New York governor and Democratic reformer Samuel J. Tilden won the
popular vote for U.S. president in 1876, but fell one vote short of
the 185 electoral votes necessary to seal the deal in the Electoral
College. A 15-member Electoral Commission awarded the contested
election to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes.
Two years later the Republican-oriented New York Tribune published
decoded secret “cipher telegrams” allegedly sent by Tilden’s agents
during the 1876 election dispute. The publication claimed these
decoded ciphers showed attempted bribes of vote counters in Florida,
South Carolina and Oregon.
Although it was discovered that Tilden used similar ciphers in his
business dealings, he denied the charges and was personally cleared of
involvement. However, the “scandal” gave fodder to his political
opponents, and ruined his chances for renomination during the next
The store card shown was not circulated by Tilden’s partisans, but
circa 1878 to 1880 by his opponents, likely anti-Tilden Brooklyn Argus
editor Demas Barnes, who also had a half interest in Drake’s
The Democrat Barnes foretold “Tilden’s ‘Convention’ Bitters,”
arising from his scandal, would cause his exit from the party stage at
the next national convention in 1880.
Marketers at the time, taking their cue from secret coded ciphers
that aided the North in winning the Civil War, jumped on the messaging
bandwagon. This was especially true of the omnipresent proprietary
medicine vendors, who proliferated trade style ciphers to increase
public awareness of their products through “word of mouth” speculation
in the marketplace.
The most famous cipher of the period was created for Patrick H.
Drake’s proprietary cordial, Drake’s Plantation Bitters, advertised on
the reverse of the illustrated store card. Drake’s enigmatic cipher
“S. T. — 1860. — X.” was plastered worldwide. It was so omnipresent
that it even invaded Mark Twain’s novel The Innocents Abroad and
William Dean Howell’s novel The Rise of Silas Lapham.
Drake’s cabalistic slogan meant absolutely nothing, according to
his ad agent George P. Rowell, and was only a gimmick to capture
The portent of Barnes’ anti-Tilden message is much less obscure:
“Samuel J. Tilden 1880 exit.”
That 1880 convention was indeed politician Tilden’s last hurrah on
the public stage, as Drake’s business partner Barnes had predicted.
Fred L. Reed iii has been a collector and writer for many years.
Reach him at www.fredwritesright.com.