Friday, September 23, 2016

Dirty Campaigns

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published by the Exeter News-Letter on September 23, 2016.

Every four years we endure the onslaught of presidential campaigns, and every four years we declare this one to be the worst ever. The candidates are the worst ever. Politics has never been so bad. The only people not convinced of this are historians – because we see the long view. As crazy as recent decades have been, previous ones have also been crazy. It might be best to stop reading or listening to any political commentary that purports to label this election as insanely unique unless it includes the modifier “in our lifetime.” Unless one of our modern candidates publicly accuses the other of cannibalism, they aren’t even coming close to our great-grandfather’s campaigns.

In the collections of the Exeter Historical Society there is a folder of political campaign ephemera from bygone years. There are handbills and posters that were used to remind voters (and here, remember, read “Men”) of their civic duty. Also in the stack was a scary looking broadside with the title “A Brief Account of the EXECUTION of the Six Militia Men” illustrated with six stark coffins. With all the appeal of a Halloween decoration, this document had no explanation in our records. Turns out, it was part of one of the most notorious elections of all time – the election of 1828. Frequently called the dirtiest campaign, it was described by New York Magazine in 2012 as “The Tsunami of Slime Circa 1828.” The existence of a coffin handbill in Exeter proves that we participated. Why all the animus? We really need to start in 1824.

The campaign of 1824 was fierce, but relatively polite. There were four candidates running in the general election. John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, William Crawford and Andrew Jackson – the hero of the Battle of New Orleans and Senator from Tennessee. Jackson won both the popular vote and the electoral count, but with no candidate receiving a majority of electoral votes the election was thrown to the House of Representatives. Jackson thought he had it in the bag. But after the fourth-place candidate Henry Clay was tossed off the ballot, he threw his support to Adams, who then rewarded Clay with the position of Secretary of State. Enraged, Jackson and his supporters, the Democratic-Republicans, called it the “corrupt bargain” and vowed to get even.

The Rockingham Gazette, widely read in Exeter, was simply glad the election was over. “Unless the spirit of controversy should subside, this four years’ war will hardly be closed, before another of equal duration and equal inveteracy, will begin.”

Jackson began his 1828 campaign shortly after Adams 1825 inauguration. Allying himself with Martin Van Buren of New York, he began shoring up his support in the north. Adams wasn’t particularly popular, so any mud-slinging that came his way tended to stick. He was accused of acting as a pimp to Tsar Alexander I during his time in Russia. His patrician values were played up to an electorate that was suspicious of the eastern merchant class. Jackson had tremendous appeal to the rural population. He was, after all, a war hero. His frequent duels and impetuous temperament were lambasted in the press by Adams supporters, but it was the publication by John Binns of Philadelphia of the famous ‘coffin handbills’ that would move the campaign to its lowest levels. The copy in the Exeter archives describes the execution of six militiamen during the Creek War. Whether their courts martial were legal or their executions humane, the document starkly describes how they were made to kneel on their coffins as the firing squad carried out the verdict. Jackson had signed the execution orders just after he’d been victorious at the Battle of New Orleans. “His crown of laurels had not yet withered, when blood, the life’s blood of his countrymen, of his fellow soldiers, flowed plentifully by his order,” read the text. “This case is horrible in all its aspects… It is revolting to every feeling of humanity and at war with every acknowledged principle of justice.”

Another of the coffin handbills, not in Exeter’s collections, goes on to relate other Jackson acts of cruelty, including the massacre of Natives in 1814: “these poor wretches were massacred in cold blood, without the least provocation.” After which, he “laid down composedly, and slept upon the field, surrounded by five hundred and seventy dead human carcasses!!!” When morning arrived, “Jackson began again to show his cannibal propensities, by ordering his Bowman to dress a dozen of these Indian bodies for his breakfast, which he devoured without leaving even a fragment.” Jackson was further accused of adultery and his wife of bigamy due to a slight legal kerfluffel forty years earlier. Jackson’s wife, Rachel, had thought herself divorced from her first abusive husband when she married Jackson. The oversight had been quickly corrected, but the mud-slinging accusation gave the impression of Jackson as a complete hick. In reality, he was the wealthiest man in Tennessee with extensive slaveholdings.

Negative campaigning is used, we hear, because it works. It didn’t work, however for John Quincy Adams. New Hampshire supported him, but most of the rest of the country still felt he’d stolen the election of 1824. In that earlier election, the Rockingham Gazette had lamented, “a foreigner, who has traced the progress of the controversy for the last year, through its interminable array of newspapers, hand-bills and pamphlets, could form no other conclusion, than that the people of these States had been seriously discussing the respective merits, and settling the comparative claims to office of gamblers, murderers, swindlers and hang-men.” Add pimps, cannibals and adulterers, and you may just have a perfect assessment of the election of 1828.

Picture: Exeter Historical Society's notorious "coffin handbill" from the archives. Anti-Jackson negative campaign ad from the election of 1828.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Low Bridge, Everybody Down

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published by the Exeter News-Letter on September 9, 2016.
There’s a railroad bridge a mile and a half from Exeter’s downtown. When the Boston and Maine railroad arrived in 1841, the tracks needed to cross Newfields Road to maintain a relatively straight trajectory north towards Dover. We don’t have much information about this original bridge, except that it carried a single track and had substantial abutments to hold it up. Fifty years later, after the railroad had established its dominance in transportation, the Boston and Maine expanded the line to two tracks and the Newfields railroad bridge was too small.

The railroad had supplanted water traffic to town. In earlier days, Exeter’s raw materials and commercial goods travelled up the Squamscott to the wharfs and quays of businesses downtown. The railroad changed the way we moved people and goods. The industrial section of town drifted toward the depot on Lincoln Street. The railroad was king.

Work on the new bridge began in 1892. Not only was it planned to carry double tracks, it would have a wider span across the road. The old roadway was 16 feet wide – enough to accommodate a hay wagon, but not quite wide enough for two hay wagons to pass each other. The Exeter News-Letter was happy to announce, “On Sunday the Newmarket road bridge (as Newfields road was called then) was removed, and in its stead were substituted stringers supported by trestle work. The old abutments can now be taken down, and the work of constructing new be carried on without difficulty. This work was begun last week. Between the old abutments the roadway was but 16 feet in width. The distance between the new will be 26 feet.” While construction was underway, trains roared across the temporary wooden trestle with no lapses in service. “To insure the safety of travelers along the road a man is at all times on duty to lead horses through the bridge. No one should attempt to drive through unaided.” No kidding. To this day there are still people who refuse to drive under the bridge while there’s a train overhead, even though the train is the least of your problems.

Twenty-six feet seems like enough room – even modern trucks are only about eight feet wide. Yet the angle of the abutments turns away from the road in such a way that threading a car through it requires counterintuitive driving skills. More than one new driver in town has smacked the side of the railroad bridge and countless cars in town have the scars to prove it. “I pretty much thought I was going to die,” observed one such novice. Exeter author John Irving famously killed one of the characters in A Prayer for Owen Meany with death by railroad bridge. “There were still some emergency-road-repair cones and unlit flares off the side of the road by the trestle bridge, the abutment of which had been the death of Buzzy Thurston. The accident had made quite a mess of the cornerstones of the bridge, and they’d had to tar the road where Buzzy’s smashed Plymouth had gouged up the surface.” It’s one of those spots locals know enough to navigate with extreme care.

Not mentioned in the bridge upgrade was the height of the bridge. At 11 feet, it probably seemed more than adequate for any type of wagon that might have to pass beneath it. No one anticipated that the David to the railroad’s Goliath would be a weird sputtering horseless machine, just like we never thought the telephone would lead to us having a NASA-sized computer in our back pocket. Ten years after the new bridge was built there were a few wealthy hobbyists in town who drove cars around to the amusement of fellow townspeople. Twenty years later, the first traffic signs were erected. Thirty years later, after the First World War, trucks were hauling goods in and out of town. By the 1940s, trucks were getting larger. The bridge’s 11 foot overhead became a problem during the post-war years.

Today most large trucks are a towering 13 feet 6 inches in height – far too large to make it successfully down the length of Newfields Road in Exeter. Employees at the Exeter Public Works Department, which is located right next to the bridge, have the best view of trucks that underestimate (or perhaps ignore) the multiple warning signs. A sadder but wiser driver will realize the mistake just in time, but with no really good place to turn around, the Exeter police have to assist with traffic while the truck backs its way up to route 101. Those who aren’t paying close attention – or who are cocky enough to think they can make it – wind up peeling the top of the truck off. This has happened often enough that most Exeter residents think it’s a very common problem, although a safety representative of Pan Am Railway, which owns the tracks, say the average is only about once a year. There are more truck peeling accidents in Dover. Professional truckers are skilled and smart enough to avoid Newfields Road and Pan Am says they have never had a big-rig driver crash into the bridge. It’s usually someone with a U-Haul or a substitute driver in a panel truck.

The bridge isn’t enough of a hazard to warrant replacement. Neither the town nor the railroad has ever requested changing the 124 year old structure. Maybe it’s the train’s revenge. Maybe there’s just a hint of diabolical laughter to be heard every time the bridge sheers off the roof of a truck or scrapes the paint from the side of a car. “Show me who’s boss now,” it says.

Photo: The results of a July 2016 attempt by a truck to navigate under the Newfields Road railroad bridge. The photo was taken at the driveway to the Exeter Public Works Department. Jennifer Mates, the town’s assistant engineer observed, “the bridge always wins.”