The Bizarre History of Election Law: The Camden Election Riots of 1870

Election law has certainly earned its eccentric reputation.  From zombie voters to hanging chads, the strange history of modern election law has become ingrained in the public consciousness.  But, as odd as the last decade has been, the previous centuries of election law have been even more bizarre.  So, in this series of articles, State of Elections will take a closer look at some of the stranger moments in election law.

In the previous “bizarre history” article, we discussed the various (and often hilarious) irregularities of  Siskiyou County’s school superintendent election.  Today, we are going to take a more solemn look at one of the strangest and most brutal attempts to disenfranchise black voters in American history.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, Camden County New Jersey was a hotbed of racial strife.  The black population of the county grew dramatically, as former slaves left their plantations and moved up North.  As the black population 316px-Map_of_New_Jersey_highlighting_Camden_County.svggrew, so did the anger of certain elements within the white community. This tension between the whites and blacks in Camden County came to a head during the 1870 Congressional election.  For many of the newly freed slaves, it would be their first time voting.  In Centreville, a small town in Camden County, whites feared that this sudden influx of freed slaves would have an irrevocable impact on local politics. So, they formed a mob and marched down to the polls to stop blacks from voting, anyway they could.

Led by Constable Thomas Souders, Justice of the Peace James Henry and attorney Samuel Davis, the mob (calling themselves “peace officers”)  arrived at the poll station early in the morning and attempted to intimidate the black voters, who had formed a line outside the polls.  According to witnesses, Davis began making threatening remarks to the crowd, and said “if any negro attempts to interfere with white voters, he (Davis) would walk knee deep in blood over them”. When the black voters refused to back down, the white mob charged into the polling station and began beating down the voters as they waited in line.  At least one man, Charles Williams, was shot, another, Theophilus Little, was struck in the head so hard that he died ten days latter from his wounds.  Four more suffered serious injuries at the hands of the white mob.  The peace officers forced the black voters to retreat, and managed to take control of the polling station for a brief time.

The black voters of Camden County, however, would not be so easily denied.  They left the polls and gathered a mob of their own to retake the polling place. They succeeded, and the peace officers slinked away.  The police arrived a short time later, and for a time, both blacks and whites voted in peace, though there was likely more than a little bit of tension in the air.   Approximately 816 ballots were cast that afternoon, despite the earlier violence.

However, Constable Souders and his henchmen were just licking their wounds.  Later that evening, they returned to the polling place and seized the ballot box. They broke it to pieces and scattered the ballots out into the street.  Thankfully, the local sheriff, backed by National Guardsmen, managed to restore order and arrest the “peace officers”. Somehow, all of the ballots were recovered, and voting continued on despite the best efforts of Souders, Henry, and Davis.

The day’s events became known as the Camden Election Riots, and they sparked a thorough federal investigation.  Souders and other members of the mob were charged and convicted of “unlawfully preventing certain legal voters from freely exercising the right of suffrage”. Unfortunately, it appears that no one was ever convicted of the murder of Theophilus Little, nor of the shooting of Charles Williams.

The Camden election riots are a remarkable example of racism at the ballot box. Not ten years after the end of the Civil War, partially fought to free black slaves, Northerners were openly attempting to deny blacks the vote.  Unlike the Jim Crow advocates of later decades, Souders and his mob did not even try to hide their racism under the cloak of election law.  In fact, it was the federal court that stepped in and applied election laws as a force for good, restoring some semblance of justice for the black voters of Camden County.

Anthony Balady is Editor in Chief of State of Elections and a student at William and Mary Law School

http://electls.blogs.wm.edu/2010/02/08/the-bizarre-history-of-election-law-the-camden-election-riots-of-1870/

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