Many elections have been accused of being the dirtiest and most negative in state history, but none can top the disaster of the 1872 election, which tore the state apart.
By the early 1870s, Reconstruction had left the state deeply in debt, mired in a swamp of corrupt officials, and as bitterly divided as any point since the Civil War.
The Radical Reconstruction governments had alienated most of the state, and they realized that their days would be numbered.
Elisha Baxter, a North Carolina native, businessman, and one-time mayor of Batesville, captured the 1872 Republican nomination for governor. However, the party split down the middle, and Joseph Brooks, a Methodist minister and Ohio native, seized control of the remaining half, called the “Brindletails” because of Brooks’s booming voice.
The Democratic Party did not nominate a candidate, but Brooks won the endorsement of Democrats with his platform of “universal suffrage, universal amnesty, and honest men in office,” which played well to Confederate veterans still attempting to regain the right to vote since the Civil War and a population disgusted with the ever-increasing reports of politicians on the take. Brooks’s record as a pre-war abolitionist attracted African-American voters as well.
Baxter’s faction, the Minstrels, controlled most of the county courthouses across the state and could appoint most of the voter registrars. Suddenly, men who had been registered for years found themselves kicked off the voter rolls.
As the campaign continued, insults were hurled back and forth and rallies tried to dredge up whatever support could be found. In August, the Mississippi County voter registrar shot and killed the sheriff in a heated argument after he accused the sheriff of embezzlement. This sparked more factional violence in the area in which at least two more people were killed.
Election Day was filled with reports of fistfights at polling places and guns pulled on voters. After the election, the situation grew even worse.
The Arkansas State Gazette initially reported a victory for Brooks’s Reform Republicans from official county reports in November. However, voting judges had moved in to disqualify ballots and “discover” new ones.
Observers in Searcy County reported 400 names being struck from the voter rolls after the election. In Hempstead County, a report surfaced of 240 names being struck down and another 100 friendly to Baxter added afterward. More than 150 votes were erased in Ashley County.
On Dec. 5, the Arkansas State Gazette reported the new “official” results, showing severely lopsided results that made no geographic or political sense.
Perry County, for example, reported 167 votes for Baxter and just 9 for Brooks. Saline County showed 9 votes for Baxter and 745 votes for Brooks. Benton, Marion and Cross counties all voted more than 5:1 for Brooks while Chicot and Crittenden counties both voted more than 6:1 for Baxter.
Four counties were left off the official tally altogether. The new results gave Baxter a win with 52 percent of the vote.
Baxter took office, but the voting was so corrupt that the state’s six electoral votes were rejected when Congress tabulated the presidential results in February 1873. Brooks took his case to court and to the state attorney general, both of whom ignored his plea.
He also appealed to President Ulysses S. Grant to have him named the rightful governor of the state. Grant ignored him, but the political situation in Arkansas would grow increasingly violent and erupt into all-out gunfights in the streets of Little Rock, settled only by federal troops occupying the city.
By 1874, the people of Arkansas rejected both factions and moved to form a new state government with a new constitution. The Constitution of 1874 is still in use today, and neither Minstrels nor Brindletails would ever hold office in Arkansas again.
And to this day, no one is sure who actually won the 1872 election.
Dr. Ken Bridges is a professor of history and geography at South Arkansas Community College in El Dorado where he lives with his wife and six children. He is also resident historian for the South Arkansas Historical Preservation Society, based in El Dorado. Bridges can be reached by email at email@example.com.