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Local History: A Look Back at the 1888 Election

A South Orange man was made "wild" by politics.

The confluence of Halloween and Election Day is irresistible to a few teenagers in my neighborhood. Halloween's date, of course, is fixed, but Election Day, the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, is just three days later. One teenager in my neighborhood, who is dressing as a candidate, confided that his slogan will be "trick, treat or raise your taxes." I showed him photos of a group of my past students dressed for Halloween as Boutros-Boutros Ghali, former Secretary General of the United Nations. "Politics is wild," said my neighbor, shaking his head.

Frankly, that's nothing. In late 1888, South Orange had a true "wild man." William Hennion's actions were so extreme that he made The New York Times under the headline "A Wild Man in New-Jersey [sic]." Hennion is described as "terrorizing the inhabitants of the Maplewood section of South Orange." For example, he "halted a carriage" and forced its two female occupants to listen to a stump speech. Another time, Hennion chased a son of a local Essex County Freeholder, "and was so menacing in his demeanor that the young man deemed it advisable to take shelter under the first hiding place he could find." The wild man also chased the Tax Commissioner's servant, who "swooned with a shriek, and is now suffering from the effect of the shock." 

In each case, Hennion either shared his political views or pursued those connected to the government. And while I can't say for sure, I wonder if he wasn't talking politics. Though there was no governor's race, 1888 was a tough election year. Nationally, tariffs and free trade were the issue-grabbing headlines. Presidential incumbent Grover Cleveland won the popular vote, but was bested in the electoral college by Benjamin Harrison, who opposed tariff reduction. However, there was a significant third party candidate who earned almost a quarter million votes. He was Prohibition Party candidate Clinton B. Fisk, running from New Jersey. 

The South Orange Bulletin reports that the summer and early fall of 1888 saw many local events in support of the various parties, with the Prohibition Party erecting a tent on Vose Avenue, and other parties holding large, open meetings throughout town. "Thousands" of posters and hand-bills were distributed in South Orange. The pages of the weekly newspaper also gave countless column inches to debate and strongly-worded rhetoric. On Nov. 4, 1888, "A Voter" noted that, since President Cleveland's election in 1885, "the hatting industry is languishing... What can be more melancholy, than the complete stagnation that has fallen upon all the industries of this neighborhood!" The same writer urged voters to "cast your votes with a view to the promotion of your own interests. For increased taxes!!! and the election of Harrison." 

Another point of view was expressed by an anonymous writer who asked, "Can anybody but a blind partisan or one who has an ax to grind favor the increase of unnecessary and already excessive taxation?" The same letter ends with, "We appeal to your manhood, which will you choose?"—a reminder that voters at the time were male. 

The election of 1888 was held on November 6. Five days later, the unnamed editors of the paper noted, "In South Orange the campaign has been a very active one... The polls on election day were haunted by the usual gang of loafers who insulted every body who did not agree with them, but fortunately [sic] one of them went so far as to strike a blow and if his victim can get justice that person will be properly punished."

Benjamin Harrison won the election with 5,443,890 popular votes and 233 electoral votes. Grover Cleveland won New Jersey and 5,443,892 popular votes, but only 168 electoral votes. Fisk came in third place, with 249,819 votes. The South Orange Bulletin noted that, "The members of the defeated party are very busy paying their lost bets and explaining the cause of their defeat."

Perhaps South Orange's William Hennion was satisfied with the outcome of the election, as he never made headlines again. Only his father claimed a place in the news; David Hennion denied the "alleged wild conduct" of his son. He told the Bulletin, "while William is a little 'off' at times, he is entirely harmless."  

My hope for this year's Halloween is that it, too, is "entirely harmless" and that the Election Day that follows shortly has none of the rancor of 1888. Don't forget to vote, men and women alike. 

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