Monday, October 20, 2008

1888's October Surprise

On October 21, 1888, readers of The Los Angeles Times learned some startling news.

The British minister to the United States, Lionel Sackville-West, had shared some favorable opinions about the Cleveland administration and its policy toward Great Britain with a correspondent who identified himself as a U.S. citizen of English descent named Charles F. Murchison.

Then, as now, it was considered highly inappropriate for a foreign diplomat to choose sides in a presidential election. When the diplomat in question was British – representing a country viewed with hostility and suspicion by a wide range of voters, particularly those of Irish ancestry – such sentiments threatened to turn the political landscape upside down.

Making matters worse for the hapless Sackville-West, the letter was a fraud. Its author was not "Murchison" but a Republican farmer from Pomona, Calif., named George Osgoodby.

The “Murchison letter” purported to seek Sackville-West’s guidance on how to vote in the upcoming election in a way that would support British interests. Sackville-West's reply started off well, advising his correspondent that in the heat of an election campaign it is difficult to assess the real policy of any party or presidential candidate regarding Britain.

Then he went too far. Sackville-West confided his belief that the Democratic Cleveland administration, “the party in power,” remained “desirous of maintaining friendly relations with Great Britain.”

That assertion was widely regarded as an endorsement by the British government’s representative in Washington of Cleveland’s reelection campaign against Republican Benjamin Harrison.

Col. Harrison Otis, the “swashbuckling and vehemently partisan” Republican proprietor of the Times, arranged to publish the correspondence with only two weeks left in the campaign – and it triggered a political explosion that dominated the campaign’s final weeks.

Secretary of State Thomas Francis Bayard Sr., tried to put as much distance between the administration and the letter as possible. “Lord Sackville,” Bayard told the New York Times, “has no other or better means of knowledge of the intentions of the President than any one of the 65,000,000 of American people.”

But he intimated that he recognized the damage caused by the correspondence. “It is still to be hoped that we will be able to settle the issues involved in the pending canvass without the importation of foreign interference or intermeddling in our domestic affairs,” Bayard said. “The American people will be prompt to resent and repel as impertinent any such attempts.”

Sackville-West’s uninvited endorsement of Cleveland carried a certain irony. The rotund former governor of New York had narrowly defeated Republican James G. Blaine in 1884, in part due to the assertion by a Republican minister, Samuel D. Burchard, that the Democrats were the party of “rum, Romanism and rebellion.”

Sen. Dwight Sabin characterized the dilemma posed to Democrats by the Murchison correspondence as a no-win situation. “It looks to me very much like the fellow who concluded that one road led to destruction and the other to damnation. Consequently he would take to the woods,” the Minnesota Republican observed on Oct. 29. “I see no course open for the administration in this case but to take to the woods.”

In a manner of speaking, that’s exactly what happened. Although Cleveland actually won the popular vote by a narrow margin, Harrison ran up a comfortable margin in the Electoral College and went to the White House. New York, which Cleveland carried four years earlier with the help of Burchard’s impolitic comments, went for Harrison this time.

“The Sackville-West letter was evidently a great blunder,” Sabin predicted, “and it is likely to prove the Burchard of the Democratic Party.”


Andrews, Benjamin E. History of the United States, Vol. 5. 2007, Gutenberg Ebook, No. 227777.

The Los Angeles Times, Aug. 13, 2000, p. B3

The New York Times, Oct. 26, 1888, p. 1; Jan. 1, 1889, p. 1

The Washington Post, Oct. 31, 1888, p. 4

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