Monday, August 3, 2015

That Time Theodore Roosevelt was Assaulted in Elmira

By Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator

On October 29, 1900, then New York State Governor Theodore Roosevelt was in Elmira on a stop on his Vice Presidential campaign.  Roosevelt was the running mate of incumbent President William McKinley.  Roosevelt was greeted with a “great political demonstration” in the city, with a parade with nearly 1,000 mounted “Rough Riders.”  People crowded the Lyceum and Tivoli Theaters and several outdoor locations to hear him speak.  The news estimated that 20,000 people were in the city for the campaign activities.  However, this outpouring of support is actually the least interesting part of the story.  The real drama came when Roosevelt was assaulted by a mob in the streets. 
McKinley/Roosevelt campaign button
The 1900 Presidential campaign was between Republican incumbent McKinley and Democratic challenger William Jennings Bryan.  Bryan ran on an anti-imperialism and “Free Silver” platform.  Roosevelt campaigned extensively in an effort to paint Bryan as a radical.  As the election neared, the campaign became more heated.
In addition to his large speaking engagements in Elmira, Roosevelt also had smaller meetings with local supporters and political figures, including John B. Stanchfield, an Elmiran campaigning for Roosevelt’s soon-to-be vacant Governor position. 
John B. Stanchfield
Stanchfield ultimately lost his campaign for Governor

On his way to one of those meetings, Roosevelt was riding in a carriage with former Senator Jacob Sloat Fassett.  At several points along the route he was pelted with rotten eggs, vegetables, and other projectiles by Bryan supporters.  A mob of about 100 people also shouted the “vilest epithets” at him and voiced their support for Bryan.  One “ruffian” was said to shove his fist under the Governor’s nose while another threw a heavy cane that knocked his hat.  Allegedly, Roosevelt sat in silence while police did nothing.  Fassett reported that the mob appeared to be all boys under the age of 17.
J. Sloat Fassett
The Roosevelt campaign club from Corning also clashed with Bryan supporters.  Fighting and rioting broke out around the campaign path, especially near Railroad Avenue.  Multiple injuries were reported and Robert Richards of the Corning Escort Club went to the Corning City Hospital for injured back.  There was an uptick of other crime during Roosevelt’s visit: 14 people had their pockets picked and four men robbed the Queen City Gardens at gun point.
The New York Times dubbed the incidents “The Elmira Disturbance.”  The news compared the fighting to that of the showdowns of the Wild West, except that the Elmira fights were more “prolonged, savage, vindictive, and bloody.”
After arriving at his meeting, Roosevelt spoke of the attacks saying, “It was nasty conduct, the conduct of hoodlums.”  In a speech in Corning the next day, he said, “Now is the time to stamp out Bryanism. The affair at Elmira last night cast shame upon the country where the right of free speech should be observed.”
Mayor Frank H. Flood called a special meeting of the Police Commissioners to investigate the mob assault of Roosevelt.  They gathered evidence and witness accounts.  Among the projectiles recovered were “a large turnip, an old shoe, and a club” taken from Roosevelt’s carriage, which were put on display at the Republican Headquarters.  It is unclear whether any charges were ever filed related to the incident.

The “Elmira Disturbance” was just one incident that arose from the heightened pre-election political tension.  Around same time Senator Depew was attacked by Bryan supporters in Cobleskill, NY.  Ultimately, McKinley and Roosevelt won the election (and also carried Chemung County).  However, the Elmira assault was a dark moment in the history of the campaign.  And you thought politics were bad nowadays!


  1. what a scene that must have been.....

  2. I had no idea that "Bryanists" were sometimes violent. Thanks for the revelation. (But I still think politics nowadays are bad.)