Winter election in Winnipeg: new meaning brought to adage “vote early and vote often.”

by Bruce Cherney

So, we’ll be having a federal election during the depths of winter on January 23 to the chagrin of political pundits. But, there’s really nothing new about politicians hitting the hustling when the weather is less than delightful.

The most famous and controversial election in Winnipeg’s history actually was fought in December and January 1873-74. It was famous for its numerous irregularities and the colourful character of one of its candidates.

Winnipeg’s first civic election brought new meaning to the phrase, “Vote early and vote often.”

The ballots for Winnipeg’s first mayor were counted on January 5, 1874. Francis Evans Cornish, a lawyer originally from London, 

Ontario, and W.F. Luxton, a newspaper publisher also originally from Ontario, were the two candidates. Luxton was the co-founder of the Manitoba Free Press.

The first town hall meeting after Winnipeg’s incorporation as a city was held on November 15, 1873. The Free Press said: “Cornish was praised by a supporter, Mr. Clegg. Mr. Clegg said the conduct of Mr. Cornish during the time he was chief magistrate of London (Ontario) was such as to make that city a model city of Ontario and an example to the Dominion (of Canada) ... He had established a market and introduced other reforms. After Cornish had occupied the civic throne for some time he grew a little lax in his civic duties and this small laxity was seized on by his enemies to depose him and put in his place a man who failed to be lax. Cornish had given $100 to the poor out of his pockets. He was a clever lawyer and in the event of being elected, the services of a city solicitor would be dispensed with and the salary saved. He then said that to Mr. Cornish was due the credit for the elevation of the social and moral station of the city of London and he had done away with the rowdyism and crime that had existed before.”

The newspaper then followed this by saying that: “Luxton spoke and claimed most of the credit for the incorporation of Winnipeg (Something also claimed by Cornish).”

In his speech, 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 added that Cornish’s persistent assaults on the military and his rowdyism had been the principal cause of the removal of Imperial troops from London. 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,” and said that 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. On the other hand, The Manitoban, a rival newspaper, supported the candidacy of Cornish while supposedly maintaining a neutral position. 

The Manitoban had a reason to fear taking a hard stand during elections, since its offices had been destroyed during a 1872 federal election riot. It would appear surprising for the newspaper to support Cornish as it was he led the rioters in their attack on The Manitoban’s headquarters. Perhaps they gave their support in fear of a repeat of 1872.

The Manitoban could also be forgiven for its glowing report that election day had passed without incident given its past experience. “It shows the day has past in this part of the country for rowdyism and hot-headed partisanship. All passed as creditably as if nothing unusual had taken place...”

But that was election day. It was actually a no-holds barred campaign with each candidate willing to say the worst about his opponent. 

While campaigning, Luxton said Cornish stooped to bribery. 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 to the Winnipeg electorate. It was common practice in all elections — federal, provincial and civic — to resort to bribery and it was common practice for all candidates to accuse one another of bribery. In fact, it would have been extraordinary for any candidate not to resort to this practice.

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 election law allowed a property owner one vote per property and so multiple property owners voted more than once.

Despite the vote irregularities, Cornish was ruled to have successfully 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.”

Cornish was born in London 

on February 1, 1831. His father, William, was from Devonshire, England, received a B.A. from Oxford and arrived in Canada in 1819, settling in London District where he practiced law and medicine.

Following in his father’s footsteps Cornish was called to the bar of Upper Canada (Ontario) in 1855. He served as a London alderman from 1858 to 1861 and was the mayor of London from 1861 to 1864, the first Canadian-born mayor to be elected to that post. Cornish’s tenure as London mayor ended in 1864 when the council called out the militia to ensure Cornish didn’t resort to some of his old ballot-stuffing tricks.

While in London, Cornish gained the reputation as a bit of a rowdy and was charged by his political opponents at various times for assault, bigamy, drunkenness and political boisterousness, as well as padding ballot boxes.

Cornish was also a high-ranking official with the Orange Lodge in Ontario. This affiliation helps to explain some of his subsequent actions when he moved to Winnipeg in 1872.

Cornish made his way to Winnipeg just two years after the creation of Manitoba as Canada’s fifth province on May 12, 1870. The atmosphere in the city and province was still caught up in the earlier events of 1869-70, the time when Louis Riel and the provisional government were instrumental in bringing Manitoba into Confederation.

As an Orangeman, Cornish carried some blatant prejudices with him to his new home. The Orangemen who were part of Colonel Garnet Wolseley’s force that came to the Red River settlement in August 1870 were intent on avenging the death of Thomas Scott, executed by the provisional government in perhaps one of the most ill-advised incidents in Manitoba history.

Until Scott’s execution, criticism of Riel and the provisional government was limited to a few politicians and the Canadian Party — all from Ontario — in the settlement.

After Scott’s execution, advertisements began to appear in Eastern newspapers calling for rallies against Riel and calls for his arrest. One advertisement ended with, “Hurrah for Canada. A rope for the murderer Riel! God-save the Queen!”

In Toronto, mayor R.S. Harmon told 5,000 people during one rally attended by  Dr. John Christian Schultz, the leader of the Canadian Party in Red River who escaped to Ontario after being imprisoned by Riel, that the “refugees” were “gallant men who stood up for British supremacy in Red River ... (and) would live in history, and be handed down side by side with those who led the gallant charge at Balaclava (during the Crimean War) to uphold the dignity of Britain against the greatest odds that could be brought against them.”

Sentiment was so aroused that the Ontario legislature promptly offered a $5,000 reward for the arrest of Riel and other members of the provisional government on the charge of murder.

The two-year stretch from 1870 to 1872 has been described as one of the blackest periods in local history. Toronto and Montreal newspapers reported that a “reign of terror” existed in Manitoba as early as October 1870 with the terror instigated by supporters of Schultz and aimed at the Metis.

Among those seeking vengeance was Cornish, who quickly became a local agitator against the Metis and the Hudson’s Bay Company. The HBC  possessed large land holdings in the Winnipeg area coveted by speculators and the settlers from Ontario who were arriving in ever-increasing numbers.

Everything came to a head during the September 1872 federal election. Schultz happened to be supporting Wilson in St. Boniface riding and campaigned against Donald Smith, the head of the HBC and a negotiator sent east by the Macdonald government during 1869-70 to enter into discussions with Riel.

On September 14, 1872 in Winnipeg, Cornish delivered an inflammatory speech against the alleged wrong-doings of Lieutenant-Governor Adams Archibald, the French-speaking residents of the province and former HBC employees.

During the speech, Smith, the MP for Selkirk, tried to remonstrate against the accusations but he was pelted with mud by the mob. Further angered by Cornish’s speech, the mob then turned its attentions across the river to St. Boniface and the polling booth near the home of Roger Goulet.

James Farquharson, the father-in-law of Schultz, drew a pistol and fired at people attempting to vote at the polling booth. Although no one was killed, he did manage to wound a few people.

The mob then headed back to Winnipeg where they trashed the offices of The Manitoban, The Metis and The Gazette. This left Schultz’s Liberal as the only newspaper in town. Thereafter, Winnipeg was dubbed “the graveyard of journalism.”

Schultz was reported to have described the scene with great glee to a friend. “In a twinkling of an eye, the carbines were wrested from the police and they were rapped over the head with them.”

Archibald wrote to Canadian Prime Minister John A. Macdonald singling out Cornish and Stewart Mulvey as the instigators of the riot, “Both harangued the mob on the occasion of the row at the polling booth, stimulating them to disorder by every foul epithet hurled at authorities. Mulvey declared to the mob that if the soldiers were ordered to fire, they would not obey their officers, and they need therefore not fear them.”

Macdonald wrote back that, 

although Schultz may have been somehow involved in the riot, he was not to be touched since he was considered to be a friend of the government. He wrote that “this should not deter you from pursuing a firm course in the way of vindicating the law.” What Macdonald failed to tell Archibald was how to vindicate the law when the militia was firmly under the control of Schultz.

Cornish next became instrumental in arranging the arrest in 1873 of Ambroise Lepine, who was the president of the Metis court martial which condemned Scott three years earlier. The belief was that Cornish arranged the arrest to take advantage of the reward offered by Ottawa. Cornish served as the assistant to prosecutor Stuart Macdonald during the Lepine trial which started on October 13, 1874.

“The course of Manitoba jurisprudence has for some time required someone to rescue it out of its lethargic condition,” according to The Manitoban, “and we hope that somebody has arrived in the person of Chief Justice (Edward Burke) Wood.”

The Manitoban’s faith in Wood came as a result of him being a recent appointee to the bench and not present during the events of 1869-70. He had previously lived in Ontario and had been an MP.

But, the chief justice’s charge 

to the jury left no doubt that they should come back with a guilty 

verdict. The jury’s verdict was “guilty with a recommendation for mercy.” Chief Justice Wood ignored the 

recommendation and sentenced Lepine to be hanged on January 29, 1875.

Four days before he was to 

be hanged, the Earl of Dufferin, Canada’s governor-general, commuted the sentence to two years imprisonment. Later, Lepine was granted an amnesty by the governor-general. 

Cornish was granted $400 as his portion of the reward for the arrest and conviction of Lepine.

Later correspondence between Manitoba Lieutenant-Governor Alexander Morris and Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie revealed that the chief justice had got himself into financial difficulty and was deeply in debt to Schultz and that Wood’s indebtedness made him a tool of Schultz.

Cornish was next caught up in the movement to incorporate Winnipeg as a city. Local support from incorporation was widespread with Alexander Begg expressing the prevailing sentiment in his Manitoba Trade Review. He wrote that it was an opportunity that no one could let slip away, “who knows but others more enterprising may get ahead of us ... we must not sleep, lest others, alive to the importance thereof, may incorporate a town just outside, or not very far from our present limits.”

The first calls for incorporation as a city were rebuffed by provincial legislatures. The major feeling among the Ontarians was that the HBC, because it held one-third of the taxable land, opposed incorporation.

Mass meetings were held and a bill was drawn up for presentation to the legislature which then made serious revisions to the bill, including dramatic reductions in tax levels — felt to be another move in favour of the HBC. To add insult to injury, the name of the proposed city in the revised bill was called Assiniboine (they had also considered Selkirk and Fort Garry), rather than the heavily-favoured Winnipeg.

The reaction was swift and another mass meeting was held in March 1873. A committee was appointed to lobby the provincial government and restore the bill to its original form. Cornish was among those who severely criticized the provincial government for its lack of action.

On one occasion, the speaker of the assembly, Dr. J.C. Bird, ruled the bill out of order which also brought about prompt action towards the “most inoffensive citizen.” The angered citizens tarred and feathered Bird. A reward was offered for information leading to the arrest of the perpetrators, but it was never claimed.

The legislature quickly passed the fully restored bill, and Royal assent was given on November 8, 1873. 

The act of incorporation called for the creation of a council made up of a mayor and 12 aldermen from four wards. All members of council possessed judicial as well as administrative powers — an importation from Ontario.

After Cornish’s election as mayor, he used his new judicial powers in some rather unorthodox ways. It seems that Cornish celebrated his victory at the polls too well 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. It was said that 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 


Before his one-year term as mayor expired, city council voted a $500 stipend for his service.

“When I sought the suffrage last year,” Cornish said as reported in the Free Press, “I particularly stated that my services were at the disposal of my fellow citizens without fee or reward ... 

I feel that I cannot afford to refuse ... But in accepting it, would you please inform the chamberlain to make it payable to the chairman of the Winnipeg General Hospital as a donation to that institution.”

Begg reported that the end of his term Cornish gave a “grand dinner to the aldermen and officers of the corporation in the Grand Central Hotel ...”

Cornish ran again for mayor in 1875, but was narrowly defeated by William Kennedy. 

In keeping with the times, Cornish was also elected to serve as a National Party member of the provincial legislature. For decades — though not today — individuals were allowed to serve at the municipal and provincial levels of government at the same time (Steve Juba was elected mayor of Winnipeg in 1956 while still an MLA). In addition, provincially-serving politicians could also run for federal office and keep both seats 

if successful, and vice versa. Cornish served as the member for Poplar Point until 1878. In 

the same year, he also served as a Winnipeg 


While an MLA, Cornish constantly fought with Premier Robert “Hotel” Davis. One incident saw the pair use “haranguing and abusive language” for nearly four hours in the legislature.

Cornish, still smarting that Macdonald wanted him arrested for his part in the 1872 election riot, celebrated when the  Macdonald government fell because of the Pacific Scandal in 1873. Cornish and a friend, while apparently drunk, tried to burn the former prime minister in effigy. His friend — unnamed — stood atop a whiskey barrel making a speech. Spectators noted there was more whiskey above the barrel than in the barrel.

Cornish continued to meddle in the machinery of elections for the remainder of his time on this earth. He was charged during the 1876 election with stealing a polling book for which he 

received a $20 fine.

His most famous local escapade occurred in 1878, just before his death at 47 on November 28 of that year. 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 and answer the charges, Cornish claimed that this amounted to a confession of guilt.

Cornish was subsequently charged with kidnapping, but his death, resulting from stomach cancer, prevented him from appearing on this last of many charges levelled against him during his colourful political career.

Even in death, Cornish could not escape the criticism of Luxton. The Manitoban ran an 

article days after Cornish’s death headlined 

Luxton Tramples on the Dead. The newspaper said Luxton “scandalized and outraged the 

feelings of the people” during a meeting at 

Rockwood Mills.

“In 1874 Cornish was the leader of the opposition (in the legislature), when it was found that a new ministry was likely to be formed (Lieutenant) Governor Morris declared that he would not receive at his house such a man as Cornish,” Luxton told the people at the meeting.

“Traitor to the living, and insulting and unfeeling to the dead,” said The Manitoban, “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.”

To add insult to injury, the newspaper reported that after delivering his speech, Luxton attended “the funeral of the man he had outraged.”

It was typical of Cornish that he evoked either strong praise or heavy scorn throughout his 

political career. There seems to have been no middle ground — people either loved him or hated him.