The Most Corrupt Election in Wisconsin’s History

The Most Corrupt Election in Wisconsin’s History
Republican senator Coles Bashford (left) and Democratic Gov. William A. Barstow were the candidates in Wisconsin’s incredibly corrupt gubernatorial election of 1855.

Political pundits will be anxiously watching returns from northern and western Wisconsin this month for clues on who will win the gubernatorial election. But votes from municipalities like Bridge Creek in Chippewa County and Spring Creek in Polk County won’t matter. 

That’s because they’re fictitious. 

The locations don’t exist, even if they cast some of the deciding votes in the most corrupt gubernatorial contest in Wisconsin history.

“The corruption in the election of 1855 was so brazen, so obvious, we’ve never seen anything like it since in a gubernatorial race,” says Michael Kwas, a Madison history teacher who has studied Wisconsin corruption from statehood until the Civil War over the last decade.

The contest featured the incumbent, Gov. William A. Barstow, described by the Chicago Tribune as “the ablest, the pluckiest, the most energetic, and the most fertile in resources of all the Democratic politicians.” Barstow’s opponent was New York native Coles Bashford, a lawyer and state senator who moved to Oshkosh in the 1850s. Bashford was a member of the Republican party, which had formed just a year earlier out of meetings in Ripon and Madison around the national issue of abolition and the local issue of repealing the graft and overall patronage associated with the Barstow administration.

Barstow ran behind all other Democratic candidates statewide, and as results trickled in from all over the state, Bashford’s supporters claimed a victory by roughly 350 votes out of the 71,000 cast. However, that was before the “election results” from Bridge Creek and Spring Creek and other suspicious vote totals arrived to the Barstow-appointed State Board of Canvassers.

The governor and his aides, previously known as “Barstow and the Forty Thieves,” had a plan for this very outcome. According to Thomas E. Randall in his book History of the Chippewa Valley published in 1875, “A member of the State Board of school lands came here from Madison a few days before the election … the subjoined memorandum was drawn up as the outline of proceedings. ‘If Barstow received a clear majority, nothing was to be done … But if a few hundred votes were necessary to overcome Bashford’s majority, they were to be manufactured, and if new and unheard of elections precincts were required, they too were to be manufactured as the safest way of multiplying votes.'” 

As such, Bashford’s lead evaporated when Bridge Creek reported Barstow winning that polling location by a 97–23 margin and when Spring Creek reported totals of 107–13 for Barstow. The lead was totally wiped out when the county canvassers of Waupaca County claimed Barstow was victorious there by a 543–59 margin.

Republicans howled, claiming voter fraud, which was common nationwide during that time period.

“Charges of fraud were frequent in antebellum America, but more often than not, the allegations had more to do with trickery than with the kind of fraud perpetuated in Wisconsin in 1855,” says Dr. Lex Renda, an American history professor at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. “Because there were no official government ballots, parties printed their own ballots, listing all of their candidates for office, distinguishable from those of other parties by either shape or color. Parties on occasion tried to trick voters of the other party by distributing spurious ballots that looked like their opponents’, but had their own candidates.”

When the three Democrats on the canvassing board met in mid-December, they named Barstow the winner by 157 votes. Three weeks later, as Barstow was publicly inaugurated to a second term, Bashford was privately inaugurated by a state Supreme Court justice, setting the stage for the seminal moment of Wisconsin’s high court.

“Much the same way Marbury v. Madison establishes the U.S. Supreme Court as an arbiter of legislative disputes, Bashford v. Barstow did the same for the Wisconsin Supreme Court,” says Kwas.

The court hired its own investigators and the Barstow narrative would quickly fade. For example, it was discovered that  Bridge Creek and Spring Creek didn’t exist, and a hotel clerk had picked up the actual election canvass in Waupaca showing Barstow’s victory there to be only 288–219, a far cry from the overwhelming support he’d enjoyed earlier.

Fearing the inevitable result from the Wisconsin Supreme Court, Barstow would resign as governor, turning the chief executive’s office over to the lieutenant governor, Arthur McArthur, on March 21, 1856. Just a few days later, a unanimous high court ruled that Bashford won the election by 1,009 votes. 

It was the first time in the country’s history that a supreme court would overturn the results of a gubernatorial election.

“Everyone was following this blow-by-blow in the newspapers,” says Kwas. “It led to our desire even today to have independent election canvassers and independent investigative committees when we’re looking at our politicians.”

On March 25, Bashford knocked on the governor’s door accompanied by a sheriff and friends. The Wisconsin State Journal reported that “Bashford, a dignified old gentleman of the old school, leisurely took off his overcoat, hung it upon the hall tree, and informed McArthur and his coterie of friends that he had come to take charge of the state government.”

Lest you think there’s any partisan bent in this tale, roughly a year later Bashford and a vast majority of the state legislature accepted bribes from the Wisconsin railroad, which was looking for land throughout the state. Bashford declined the chance to run again and left the state after it was revealed he’d taken $50,000 in bonds for his role in helping the La Crosse and Milwaukee Railroad Company.

“What Barstow did was small potatoes compared to that,” Kwas says. 

Adam J. Schrager is an investigative producer and reporter at WISC-TV3 and a Madison writer.