The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The fake letter historians believe tipped a presidential election

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The letter seemed innocent enough to Sir Lionel Sackville-West.

Dated Sept. 4, 1888, the missive asked Great Britain’s ambassador to Washington for advice about the coming election between President Grover Cleveland and his Republican challenger, Benjamin Harrison. The signature at the bottom: Charles F. Murchison, of Pomona, Calif.

Murchison explained he was a British native and naturalized American who desired to vote for the candidate most likely to support the interests of the British Empire. Cleveland, the letter noted, had been seen as a friend by English emigres but seemed unusually hostile recently in a fisheries dispute with Canada. If Cleveland “intends to cease his policy when his reelection is secured in November, and again favor England’s interest, then I should have no further doubts but go ahead and vote for him.”

“I apply to you privately and confidentially for information which shall in turn be treated as entirely secret,” Murchison added. “Such information would put me at rest myself, and, if favorable to Mr. Cleveland, enable me on my own responsibility to assure many of our countrymen that they would do England service by voting for Cleveland and against the Republican system of tariff.”

The seemingly innocuous query, however, created an uproar many historians believe helped swing the election to Harrison.

Unbeknownst to the ambassador, “Murchison” was a non de plume used by George Osgoodby, a California political junkie who initially claimed all he wanted to do was prank the British ambassador. But the subject was no laughing matter. At the time, any American politician seen as too friendly to London was regarded as a supine coward. There was no way Sackville-West’s response would remain confidential if it proved potentially embarrassing.

Unfortunately for the British diplomat, it was. One hundred and thirty years before another foreign power interfered in an American election, Sackville-West was trolled into violating Rule No. 1 in the Ambassador’s Handbook: appearing to take sides in the politics of the nation where he was serving.

“You are probably aware,” Sackville-West wrote in response, “that any political party that openly favored the Mother Country at the present moment would lose popularity, and that the party in power is fully aware of this fact.” That explained the administration’s hard line on the fisheries question, but Sackville-West added it was his belief the Cleveland administration “is still desirous of maintaining friendly relations with Great Britain.”

Stripped of its diplomatic formality, Sackville-West’s response assured the correspondent he believed was Murchison that pro-British U.S. voters could confidently vote for Cleveland. The letter’s real author, Osgoodby, may not have anticipated receiving the explosive response – which would explain why, as historian T.C. Hinckley has written, he waited almost a month before sharing its contents with the editor of the Republican Los Angeles Times, Col. Harrison Gray Otis. The paper published the letters on Oct. 21, 1888 but did not reveal the identity of “Murchison” – and soon the correspondence became front-page news across the country.

Fake letters had been a feature of American politics since the days of George Washington and remained a staple of political skullduggery in the rough-and-tumble world of Gilded Age politics. A forged letter purportedly signed by James A. Garfield in 1880, before his presidency, professed to support Chinese immigration in the interest of allowing businesses to “buy labor where they can get it cheapest.” But the poorly executed forgery was quickly exposed and Garfield “probably gained more from the episode than he lost,” according to biographer Alan Peskin.

The same could not be said of Cleveland. The aftershocks of what quickly became known as the “Murchison letter” provided fodder for days of front-page stories and editorials just as the closely fought presidential campaign was coming to an end.

At first, diplomats for both countries reacted as diplomats will – with high-sounding statements intended to gloss over the controversy. In an interview, Sackville-West confessed to annoyance and embarrassment. “I have nothing to be sorry for, however, except that I was trapped,” according to the New York Times.

Similarly, Secretary of State Thomas F. Bayard downplayed the affair. “The American people will be prompt to resent and repel” foreign interference in domestic affairs, Bayard told the New York Times. “But they will easily recognize the political pitfall arranged by the California letter with its object so plainly stamped upon its face and addressed to the British Minister, into which he has so surprisingly tumbled.”

Inside the White House, however, the political implications were well understood. Four years earlier, in the closing days of his campaign against Republican James G. Blaine, Cleveland benefited from the intemperate remarks of a Protestant clergyman who characterized Democrats as the party of “rum, romanism and rebellion.” The comment produced a backlash that helped give Cleveland a narrow victory and made the rotund governor of New York the first Democrat to occupy the White House since James Buchanan. Now, Cleveland confronted an October surprise that threatened to derail his reelection bid. “Lord Sackville’s letter,” the New York Tribune reported, “has had a demoralizing effect on the President.”

“When this ill-considered and inappropriate reply was published two weeks before Election Day, it created a sensation,” Cleveland biographer Henry F. Graff has written. “It conveyed the impression that Cleveland was in the hands of British free traders and that England had a special interest in his election.”

Republicans seized on the correspondence to maximize its political impact. “Means have been taken to distribute it as widely as possible and presses are being kept hot to keep up with the demand that has been made for copies of it,” the Tribune reported. “Thousands of copies were distributed among the vast crowds that were in and around Madison Square Garden last night.”

The crisis forced Cleveland and his allies to act. On Oct. 30, after London refused to recall its envoy, Sackville-West was notified by Bayard he was no longer recognized as the British ambassador. Two days later, with the election less than a week away, Bayard abandoned the weary indifference of the world statesman and denounced the letter as a “monstrosity” whose author deserved to be imprisoned for treason. He urged an audience of Brooklyn Democrats to “stamp everywhere with contempt and indignation any such schemes,” according to the New York Times.

Bayard’s indignation was heightened by the fact it had become apparent within a week of the publication of the letter that “Murchison” was an alias. Speculation about the real author abounded in the press. In a dispatch reprinted by The Washington Post on Nov. 3, the New York Sun incorrectly reported the real author of the letter was the son of a Methodist clergyman and language professor at a Wisconsin university who had gone into the newspaper business.

But the uncertain provenance of the Murchison letter did little to reduce the political repercussions caused by the correspondence. On Nov. 4, two days before the election, the New York Tribune published on its front page a facsimile of Sackville-West’s response to the Murchison letter under the headline “The British Lion’s Paw Thrust Into American Politics to Help Cleveland.” Harrison carried New York and the Electoral College even though he lost the popular vote.

The fascination with the Murchison letter lingered after the election was over. On Nov. 10, the Post incorrectly fingered another suspect. “We are informed on good authority,” the newspaper declared, the author of the letter was “Francis G. Haley, a farmer living near Pomona, Calif.”

Osgoodby was not publicly identified as the author of the letter until Jan. 8, when the Los Angeles Times revealed he was the author. In a letter to President-elect Harrison, Otis and W.F. Fitzgerald, a member of the California Republican state committee, described Osgoody as a “man of family, a fruit farmer and a property owner” with “small love for the English government.” Press accounts said he “takes a deep interest in politics.”

In an interview given in October but not published until his identity was revealed, Osgoodby claimed his letter was written simply as a jest. “I thought it would be a good joke,” he said, according to the New York Times, but feared the prank could ruin his marriage. The parents of his wife “are the strongest Democrats you ever saw, and if they learn that I have done this thing to Mr. Cleveland they will take her away from me. My God! I never had any idea that the publication of that Sackville letter would raise such a row.”

Years later, he changed his tune.

“I acted upon my own responsibility, in my own way, and performed a patriotic service for my country,” he wrote to a friend in 1905. “Let my enemies make the most of it.”

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