Woodrow Wilson and Charles Evan Hughes, with the old Humboldt County Courthouse between them. Courthouse photo via the Humboldt Historian.

You have probably heard the story about the Presidential election of 1916. It was when Woodrow Wilson was elected President of the United States, the votes from California were a deciding factor.

A delay in reporting the “final votes” to make the election decisive took place in Northwestern California — especially in Humboldt County.

The election of Woodrow Wilson, and because California had swung the election to a Democrat, and that it required nearly two days for a final decision because some precincts in the redwood forested West were “lost,” were enough to make cantankerous Colonel Robert McCormick, publisher of the then noisy Chicago Tribune, dip a vitriolic pen.

He was so angry, he editorially dubbed California “The Champion ‘Boob State’.” He knew he could safely do this, since his circulation and advertising worries did not extend that far west — so, name-calling was safe.

Discovery of the Colonel’s outburst is revealed in a faded clipping from the Chicago Tribune. This provides a sequel to the story of how Humboldt County played an important role in electing President Woodrow Wilson.

Just in case you have forgotten — or you haven’t heard — this is what happened in Humboldt County.

The outcome of the race between Woodrow Wilson, the Democratic choice and Charles Evans Hughes, Republican, was uncertain from the start. When voters went to the polls on Nov. 7, 1916, they were in a nip-and-tuck race.

That evening, however, returns from New York showed the state had been carried by Hughes. In the next four hours, Hughes piled up a commanding lead in the eastern states.

Failing to recognize there was more to the United States than their immediate world, the New York World and the New York Times, both of which supported Wilson, conceded the election to Hughes. Neither the United Press nor the Associated Press declared him elected, although it seemed almost until Wednesday morning. At that time. Wilson was only two electoral votes behind. The Hughes camp was enthusiastic.

In California, all of the counting had been completed, even though the balance of the state had cast 925,000 votes. Election observers began to realize the outcome would depend on who won the state’s 13 electoral votes. By Thursday, the result had narrowed to at least a single county. That was Humboldt. It was the isolated county in the redwood area which held the history-making answer.

Morris DeHaven Tracy of United Press, San Francisco, was a former Eureka newspaperman. Taking on the problem and working on it, he traced the final results through his old friend, County Clerk Fred M. Kay.

At 7 p.m., the Humboldt County Clerk called Tracy: “I got it. I just found an error in counting. About 1,800 votes were erroneously put in the Hughes column. They are Wilson votes and he carries the county by about 1,600 votes.” At that exact moment United Press flashed to the East: “Wilson Carries California!”

Col. McCormick.

In his Chicago Tribute stronghold, publisher McCormick was extremely upset — just as though someone had pulled the rug out from under him — for on Nov. 10, he wrote an editorial: “Nobody at Home in California.” This was his angry scolding:

Several times California, in a stubborn and belligerent mood, has almost put the alternative of war or humiliation upon the rest of the Nation. Some day, when Japan is ready, a California offense will result in the seizure of the Philippines and Hawaii.

California makes the trouble and expects the rest of the country to protect it. It may make a war and drag the rest of the country into it. California is our junker state in all except willingness to strengthen the ability of the Federal Government to meet the trouble it may make and is perfectly willing to make.

California now seems to be concerned chiefly for the right to bluster. The moral conditions of some little rotten spot in the interior of the United States can be understood. But California represents a long coastline which it demands the Navy of the United States to defend. It wants a Pacific Navy. It seems to have voted for a Pacific Navy.

How a State which, when it is not scared itself, is scaring the rest of the nation to death, could have given even two votes in a precinct to the Administration which maintains Josephus Daniels as schoolmaster of the American Navy, is a question beyond normal intelligence.

But giving Wilson the vote it did, California, with its record, presented itself as the champion boob state of the American Republic.

The State which has put the Nation on the edge of war several times kept it in suspense for forty-eight hours in this election, when the issue was one which should have been decided in this outpost State in two hours.

Some day California may have a Japanese Governor — for a while. The rest of the Nation eventually will annul his commission but he may be there for a while.

The editorial closed with a quotation from one of Kipling’s characters — a chaplain, who said: “When people insist in getting in the neck they are first made from the neck up.”

Since the Colonel has been gone some time, more than likely his spirit haunts most California polls each Presidential election. And it probably sputters and shouts when it is unhappy.


The story above was originally printed in the September-October 1980 issue of the Humboldt Historian, a journal of the Humboldt County Historical Society. It is reprinted here with permission. The Humboldt County Historical Society is a nonprofit organization devoted to archiving, preserving and sharing Humboldt County’s rich history. You can become a member and receive a year’s worth of new issues of The Humboldt Historian at this link.