The Melancholy Fate Of The Loser

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It isn’t every day that one can see a man pushing a peanut with his nose along the main street of an American town. But it is not an impossible sight, either, especially when election wagers are being settled after what ex-President Truman has called our “four-yearly spasm.” Sometimes the penance is performed with an orange or golf ball. Or the loser transports the winner over an agreed-upon route in a baby carriage or handcart. Losers have gamely walked barefoot, been rotten-egged, eaten crow—literally—for their fallible political judgment. But the long-time favorite of all zany arrangements of this sort requires a wheelbarrow. Meet, then, the man who started it all, Major Ben: Perley Poore (that’s the way he wrote his name), who introduced wheelbarrow trundling into the Presidential canvass shortly before the Civil War. More blithe spirit than party zealot, Poore was a Massachusetts militia officer, a jovial companion, and a successful journalist in Washington, and sometimes called the first American political columnist. During a visit to his ancestral home at West Newbury, Massachusetts, in June, 1856, Major Poore vowed that exPresident Millard Fillmore would beat John C. Frémont in the Republican primaries of his home state. His friend Robert I. Burbank, lawyer, state senator, and colonel of the ist Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteer Militia, held the opposite opinion, and a wager was arranged. The terms: the loser would present a barrel of apples to the winner and personally propel the barrel in a wheelbarrow from his own home to the residence of the winner.

 
 
 
 

In the November election Fillmore ran poorly, polling less than 20,000 votes to Frémont’s 100,000plus. Major Poore immediately prepared to pay up. Burbank lived at the swanky Tremont House in Boston, the first “palace” hotel in the United States. It was thirty-six-anda-quarter miles from Major Poore’s “Indian Hill” estate. Colonel Burbank offered to release the major from his bet, ending a gracious note to that effect with “Yours, for Frémont, Freedom and the rise of real estate in Kansas.” Poore refused the soft option, signing himself in reply, “Yours for Fillmore and the Constitution,” and appending two postscripts: “I shall be very dry when I get to the Tremont House” and “Kansas be d———d.”

Harnessed to his one-wheeler by a strap crossed over his shoulders, Major Poore pushed the 185-pound load of King apples, fall sweet apples, and quinces to Boston in a little more than two working, or walking, days. At the Charlestown bridge the major, shoulders blackened by his straps and hands blistered by the wheelbarrow handles, his own weight down by twelve pounds, was met by an enthusiastic body of Fillmore admirers, the Boston Cornet Band, the Independent Fusiliers, and two daguerreotypists. Major Poore marched in the middle of the procession, his wheelbarrow decorated with the American flag and a banner bearing the legend “Maj. Poore—may the next administration prove as faithful to their pledges as he was to his.”

A cheering crowd filled State, Court, and Washington streets. When the cortege reached the hotel, the barrel was upended under the portico. Standing on the impromptu platform, Colonel Burbank saluted Major Poore as a noble pioneer: “You have had the fortune to introduce in political tactics a new method of wheeling ,” and declared the wheelbarrow was “already … a chariot of Fame.” The two patriots then entered the parlors of the Tremont House, and the colonel asked the major what he would take to cure his dryness.

Ever since this exploit, the wheelbarrow has been the principal vehicle for bizarre wagers on the Presidency. In 1892, for instance, happy Democrats in New York’s Fourth Ward gathered for a victory celebration at Sulzer’s oasis on Henry Street to see Charles W. Ahearn, who did not believe that Grover Cleveland could be elected, pay for his error. Wearing a tall “grandfather’s” hat swathed in the American flag, Ahearn conveyed Timothy P. Bourke past the newspaper offices that then lined Park Row. In a wheelbarrow, of course. Bourke held a flag in each hand and reclined upon two luxurious pillows.

Whimsical costumes are generally added to the central concept of the wheelbarrow. Kansans seem to have a special gift for developing this extra twist. Charles Nichols put on bright red underwear in 1936 when he wheeled two winners through the business district of Independence, while Charles Taylor, then director of the state Chamber of Commerce, gave a prominent businessman of Liberal, Kansas, a free ride, pushing the conveyance while clad in a woman’s housedress and slippers.