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WICHITA VOTE-GETTING HARKENS BACK TO 1870S

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A description of Wichita from 1870:

"The streets clanged with the noisy spurs of Texas cowboys and Mexican ranchmen. The crowds . . . were as motley as could be seen at any one spot in America."A brass band played until far into the night on a two-story platform raised over the sidewalk. There was fighting, yelling, swearing, the frequent ring of the revolver, painted courtesans and drunken brawls."

Actually, what S.S. Prouty, a correspondent for the Topeka Commonwealth, wrote in the early 1870s sounds familiar.

Like American politics in 1996.

Think about it. Except for the absence of Sam Colt's revolvers, American vote-getting has a certain resemblance to the streets of Wichita a century-plus ago.

Brass bands to greet the candidate and milling, partisan crowds are now a must for any advance man worth his salt.

Maybe the fighting, yelling and swearing have been toned down with a measure of civility. But booze is still a staple. They weren't serving only lemonade at the political conventions this summer.

Most of all, if you look close and listen hard, today's party activists now think their opponents are lower than snakes in a wagon track.

And vice versa.

So things haven't really changed that much from when Texas cowpunchers and Kansas sodbusters mixed it up on the streets here. Now, though, there are yard signs, opposition protesters and slick television commercials.

Of course, in 1870s Wichita, things were simpler. When a politician acted up, folks formed what today might be called a focus group, then ran the viper out of town on a rail, tarred and feathered to boot.

As for political speechifying, no record of such addresses has survived. That figures. Many Wichitans' chief anxiety then was to find a place where they could not be found by the citizens of the locale they'd last emigrated from. That made voter registration tough.

But what does exist is a tantalizing glimpse of a man who, if transported into the future, probably would have been a sensation on the speaking circuit.

And, undoubtably, become a politician.

His name was Uncle Jack Peyton, a saddler by trade and a man renowned for taking "liberal imbibitions into his stomach of invigorating fluids before and during his talks," thus adding to his vigorous, expletive-filled style.

His usual subject was theocracy, sort of politics with a supernatural twist. Uncle Jack was "agin" such a form of government.

Yet what made Jack different was his appearance. Nature or accident, one contemporary wrote, had left one leg 2 feet shorter than the other.

"He had the ludicrous habit when talking," an observer wrote, "of frequently alternating his height. At one point he would be 6 foot tall, then, a moment later, much shorter."

How Uncle Jack did this is not clear. But the mobs who listened could not take their eyes off him.

There are no transcripts of Uncle Jack's lectures. But one man, standing outside what was called Lewellan's Hall on North Main here, recalled how "the lecture proceeded for an hour until nothing but shrieks of laughter and the occasional popping off of a revolver through the open windows could be heard."

Whatever the subject, that must have been some speech. Today we get candidates' debates, dull and dry.

Where are you, Uncle Jack, now that we need you?