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The Raucous Election of 1888 (Utah history)

By: Ardis E. Parshall - November 02, 2010

(This was my election-week column for the Tribune, November 2008.)

“The lighting of the bonfires was the signal. Red fire, rockets, bombs, etc., were seen and heard on every hand. Along the streets, crowding their way through the multitude, were gangs of hoodlums, who with their shouting, their blowing of trumpets, clanging of bells, and beating of tin cans, created a deafening tumult. Probably one-fourth of those in line carried torches.”

A report from a modern war zone? No, a description of downtown Salt Lake City on the November evening in 1888 when Benjamin Harrison was elected President of the United States.

“Fancy for a moment a staid man of business, with a flaming torch in one hand, a flag in the other, his hat on the back of his head, yelling and screaming at the top of his voice, while his gait suggested that of a half-drunken ruffian. Or a talented lawyer, with torch and long tin horn, the latter being brought into almost continuous requisition.”

Harrison was a Republican, and therefore the candidate of the Liberal (or anti-Mormon) Party, supported by the Salt Lake Tribune. But even the Deseret News, voice of the People’s (or Mormon) Party, and therefore supporter of the Democratic incumbent Grover Cleveland, was awed by what it called “the jollification.”

The election took place on Nov. 6, and although Cleveland won the popular vote, the Electoral College awarded Harrison the victory. Word reached Salt Lake City early on Nov. 10. All that morning, downtown merchants decorated their buildings with masses of flags and hundreds of yards of bunting. Main Street’s J.W. Farrell & Co. went further – they erected a framework of gas pipes over the sidewalk, fitted with dozens of gas jets to be lit at nightfall.

Boys scoured the city for noisemakers, and young men piled packing boxes and other debris on street corners and doused them with tar. A few minutes past 7 o’clock, matches were struck, and burning tar barrels and bonfires burst into flame. The milling crowds – estimated to be at least 10,000 by the conservative News and at twice that by the exuberant Tribune – somehow formed themselves into the rough semblance of a parade.

Led by the Fort Douglas band, they moved down Main Street, turned left on Fourth South, then right on West Temple. “The roar which went up from the waiting throng was deafening, and to this was added the music of bands and the boom of cannon crackers. Red lights were burned along the sidewalks, and the light of hundreds of Chinese lanterns, the glitter of torches and the flash of rockets” accompanied their noisy march. Miraculously, no buildings were fired that night.

Reaching First South, the parade turned right again and circled back down Main Street to Second South until it reached the Walker Opera House. There ropes which had been restraining the crowds were let down, and men surged inside. “A scrambling mass of humanity rushed to the auditorium, and soon every seat and standing place was filled. But this did not prevent the blowing of horns, waving of flags and brooms, and cheering which at times almost drowned the music of the bands, which played mostly patriotic airs. It was at least twenty minutes before order was secured.”

That order was frequently disrupted by cheers as local judges and federal officials gave speeches rejoicing in the Republican victory, and, more locally, predicting a gloomy future for Mormon interests.

“It was a late hour when the assemblage separated, and later still when the streets were cleared and quiet restored.”

Four years later, political fortunes were reversed. The Democrats returned to national power, electing Grover Cleveland for a second time. Under his watch Utah was granted statehood.

It’s a different world, and no one expects that kind of excitement on the streets of Salt Lake City at the coming election. One thing remains unchanged – the privilege and responsibility of voting.

See you at the polls.



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