The Capital War: Haskell’s Secret Plan To Move The Government

by Scott Carter

(Author’s Note: The period between 1890 and 1910 was one of the most unique and dynamic in Oklahoma history. Not only did the Twin Territories merge to become a state but Oklahoma’s Constitution was written and adopted. After the Constitution’s passage, then-President Theodore Roosevelt signed legislation making Oklahoma the 46th state of the union. But other events — which weren’t so positive — also took place, including an incredibly racist gubernatorial campaign and the development of onerous legislation that disenfranchised thousands of African American and Native American residents. These stories explore this period and are based on documents, written first-hand accounts and other resources obtained from the Oklahoma History Center and the state’s official archives. In light of recent events and the nationwide call for racial harmony, we believe these stories provide much deeper context for the state’s often troubled racial history. This is the third story in a multi-part series.)

Oklahoma Governor Charles Haskell, having watched the failed efforts by the state Legislature to relocate the Capital and angry at Logan County’s Republican establishment, was running out of time.

With less than a year left in term as the state’s first elected governor, Haskell pivoted to a new tactic: bypass the Legislature and take the case for the Capital’s removal directly to the people.

Governor Charles Haskell

Haskell’s efforts to leave Guthrie would eventually prove successful – but at the same time Oklahoma’s first elected governor would also show his contempt for the law and his willingness to cross both ethical and legal boundaries to get what he wanted.

Labeled by history as progressive, Haskell has been praised for his creation of banking regulation and the insurance of banking deposits. Pushed by Kate Bernard, Oklahoma’s first Commissioner of Charities and Corrections, Haskell also modernized the Department of Corrections.

Prior to his election as governor, Haskell served as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention. In that capacity he drew the boundaries for state counties and named the county seats and pushed for the direct election of United States Senators. Before that he was vice chairman of the Sequoyah Convention, the short-lived effort to create a separate state for Native Americans.

But there was a darker side to the Oklahoma’s first elected governor.

Haskell, records show, was a demanding, ruthless politician who was contemptuous of the judiciary and who hated criticism to such an extent that he sought – on more than one occasion – to have journalists who questioned his policies arrested and jailed for criminal libel.

Haskell’s racist past was also underscored by his campaign speeches, his efforts to write and pass onerous Jim Crow legislation — disenfranchising thousands of African Americans – and his political friendships, including Tulsan Tate Brady, a member of the Ku Klux Klan and a founder of the city of Tulsa. Brady, a hotel owner, would be appointed by Haskell to the governor’s Capital Relocation Commission. In 1921, less than a decade after the Capitol was relocated, Brady would serve as a watchman for the Klan during the Tulsa Race Massacre.

Tate Brady of Tulsa

During Haskell’s tenure as governor Brady was an important member of the governor’s brain trust.

“As was the custom of Governor Haskell when in Tulsa he made the Tate Brady Hotel his headquarters,” wrote Fred Branson, former justice of the Oklahoma Supreme Court who had previously served under Haskell as the Democratic State Chairman.

Once Haskell was elected governor, he moved quickly to undo progressive legislation signed by Frantz, the previous governor, and earlier Republican administrations.

Then, in 1910, with less than a year remaining in his term, Haskell developed and pushed for the passage of Jim Crow laws and the state’s notorious ‘grandfather clause,’ which established literacy requirements for African American voters, forcing them to prove their ancestors had been registered to vote prior to 1866.

Haskell knew the provision, if it had been added to the state constitution in 1907, would have doomed Oklahoma’s chances of statehood with then-president Theodore Roosevelt. So, in an effort to appease his populist base and still secure Roosevelt’s signature for statehood, Haskell urged the Legislature to wait until after the Statehood Act was signed before acting the Grandfather Clause legislation.

Once it went into effect the Grandfather Clause law had an immediate effect. It caused the defeat of Rep. A.C. Hamlin, the first African American elected to the Oklahoma Legislature. Hamlin, who had been elected by a two-to-one margin in 1908, lost his seat in 1910 after the legislation went into effect.

Still, Haskell’s most notable achievement was his push to shift the government from Guthrie to Oklahoma City.

For a while it seemed as if the governor would let future leaders decide the face of the Capital’s location. During an interview with Guthrie’s Daily State Capital newspaper, Haskell said no thought was ever given to the subject of the removal of the capital “so far as I know.”

Later in the same interview, though, Haskell seemed to walk back his comments, saying, “in my judgement the people can move the Capital anywhere in the state they desire, and whenever they desire to do so.”

The governor’s contempt for Guthrie, its newspaper and the large collection of progressive Republicans was well known. But records show Haskell also had another reason to remove the Capital: a $20,000 payment made to him during the height of the movement effort.

In June of 1909, shortly after the first state question to relocate the Capital failed, Haskell received a $20,000 ‘investment’ from a group of Oklahoma City businessmen to move his newspaper, The New State Tribune, from its home in Muskogee to Oklahoma City.

Haskell announced his newspaper was moving to Oklahoma City in the Tribune’s June 14, 1909 edition.

“During this time the two territories have been joined into a single state so that now under new conditions, the Tribune finds it desirable to remove its office to a more central point in the state where the transportation and mailing facilities will enable us to reach all post offices in the state in time to give our readers the New State Tribune not later than Saturday evening. Hereafter the New State Tribune will be published in Oklahoma City and distributed from that point.”

The New State Tribune

The initial announcement did not include information about how the move was funded or identify the investors who contributed the funds to the newspaper.

The investment story was reported in only one newspaper: the Norman Transcript. In its story, the Transcript questioned timing of the payment and the amount.

The Transcripts’ story drew a harsh rebuke from Haskell.

Haskell said the payments were stock purchases in his newspaper – a tiny weekly, the governor said, with no building with few assets: “a mailing list, a paste pot and a pair of scissors.”

A short time later, Haskell again defended the investment, writing that “the New State Tribune did not ask, nor did it receive any bonus whatever for removing to Oklahoma City. About 30 citizens of Oklahoma City took about $20,000 of stock in the Tribune Company just as any similar business concern might be organized or financed, nothing more, nothing less.”

While Territorial Oklahoma saw the birth of many newspapers – the principal form of mass communication at that time – a $20,000 investment, the equivalent of more than $500,000 today, was an unusually large investment for a tiny, eight-page newspaper with little circulation and few, if any, assets.

The investment becomes even more questionable considering that when Greer’s newspaper, The Daily State Capital, burned down the paper’s corporate insurance policy was valued at $26,000, just a few thousand more than the investment in Haskell’s publication. At that time, The Daily State Capital was three times as large, included a separate printing operation, was filled with state-of-the-art equipment and published six days each week. 

The timing of Haskell’s business deal – made during the same time a second initiative petition to remove the capital was being circulated – provides context into just why the governor pushed so hard to shift the seat of government to Oklahoma City.

In addition to the $20,000 influx of cash, Haskell’s newspaper also featured large, full-page advertisements from the I.M. Putnam Real Estate Company. Putnam’s advertisements were published in Haskell’s newspaper during the same time the governor’s initiative petition was being circulated.

The Putnam Company’s advertisement from the March 21, 1910 edition of the New State Tribune.

 Putnam Real Estate Company, state records show, would also be chosen by Haskell’s hand-picked Capital Location Commission to develop a location to house the new Capitol building once it came to Oklahoma City. Putnam Real Estate would invest $70,000 in its Capital relocation efforts – an amount that would be referenced again before the final moved was made to relocate the Capitol.

Published primarily as a promotional vehicle for Haskell, the Tribune did little to blunt the criticism of Guthrie’s largest newspaper, the Daily State Capital. That paper, and its publisher Frank Greer, would continue to wage a verbal war against Haskell and the state’s new Constitution throughout Haskell’s tenure as governor.

After one particularly harsh editorial, a group of Guthrie residents met with Greer and urged him to tone down his criticism.

Greer complied – but only briefly.

During his term as governor, Haskell threatened to jail Greer for criminal libel and, records show, sent at least one letter to the publisher threatening him physically.

In addition to his complains about Greer, Haskell was also frustrated by Republican Party’s support for African Americans and the GOP’s attempts to poke fun at the Democrat’s favorite son, presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan. Following Bryan’s defeat in 1908, Guthrie Republicans held a celebration that infuriated the both Haskell and his Democratic establishment.

“The political leaders of Guthrie increased their insults on the government and the Democratic state officials,” Leo Meyer, Assistant Secretary of State during the Haskell Administration, said in an interview with federal historians. “The insults reached such as level that it was unpleasant and almost impossible to carry on work.”

Leo Meyer

Still stinging from Bryan’s defeat, Haskell was furious that Republicans staged a celebration which included members of the African American community. “They had Negroes made up to represent Bryan, Haskell and other state officials and they paraded them all over the place heaping additional insult and ridicule,” Meyer said.

That celebration, coupled with Guthrie’s Republican heritage and Frank Greer’s on-going critical editorials, solidified Haskell’s hatred.

“This broke the camel’s back,” Meyer said. “It got so bad (that) Governor Haskell called a meeting of the leading Republicans of the city and demanded a change in policy in action. He told them very emphatically and decidedly that unless this change took place immediately, the Capital would not stay in Guthrie.”

Though publicly Haskell implied that if the public criticism of his administration stopped, the Capital would remain in Guthrie, privately the governor – with the help of the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce and Daily Oklahoman publisher, Edward King Gaylord – was already involved in a secret scheme to relocated capital to Oklahoma City.

To do this Meyer said Haskell called a secret meeting of the ‘leading people connected with business and the Chamber of Commerce in Oklahoma City.’ At that meeting, Haskell and the group “formulated a campaign for the removal of the Capital to some other point.”

Documented in a long-forgotten interview of Meyer by Jon PaskVan, researcher from the WPA’s Federal Theater Project, Haskell’s plan was simple: Use a second initiative and referendum petition to move the Capital out of Guthrie.

Leo Meyer’s testimony with the WPA’s
Federal Theater Project.

Haskell’s petition would also designate a method to purchase land for the new Capital and chose a city that would be the Capital’s new home. The petition was modeled after legislation that had previously been considered by the legislature was known as the New Jerusalem Plan. The petition did not state, though, when the Capital would be moved.

“The initiative and referendum statute provided a method by which an initiative petition could filed for the purpose of calling a vote for removal, but this fact was not generally known,” Meyer said.

The committee, appointed by Haskell, would develop language for a petition then file and circulate the petition to gather the required number of signatures to place it on the ballot.

Haskell also said he wanted the process done in secret.

According to Meyer, the committee included Haskell, Ardmore attorney W.A. Ledbetter, who wrote the petition, Oklahoma City businessman Charles Colcord, oilman William Halsell, Seymore Heyman, then president of the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce, Meyer, C.G. Jones, and Roy Stafford and Gaylord, both of the Oklahoman newspaper.

 In his book, The 46th Star, historian Irvin Hurst notes this meeting, writing that Gaylord traveled to Guthrie for a conference with the governor “about removing the capital from Guthrie.”

In an unpublished interview with Daily Oklahoman reporter Otis Sullivant and now archived with the Oklahoma History Center, Gaylord said he asked Ledbetter to draft the petition.

Once finalized, distribution of Ledbetter’s petition began almost immediately. With help from circulation men from the Daily Oklahoman, the petition was spread across the state and quickly gathered enough signatures to be filed.

“I got our circulation men to circulate it (the petition) all around the state,” Gaylord told Sullivant. “We got sufficient number and then we got the election set down for that and sent all kinds of speakers out all over the state and we even had as many as four special trains at once going out in all different directions.”

On June 21, 1909, Initiative Petition No. 7, listed in the name of A. B. Newbern, an employee of the Oklahoman newspaper, was filed with Secretary of State Bill Cross’ office. The petition, along with its cumbersome provisions, received had received a total of 39,764 signatures for the Constitutional amendment and 27,944 signatures for the location bill.

No records exist which show the petition’s signatures were ever verified or what methods were used by the Oklahoman’s circulation staff to gather those signatures.

The signatures, supporters believed, were enough to place the measure on a ballot. Yet, somehow, despite its public circulation, opponents of the petition were kept in the dark long enough that the five-day protest period — required by state law — passed before they were aware the petition was viable.

In 1909, the Oklahoma Constitution’s initiative and referendum clause required all petitions proposing legislation to have a five-day notification period once the petition had been filed with the Secretary of State’s office. That protest period, the founders believed, would give opponents time to mount their objections.

However, because Haskell and his group had secretly agreed to hide the petition – an illegal act by both the governor and Secretary of State Bill Cross’ office – the petition passed through the notification period without public knowledge of who was behind the proposal and subsequently, without any public input.

“I filed it in Guthrie at midnight,” Meyer said. “When there was no danger of anyone, but the parties involved, knowing it. There was an agreement between members of the committee that everything would be held strictly confidential and that no information would ever be made public.”

The trick, he said, “was to have it witnessed by certain employees of the office, (possibly Meyer) but no publicity was given to the filing and the secret did not get out.,” Meyer told a WPA interviewer in 1933.

That scheme included at least two public officials – Ledbetter and Meyer – and Gaylord, the publisher. “We got sufficient number (of names) and then we got the election set down for that,” Gaylord said.

For five days no newspaper in the territory, including Gaylord’s, published stories about the petition. Then, on July 27, the sixth day after the petition had been filed all hell broke loose. The Kansas City Journal printed a story about the latest plan to move the capital. Oklahoma newspapers, following the Journal’s lead, contributed their own stories.

Just days after the Journal’s story, the Oklahoma City Times, “gleefully charged in a headline that ‘Guthrie Sleeps on Its Rights.’”

Guthrie residents, furious by the scam, turned to court. Logan County Judge Frank Dale filed a writ of mandamus and called for a hearing. Dale charged the filing was purposely hidden to “prevent this plaintiff and all other persons from filing objections to said petition within five days as allowed by law.”

Cross, the secretary of state – and Meyer’s boss – sat as judge. Depositions from the case show that newspaper correspondents assigned to cover the territorial capitol visited the Secretary of State’s office daily, but no correspondent saw, nor could they find listed, the removal petition.

Greer and more than a half-dozen other journalists swore under oath there was no notice of the petition in the Secretary of State’s office. Greer testified that after learning that petitions were being circulated, he directed his staff to “keep a very careful watch at the office of Secretary of State.”

Those same depositions also showed that Meyer’s 1910 testimony was contradicted years later by his interview with the Federal Theater Project. During Meyer’s deposition by Ledbetter – the attorney who drafted the petition, and who Meyer said, conspired with him and others to hide the document – Meyer told Ledbetter the petitions for capital removal were filed at ‘about noon’ on the 21st in the office’s Initiative and Referendum book.

Meyer also testified that Haskell had been present at the filing. Then Meyer, asked if he kept information about the petition hidden, said that he “did not.” And in what can only be considered as one of the more bizarre facets of the case, Cross – sitting as the judge for the hearing – at one point testified on Meyer’s behalf about the location of the Initiative and Referendum book in the Secretary of State’s office.

Eventually, Cross ruled that Haskell’s petition prevailed, and he certified the filing for a public vote. On Jan. 10, 1910, Attorney General Charles West transmitted the ballot title to Haskell which sparked yet another court fight between supporters and opponents of the petition.

A little more than two months later, on March 28, with debate still raging and the court undecided, Haskell issued the proclamation for a special election.

Haskell’s initiative petition with his hand-written change.

But it was at this moment, that Haskell again twisted the law to aid his cause. Though the original petition sent to the governor had an election date of Tuesday, June 14, 1910, Haskell scratched out the date and in his own hand wrote in a new one: Saturday, June 11 – three days before the Tuesday, June 14 election date.

That change gave Haskell the weekend to act without the oversight of any state court.

The play was a familiar one for the governor.

Years before, during his time as a railroad promoter, Haskell had refused to accept a decision by the small village of Ottawa, Ohio, when the village council denied him a right-of-way to lay railroad track. On June 6, 1887, instead of following the law and stopping construction of the right-of-way, Haskell “assembled ties and rails and recruited extra crews of Irish track layers.”

Early Sunday morning, records show, the group “worked feverishly to lay the tracks through the town,” bypassing the municipal authorities and the court. On Monday the town leaders awoke to tracks that had already been put in place. A court challenge to the construction was now moot.

By setting his capital removal election on Saturday, Haskell ensured that no courts were available to hear protests, and when state leaders went to work on Monday, the governor’s office was in ‘the new state capital.’

Greer and residents of Guthrie were incensed.

Facing a hostile governor, Guthrie turned to the voting public, in hope to convince them that the Capital should remain in Logan County. A massive campaign featuring speakers, literature and advertising was launched. Greer’s newspaper led the charge, urging Guthrie residents and others to keep the seat of government in Logan County.

In Oklahoma City, Gaylord’s Daily Oklahoman and the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce ran the opposition’s campaign for capital relocation.

Haskell campaigned, too. A story published in the Shawnee Daily News, reported that during a municipal election in Shawnee, Haskell told the crowd that he would “look favorably on Shawnee for the state capital if they elected Democrats, including the mayor.”

Newspapers across the state chose sides. Publications in both Shawnee and Kingfisher urged residents to the polls while the Daily State Capital and several newspapers in Indian Territory predicted the petition would fail.

In Hobart, the Hobart Democrat predicted “the Oklahoma City bill will be defeated” while the Mangum Star in Greer County, said “the capital bill doesn’t have many friends.”

The Tulsa Democrat, echoing others, wrote that it “regretted that the governor entered a debate, adding “that (the) old bill is bad – very bad.” And in Norman, the Norman Democrat told its readers “we need no removal of the capital now.”

Even newspapers in Haskell’s hometown of Muskogee criticized the bill. The Muskogee Democrat said, “Oklahoma City grafters cannot fool the people. Taxpayers are not anxious to lift loans on those thickly plastered additions.”

The governor, however, stood firm in his hatred of Guthrie. “The governor doesn’t like Guthrie and doesn’t mince words in saying so,” Haskell’s son-in-law, Leslie Niblack wrote in the Guthrie Daily Leader. “That’s personal.”

Niblack’s newspaper, however, opposed the bill.

Greer, seething over the governor’s actions, attacked Haskell with a vengeance. In editorials, featuring red headlines and published above the newspaper’s flag on page one, Greer hammered the removal bill.

On Friday, the day before the Saturday vote, Greer published two editorial cartoons – virtually filling the front page of his paper – that painted the removal petition as legislation filled with graft and special deals for Haskell’s ‘people.’

Saturday, June 11, 1910, voters went to the polls to decide on two state questions, a proposed constitutional amendment and a two-phase capital location bill. The location bill offered voters three options, Shawnee, Guthrie and Oklahoma City.

The end result moved the capital, with more than 98,000 votes for Oklahoma City, 24,000 for Guthrie and 7,000 or so for Shawnee.

Okahoma City had won the vote but the fight for the state Capital was far from over.

Up next: A questionable election, a stolen seal and a new Capital

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