How Mail-in Ballots Conspiracy Was Hatched Against Lincoln’s Re-election In 1864

In 1864, the most elaborate mail-in ballots election conspiracy in American history was discovered. The plot was hatched against Abraham Lincoln’s re-election.


How Mail-in Ballots Conspiracy Was Hatched Against Lincoln’s Re-election In 1864
How Mail-in Ballots Conspiracy Was Hatched Against Lincoln’s Re-election In 1864

The Process

When Orville Wood traveled to Baltimore in the fall of 1864, he had no idea that he would be able to uncover one of the most elaborate election conspiracy in American history.

Wood was initially a merchant in the northeastern corner of New York. He was a supporter of Abraham Lincoln and was tasked form his hometown to “look after the local ticket.”

All the legislators of New York had established the mail in voting system for the state in April. The intention was ensuring the suffrage of troops while they battled with the Confederate Army.

These troops would assign their power of attorney on slips along with four signatures: of the voter, the person approved as a recipient, an observer to the signed affidavit accompanied with a fellow officer.

All of these documents would be sealed in an envelop and shipped back to be counted as the final vote. This was the general process that was outlined. But Wood found out that the challenge that it would offer was immense.

The Investigation

Wood arrived at Fort McHenry in Baltimore to pay a visit to the 91st New York Regiment. This was done on the suggestion of an army captain who said that there had been some “checker playing” in gathering soldiers’ mail-in ballots. These rumours led Wood to the office of Moses Ferry in Baltimore.

Ferry was selected by the New York Gov. Horatio Seymour so that he could help in overseeing the voting process for New York’s enlisted men.

As Wood entered Ferry’s office, he had to somehow gain his trust. He did this by depicting himself as a strong supporter of Lincoln’s opponent, George McClellan. On this occasion, Ferry told Wood, that the votes from New York’s 91st Regiment had been tallied in a way that 400 were reserved for McClellan and 11 for Lincoln.

The Mail-in Ballots Conspiracy

They ran a scheme in addition to the operations being carried out in D.C. and Baltimore, this scheme touched New York. Wood asked to personally deliver these fraudulent ballots, but Ferry said they would have to receive final approval from his colleague in Washington – Edward Donahue Jr.

Mail-in Ballots Conspiracy
A 1864 sketch by William Waud of Pennsylvania soldiers voting. (Library of US Congress)

Donahue received rosters of soldiers from military officials and law enforcement members. A letter from Gen. J.A. Ferrell read, “Inclosed in this package you will find tickets, also a list of names of the actual residents of Columbia County, now members of the 128th Regiment. With my best wishes for your success.”

Albany Sheriff H. Cromdell’s letter offered to send additional men for assistance in Baltimore. The letter conveyed, “All is well here, and we are confident of complete success. It is unnecessary to say that all here have entire confidence in your skill and abetting, and hope you like your help.”

In Ferry’s office, a list of 400 names that belonged to the sick and wounded soldiers was discovered. Ferry joked about the roster that “Dead or alive, they all had cast a good vote.”
Ferry, Donahue and all their fellow conspirators were overjoyed to find humor in their work.

One of them mocked the outcry that the abolitionist newspapers were expected to reveal, after the corruption of the election. They even bragged about their past success in being able to fix local elections back home.

The Military Commission

The men were engaged in a conspiracy to ship the crates of fraudulent votes back to New York. But their scheme was shortly considered over. Wood reported this operation to the authorities.

On the morning of Oct. 27, 1864, which was just two weeks before the election, Ferry and Donahue stood for trial before a military commission. On that same day, Ferry offered a full confession and offered the names of all the other people involved in the scheme.

The Confession

Ferry offered a full confession that same day, even offering up the names of others involved in the mail-in ballots conspiracy. Donahue proved more of a challenge.

After the first trial day, a New York Times’ reporter wrote:

“The honest electors of the state of New York have escaped an extensive and fearful fraud, a fraud in keeping with the proclivities of the party in whose behalf it was initiated, but one that, if unexposed might have subverted the honest will of the people and left the state and the nation at the mercy of those who would make peace with rebellion and fellowship with traitors.”

There were arrests being made in New York and Washington as Donahue came back for the trial. Donahue begged for mercy; he was a newly married young man without any previous records.

The Judgement

The commission that oversaw Ferry and Donahue’s trial recommended life in prison for the two men who sought to corrupt the election by mail. The president, who would soon be slain, approved.

The judge advocate responded saying that, Donahue had committed one of the most gigantic frauds ever undertook in America – “a fraud which, if it shall be successful, will, in my opinion, have produced a disruption of our entire country, and our war for the preservation of the Union will be practically at an end and futile”]

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