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.

Other imaginative efforts to propitiate Lady Luck have included a pledge to read 121 consecutive issues of the editorial page of the New York Tribune , a form of punishment that the rival Times denounced as inhumane. In the Cleveland-Blaine contest of 1884, the year in which the leading orator of the Gilded Age, Colonel Robert G. Ingersoll, eulogized James G. Blaine as a “plumed knight,” a Blaine stalwart, having lost his bet, was required to get into a suit of armor, don a helmet, put on a shirt of chain mail, and wear a plume for thirty days. It was a tough year for knights.

To return to more recent times, a Chicago man found after the quadrennial fever subsided on November 4, 1948, that he had to shine his brother’s shoes every Sunday morning for six months. Furthermore, the penitential act had to be performed in public, at Milwaukee and Damen avenues, under a sign that announced: “I voted for Dewey.”

There have been a good many walkers. The first was Edward Payson Weston, who walked so well that he turned professional. Weston agreed to walk from the State House in Boston to the Capitol in Washington in ten consecutive days if Stephen A. Douglas lost to Abraham Lincoln. This he did on November 6, 1860. Under the terms of the bet “Payse” Weston had to start out on February 22, 1861, and make it to the Capitol in time for Lincoln’s inauguration. The walker touched the cornerstone of the building in the late afternoon of March 4, a few hours after the ceremony. Even so, the stunt was so remarkable that the next day the Evening Star paid more attention to Weston’s movements than it did to Lincoln’s.

One offbeat wager accomplished an astonishing amount of practical good. It took place in 1864 in the rough mining camp of Austin, Nevada. The occasion was the choice of a mayor. The election had, however, a larger significance because of the tensions of the Civil War. Reuel Gridley, the town grocer, backed a Southern Democrat’s candidacy with a sack of flour. “If I lose,” he said, “I’ll carry the sack a mile to Clifton and back again to the tune of ‘John Brown’s Body.’ And if you lose,” Gridley told Dr. Herrick, who voted Republican, “you carry it to the tune of ‘Dixie.’ ”

The Republican candidate won, and Gridley fulfilled his pledge, accompanied by thirty-six men on horseback, the town fathers, and a brass band. Later, at a local saloon, the idea was hatched of auctioning the sack of flour for the benefit of the sick and wounded soldiers of the Union Army. The auction was held, producing over five thousand dollars in mining stock, town lots, and cash. It was followed by similar vendues all over Washoe County. The sack of flour was carried triumphantly to Sacramento and San Francisco and finally reached New York, earning a total of $275,000 for the Sanitary Commission. The original flour bag, neatly repaired, still exists among the treasured artifacts of the Nevada Historical Society.

Major Poore certainly started something, for unless tradition fails, political flagellation will again crop up in the news after November, 1972, including, no doubt, wheelbarrow pushing. “One may have a hope, a belief, or an opinion,” Francis Bacon, the Lord Chancellor of England, wrote in the seventeenth century, “but unless he bets he can have no certainty.” Bacon, alas, raised false hopes, since there must always be a loser for every winner.