The City Charter Contest and the Stillborn Election of September 21, 1889

Dissatisfied with the city council’s alleged incompetence and reliance on the military to enforce its policies, a popularly elected committee of fifteen leading citizens submitted its own city charter to a vote of the people. The election, slated for September 21, 1889, required eligible voters to (1) adopt or reject the charter; (2) adopt or reject the school system as provided in the charter; and (3) decide whether or not city officers should be retained in office.

Standing at the corner of Main Street and Broadway, newspaperman and civic leader Angelo C. Scott recalled the morning of September 21 as “cloudless, serene, and cool”—a perfect day for the people to make their voices heard at the polls. Scott’s optimism turned to shock when Captain D. F. Stiles, provost marshal of Oklahoma City, arrived at the polling place with a company of soldiers with instructions from the city council to prevent the election.

All Hell broke loose as formerly buoyant citizens were advised to clear the streets. Facing armed soldiers, most complied and wasted no time in doing so. “But it seems that they were not moving quite fast enough to suit Capt. Stiles,” asserted newspaper editor H. W. Sawyer in the Oklahoma City Daily Times (touted on the masthead as “The People’s Paper”), “and he ordered his men to charge on the retreating citizens. Of course a large body of citizens could not move as rapidly as the troops, and they stuck with bayonets and clubbed muskets the retreating citizens in a merciless manner, inflicting in many cases, serious wounds.” Sawyer and his associate editor, Mort L. Bixler, were among those who were singled out for arrest at Mayor William L. Couch’s behest and escorted to “the calaboose.”

Heroes on that bleak day in Oklahoma City’s infancy included Roscoe Bell’s father. “Father stepped forward and with a commanding military voice raised his hand and halted the company,” recalled Roscoe about what was surely a treasured family memory. “He disarmed two or more of the soldiers and stacked their guns in front of the company.” Advised of the military’s intervention in what was strictly a civilian matter, President Benjamin Harrison shot off a terse telegram to Captain Stiles: “Repair to the Military Reservation and cease your interference with the municipal affairs of Oklahoma City.”

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