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William Barstow

Governor William Barstow (1853)

Wisconsin Historical Society Image ID: WHi-32642


Legislative Scandal: Barstow vs. Bashford

In 2002 Wisconsin’s reputation for clean government was sullied when five legislators were charged with 42 felonies and 5 misdemeanors related to illegal campaigning and fund raising. Three remain in the legislature today; one was reelected in December by his colleagues to a leadership post, another heads several key legislative committees. Among the charges levied by prosecutors are using state workers to campaign and shaking down lobbyists for money in exchange for favors. Sadly, this is not the first such example of malfeasance in Wisconsin legislative history.

In the fall and winter of 1853 “Monks Hall,” at Wisconsin Avenue and Doty Street, became the headquarters for an effort to obtain favorable legislation on behalf of the Rock River Valley Union Railroad. Dubbed “Barstow and the Forty Thieves” by newspaper editor Stephen D. “Pump” Carpenter, the railroad’s lobbyists, including secretary of state William Barstow, wined and dined legislators. Subsequently, the legislature passed the bill proposed by the railroad, and members were rewarded financially. Carpenter ferreted out the wrong-doing, and three years later was given a gold watch inscribed “presented to S. D. Carpenter by his friends of Madison, Wisconsin, as a token of their regard for the effectual aid he rendered in “pumping out” the ‘Forty Thieves’ from the State Capitol, Apr. 9, 1856.”

In the meantime, Barstow was elected governor, and in 1855 all sorts of malfeasance by his administration came to light, including a rigged bid to construct the Insane Asylum and questionable sales of school lands. Nonetheless, that year the Democrats renominated Barstow to run against Republican Coles Bashford. For weeks the outcome of the gubernatorial election was in doubt, but then a flurry of late votes were received. In mid-December the canvassers certified their fellow Democrat Barstow governor by 157 votes. The mood in Madison was tense; on inauguration day, January 7, 1856, 250 Irish and German militia who had been brought by Barstow from Milwaukee and Watertown patrolled the streets. At the same time Barstow was being sworn in, Bashford was also sworn in before a Supreme Court justice. The case of Bashford v. Barstow soon went to the Supreme Court, and six weeks later, while the case was being heard, Barstow resigned. Lieutenant governor Arthur McArthur took office. Subsequently the court ruled that after the official returns had been in for some days a large number of supplements, forgeries, and votes from non-existent villages had appeared and changed the outcome of the election in favor of Barstow. On March 24, 1856, three days after Barstow’s resignation, the court named Bashford governor.

In September and October 1856, Milwaukee co-founder and businessman Byron Kilbourn launched a scheme to obtain a land grant to build his La Crosse and Milwaukee Railroad. In return for favorable legislation, he offered 13 senators $175,000 (only “Honest” Amasa Cobb refused), 59 members of the Assembly  $355,000, and 26 “opinion leaders” $281,000, including the lieutenant governor, the governor’s private secretary, the chief clerk and assistant clerk of the Assembly, and various business leaders. Governor Coles Bashford received $50,000 for signing the bill.

In the 1857 gubernatorial election, Alexander Randall defeated Bashford by 118 votes out of roughly 90,000 cast. On November 21, Pump Carpenter’s Wisconsin Patriot newspaper celebrated:

Ten Million Cheers!!
Somebody Else “Out of the Woods!”
Crow, Old Rooster! Crow!!
The Forty Thieves Cleared Out!
Randall Elected Governor!
Honesty Triumphant!
Libel Indictments Quashed by the People!
The Patriot Fully Sustained!
There is a God in Israel!

In February 1858 a (reluctant) legislative investigation pushed by Governor Randall officially exposed the Kilbourn railroad scandal.

The reputation of the legislature reached another low point in the 1870s. For one dollar, the state carpenter made “plunder boxes” for members, with a lock and key, to carry away spoils. Members were accused of unsavory activities, as in this example from the Madison Democrat of February 19, 1870:

The “pulling” of a notorious house a mile east of the Catfish Monday night last resulted in the capture of five nymphs – the worst specimens ever seen – and their “men.” The former were taken to jail to await examination, and the latter, our informant insinuates, were allowed to escape for fear one or both houses of the legislature would be without a quorum if they were held!

On March 8, 1877, the Milwaukee Sentinel reported:
By tomorrow night Madison will have resumed its normal, graveyard appearance, and its many bartenders will take a rest. Yesterday the plunder boxes were lugged from the basement by the state carpenter, and now there is nothing loose about either chamber except the morals of the members… Some of these fellows take everything home but a good reputation.

As recently as March 23, 1947, the Capital Times reported that lobbyists had been asked for money in return for favors from legislators.