Photograph courtesy of the Delaware Historical Society
We have Super PACs and candidates who audition for billionaires. They had J. Edward Addicks (1841-1919), a gas company executive who desperately wanted to be a U.S. senator. His well-funded influence so divided the state legislature—which then chose senators—that it was unable to fill the seat for 10 years, from 1895 to 1905. Moreover, for two of those years, both seats were vacant.
“All the methods employed by Addicks are not known,” reported the Pilot, a weekly news magazine, in 1903, “but enough is known to show that he scrupled at nothing.” Addicks spent an estimated $3 million on his quest, but never succeeded.
Born in Philadelphia, Addicks was the son of a prosperous merchant and minor Republican politician. He left school at age 15 to begin a business career.
After five years picking up some business basics in the dry goods trade, he went to work for a Philadelphia flour mill owner, Levi Knowles. Within two years, he was Knowles’ partner. In that role, he has been credited for introducing Minnesota spring wheat to Eastern farmers, for whom wheat had previously been harvested in other seasons.
After losing money in the Panic of 1873, Addicks diversified into real estate and railroads. And with the political favors that running railroads invariably brought, Addicks acquired natural gas franchises in several cities.
Americans were then making a big switch away from candles and lanterns for illumination to piped-in natural gas, so that industry, though in its infancy, was growing rapidly. Despite numerous competitors, Addicks demonstrated a talent for entering competitive markets and turning them into monopolies. In such places, he became known as Gas Addicks” and “The Napoleon of Gas.
Addicks built a gas works in Jersey City and, in 1882, was a principal organizer of the Chicago Gas Works. Two years later, he formed the Bay State Gas Works in Boston, and that company later absorbed competitors in surrounding towns. He also acquired a controlling interest in the Brooklyn Gas Co.
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Though Addicks grew up in Philadelphia, he doesn’t seem to have really discovered Delaware until 1889, when he bought control of the Wilmington gas market, plus an estate for himself in Claymont.
“Back from Europe where he made millions from Siberian railroad stock, he used $25,000 to buy Dover legislation that netted him a return of $2 million,” wrote historian Gerard Colby. “Now, this was the kind of state he liked!”
Addicks was a stranger to the state and its political class. Yes, he owned property here, but he was more on the order of a summer beach resident. Addicks spent most of his time elsewhere, especially in Boston. So when he announced after the 1888 election that he would allow himself to be elected to the Senate, the reaction was likely amusement.
“Why Addicks selected Delaware for his venture is a question to be answered,” remarked the New York Times in 1902. “It has been said that it was because he found the Delaware Assembly an easy one to ‘work’ when he wanted a charter for one of his companies.” That, plus the U.S. Senate was an elite club, and belonging would have been satisfying for its own sake. Addicks was a Republican, but seemed to have no political agenda. He never announced a platform.
In any case, his initial offer went nowhere. But Gas Addicks was not easily deterred, and he began the business of acquiring legislative support. Compared with other state legislatures, Delaware’s was a small body, with a combined total of only 52 senators and representatives. That meant fewer to buy.
By 1892, when Delaware’s other Senate seat came up, Addicks had assembled a faction that he called the “Union Republicans.” But Democrats carried that year’s election and maintained control of the Assembly. Again, Addicks went to work. Over the next two years, he put “at least $150,000” into the campaign, according to the Times, and Republicans took over the Assembly in 1894.
“He pointed out that Delaware might have remained forever Democratic without Addicks, and that he should be rewarded,” reported the Times. “To strengthen his argument, Addicks at once flooded the lobbies of the State House with his money.”
He soon had six of 19 Republican votes, and those six made it clear to their colleagues that they wouldn’t vote for anyone but Addicks. The other 13 were committed to Henry A. du Pont, a Civil War veteran, railroad executive and, well, a du Pont. Neither would withdraw, and the minority Democrats wouldn’t help either side. So the seat remained vacant. For 10 years.
There were many sub-chapters to the story. In 1898, Addicks “persuaded” three Democrats to vote for him, and they had to be escorted from the Capitol to safety by police. But none of the 13 du Pont Republicans ever budged. In 1902, Addicks switched strategies, buying actual voters rather than legislators. Some pocketed as much as $30 each, reported Outlook news magazine, quoting a Sussex County resident observing that all the Addicks money had been “a great help to the farmers.”
Addicks failed and failed again. Failure didn’t seem to bother him. He didn’t withdraw until after the 1904 election, when a decline in copper stocks ruined him financially. Du Pont took his seat in the Senate in 1905.
Wasn’t all this seen as scandalous? Not so much. “I’m a Democrat myself,” said the Sussex resident, “but when a man spends his money like he does, I’m damned if I don’t think he’s entitled to it.”