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Wednesday, Oct. 22, 2008 02:14 pm

How Sangamon County pols went to the poles in 1844

Springfield Whigs planned to raise the biggest pole in the nation, but disaster struck

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This 1844 political cartoon, from the Library of Congress print collections, depicts that year’s presidential candidates’ election struggles using the symbol of a party pole.

During modern elections, Democrats and Republicans show their loyalty with lawn signs. In the 1800s, it was tree poles. They were erected on main streets and lawns around the country during rambunctious "pole raisings," which attracted large numbers of party faithful and faithful partiers.

In the 1844 presidential election, which pitted Democrat James K. Polk against Whig candidate Henry Clay, the Democrats erected hickory poles (to honor Democrat Andrew Jackson, "Old Hickory") while the Whigs chose poles from ash trees, honoring Clay's home, "Ashland."

When it came to poles, there were two rules: the bigger the better and don't mess with the other guys' pole.

Frequently, however, local rascals would cut down opponents' poles, according to Paul Angle's Here I Have Lived: A History of Lincoln's Springfield (Chicago and Lincoln's New Salem, 1971). "Then it would be reported that 'some miserable, infamous, low-flung, narrow-minded, ungodly, dirt-eating, cut-throat, hemp-deserving, deeply-dyed, double-distilled, concentrated miscreant of miscreants" had "sinned against all honor and decency." Later the offending party would hurl worse words against the first party when their faithful chopped down the other's poles.

In 1844, the pole wars turned fatal. At a sunrise pole raising, to which "sweethearts, wives and daughters were invited," Democrats erected a 150-foot pole by the sympathetic Illinois State Register's office (on Adams Street, near Fifth Street), according to Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum historian Bryon Andreasen. Not to be outdone, Springfield Whigs planned to raise the biggest pole in the nation near the Whig newspaper's (Sangamo Journal) office. It was 214 1/2 feet tall and weighed 22,000 pounds.

On the Whigs' pole raising day (Aug. 3, 1844), "the city was crowded with delegates from all parts of the State, expecting a grand occasion for congratulation," according to the History of Sangamon County, Illinois (Inter-state Publishing Company, 1881). The crowd gathered at the corner of Sixth and Washington Streets, where an enormous foundation "of timbers and stone sunk 12 feet underground" had been prepared.

A derrick, with an 80-foot mast, had been constructed to raise the pole. As the raising began, there was a problem and John Brodie, a 50-year-old mason, climbed up to fix it. Eighteen-year-old William Conant followed to help.

The derrick fell. Brodie hung on while Conant jumped from 60 feet up. Brodie was crushed. Conant fell "with a sickening thud," the book says. He fractured several ribs and suffered a compound fracture in his right ankle. He was on crutches for two years and narrowly escaped amputation of his ankle, which was permanently injured.

Almost immediately, accusations arose that Democrats had booby-trapped the derrick, but a closer look revealed the real culprit was structural problems, not malice.

The local Whig Club met four days after the accident and member Abraham Lincoln introduced a resolution related to the mishap, which the club approved. (The full resolution is in the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 1.)

It said that out of "a profound respect" for John Brodie "and the peculiarly afflictive manner of his death," the club would appoint a committee to see if Brodie's family would let it put a tombstone on Brodie's grave. In addition, the committee would keep in touch with Brodie's widow to determine how the club could assist her and her family on an ongoing basis.

Lincoln, other Whigs, and even local Democrats tried to help the young, injured William Conant. "Mr. Lincoln was almost constantly by (his) sickbed," according to the History of Sangamon County, Illinois. "As soon as he was able to leave the house, Mr. Lincoln took young Conant to a Whig demonstration in Jacksonville, making the journey by easy stages in a carriage."

Undeterred, even by permanent injury and a fatality, the Whigs tried again to raise their mega- "Liberty pole." According to the Sangamo Journal, after two hours they succeeded — 20 days after their original, disastrous attempt. This time there were no injuries or deaths. A flag and a 150-foot-long streamer, with the word "Union," billowed from its top. The pole remained until after November's election, when it was finally removed out of "fears of its safety from winter storms," according to the Sangamon County history. As a token of their appreciation, local Whigs gave crippled William Conant the pole's streamer as a keepsake. It's surprising Conant wanted a keepsake from that election. Not only did it cripple him, but the Whigs lost.

Tara McClellan McAndrew has been writing about local history for the past four years.

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