The Case of the 1894 Indiana County Judicial Election: Judge John P. Blair v. Judge Harry White

It was in 1894 when the election for judge brought about Indiana County’s most bitter, vicious, and sordid election.  The contestants were Harry White and John P. Blair.  The election results gave White a narrow margin of 87 votes (White: 4036, Blair: 3949).  Blair contested the election.  Printed below based on newspaper article is the best rendition of how the case likely proceeded and the outcome given by the Court.

On December 5, 1894, D.B. Taylor, Esq. went to Harrisburg with a petition that was signed by nearly 150 voters, asking the Governor to appoint a court to investigate the 1894 election results between Judge White and Judge Blair.  The petition sought the Governor to appoint a court consisting of three Judges closest to Indiana to sit to hear and determine which candidate is entitled to the office.

The claim was that Judge White was declared the winner by reason of false returns, and those signing the petition did not believe White received more than 3,600 legal votes, but that Blair did receive 3,949 legal votes.  In the petition it was alleged that 118 votes were taken from disqualified voters whose names were not on the ballot check lists; 148 votes were taken from persons who were at least 22 and had not paid taxes within two years; 59 votes and upwards of people who gave, or promised to give, bribes; 109 votes of persons who received bribes; and two persons under 21 voted – the claim was that all these votes went to White. 

Attorney General Hensel approved the petition on December 6 and the petition was sent to Governor Pattison.

Judge White traveled to Harrisburg on December 7 for a hearing before the Governor in the afternoon.  Judge White was represented by Lyman D. Gilbert of Harrisburg.  At the hearing, the Governor directed Attorney Gilbert to submit briefs to the Attorney General that week.  The Governor also appointed Judge Barker, of Ebensburg; Judge Doty, of Greensburg; and Judge Reyburn, of Kittanning to serve on the panel.  It was reported that White’s attorney filed an objection against Judge Reyburn as he was the brother-in-law of D.B. Taylor, the plaintiff’s attorney, but Judge White denied the claim stating:

The people of this county know all about that election.  I was fairly elected in the face of an opposition such as a candidate never before saw in Indiana County.  The opposition say that can change my majority of 87 to 349 in favor of my opponent.  In answer to that I have positive proof of several hundred illegal votes cast for Judge Blair – illegal, because the voter had not paid his taxes.  I do not believe the people of the county are in sympathy with this talked-of contest.  Of course there may have been some illegal votes cast because of technicalities, but the people will not lay to my charge the failure of election officers to comply with formalities.

Judge Blair stated that he was not pushing for the contest and knew nothing of the plans or methods of those who were backing the contest.

Court was called into session on December 21, 1894 at 10 a.m.   The first order of business was to appoint a president of the panel, to which Judge Doty was selected.  After Prothonotary Peelor read the Governor’s commissions, Attorney Taylor (for the petitioners) and Attorney Banks (for Judge White) presented their opening statements.  The attorneys present on behalf of Judge White were: Cunningham, Banks, Scott, Watson, and Keener.

Judge White, with the court’s permission, presented a statement because of the absence of an attorney who had expected to be there.  He objected to the sitting of the Honorable Calvin Reyburn, President Judge of the 33rd District, because of the circumstances.  He said in his statement, “This request is made out of no disrespect for his Honor or from want of confidence in his judicial character and integrity, but because of the surroundings.”  As mentioned above, the objection was over Judge Reyburn being the brother-in-law of D.B. Taylor, attorney for Blair.

The Judges retired to conference and upon returning to the bench Judge Doty announced that it was Judge Reyburn’s personal desire to withdraw from the board, but because of the Governor’s commission and the evident intent of the law that the three Judges closest to the Courthouse of Indiana County preside over the matter; it was decided that Judge Reyburn would remain a member of the panel.  Mr. Banks objected vigorously to the decision, but he was overruled.

Mr. Banks then made an oral motion that the petition be quashed on the grounds that it was vague and indefinite, stating that the very vagueness of the petition looked like a scheme of the petitioners to get into the ballot boxes.

Mr. Taylor responded that many of the ballot boxes had already been opened and papers extracted, and that before too much time had passed, the people of the county would know who did it.  He quoted many authorities why it was not necessary to designate who case the illegal votes an in what districts the frauds were perpetrated.

Mr. Taylor requested that counsel for petitioners not be compelled to furnish the names of those who voted illegally, and gave the reason that it would interfere in the subpoenaing of their witnesses.  Judge Barker then asked for a little more definite explanation upon which Taylor stated, “Why, your honor…I can in a very few minutes bring you absolute proof that already attempts have been made to get people out of the county until after this contest is decided.”

Mr. Cunningham then took the floor speaking at length about the vagaries of the petition and the turmoil which could result if something more definite was not presented.  He told the court, “Unless this petition states who these illegal voters are and where they voted there is not a man in Indiana County who cannot be called upon to testify. Counsel for the petitioners have unlimited power in the matter unless your honors grant a ‘bill in particular,’ asking for more definite speculations.”

After a long discussion among the Judges, they came to a conclusion with Judge Doty announcing a unanimous opinion that the petition was vague, and it needed to state who the illegal voters were, and where they voted.  The Court granted the bill, and counsel for the petitioners would have until January 1, 1895 to file their answer.

Sheriff D.C. Mack was then appointed as commissioner to collect all the ballot boxes in the county and keep them in his custody until he was called upon to deliver them to the court.

The court then adjourned until January 15, when the Judges would again convene and hear the evidence in the case.

At 9:00 a.m. on January 15, 1895 the court panel convened with Judge Doty announcing, “Well, we are ready to proceed, Mr. Taylor.”

D.B. Taylor called William Fry and Lester Ruffner, and while the court was waiting for the witnesses to be brought in, Judge White came into the court room, shook hands with the Judges on the bench, and then seated himself at counsel table.

William Fry appeared and was sworn; stated he lived near Marion and voted in Rayne Township.

            Attorney Taylor: “State whether or not any person gave you money for your vote.”

            Attorney Banks: “Just a moment; that’s objected to.”

Attorney Banks argued that in the Bill of Particulars filed by Blair had made no specifications of any voters who had received bribes.  He further attacked the Bill saying it was not signed by any person.  He said the signatures should be there and that the paper should be sworn to.

Judge Barker replied that the object of the court when they ordered the filing of the Bill was to insure there was sufficient cause for the proceedings, and if there were no objections the contestants would be allowed to amend their specifications.

Mr. Cunningham wanted to know if the Bill was amended, if the other side would have the privilege to answer it.

Judge Barker announced that the court would allow the contestants to amend their Bill and Attorney Taylor who had his paper ready handed it to the Prothonotary.

Further examination of the witness was objected to and then there were long arguments from both sides.  The argument was made by White’s attorneys that witnesses could not be made to testify to having received or given bribes.  The Blair people contended that the law said that no testimony given in a case of the kind could be used against witnesses in any future proceeding which might be brought against him and that therefore they were safe as far as incrimination was concerned.

Attorneys Cunningham and Banks contended that after a voter has sworn to his eligibility to vote, the vote should be taken and counted and if he had perjured himself or taken a bribe, the remedy was to be found in another court.  The court recessed from 11:15 to 1:30 to consider the arguments.

The court reconvened, and Judge Doty announced that the objections were overruled, and the evidence would be admitted.

In answer to the Bill of Particulars, Judge White filed on the night of January 15, claiming that there were upwards of 1,023 illegal votes were cast for John P. Blair.  The allegations were as follows: Non-residents, 34; not registered, 199; taxes unpaid, 455; under age, 7; defective ballots, 4; marked by parties not asked to assist in marking, 4; marked contrary to orders, 6; marked by persons incompetent to assist, 4; voters not naturalized, 2; promised to give valuable consideration, 47; received or agreed to receive valuable consideration, 157.  He also averred that votes of several districts should be thrown out on account of irregularities.

The court then heard testimony of 1,372 witnesses, which took up 1,541 typewritten pages.  In summary, the testimony is summarized as consisting of allegations and denials of bribery with money and/or whiskey, violations of election laws, and sundry other improprieties and questionable electioneering tactics.

It was presented that John Guffey, a prominent Democratic politician of Pittsburgh, had written a letter charging that Bennet’s liquor house had furnished Judge White with 100 packages of whiskey during the election campaign.  The owners of the establishment denied the charges.

Judge White testified on his own behalf, as a large crowd had gathered to hear his side of the story:

The contestants have produced testimony showing that I gave money during the recent campaign to a number of persons, in all about $21 [approximately $635 in today’s money].  I will explain these transactions.  I met Samuel Cooper a political friend of mine, at Gettysburg [Hillsdale] and we had some conversation about election matters.  I asked him to see a number of people for me, and to procure a driver to take me over the township.  We walked back an alley to a buggy shed, and I gave him $2.  The secrecy of the transaction was brought about by my thinking that if my opponents saw me give him the money they would put a false construction on it.  The money was for legitimate campaign expenses, and Cooper’s testimony was correct.  I have no apology to make concerning that transaction.

Clark Wilson testified that I gave him money before the election, he told the truth.  I gave him 50 cents or $1, as I have often done before, and that simple act of charity has nothing to do with the election, as Wilson also testified on the stand.

Robert McBreth came to my office to see me.  He said he had been doing some work for me, and thought there were others in his vicinity that he could get to support me.  He wanted expense money and I gave him $2.  William B. Lytle swore that I gave him $2, that is also correct.  I was down in Conemaugh Township, and he drove with me one day to see a number of people.  In the evening he got supper for me and fed my horses.  He did not want to take the money, but I said I did not wan to take his hospitality for nothing.  On a subsequent visit I gave his sister $1 for a like purpose.  He did not want to accept it, but I would not listen to a refusal.

I met William Trimble, of East Wheatfield, at a local bank.  I persuaded him to accompany me on an electioneering tour over the township.  He took care of my horse, and gave me my dinner, and for these services I gave him $5.  Austin Condron also received $5.  He was very active in my behalf, and was my friend before he received a cent from me.  It was not necessary for me to pay him anything.

David Campbell, of Heshbon, is a Democrat, but was one of my supporters all through the campaign.  He came to my office and made an arrangement whereby he was to keep me posted through correspondence.  I gave him $2 for postage and incidentals.  As the election drew near I lost his support, probably through failure of mine to answer some of his letters.

David Mardis received a dollar, but that was before the primary.  He is a very poor man, and I believed he needed it.

These instances I believe cover the amount of $21, which I am charged with having given for votes.

I never told John Nealor I would pay his back taxes if he would support me.  Three witnesses who have testified in rebuttal of that evidence heard the conversation.  I gave Alex. McCoy a dollar at Ambrose.  He was supporting me, and thought he could get some friends into line.  The dollar was given him for expenses, and not to influence his vote.

A young man, whom I have since learned was Samuel Hunter, came into my office and talked about the election.  He swore that I sent him to John H. Rochester for whiskey.  My best recollection is that I did nothing of the kind.  I did not even know that Rochester had whiskey or wine at his house, and I certainly had no claim on him other than friendship.  I never authorized Rochester to use liquor in my behalf – none whatever.

James Trindle called on me during the week of the county fair.  He knew I was an old friend of his father, and I gave him a dollar to get some dinner and may have given him some liquor.  Everybody knows that I am not a teetotaler, and I have no desire to be a hypocrite about the matter.  We had absolutely no conversation about the election.  I talked to Calvin Miller, and may have given him expenses for hauling voters to the polls.  Lewis Burnheimer is mistaken in his testimony that I promised to put him on the jury.  I never said that; I wouldn’t say it.  The same is true of the father of Miss Mary Conrad.  The young lady quoted me as saying I would put her father on the jury if he would support me.  All that I said was, ‘Tell your father to come and see me when in town;” John Lutes’s testimony was that I promised to put him on the jury if he would give me a ‘hist.’ I never made such a promise, nor did I promise to renew Porter Campbell’s note.

Myers testified that I sent him to Cashier Watt for money.  Now, I never knew Walter Myers until after the election, and the conversation he swore to positively never occurred.  Nicewonger, Myers’s companion, often called on me to borrow money, but I always told him I had none to loan.  He came to my house for money but I told him he would have to arrange matters of that kind at the bank.  Cashier Watt had no authority to pay out money for me.  Myers was in my office for money after the election.

I gave no person any money, nor made any offers or promises to influence votes.  I thought I knew what my privileges were under the law and certainly lived up to all just requirements.  There were, of course legitimate campaign expenses which were paid through the county chairman and many of the persons who came to me for money were referred to Mr. McGregor.

After Judge White’s statement, there was cross examination, which caused some wrangling on the part of the attorneys, and the Judge asked the court to protect him from insult.

The case closed on May 4, 1895 when the Court announced that there were 571 illegal votes which were thrown out, some because of election law violations, others for bribery.  In total 306 ballots for Blair were disqualified along with 265 votes for White.  The Court also stated that Judge White’s electioneering activities and expenditures were within the law.  This left White the declared winner with 3771 votes to 3643 for Blair.  The judicial opinion consisted of 35 pages of opinion, 28 pages covering points of law and 99 pages of findings of fact, this comes to a total of 162 pages.  To put this in perspective a typical United States Supreme Court case typically comes to approximately 11 pages.

So do you believe Judge White was fully within the confines of the law, or was he walking a thin hairline between lawful and unlawful?