The Political Courtney

The Political Courtney caricature published in “Puck” magazine in 1884.

13 February 2020

By Stephan Ploke

When Tim Koch posted his article on the “The Contest for the Democrats’ Stroke Seat” a while ago, it prompted me to write a few lines about a caricature which is hanging on my corridor wall and which deals with a similar subject, the 1884 U.S. presidential election campaign between James G. Blaine and Grover Cleveland.

The above lithograph by Bernhard Gillam was published in Puck in 1884 and refers to the rivalry and races between the American rowers Charles E. Courtney and the Canadian Ned Hanlan.

Courtney & Hanlan

These two oarsmen raced for the professional world champion title in 1878 and 1880 and the formerly unbeaten Charles Courtney lost both races. The original re-match of the 1878 race was scheduled for 1879 but did not take place as Courtney’s shell was vandalised with a saw the night before the race and he refused to use any other boat. The delinquent was never identified, but many people believed it was done by Courtney himself to avoid another defeat. Some observers thought that both rowers had tried to fix the race in exchange for the $6,000 prize sum and supporters of both parties tried the same as they had bet significant amounts on either rower, and they were afraid to lose their money. Whilst the truth was never revealed, there was apparently quite some corruption involved and the same applied in the 1878 and 1880 matches.

Courtney & Hanlan in Toronto Bay.

Courtney was hence a perfect caricature for the republican candidate James G. Blaine, who was notorious for being involved in possibly every corruption case and political scandal. At this time, he served as speaker of the House of Representatives and the Senate between 1869 and 1881, and then as Secretary of State in 1881.

After he was nominated as the Republicans’ candidate in 1884, the campaign was very aggressively led by both parties in respect of the involvement of the candidates in scandals and personal misconduct. Also, the issue of personal character was more strongly emphasized than in previous campaigns and a very tight vote was expected. All this made a comparison with the single sculls matches between Courtney and Hanlan obvious.

The caricature itself shows a scene at a boathouse where Blaine’s team tries to prepare an exhausted rower for the presidential race whilst Grover Cleveland is already waiting at the starting line. The caption: “Come, Jim, show some nerve, or nobody won’t believe you’re in the race! Ain’t you never going to be Aggressive!” is uttered by A. Logan who readies the single scull named “Aggressive Campaign”. Senator John A. Logan from Illinois was Blaine’s running mate and the vice-presidential nominee. The boat is stuck in “Monopoly Mud”, alluding to the fact that he was widely suspected of corruption in the awarding of railroad contracts.

Details of medicine

In the meantime, American industrialist and, later senator, Stephen B. Elkins is looking for the proper medicine in a box which contains “Remedy, Record Cleaner, Tariff Fever Cure, Record Purifier, Tattoo Eradicator, and Vermont Reviver”. The “Tattoo Eradicator” is of particular interest – Blaine actually had no tattoos, but a cartoon which appeared in the April 1883 edition of the Puck showed him covered in tattoos displaying his scandals engraved like brands on his skin. After the success of this caricature, 21 more tattooed Blaine cartoons were drawn by Gillam – one of them being the Political Courtney – convincing the masses that Blaine was actually a tattooed man.

The first in the series of “tattooed man” caricatures targeting Blaine.

In the boathouse, Stephen W. Dorsey carries oars labeled “Soap” and “Star Router”. Soap refers to the slang word “Soap Money”, i.e. bribes paid to buy votes. “Star Router” refers to a scandal in which postal officials received bribes in exchange for awarding postal delivery contracts.

A cartoon referring to Soap Money as Blaine’s only hope. Signed by undertaker Grover Cleveland.

In the background of the boathouse, the “Speakership Records” boat alludes to merits during Blaine’s time as speaker of the House of Representatives and the Senate, but this boat is useless as it has been sawn just like Courtney’s shell, as mentioned before. The “Guano Statesmanship” boat refers to his diplomatic role in the War of the Pacific whilst supposedly owning a stake in the Peruvian guano deposits being occupied by Chile. Hence, he also suffers from “Guano gout” (as noted on his bandage).

In the background, Carl Schurz stands at the entrance to the “Independent Boat House”. German-born Schurz was a member of the Republican Party and the Secretary of the Interior under Rutherford B. Hayes. Schurz sought to make civil service based on merit and integrity, and hence, became the leader of the “Mugwump” movement, a group of Republicans who supported the Democratic candidate, Grover Cleveland, in the presidential election of 1884.

Both the Mugwumps as well as Gillam’s cartoons on James G. Blaine played a large part in Grover Cleveland’s election to office; he won the predicted tight race with 48.9% of the popular vote, while Blaine received 48.3%.

What happened to the antetype for Blaine in the caricature, Charles E. Courtney? He continued competitive rowing after his loss against Hanlan in 1880, but the two never raced against each other again in a single scull.

Courtney then won the double scull championship of the world together with his partner P. H. Conley in 1885, but the two lost a challenge from archrival Hanlan, who rowed together with George W. Lee in 1886. After that race, Courtney finished his remarkable career of 18 years of competitive rowing, both as an amateur and a professional, in which he lost only seven out of 137 races.

Courtney as Cornell’s coach.

In 1885, Courtney started coaching the Cornell University rowing team and as their coach he won 14 varsity eights titles at the Intercollegiate Rowing Association Championship Regatta. Courtney died in 1920.

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