Republican James G. Blaine’s 1884 campaign for president was given a huge boost when the news broke in Buffalo that his Democratic opponent, Grover Cleveland, was the father of an illegitimate child. However, a series of cartoons featuring Blaine as the “Tattooed Man,” a side-show freak, helped undermine it, especially in New York State.
The cartoon shown above, “Phryne Before the Chicago Tribunal,” was one of the most devastating in the series. Drawn by Bernhard Gillam for Puck, a weekly humor magazine, it was published in June shortly before the opening of the 1884 GOP national convention in Chicago. The cartoon was inspired by J. L. Gerome’s 1861 painting, “Phryne Before the Areopagus,” shown below.
Gillam’s illustration shows Blaine as the prostitute Phryne being disrobed by Whitelaw Reid, editor and publisher of the New York Tribune. Blaine wears a bib labeled “Magnetic Pad,” in reference to his nickname, “the magnetic man.” The tattoos refer to many of the shady dealings he had been accused of being involved in. They include: on his right arm, “Guano Statesmanship”; on his left arm, “N[orthern]. Pacific Bonds”; on his right leg, “Anti-Chinese Demagogism”; and on his left leg, “Corrupt Lobby.” The tattoos on Blaine’s torso read: “Monopoly,” “Bluster,” “Little Rock R. R.,” and “Mulligan Letters.”
The words on the urn are: “Presented to J. G. Blaine by the King of the Lobby.” Under the title to the cartoon, Reid says, “Now Gentlemen, don’t make any mistake in your decision! Here’s Purity and Magnetism for you—can’t be beat!”
Reid and Blaine are standing before Republican delegates to the convention who are dressed as ancient Greek senators. Important New Yorkers depicted sitting in the front row include: George W. Curtis, political reformer and editor of Harper’s Weekly (first on the right); William M. Evarts, former U.S. Secretary of State and former U.S. Senator from New York (second from right); Theodore Roosevelt, a young assemblyman and future 26th president of the U.S. (fourth from the right); and Warner Miller, U.S. Senator from New York (sixth from the right).
In the lower right-hand corner of the cartoon, Gillam acknowledges the artist who motivated him to draw Blaine as a tattooed Phryne, by writing, “with apologies to J. L. Gerome.”
Phryne was a courtesan in 4th century BC Greece who was famous for her wit, beauty and wealth. Accused of religious blasphemy, she was put on trial for her life before the Areopagus, the supreme tribunal of ancient Athens. The story goes that when it appeared that the verdict was going to go against Phryne, her lawyer, Hypereides, disrobed her to reveal her naked body to the judges. They were allegedly so impressed by her beauty, they acquitted her.
Skipping ahead thousands of years and returning to the 1884 presidential election, Cleveland narrowly defeated Blaine by capturing New York’s 36 electoral votes by less than 1,200 ballots. The final electoral tally gave Cleveland 219 votes to 182 for Blaine. It is impossible to tell how many New Yorkers were swayed to vote for Cleveland because of the tattoos Gillam inscribed on Blaine’s body in the cartoon but political analysts say their influence was substantial.