1910 Springfield Park Board election: ‘Shameful & disgraceful’

Political insiders went all-out to rig the 1910 Springfield Park Board election.

“Spreading around the apparent victory (of incumbent park board members) lurks the shadow of the most amazing corruption of the elective franchise known in the history of Springfield,” the Illinois State Journal said on May 18, 1910, the day after the election.

The Illinois State Register agreed, calling the election a “brazen, shameful and disgraceful” demonstration of lawlessness.

The losing candidates estimated that 1,800 of the almost 9,000 reported votes were fake. Thirteen election judges were indicted. The ballot boxes were put under lock and key. But when the boxes were opened in court, the poll books listing who voted had somehow disappeared.

A judge threw out the results, most of the “winning” candidates resigned in embarrassment, and the reformers finally took their seats nine months after the notorious election.

The Illinois State Journal pulled no punches in its election-day coverage. (Courtesy State Journal-Register)

The Springfield Park District was 10 years old in 1910. It operated a half-dozen parks, the biggest being Washington, Lincoln and Mildred (later Bunn). The district also was responsible for creating a system of scenic “boulevards” linking the various parks.

Political insiders – especially R.M. “Dick” Sullivan (1874-1923), master of Sangamon County’s regular Republican organization – saw opportunities in park system patronage.

Sullivan served only one term in elective office himself, as county treasurer from 1902 to 1906. Behind the scenes, however, he held sway over a wide variety of city and county officials for more than 20 years.

When it came to the park board, Sullivan supported upstanding, public-spirited candidates for board seats. The tradeoff was that those candidates left park jobs and contracts up to Sullivan and his cronies.

At least, that’s how Springfield newspapers saw it. The Illinois State Register explained in April 1910.

By permitting the professional politics to be played by one or two members of the board and by politicians on the outside who are interested in constructing a machine with the patronage, the other members of the board can honestly say they do not play the game of politics themselves. Sullivan et al. are doing this for them.

One need only glance about the parks of Springfield to see the cogs in the machine holding down the park jobs.

The patronage was bipartisan, the Register said. The superintendents of Washington and Lincoln parks, for instance, were Sullivan lieutenants, while the superintendent at Mildred Park and the park police chief were allies of board member John W. Scott (what the Register called “the Democratic end of the park board contingent”).

Dick Sullivan, about 1923 (SJ-R)

At the time, park board members – there were six, plus a president – served staggered two-year terms. Voters in 1910 were to choose three board members and the board president. The 1910 ballot also included a referendum on $100,000 worth of park district bonds, some of which were to be spent to convert Fourth Street into a north-south “boulevard.”

The idea was to beautify Fourth Street between South Grand Avenue/Washington Park and Lincoln Park; exactly what that involved is unclear, although street lights were the decorative improvement critics mentioned most often. The rest of the bond proceeds were to pay off the purchase of Mildred Park and create several small parks.

Under state law, the park board administered its own elections, which made it easy for Sullivan and the board members he controlled to squelch reform efforts. In 1907 and 1909, for instance, the park board used technicalities to rule reform candidates off the ballot.

However, a better-prepared slate of reformers, styling themselves the “New Board” candidates, made it onto the ballot in 1910. Three of the four candidates on the rival, Sullivan-backed ticket (the “Greater Springfield” slate) were incumbents.

The election day abuses were concentrated in the First, Third, Sixth and Seventh park board districts. In those districts, election judges – all of them picked by the incumbent park board and many of them park employees – opened polling places early and then refused to display the ballot boxes to prove they were empty when voting began. Thirteen poll workers were indicted later for those and other election law violations.

Anticipating ballot-box stuffing, New Board supporters were detailed to keep track of how many people showed up to vote and compare their tallies with the recorded votes. That didn’t always work – in the Seventh Ward, New Board observer John Vinyard had counted 116 voters when city Ald. Walter DeFrates, a Sullivan associate, grabbed Vinyard’s notebook and tore up the pages. By the reformers’ tally, the Seventh Ward’s election-day totals included almost 400  fraudulent ballots.

In the Third Ward, “a sensational incident marked the counting of the ballots,” the Register said.

John E. George, candidate on the New Board ticket, was allowed inside to watch the count. … When the contents of the ballot box were dumped out, a large number of tickets, which were neatly folded and appeared to be fresh ballots, fell out in bunches.

George grabbed as many as he could of the suspicious looking ballots and secured 96, which he asserts were all marked in favor of the Greater Springfield ticket, showing identical marking and appearing to have been prepared in advance and shoved into the box by bunches. The election officials hurriedly scattered the remainder of the bunched ballots.

A New Board observer who stood all day in the Third Ward polling place said he saw 1,151 voters cast ballots. That evening, however, the ward’s election judges reported almost 1,800 votes, with the four Greater Springfield candidates each averaging about 250 votes more than their New Board opponents.

The overall election pattern was suspicious, the Journal said.

In every district where the ballot box was opened to the inspection of challengers, the New Board candidates were winners.

In the First, Third, Sixth and Seventh districts, where the polls are said to have been opened in advance of the legal hour and the ballot box kept closed to the gaze of others than the election officials, the Greater Springfield ticket received large majorities.

It is significant, too, that in these same districts the number of votes counted as cast are greatly in excess of what is claimed to be the actual number of voters.

In districts where the New Board candidates were victorious the vote against the bond issue of $100,000 was overwhelming.

(D)istricts where the balloting is alleged to have been illegal show great majorities in favor of the bond issue. …

According to the conviction of those interested in the New Board ticket, the extra ballots, already marked, were slipped into the boxes ahead of the legal hour for the opening of the polls.

If you believed the election judges’ count – which apparently few did – the Greater Springfield ticket was victorious and the bond issue was approved.  However, the aftermath of the election revealed even more skullduggery.

Fred Buck (1852-1942), the losing New Board candidate, went to court to challenge the apparent election of his Greater Springfield opponent, Edward S. Robinson (1869-1926). The ballot boxes were padlocked and stored in the park district’s offices. Later, they were transferred to a vault at First National Bank.

Hearing Buck’s lawsuit in August, Sangamon County Judge George Murray ordered the ballot boxes brought into court and opened. He apparently was hoping to compare the names of voters listed in the poll books against the reported vote totals and perhaps to verify that those listed were eligible to cast ballots. The Journal reported what happened.

A sensation was created in the crowded court room when, after the ballot box used in the First district had been brought into the court room and opened, (park board secretary) Mrs. Kate Griffiths took from the box the vouchers and ballots and then announced, in a perplexed manner:

“The pollbooks are not in the box.”

When the other boxes were opened, the poll books also had vanished from the other three suspect polling places: the Third, Sixth and Seventh districts. The poll books from the other eight districts – in all of which the New Board had won majorities and no suspicions of fraud had been raised – were still in the ballot boxes where they’d been put after the election.

Within hours, Robinson, “amazed and disgusted at the startling evidence of fraud presented in the course of the day,” abandoned his defense of his park board presidency. The next day, two other Greater Springfield candidates, John McCreery and Harry Ide, gave up their board posts as well.

The New Board ticket (SJ-R)

Buck immediately became board president; otherwise, the park district would have had no one to sign checks. Murray in September ruled that the whole election had been fraudulent and said Buck and his running mates – John E. George, John Hartmann and Ralph Baker – were the rightful park board members. The bond referendum also was illegally conducted, Murray said; he threw out that result as well.

However, the fourth Greater Springfield nominee, Cyrus Shinkle, didn’t give up his election pretensions, and the park district’s holdover staff members, among them Griffiths and district lawyer Albert Salzenstein, refused to recognize the New Board group as electees.

The rival sets of park trustees attempted several times over the next few months to hold simultaneous meetings. One of their few accomplishments took place in October, when both old and new board members chipped in to buy squirrel food.

“(T)he park squirrels are in danger of starvation because of a shortage in the nut crop,” they were told.

The Illinois Supreme Court in February upheld Murray’s decision in favor of the New Board, and Shinkle finally stepped down from the park board. George, Hartmann and Baker took their seats just in time to prepare for the 1911 park election in May.

The New Board faction easily won that election, which the newspapers said went off without a hitch. Voters also approved a pared-down bond issue of $40,000, to be used solely to buy Mildred Park. The park district largely gave up on creating boulevards.

Later that year, the Illinois General Assembly, acting on a bill sponsored by Springfield state Sen. Logan Hay, turned over responsibility for park elections to a nonpartisan local election commission.

And in January 1911, to a large degree because of the previous year’s scandalous election, Springfield voters adopted the commission form of city government, under which five full-time commissioners were elected citywide to act as both lawmakers and department administrators. Progressives like Willis Spaulding argued that eliminating aldermanic government would take the worst features of politics out of city elections. In 1987, however, a federal judge ordered Springfield  to re-adopt the aldermanic system, on the grounds that citywide elections unconstitutionally deprived minorities of city council representation.

The missing poll books never resurfaced.

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