Time Machine Tuesday: The Day Colorado Had Three Governors

116 years ago today occurred one of the strangest events in Colorado political history — and now, thousands of pages of documents are available to the public online, telling the story of the day Colorado had three governors.

In the early nineteenth century, political corruption was rampant across the United States, and Colorado was no exception. This became especially evident in the election of 1904. That year, the governor’s contest was between the incumbent, Republican James Peabody, and Democrat Alva Adams, who had previously served two terms as governor. The contest was so bitter that both sides resorted to fraud. On the Republican side, wealthy mine owners who supported Peabody threatened laborers with losing their jobs if they voted for Adams. Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, “repeaters” voted multiple times and used names of the deceased.

Adams received a greater number of votes, but Peabody contested the election. In response, the Legislature launched a huge investigation, taking depositions from more than 2,000 witnesses. All of the testimony, along with statements of each candidate and their attorneys, were transcribed and printed in fifteen large volumes.

In 2020, the State Publications Library undertook a project to digitize these volumes. Because the century-old books were fragile and crumbling, they were sent to a professional scanning company for careful, high-quality digitization. As a result, anyone researching this historic event now has free access to nearly 12,000 pages of primary source material. The documents can be viewed by clicking on this link.

After months of deliberation, during which time Adams had been sworn in, the investigation yielded enough evidence to prove both sides had resorted to fraud and corruption. The Legislature decided that this meant neither candidate had a fair claim to the governorship, so they put forth a plan where Adams would resign and Peabody would be sworn in — on the condition that he, too, resign within twenty-four hours. The Lieutenant Governor, Jesse McDonald, would then be sworn in. This resulted in Colorado having three different governors on March 16, 1905.

In addition to the volumes from the legislative investigation, additional information on the controversy can be found in various resources available from the library, including a brief biography on Alva Adams (watch for forthcoming biographies on Peabody and McDonald in the library’s Colorado Governors blog series). The library has also digitized the speeches from the end of Peabody’s term and the beginning of Adams’ in January 1905. Finally, in 1968, historian Marjorie Hornbein published “Three Governors in a Day,” a¬†Colorado Magazine¬†article providing a detailed history of the election of 1904. This article, based on Hornbein’s thesis, is also available to read online.

Colorado Governors Alva Adams, James Peabody, Jesse McDonald
Left to right: Alva Adams, James Peabody, and Jesse McDonald

1 thought on “Time Machine Tuesday: The Day Colorado Had Three Governors

  1. If they had fedoras and beanies, they’d look like the 3 white guys at the bar of a microbrewery in 2016.

Comments are closed.