One of the city’s most notorious campaign scandals occurred in 1914. According to government prosecutors, Indianapolis Mayor Joseph Bell and Democrat National Committeeman Thomas Taggart conspired with 126 other individuals to steal what amounted to 323 votes in favor of the Democrat nominee for county treasurer during the May 1914 primary election.

The 48-count indictment read like a who’s who of local Democrats. In addition to Bell and Taggart, others charged with election-related crimes included the Democrat county chairman, the chief of police, the superintendent of the street railways, and members of both the board of public safety and the board of works. More than 100 lower-level city employees were also arrested but were quickly released on bond thanks to bail money furnished by Bell, Taggart, and other party faithfuls.

Prosecutors attempted to paint an ugly picture of a corrupt political machine that bought votes, extorted protection money from saloon keepers, and beat Black voters with riot clubs to prevent them from voting for the Republican slate.

The defense countered that the effort to send Bell to prison was a scheme cooked up by the editor of the Indianapolis News, who was smarting from a libel lawsuit that Bell had filed earlier in the year after the newspaper published an especially ugly editorial linking members of the Bell administration with prostitution and child abuse.

During the six-week trial, one witness for the prosecution testified that he had helped take a group of 15 “repeaters” to various polling places so they could vote repeatedly for the Democrat slate. Several others told jurors of police intimidation and beatings in heavily Black precincts, which tended to vote Republican during those years (see Republican Party). More than 100 saloon keepers were paraded to the witness stand to present testimony on their political contributions to the local Democratic Party, which the prosecution maintained were extracted under threat of force.

Despite a barrage of nearly 700 witnesses, prosecutors had difficulty connecting Bell with any illegal activities. Key prosecution witnesses either recanted the testimony they had provided to the grand jury or developed a hazy memory. As the trial entered its fifth week, jurors were exhausted and impatient.

The state rested its case on October 7, 1915. Bell then took the stand in his own defense, either denying or rebutting each claim in a straightforward manner that–according to the Indianapolis Star–successfully “punctured” the state’s case. Bell was acquitted on all counts, with the courtroom erupting in cheers.

The day-to-day business of governing the city resumed after the trial. But Bell’s legal woes were far from over. In July 1917, Bell and 45 other men were indicted by a federal grand jury for conspiring to prevent voters and candidates in the 1914 election from exercising their constitutional rights through oppression, intimidation, and other tactics. Bell’s indictment followed closely on the heels of the conviction of his police chief, Samuel Perrott, on similar charges, and the guilty pleas of several other city workers. By then, there was no dispute that some city skullduggery had helped shaped the outcome of the 1914 elections.

James Allison and Frank Wheeler, founders of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway; George Marott, Indianapolis entrepreneur, Thomas Taggart, and former governor Samuel Ralston accompanied Bell to the U.S. Marshall’s office to post a $10,000 bond (over $200,000 in 2020). The case went to trial on January 30, 1918, less than a month after Bell’s term ended.

Much of the state’s evidence mirrored the stories told by witnesses in the first trial. After 22 hours of deliberations, the jury reported that it was hopelessly deadlocked on the issue of whether Bell and his co-defendants engaged in a conspiracy to corrupt the 1914 general election. The charges were later dismissed and Bell returned to the practice of law.

Revised February 2021

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