What Was Cooping?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

In the Martin Scorsese film Gangs of New York, one scene shows a bearded man being plied with alcohol while forced to sit in a barber's chair. Members of a gang loyal to Boss Tweed hold him down as the barber shaves off his beard. The gang then changes his clothes and drags him off to another voting booth to vote once again for their candidate. This practice of forcing innocent bystanders to commit voter fraud was known as cooping.

Cooping involved getting one person to vote for the same candidate more than once.
Cooping involved getting one person to vote for the same candidate more than once.

Despite its violent nature, cooping was largely tolerated by local police officers and probate judges primarily because they were on the payroll of the political candidate in question. Roving gangs would comb the streets on election day in order to find men of legal voting age who would "agree" to vote early and often for the candidates of the gang's choosing. Recruits were often invited to houses of ill repute before casting their ballots, if they weren't in them already.

Cooping also involved getting the recruits blindingly drunk before starting the day-long process of sanctioned voter fraud. If a poll worker became unduly concerned about the recruit's repeat business, the gang members would change the recruit's physical appearance and clothing. Should the recruit sober up and refuse to vote again, the gangs would use other powers of persuasion to convince him otherwise.

Once the recruit had repeatedly and fraudulently performed his civic duties, he was often dumped unceremoniously behind the same tavern that had served as a legal polling place hours earlier. Cooping was not a practice suitable for sentimentalists, since a number of recruits did not survive the process. The only results that mattered were in the ballot boxes, and the gangs enjoyed the protection of the elected politicians.

Perhaps the most famous alleged victim of cooping was Edgar Allen Poe. Poe's body was discovered in a gutter behind a tavern in Baltimore on Election Day. That particular tavern had served as a polling place earlier in the day, and cooping was a common practice in Baltimore during the 1840s. He was said to be wearing someone else's clothing, much cheaper in quality than his usual attire. This was also consistent with cooping, since gang members would routinely dress recruits in shabby clothes as a disguise.

Although it is not the only theory surrounding Poe's mysterious death, cooping does explain many of the circumstances leading up to it. Poe had been planning a move to Philadelphia, but was also conducting a fundraising lecture tour at the time of his death. Poe was indeed an alcoholic prone to depression, but the condition of his body at the time of death seemed to indicate recent physical trauma, another by-product of organized cooping. Although Poe would have been fairly recognizable to most citizens of Baltimore at the time, it is possible a cooping gang may have rendered him incoherent through alcohol and altered his appearance.

Thankfully the practice of cooping has ended in the United States through voting reform laws, but it is still a tactic used in other countries to legitimize a fraudulent election. The recent elections held in Zimbabwe, for example, may have been tainted by wholesale cooping on behalf of the incumbent, Robert Mugabe. Voters were essentially forced to vote for Mugabe after the opposition leader stepped down from the election process under extreme duress. Other countries have also been known to use cooping as a means to keep a dictatorial ruler in office while appearing to follow the democratic process.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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Discussion Comments


What time in the film Gangs of New York does the beard-shaving cooping appear? I can't find it.

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