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L.A. Then and Now

Letter Trickery Put L.A. on the Political Map

August 13, 2000|Cecilia Rasmussen

Angelenos weren't always as apolitical as their recent turnouts at the polls suggest.

In the days when torchlight parades, rousing oratory and biting campaign ditties fueled lusty political campaigns that turned out huge numbers of voters, a Los Angeles newspaper publisher and a Pomona farmer engineered a quiet coup that helped to oust a U.S. president, send a British ambassador home, give the nation a new song and put Los Angeles on the national political map.

During the 1888 presidential campaign between Democratic incumbent Grover Cleveland and Republican candidate Benjamin Harrison, people all over the county were swept into the uproar that surrounded the "Murchison Letter."

It was a masterpiece of political chicanery contrived by swashbuckling and vehemently partisan Los Angeles Times Publisher Harrison Gray Otis and a quiet farmer named George Osgoodby.

After the Democrats renominated Cleveland at the convention in St. Louis, and the Republicans chose Harrison (grandson of the nation's ninth president, William "Old Tippecanoe" Henry Harrison) at the Chicago convention, both presidential nominees faced a daunting challenge: They had to placate businessmen, who favored free trade, and farmers, who demanded protective tariffs.

In his 1884 campaign, Cleveland's reputation for sterling moral character had won him the nickname "Grover the Good." But when reports surfaced that the bachelor executive had had Ran affair with a New York widow and fathered an illegitimate son--a responsibility Cleveland publicly accepted--his opponents taunted him with the now notorious chant: "Ma, ma, where's my pa?" And his supporters replied, "Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha."

Four years later, Republicans tried to clear Harrison's path to the presidency by recirculating that ditty and by labeling Cleveland a "gross and licentious man." When that didn't hurt Cleveland's popularity, Otis, a staunch Republican, undertook a personal campaign against the Democratic Party, which he habitually referred to as a "shameless old harlot."

The "Murchison Letter" began to unfold in September 1888, when Osgoodby and his cronies, a group of cracker-barrel philosophers and armchair politicians, casually gathered around the stove at a Pomona grocery store for "spit and argue" sessions.

Osgoodby and his cohorts grew concerned over Cleveland's advocacy of lower tariffs, since higher import duties on foreign-grown crops were partly responsible for the Pomona farmers' prosperity. Osgoodby, a Republican of English parentage and onetime editor of the Pomona Register, wrote to the British ambassador in Washington, Lionel Sackville-West. Using the pseudonym "Charles F. Murchison," Osgoodby claimed to be a naturalized Englishman seeking advice on how to vote, at a time when Cleveland was courting the English American constituency.

But when the British diplomat advised his fictional correspondent to support the Democratic Party ticket, implying that a vote for Cleveland was a vote for England, he overstepped the bounds of propriety. The specter of a foreign diplomat's intervention in an American presidential election was a major issue at the time. So Osgoodby knew he had a weapon and quietly contacted Otis, who hopped the next train for Pomona.

By this time, Pomona's Democrats had gotten wind of the brewing controversy, and the wary Osgoodby hid in his house with a loaded shotgun, fearing assault by armed Democrats. When Otis arrived, he calmed Osgoodby and persuaded him to let him print both letters, using the "Murchison" pseudonym instead of Osgoodby's real name.

On Oct. 21, a little more than two weeks before the election, Otis dropped the journalistic bomb that many historians who study the period feel tipped the election.

Today, after alliance through two world wars and decades of the so-called special relationship it is hard to conjure up the atmosphere in which a British diplomat's undiplomatic reply to a private letter from a phony person would affect American politics, but it did. Charges hurtled back and forth in the nation's press. The incident became the inspiration for political slogans and songs, like this pro-Harrison ditty:

I've a letter from Pomona,

Baby mine, baby mine.

And to us it is a stunner,

Baby mine, baby mine.

Mr. Murchison had the zeal

To entrap an English Veal,

Which has made the Demis [Democrats]

squeal,

Baby mine, baby mine.

--songwriter George S. Eels

Unshaken, Sackville-West refused to admit that he had overstepped his bounds and classified the uproar as just one more example of the "ridiculous frenzies" common to American elections. British newspapers backed him, countering that Her Britannic Majesty's ambassador should be forgiven because he was "not up to all the dirty tricks of American politicians."

Mr. Sackville-West must go,

Baby mine, baby mine,

For he told the truth, you know,

Baby mine, baby mine.

He did the best he knew

For the Democratic crew,

But he failed just by a few,

Baby mine, baby mine.

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