In Search of Old Shamokin, October 2020 edition
Shortly after the turn of the 20th Century, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania was rocked by an unprecedented political controversy surrounding the gubernatorial race of 1902. What would result was a statewide internecine contest between members of two opposing factions that extended to Northumberland County, and would determine the political futures of the most influential local leaders of the era.
In 1902, the political climate of Republican-controlled Pennsylvania was characterized by the reign of local “bosses,” popular leaders—elected or otherwise—who used their influence on a county or city level to promote their party’s interests and sway elections. Dominating this hierarchy of bosses within the Republican Party was Senator Matthew S. Quay, known by his admirers and detractors alike simply as “the old man,” a skilled political tactician who had discreetly directed the Pennsylvania “machine” for decades. The ever-increasing numbers of state Republicans who opposed Quay and his methods became known as the anti-Quay or anti-organization forces, or simply “insurgents.”
The conflict became an intimately familiar one even in Northumberland County, now back under Democrat control after having previously handed the district to Republicans with the election of Shamokin lumber magnate Monroe H. “Farmer” Kulp to the Seventeenth Congressional District from 1895-1899. Though no longer in office, Kulp was by no means retired from politics. Having declined to seek a third term ostensibly to focus on his business interests, Kulp sought to retain his influence in the region despite having had many of his political projects in Congress frustrated at the hands of machine leaders like Quay. By 1900, Kulp was already becoming known as Northumberland County’s “boss.” Local offices were constant sources of heated debate and rife with favoritism, including the particularly notorious postmaster offices. Kulp worked actively to install his own candidates in that office, ruffling feathers county-wide whenever another post office hopeful was passed over in favor of a “Kulpite” appointee.
In the spring of 1902, the latest political debate in Northumberland County centered around the election of delegates to the state convention who would choose the Republican Party’s nominee for governor in the fall. Commonwealth Republicans overwhelmingly favored Indiana County native John P. Elkin, a former attorney general who had once been closely associated with Matt Quay, yet who now enjoyed almost universal support even from insurgent Republicans. In many ways, Kulp and Elkin were similar political figures. They were about the same age, thus belonging to the younger, post-Civil War generation. Elkin, like Farmer Kulp, maintained a blue-collar image despite ties to the party establishment, and even possessed a rustic epithet of his own, being commonly known as the “plough-boy from Indiana.”
One man remained silent on the subject of Elkin’s presumably assured nomination—Senator Matt Quay. After a meeting of Republican leaders in Philadelphia at which Monroe Kulp was present, Quay finally declared his refusal to support John P. Elkin for the nomination. It has since been speculated that the decision may have been linked to competition between the Pennsylvania and Wabash Railroads, whose respective executives supposedly financed the two politicians, while Quay’s biographer postulates that the experienced Senator may have considered Elkin too polarizing and unelectable in the general election. Either way, shortly before the convention Quay produced an elder statesman as the alternative to Elkin—his own distant cousin, Samuel W. Pennypacker.
Back in Northumberland County, Elkin had won the popular vote 4400 to 400. It was naturally expected that the four delegates running unopposed on the ballot—I. W. Keiser, John H. Kreitzer, John A. Lamb and W. Harry Holman–would support Elkin at the convention according to the will of the people. The county boss, however, was seemingly unconvinced. To the chagrin of the local party establishment, Farmer Kulp put up four delegates of his own: Harrison Heslop, Robert H. Hopkins, C. H. Schlegel, and Lincoln S. Walter of Mount Carmel.
In response, County Chairman Will Shindel, while simultaneously remarking that it was his duty to “take no part in this contest,” penned an open letter to the press in which he called Kulp a “party destructionist,” blamed him for the defeat of the last county ticket, and exhorted county Republicans to vote the establishment line. The regular delegates, Shindel assured his readers, were “absolutely uncontrolled by any person or faction.”
While the move was mercilessly attacked in the press, Kulp’s reasons for backing the alternative delegates were never fully explained. One report cited the fact that the so-called “regular” delegates had been nominated by State Representative Benjamin K. Focht of Union County, an action that may have been seen as a non-Northumberland County resident attempting to meddle in local affairs. Another popular rumor suggested that the delegates were under the control of Kulp’s political nemesis, Sunbury’s Charles B. Witmer. After an intense primary battle for president judge the previous year in which Witmer defeated Kulpite Lincoln S. Walter, the disaffected Farmer had refused to support Witmer’s candidacy, and the judgeship had gone Democrat by 67 votes. The local machine had yet to get over the defeat.
Personal attacks against Kulp became common in the press. The editor of the Mount Carmel Daily News, still rankled at having been passed up for Mount Carmel postmaster in favor of a Kulpite two years earlier, denounced the county boss as “coarse, vulgar, [and] without a taint of culture.”
The establishment’s campaign was successful and on May 17, 1902, the regular delegates won a decisive victory over the Kulp delegates. The Daily News took to concluding its relevant columns with the simple pronouncement: “EXIT—KULP.”
The campaign to nominate Elkin, however, was far from over. One month later, on June 11, 1902, the delegates from Northumberland County and across the state met in Harrisburg. In one of the greatest political upsets in Pennsylvania history, Senator Quay somehow succeeded in turning Philadelphian I. W. Durham to his camp. Durham was Elkin’s strongest supporter, but more importantly, controlled all of the Philadelphia delegates. At the convention, the entire Philadelphia delegation and several others flipped to Pennypacker, ultimately sinking Elkin’s candidacy.
Outrage over what was perceived as a stolen election was no less keenly felt in Northumberland County. To the shock of local voters, two of the four delegates had switched to Pennypacker, including one who had been quoted in the Daily News the day before as saying he was “for Elkin first, last and all the time.”
Speculation ran rampant, and rumors asserted Charles B. Witmer was responsible. The local pro-machine press ran damage control on behalf of the party establishment, praising their good intentions. Reference to Kulp was conspicuously absent. Only a commentary in the Lewisburg Saturday News remarked that the Farmer had apparently been “wiser than he knew” in his opposition to Witmer’s judge candidacy the year before.
Whether Kulp had accurately foretold the turning of the delegates or not, the crushing defeat of his efforts to replace them marked the beginning of the end of his reign as county boss. Rarely afterward did Kulp take an active role in local politics, though he continued to voice support for Elkin’s political efforts, which never took off. Once considered a dyed-in-the-wool Quay man, Kulp eventually came to be identified as an insurgent by 1908 according to a local correspondent to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Witmer went on to serve a long and distinguished career as a federal judge, while Samuel Pennypacker was elected governor in 1902 despite the controversy surrounding his nomination. The victory proved to be one of the last for Senator Quay, who died two years later. The inherent struggle between the organization forces and those who opposed them, however, would continue to characterize Pennsylvania politics for years to come.