4, August 6, September 2, September 5, October 13. 

11DTE, March 14, May 18, June 9, June 27, July 1, July 20, August 9, August 17, August 18, August 23, September 8, September 9, September 12, September 24, September 29, October 5, October 26; VEC, March 24, April 19, June 8, June 23, June 28, July 6, July 7, July 10, July 20, July 21, September 7, October 21. See also The Footlight, January 20, March 3, September 18. Again, these are but a few examples; references to each party's reform tendencies, or the lack of them, appeared almost daily. The plethora of scandals surrounding, or occurring during, the Grant administration has been well-documented. Grant's role is discussed in William McFreely, Grant: A Biography (New York, 1981), especially in Chapter 25. 

12VEC, April 14, April 25, May 6, July 22, August 24, September 21, September 30, October 6, October 7, October 10, October 11, October 13, October 27, November 2, November 4; DTE, January 7, March 21, April 21, July 22, August 18, August 24, August 25, September 15, September 22, September 24, October 4, October 8, October 10, October 12, October 14, October 20, October 21, October 25, November 3. See also Elmer R. Rusco, "Good Time Coming?":Black Nevadans in the Nineteenth Century (Westport, Connecticut, 1975), passim

13See, for example, Polakoff, The Politics of Inertia, 146; DTE, January 13, February 8, February 17, March 23, April 8, June 23, August 15; VEC, January 20, April 10. 

14Woodward, Reunion and Reaction, passim; DTE, January 5, January 12, January 19, January 22, January 25, February 5, February 9, February 16, March 3, March 18, April 7, April 8, April 19, April 20; VEC, January 28, February 19, February 26, May 17. On railroads and politics, see Elliot, History of Nevada, 157-166; Gilman M. Ostrander, Nevada: The Great Rotten Borough, 1859-1964 (New York, 1966), 40-95; Russell R. Elliott, Servant of Power: A Political Biography of Senator William M. Stewart (Reno, 1984). 

15DTE, April 14, June 8, June 16, June 20, August 2, August 22, September 1, October 12; VEC, March 30, April 18, April 27, May 6, June 7, June 14, June 19, June 20, August 9, August 10, August 17, August 22, August 30, August 31, September 13, September 19, September 23, September 26, October 20, October 30, November 6; The Footlight, August 8. See Elliott, History of Nevada, 166-169. 

16VEC, April 8, April 12, April 13, April 28, September 15, October 4, October 9, October 13, October 19, November 2: DTE, October 13, November 2. 

17VEC, March 16, April 4, April 7, April 28, May 8, May 15, June 1, July 14, July 17, August 16, August 23, August 28, August 30, October 11, October 28, October 30; DTE, January 13, February 12, March 26, April 30, July 18, July 23, July 26, August 3, August 13, August 17, August 18, August 22, August 27, September 1, September 2, September 7; The Footlight, June 28, July 21, October 5; Polakoff, The Politics of Inertia, 89-90; Elliot, History of Nevada, 152-66. 

18DTE, January 12, January 21, January 25, February 15, March 5, March 18, June 8, June 14; VEC, January 11, January 22, January 25, January 29, January 31, March 8, April 1; The Footlight, July 18. See these newspapers for October and the first week in November for their campaign activities or the lack of them. On Jones and Woodburn, see Angel, ed., History of Nevada 591-94, 605. 

19DTE, February 12, February 13, February 15, February 20, May 12, October 10, October 31; VEC, January 3, January 6, January 8, January 10, February 16, February 19, February 28, March 6, March 7, March 9, March 13, March 21, April 17, May 19; The Footlight, February 15, March 31, April 8; Elliott, History of Nevada, 162-164; Angel, ed., History of Nevada, 94. 

On the Enterprise and Sharon, see the minutes of trustees' meetings in the Territorial Enterprise mss, Nevada Historical Society, Reno, John Mackay owned most of the remaining stock, but Sharon obviously had a controlling interest. After the election, Sharon's trustee for the Enterprise was Henry M. Yerington, who ran his Virginia and Truckee Railroad and dispensed contributions and free passes to supportive politicians and editors of both parties. See the Yerington collections in the Nevada Historical Society, Reno, and the Department of Special Collections, Noble H. Getchell Library, University of Nevada, Reno; and the "Virginia and Truckee Railroad Company," Nevada Railroad Collection, Henry E. Hunington Library, San Marino, California.

20DTE, January 9, January 25, March 3, March 16, march 17, July 28, August 22, August 23, August 27, September 1, September 2, September 3, September 6, September 7, September 26, October 22, November 1, November 3, November 4, November 5; VEC, August 29, September 1, September 2, October 20, November 2; The Footlight August 23; Angel, ed., History of Nevada, 88-89, 94, 213, 236; Ostrander, Rotten Borough, 40-95. 

21The Enterprise's Wood was a rumored candidate for the Republican congressional nomination that Wren won. He, Goodwin, and McCarthy spoke at meetings and served on committees. All three papers also had a financial stake in the voting because of political job printing and advertising. 

22Almost every issue of the Chronicle and Enterprise during the last three months of the campaign contained notices or stories about the clubs. See also "Record of Members and Activities of the Republican Central Committee, Storey County, 1876-1904," Republican Party of Storey County mss, Nevada Historical Society, Reno. 

23DTE, July 30, August 19, August 27, September 2, September 23, October 8, October 20, October 22, October 31, November 2; VEC, June 17, July 17, July 27, July 31, August 14, August 17, August 18, August 24, August 31, September 4, September 18, September 19, September 26, October 3, October 19, October 21, November 2; Walter Van Tilburg Clark, ed., The Journals of Alfred Doten, 1849-1903, 3 vols. (Reno, 1973), October 30, 1876, II, 1284. 

24DTE, August 29, September 19, September 20, October 12, October 26, November 7; VEC, June 23, June 27, September 6, October 10, October 11, October 16, October 17, October 18; The Footlight, August 4, August 30, November 1; Clark, ed., Doten Journals, August 22, 1876, II, 1280. 

25VEC, August 17, September 6, October 20, October 27, November 2, November 4: The Footlight, August 1, October 11, October 27; DTE, June 18, October 12, October 14, October 20, October 27, November 7; Wells Drury, An Editor on the Comstock Lode (Reno, 1984 [reprint of 1936 work]), 122. 

26The Footlight, October 4, October 19, October 27, VEC, August 12, October 7, October 16, October 17, October 21, November 4, November 6; DTE, October 8, October 12, October 13, October 20,October 22, October 29, November 3, November 5, November 7; Clark, ed., Doten Journals,  November 4-6, 1876, II, 1285; Polakoff, The Politics of Inertia, 10-11. 

27On Nevada's prospects, see Polakoff, The Politics of Inertia, 157-58; Williams, ed., Hayes Diary, November 5, 1876, 46; DTE, April 21; VEC, September 4, October 13, October 14, October 25. The two papers referred daily in the campaign's final month to the likely outcome in various states. 

28DTE, November 7-14, VEC, May 2, November 7-14; Francis P. Weisenburger, Idol of the West: The Fabulous Career of Rollin Mallory Daggert (Syracuse, 1965), 97-98; Swackhamer, Political History, 203-04. 

29For the editorial response to the election and the immediate uncertainty surrounding its outcome, see the Chronicle, the Enterprise, and The Footlight for November 8-12. 


31For example, see DTE, December 7, 1876, VEC, January 22, 1877. Virtually every issue until the inauguration commented on the situation. 

32DTE, November 14, 1876; November 19, 1876; February 6, 1877; VEC, November 13, 1876; November 25, 1876; December 1, 1876; December 30, 1876; February 7, 1877; February 8, 1877. For background, see the pertinent sections of the Haworth, Woodward, and Polakoff works, and on Louisiana see Ralph J. Roske, "Visiting Statesmen in Louisiana, 1876," Mid-America, XXXIII:2 (April 1951), 89-102. 

33See, for example, VEC, December 8, 1876; December 11, 1876; January 4, 1877; DTE, November 16, 1876; December 28, 1876, January 4, 1877; January 5, 1877. 

34See, for example, DTE, November 18, 1876; December 14, 1876, December 16, 1876, January 20, 1877; VEC, December 16, 1876, December 21, 1876, January 5, 1877; January 18, 1877; January 20, 1877; January 27, 1877; Haworth, The Hayes-Tilden Election, 220-284; Polakoff, The Politics of Inertia, 232-314; Woodward, Reunion and Reaction, passim.

35VEC, January 25, 1877; January 29, 1877; February 10, 1877; February 13, 1877; February 26, 1877; March 1, 1877; The Footlight, February 24, 1877; DTE, February 1, 1877; March 3, 1877.

36VEC, February 15, 1876; February 16, 1877; February 23, 1877; DTE, December 10, 1876. See Woodward, Reunion and Reaction: Polakoff, The Politics of Inertia: Allan Peskin, "Was There a Compromise of 1877?" Journal of American History, LX:1 (June 1973), 63-75; C. Vann Woodward, "Yes, There Was a Compromise of 1877," in Ibid, 215-23; George C. Rable, "Southern Interests and the Election of 1876: A Reappraisal," Civil War History, XXVI:4 (December 1980), 347-61; Michael Les Benedict, "Southern Democrats in the Crisis of 1876-1877: A Reconsideration of Reunion and Reaction," Journal of Southern History, XLVI:4 (November 1980), 489-452. A more recent, brief analysis that looks more closely at Hayes's role in the post-election controversy is Leslie H. Fishel, jr., "The Very Victorian Rutherford B. Hayes," Hayes Historical Journal, V:4 (Summer, 1985), especially 12-14. 

37Haworth, The Hayes-Tilden Election, 250; Polakoff, The Politics of Inertia, 203, 306; Weisenburger, Daggert, passim, particularly 97-98, which details a dispute between Daggert and McCarthy that was resolved in a saloon; DTE, January 20, 1876; May 31, 1876; November 19, 1876; January 10, 1877; VEC, November 6, 1876; November 14, 1876; November 18, 1876; November 19, 1876; February 10, 1877; February 12, 1877; The Footlight, December 5, 1876; January 11, 1877. 

The author has done considerable research on the Nevada press and found that editorial feuds were not always personal, or that they were less personal than they appeared. They were conducted to maintain interest, and thus advertising and circulation. They usually involved partisan politics, and they could be exceedingly bitter. See, for example, the author's "The Las Vegas Newspaper War of the 1950s "which is in his possession.

38DTE, November 9, 1876; November 10, 1876; November 19, 1876; December 20, 1876; February 27, 1877; The Footlight, December 20, 1876 VEC, November 8, 1876; November 9, 1876; November 10, 1876; November 11, 1876; November 13, 1876, November 14, 1876, November 16, 1876, November 22, 1876; November 24, 1876; November 27, 1876; December 4, 1876, March 2, 1877. 

39VEC, November 8, 1876; November 11, 1876; November 13, 1876; November 14, 1876; November 18, 1876; November 21, 1876, November 24, 1876; December 2, 1876, December 4, 1876, December 5, 1876; December 22, 1876; January 23, 1877; January 24, 1877, January 30, 1877; February 3, 1877; February 6, 1877; February 7, 1877; DTE, November 10, 1875; November 14, 1876; November 18, 1876; January 18, 1877; The Footlight, February 5, 1877.

40The Footlight, March 5, 1877; March 6, 1877; VEC, February 28, 1877; March 2, 1877; March 3, 1877; March 4, 1877; March 6, 1877; March 7, 1877; DTE, February 27, 1877, March 3, 1877; March 6, 1877.

41 Polakoff, The Politics of Inerita, 1-10.