A Contested Transition
For a few days in December 1892, armed men of opposing political parties filled different rooms in the Wyoming State Capitol, deep in “earnest consultation,” one newspaper reported, over whether the man in the governor’s office had any right to be there. Matters were extremely tense.
John Osborne, a Rawlins physician and a Democrat, had won the governor’s race the previous month by a comfortable margin—9,290 to 7,509. For two years, since the brand-new governor, Francis E. Warren, had resigned the governorship on being elected to the U.S. senate, the former secretary of state, Amos Barber, had been serving as an unelected acting governor. All the heat was coming now from the burning question of when it was legal for the new governor-elect to take office.
That is, was Osborne’s election a special election? Or was it a regular, general election? If the former, he could take office promptly. If the latter, he’d have to wait until inauguration day in late January 1893. Osborne didn’t hesitate much. On Dec. 2, he hired a notary public to administer the oath and issued a statement saying he was now governor. The wonderful tale that he crept around a Capitol ledge and pried open a window to enter the office is, alas, most likely untrue, invented by his Republican enemies.
One historian made light of Osborne’s difficulties, calling them “a comic-opera time.” From this distance—and with our own national-election difficulties now dominating the news—it can almost seem so. But to Osborne and the people around him, all this mattered a great deal.
As head of the five-member state canvassing board, the governor wielded considerable power to rule on disputed races. The board was slated to meet in December. Several of the Wyoming legislative races were very much in dispute—enough to affect which party held the majority. And the majority party, in those days when state legislatures elected U.S. senators, would be holding Sen. Warren’s future in its hands.
Wyoming politics were profoundly split. The spring before, vigilantes had invaded Johnson County in an ill-fated effort to stop cattle rustling, murdering two men in what came to be called the Johnson County War. Many in the public identified the invaders with the Republican Party. Election of Osborne, the Democrat, was a clear repudiation of Republican power that violent year.
That all seemed simple enough. But once the legislature convened, things got complicated: Now it wasn’t just a question of Republicans and Democrats, but Populists, too. Would they be able to team up with the Democrats? Could anyone hold a majority? Wyoming politics were melting down.
For the rest of the story, read historian Lori Van Pelt’s article, John E. Osborne and the Logjammed Politics of 1893.