“A reign of terror” – A violent 1838 election riot provoked outrage in central Pennsylvania

It was Election Day in Halifax Township, and voters from across this small Dauphin County community overlooking the wide Susquehanna River came to the home of Henry Doebler to cast their ballots for a local inspector of public works.

This seemingly innocuous civil duty turned suddenly violent at 2 o’clock on September 28, 1838 when a band of local men and workers completing the Wiconisco Canal attacked the polling place and began a series of events that culminated in the most dangerous political crisis in the history of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

In the autumn of 1838, politics in Pennsylvania boiled over into a violent contest between Democrats and Whigs to control the power of patronage in the Keystone State. The party that controlled the government, controlled the power of state’s sizable purse-strings. And with dozens of public works projects underway across the state, the desire to control the fate of railroads, canals, and port expansions became all consuming.

Canal
A canal boat on the Wiconisco Canal, under construction in 1838. (lykensvalley.org)

After a heated summer of verbal abuse and political maneuvering between Democratic supporters of gubernatorial candidate David R. Porter and Whig partisans supporting Governor Joseph Ritner, the outbreak of physical violence began in Halifax Township on a sunny day in late September 1838.

The polling in Halifax began as it had for a decade, under the watchful eyes of local constable Joseph Straw. More than 100 voters had already cast their ballots when a group of men marching in double file approached the Doebler home where the election was being carried out.

According to Phillip Kline, the group gathered outside the polling place and began a series of violent assaults on the Doebler home. As the mob, allegedly under the command of Samuel Freeburn, forced entry into the home, a group of men attempted to bar their entrance and were beaten as they attempted to “preserve the peace.”

Once inside, members of the group grabbed chairs from inside the home and began smashing windows before throwing out the boxes containing the votes that had already been cast. While the mob smashed windows and discarded the legal votes, other canal workers attacked the constable and “pulled and jostled him about in a rude and abusive manner.”

After forcing out all voters, electoral judges, and others, the mob took control of the polling place and held its own, illegal, election where it claimed more than 290 votes were cast.

Wiconisco_Canal
A map of the Wiconisco Canal (Wikimedia Commons)

Why did this attack take place? What made the election of a local public works inspector so contentious?

Many voters residing in Halifax Township were farmers or supported related industries and claimed themselves as Democrats. For those working on constructing the Wiconisco Canal adjacent to the Susquehanna River, however, their paychecks relied on the support of Whigs in state government for funding of so-called internal improvements. Local Whigs and canal workers apparently decided that they would hold their own vote in the staunchly Democratic district and attacked, apparently trying to shore up their own occupations on the canal’s construction.

The Keystone, a Democratic newspaper in Harrisburg that published an account of the Halifax riot, pointed their readers to conclude that the attack was carried out by Whigs seeking to disenfranchise Democratic voters and take money from local taxpayers to support Whigs working on local public works projects, i.e. the Wiconisco Canal. The editors ensured that readers recognized this corrupt bargain by publishing the following on October 3, 1838:

Our readers will remember that it was on the public works, in this neighborhood, where our democratic county committee proved, that democrats WERE turned off, by the STATE OFFICERS, and NEGROES employed IN THEIR PLACES! These men concerned in this outrage upon the elective franchise, were the very men who preferred giving wages to NEGROES, paid by Democratic taxpayers. And to aggravate this outrage still further, the Superintendent, engineers and most of the others concerned, were not voters in Halifax, and some of them went and voted at their own districts, after they had perpetrated this shocking violence, for which they have been PUT UNDER BONDS.

Another newspaper referred to the attack as a “reign of terror” carried out by Governor Ritner’s supporters on the Wiconisco Canal project.

In a later edition, The Keystone opined that Democrats “were willing to give every opportunity that men possessing one spark of honor, or desire for fairness, could wish, and therefore went into an election for Inspector on Tuesday morning.” But that trust was broken to pieces by those fraudulent, violent actions of a Whig mob.

Election Riot
October 10, 1838

Democrats openly connected the attack on the Halifax election to the forces of Governor Joseph Ritner and Whigs seeking to maintain control of the vast web of patronage created by state-funded internal improvement projects through dubious means.

Later that year, Governor Joseph Ritner was defeated in the gubernatorial race with Democrat David R. Porter and a battle commenced for control of the state government. That political fight came to blows in December 1838 when a fracas began in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives when Democratic politicians contested the legality of the vote in four voting districts near Philadelphia. Meanwhile, Democrats in the Senate were also contesting the seats of several Whig politicians. As confusion reigned across the state’s government, threats of violence began being hurled at Whig politicians, including Thaddeus Stevens of Lancaster County.

Lame-duck Governor Ritner called out the Pennsylvania militia to maintain order and sought Federal assistance in the matter. However, President Martin Van Buren refused to step in, leaving Ritner with only Pennsylvania militiamen under the command of General Robert Patterson to maintain public order. This outbreak of political chaos earned its name, the Buckshot War, from the Patterson’s order that each militiaman be given 13 rounds of buckshot for their muskets. An angry mob of citizens captured and held the State Arsenal, meaning that the militia could not arm itself. After weeks of chaos, Democrats ultimately “won” the Buckshot War and their claims of illegal activity and voter fraud in favor of Whig candidates led to their party gaining control of state government.

In arguably the most heated, contentious, and dangerous electoral season in state history, the Halifax election riot played an important role. The illegal attack upon the polling place represented an early attempt by Whigs to maintain their hold on local and state government by dubious means. However, in trying to shore up their control over the growing web of canals and other internal improvements, they ultimately ceded control of the entire state.


Featured Image: Governor Joseph Ritner (left) and Governor David R. Porter (right), courtesy of PHMC

Want to read more about the Buckshot War? Read more from Nick Malawskey

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