If you think elections are corrupt these days, listen to what Adolph “Harpo” Marx remembers about Election Day in turn of the 20th century New York City.
It was “the one supreme holiday held every two years,” recalled Harpo in his autobiography Harpo Speaks . . . About New York. (Until 1906, mayors were elected to two-year terms.)
“The great holiday used to last a full thirty hours,” wrote Harpo. “On election eve, Tammany forces marched up and down the avenues by torchlight, with bugles blaring and drums booming. There was free beer for the men, and free firecrackers and punk for the kids, and nobody slept that night.”
Schools and business closed for the day. “Around noon a hansom cab, courtesy of Tammany Hall, would pull up in front of our house.
Frenchie (Harpo’s tailor father) and Grandpa, dressed in their best suits (which they otherwise wore only to weddings, bar mitzvahs, or funerals), would get in the cab and go clip-clop, in tip-top style, off to the polls.”
After the cab brought them back to the Marx family tenement on East 93rd Street between Lexington and Third Avenues, Harpo’s father and grandfather (who wasn’t even a U.S. citizen) would wait . . . until the hansom cab came back to take them to the polls a second time.
“About a half-hour later, the hansom cab would reappear, and Frenchie and Grandpa would go off and vote again. If it was a tough year, with a Reform movement threatening the city, they’d be taken to vote a third time.”
Festivities began on election night.
“The streets were cleared of horses, buggies, and wagons. All crosstown traffic stopped. At seven o’clock fireworks began to go off, the signal that the polls were closed.
Whooping and hollering, a whole generation of kids came tumbling down out of the tenements and got their bonfires going. By a quarter after seven, the East Side was ablaze.
“Grandpa enjoyed the sight as much as I did. . . .He pulled his chair closer to the window and lit the butt of his Tammany stoogie.
“‘Ah, we are lucky to be in America,’ he said in German, taking a deep drag on the cigar he got for voting illegally and lifting his head to watch the shooting flames. ‘Ah yes! This is a true democracy.'”
[Middle illustration: “Election Night Bonfire,” Glenn O. Coleman, date unknown]