“Cipher Mumm(er)y"

November 2, 1878

Thomas Nast

“Cipher Mumm(er)y"

Analogies, Ancient Egypt; Congress; Journalists/Journalism; Presidential Election 1876;

Marble, Manton; Tilden, Samuel J.;

No 'Places' indexed for this cartoon.

Exhumed by the New York Tribune

The outcome of the presidential election of 1876 became uncertain when both Republicans and Democrats claimed victory in four states—Florida, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Oregon.  The Electoral College controversy was eventually resolved in favor of Republican Rutherford B. Hayes by a special commission on the eve of the March 1877 inauguration.  Democrats charged that their candidate, Governor Samuel J. Tilden of New York, had been cheated out of the office, even though they had promoted the process that, to their surprise, put Hayes in the White House. 

In May 1878, the Democratically-controlled House of Representatives began an investigation into the fraud allegations, hoping to embarrass the president and collect political ammunition against the Republican Party.  On the contrary, the hearings produced no substantial evidence against the Republicans.  However, in the fall of 1878, the New York Tribune published coded telegrams, which its journalists had deciphered, between Tilden’s nephew, Colonel William T. Pelton, and other Democrats, revealing attempts to bribe election officials in order to win victory for the Democratic nominee.  Here, cartoonist Thomas Nast reacts to the Tribune’s exposé by depicting Tilden as an ancient Egyptian mummy, whose sarcophagus is covered with secret code words (ciphers).

Democrats complained about the 1876 election throughout the first year of the Hayes presidency, labeling the Republican president, “his fraudulency.”  When Tilden returned from a European trip in October 1877, the failed Democratic nominee credited his loss to “a great fraud, which the American people have not condoned and never will condone—never, never, never.”  Joining the Democratic chorus were discontented Republicans, such as Senators William Chandler and Roscoe Conkling, who were unhappy with the president’s policies on patronage and the South.  In January 1878, Montgomery Blair, a Maryland legislator who had served as U.S. postmaster general during the Lincoln administration, called for a lawsuit to overturn the Electoral Commission’s decision.  On May 17, 1878, the U.S. House passed a resolution, introduced by Congressman Clarkson N. Potter of New York, to investigate the fraud allegations.

The eleven-member Potter Committee was stacked with political enemies of President Hayes, but the investigation unified the divided Republicans.  On the other hand, it divided the Democrats.  Some, like Blair, wished to oust the president; most wanted simply to injure Hayes politically and gain a political weapon; a few agreed with Congressman Alexander Stephens of Georgia, who characterized the investigation as “most unwise, most unfortunate, and most mischievous.”  Since Hayes was confident in his own innocence and that of his party, he seemed little worried.  But he denounced the probe as a partisan and revolutionary proceeding, vowing never to leave office except through the constitutional method of impeachment.  He also predicted accurately that the Potter Committee would stir up more trouble for the Democrats.

Before the committee, a Republican election official in Louisiana claimed that Treasury Secretary John Sherman (then, a senator) had sent him a letter offering a patronage appointment in return for throwing out Democratic votes.  Sherman forcefully denied the charge, and the correspondence was soon proven to be a forgery.  That revelation, combined with the president’s openness and the weakness of the witnesses against the Republicans, caused the Potter Committee’s investigation to flounder.  On June 14, a coalition of Republicans and moderate Democrats passed resolutions preventing the presidential election from being overturned by Congress, the federal courts, or a federal commission.  By late June, public sentiment reflected Sherman’s observation that the Potter inquiry was “fizzling out.”

A different investigation, though, was just beginning.  The New York Tribune learned that a Senate committee had possession of a series of cipher (or coded) telegrams that had passed between Colonel William T. Pelton, Tilden’s nephew, Manton Marble, the editor of the Democratic New York World, and election officials in the three Southern states with disputed returns.  In August 1878, the Tribune started printing selections from the cipher telegrams, making the most of its discovery by translating bits and pieces of the telegrams and publishing them over time.  On Monday morning, October 7, the Tribune published the first major disclosure, showing an offer from Marble (code name:  Moses) and another from C. W. Wooley (code name:  Fox) to bribe election officials.  Using bold headlines and extra pages, the newspaper explained who wrote the telegrams, and how it acquired and deciphered them.  So that there would be no questions about accuracy, the Tribune published the originals coded telegrams, the key to the code, and the translated messages.

Nast had portrayed Tilden as a mummy in an earlier cartoon to emphasize the Democrat’s advanced age and infirmity.  In this featured cartoon, Nast continues that theme, but, more importantly here, also uses the symbol to caricature the clandestine conspiracy by inscribing the sarcophagus with cryptograms, including “Moses” and “Fox,” in the guise of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs.  Three of the encoded telegrams appear on the front of the sarcophagus.  The use of "mumm(er)y" in the title plays upon Nast's symbol for Tilden as well as ridicules the cipher ploy as an absurd and pretentious endeavor. It may also mock Tilden's posture of keeping stoically silent--mum--during the Electoral College controversy.

In the upper-left, the artist ridicules the New York Democratic platform’s statement against the Electoral Commission’s decision in 1877.  Symbols of Tilden’s wealth, such as his barrel of money (lower-right), take on connotations of massive corruption.  Although he helped topple the corrupt Tweed Ring, Tilden is here associated with it in several places, including Mayor A. Oakey Hall’s naïve assurance that the Tweed Ring (which, here, becomes the Cipher Telegrams) scandal “will all blow over.”  In late 1876, Henry Watterson, the strident editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal, threatened that the Democrats would march 100,000 men to Washington if Tilden were not declared the winner.  Here, on the center-left, Nast impishly wonders whether the number refers, not to men, but to money for bribery.

The New York Tribune’s exposé forced the Potter Committee to investigate the cipher telegrams.  In January 1879, Colonel Pelton and Smith Weed of South Carolina (whose name appears on the upper-right of the sarcophagus) both confessed to their involvement in a bribery scheme to buy the election for Tilden.  Pelton admitted further that his uncle Tilden had chastised him in November 1876 for the colonel’s role in the South Carolina bribery attempt.  On the other hand, Marble claimed that his telegrams were “danger signals,” not discussions of vote buying.  In February, the Democratic nominee himself, shaken and feeble, appeared before the committee to deny participating in the bribery conspiracy, and no direct evidence has ever linked him to it.

There are, however, several factors that raise the possibility of Tilden’s knowledge or even his collusion.  Pelton lived with his uncle at 15 Gramercy Park (note the keyhole on the sarcophagus), from where the colonel sent and received the cipher telegrams, and Tilden, a highly skilled corporation lawyer, had a reputation for detailed observation.  The system of ciphers was the same code that Tilden used in his business transactions.  Some of the telegrams were addressed to “Russia” (note the bottom of the sarcophagus), the code name for Tilden, from his personal friends.  Those with whom Pelton negotiated assumed that he was acting on behalf of his uncle, who was presumed to be the source of his funds.  Nevertheless, the Potter Committee unanimously declared Tilden’s innocence. 

However, the revelations in the cipher telegrams and the ensuing investigation ruined Tilden’s changes for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1880, and removed any chance that the Democrats could use the issue of vote fraud against the Republicans in the next election.

Robert C. Kennedy

“Cipher Mumm(er)y"
July 14, 2024

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