In June 1892 a disparate group of laborites, prohibitionists, Greenbackers, farmers, and silver miners met in Butte to nominate candidates for that year’s election. Most were concerned about the growing power of business, especially the railroads and the fees and rates they charged. Silver was another issue and the party put forth candidates for the legislature, governor, congressman, and attorney general. That last was a woman named Ella Knowles, one that drew crowds and got people excited, so much so that she was called the “silver tongued orator of Montana.”
The excesses of the rich and the role they played in bringing about the Panic of 1893 were leading reasons for the rise of the Populist Party in America. Silver prices collapsed and suddenly many miners found themselves out of work. The Populist Party lent a willing ear to their plight and gained new converts in the process. Things were getting more radical, and by 1894 a group of angry miners hijacked a train car and started it toward Washington, hoping to meet up with Jacob S. Coxey and his army of disenchanted.
The future seemed bright for the group, especially in 1896 when William Jennings Bryan embraced many of their ideals, including free silver, while running on the Democratic ticket for president. Montana was with him all the way, in no small part to Marcus Daly, who contributed $50,000 to his election campaign, more than any other individual in the nation.
Jennings lost the election, but the overwhelming amount of votes he got in Montana translated into local Progressive and free silver candidates becoming elected. Robert B. Smith won the governor’s office while Charles S. Hartman changed his party affiliation to Silver Republican so he could continue on in Washington. What’s more, the state House of Representatives was now in control of the Democrats and Progressives, who had uneasily entered into a power sharing deal.
The Progressives may have lost power over time as those political winds changed and politicians gradually eased back into their own predilections, but they had lasting consequences. Montana and many other western states remained wary of the power two parties could hold, and legislation was enacted that made it more difficult for them to make gains. This translates today in the much smaller amounts of money political candidates can gather, regardless of their party.
Their message was easily identifiable to many, with an emphasis on workers, safety, women’s equality, and a fair day’s work. Their ideas infected the populous and all candidates for some time afterward would have to bend a little toward those ideals. In Montana Caldwell Edwards would be elected as Montana’s representative in 1900, and he did so on the Populist ticket.
He would be the only one from Montana that could say that. The Democrats and Republicans would still be the dominant parties, and they would continue to push Montana where they felt it should go in the 20th century.
The only place in the country that allowed women to vote was the Utah Territory, which gave them the right on December 10, 1869. It was really a charade – the whole point was to garner more voting age adults to gain statehood. The federal government had allowed it in the hopes it would do away with polygamy, but most women voted for the practice. The federal government threw up its hands in 1884 with the Edmunds-Tucker Act, which took away women’s right to vote.
It was into that atmosphere that Ella Knowles entered the world as a freshly minted rhetoric and English literature major. She started looking for work immediately, and found a position with Burnham and Brown, a law firm back in New Hampshire. She worked there until 1887 when her health took a turn for the worse. Knowles would have health problems for the rest of her days, all stemming from these first early episodes.
It was clear Knowles wanted to be a lawyer – you just didn’t work in law offices in the 1800s without that intent. Nearly all of Montana’s representatives at both the territorial and federal levels had gotten started just the same way, and Knowles felt that the route should be open to her as well.
But Montana didn’t allow women to vote, and it didn’t allow them to practice law. On that last point they weren’t alone, but not everyone felt the same. Arabella A. Mansfield had passed the bar in Iowa in 1869, making her the first female lawyer in the country. By the late 1880s there were dozens of women lawyers in America, perhaps fifty at most.
She did so, finding an ally in Walter M. Bickford. The Missoula senator sponsored a bill that would allow women to take the bar exam. Knowles spoke before the assembled legislature, the first woman to do so, and persuaded enough members. After a lengthy debate that saw some supporting her while others said she should be at home, the bill passed. Knowles could now take the bar exam, something she did on December 26, passing with flying colors.
Ella Knowles Jumps Into Montana Politics
Some folks that didn’t underestimate her were the Progressives. Indeed, this nascent political party knew an ally when they saw one, as well as a gifted speaker that could lend credence to many of their issues. They nominated Knowles for state attorney general on the Populist ticket, marking the first time a woman was nominated for a statewide office in Montana and the country.
Like the rest of the nation, however, Montana’s women couldn’t vote for Knowles, or any candidate. Women’s Suffrage was still a hot issue in the state, and the only time it was allowed was for school board elections. Yet another question was raised as to whether it was even legal for a person to run for an office they themselves could not vote for.
The race could have ended right there on a technicality. Aid came from an unlikely source, however – Knowles’ Republican opponent in the race, Attorney General Henri J. Haskell.
The next year he married Nellie Towle, a native of the town and then set about making connections. One such was with Wilbur Fisk Sanders, who gave him a job representing the Northern Pacific Railroad. He was also appointed deputy clerk of the 3rd District Court in 1883, a position he’d hold until 1887. During that time Nellie had two children, both of whom died in infancy. Complications following the second pregnancy took her life as well, and by 1886 Haskell was a widower.
In 1887 he was serving as county attorney for Dawson County and in 1888 was elected to the final territorial House of Representatives as well as the constitutional convention in 1889. When Montana became a state later that year he was an obvious choice for the first attorney general, and was just entering into his first reelection campaign in 1892 when Knowles suddenly entered his life.
The 1892 Montana Attorney General’s Race
Perhaps he underestimated her, much like the men that went up against her in court, but Knowles was expecting that. To win over voters she studied up on the issues, and settled upon free silver, a plank in the platform of the Progressives, and one many in Montana identified with.
She crisscrossed the state, delivering more than a hundred speeches that many found to be “replete with reason, gilded with rhetoric and clothed with eloquent passages which stamped them as efforts creditable to the most gifted of Montana’s orators.” (Morrison, 50).
Knowles was quickly labeled the “Portia of the People’s Party,” in reference to Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. In the 1598 play, Portia is depicted as being intelligent, quick of wit, and above all, strong. Ella Knowles projected a strength that many curiosity-seekers were quite surprised by when they came to see her speak. Other candidates quickly realized the power she had to draw and keep a crowd, and she typically spoke last so the more ‘boring’ candidates could be heard by someone.
Voters may have heard Knowles, but they didn’t vote for her. She placed third in the race, garnering 11,464 votes. It wasn’t a landslide; Haskell had won with just 16,606 votes. What’s more, she had a better showing than the other losing Progressive candidates on the ballot that year, Kennedy for Governor and Edwards for Congress. They received less than 5,000 votes each.
A Progressive Union
They returned to Montana as soon as Knowles was able and she got right back to work with the law. There would be no more political races for Knowles, but she would remain active in politics.
Times were changing and the economy was recovering after the Panic of 1893, although slowly. Many politicians that had embraced Populist causes were now not so adamant. By 1896 most were back in the Democratic fold and the election came down to gold versus silver, with Republican William McKinley supporting high tariffs and gold against the Democrat William Jennings Bryan and his pro-silver stance.
In 1896, however, Ella Knowles was intent upon doing all she could to help the cause and attended both the state and national Populist conventions, and even went on the campaign trail for William Jennings Bryan that year.
That same year saw Haskell ready to retire, and he chose not to run again. C.B. Nolan was elected as attorney general and on January 4, 1897, Haskell was once again a private citizen, the first time since before Montana had been a state. And since he didn’t need to be a part of government anymore he wanted to get away from it, and the hustle and bustle it included.
Knowles, however, wanted nothing else. She loved being in the action, and the practice they had together in Butte was what she wanted to continue with. Haskell wanted to head back to Glendive, so being two independent-minded and rational folks, they did what was still uncommon, they got a divorce.
It isn’t hard to understand that a driven woman like Knowles would want more than the quiet life Glendive had to offer. She wasn’t yet forty, and still had a lot to do. While men may have been coming around to the idea of women working and holding professional positions, many still thought they should be subservient when it came to the household. Knowles felt otherwise, and was once again on her own.
She joined just about every women’s organization there was, perhaps to forget about the marriage. Her interests in theosophy and Asian philosophy grew. Travel also became important, and she journeyed around the world in 1910. By then she’d become rich from representing the mining interests of others, as well as her own. Suffragist leaders hailed her previous work and the people of Butte marveled at her speeches.
But her dogged health problems remained, something that’d always been the case since she’d first moved west more than twenty-five years before. They caught up to her following the stress of her overseas journey and she died in Butte on January 28, 1911. She was 50 years old.
Henri Haskell spent much of the rest of his life in Glendive. His interest in politics was piqued once again later in life and he was elected to the Montana House of Representatives in 1920. He was just two months into the legislative session when he died on March 11, 1921. He was 77 years old.