When voting for mayor on October 27, Winnipeggers should not follow the example of the city’s first civic election held on January 5, 1874, which brought new meaning to the phrase, “Vote early and vote often.” However, the city’s first campaign did have significantly more drama than this year’s contest to date, which may cause some to look back wistfully at the “good old days” of no-holds-barred civic politics.
Francis Evans Cornish, a lawyer originally from London, Ontario, and W.F. Luxton, the co-founder of the Manitoba Free Press who was also originally from Ontario, were the two candidates. The first town hall meeting — similar in scope to this year’s many mayoral forums — was held on November 15, 1873. In his speech, paraphrased by the Free Press, Luxton said that when Cornish was mayor of London, “it was the first time a mayor had been brought before a board of alderman for rowdyism and a breach of the peace ... He challenged any man to lay his finger on any circumstance that would bring discredit upon him, Luxton.”
Cornish, not to be outdone, proclaimed there was no need for a mayor to be of outstanding “moral character,” claiming Luxton was too insignificant to be charged by the police.
Cornish, the polished politician, made mincemeat out of Luxton in public, forcing the editor to use the printed word to attack the moral fibre of his opponent. While campaigning, Luxton accused Cornish of stooping to bribery and other irregularities. When a man refused Cornish his vote, the Free Press reported that Cornish “took hold of the hand of the little son of the gentleman saying, ‘Good-bye, my little boy,’ at the same time leaving a gold half-sovereign (the same as those used by the Hudson’s Bay Company) in the hand of the innocent child. Mr. Cornish then left the premises before the gentleman had an opportunity to resent the insult. This is an absolute fact in all particulars. The half-sovereign is on exhibition at the Free Press office where it has been left to be called for by Mr. Cornish.”
Of course, Cornish’s shenanigans should have come as no surprise, as it was common practice in all elections to resort to some form of bribery and it was common practice for all candidates to accuse one another of bribery.
But Luxton attempted to put himself above the chicanery of elections, saying he would not permit his followers to vote more than once for mayor. “Mr. Cornish’s friends, however, will likely do otherwise, it being the only possible means of securing an apparent majority.”
The civic election results would prove these words to be prophetic.
“It was a clear, frosty day, with wood smoke curling up from chimneys and stove-pipes,” is how the Free Press described January 5, 1874. “Business was almost entirely suspended, except for hotels and saloons which did a thriving trade. At 10 a.m. the polls opened and the rush was on. Cutters and sleighs caused traffic jams as eager citizens hurried to record their votes, their choice entered for all to see beside their names in the poll book.” The Manitoban reported that “neither storm nor cold would have deterred our citizens, we imagine, from participating in the first municipal elections in our city.”
When the votes were tallied, Cornish had 383 votes to Luxton’s 179. While there were 562 votes cast, there were only 388 qualified electors on the voters’ list. Cornish’s total contained 175 “illegal repeaters,” while Luxton’s total had only five repeaters.
Confusion initially ruled because of a quirk of voting laws. The law allowed a property owner one vote per property and so multiple property owners voted more than once. But, Cornish had taken voting irregularities to another level, and the reward for his flagrant misuse of the process was to become Winnipeg’ first mayor.
The Manitoban reported that once his victory was secured, Cornish thanked his supporters, “and stated that he would endeavor to be guided by fairness towards all classes of the community, and that at the end of the year it would be his pride to deliver back the seals of office unsullied and pure in every respect.”
Past examples undoubtedly made many skeptical about this promise. Cornish served as the mayor of London from 1861 to 1864, however, his tenure ended in 1864 when the city council called out the militia to ensure Cornish didn’t resort to some of his ballot-stuffing tricks used during prior elections.
After his election as Winnipeg mayor, Cornish used his newly-acquired judicial powers in some rather unorthodox ways. For example, Cornish celebrated his victory at the polls too enthusiastically and tradition holds that he felt guilty about his transgression. In his capacity as magistrate, he laid a charge of disorderly conduct, left the bench, moved into the prisoner’s docket and pleaded guilty. He then returned to the magistrate’s chair and ordered that the guilty person pay a fine of $2. He paid the fine and then proceeded to other cases with a good conscience. Another story says that he fined himself $5 for driving a buggy while intoxicated and suspended the fine because it was his first offense.
Cornish ran again for mayor in 1875 and was narrowly defeated by William Kennedy, but still continued to meddle in the machinery of elections. He was charged during the 1876 federal election with stealing a polling book for which he received a $20 fine. His most famous escapade occurred in 1878, just prior to his death at age 47 on November 28. Cornish arranged to have his opponent kidnapped on the eve of the provincial election and then brought charges of corruption against him. When his opponent failed to appear in court and answer to the charges, Cornish claimed that this amounted to a confession of guilt. Cornish was subsequently charged with kidnapping, but his death in 1878, resulting from stomach cancer, prevented him from appearing on this last of many charges levelled against him during his colourful political career.
“Luxton could not allow poor Cornish to be covered by the sod, before he dared to insult his memory and trample on the feelings of his sorrowing friends,” according to The Manitoban. To add insult to injury, the newspaper reported that after delivering his speech, Luxton attended “the funeral of the man he had outraged.”
“Those were the days” when elections were fought with considerable “enthusiasm,” with candidates entertaining and engaging voters with their every pronouncement. A profound change has occurred over the years, including, for the better, the elimination of dirty political shenanigans. But in comparison to yesteryear, today’s election campaigns seem particularly lacklustre, which contributes to a healthy dose of voter apathy.