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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. 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, was 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.

Subsequently, Barstow was elected governor. In 1855 misdeeds by his administration came to light, including a rigged bid to construct the Insane Asylum and questionable sales of school lands. Nonetheless, that year Democrats renominated Barstow to run against Republican Coles Bashford. For weeks the outcome of the election was in doubt, but then a flurry of late votes were received. In mid-December the canvassers certified Barstow governor by 157 votes. The mood in Madison was tense; on inauguration day, January 7, 1856, 250 Irish and German militia from Milwaukee and Watertown patrolled the streets of the capital. 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 Wisconsin Supreme Court. Six weeks later, while the case was being heard, Barstow resigned. Lieutenant Governor Arthur McArthur took office. Subsequently the Court ruled that a large number of supplements, forgeries, and votes from non-existent villages had tipped 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 the assistant clerk of the Assembly. Governor 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. Pump Carpenter’s Wisconsin Patriot newspaper celebrated:

Ten Million Cheers!!

Crow, Old Rooster! Crow!!

The Forty Thieves Cleared Out!

Randall Elected Governor!

Honesty Triumphant!

There is a God in Israel!

The reputation of the legislature reached another low point in the 1870s. 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!”

Mark Gajewski