Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Election Shenanigans Involving Fire Commissioner Election in 1898

In 1938, Village of North Pelham resident J. Gardiner Minard (who had lived in the area for nearly 50 years) published an interesting account of election shenanigans that occurred during the election of First Fire District commissioners on Saturday, February 26, 1898.  A rogue group decided to take over the Pelham Fire Department and attempted to rig the election right under the noses of the incumbent fire commissioners.

The leader of the rogue group met each incumbent commissioner and every other resident who arrived at the polling place in the old wooden courthouse that stood on the site of today's Town Hall on Fifth Avenue and handed each arriving party a folded ballot that the rogue leader represented to be an "official" ballot.  All believed that the incumbent fire commissioners were unopposed in the election.  Had anyone bothered to unfold the "official" ballot, they would have discovered that it reflected votes for a rogue slate rather than for the incumbent fire commissioners.  The incumbent fire commissioners and the few voters who showed up at the courthouse to vote carelessly dropped the "official" ballots they were handed into the ballot box without reading the folded papers, unwittingly voting for the rogue slate.

One nearby resident who did not even realize that an election was underway noticed people going in and out of the courthouse wandered in to see what was going on.  When he entered and asked what was happening, he was told that the election for fire commissioners was underway and was handed a folded ballot.  He opened the ballot and asked one of the incumbent commissioners who was present why he was not running for reelection.  When the incumbent expressed surprise and said that he was running for reelection, the resident knew something was wrong and that a coup d'etat of some sort was underway.  He bolted out of the courthouse to rally the voter base.  The rest of the story is told by J. Gardiner Minard who was the architect of the Village of North Pelham voters' efforts to defeat the coup and reelect the incumbents.


A history of the Pelham Fire Department would not be complete without an account of the fire commissioners election in February, 1898.  It will be remembered that the first board was elected in 1893 for a term of five years.  Perhaps it was because there was no salary attached that the voters took but little interest in the election.  Only 21 ballots were cast.  Had it not been for the insurrection in the department two years previously, the people would undoubtedly have forgotten there was such a thing as a fire board.

There were no buildings along the west side of Fifth avenue between First and Second streets with the exception of the Post Office building on the corner of First street.  From his residence at Fourth avenue and Second street, Phil Godfrey had an unobstructed view of the old wooden court house, which stood on the site of the present Town Hall building.  Phil noted some activity about the building on the evening of the last Saturday in February, 1898.  Believing it to be a campaign meeting for the village election to be held in March, he decided to investigate.  He was greeted by the leader of the revolt in the fire department who informed him that it was the fire commissioners election, and handed him a folded ballot.  Bear in mind there was no such thing as an 'official' printed ballot in those days, so far as the fire elections were concerned.  Any piece of paper on which the names were written were [sic] official.  

Phil started to open it but the leader said that there was no opposition, so Phil walked into the court room where the board headed by Judge William H. Sparks of Pelham Heights, was sitting as election inspector.  While awaiting his turn, Phil opened the ballot and drew a long breath.  It contained the names of the insurgent firemen and their friends!  It was evident they had planned to gain control of the fire board.  Phil asked Judge Sparks why he was not running for reelection.  The Judge replied that the entire board was running.  Phil then showed him the ballot.  The members of the board were deeply chagrined to learn they had all voted the ballot without opening it, thinking their names were on it.  Phil folded the ballot and left without voting.  

I was editor of the Pelham Press at the time and my office in the Post Office building was a favorite meeting place for politicians.  Phil started for there.  

On the way he met Francis McDermott.  He told him what was brewing and instructed him to go to the New Haven Station and meet all incoming trains, stop every commuter living in the First Fire District and tell them what was going on.  They must not vote.  They would go home and have supper and report after at my office.  Phil then came to my office.  Fortune favored, for there were Louis C. Young, Patrick J. Marvel, John T. Logan and Henry L. Rupert, all destined to be holding town offices later.  Young, Justice of the Peace; Marvel, Town Clerk; Logan, Receiver of Taxes, and Rupert, Town Counsel.

Phil explained and we went into a huddle and made out a new slate.  The polls were to be open from 6 to 8 p.m.  I went into Lyman's Drug Store and got a ream of white wrapping paper which I cut into small squares.  Then while the others went out to round up the voters, Marvel and myself sat down to write out the ballots.  Voters soon began assembling and the office and back room were filled and others sat on the stairs leading to the upper floor which was unoccupied.  I opened the door to the apartment above and it soon had groups in all three rooms.  Town Clerk John Case, father of the late Fred Case, came in to report to me that the leader of the revolt was suspicious since so many refused to vote but promised to come later.

'At the election in 1893 there were only 21 votes cast,' he said.  'I have 18 in now and 15 more up my sleeve in case anyone starts something.'

At 7:45 the number of votes cast remained the same as after the first half hour after the polls opened.  Then the door opened and we marched in 123 strong.  We carried the election by 103 majority.  

I have not followed up the changes in the fire laws, but for some years past the commissioners have been furnishing 'official' printed ballots.  Those interested in these fire elections will recall that a couple of years ago the late James Reilly declined to accept the printed ballot and offered a written one.  The board at first refused to accept it but Reilly threatened to carry the case to White Plains unless they did, insisting that a written ballot is just as 'official' as a printed one.  The board accepted it.  If that ballot is still preserved by the board they will discover it is in my handwriting; for Reilly and myself [sic] concocted the scheme on the old 'Grand Jury Bench' at Sixth street and Fifth avenue."

Source:  Minard,, J. Gardiner, The Old Days, The Pelham Sun, Apr. 8, 1938, p. 10, cols. 1-4.

Fire Headquarters in Village of North Pelham, 1913. 
Source: The Pelham Sun, 1913.

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