Back in 1911, Wilkes-Barre, PA resident John Jay “Butch” McDevitt won the Democratic Primary for county treasurer. The only problem was that the Democratic Committee didn’t want McDevitt on the ballot. Find out how the party got rid of him and how he capitalized on this for the rest of his life.
Useless Information Podcast Script
Original Podcast Air Date: November 25, 2016
Let’s suppose that a political party is stuck with a candidate that they simply don’t want on the ballot. A candidate who doesn’t represent their values. A candidate who they believe has little chance of winning the election. This may sound like I am referring to President-elect Donald Trump, but I am not.
Instead, let me introduce you to the subject of today’s story. His name is John Jay McDevitt, aka Butch McDevitt, and a little more than a century ago he put the Democratic party in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania in a similar position. The best part, as you will soon learn, was that he walked away from the situation with his dignity intact, a smile on his face, and managed to retain the respect of his community for the rest of his life.
Born on June 2, 1875, McDevitt spent many years hopping from one job to another, which included stints as a milkman and as a coal miner. His true-life calling would come at the age of 22 when he claims to have read a story in a newspaper that said that what the city really needed was a bright young man to be elected mayor. He decided that he was that bright young man, ran for the office, and lost.
A few years later, he was elected to be constable of the city’s Thirteenth Ward. In 1908 McDevitt sought reelection as constable on the Democratic ticket and also ran to become Wilkes-Barre mayor as a Republican. Running for office on two competing tickets was just as ludicrous back then as it is today, but Butch didn’t care. By this time, he had become well known around the community for his great sense of humor and no one took him seriously. Even McDevitt knew perfectly well that he had no chance of becoming mayor, but he figured that he had nothing to lose by trying. He did win reelection as constable, but lost big time in the race for mayor. Out of 3,936 votes cast in total, he received just 356.
The event that would forever change his life occurred on October 7th of 1911. After days of counting the ballots, it was announced that John Jay McDevitt had won the Democratic primary for county treasurer. He secured 1,864 out of 3,464 votes cast. The candidate that the party had been backing, Bolton G. Coon, had lost to McDevitt by 817 votes.
The bigwigs of the county Democratic Committee were in a panic. They were certain that McDevitt would lose in the general election and there was no way that they wanted an Irishman to be on their ticket. They knew that there was only one way to get McDevitt to quit: they would need to buy him off.
McDevitt demanded $5,000 (approximately $128,000 today) and the right to endorse the opposing Republican candidate. The Democratic leaders balked at this outrageous request, so McDevitt threw it back in their face. He raised his price to $6,000.
In the end, a deal was reached. McDevitt was handed $1,500 in cold, hard cash and the promise that he would receive an additional $1,000 if the Democratic candidate won the election. But wait; there was more to the deal. Should the Democrats win, they also promised McDevitt a position in the commissioner’s office. Ever the jokester, he claimed that he arranged it so his brother would work the morning shift and then at noon he would go into work, ensuring that a McDevitt was always on the job. He told the press, “At noon each day the McDevitt brothers will change shifts.”
Rumors started to spread that McDevitt had sold out for $500, to which he responded, “I would ruin myself politically to sell out at that low figure and the fellows who are putting around the story are miscreants of the lowest type whose aim is to bring my downfall in the world of politics.”
Butch offered the following statement to the public: “Allow me to thank all those who voted for me at the recent primaries and also my friends who directly or indirectly assisted me in seeking the nomination for county treasurer. I spent little time and less money than any other aspirant and although I had a walkover and actually little trouble in getting in the ticket, I must say that it was a harder job to get off the ticket.”
McDevitt filed papers that he had received a total of $7.60 from others, but spent none of it on his race for county treasurer. Instead it was used to fight off a candidate who was running for city treasurer instead. In the end, the Democrats swept the election, McDevitt pocketed the $2,500 but was never awarded that position in the commissioner’s office.
So, what would you do if you had suddenly come into a large amount of money – they had given McDevitt the equivalent of nearly $65,000 in today’s funds? Maybe put it in the bank, purchase some stock or go bet it on the horses? Butch McDevitt, ever the comedian, decided to do something more memorable. Since he had technically won the Democratic nomination for county treasurer, he figured that he was entitled to a banquet in his honor. Since no one offered to throw one for him, he decided to host one himself at a hotel in Wilkes-Barre a few weeks after he quit the race.
Imagine a banquet where the master of ceremonies, the host, the guest speaker, and the honoree are all the same person. He introduced himself, bowed to imaginary guests, and gave the obligatory speech:
“It is a rare privilege to have such an honor bestowed upon me by myself, and I appreciate the consideration of the former candidate, so tonight I pay tribute to myself and feel elated in knowing what it all means, and I assure you, Mr. McDevitt, that no one appreciates the honor bestowed upon you more keenly than yourself.”
This stunt brought McDevitt instant fame in the national papers. The Buffalo Evening Times wrote a glowing editorial on his actions. In part, they wrote, “We’d rather see a man like McDevitt not take himself seriously enough but pull off his coat and help the party, than have a man take himself so seriously he won’t help the party at all.” The paper continued, “The spectacle of McDevitt acting as his own entertainment committee and after-dinner speaker is a great deal finer than would be the spectacle of McDevitt sulking because a delegation of obsequious gentlemen didn’t appear and offer him a monogrammed watch or a gold-headed cane.”
But John McDevitt still had money in his pocket and he was determined to spend all that remained of his election payoff. Butch felt that this money made him rich and he wanted to live just one day as a rich person does. He announced that he would accomplish this goal by going to New York City and spending all his money in one single day. From this day forward, John Jay McDevitt would forever be known as the “Millionaire for a Day.”
“You see, I have no particular reason for going to New York, but I feel that as the ‘well-to-do’ take trips to the metropolis, it is up to me to get in the swim.”
Prior to his trip, McDevitt hired a valet, but never bothered to ask for his real name. Instead, Butch referred to him as Smoke, since he felt that the main purpose of his valet was to provide him with a lit cigar at all times. He also hired a physician, Dr. E. A. Sweeney, who was paid $25 per day as long as Butch remained healthy and only $5 per day should he get sick.
Supposedly the rich never get up before noon, so Butch did the same on January 12, 1912. When he arose, Smoke was ready with the first lit cigar. A perfumed bath was drawn and then Smoke gave Butch a rubdown. He dined in the grill room of the best hotel in Wilkes-Barre and tipped the waiters $2 (about $50 today) each.
As he exited the hotel, Butch was greeted by a large crowd of reporters, photographers, and ordinary citizens. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of nickels that he tossed to the crowd. At 1:15 a large touring car appeared in front of the hotel and Butch was escorted to the limousine by his personal secretary John Lenahan, who was really the hotel’s assistant manager.
And then it was off to the train station in style: a total distance of one city block. Upon arrival at the station, McDevitt stood up and gave a humorous speech, which included the following: “Ladies and Gentlemen: I am about to spend every cent I own on an experiment. I am going to spend it to boom this infernal town. It needs it and I have long recognized that it needed it. Of course, I have no other ideas. I am certainly going to try to enjoy myself while I am doing this. I am going to New York, the greatest city in the world, in the palatial special train which I have engaged and which you now see approaching, drawn by yon huge mogul locomotive.”
After his speech concluded, the city of Wilkes-Barre gave him a tremendous sendoff as he boarded the train that he had rented for the trip. He claimed that the train alone had cost him $516 (nearly $13,000 today). It consisted of three Lehigh Valley cars, including a Pullman car to carry Butch and his newly hired staff plus an empty baggage car to carry his one suitcase. McDevitt was greeted by large crowds at every stop along the way to New York. Each and every time he would step to the rear of the last car and address the crowd.
Upon his arrival in New York, McDevitt hired an expensive taxicab to take him the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. During his first meal at the hotel, Butch ordered just about everything on the menu. That included 18 types of cheese, 11 different cocktails, and many desserts.
He had heard the millionaires have bulletins sent out just to tell others how they were doing, so he instructed his doctor to do the same. Dr. Sweeney constantly took McDevitt’s pulse and prepared bulletins to update the public on his health.
Nighttime brought an outing with composer George M. Cohan. In a strange and totally unplanned coincidence, he attended a play about a fake millionaire. Upon conclusion of the second act, Butch was led backstage and gave the lead actor a baton supposedly made from anthracite coal and studded with diamonds; all a fake, of course.
At Hammerstein’s Theater, Butch was offered $1000 to appear for one week in vaudeville. He politely turned the offer down. “I don’t want to commercialize this thing. I’m having a good time and I just want to go home broke when it’s over.”
By the end of the evening Millionaire for a Day John Jay McDevitt had become broke Butch McDevitt. He had spent nearly every penny that he had. He boarded the New Haven train and headed for home. Upon arrival back in Wilkes-Barre, his secretary determined that Butch still had $1.58 remaining. McDevitt then handed $1.50 to the porter. His last 8-cents was given to a newsboy.
McDevitt may have thrown away a fortune in a short period, but his life would forever change. He was now famous across the nation. He received hundreds of invitations to give speeches coupled with numerous offers for him to appear on the stage. He turned all but one of the offers down, declaring that he would appear “For charity only.”
One month later on February 18th, McDevitt declared his candidacy for Congress. He had visited President Taft at the White House and released the following statement: “Say for me that the next representative form Luzerne County will be your royal highness. I need the money, like the place, and have decided to respond to the voice of my people. So prepare ye way for John Jay McDevitt, ‘millionaire for a day.'” Don’t bother checking the history books to see the election results. Neither the public or McDevitt himself took this seriously. His next stunt would further confirm that the McDevitt was ever the jokester.
On October 1st, Butch announced that he was going to have a statue erected in his memory. He felt that the people of Wilkes-Barre were not treating a great man like him as well as they should and a monument would assure that he would be remembered forever. Butch was very generous when it came to having the statue erected. Not only would he commission it himself, but he would also do the unveiling. His plan was to ask the city to have it erected in the city’s Public Square Park. If they declined, he would ask the county commissioners to consider his application. And should they refuse, he would purchase a small parcel in the central part of the city and have the statue erected there. As you could probably guess, neither of his applications were approved nor did he buy that tiny parcel of land.
But that wasn’t the end of McDevitt’s statue. In March of 1913 a letter that he penned was published in the newspapers asking the nearby city of Scranton to provide a location for his statue. That failed. A few weeks later, he requested that his statue be placed on the grounds of the State Capitol. They didn’t bite.
On December 6th, Butch announced that he had once again come into a large pile of cash – in this case a $3,000 from a publisher in exchange for a book about his life – and he was going to use it to charter a special train of six cars with Washington, DC as the destination. His plan this time was to request that Congress place his monument in the Statuary Hall in the Capitol.
So, imagine this. On February 3, 1914, thirty uniformed police officers, all paid for by McDevitt, led the way as Butch made his way to the Lehigh Valley train station to embark on his trip. Following right behind him was a fifty-piece band. A crowd of approximately 2,000 gathered at the depot as a six-horse truck carried along the bronze statue. Bronze as in that it was really a plaster of Paris cast finished off with a bronze-colored paint. Upon its arrival, four coal miners hauled the life-size statue of John Jay McDevitt up to the platform.
He offered up the following speech to his fans, “Look here my friend, Congress will accept it. Will a polar bear accept ice? Will the Mexican government take money? In years to come people will read their histories, then say: ‘That Congress which bagged that McDevitt statuary was some national body. It leaped upon the chariot of opportunity and tore the throttle wide open.'” The train blew its whistle and Mr. McDevitt was on his way to Washington. Along its journey, the statue was stood up on the rear platform of the observation car so that people could wave to it as it went by.
Upon his arrival at Union Station, an estimated 2,000 people greeted him indoors and another 5,000 were outside. A parade led by a group of policemen on bicycles was followed by a 25-piece section of the Marine Band. Next in line was a truck that read “We Carry Anything”, which, in this case, meant the McDevitt statue. Upon arrival at the Sterling Hotel, two piano movers carried the statue up to the suite of rooms that Butch had rented for the night.
“The only difference between Napoleon and myself is that Napoleon led an army and I did not. Some people say I am crazy, but the only difference between eccentricity and insanity is $100,000, and I am darn near broke. I am the most successful failure that ever lived.”
Butch awoke the next day from the bed in his seven-room suite and was told that a line of chorus girls had called to pay their respect. “Tell them to wait until I have my champagne bath and I shall receive them.”
Then it was off to the Capitol to present the statue. He was informed that each state is only allowed two statues in the Statuary hall and Pennsylvania had already used up their allotment. In addition, Speaker of the House Champ Clark denied McDevitt a permit to give a speech on the Capitol steps. McDevitt and his bronze-coated likeness then boarded a train and headed home to Wilkes-Barre.
That wasn’t the end of the news about his statue. In August of 1915 it was announced that the town of Port Chester, NY had agreed to provide a site for the statue. There was one catch: McDevitt had to pay the town $5,000 for its long-term maintenance (about $118,000 today), an amount of money that he did not possess. One month later McDevitt was at the Milton fair attempting to present it to elected officials there. No dice. By December he was trying to convince Scranton to take it. This was followed by an attempted giveaway in Atlantic City the following year. Finally, on September 3, 1917 it was announced in the press that the bronze beast would finally find a home in the small town of Highland, PA. Today the town has a population of 492 people, so this wasn’t the ideal location.
You are probably wondering how McDevitt supported himself and came up with the money to have that statue made and drag it all over the place. That’s a good question and no one knows for sure. Two things are certain: First, he was not independently wealthy. Second, he was an awful businessman. He operated a cigar store, which went out of business in 1913. He also operated a couple of mildly successful publications, but they offered him no great source of income. After his millionaire for a day stunt, McDevitt became an in-demand speaker which, one must assume, eventually became his main source of income.
McDevitt continued to run for various political offices. In 1913 he ran against 51 other candidates for Wilkes-Barre city commissioner. Realizing the odds were against him winning, he opted to be a candidate for clerk of the courts on the Democratic ticket. He lost. In 1915 he came in fifth out of five candidates for county treasurer. He ran as both a Democratic and Republican candidate. The winner, James H. Evans, secured 12,667 votes while Butch only received 681.
Losing by such a wide margin didn’t stop McDevitt. In 1916 he decided to run for the highest office in the land. He wanted to be President of the United States. And, in typical McDevitt fashion, he went all out to announce his candidacy. Once again, with $3,900 in his pocket, a train was rented and he made his way to New York City to hold a political convention. “Gentlemen, you are called into convention for the purpose of nominating me for President.” After a lengthy speech and lots of drinks all around, McDevitt left and headed for Atlantic City. According to the New York Tribune, he went there to “await the pleasure of a notification committee appointed by Mister McDevitt to inform Mister McDevitt that Mister McDevitt had been chosen nominee of the Mister McDevitt party.” You may be shocked to hear this, but he lost the election to Woodrow Wilson.
In 1917 Butch ran to be clerk of the courts receiving 963 out 9792 votes cast in the primary. In 1918, he dreamed of becoming next Governor of Pennsylvania and received 27,000 votes statewide. His campaign spent a total of $1.08. He blamed his loss on the fact that the winning candidates received more votes than he did and that he was listed at the bottom of the ballot. He suggested that he may change his name from McDevitt to AckDevitt so that he will appear at the top of the ballot in future elections.
In 1918 McDevitt turned his focus to the war and used his popularity to help sell more Liberty bonds. After the war, he tossed his hat into the ring to become president of the League of Nations, but no one took him up on the offer.
And then he was back to his old ways of getting his name in the papers. In 1919, he ran as a Democrat to become the Register of Wills. He came in 6th out of six candidates, receiving 1,448 votes out of 20,683 cast.
Starting on November 11, 1919, Butch found himself in the middle of a big political mess. City treasurer candidate R.M. Keiser was able to find forty-four voters in the Thirteenth ward who had voted for him, but the official tally sheet indicated that he had received only thirty-five votes in total. Testimony in court later revealed that the election board opted to file false returns to get their candidate elected. One witness testified that he observed McDevitt burning some of the ballots. Arrests were made and a couple of men went to jail, but Butch somehow escaped prosecution.
Butch went back to doing what he did best. He continued to lecture, entertain, and run for political office. One of his defeats occurred in 1927 while running for Wilkes-Barre mayor. He received just twelve votes. In 1931, he opted to run for five offices at the same time: mayor, treasurer, school director, register of wills, and recorder of deeds. Even age never slowed him down. He was 71 in 1946 when he decided to run on the Democratic ticket to become a representative to the Pennsylvania State House. Once again, he lost garnering 918 votes out of 3476 cast. The next year he lost to be Wilkes-Barre mayor with 511 out of 2894 votes.
McDevitt never married, but twice publicly set out to find a wife. On February 13, 1915 an advice column titled Elizabeth’s Letters featured a letter that began, “Dear Elizabeth: This is the first time I have written to you and would like you to answer the following questions: (1) Is Butch McDevitt still in Wilkes Barre? (2) Is he still looking for a wife or did he get one to suit him? (3) If not, I would like to meet him.”
Next thing you know Butch is in the news in search of a wife in both Boston and Atlantic City. “A prophet like me is never appreciated in his own country; that’s why the girls in Wilkes-Barre will have nothing to do with me.” He continued, “What can I offer a girl? Well, nothing – except for a loving heart and amiable disposition, a comfortable living, and the use of two or three automobiles.”
More than one-hundred women wrote to say that they would marry him, but he chose none. He did come across an advertisement from a Brooklyn, NY woman named Martha Stephens who was in search of “the perfect man.” Butch immediately wrote a long letter to the editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle explaining why he was that perfect man. A portion if it read, “Some time ago I advertised for a wife and received a large amount of mail, but I must admit that I didn’t happen to come across the girl that summed up to my dream miss. That’s why I write this letter, thinking that the woman in question might hit my fancy.” She didn’t bite, but he once again received great publicity from his search.
On April 4, 1927, we find Butch attempting to find love once again. How’s this for a bit of déjà vu: He chartered a special train, “McDevitt’s Romance Train”, which was bound for New York City. His destination: the Waldorf Astoria hotel to find the love of his life. The train did go to New York as planned. The only problem was that it left without him. Butch missed the train.
John J. McDevitt passed away on February 3, 1951 at 76 years of age. Up until that point, newspaper articles had been written about him every single year since the day that he had pulled the Millionaire for a Day stunt back in 1912. He ran for just about every political office in the land – far more than I have mentioned in this story – and lost time-and-time again, but never lost sight of the humor of it all.
I’ll leave you with one last quotation from McDevitt, this one written in May of 1946: “So, to the fellows who have a political thought, take this tip – it’s an interesting venture and worth any man’s money for a tryout. It’s really exciting, but always remember that you must hold your head and do not permit yourself to become embittered if you fail to make the grade. Remember this also, that it’s not the traits or qualities of good fellowship that makes for political success. It’s hitting and getting in at the opportune time; a good sense of humor is a valuable asset and doubly valuable in defeat.”
My only question is: Whatever happened to that bronze statue that he had made of himself? Someone has got to have it somewhere.
Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.