(Stolen from David Kahn’s _The CodeBreakers_.
In the presidential election of 1876, Samuel J. Tilden had a quarter-million majority of the popular vote,. but the outcome of the electoral college vote depended on which of the rival returns from Florida, Louisiana, South Carolina and Oregon were accepted. If all of the disputed ballots went Republican, Hayes would win by one electoral vote. A special electoral commission awarded all of them to Hayes, by a straight party-line vote – and Hayes became President.
During the ensuing controversy, a Congressional committee investigated persistent Democratic rumors of Republican purchase of electors’ votes. As part of this investigation, they subpoenaed 641 political telegrams – those that hadn’t been burned by Western Union. 27 of those enciphered telegrams were leaked to the New York Tribune, run by Whitelaw Reid.
Now it’s 1878. Manton Marble, one of Tilden’s closest political advisors, had written an open letter to the New York Sun contrasting dark Republican practices with Tilden’s station in “the keen bright sunlight of publicity.” Reid wants to decipher those messages, but doesn’t know how. Many people suggest ideas, but they fail. One meta-idea was good – the Secretary of State suggested hiring a young mathematician.
The managing editor, John Hassard, decide to try and crack the cryptograms. Shortly thereafter, William Grosvenor, the economic editor of the Tribune, did as well. A little later Edward Holden, a mathematician at the U.S. Naval Observatory, added his efforts.
They made a fundamental advance in cipher analysis, and they read almost all of the coded messages. My, but they were interesting.
Tilden’s campaign manager ( and nephew) , Colonel William Pelton, had been offering to pay electors to switch their vote. He only needed one ! He offered an elector from South Carolina $85,000 – a fair piece of change in those days.
All this came out a few weeks before the 1878 off-year elections. The Democrats did poorly, and although Tilden claimed he had no idea that his nephew/manager was doing all this ( in Tilton’s house !), the disclosures ended his presidential aspirations. As his old supporter, the Sun, sadly conceded, “Mr. Tilden will not again be the Presidential candidate of any party.”
Reid ended up Ambassador to the Court of St. James.