The charges and countercharges flying back and forth between candidates in this year’s political races seem mild in comparison to the 1854 race for district judge in Madison.
In that campaign Thomas Hood, a Democrat, was pitted against Alexander Collins, a Whig. The Weekly Wisconsin Patriot accused Collins of being the tool of Governor Barstow and the Forty Thieves (a group of legislators who had been bribed by the Rock River Valley Union Railroad). The paper reported that Collins, after losing a Norwegian district in an earlier race for Congress, said “the voters of that town are nothing but damned cattle anyhow, and their opposition is a compliment to any man. Those people are like dogs – the more you whip them, the better they will like you.”
The Argus countered that Hood had been charged with gambling during a game of euchre in Ohio in 1848, that his wife had been granted a divorce and $11,000 in alimony in 1849, that he owed a man named Davis $40, and that he had illegally disposed of financial notes given to his care. The Patriot replied that crooked state officers wanted to elect a judge subservient to their interests, and reported that Collins had received campaign contributions from prominent state officers: $25 from Governor Barstow, $45 from Attorney General George B. Smith, and $25 from Secretary A. T. Gray. Daniel Seaver, past master of the Madison Masonic lodge, wrote to the Somerset Lodge in Ohio to confirm that Hood had been voted out of the Ohio lodge - “his conduct morally since he has been in the State has not been such as to entitle him to the support of honest men or Masons.” The Patriot indignantly reported that Seaver had little leeway to talk of morality, since he personally had sold all of the school lands in the state to James Ludington, a speculator.
On election day the polling place was “surrounded by a crowd of rowdies, and in the afternoon it was nearly impossible for a voter to reach the ballot box without being insulted or putting forth exertion.” A number of voters were deterred from voting. “The atmosphere was permeated with fumes of bad whiskey and tobacco.” Collins was elected, and that evening, at a local tavern called the Rail Road Exchange, there was a knife fight between supporters of Collins and Hood. A man named Gibson was nearly stabbed to death. Some of Collins’ supporters, including Seaver, were arrested for slander, and were later indicted for malfeasance and fraud in the school land sale.