The Never-Seated U.S. Senator from Philadelphia

Thomas W. Cunningham and William S. Vare in 1931 (PhillyHistory.org)

In 1926 William Vare was elected to the United States Senate, defeating Democrat William B. Wilson by more than 180,000 votes. But when the new Congress began, the Senate voted to refuse Vare his seat.

Thus began “a bitter and gigantic struggle.”

Wilson charged “massive corruption,” alleging “Vare and his supporters used padded registration lists, misused campaign expenditures, counted votes…from persons who were dead or never existed, and engaged in intimidation and discouragement of prospective voters.”

“The fraud pervading the actual count by the division election officers is appalling,” a Senate committee would conclude. “The average Philadelphia voter had a one-in-eight chance of having his ballot recorded accurately on Election Day.”

William S. Vare, “the youngest of a trio of brothers who had intermittently ruled Philadelphia in the name of the Republican Party since the turn of the century” had been the city’s “undisputed boss” through most of the 1920s. According to the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, Vare “commanded more political power than any other single Philadelphian before or since.”

The Vare family came to power and fortune “by way of the contracting business, particularly municipal contracts for such work as cleaning streets, collecting garbage, and erecting public buildings” wrote Samuel J. Astorino. Their machine “was closely-knit, slick, and loyal.”

“Bill Vare was at the head of this once almost impregnable Republican organization not because of any unusual intellectual or social acumen,” explained J. T. Salter in 1935. “He was in no sense a cultured or highly civilized person. He had never had time to read, and he knew nothing of the liberal arts. … But he was an ultra-specialist in ward and city politics. … He saw with an eye single to the fifty wards in Philadelphia, and the 1,283 divisions of these wards. He was a prototype of his people—the conservative, matter-of-fact, uneducated, hard-working people that actually lived in the fifty wards of that interminable city of small homes, block on block of duplicate houses, wall to wall on narrow, treeless streets. If the boiled-down psychic residue of all these people could be put into one test-tube…and that of Vare be put in another, and both tubes held to the light, they would have looked the same…”

“Not only was he like the mass of voters in his city,” Salter continued, “he was never ashamed of his humble beginnings as the tenth and youngest son of an English farmer in “The Neck,” who went to work as a cash boy at Wanamaker’s when he was twelve-and who spent his youth as a huckster and a hauler of ashes and garbage. None of the Vares were ever ashamed of this. Once [rival politician Boies] Penrose called William S. ‘the ash-cart statesman,’ and he accepted the appellation; it became part of his political capital and was worth votes at the polls.”

Vare’s Philadelphia base loved his gritty, everyman style. That appeal and the funds raised for his campaign from allies of all stripes were intended to secure his seat in the U.S. Senate. Real estate broker, developer and banker Albert M. Greenfield happily donated $125,000 to support Vare’s “life’s ambition.” Greenfield had the money to give.

But how Philadelphia Sheriff Thomas “Big Tom” Cunningham managed a $50,000 donation on his salary of $8,000 would remain a curious mystery, one that even the Senate investigation and the courts could not crack.

No matter. Vare’s corruption was exposed; he never did make his way to that seat in the U. S. Senate.

(Sources: Samuel J. Astorino, “The Contested Senate Election of William Scott Vare,” Pennsylvania History, 28 (April 1961), 187-201; Mark Grossman, “William Scott Vare.” Political Corruption in America: An Encyclopedia of Scandals, Power & Greed, 2nd edition. (Grey House Publishing, 2008); Thomas H. Keels, “Contractor Bosses (1880s to 1930s),” The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, 2016; J. T. Salter, ”The End of Vare,” Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 50, No. 2 (Jun., 1935), pp. 214-235; Russell Weigley, Philadelphia: A 300 Year History (W. W. Norton & Company, 1982).

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