The Great Fraud Attempted In The Presidential Election Of 1864 Wherein The Misplacing Of A Single Letter Led To Its Detection
The Presidential election of 1864 was then upon us, and indeed it was
most momentous. The issue was to determine the life of this Union. Mr.
Lincoln was renominated, and General George B. McClellan was nominated
to run against him. And quite fittingly, Horatio Seymour, who was to
have been leader of secession in the North (according to my
information), who had lent his whole influence towards obstruction, was
man of the convention that nominated McClellan.
A resolution of the convention read:
"Resolved, that this Convention does explicitly declare, as
the sense of the American people, that after four years of
failure to restore the Union by experiment of War * * * the
public welfare demands that immediate efforts be made for a
cessation of hostilities."
In the convention Mr. Wickliffe, of Kentucky, said:
"The delegates from the West were of the opinion that
circumstances may occur between noon of to-day and the 4th of
March next (inauguration day) which will make it proper for
the Democracy of the Country to meet in Convention again."
What could he have referred to? Solve the riddle if you can. Ponder on a
"Northwestern Confederacy"; the Sons of Liberty, and the seizure of
their arms; and also on Lincoln's assassination, only a few days after
March 4th, 1865.
All of this leads me to what I am about to tell about that election,
wherein the same influences that failed with bullets to disrupt the
Union were now trying to accomplish the same purpose with ballots.
I will not charge McClellan with disloyalty, yet I can not help asking
why did he lend his name to the disloyal movement? There were disloyal
Northerners, but not one of them voted for Lincoln.
I do not claim that all who voted for McClellan were disloyal, but that
all the disloyal, including all blockade-runners and bounty jumpers,
voted for him.
On the 21st of April, 1864, a law was enacted in New York State called
"an act to enable the qualified electors of this State, absent therefrom
in the military service of the United States, in the Army or navy
thereof, to vote."
This law provided for a power of attorney appointing a proxy who would
present his (the soldier's) sealed envelope, addressed to the election
inspectors in his home or residence district. The ballot was to be in a
sealed envelope, and to be opened only by the inspectors; this envelope
was to be enclosed in another, outer envelope addressed to his proxy.
The outer envelope was to contain also the power of attorney for the
proxy to so present the sealed ballot.
And now I will tell you how merely the misplacing of the letter "L"
betrayed one of the greatest crimes of the period, entirely defeated its
perpetration, and helped to save our Union.
On Thursday afternoon, October 20th, 1864, General Wallace came to my
office with Mr. Orville K. Wood, of Clinton county, New York.
Mr. Wood had a blank or partly blank document which he had found in
possession of a soldier from his county. It was a blank power of
attorney, such as were provided for voting under the law of April 21st,
1864. The jurat was signed in blank:
C. G. Arthur
Lieut. 11th U. S. Cavl.
--and their conclusion was that this officer may have signed a number
of such papers in blank, and passed them out, to be used by any soldier,
perhaps to facilitate voting; an illegal act in itself; but upon
examination I pronounced the officer's signature a forgery. My
conclusion was based on the fact of the letter "l" in "Cavl." I assumed
that no officer of cavalry, more especially in the regular service,
would abbreviate in any way other than Cav. or Cavy.
General Wallace saw the force of my reasoning, and a new light was
thrown on the matter.
Had the one letter "l" been absent I should have concluded as General
Wallace and Mr. Wood had, i. e., that the fact of such a document,
entirely blank except the officer's jurat, being in public hands, was a
wrong merely laying the officer liable for having attached his name to a
The point then was to find out where the work was done. Mr. Wood had
visited the New York State agency office in Fayette Street and I
arranged for him to go there again the next morning (Friday), he to tell
the representative, Mr. Ferry, that some friends would call to be
assisted in preparing their votes. We agreed that my name would be
"Phillip Brady," from West Chazy, Clinton County, New York.
Friday morning I equipped myself as became a private soldier, in a
uniform much worn and shabby. One of my men, Mr. Babcock, accompanied
me, he was similarly attired. We provided ourselves with "2 hour"
passes from the Camden Street Hospital, and sicker looking convalescents
never were seen outside of a hospital. When we arrived at Ferry's office
we appeared much exhausted. Mr. Wood introduced me, and then I insisted
on Mr. Ferry's reading my pass so that he would know exactly who I was;
I told him I wanted to vote for Mr. Lincoln, because he was the
He went in an adjoining room and brought out one of the same powers of
attorney that Mr. Wood had shown me the day before, for me to sign; the
jurat was executed and the ink was not yet dry on it. To give myself
more time to examine, I hesitated in signing my name, I was so sickly
(?) and weak, I had Mr. Ferry help guide my hand. I had by this time
located Mr. "Arthur" in the next room.
Mr. Ferry then discovered he had no Lincoln ballots, but said he
expected them from the printer. He volunteered, if I would leave it to
him, to put in a proper ticket, and mail it for me, to which I
consented. I told him I did not know when I might get another pass.
Ferry gave me a plug of tobacco and a pair of socks, to illustrate, I
suppose, the Empire State's interest in her volunteers.
Babcock then went through the same process, which gave me all the time
needed to survey the surroundings, whereupon we left.
Mr. Wood remained, but came out afterwards and met me by appointment, on
Charles Street. He was startled at the condition of affairs in the State
Agent's office, where a corps of men were engaged in forgery, and did
not want to return there, but was persuaded to go back and put in the
day. The character and magnitude of the crime prompted us to great
The next day (Saturday) General Wallace went to Washington. A Cabinet
meeting was held to consider the election frauds.
Next morning (Sunday), the following order was issued by General
Wallace, personally, and is in his handwriting:
Headquarters, Middle Department,
8th Army Corps.
Baltimore, Md., Oct. 23, 1864.
Lt. Col. John Woolley,
You will immediately arrest the following persons: M. J.
Ferry, Ed. Donohue, Jr., and such clerks, assistants, &c., as
they may have in the office of the New York State Agency in
Baltimore. You will also seize and take into your possession
all books, papers, letters, &c., which you may find on the
persons or in the rooms and baggage of the persons above
The prisoners you will take to the City jail and confine them
separately, allowing no visitor to have communication with or
the prisoners to have communication in any manner with each
Major General Commanding.
(You will also station a guard at the door of the office of
said Agency. L. W.)
Upon my request to be allowed to conduct the arrests and seizures in my
own way, the General ran a pen through the words that are bracketed.
It was my desire to kidnap the parties, so that warning might be given
to other places, such as Washington, Harper's Ferry and City Point, to
look out for similar crimes, to accomplish which it was desirable to
leave behind each person, at his home or office, a reasonable excuse for
his absence for a few days, and to keep the State Agency office open to
I employed a hack and a confidential driver, one used to me, and who
would carry out instructions to the letter.
With one of my men I drove to near the State Agency Office. We entered
and were met by Donohue, who was alone (it was early Sunday A.M.) and
was pugnacious when he was made aware of his dilemma. I arranged with
him, that for friendly appearances, we would walk out arm in arm to our
carriage. Then we were whisked away to my office. I left Mr. Kraft, one
of my men, in the office to run it and tell callers that Donohue had
I learned from Donohue that Ed. Newcomb was stopping at Barnum's hotel.
At the hotel I found Newcomb's room number, went to it and rapped on the
door. I informed him there was a party from New York at the office, and
that Donohue wanted him at once; he accompanied me out the private
entrance and into my carriage. After a while he remarked that the driver
was not going right. I told him I was a stranger but I guessed the
driver knew the way; finally I told him of his position, that he would
meet Donohue, but not at the State Agency office.
When we came near our office I changed hats with him to prevent
recognition. An Albany regiment, the 91st, was guarding our
office--Newcomb was an Albany lawyer. I placed him in my office with
Donohue, but with officers both inside and outside the door. I took his
pocketbook, room-door key, and papers, and I returned to Barnum's to
"put them to sleep."
Shawls were commonly used then, especially by Northerners. I searched
his room, muffled myself up in his shawl, presented his key at the desk,
asked for and paid his bill, putting the receipt in his pocketbook, and
told them that Mr. Newcomb would stop over Sunday and a few days with
friends, in case of inquiry. I handed Newcomb his pocketbook and
Meantime Mr. Kraft was running the State Agency office, answering
callers all right.
The next move was to get Mr. Ferry, who resided in the far west end of
the city. I drove out there accompanied by Mr. Babcock. Ferry had not
returned from church (think of the moral tone of one who had forged all
the week). On his return I told him there were important parties at his
office from New York and that Donohue wanted him at once; he excused
himself to the ladies and accompanied me in the carriage. The ride was
long, so we visited in a friendly way, but finally he, too, remarked
that the driver was going out of his way, and after protesting
considerably, I informed him of his true status. He did not quite
collapse. I assured him his years would earn him a gentleman's
treatment. He was soon landed in my office.
I had a good dinner served all of them from my hotel. So that the ladies
at Mr. Ferry's house would not worry, and waiting until it would have
been impossible for them to reach the boat, I wrote them on his own
letter head asking for clean clothes enough to last about a week, as he
was going to City Point--so I wrote--on the Bay Line boat, on important
business. The clean clothes I gave Mr. Ferry.
I then went back to the office to see how much business Mr. Kraft had
accomplished. He was much warmed up over his discoveries in that room
adjoining, where the forgeries were done.
While there a brusque, loud-mouthed man came in and asked for Donohue,
announcing in a loud way what he had done at Harper's Ferry. I told him
he was a fool, and that I would not have anything to do with the
business if such as he were in it. The chiding acted like a charm. He
thanked me for cautioning him. He said he would not have spoken so but
he knew that I was all right. He said he was stopping at the Fountain
House, but readily agreed to go and get his bag and go with me to my
hotel; he accompanied me and landed where the others were. His name was
Kerley, and if my memory is correct, he was running for sheriff of
After dark, having prepared a separate corridor in the city jail, I
placed them there, taking the following receipt:
Baltimore, Oct. 23, 1864.
Received of guards the following prisoners:
M. J. Ferry.
(Signed) THOMAS C. JAMES, Warden.
JOHN W. SINDALL.
On Monday (24th) we had a conference with Mr. Fred. Seward, Assistant
Secretary of State (he was accompanied by Mr. Benedict, of the State
Department), to ascertain if some one of the batch would confess. I
suggested Newcomb, and went in the carriage for him.
The city jail was in a gloomy location. The hour was well along in the
evening, and Newcomb's nerve was shaky. I took him to the Eutaw House,
before General Wallace, Colonel Woolley and Mr. Seward. At first he
(Newcomb) stoutly denied knowledge of the forgeries; my judgment as to
his probable weakness was in jeopardy. I asked Newcomb to come out in
the hall, where I told him that he could do just as he saw fit about
confessing, but that I was the convalescent soldier who voted right
there in the office when Donohue and he were doing the work. Then he
begged to be again taken before General Wallace, whereupon he confessed
In the meantime I had choked up the mail and express companies for all
matter bearing the New York State Agency label, and among the mass we
got my document, but it contained a good straight McClellan ballot, as
did Mr. Babcock's.
On Tuesday (the 25th) the Doubleday Military Commission of Washington
was convened at Baltimore, and before the day was over Newcomb had
confessed and Ferry tried to, but he so falsified his statement that it
did not merit consideration. The desirability for haste to make public
the fraud was because the country had been flooded with these fraudulent
papers, which could not be intercepted, except by publicity through the
channel of the newspapers; therefore after the 27th of October the
matter was made public.
Appleton says they were arrested on the 27th, but the facts, "between
the lines," are as I have told you. The kidnapping was a success. Four
public men were taken away from their business and usual haunts, and
hidden for four days without leaving a trace.
I found in Ferry's office many rich things. Among them was a letter from
Ferry to John F. Seymour, Hudson, Columbia County, New York (the
Governor's brother), accompanying a package of these forged papers, and
telling him to use them where his judgment suggested, or words to that
I offered General Wallace to try to incriminate Seymour, if I could have
two or three days' time; but the General advised against it, having so
little time even then for publicity before election day.
The whole country was roused to action. The matter was treated by the
newspapers as of as much importance as the army movements. It was given
first column, first page, place, with flaming, startling headlines. One
paper had it: "Great Soldier Vote Fraud. Arrest of Governor Seymour's
State Agents. The Most Stupendous Fraud Ever Known in Politics." "A
systematic and widespread conspiracy has been brought to light, carried
on by agents here (Washington), at Baltimore, Harper's Ferry and in the
Army of the Potomac. Men now in custody have been actively engaged in
this business for weeks, as one of the parties involved (Newcomb)
declared. Forged ballots have been forwarded in dry goods boxes, etc."
Such startling accounts were continued for many days. It was also
treated editorially. It was not considered merely as a political move to
secure office, but as a move to secure a false verdict on the matter of
the continuance of the war. Appleton's Encyclopedia for 1864 has several
columns of matter on the election fraud case.
The following order was issued by Major General Hooker, commanding the
Oct. 27, 1864.
"The Commander of this Department has received information
that it is the intention of a large body of men on the
Northern frontier, on each side of the line, open on one side
and in disguise on the other, to so organize at the ensuing
National Election, as to interfere with the integrity of the
election, and when in their power to cast illegal votes, &c."
A number of Ohio election officers were arrested for imitating the New
York State Agents' rascalities.
Notwithstanding all efforts made to publish the facts, the conspirators
came too near success. New York polled about 730,000 votes; Mr.
Lincoln's majority was only about 6,700; and of the total vote of
2,401,000 in the great States of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana
and Illinois, if less than three per cent. had been cast on the other
side, Lincoln would have been defeated and the Union destroyed. A twig
may change the trajectory of a cannon ball; a letter "l" misplaced, may
have saved the nation.
Will any one conclude that Ferry, the State's Agent, and Donohue and
Newcomb, were not acting under orders from their superior, Governor
Just now while I am writing I have before me Watson's Magazine for
March, 1911, speaking of Headley's account of his part in retaliatory
acts in the west and east: "The evidence there found of the extent of
the copperhead movement in the upper Mississippi Valley in 1863-1864 is
entirely essential to a history of both sides of the great war. It
becomes startling to contemplate to what imminence revolution in the
States of the north and west had approached, etc."
"Mr. Davis (Jefferson Davis) delivered an impassioned speech at
Palmetto Station, near Atlanta, in Sept., 1864, in which he declared the
opinion that McClellan would be elected over Lincoln at the November
elections, and in that event the west would set him up as president over
itself, leaving the east to Lincoln."
Thus it is shown that the Confederates fully expected a rupture of the
North on lines to be worked out by the "Sons of Liberty" and their
After a time President Lincoln pardoned Ferry and later Donohue. The
President's big-heartedness led him first to pardon Ferry because of his
Newcomb came into my life again in 1882, in the impeachment proceedings
against Judge Westbrook. Somebody hunted me up and subpoenaed me to
testify as to the character of Newcomb. He had been a receiver of a life
insurance company (if my memory is right) under an appointment by Judge
Westbrook, and it was represented that he had misapplied large sums. The
session of the committee was held in the St. James Hotel, corner of
Broadway and Twenty-sixth Street, New York. When I entered the rotunda I
was hailed by a Mr. Fox, who wanted conversation with me. He knew my
mission and told me it would be worth a thousand dollars if I would
"walk up the street with him." The proposition did not flatter me; he
did not correctly size up my moral tone. I testified concerning the
circumstances of 1864, of Newcomb's crime and his confession. Newcomb
followed me out of the committee room, and expressed great surprise at
my appearance on the scene. I was not astonished to find him in
Donohue I have met several times since the war. For a time he was in the
employ of the New York Central Railroad, later holding a small political
appointment in one of the New York City departments.
I found another document in the State Agent's office that finished
Adjutant General Andrews' usefulness instanter. It was written on
headquarters' letterhead and spoke disrespectfully of Mr. Lincoln, the
Commander-in-Chief. Andrews was unceremoniously dismissed from the