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Politics & Government

Foot Powder Wins In A Landslide, And Other Unsavory Election Trivia


AJ Jacobs was the kind of guy who couldn't even get elected to the student council, but that doesn't stop him from pretending he's some kind of expert on elections. He joins us now from New York. AJ, thanks very much for being with us.

AJ JACOBS: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: You've discovered a relationship between alcohol and democracy.

JACOBS: Very close - George Washington, in fact. He was a formidable politician, partly because he knew the importance of getting voters totally wasted. When he ran for the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1758, he provided voters with just like, an ocean of booze and there were only 400 voters so this was about a half-gallon per voter. So those voters who could remain standing and fill out a ballot voted for George Washington.

SIMON: What about this practice called cooping?

JACOBS: Yes. This is in the same area. There was a corrupt practice where party thugs would kidnap a voter and then they'd take him to a small room or a coop and they would get him drunk and make him vote multiple times, often using disguises and changes of clothes. If the voter didn't comply he would get beaten up or killed and the evidence is far from certain on this, but some people believe that Edgar Allen Poe was killed in a cooping incident gone wrong because he was found near a polling station in weird clothes - in farmers' clothes and a straw hat.

SIMON: Wasn't he found in a gutter in Baltimore?

JACOBS: Well, yes a gutter near a polling station.

SIMON: Voter fraud - an issue close to my heart, as a Chicagoan - the Tammany Hall facial hair scandal?

JACOBS: Oh, yes. Tammany Hall, as you know, the famous corrupt political machine in New York, their thugs would grow a full beard then they would go and vote. Then they would go to the barber, shave off a little so they had mutton chops, vote again. Go to the barber again, shave off so they just had a mustache, vote again, until they voted four times - four times per beard.

SIMON: Sometimes you will hear people mutter something insensible and insensitive like, such and such a candidate doesn't have the sense that God gave lettuce - and I understand that you have unearthed some instances where maybe lettuce ran for office?

JACOBS: Yeah. There is a long history of nonhuman candidates running for office. My favorite is a brand of foot powder that ran for mayor of a town in Ecuador in 1967 and actually won.

SIMON: Did the foot powder wind up getting indicted for municipal corruption?

JACOBS: I am sure. Yes, knowing foot powder.

SIMON: Tell us what you ostensibly learned about George Smathers.

JACOBS: He was in the Senate race for Florida in 1952 and he was speaking to a group of people who were allegedly very conservative and not overly-educated so he said - he smeared his opponent - a man named Claude Pepper and he said that Pepper's sister was once a thespian and that Pepper's brother was a Homo sapien and the voters were, of course, shocked and didn't vote for him. Actually, he never said that. It was a joke made up by a newspaper reporter but the story has been repeated so many times that people believe it to be true.

SIMON: So when you say people believe it to be true is it possible you're just talking about yourself?


SIMON: That the rest of humanity has this figured out long ago?

JACOBS: We will take a poll.

SIMON: AJ Jacobs. His current project is to prove he's related to everyone on the planet, even me, as part of The Global Family Reunion.

AJ, as always, it's been - well, let's let people fill in the blank, OK?


JACOBS: Thanks, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.