When Wilson beat Hughes, Baltimore blinked

WAY BACK WHEN

November 02, 2008|By FREDERICK N RASMUSSEN | FREDERICK N RASMUSSEN,fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

If you thought the presidential elections of 2000 and 2004 were cliffhangers, how about the election of 1916 that faced off incumbent Woodrow Wilson, the Democratic candidate, against the Republican Party's nominee, Charles Evans Hughes, former associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Several days before the election, The Sun published an article reporting that an agreement had been reached with the Gas and Electric Co. and that the election results would be announced throughout the city by the blinking of the 5,643 electric lights that lined Baltimore's streets and alleys.

This was the first time streetlights were used as citywide messengers of election results, the newspaper reported.

"First, the result of the local vote: if Wilson carries Baltimore, 5 'blinks'; if Hughes wins in the city, 3 'blinks.' This should come between 8 o'clock and 9:30 or 10.

"Then the National result: if Wilson is re-elected, 5 'blinks,'; if Hughes is elected President, 3 'blinks'; 4 'blinks,' still in doubt."

The Sun advised its readers: "Keep your eyes on the lights."

Hughes took an early lead in the East and Midwest.

At 10:15 p.m. on election night and based on national voting trends, The Sun notified the electric company, which dutifully blinked the lights three times.

Many Baltimoreans staring from their windows retired for the evening thinking that Hughes had defeated Wilson.

Wilson steadfastly refused to concede and pinned his hopes on results from the South and West.

At midnight, on orders from The Sun, workers at the Monument and Penn Street power stations pulled the 60 switches controlling the lights and blinked out: "still in doubt."

The next morning, headlines in The Evening Sun told the story:

WILSON VICTORY SEEMS SURE

NOW HAS 256 VOTES IN ELECTORAL COLLEGE

LEADING HUGHES IN MINNESOTA

"Baltimore awoke today to find that during the early morning hours the Far Western States, which had been practically conceded to the Republicans, were placing themselves one by one, in the Wilson column; and now that the Hughes majority in the Electoral College, so certain the night before, had not only been wiped out, but that actually the Democrats had captured the lead," reported the newspaper.

It wasn't until three days later that The Sun reported Wilson had been "safely re-elected by California votes."

Wilson won in California by 3,800 votes, and he garnered 277 electoral votes to Hughes' 254.

Hughes, like so many Baltimoreans, climbed into bed that night thinking he had been elected president and was bound for 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Fate would dictate otherwise.

Possibly an apocryphal story, but no less amusing, goes that a reporter calling the next morning to get his reaction was told by a butler that the "president is sleeping."

The reporter cracked back, "When he wakes up, tell him he isn't the president anymore."

By 1920, things had changed considerably, technologically speaking, and light-blinking of election results would have a new competitor.

The results of the Warren G. Harding and James M. Cox contest, the first presidential election to be reported by radio, was broadcast from station KDKA in Pittsburgh.

While commercial radio was still in its infancy, KDKA's signal was so powerful that listeners up and down the East Coast fortunate enough to own a radio set could hear the results that arrived in the studio by Western Union telegraph ticker.

Network radio, which became entrenched in American life during the Roaring '20s, would reign supreme in reporting elections for a little more than 20 years until the rise of television in 1948.

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