A 1940 Night in the Essex County Courthouse/Hall of Records

by Nat Bodian

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I have visited the Essex County Courthouse/Hall of Records only once. It was a night visit that lasted about 14 hours.

The date was November 5, 1940. That day, the presidential election had taken place pitting Franklin Delano Roosevelt against Wendell Willkie.

This is a story of how I got to that place and what I did there.

I was a young reporter, who had been covering sports for the Star-Ledger for nearly four years on a per-assignment basis. In the course of covering assignments for the Star-Ledger, I also picked up numerous free-lance reporting assignments from our-of-state newspapers and news wire services. Newark was a big city for sports in that era.

All of those our-or-state assignments were usually received by telegram or message via Western Union and sent to me care of the Star-Ledger switchboard.

A Western Union Telegraph operator was usually on duty at the Star-Ledger, telegraphy being the major form of fast communication for journalists in those years.

As a consequence of having satisfactorily covered a number of free-lance assignments previously for International News Service (INS), which had no Essex County affiliate at that time, they contacted me and asked if I would cover the Essex county presidential election returns for them.

It was the biggest reporting assignment I'd ever been offered up to that time and my first instinct was to turn it down.

I discussed the offer with Ed Weinstein, the chief telegrapher of Newark's Western Union office, with whom I'd struck up a friendship.

I told him I felt incapable of handling such a major assignment and that I planned to turn it down.

"Tell them 'Yes' Weinstein advised me. "You will be able to handle it. Don't worry."

He explained to me that all the Essex County election returns would be coming in to the Essex County election headquarters in the Hall of Records....further that typing facilities for the press would be available there and that he would be in charge of the Western Union telegraphers who would be sending the reporters' dispatches to their newspapers.

Weinstein told me that as each reporter's dispatch would be sent, the telegrapher reporting to him would turn in to him the report to be held for billing purposes.

He said he would let me glance at the messages after they were sent and that they could give me a sense of the important issues and trends as the election returns were posted and continuously updated.

With that assurance, I accepted the assignment from International News Service.

On election night, I stopped off at the Ledger office on Market Street and then walked up Market Street to election headquarters in the Hall of Records.

Set up with desk, typewriter, and telegraph dispatcher linked to INS in New York, I sent my first dispatch around 6 P.M. advising Lou Allwell at INS that I was on duty and would be sending election bulletins as events developed.

More than 12 hours later, I handed my last dispatch to my Western Union dispatcher. These dispatches were not stories. Rather they were short bulletins of perhaps 40, 50, or 60 words on unfolding election developments.

As the Western Union telegrapher clicked out my last dispatch with his telegraph key, he added the total word count of all my dispatches of the previous 12 hours: 1,673.

International News Service acknowledged my last dispatch with a short note saying message received, and closed with "Thanks and good night."

It was past 6:30 A.M. and I walked the 11 blocks across High Street to my home at 29 Montgomery Street and went to bed.

* * *

The Election Result

Though 78 percent of the nation's newspapers had endorsed Willkie in the 1940 election campaign, Franklin Roosevelt won the national election and an unprecedented third term with 54,7 percent of the national popular vote and 449 out of 551 electoral votes.

In New Jersey, he won the state 1,016,808 to 945,475. In Essex County, where I reported the results to INS, Roosevelt won in Newark, but Willkie was stronger in the suburbs and won the County by a plurality of 27,761 votes -- 88,725 to 53,841.

* * *

In the more than 60 years since that 1940 election night, I have never passed the Essex County Courthouse/Hall of Records, or looked at a picture of those buildings without experiencing---if only momentarily---a twinge of the excitement that carried me through that eventful night, exactly three months and one week before my 20th birthday.


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