December 26, 2010

Dr. Tom Noel and Soapy Smith


Here is an article I have been hanging onto since October. It was published under Dr. Tom Noel's history column in the Denver Post on October 31, 2010. Dr. Noel is a fan of Soapy's history and I had the pleasure of meeting him in 1985. Occasionally he writes articles that include Soapy as does the following.

Dr. Noel sent me a Word file of his original article, which included a photo of Soapy at the top. This photo does not appear on the website where I first found the article so I included an election poll drawing I like, and have been waiting to use. Below is Dr. Noel's article as it appeared online at 

$2 a vote, and free drinks to boot
by Tom Noel

Tuesday's election promises to be bizarre. It features everything from a Republican Tea Party candidate imploding to Denverites voting on establishing a welcome committee for extra-terrestrials seeking a place to land their space ships. (Arizona, of course, is out. Can you believe that the Mile High City actually beat Boulder to the ballot on this spacey proposal?)

Ballot day shenanigans will probably not be as astounding as in the murky past. In the 1904 election, the Democratic machine managed to resurrect some 10,000 dead or absent Democrats to elect Robert W. Speer to the first of his three terms as mayor. And don't forget the 1905 chaos where Coloradans wound up with three governors in one day.

When it comes to blatant fraud, however, the 1889 Denver city election probably grabs first prize. The Republicans enlisted a popular businessman, grocer Wolfe Londoner, who had not been previously politically active. They wanted a fresh, honest face for the grand old, crooked party. Democrats and Prohibitionists consolidated in a rare and short-lived marriage as the Citizens' Ticket, a reform party.

They rode a wave of stinging Rocky Mountain News exposes and rising popular concern about the rotten Republican machine. Although strange bedfellows, Democrats and Prohibitionists expected a big win for their mayoral candidate, Elias Barton.

Election Day, April 2, 1889, however, turned into a carnival of abuses. The Republican Party raised enough money to pay $2 per vote, as well as free drinks. Tramps, hoodlums, hookers and others were recruited to vote early and often. Many legitimate voters arrived at the polls only to be told they had already voted. Downtown precincts reported huge majorities for Wolf Londoner.

Although reform-minded voters in outlying neighborhoods went for the Citizens' Ticket candidate, the swollen core city vote gave Londoner a 377-vote win.

Con man Jefferson Randolph "Soapy" Smith and gunman Bat Masterson starred among the Republic Party stalwarts. They prepared and distributed hundreds of slips containing phony names.

Soapy Smith boarded up his polling place. He claimed the glass had been broken. Voters then had to hand their ballots through planks to an unseen "poll judge" who could easily discard unwanted votes.

The Rocky Mountain News pronounced the 1889 mayoral elections "the most disgraceful in the history of Denver politics." A judicial investigation came to a similar conclusion.

Londoner and the Republicans appealed their shaky case to the Colorado Supreme Court, but it too ruled that this election stank.

Before joining the reformers who roundly condemned voting traditions in the good old days, think for a minute. Many more millions are spent this fall to buy elections with often fallacious television ads that smear nearly every candidate. By the end of the race, winners as well as losers have been discredited. Instead of spending vast fortunes on such media excesses and dirty political tricksters, why not just pay voters directly as we did a century ago?

If voters were reimbursed and plied with free drinks to boot, we could greatly improve turnout and create better feelings about candidates. Disgusted by the current process, many citizens stay home on Election Day. It is a struggle to get 50 percent of the eligible voters to the polls. In 1889, after all, voter participation ran over 100 percent.

Tom Noel welcomes comments at


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