Washington County Commissioner Larry Maggi called for a recount of the November election results … from 1891.
Did he really? Was he serious?
Well, kind of, and yes.
In 2018, Maggi received a rather extraordinary communication from one of his constituents.
Sara Greenlee called and said she had a ballot box.
But not just any ballot box – a nine-chambered wooden ballot box used in Beallsville elections sometime in the late 1800s. And it was still filled with paper ballots. Greenlee offered to donate the ballot box, including its intact ballots, to the county for historical purposes. At that time, however, it was unclear if the ballots within the box had ever been counted and what the results of those electoral contests were.
Seeking to know more about the ballot box and its contents, Maggi asked Washington County Historical Society for assistance in unlocking more of its history. The ballot box was carefully transported to the historical society where, after an initial evaluation, the project of cataloging every detail of the box itself, and each ballot found inside, was assigned to South Park native Andy Donatelli, then a student at Washington & Jefferson College, and an intern at the historical society.
Upon a detailed examination by Donatelli, the Beallsville ballot box was found to contain ballots for state, county and local elections.
At the state level, three matters were to be decided by voters: the first was the contest for auditor general of Pennsylvania; the second was the race for state treasurer; and the third was a referendum on whether there should be a constitutional convention. David McMurtrie Gregg and Robert E. Wright ran for auditor general, and the candidates for state treasurer were John W. Morrison and A.L. Tilden.
At the county level, the race drawing the most attention was that for sheriff between William P. Cherry, a Republican, and Frank H. Judson, a Democrat. Boyd Crumrine, who would later become a founding member of the historical society, was nominated as a candidate to be a district delegate to the constitutional convention, if the referendum were to succeed. Also among the candidates at the state and county levels were members of the Prohibition Party who, while having little if any chance of victory, were not to be ignored.
Newspaper research by Historical Society staff soon confirmed the exact date of the election – Tuesday, Nov. 3, 1891. Various other details also began to emerge.
The state Republican ticket of Gregg and Morrison was called “the soldier’s ticket,” as both candidates had served with distinction in the Civil War. In 1891, Gregg was a resident of Reading, while Morrison lived in Bellevue, Allegheny County.
Tilden and Wright, the nominees of the Democratic party, ran as reform candidates, promising to end the system of “spoils” in Pennsylvania’s fiscal affairs. Tilden was a farmer and businessman from Erie and Wright was a lawyer from Allentown.
The constitutional convention referendum called into question the balloting process under the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1874. Specifically, election ballots under the 1874 Constitution were numbered, and each voter’s ballot number was recorded on a separate list by election officers – the intended reform would eliminate the numbered list and ensure a secret ballot.
Democrats had favored the secret ballot reform in their 1891 platform, while Republicans largely opposed it.
In Washington County, the most closely contested race was the vote for sheriff. Both candidates were noteworthy local personalities.
William P. Cherry had been the sitting deputy sheriff and was a Civil War veteran from Mt. Pleasant Township, having served with the 139th Pennsylvania Volunteers. During the war, he was shot through the chest – the minié ball remaining in his back for the rest of his life – was captured by the enemy, and was held at the infamous Andersonville prison for seven months before being exchanged.
Frank H. Judson, meanwhile, was a colorful character himself. A longtime job printer in Washington, Judson was famously remembered in town for supposedly having climbed the cupola of the old county courthouse as a 12-year-old boy and standing with the statue of George Washington.
The usual election proclamation was issued by then-sitting county Sheriff George Lockhart and published in the Washington Observer Oct. 12, 1891. The proclamation directed voters in “the borough of Beallsville to meet at the schoolhouse north of the turnpike, in said borough.” And on the following Tuesday, the voters of Beallsville arrived at the schoolhouse to perform their civic duty.
In this era before computing machines, the tabulation of votes and the final confirmation of results sometimes required up to two or three days. That did not, however, preclude speculation and projections. On the basis of telegrams received overnight from various points in the county, the Observer’s Wednesday morning edition projected victory for Gregg and Morrison in the statewide races, predicted the constitutional convention initiative would be “snowed under by and almost unanimous vote,” and declared William P. Cherry would likely win the contest for sheriff.
On Friday morning, Nov. 6, the Observer published the confirmed election returns for each of the 71 polling places in Washington County, together with the county totals: the ‘soldier’s ticket’ of Gregg and Morrison carried the county, the call for a constitutional convention was voted down and Cherry narrowly defeated Judson to become the county’s new sheriff.
The final statewide totals for the 1891 election followed the trend in Washington County: Gregg was elected as auditor general and Morrison as state treasurer, while the constitutional convention measure failed. The Prohibition Party gained less than 3% of the vote statewide.
In tabulating the contents of the Beallsville ballot box as they are today, Andy Donatelli’s totals tracked very closely with the official vote totals for Beallsville published by the Observer Nov. 6, 1891, and confirmed Beallsville voters had indeed cast a solid majority for the eventual victors Gregg, Morrison and Cherry, and were overwhelmingly opposed to a constitutional convention on the ballot reform question.
The Beallsville ballots were numbered 1 through 89, indicating the number of voters who lined up outside the schoolhouse to vote on election day. The format of the ballots shows voting in 1891 was a choice among party tickets only, not individual candidates for particular offices. A ballot was entered for the Gregg/Morrison ticket, or for the Tilden/Wright ticket, or perhaps for the Cherry/Dunlap/Griffith/Jones ticket – as sheriff, recorder, director of the poor, and jury commissioner, respectively.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this study, however, was found by closely examining the oversized envelopes that were donated together with the ballot box. Among them is a filled envelope corresponding to the 1891 election in Beallsville.
The historical society has determined there is a list inside, but the exact entries on the list can only be guessed.
The envelope contains the official list of each individual voter’s name and ballot number, as prepared by local officials on election day in accordance with the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1874. It was sealed at the schoolhouse in Beallsville when voting ended Nov. 3, 1891. And in accordance with the election law as it was then, the envelope was to remain sealed unless the election results were legally challenged. There was no such challenge, and the envelope remains sealed today – 129 years later.
In the end, the historical society’s “recount” confirmed the official election results of 1891, and Beallsville’s votes had indeed been counted. In fact, no glitches or anomalies in the voting were found at all, harkening us back to a simpler time in our electoral history when the possibility of hacking by foreign interests, or even of hanging chads, were more than a century away.
The Beallsville ballot box is an enduring symbol of the importance of our elective franchise – then and now. The Washington County Historical Society applauds the Greenlee family for the remarkable preservation of this unique part of our county’s history, and thanks Maggi for the opportunity to participate in this interesting research process.
Tom Milhollan is Operations & Development Coordinator of Washington County Historical Society.