Madison's Past


Public Programs

Historical Research



Order Form

Site Map


only search HMI

Wisconsin Argus Ad

Wisconsin Argus Advertisement (1851)

Wisconsin Historical Society Image ID: WHi-38575

Stephen D. "Pump" Carpenter

One of Madison’s most flamboyant early newspapermen was Stephen Decatur “Pump” Carpenter. He earned his nickname in 1853 after inventing a Universal Rotary Force Pump that was used to drain water from lead mines.

He arrived in Madison in 1850, going to work for the Argus and then the Argus & Democrat newspapers.

In the fall and winter of 1853 Monks Hall, at the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and Doty Street, served as headquarters for a group of lobbyists, among them Secretary of State William Barstow, who were attempting to obtain legislation favorable to the Rock River Valley Union Railroad. Subsequently, the railroad’s proposed bill passed, and legislators received financial rewards. In 1854 Carpenter purchased the Daily Patriot newspaper from Horace A. Tenney and launched a personal crusade to “pump” corruption from the Capitol. He dubbed the railroad group “Barstow and the Forty Thieves.”

Barstow was elected governor in 1854, and Carpenter accused him of corruption in awarding a contract to his friend Andrew Proudfit to build the Insane Asylum (now Mendota Mental Health Institute). He battled daily with the editors of the Argus, Barstow’s party newspaper. An editorial from November 3, 1855 was typical: “We have been endeavoring to pump truth from the Argus for a long while, but one might as well attempt to extract blood from a turnip. There is no lack of vacuum however – the ‘suction’ is excellent, and we can pump ‘lie’ from it, as fast as the great sea monster can suck in brine.”

In November 1855, Barstow was reelected governor, defeating challenger Coles Bashford after illegal supplementary ballots were added to his vote total. Carpenter took the lead in fighting for Barstow’s ouster, which finally occurred on March 21, 1856. On April 9 friends gave him 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.”

Bashford, however, proved to be corrupt as well, so Carpenter editorialized vigorously on behalf of Alexander Randall in the 1857 gubernatorial election. After Randall won by 118 votes out of roughly 90,000 cast, Carpenter celebrated in his November 21 issue:

Ten Million Cheers!!

Crow, Old Rooster! Crow!!

The Forty Thieves Cleared Out!

Randall Elected Governor!

Honesty Triumphant!

The Patriot Fully Sustained!

There is a God in Israel!

Carpenter suspended the Patriot in November 1864 after unsuccessfully supporting George McClellan for president. He then embarked on a second career as an inventor. Among his inventions were a power press, a ship with concave sides to deflect cannon balls that he proposed to Navy Secretary Gideon Wells in 1864, an automatic grain binder that he sold to McCormick, a veneer cutter, and a secret ballot machine. He invented a typesetting machine that was unfortunately run over by a train while it was being unloaded. He also drew up plans for an eight-track elevated railroad from New York to San Francisco. This $100 million project had a four-track upper tier, four-track lower tier, and 60 electric powerhouses set 83 miles apart.

Pump died in Omaha sometime after 1905.

Mark Gajewski