Dakota Datebook

Ballots and Bribery

Wednesday, November 8, 2006

When Emmons County commissioner Henry Van Beck showed up at Inspector John Miller’s house, he was hoping to get the best of some political opponents before the county elections held today in 1892. Little did he know, Miller and the Russian-German settlement would get the best of him.

Van Beck, along with republican candidates J.A. Cotton and Charles Lock, and democratic candidate S.E. Brindle went to Miller with a proposition. If Miller arranged for 75 votes from the Selz precinct for candidate H.A. Armstrong, Van Beck would give $50 to the Catholic church near Selz. Cotton proposed the same deal if 75 votes were secured for both Lock and Brindle. The terms as reported by the Emmons County Reporter were as follows: “One hundred and fifty dollars were to be ‘given’ to the church–$50 for Armstrong, $50 for Brindle and $50 for Lock. If all three received 75 Russian votes and were elected, the church was to keep the whole amount. If Armstrong was defeated, $50 was to be returned. If Brindle was defeated, $50 was to be paid back; and, if all three were defeated, the entire amount ‘contributed’ to the church was to be returned.”

The money was to be paid upfront and Van Beck was preparing to write the check, when Miller stopped him, stating a check was “nicht goot.” Van Beck was forced to give $150 in bills to Miller. A receipt was written in both English and German, and Miller turned the money over to the church. The money was deposited in an envelope with a written account of the proceedings.

Miller then discussed the deal with the Russian settlement, but the settlers were leery of the deal and decided they would not be bribed so easily. They decided money with strings attached would not be returned, even if Van Beck and Cotton asked for it, and they did not want to use bribery money for the church. They had other uses in mind.

When the Reporter recounted the events of what they called “one of the rankest and most barefaced attempts at wholesale bribery that it has ever been the duty of a newspaper to chronicle,” Van Beck’s choices were far behind. Both Lock and Armstrong had only secured 3 votes from Selz township, while their opponent each had 68 votes. Brindle fared little better with 25 of the Selz votes, while his opponent led with 47 votes.

Van Beck and Cotton were obviously not getting their money’s worth in the election, especially since few Russian voters could make it to the polls in the first place. With their conspiracy revealed by the Reporter, it would be difficult to get the money back legally. According to the Reporter, “The law is plain and the penalties severe where money is paid for any purpose in exchange for votes.” But, if the penalties were not severe enough, Van Beck and Cotton would have to watch as their bribe money was used for something other than the church; the Russian settlers had decided before the election that the bribe money was to be used for a grand New Year’s celebration. It was not reported if Van Beck and Cotton, who inadvertently financed the celebration, would be invited.

By Tessa Sandstrom

“The Election,” Emmons County Reporter. Nov. 11, 1892: 1.

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Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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