The Tragedy of Dimmock Hollow: Disaster Strikes at a Crazy 1888 Campaign Rally

On the morning of August 28, 1888 residents of the Dimmock Hollow area woke up knowing that it was going to be a memorable day. They couldn’t have known how right they were.

A political rally had been planned by some local Republicans to support Benjamin Harrison in his presidential campaign against Grover Cleveland. Republicans knew that the race would be close, nowhere more so than here in Cleveland’s home state of New York.

The rally was planned after county Democrats raised a liberty pole near the schoolhouse in Dimmock Hollow, a tiny crossroads close to the Otsego-Chenango County border between South New Berlin and Morris. Republicans were determined not to let their rivals have all the fun…or the votes.

NY State Map
Map of New York State, circa 1876. Dimmock Hollow is in the red circle. Image credit: New York Public Library.

Liberty poles raisings  were important events for local communities; enthusiastic demonstrations of patriotism and unity for like minded neighbors. The very first liberty poles in the United States had been raised during the American Revolution as an act of defiance against the British. Later generations of Americans claimed the symbol for their political parties, making liberty poles a central part of their rallies.

“Raising the Liberty Pole 1776,” Frederick Chapman, c. 1875. Image source: Library of Congress.

As was the custom of the time, Republicans from Dimmock Hollow and other neighboring towns decided to raise their own, taller, liberty pole nearby (theirs was 124 feet tall). It was also custom for pole raisings (sometimes called “jollifications”) to include a full day’s worth of revelry and celebration. It was a time when carousers could give raucous speeches, share a keg of hard cider, and make a lot of noise.

The Republicans planned, as one attendee later remembered, an “elaborate program” for the day.

That’s an understatement if I ever heard one.

A picnic and grand campaign speeches for supporters and curious onlookers all were planned to accompany the pole raising. But here is where it gets interesting:  some of the more “athletic” Republicans thought the day would be more memorable if they fired a cannon to cheer Harrison on to victory.

They hauled an ancient cannon to Dimmock Hollow, said to be a relic of the Mexican American War. It belonged to Addison Hill, the son of an army veteran. Hill stuck around to oversee the loading and firing of the gun, but the actual work was left to some fearless young men. Suffice to say none had artillery experience of any kind.

Powder and dry sand were mixed together in equal parts and loaded into the old cannon. The crowd, eager to hear the cannon’s roar, gathered around the gun. After the first discharge, one of the axles shattered from the force of the explosion. Undaunted, the men repaired it and the cannon was reloaded. “The old cannon had a vicious recoil and it didn’t take many shots for the brute to kick itself loose from its carriage,” one witness recalled. Unfazed by the shattered carriage and dire warnings from a Civil War veteran in the crowd, Hill and his assistants balanced the muzzle of the cannon on a log and prepared to fire another Republican salute at noon before lunch. Afterwards they planned to return and finally raise their liberty pole.

Vera Cruz
The cannon probably looked like this one used at the 1846 Battle of Vera Cruz. Currier & Ives, 1847. Image credit: Library of Congress.

An fatefully heavy charge of powder was loaded. Crammed in with paper wadding and tamped down with sand, the charge was packed into the barrel and the fuse lit. It only took a few seconds more for the festivities turn into a horrifying disaster.

An old iron gun.
Of course it was gonna blow.
And then three were dead.

Finally succumbing to the strain, the cannon exploded. Several of its jagged pieces were hurled into the crowd of onlookers and claimed the lives of John Dixon, Fred Sage, and his cousin Albert Sargent. They were struck in the head and all died instantly. “The spectators stood as though paralyzed for a moment,” one reporter wrote, “and then the entire throng surged toward the three victims of the explosion.” All three men were local, and had been standing in the nearby crowd with their families. They were all 26 or younger.

Onlookers tried in vain to aid their friends. One jumped on a horse and hurried to find a physician. When he arrived at the doctor’s office, he discovered that his “trousers  from the knee to the bottom were bespattered with brains.” But he was too late. They were all one cannonade too late.

No one ever figured out why the cannon exploded that day. Some thought the men loaded the cannon with too much powder. Others thought that it was simply too old and shouldn’t have been fired in the first place. Addison Hill was never able to give a satisfactory explanation.

Oddly enough, none of the men firing the cannon were killed or even harmed, though one man did loose part of his hat and several pieces of the barrel crashed through the wall of the nearby cheese factory several yards from the explosion.

Distraught, the men in charge postponed the liberty pole raising and abandoned the picnic lunch and other activities of the day. The next day local papers reported that “the pole still lies prostrate and it is probably that no further attempt will be made to raise it.”

How could this have happened? Were presidential politics really this intense and eventful in 19th century American towns?

Yes. Yes they definitely were.

Though this particular rally at Dimmock Hollow’s ended on a tragic note, the day’s activities were far from uncommon.

A lot of effort and excitement went into 19th century political rallies like this one. For the citizens of Dimmock Hollow, a presidential election was the perfect opportunity to support your candidate and have a good time…at the same time. There were more connections between small town American life, politics, and entertainment back then than you might expect.

Partying through the campaign season was nothing new in 1888. A generation earlier, Americans had fallen love with the hard-scrabble, hard-drinking William Henry Harrison and elected him into office over the stuffy incumbent, Martin Van Buren. Harrison was actually an aristocratic Virginian and had served in many high political offices, but was charactetured by his opponents as a gruff old man from the backwoods who would rather sit and drink with friends than govern.

One Baltimore newspaper infamously declared “give him a barrel of hard cider and settle a pension of two thousand a year on him, and take my word for it, he will sit the remainder of his days in a log cabin.” Harrison’s campaign knew an opportunity when they saw one. They quickly began to craft an image of their candidate as a champion of the common man. They portrayed Harrison as a man who lived in a gruff cabin and liked nothing better than to drink cider with a friend or neighbor. And to reach the common man, the Whigs planned a grass-roots campaign that focused more on entertainment than on discussing political issues.

Tippecanoe and Tyler Too

Harrison became known as the “hard cider and log cabin” candidate, and the Whig party milked it for all it was worth. Supporters wrote songs about Harrison “the farmer”  looking for hard cider to drink in the White House and.  At an 1840 Whig convention in Columbus, Ohio, thousands of spectators came to watch a huge parade that featured a giant log cabin on wheels decorated with live raccoons and plenty of mud. It’s builders rode on the roof drinking hard cider and lauding Harrison.

The party didn’t stop there either- barrels of cider were on every Columbus street corner so supporters could join in the fun. Although Harrison wasn’t personally involved in the campaign revelry (he preferred to stay at home and let his supporters campaign/party on his behalf), his campaign helped make politics more accessible and more enjoyable to ordinary Americans.

After Harrison’s party campaign led to much success at the polls, other candidates took notice and began mixing politics and pleasure in their own campaigns. Political activities became a social and civic duty for voters. By making campaigns fun and inviting, candidates could count on more votes too.

When Benjamin Harrison (WHH’s grandson) made his run for the presidency 48 years later, he kept the ball rolling. Literally.

Morton Campaign Ball
Morton’s great Republican Campaign Ball, 1888. Image credit: Library of Congress.

When the younger Harrison announced his candidacy, his supporters prepared a campaign full of pomp and grandeur. One stunt involved a giant steel and canvas ball that supporters rolled from town to town across the country. Built in Cumberland, Maryland, the ten-foot ball had political slogans brightly painted on for all to see.

“Old Allegheny in 1840 started the ball for Harrison; In ’88 as they did then, We roll it on for Gallant Ben. Roll along, Roll away, Keep the ball in motion; The spirit of our men is up from Rocky Hills to Ocean.”

The giant ball was a replica of one built by William Henry Harrison supporters a generation earlier, and was rolled through many a small town with the same effect.

Though Benjamin Harrison’s ball didn’t roll through Dimmock Hollow, local residents planned their own festivities with the same spirit.

For ordinary Americans living in small towns and rural areas far away from Washington, D.C., national politics could feel distant and unrelatable. Local presidential campaign events like these helped encourage locals to participate in the political process, and made it an enjoyable affair to boot. Even though there were many restrictions on who could vote at the time, these events were for everybody in town.

Entertainment opportunities could be scarce in tiny communities like Dimmock Hollow and presidential campaigns created an opportunity for neighbors to gather and enjoy themselves regardless of how serious they were about politics.

Fun and games aside, campaign revelries also paid big dividends for candidates. Benjamin Harrison narrowly won the election of 1888 over Grover Cleveland, even though he lost the national popular vote. The race in New York was particularly tight: Harrison edged Cleveland out by just 15,000 votes (49.28% to 48.19%). Republican victory in the Empire State, thanks in no small part to votes in rural areas like Otsego and Chenango counties, was the tipping point that many believe won the election.

Cleveland Parade
Democrats could throw a party too, this one was to celebrate Cleveland’s presidential victory in 1884. Image credit: Pennsylvania State Archives.

The grand grass-roots political revelries of the 19th century have largely disappeared since the tragedy at Dimmock Hollow. Since then, presidential candidates have taken a more personal role in their campaigns. With the development of television and radio, events are much more scripted and regulated by political parties at the national level.

Though American politics look like a circus today, modern rallies and campaign events can trace their heritage back to the wild and woolly celebrations of the 19th century.  Understanding where the campaign traditions of the time came from and where they fit in the daily lives of rural Americans can help us understand why political campaigns operate like they do today.

Travel to Dimmock Hollow today and  there are few reminders of the political revelries that once were the talk of the town.

A few years after the tragedy of 1888, locals collected $120 to raise a monument to their fallen neighbors. The small stone, still located near the site of the explosion,  reads:

“In rememberance of Fred G. Sage, Albert H. Sergeant, John J. Dixon. Who were killed on this place Aug. 28, 1888 by the bursting of a cannon at the raising of a Republican flag pole. This monument is respectfully raised by the public.”

The Dimmock Hollow monument as it looks today. Photo credit: Penny Kressl.

Today, the pillar is overgrown with brush and hidden unless you’re looking for it. You really have to dig find the history behind these brief words. In a way, it’s even more fitting like this: a small tribute to the memory of three men and the colorful world of politics and fun they tragically represent.

Author’s note: Albert Sergeant is my ancestor. My grandfather’s family lived in South New Berlin, just a few miles from Dimmock Hollow, for many generations. If you’d like to read some contemporary accounts of the tragedy, click here or here.


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