In politically polarized times such as these, when it feels like election season is endless and the mudslinging between political parties is relentless, it’s easy to despair. It may seem that we’ve reached a new low in politics, but our colorful— and at times violent— historical record reminds us this is hardly the case.
The broadsides shown below come from a 1941 Harlan County, Kentucky election. Insults and wild accusations were hurled by both opponents, which ultimately resulted in a libel case.
A message to all the good truth-loving, taxpaying, church people of Harlan county; Howard, J. B. M., [S.l. : s.n., 1941], HOLLIS 4006542.
The secrets of Squire J.B.M. Howard’s suicides and self defense. : I want to ask you voters if you…, Keller, John, [S.l. : s.n., 1941], HOLLIS 4029348.
After accusing each other of an array of offenses that range from dishonesty to drunk driving to bootlegging to murder, the candidates eventually had to sum things up for voters:
A message to all the good truth-loving, taxpaying, church people of Harlan county; Howard, J. B. M., [S.l. : s.n., 1941], Detail of HOLLIS 4006542.
The secrets of Squire J.B.M. Howard’s suicides and self defense., Keller, John, [S.l. : s.n., 1941], Detail of HOLLIS 4029348.
Although we have not been able to locate the results of this Harlan County election, we can learn something about the alternately spirited and vicious nature of Eastern Kentucky politics from this material. The accusations in the broadsides are part of a long history of election violence in the area, though these particular claims may in fact be false.
Interestingly, it seems that Harvard Law School’s Professor Zechariah Chafee probably gave these broadsides to the library. You can see his name penciled in the margins, as well as the date the broadsides were acquired by the library—November 15, 1947. Historical & Special Collections holds Professor Chafee’s professional papers, the contents of which you can explore through the collection’s finding aid. This material relates to Chafee’s work as a law teacher, legal scholar, and defender of civil liberties.