Election Night—1885


Nobody in Bloomfield slept a wink the night Cleveland was elected president the first time. The old Senate Saloon across the street from the Central National Bank was blazing with lights and every man in town – except the preachers – was rushing between the two places, first to get the returns and then to get a drink. Of course, all the women folk had gone home and to bed except Flo Atkins and the little blondine-headed milliner, who were considered a little “fly”, both of them. It was whispered around that they both smoked cigarettes but nobody ever actually saw them, although, one night, Irv Sellars slipped around to the back of the “Millinery Emporium” and tried to peep through the curtains into the room where Flo and the milliner lady slept. All he saw, though, was her and Flo in wrappers with their hair rolled up on kid curlers and cold cream on their faces, going through a lot of exercises.

Well, anyway, Flo and the little milliner sat out in the lobby of the bank, election night, just as bold as brass, until way after midnight. Some of the other women said, next day, that they were going to be asked to resign from the missionary society. But there wasn’t anybody who had nerve enough to suggest it; so they kept right on going to missionary meetings, church, Sunday school, and prayer meetings until the milliner went to Kansas City and Flo married old Sam Mitchell. Sam lived out on the edge of town and had buried two wives and had a house full of unruly brats.

I guess one reason I remember so distinctly the night Cleveland was elected was because that night was the first time I ever saw anybody die and the only time in my life I ever saw a man die in a saloon. Although there were only five thousand inhabitants in Bloomfield there were eight saloons on Main Street, two in each block. And on cold winter nights, all the light and warmth and cheer in town seemed to gush out of the swinging door when some man going in or coming out would push it open. There wasn’t much else in Bloomfield for a boy to do if he didn’t go to the saloons; there were a few nice girls and you could send a note to one of them in the afternoon, asking if you could call that evening and then, about eight o’clock, dressed in your best, you would ring the door bell and be ushered into the sitting-room and shake hands with the old man and the old lady. Then the little kids would snicker at you and make faces behind your back and you and the girl would go into the library across the hall from the sitting-room and pop corn or make fudge in her little chafing-dish or, if she could play the piano, she would play and you both would sing “Ta-ra-ra-ra-boom-de-ay”, “Tell Me One Thing, Tell Me Truly”, and “Daisies Don’t Tell”, or maybe, if there was another couple, the four of you would play five hundred or euchre. Unless a fellow was stuck on a girl, though, that kind of thing got pretty tiresome, and many and many a boy entered in at the swinging door of a saloon just to look around and had to be carried home at two or three o’clock in the morning, dead drunk. There had been lots of whiskey deaths in Bloomfield. There was poor Bill Steel, who staggered home from the saloon one winter night and fell onto the picket fence around his yard, his head between two pickets and him so drunk that he couldn’t raise up; so he just laid there until he choked to death and they found him next morning.

One-Eye Stewart, who could drink more liquor and still not fall down, sure had a sad death and whiskey was responsible for it too. He had made a coupla hundred dollars in a poker game and was staying for a few days at the Rolfe House in Bloomfield and one night decided that he would take a bath; he must have been pretty drunk or he never would have thought about taking a bath. In those days there weren’t any such things as private baths, but at the Rolfe House there was a sort of a closet at the end of each hall where there was a tin bath-tub. So the night that One-Eye thought he would take a bath, he put on his old tan rain-coat over his underclothes, stuck a towel and a wash-rag and cake of soap under his arm and went into the bath-room and locked the door. Old man Rolfe always went around the halls along about midnight to see that everything was all right and when he got to the bathroom on the third floor, he heard water running but didn’t think nothing of it and went on to bed.
But about three o’clock in the morning old lady Miller come screeching down the stairs to say that the plastering in her room on second was all falling. Bus Howard who worked around the Rolfe House as porter told me that the old lady certainly was a sight, with her feet in purple knitted bedroom slippers and her hair done up on curl papers. Well, old man Rolfe and Bus and one or two bums that was hangin’ round the red-hot base-burner in the hotel office, all ran upstairs and sure enough, through the key-hole of the bathroom door, they could see the floor all swimmin’ in water and no sign of poor old One-Eye. They took a chair and busted the door in and there he was, drowned in the tub! Poor old One-Eye! I’ve often thought since how sad it must have been to him that had come through so many drunks and so many fights, to meet his death in a bath-tub. One-Eye was drowned the February after Cleveland was elected; I guess it was a good thing it didn’t happen that night of election for that would have been just too much excitement for Bloomfield and there was plenty as it was.

When it was sure that Cleveland had got in, old Judge Findlay, with his long, white beard streaming down his front till he looked like the picture of the prophet Isaiah in the Sunday school paper, stood up on the steps of the Central National Bank and his voice boomed out: “Grover Cleveland has just been elected president of the United States.” The town went wild! Everybody cheered – oh, that is, except about twenty Republicans on the outskirts of the crowd who just stood there, looking pretty sick. Then Shad Hudson, on a prancing white horse, the black cape he always wore thrown back to show its red lining and with a blazing flambeau torch in his hand, led the torchlight procession up Main Street and back to the front of the Senate Saloon for one last drink before they went home to snatch a few hours’ sleep before business hours.

It was after the men had all gotten off their horses and gone into the Senate that I saw the first man die that I ever saw. It was old Colonel Wilson. He had been in Congress for two terms away back before anybody could remember and it had gone to his head, I guess, for although he was a lawyer and was plenty smart, he only tried a case now and then, and one day I heard him say, “Every time I collect a quarter, I have a hard time deciding whether to divide it among my creditors or buy a drink with it.” Usually he wound up by buying a drink with it, for he was what was known in those days as a “steady drinker”. What that really meant was that he’d drink any time he had the price or any time anybody would “set ’em up” to him. Well, election night Zeke Bailey, who had been promised the post office in Bloomfield if Cleveland was elected, was feelin’ awful good and was treatin’ everybody around the bar to drinks. I was just a boy then – just turned sixteen and it was the first time in my life I had ever stayed out later than midnight. Maw knew she couldn’t keep me from staying out election night; so she didn’t even try.

There was a brass foot-rail running round the bar in the Senate Saloon and Colonel Wilson was standing with one foot on it and his elbows on the “mahogany”, as the place they served the drinks off of, was called. He had had about ten drinks and was feelin’ pretty groggy. The saloon was full of men and boys millin’ around in all stages of “intoxication,” as the travelling temperance lecturer who came through Bloom- field every spring used to call it – just like that, “In-Tox-I-Ca-Tion” – and the very men who were the hardest drinkers would wipe their eyes when she went on to describe the poor widows and children of drunkards and how they suffered. Some of the men in the saloon were leanin’ on the bar like Colonel Wilson, some sittin’ in the chairs, and spittin’ in the sawdust on the floor and some leanin’ against the walls. Everything was quiet for a minute and then Colonel Wilson slid down kinder slow-like, hitting his head an awful crack against the brass foot-rail.

Everybody there was dazed for a minute and nobody even moved till the bartender, Newt Fray, with his white apron still tied around his waist, rushed out from behind the bar and turned him over. Then, Dr. Hunt came over, unbuttoned his vest, listened at his heart, or rather at the place where his heart ought to be beating, then shook his head, kinder quiet-like and almost whispered, “Well, boys, he’s gone!” and everything got so still, you could have heard a pin drop.

They roused up the Methodist preacher – that was Mrs. Wilson’s church. She was a most awful religious woman. Why, the winter before, when the protracted meeting was going on at the Methodist church, they said she used to pray all night long some nights for the conversion of her husband and some of the other sinners. I sure did feel sorry for the Methodist minister when he had to go break the news to her. She already had four children, pale, little scared things, and she was not “going out” again when Cleveland was elected for the first time. They said, though, that she was awful quiet when they told her Colonel Wilson was dead. All she said was, “The angels called him and he heard them and followed.” She was mistaken about that, though; I was right there and saw the whole thing. He was groggy with drink and his foot slipped and he fell and cracked his skull on the brass foot-rail. The angels didn’t call him.