Cooping: Forced Voting in the 19th Century

Cooping involved politicians paying gangs to kidnap men and have them vote for a specific candidate. It was a common practice in the nineteenth century. To accomplish cooping victims were drugged or forced to drink alcohol and then disguised so that they could cast multiple votes for a specific candidate. In addition, many of the victims of cooping were either homeless or immigrants and, furthermore, many of the victims were left for dead afterwards.

Once an immigrant’s naturalization was formalized, they could vote, which meant that many American-born voters viewed them as a potential threat. American-born citizens worried who immigrants might vote for and they wanted to do something about it. Thus, cooping forced an immigrant to elect the person citizens wanted or kept the immigrant from voting altogether.

Cooping - fights at election polls

Fights at the election polls in 1857. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In a report published by Maryland’s committee on elections that was dated 27 February 1860, the committee reported on the problems experienced with cooping. Of this nefarious practice it was stated:

“In connexion with the matters of fraud and violence and illegal voting, your committee begs leave to call the attention of the House to the horrors and atrocities connected with the system of cooping voters during the several days prior to the election. The testimony upon this point is revolting in the extreme … Scores and hundreds of unoffending men of the humbler classes were kidnapped from the streets, or decoyed into rooms or cellars, commonly termed ‘Coops,’ where they were treated with cruel barbarity. If they offered the slightest resistance to their captors, they were brought to their knees by blows from ‘billies’ and ‘clubs’ ― they were robbed of every portable article on their persons ― they were forced upon threats of death to swallow immense draughts of drugged and stupefying liquors ― they were denied in some instances even the conveniences of nature, expect in a most disgusting form ― they were taken from the coops on the day of election and driven about to the different wards of the city and voted time and again without any seeming recognition or remonstrances from the judges of election.”[1]

Maryland was also the state where cooping was linked to America’s famous writer, poet, editor, and literary critic Edgar Allen Poe.* He was discovered “rather worse for the wear … in great distress … in need of immediate assistance”[2] on 3 October 1849 inside or near Gunner’s Hall tavern, which was a polling location in Baltimore. He was found by printer Joseph Walker, who noted that Poe was in an awful state because he was disheveled, dressed in unfamiliar clothes, and thought to be drunk.  He had also been robbed.

Edgar Allen Poe. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Four days later, on the 7th, Poe died. Everyone knew that he was an alcoholic and at the time of his death, newspapers reported that he had succumbed to “congestion of the brain” or “cerebral inflammation,” which were common euphemisms for deaths related to such disreputable causes as alcoholism. About 20 years after he died, cooping was mentioned in relation to his demise. Although the exact cause of his death remains a mystery today, the unusual circumstances surrounding his death resulted in some people claiming that cooping was the cause, and it soon became one of the more popular theories about how he died.

Another Baltimore, Maryland cooping incident happened when there was a contested election (Preston vs. Harris) in 1859. This time the cooping victim was a man named Henry Funk. He was a legal voter on 2 November 1859, and he reported on what happened to him during Baltimore’s sixth ward election. According to Funk, he was kidnapped and placed in a coop with seventy to eighty other male victims. He noted that the men in charge pointed revolvers at them and told them what to do. He went on to state:

“Saturday night before the election I was taken right opposite to the watch-house, in Saratoga street, by Joe Creamer and another man, and was taken by them into the watch-house, and they told me they charged me with making a noise in the street, which was untrue; I was there about half an hour; I saw no one there but one police officer; Arnold, the baker’s son, came and said he had gone by security, and asked me to go with him to take a drink; he and three or four others went up Holliday street with me, and when we got to Ras Levy’s place we went in, and they asked me to drink; I took some whiskey ― for they knocked me down flat on my back, and poured the whiskey into me, about half a pint; I hallooed and screamed, and then they clapped me down into the cellar, and came down and robbed me and took my money, five dollars all to eight cents, from me; I wouldn’t give it up, and they beat me on the head, hand, and lip, and took the money away from me; then they marched through a hole into the adjoining house, and carried me upstairs to the second floor; there Arnold’s son beat me again; Sunday morning, about nine o’clock, I took the slats out of the window, which had been nailed on the inside, and went out on the ledge and stood there; I was going to jump, and I saw a party below with bricks, and then some fellow caught me by the collar behind and drew me back, and then they handcuffed me and gave me a lashing; … they kept me there till election day; they kept us all there like hogs in a pen; the floor was full of excrement and stuff of all kinds; I saw men brought in there who were searched and robbed; I saw one German, who was very anxious to get home, who said he lived in the country, twenty-two miles, and left his team at the market, and he made a noise to get out and they handcuffed him, and kept him all night, and stripped him of all his clothes, except his shirt and drawers, and they took a comforter and put it around his neck and said they would hang him; and he went down on his knees and said he would be quiet, and then they let him alone; there was one of those who kept the coop whom they called ‘governor,’ another ‘captain,’ another ‘steward;’ they kept me in the coop till Wednesday morning, and they gave me a ticket and wanted to make me vote, but I wouldn’t vote, for I ran away at the time the shooting commenced; I was at that time on the first floor; two squads of six were brought down before I was brought down; and when the party who kept the coop went out with pistols and guns I saw them shoot; I followed out behind them and made my escape, holding the ticket, which was an ‘American tenth ward ticket,’ in my hand.”[3]

Cooping

The County Election is an 1846 painting by George Caleb Bingham depicting a polling judge and voters, with some of them drunk. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In 1850, The Baltimore Clipper wrote about the “reprehensive practice of ‘cooping’” and how both political parties practiced it. Of cooping the Clipper stated:

“Some curious occurrences took place just preceding the late election of Governor of this State. Both parties had their coops, or houses in which they confined voters. Heretofore, we understand, it has been the practice of parties to coop their own voters, to prevent their falling into the hands of their adversaries on the day of the election. But at the late election a different practice prevailed; and political opponents were seized and confined until the polls had been closed. Nor was this cooping confined to intemperate men. Gentlemen of respectability, it is said, were also caged and kept from voting. We have heard that several gentlemen made narrow escapes, and among them our worthy Mayor, who is said to be indebted to the fleetness of his horse of retaining his liberty during the day of election. This caging was no doubt fine sport to those engaged in it; but, it is nevertheless, and outrage which should not be perpetrated and which deserves to be punished.

We have heard several persons complain of being thus deprived of their liberty, and of their right of suffrage; and some have talked of seeking redress by law ― but the misfortune is, that they are generally unable to identify their captors. If there be not law to punish such offences, additional acts should be passed, inflicting the severest penalties…. we may hope to have elections conducted in a right spirit, and that the abominable system of cooping voters will be abolished.”[4]  

Another 1850 tale about cooping in Baltimore alleged that even the most prominent of citizens was affected. According to The Jeffersonian out of Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania:

“The extent to which the practice of ‘cooping’ has been carried on in Baltimore this fall is astonishing. Our readers would not believe that the parties who practiced this mode of electioneering would venture to ‘coop’ and put the lowest vagrants, but it seems from the following extract that very prominent citizens, even the Mayor of the city, and the Attorney General of Pennsylvania were shut up in these pens. We copy from the Baltimore correspondent of the Tribune:

The election campaign of the last two weeks has been fraught with every species of corruption on the part of the Locos. ‘Colonization,’ as it is termed ― bringing voters from other States, District of Columbia, &c, was carried on quite extensively. Then again, ‘cooping’ was restored to throughout the city. Houses were rented, and every poor devil of a white man that could be caught drunk in the streets, was forced into one of these dens, kept intoxicated, and drugged with opium, and on election day forced to vote in a dozen different wards. A building used as a hospital by the corporation, was made a general receptacle for these loafers, together with the inmates of the Almshouse, and is said to have produced 300 voters, by voting each one several times. Not only loafers but respectable men were thus confined, and either kept all day (if Whigs) from voting, or being drugged, were forced to vote, being disguised so they could not be recognized, a precaution that the ‘cooping’ committee also used, in order that their victims might not identify them and make them pay the penalty of the outraged laws. Col. Stansbury our present Mayor, Francis Gallager, Esq., James Wilkes, Esq., and others, got into the ‘coops’ by various modes, and with difficulty escaped their captors. Col. Kane, our Collector of the Port, was also seized, and an attempt made to ‘coop’ him, but a good revolver soon dispersed his assailants.

These acts were also committed at night, and at opportunities which were watched for. The most high-handed outrage of all, however, was the capture of Hon. Cornelius Darrah, of Pittsburg, the Whig Attorney General of Pennsylvania, who happened to be in the city on the day preceding the Governor’s election. He was caught on the street on Thursday night, the 2d ult. and confined in one of these ‘coops’ throughout the 31st ult., the day of elections, being badly maltreated.

He addressed a note during his confinement to Hon. Reverdy Johnson, asking his intervention. When released he could not identify any of the scoundrels, all being disguised by false hair, whiskers, &c. From these few incidents you can judge of the desperate deeds of the Locofoco party.”[5]

Cooping - The Election

Titled “The Election,” these two Harper’s Weekly cartoons show politicians trying to buy votes. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Although the public knew that cooping was being practiced there was little done at the time to stop it. It became so ingrained in politics that it continued until the end of the nineteenth century and despite cooping being rampant in Baltimore, it took place everywhere throughout the United States. For example, New York was one city where it happened regularly and where gangs often intimidated and bullied people into voting multiple times.

What brought a halt to cooping was that corruption in politics began to be more closely scrutinized by authorities and citizens. People also wanted to end voter fraud and that resulted in police sometimes overseeing caucuses to ensure that a person did not vote more than once. In addition, laws were passed to prevent voter fraud and voters were ensured they could cast a secret ballot when they went to polls after voting booths were introduced.

Note:

Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) in a letter to William Dean Howells dated 18 January 1909 said of Poe:

“To me his prose is unreadable — like Jane Austin’s [sic]. No there is a difference. I could read his prose on salary, but not Jane’s. Jane is entirely impossible. It seems a great pity that they allowed her to die a natural death.”

References:

  • [1] Maryland: Report of the Committee on Elections 1860, p. 9–10.
  • [2] S. Peeples, The Afterlife of Edgar Allan Poe (New York: Camden House, 2007), p. 155.
  • [3] Miscellaneous Documents of the House of Representatives: First Session of the Thirty-sixth Congress 5 (Washington, D.C., 1860), p. 62.
  • [4] The Raleigh Register, “Cooping,” October 12, 1850, p. 3.
  • [5] The Jeffersonian, “Cooping in Baltimore,” November 14, 1850, p. 2.

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