The Washerwoman’s Genes

September 26, 2006

Political Passions: Who Knew?

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 11:48 am

Maybe it’s been there the whole while, this year, while I’ve been researching away. But I just discovered the Brooklyn Eagle Online, a service of the Brooklyn Public Library. Maybe I assumed my humble ancestors would not show up in the grandest newspaper in Brooklyn. But I started plugging in names a week or so ago, using the keyword search.

The common names get too many hits, so whose name is different? I chose Josiah. And out of the twelve results, there he was, my great-great uncle, instigator of an ongoing stunt notorious enough for the Eagle to write it up: “Mr Josiah Burger, an engineer of the towboat Edward Annan, a consistent Republican, and a great admirer of his party’s candidate, made a bet . . . “

I knew Josiah was an “engineer” in the 1870s, on the basis of the Lain Directory for 1878 and the census of 1880—I just wasn’t sure what kind. This article recounts the history of a bet made each presidential election from 1876 forward to the fall of 1888, when “Who Will Paint the Flag Pole?” is published on page one.

Josiah, who I know is well into his forties by that time, has a running bet with another man, a “Captain” and ardent Democrat: whosever party loses the presidency must paint the flag pole at the top of the other man’s house. Twice, Josiah has won, and the other fellow had had to climb his own pole and paint it green on St. Patrick’s day: no mean feat, the pole being twenty-two feet high (another article reports it to be twenty-five!). Finally, the other fellow “had the pleasure” of watching Josiah, “in honor of Mr. Cleveland’s election and in the presence of a big crowd of political friends, climb the same flagpole and paint it red on Washington [sic] birthday, 1885.”

By 1888, the guys are getting older, and they swear it’s their last bet. If Cleveland wins relection, Josiah will have to hoist himself up again and paint the pole white; if he loses, the homeowner will paint it black. “They have also mutually agreed that if any party should fail to pay the bet as agreed upon (excepting in the case of death) the party so failing will pay to the other part a forfeit of $100.”

The joke aside, the articles about this bet—and I have located two more—are gold mines of data as well as providing me with some depth and personality for a man who had been just a name.

But I shouldn’t slight the data: New to me is that Josiah was an engineer on a tugboat, and of course, I had no inkling of his political affiliation, let alone his passion.

Finding an earlier write-up in 1880 gave me a few more details: There, Josiah is referred to as Captain. His address is given; it squares with the street I know he lived on from the census and the Lain.

Finally, there’s the recurring information about the colors of the paint. It would make sense if the loser paints the flagpole a color that represents the other man. At the end, Josiah will return the pole to an ordinary black color, if he has to paint it; the Democrat will paint it white if he loses, perhaps a sign of surrender. But in the earlier bets, a Democratic victory will ocasion red paint, “in token of the bloody shirt.” I’m doing some research on this phrase, which seems to have to do with the politics of Reconstruction. If the Republican wins, the pole gets painted green on St. Patrick’s Day, presumably to honor Josiah. More research due here.

Note: I found one short article that reports contemporaneously on the painting. In March of 1881, the paper reports that “yesterday morning” the election bet was paid, with the Democrat climbing the pole on his house in Columbia Street and “painting it a nice green color.” It continues, “The climber was cheered by the crowd on the sidewalk every time he ascended the pole, and finished his dangerous job in about an hour.” The symbology of the colors must have been either so obvious as to need no explanation or so trivial as to be beneath comment.

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