Sunday, April 25, 2010

John W. Hunter: giving the lie

Image from National Magazine

The first scandal to put John Ward Hunter's name down in newsprint involved a much more serious charge than the blemish his brief congressional career would later receive. In 1864, he was charged with forging checks during his duties at the United States Custom House in New York City, where he had been employed for over 30 years. Upon looking through a bundle of checks received by the Custom House, an assistant auditor had caught a couple of suspicious ones, one for $4,200 and another for $5,600. Both checks had been presented to assistant treasurer John J. Cisco but not paid over; the checks also bore the signature of Hunter, then serving as assistant auditor.

The case went to trial in April. Cisco was the star witness for the prosecution, saying the handwriting on the checks was a perfect match for Hunter; he testified that the assistant auditor wrote with certain peculiarities that he had not seen replicated anywhere else. Hunter's bank accounts had also shown a recent increase through large cash deposits. "The defense might bring all the world here with speaking trumpets to swear that Hunter was an angel, but it would all turn finally upon the question of his signature," the New York Times summarized in an account of a cross-examination where Cisco was essentially asked if Hunter was a decent person. "It was agreed that the prosecution should concede that Mr. Hunter had always borne a good character."

The defense lawyer proved masterful enough that Hunter's character was not his primary argument in the case. Instead, he focused on Cisco's steadfast testimony that the signatures on the checks belonged to Hunter. A stockbroker and photography analyst both testified that the signatures themselves were forged. The latter witness was especially compelling, as he compared prints of a genuine signature and the ones on the checks. Under magnification, the characteristics on the check suggested that the signature had been constructed from multiple pen strokes rather than a natural flow. A bookkeeper in the Custom House was also able to forge an impressive copy of Cisco's signature; the imitation put the assistant treasurer's recognition skills into question, as he was forced to admit that the forgery looked identical to his own.

The prosecution's case crumbled under further arguments by the defense. The defense explained the cash deposits as a result of many years of savings on his wife's part, combined with Hunter's duties as the executor of an estate. They also questioned why investigators had not taken a serious look at other men in the Customs House who would have had access to Hunter's signature. Cisco was accused of putting pressure on District Attorney E.D. Smith to issue a warrant of arrest for Hunter, and Smith took the stand himself to confirm that he acted on urgent requests from Cisco. Hunter himself testified very briefly. When asked if he wrote the two signatures, he replied, "I never did, nor did I ever see them before the day of the discovery." He answered only one other question, saying he did not know who wrote the signatures.

Immediately after Hunter's testimony, Smith asked for Hunter to be found innocent. He asked for reparations to be paid to him "for the wrong that has been done to him." Cisco also softened in his opinion on the matter. Three months after the trial, he wrote an apology to Hunter and included a check covering the assistant auditor's legal expenses. "Not a doubt rests on my mind of your entire innocence, and I deeply regret the erroneous theory on which I acted," said Cisco. "It was a serious mistake, which I regret should have been made."

Hunter was born in Bedford (now part of Brooklyn) in New York in October of 1807. After his school days, he began working as a clerk in a wholesale grocery store in 1824. From there, he made the switch to banking work and his long career with the U.S. Custom House. He started out as a clerk in 1831, and five years later he was appointed assistant auditor. He only stayed on for about a year after his success in the trial, then resigned to take a position as treasurer of the Dime Savings Bank in Brooklyn.

By some accounts, Hunter first entered the House of Representatives in 1864. However, these seem to be mistaken, as contemporary newspapers fail to mention such an election result. More likely, he first came to Congress following the death of Republican Representative James Humphrey in June of 1866. Successfully running as a Democrat to fill the vacancy, Hunter did not try to keep the seat in that year's regular election. He only served for a matter of months, from December of 1866 to March of 1867.

Hunter did not make much of a lasting impression during this service, but he did manage to earn a rebuke during a heated debate. On January 26 of 1867, Republican Representative Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania said that he intended to press his Reconstruction bill to a vote on the 28th. By the New York Times account, Stevens didn't sound so enthusiastic about it, since he didn't think the proposition was ready and didn't expect to get much done; he also said only five minutes would be allowed for each congressman to speak on the matter. Other Republican congressmen also suggested that the bill was somewhat unsound, but that they would get behind it. Roscoe Conkling of New York criticized Stevens, claiming he was responsible for delays on the vote because the committee on Reconstruction that Stevens chaired had failed to assemble in time to be productive. James Mitchell Ashley of Ohio supported a final vote on the measure, but admitted that the GOP had not arrived at a conclusive policy. Ashley chaired the Committee on the Territories, and had previously backed a substitute plan they were working on as advocated by the Southern Republican Association; however, he said he figured recommitting the bill to committee would kill it. Stevens added that his measure had passed muster with his committee on Reconstruction, and that the House could vote it down if they so desired.

The discussion on the issue ended up devolving into a racially-charged war of words over the Civil War and the proposed reform measures for the South. Elijah Hise, a Kentucky Democrat, suggested that the Republican Party was in favor of disenfranchising the majority and only favored suffrage for those they deemed loyal, including "Negros and interlopers in the Southern states." John Winthrop Chanler, a Democrat from New York, asked Ashley whether he would recognize a state government if it were based solely on the black vote. After a back-and-forth exchange, in which Chanler suggested that Ashley was reluctant to answer, the Ohio congressman finally proclaimed, "If there is a single state of the American Union in which there is not a loyal man except black men, I would clothe them with the right of franchise and every other right under this government."

Under these provocations, Ashley launched an attack on the more conservative elements of the Republican Party as well as the Democrats in general. He raised the question of whether deposed Confederate president Jefferson Davis and other such rebels would be worthy of sitting in Congress, and accused Republican President Andrew Johnson of being a leader of a negative campaign that was just as injurious as the war. "The assumption, the brazen-faced assumption, of men here, who, during the entire war, were in secret alliance with the rebels, coming here now and joining hands with the apostate at the other end of the avenue [Johnson], who is their leader, the recognized leader of a counter-revolution or negative rebellion, as I said awhile ago, passes comprehension."

Charles Winfield, an outgoing Democratic representative from New York, demanded an explanation for the remark. Ashley clarified that it was something of a blanket denunciation, encompassing draft dodgers, conspirators against the North, and people who had been opposed to further funding or manpower for the war. When further pressed by Winfield, Ashley admitted that he could not indict specific members of the House with these accusations, but supposed by their votes that such people might be sitting in the chamber. "I do not propose to be tried on general reputation," Winfield shot back. "I desire to say for myself, and so far as I know for my associates on this floor of my own school of politics, that the insinuation that we are or ever have been in alliance with the rebels is utterly untrue, and if intended to apply to us it is a base and unfounded slander."

At that point, Hunter chimed in, "And I say that, so far as I am concerned, it is a base lie."

Schuyler Colfax, an Indiana Republican and Speaker of the House, chided Hunter for speaking out of order. Hunter was backed up by Samuel Jackson Randall, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, who also spoke out of turn to say that Hunter's statement was truthful even if it didn't abide by the House rules. Ralph Hill, an outgoing Indiana Republican, took a different opinion. He immediately made a motion to censure Hunter because he "transgressed the order of this body."

Most of the representatives didn't care about the squabble. A vote to table Hill's resolution failed with 75 opposed and 32 in favor, but 84 congressmen didn't even participate. The discussion on the censure resolution dissolved into another scene of bedlam. Francis Celeste Le Blond, an Ohio Democrat, suggested that Ashley's statements were far worse than Hunter's passing remark. "When you come down to the debate today in which my colleague participated, using the language which has been just read from the Speaker's desk, I ask the gentlemen what more offensive language could be used to any man who was an American citizen and willing to abide by the laws and the Constitution of his government," Le Blond concluded. The argument brought applause from the galleries, and Schuyler promptly scolded the spectators. When William Elias Niblack, an Indiana Democrat, muttered that the applause was on the Democratic side, Schuyler took offense. Apparently thinking that Niblack was hinting that he only tried to quell the applause supporting the Democrats, Schuyler said he had always asked the galleries to be decorous and threatened to have the spectators removed if they did not quiet down. Niblack apologized, saying the remark was meant to be private and that he did not mean to offend.

In response to Le Blond's suggestion, Hill said the House had allowed similar language to slide in recent debates and that he was getting tired of it. "I thought they had gone far enough; that when we had reached such a point that every day or two we must hear the epithets 'lie' and 'liar' bandied in this House it was time someone should interpose," he said. When Niblack asked if being labeled a traitor was also an example of offensive language, Hill replied that the term could be seen as a compliment depending on the circumstances. Being called a liar, by contrast, was offensive under any circumstances and he wanted the House to make an example to prevent further incidents.

The censure carried 84-34, with 81 congressmen not voting. The tally took place after one representative tried unsuccessfully to be excused, reasoning that he could support neither Hunter's outburst nor Ashley's insinuations. Schuyler delivered the brief punishment: "No deliberative body can preserve its self-respect, or command the respect of its constituents, which tolerates the use of offensive language, condemned by gentlemen everywhere, as well as by parliamentary law. For having transgressed the rules of the House it is resolved that you shall be censured by the Speaker. Having thus declared the censure of the House, you will resume your seat."

Hunter gave a similarly brief address, explaining that he meant no disrespect to the House and spoke in a "moment of irritation at a false charge." Hill was satisfied enough with his contrition that he asked for the censure proceedings to be stricken from the record, but other representatives objected. One was Ashley, who got in the last word by essentially reiterating his earlier argument and delivering his own rebuke to Hunter. He said that men often speak on the spur of the moment in a heated debate, but that he had not been called to order himself during any of his eight years in the House; Ashley added that he had not meant any offense either, but in clarifying his list of Union enemies he gave the same categories, complete with the Congress-encompassing qualifier "here or elsewhere."

The New York Times reported that Republicans "generally voted for the resolution, yet Hunter had the sympathy of many of them who considered the language of Mr. Ashley totally uncalled for, and though, according to the ruling of the chair heretofore, not strictly out of order, yet as great a violation of the dignity and the decency of the debate as was Mr. Hunter's impulsive remark." The newspaper added that the debate "furnished an unusual amount of interest to the galleries, which were well filled in anticipation of a debate on the Reconstruction question."

After leaving Congress, Hunter made an unsuccessful bid for state assembly and served on the Board of Education. He was nominated for the postmaster's position in Brooklyn, but not confirmed by the Senate. Then in 1873, Hunter won the race for Brooklyn mayor, serving from 1874 to 1875. He apparently lost this job after crossing Democratic party boss Hugh McLaughlin by refusing to appoint a certain water commissioner. The Bankers' Magazine reported that he was instrumental in supporting the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge while in office, and he became a stockholder in the endeavor. In 1886, former commissioner of the Brooklyn public works Thomas W. Adams sued Hunter for $10,000, saying Hunter had publicly accused him while mayor of allowing fraud and corrupt contracts; the outcome of the suit was not reported.

Hunter left politics in favor of a return to his work as treasurer of the Dime Savings Bank. National Magazine claimed that it is "to his financial skill and his reputation for unswerving integrity, much of the success of that bank is due." He became the bank's director as well as the director of a trust company and two insurance firms. In his spare time, Hunter was active in the Old Brooklynites and the Tree Planting and Fountain Society. He suffered a series of personal tragedies in 1881. Three of his children died over the course of a four-month period, including a naval lieutenant who died of poor health and a commission merchant who killed himself in a park in Fall River, Massachusetts. When Hunter died in Brooklyn in April of 1900, he was survived by only one child (a daughter) as well as five granddaughters.

Sources: The Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, "The Custom-House Forgeries Cross-Examination of John J. Cisco" in the New York Times on Apr. 12 1864, "The Custom-House Forgeries" in the New York Times on Apr. 14 1864, "The Sub-Treasury Forgeries" in the New York Times on Apr. 21 1864, "Conclusion Of The Hunter Case" in the New York Times on Apr. 24 1864, "Close Of The Hunter Case" in the New York Times on Apr. 25 1864, "Vindication Of Assistant Auditor J.W. Hunter" in the New York Times on Sep. 24 1864, "Excitement In The House" in the New York Times on Jan. 27 1867, "Thirty-Ninth Congress, Second Session" in the New York Times on Jan. 27 1867, "Review Of The Week" in the Lewiston Evening Journal on Jan. 30 1867, "Brooklyn City Government For 1874" in the New York Timeson Jan. 1 1874, "Suicide Of Mr. W.A. Hunter" in the New York Times on Mar. 25 1881, "Death Of Lieut. Hunter, U.S.N." in the New York Times on Jul. 19 1881, "Thinks His Character Defamed" in the New York Times on Mar. 4 1886, "John W. Hunter Dead" in the New York Times on Apr. 18 1900, National Magazine: A Monthly Journal of American History Volume 19, Bankers' Magazine Volume 60, The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge by David G. McCullough, Record of an Examination Under a Warrant by Kenneth G. White, Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States Being the Session of the Thirty-Ninth Congress, Record of an Examination Under a Warrant by Kenneth G. White, The Congressional Globe Volume 58 Part 2

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