Learning to Decode

(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.



This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Learning to Decode

  1. Stench of Zeitgeist says:

    Hmm. Code-cracking. Detecting statistical anomalies. This makes me think of Nick Patterson. Maybe he’d be interested in doing statistical forensics of ballots from certain states?

  2. “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Chamber
    Of note, however, Stimson was mostly referring to the diplomats for our allies.

  3. pyrrhus says:

    As I recall, the Army put together those “rival” slates in the South at gunpoint, where Republicans were highly unpopular, because Tilden promised to end the odious Reconstruction…The compromise installed Hayes as President, but ended Reconstruction….James Garfield, a brilliant man, when asked about this, said “you play the cards you’re dealt”….

    • gcochran9 says:

      And of course Southerners in this era were intimidating and murdering black voters. We’re talking outfrauding, not defrauding.

    • RebelWriter says:

      While a bit hyperbolic, that’s the jist of it. By 1876 only South Carolina and Mississippi were yet to be readmitted to the Union. There were two governors elected in 1876; Wade Hampton for the Democrats, and Daniel Chamberlain for the Republicans. Both declared victory. The Presidential election gave the Democrats a little leverage, and a deal was struck. SC’s electoral votes were cast for Hayes, Chamberlain conceded defeat, and occupying forces were removed from the state.

      Cochran’s assertions of cash bribes in this piece are the first I’ve read of such a thing, but there’s little reason to doubt it. During Operation Lost Trust, $2000 was the most federal undercover agents paid a SC legislator, meaning even I could afford a state senator.

  4. zipfern says:

    Why didn’t any of the solicited electors come out with it if they were the targets of the bribes? Presumably they must have known. They weren’t willing to accept the bribes but were willing not to snitch?

  5. ASR says:

    I’ve been reading rumors that mathematics may play a role in sorting out the current election. Benford’s Law is regularly used in forensic accounting to detect what may be “cooked up” numbers. Some analyses of election returns in Milwaukee and Chicago, using Benford’s Law, suggest that there’s been some “cooking” in at least these two places. A search on DuckDuckGo (@ 11:08 EDT; 7 November 2020) using the string “benford’s law milwaukee” turned up a trove of sites discussing this.

  6. Ilya says:

    Compromise of 2020 does not seem to be achievable. Especially, given that we’ve already gone through, albeit clumsy, de facto CIA/FBI mediated coup attempt. ’tis second major attempt, much bigger in scope. If I’m wrong, please correct.

  7. saintonge235 says:

    Larry Corriea has more evidence of election fraud at https://monsterhunternation.com/2020/11/05/the-2020-election-fuckery-is-afoot/, most of which has been all over the Web.

    Greg: good title.

  8. david says:

    If the election was not stolen, then biden, the boring, low energy lifetime politician who was almost beaten by bernie sanders, was the beneficiary of the greatest direct mail voting ballot marketing hail mary in human history. We’ll probably see republicans adopting this strategy, sending ballots to churches, gun buyer lists, gold investors, NRA members, and blanketing trailer parks and bait shops across the midwest and the south. Well, if they were smart.

    • brokenyogi says:

      Yes, who could imagine the low life, incompetent, lying idiot conman losing a national election by six million votes that he only lost by three million votes the first time?

      Even harder to imagine a massive Democratic mail fraud operation that only marked votes for Biden, but failed to mark votes for all the other Democrats on the ticket. Those guys are the real incompetents!

  9. X says:

    Interestingly enough, had Colorado not become a US state in 1876, Tilden would have won the electoral vote by a two-vote margin–184 to 182 for Hayes!

  10. Woof says:

    Even in the likely event that massive voter fraud is proven, your elections are still more democratic than our elections up here in Canada. Our dumb ass Prime Minister got close to a majority in Parliament with about a third of the vote.

  11. Rich Rostrom says:

    This does not quite match the account I read in David Kahn’s The Codebreakers.

    IIRC, there were a few hundred telegrams. They had been subpoenaed by a Congressional committee, which made nothing of them, and were shoved in a closet. Someone got them to Reid, who published them and invited his readers to decipher them.

    The telegrams revealed that the Democrats had tried to bribe the election boards in Florida and South Carolina. The commissioners were Republicans, but open to altering the returns for the right price. However, they wanted more than the Democrats offered. The bargaining and fundraising ran on too long, and “the clock ran out”. That is, the date arrived when each state must certify its result (the names of the electors and who they voted for) for transmission to Congress.

    So the initial returns stood, and Hayes won the electoral vote.

    There was also a proposal to bribe an elector in Oregon,but that failed due to “logistical” difficulties, i.e. how to get money to Oregon.

    The historic constitutional crisis of 1876-77 was pretty ugly. What might have happened.if the Democrats did buy Florida or South Carolina? And the bribery was revealed after Tilden took office?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s