True Crime Scranton

Republicans try to steal election for Rodham!

Politics in Scranton have always been shady, but in 1928, Wade Rodham's camp tried to steal the election for him by stuffing the ballot box. Here's what happened!

My guess is that Election Fraud has been happening as long as there have been elections. And Scranton is no stranger to political shenanigans. Several political figures over the years have been convicted of crimes well beyond election fraud. While there’s no doubt that there are some good people involved in politics, there’s also no doubt that there are some very crooked people involved as well.

A query of “election fraud” uncovered an article in the Scranton newspaper in the same year the city was incorporated – 1866. The Scranton Republican article on October, 2, 1866 stated “The most villainous frauds were committed in Luzerne County (Lackawanna County wasn’t formed until 1878) by the making and altering of illegal certificates of naturalizations is well known.” Shocking, right?

In that article, both parties accused the other of fraud and called for an investigation to find those responsible and hold them accountable. The article claimed that those committing fraud are committing a crime against their honest, adopted fellow countrymen. In one instance, it was pointed out that a miner that had been killed in the mines a week before the election had certified citizenship papers. No big deal, until you realize that he had been in in the country just two years – and the requirement to be a citizen was five years.

Claims of election fraud, voter fraud, conspiracy and others have been made in the past. What’s rare is when the evidence actually supports the claims. What’s even more rare is when those claims result in indictments. And what’s the rarest is when convictions occur.

As I was researching another article, I uncovered an instance of Election Fraud in the 1928 race for State Legislature of the Second District that resulted in numerous convictions. Here’s an overview of the events.

The Candidates

Harold P Gwynne

Harold P Gwynne was born in Scranton and lived in the Providence section of the city. His father was a foreman in the coal mines. His brother, Arthur Gwynne, founded a moving company and at least two of the other Gwynne brothers joined him in the operation. When Arthur passed away of pneumonia at just 31 years of age in 1918, Harold and his brother Nelson took over the business. Harold was responsible for running the office while his brother Nelson led the field duties.

Harold was well known in the area and participated in many social clubs including the Republican Masons.

Harold in his 1924 Anderson Coach

In July, 1925, Harold, along with ten other Republicans, submitted his petition to run for the office of Jury Commissioner. He would eventually lose the election, but it was obvious that there were some issues with the overall race. Prior to the election, Judge George Maxey criticized the incumbent Commissioner saying “Jury Commissioners in Lackawanna County are chosen by ballot box stuffers.”

It turned out that the Jury Commissioner was accused of rigging juries in key cases. The man, John F. Healey, was well known in the Democratic Party. Healey himself was no stranger to controversy. He claimed he was robbed of the election for Jury Commissioner in 1917, yet a recount showed that his opponent was cheated out of votes in his own district. The original count had Healey winning his opponent’s district 105-4. A recount showed Healey actually lost the district 57-13.

Gwynne was one of the few candidates in that race that had enough money to take out ads in the newspapers. It seems that negative ads were also a thing back then….

Wade Rodham

Jonathan and Isabella Rodham, immigrated from England in 1881 with their eight children. After they arrived, they added four more to the mix, including Wade. They lived in North Scranton on Blair Ave. Jonathan initially worked in the mines, then became a police officer for eleven years before being relieved of his duties. He returned to work in his florist shop. The Rodhams were well known in the area and participated in numerous fraternal and religious organizations. They were also heavily involved in Republican politics. And yes, Jonathan’s great granddaughter is Hillary Rodham Clinton – making Wade Hillary’s Granduncle.

Young Wade was the Captain of his baseball team and later worked on the D&H Railroad as a “chainman”, laborer and surveyor. He became a registrar for his ward in 1914, the earliest instance I can find of his involvement in politics.

Wade’s brother, Dr. Thomas Rodham, was a member of the Scranton School Board.

In 1928, Wade was working as a machine miner in the coal mines of Scranton when he entered the race for State Legislature.

Second Legislative District

The Second District was described as “strongly Republican”. It was presumed that the winner of the Republican primary would easily win the general election.

The position opened up when Fred Derby, the incumbent from the district, announced that he would not seek re-election after serving two terms. Derby would go on to own the Scranton Minors Baseball team and become Mayor of the City of Scranton.

Rodham’s name was one of the first to appear as a potential candidate. He, along with Gwynne and a few others were expected to announce their intent to run.

Leading up to the election, eight Republicans were in the mix. As the date drew near, two candidates dropped out stating they wanted to maintain “party harmony”. The six remaining candidates included Rodham, Gwynne, David T. Lewis, Joseph McNulty, William Bright, and John Cafferty – with Cafferty also registering on the Democratic side, running unopposed.

The Vote

The voting took place on Tuesday, April 24, 1928. Tight races were projected through the county.

Wednesday, April 25, 1928

The next day, headlines of the Scranton Republican blasted out that voting was very close across several races – not just in the 2nd District.

The early numbers, with seven districts still missing, indicated Gwynne was clinging to a slim lead and that the race would likely have to wait for official numbers to be posted.

In the very same article, the results were reported to show Rodham ahead of Gwynne, 1440-1382. This was presumably because it was easier to edit typing as opposed to modifying the table format.

On the same publication date, the Democratic Scranton Times reported that, with one district remaining, Rodham had a “good lead” over Gwynne at 1791-1639. This discrepancy is likely due to publication times.

Thursday, April 26, 1928

The next day, it was reported that the official count was needed to decide the races in both the 1st and 2nd Districts. By this time, with all of the open returns counted, Rodham was ahead of Gwynne 1795-1756, Gwynne remained optimistic and said based on these latest numbers, he believed that he had a slight advantage over Rodham. Regardless, Gwynne had hired Attorney Wallace Moser to represent him at the official count and said they may request to have a number of ballot boxes impounded.

The official vote was scheduled to begin on Friday, April 27, 1928 – just three days after the initial voting.

Friday, April 27, 1928

The count lasted into the early morning hours of Saturday. The lead swung back and forth with Rodham leading by just five votes at the end of the official count.

April 28, 1928

On Saturday morning, with recounts happening across many districts, Rodham is now holding onto a seven vote lead. Meanwhile, the Gwynne camp was preparing to ask the Election Return Board to open up more boxes across other districts.

One challenge was presented immediately. Atty Moser on behalf of Gwynne, urged the Return Board including County Commissioners Louis Von Bergen and John Healey (the same John Healey as mentioned above), to reject 174 ballots on the grounds that the ballots were “unfolded”. All of the unfolded ballots were cast for Rodham. Moser claimed that it was highly unusual for so many ballots to be unfolded – and in the same box.

Moser claimed that ninety of the ballots came from the First District, Third Ward and the other eighty-four came from the Second District, Third Ward. He claimed that the law specifically calls to reject any unfolded ballots – and that a precedent that was set years ago in another state election – Davis vs Phillips. As a side note, the Davis/Phillips election included 102 ballots cast in a district that only had 98 registered voters.

Moser also requested to have ballots from the Third District, Second Ward, rejected because they showed many “erasures” on the ballots.

It was hinted that Moser would take this issue to court if the Board did not accept his position.

Attorney David J Reedy who was retained by Rodham, presented his case to the Board after Moser. Reedy countered that the ballots should not be thrown out – stating that the fact the judges of the election failed to present folded ballots to every voter is not enough justification to reject those ballots. Ironically, in the Davis vs Phillips election from years prior, Reedy claimed the ballots should be rejected for this very reason. Reedy won that argument and all of the votes from that district were rejected, giving his client, Albert Davis the victory.

The recount in the two districts in question revealed that Rodham had won 142-12 in one and 103-33 in another. If the ballots are rejected, the totals would be 52-12 in favor of Rodham and 33-20 in favor of Gwynne in the other.

The law that covers this issue was passed in 1919. In part it states, “Before leaving the voting shelf or compartment, the voter shall fold his ballot, without displaying the marking thereon, in the same way it was folded when received by him, and he shall keep the same so folded and deposit it in the ballot box without undue delay.”

The Commissioners, working without their leader who was on vacation, withheld their decision until Monday afternoon.

Gwynne WINS!

Monday, April 30, 1928

The return board ruled in favor of Gwynne. They rejected only 48 ballots from the First District, Third Ward. No reason was given why they ruled out a small segment, but this was enough to declare Gwynne the winner, 1723-1682. With that, Gwynne withdrew his protest for the other ballots in the other district.

On the same day, the headline of the Scranton Times headline read “GLARING FRAUD IN MAYFIELD VOTE”. “Condition of Mayfield Ballots is Described as Worst Encountered in Years.” In this district, William Morgan defeated William Munley. It was discovered that ballots for Munley were also unfolded and contained erasures. I’m left to wonder what previous years might have looked like.

Judge Maxey Addresses the grand jury

Almost immediately, the case was turned over for criminal charges. Judge George Maxey is in charge of the Grand Jury. He states “decent men more and more hesitate to run for public office, for no decent man will enter into the deals with election crooks.” Maxey opens the door for the Grand Jury to expand their investigate beyond the Gwynne vs. Rodham election.

In his address to the Grand Jury, Judge Maxey stated:

“Members of the Grand Jury: In this primary election last Tuesday the election crook appears to be exceedingly active. The after-election aroma rising from certain districts of the county is strongly indicative of the recent presence therein of a locally common type of political polecat. I want this jury to corral and openly identify these creatures so that they may be brought before the bar of justice to answer for their crimes. The law provides heavy penalties for those who stuff ballot boxes and falsify election returns.

The grand jury is a most important part of the machinery of justice, and if these recent ballot box brigands are to feel on their back the lash of the law this grand jury must do its duty and leave no guilty person unpresented through fear, favor, affection or hope of reward.

Things have reached a pass where even if a candidate is the choice of the people and receives a majority of the vote cast he is not sure that when the count is over he will be awarded the office to which he has been honorably elected. If we can not stop these frauds in Lackawanna County we might as well give up all pretense of maintaining a free government, and either supinely abdicate our government in favor of the ballot bandits, or else resort to the primitive but effective means of the frontier in dealing with horse thieves and other enemies of human society.”

Judge George Maxey

The Grand Jury takes charge

With that, the two ballots boxes that contained the unfolded ballots were turned over to the Grand Jury for investigation. Captain Albert Gleason, who was on duty at Police Headquarters the night of the Primary was called to testify along with the election officers from the districts in question.

On the first day of the inquiry, all of the members of the election board from the First district, Third Ward, “confessed complete ignorance” as to how ninety unfolded ballots made their way into the ballot box. The members of the board were Michael Kenehan, judge; Thomas Walsh and Edward Kelly, inspectors; Cyril Jennings and Edward Cafferty, clerks.

Something else that was discovered once the boxes were opened was that all of the ballots were written in the same handwriting and were in the box in alphabetical order. This led the District Attorney to investigate the names on the ballots.

When investigators contacted the citizens whose names were on the unfolded ballots, many stated that they had not voted in the primary. Others were said to have moved out of the district. Evidence of election fraud was mounting.

Indictments handed down

Within days, the Grand Jury handed down thirty-five indictments of election officers from seven different wards across Scranton, Mayfield and Winton – including the two wards involved in the Gwynne vs Rodham election. In addition to Kenehan, Walsh, Kelly, Jennings and Cafferty, those from the Third Ward, Second District were also indicted. Frank Loftus, Martin Cavanaugh, Anthony Timlin, Patrick Marion, and James Gilboy.

The Grand Jury claimed that the election officials across the wards failed and charged them with willful fraud. They claimed that the men “made a false return of the votes cast, a false count of the votes cast, added names to the list of voters of people who did not vote, and, further, on the charge of conspiracy to violate the primary election laws of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”

Similar indictments were handed down for those involved with the Morgan/Munley election in Mayfield.

Rodham files surprise appeal

After the Election Board had made their decision on the 48 ballots, it was believed that Rodham had accepted defeat and would not pursue any further appeals or challenges. That changed when on May 24, 1928, Rodham’s attorneys filed an appeal of the Commission’s verdict. The attorneys based their appeal on a recent decision in a case from Allegheny County. In that case, the Supreme Court ruled that the only way to determine if fraud had occurred was through the courts – not simply a decision of the Election Board. Meanwhile, Gwynne and his attorneys filed their position stating that the Commission’s actions were legal.

The court ruled that the Commissioners needed to certify their results within 48 hours.

By the end of June, Rodham’s team had reviewed the Allegheny case in more detail and decided to abandon their appeal – essentially ending any battle for the seat.

Appealing the Indictments

Attorney Charles P. O’Malley, counsel for the 10 Election Officials from Scranton, as well as the other 25 officials from Mayfield and Winton challenge the indictments. They contend that the jury announcement did not meet the requirements. The appeal falls short with a split decision between Judge Maxey dismissing it and Judge Newcomb upholding it.

Nolo Conendere

On March 22, 1929, all of the men entered a plea of “no contest” against the charge of making a false return. This plea deal is easily accepted by the District Attorney and now they move towards sentencing.

Sentencing

During the sentencing hearing on June 29, 1929, Defense Attorney O’Malley claimed that soon, election law violations would be unheard of as voting machine will end fraud. He added that the plea saved the county thousands of dollars in legal fees and described the actions of the men as “mischievous, careless pranks” with no corrupt motive.

Judge Samuel Skull of Monroe county handed down mild sentences due in part by their plea. All 35 men would be deprived of their voting rights for four years. They were required to resign from their posts as election officials and they were sentenced to three months in jail. The jail term, however, was “stayed conditionally” based on good behavior.

The outcome

Harold Gwynne served his two-year term. During his time in office, Gwynne was said to be an advocate for “old age pensions” and the formation of a single tax office for Scranton. He would seek re-election in 1930. It was reported that he was not supported by the Republican Commissioners at the time. In the primary, he was backed by Sheriff Gomer Davis while his opponent, Harry Lewis, was backed by Fred Derby – the man that held the office before Gwynne. Davis was indicted in 1930 in a Slot Machine Ring conspiracy lead by Judge Newcomb but was later acquitted.

Lewis would unseat Gwynne, gaining nearly 57% of the vote and would run unopposed in the General Election.

Gwynne died of pneumonia in 1934 at only 38 years of age.

Wade Rodham, after evading all charges stemming from the fraud, would leave politics and return to working in the mines. He passed away of a heart attack at the relatively young age of 54. One of his two sons would go into the Secret Service and was assigned to protecting Nixon, JFK and others. Wade’s brother George, a miner, also served on Scranton’s City Council in the 1940s and, of course, his Grandniece Hillary Rodham Clinton is well known in politics.

“An offense against the freedom and purity of election is a crime against the nation. It strikes at the foundation of republican institutions; its tendency is to prevent the expression of the will of the people and to weaken public confidence in elections. When this confidence is once destroyed the end of popular government is not distant.”

PENNSYLVANIA SUPREME COURT CHIEF JUSTICE EDWARD PAXSON
Commonwealth vs Mchale, Kelley, Feeney and others, unknown, 97 PA 397
May 2, 1881

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