Editor’s note: this is the second of several posts by graduate students in the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture (WPAMC), written as part of their Material Life in America class. Please note that you can click on the images to see larger versions of them.
Every four years we experience waves of negative political advertisements accusing presidential candidates of various faults, from flip-flopping and philandering to war mongering. As we approach another election, we should look back to see how the ads we see today pale in comparison to early political propaganda.
The 1828 presidential election was a dirty fight between John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. Each side began their campaigns almost immediately after their previous presidential battle and quickly sank into negative politics. Partisan newspapers backed one candidate over the other and frequently included propaganda and slander. One such publisher was John Binns, a pro-Adams man in Philadelphia, who printed a broadside covered in coffins and horror stories to prove Andrew Jackson was unsuitable for the presidency. These broadsides, reprinted and disseminated across the country as part of the Adams campaign, became known as the “coffin handbills.”
Winterthur has a coffin handbill in its collection. It is a fascinating document of the historic election, except for one problem; it seems to be a fake. The document has the same stories and bold black coffins as the historic propaganda, but some details are a little off. One coffin faces the wrong way, the woodcut of Jackson stabbing an unarmed man in the back seems too crisp, and the title abbreviates his rank to broadcast “Some Account of some of the Bloody Deeds of GEN. JACKSON.”
Paper conservator Joan Irving helped me put the paper under magnification and found hard wood vessels, confirming that the broadside was not an original piece of 1828 political propaganda, but was made in the last quarter of the 19th century. Earlier in the century, paper was made with rags and cloth fibers.
So is the broadside fake? It certainly is not original to 1828. William Cook, the leading collector of coffin handbills, tracked down at least 27 different versions of the coffin handbill, all with different numbers of coffins and configurations of stories accusing Jackson of heartless murder and violence. One of these versions, at the Library of Congress, seems the closest historical match to the Winterthur handbill; it has 23 black coffins and ends with a reprinted letter from Senator Thomas Hart Benton, but it is original and ours is not.
The Winterthur example is an exact match for one handbill in the Cook Collection at The Historic New Orleans Collection that is known to be a late-19th-century reproduction sold at R.W. Mercer’s Curiosity Store in Cincinnati, Ohio, between 1876 and 1896. The title, layout, stories, direction of coffins, and woodcut images match up between both pieces.
The Cook document came with an advertisement from Mercer’s shop announcing “The Bloody Deeds of Gen. Jackson/ The Famous Coffin Hand Bill Reproduced.” The Winterthur coffin handbill and the Cook Collection reproduction coffin handbill are exact matches in format, imagery, and time of origin, meaning that they likely also shared a place of origin: R.W. Mercer’s Curiosity Store in Cincinnati, Ohio.
So is the coffin handbill a fake? No. It was not made with the intent to deceive people into believing it was the true historic piece of political propaganda. Mercer advertised the document as a reproduction offered for sale at his curiosity store. But why would anyone want to buy a copy of a half-century-old political broadside depicting coffins surrounding small print about unpleasantness?
It may not be pleasant, but the coffin handbill is certainly a striking object. It was sold at a curiosity store, alongside Confederate money, Indian artifacts, and mineralogical specimens. It was an object of interest, something to study or start conversation, and a connection to the politics of the past.
There was a new interest in the American past in the late 19th century that began with the celebration of the Centennial in 1876. In the 1880s, Americans began to memorialize the past as part of the Cult of the Lost Cause after the Civil War. As the end of the century approached, so did a feeling of anti-modernism and a renewed interest in past ways of life. Collectors may have acquired this reproduction because of its connection to Jackson, the American hero of both the North and the South, or because of its role in political history.
The coffin handbill was a famous political artifact and was referenced several times during campaigns and corruption scandals at the end of the 19th century. It gained special attention in Cincinnati, where a local lawyer paraded around an original copy of the propaganda. The handbill was cited in the 1875 conflict in the Democratic Party as a reminder of what Jackson, the founder of the party, would have thought of its current position for paper money. Editorialists claimed that the slanders in the handbill would not have offended Jackson as much as the actions of the Democratic Party would at the time.
The reproduced coffin handbill was not meant to be a beautiful keepsake; it was meant to be a curiosity. There is no evidence that this document was ever displayed; it was folded into quarters and probably tucked away after study. Mercer sold the coffin-laden broadside for 15 cents at his curiosity shop, a small enough fee for a curious customer looking for a link to the past, a prop for the present political debate, or just something weird.