In the days of party bosses and political machines, one dirty trick in the form of a simple letter may have decided the election of an American president. In 1888, the sitting president was Grover Cleveland, a Democrat who had risked the support of big business by backing a lower tariff and earned a reputation for doing what he thought was right despite the political consequences. Challenging Cleveland was Republican Benjamin Harrison, grandson of ninth president William Henry Harrison.
The race hinged on New York State's 36 electoral votes. "As New York went, so went the election," says historian Rick Shenkman of George Mason University. It should have been no problem for Cleveland, who had been both the state's governor and mayor of Buffalo. Yet he was vulnerable in New York's sizable Irish community after his administration negotiated a fisheries treaty with the British Empire, which was hated by the Irish. George Osgoodby, a Republican in California, sent a letter to the British ambassador to the United States under the pretense that he was a British expatriate named Charles Murchison who wanted to know the candidate who would best "favor England's interests." When the ambassador endorsed Cleveland, he unknowingly stepped into the Republicans' trap; the party trumpeted his letter around the country as evidence that Cleveland had been pro-British all along.
After the ballots were cast two weeks later, Cleveland had beaten Harrison in the popular vote by 100,000, but he had only 168 electoral votes to Harrison's 233. The Republican had won all 36 of New York's votes.
Was the Murchison letter decisive? Most historians agree that it was quite harmful to Cleveland. "Whoever was Irish and voting probably was offended by the Murchison letter," says Henry Graff, professor emeritus of history at Columbia University and author of a 2002 biography of Cleveland.
Another biographer, Alyn Brodsky, called the Murchison letter "the filthiest dirty campaign trick ever pulled because it literally destroyed a presidency." Nevertheless, it didn't end Cleveland's political career. Upon her departure from the White House, Cleveland's wife was reported to have told the staff not to change anything because she would be back in four years. She proved prescient when Cleveland won the 1892 election and became the nation's only president elected to two nonconsecutive terms.