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Though elections throughout United States are usually filled with close votes, a gubernatorial contest in Wisconsin is a strong contender for one of the strangest and most controversial in the country's history. In the course of three months, the state had three governors - including two who both claimed the office at the same time.
William Augustus Barstow's route to the capitol began in Connecticut. He was born in the rural town of Plainfield on September 13, 1813. His childhood alternated between schooling in the winter and farm work in the summer. Barstown ended his studies at the age of 16, when he went to work as a clerk for his brother's store in Norwich. Five years later, he moved to Cleveland, Ohio, to join another brother in a flour milling and forwarding business. When the enterprise failed in the depression of the late 1830s, Barstow moved to Prairieville, Wisconsin. He remained in the flour business, partnering with John Gale to run a mill. Barstow would also become involved in railroad investment, becoming one of the first directors of the Milwaukee and Mississippi Railroad and working to secure the route's charter.
Once in the Badger State, Barstow also kicked off his political career. He took on roles in Prairieville's local government, serving as the town's highway commissioner and postmaster. He was also a member of the Milwaukee Country Board, and in 1846 he took an active role in the movement to separate Waukesha from Milwaukee County. In 1849, he was elected as the Wisconsin secretary of state on the Whig ticket. While in office, allegations of corruption were leveled against him. Barstow was accused of selling land tracts to speculators while serving on the Public Lands Commission, ignoring the requirement that potential buyers had to submit a bid first. He was also suspected of awarding state printing contracts to his friends while on the State Printing Commission. Barstow was never formally charged with a crime, but the suspicions contributed to his failure to win re-election in 1851.
In the ensuing years, Barstow switched his allegiance to the Democratic Party. It was a rocky transition, as he feuded with Milwaukee postmaster and party boss Josiah Noonan. In 1852, Noonan had Barstow arrested to compel payment of a $300 loan. Barstow retaliated after the election by trying to get President Franklin Pierce to remove Noonan from his office. When this effort proved unsuccessful, Barstow led an impeachment effort against Noonan's political ally, circuit court judge Levi Hubbell.
Despite this intra-party tension, Barstow still managed to secure the Democratic nomination for the 1853 gubernatorial race. He handily defeated the Whig and Free Soil candidates in the general election, becoming Wisconsin's third governor. While in office, Barstow fought efforts by Know-Nothings to deny citizenship to foreign-born residents. He also refused to support prohibition, vetoing a bill by the state legislature to ban alcohol sales.
But like his time as secretary of state, Barstow was soon plagued by corruption allegations including the bribing of lobbyists and misuse of funds. He was again accused of malfeasance in securing land grants and printing contracts. The governor joined eight legislators and the secretary of state, A.T. Gray, in the formation of the St. Croix and Lake Superior Railroad Company. Soon, there were suggestions that Barstow had used bribes to facilitate the exchanges between this company and the Milwaukee Railroad Company. Barstow also threatened to veto any legislation seeking to investigate the handling of land grants by the Fox-Wisconsin River Improvement Company, in which he owned stock. The state treasurer's account showed a mysterious loss of $40,000.
One Madison printer gave Barstow's enemies a catchphrase when a letter he wrote went public. The printer was keen on securing a state printing grant, even if he had to "buy up Barstow and the balance." Barstow was thought to be cozy with lobbyists and conspiring officials in corrupt deals, and "Barstow and the balance" soon became their nickname among the opposition parties. The group was also referred to as "the forty thieves," operating out of a headquarters known as "Monk's Hall."
Once again, Barstow escaped any formal charges but was weighed down heavily by the corruption accusations when his re-election bid came up in 1855. His main opponent was Coles Bashford, running on the newly formed Republican Party's ticket. Bashford's campaign eagerly sought to capitalize on Barstow's suspected corruption, portraying the GOP candidate as a reformer. But when the votes were tallied, Barstow had retained his office by the narrowest of margins. Out of 72,598 ballots, the governor had won re-election by 157 votes.
The Republicans did not believe the results for a minute. The State Board of Canvassers, charged with counting the votes and determining the winners, was controlled by the Democrats. At his inauguration in January of 1856, Barstow staged an ostentatious claim to the office. He packed the state senate with about 2,000 supporters, brought seven militia companies to secure the state capitol, and had the canvassers read a statement supporting the election results. He was sworn in by a state supreme court justice.
On the same day, Bashford staged his own quiet inauguration ceremony at the state supreme court. Taking along his own supporting militia units, he took the oath of office from the court's chief justice. Wisconsin now technically had two governors.
Three days later, Bashford demanded Barstow's resignation. Barstow refused, his reply implying that he wouldn't be above using armed force if anyone attempted to oust him from office. He also argued that the state supreme court did not have jurisdiction in the matter since it was a political issue. The court replied that it was within its duties to resolve legal issues, even those involving the executive branch. The justices launched their own investigation to determine whether there were any irregularities.
On March 20, the inquiry concluded that the canvassers had doctored the ballots enough to sway the result. One town of only 200 people had recorded 612 votes. Northern townships where no one lived had somehow sent in votes to be tabulated. Several Barstow votes from outlying districts were written on paper that was only available in the state capitol. In some areas where the populace leaned toward Bashford, the polls were never opened or votes were left uncounted. The court ruled that Bashford was the rightful winner and that Barstow should be ousted from office; it was the first such court decision on an election in the United States.
The drama was not quite over. Rather than hand over the office to his rival, Barstow resigned the day after the court's decision. This action turned the governorship over to Arthur McArthur. McArthur, the grandfather of World War II general Douglas McArthur, became the shortest serving Wisconsin governor by spending only four days in office. The state was still sharply divided enough that one of McArthur's few actions while governor was an order to remove the arms and ammunition stored at the capitol building to avoid any violence.
The impasse finally ended when Bashford, tired of waiting for McArthur to cede the title to him, entered the governor's office with a group of burly supporters. His attorney, Timothy O. Howe, advised him to hang up his coat and begin his duties. Howe advised Bashford not to "lay violent hands on so distinguished a man as Governor McArthur," but the show of intimidation was enough to concern McArthur. When he asked if Bashford would use force to compel his exit, Bashford replied, "I presume no force will be necessary, but in case any be needed, there will be no hesitation whatever, with the sheriff's help, in applying it." McArthur quickly left the capitol to the jeers and taunts of Bashford's supporters. Bashford took the formal oath of office on March 27.
Any hope that Bashford's term would be cleaner than Barstow's was soon disappointed. Bashford was also accused of corruption while in office, including the mishandling of land grants and evidence that he accepted a $50,000 bribe. But like Barstow, he was able to serve out his term without facing criminal charges.
Barstow, meanwhile, moved to Janesville to set up a bank before returning to the milling business. He remained there until 1861, when he committed to the Union cause of the Civil War. He mustered the Third Wisconsin Cavalry and became a colonel in the regiment. He was made a provost marshal-general upon their arrival in Kansas in June of 1862. The regiment was active in fighting Confederate raids from the Indian Territory and also participated in the Battle of Honey Springs, which helped break Confederate strength in the region.
Barstow did not see action in this fight, since poor health forced him to leave the field in February of 1863. He served on a court-martial board in St. Louis and was discharged in March of 1865, brevetted as a brigadier general of volunteers. He had less than a year to live at this point, settling down in Leavenworth, Kansas, before his death on December 14, 1865.
Sources: National Governors Association, The Wisconsin Historical Society, House Divided: The Civil War Research Engine at Dickinson College, "It'll Be Hard to Top Past Inaugurations" in the Milwaukee Journal on Jan. 1 1961, "Governors Add Up to Two Totals" in the Milwaukee Sentinel on Nov. 28 1986, "3 Governors Held Office Within Weeks" in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Dec. 10 1998, The Military History of Wisconsin by Wisconsin Biographical Directory edited by Caryn Hannan, State of Wisconsin Blue Book, 1993-1994, Political Corruption in America: An Encyclopedia of Scandals, Power, and Greed by Mark Grossman, The Almanac of Political Corruption, Scandals & Dirty Politics by Kim Long, The Wisconsin State Constitution by Jack Stark, Political Abolitionism in Wisconsin, 1840-1861 by Michael J. McManus, Forgotten Tales of Wisconsin by Martin Hintz