The Three Major Inventions of Garfield’s Assassination

The Industrial Age was at its height when Garfield was assassinated in 1881.  Inventive minds were at work!

The President Is Shot

The Baltimore and Potomac Railroad station in Washington, where Garfield was shot.

President James A. Garfield (1831-1881) was a robust, athletic man of forty-nine when an assassin pumped two bullets into him. One grazed his arm, doing minimal damage. The other went into his side. X-rays were still in the distant future, and the bullet could not be found. The doctors believed that removing the bullet was essential, and they probed and poked in complete disregard to the newfangled practices of antisepsis, which included hand-washing. This created the infection that would lead to his death ten weeks later.

The outpouring of sympathy was overwhelming – along with hundreds of letters recommending various medical strategies and techniques that might be useful. All letters were opened, read and acknowledged.  After all, good manners are essential in the White House.

Some recommendations, like the one suggesting that two strong men hold the President upside down and shake him hard, causing the bullet to pop out of his mouth, was filed away for the amusement of posterity. Others deserving more attention were forwarded accordingly.

Dr. Bell’s Metal Detector

One such letter came from Dr. Alexander Graham Bell, who had stunned the world at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition a few years earlier with his amazing telephone, which would make his reputation and fortune – and change the world. His letter was opened at once.

formal garfield

James Garfield took an active interest in Alexander Graham Bell’s metal detector, even though the president was under heavy sedation.

Bell had invented a metal detector that he claimed might help find the elusive bullet. He was immediately invited to the White House. Although Garfield was heavily sedated, he was lucid, and supported the suggestion with great interest. Bell came to Washington with his machine, but the testing failed. It was later determined that the metal bedsprings had skewed the experiment. But the machine itself was valid.

In fact, it was so valid, that modifications to Bell’s original patent were eventually successfully developed into a metal detector to uncover land mines during World War I, thirty-five years later.

The Air Conditioner

President Garfield was shot in early July, one of the hottest summers in memory. The temperature in Washington soared to nearly 100o every day; in the sick room, it hovered at 90o. The poor president was miserable.

One of the letters that came to the White House proposed an idea that found its way to the Navy Corps of Engineers. It proposed that strips of woolen fabric be soaked in ice water, and hung over huge blocks of ice. (Picture the strips of chamois in a carwash.) Then electric fans (yes, rudimentary ones were invented by that time) would blow over the cold wet material and the blocks of ice, cooling the air.


The summer of 1881 was one of hottest in memory. The temperature soared over 100 degrees.

The engineers thought the idea had merit, and could be rigged easily and inexpensively. They made a few drawings and produced a prototype that they tested in Garfield’s sickroom. Within a few hours, the temperature dropped to a more comfortable 75o.

The concept formed the basis for air conditioning units that are used even to this day. You wouldn’t recognize it – but the concept is there, and it is still valid.

Reinventing The Water Bed

Despite constant care, prayers and everyone’s best intentions, James Garfield declined. Infection set in throughout his body, causing the poor man to suffer painful abscesses. There were no antibiotics. As soon as one abscess was lanced or treated, another formed.

Lucretia Rudolph Garfield

It was First Lady Lucretia Garfield who suggested that the President be brought to Long Branch, NJ

About three weeks before Garfield finally expired, he began to talk about going back home to Ohio. He knew he was dying, and wanted to see old friends and family once more. The doctors insisted that the 500 mile trip over the Appalachian Mountains would be excruciating, if not fatal. But they approved a shorter move to Long Branch, New Jersey, only half the distance over flat land. Long Branch is a shore town, and the consensus was that the ocean breezes might afford the dying man a little more comfort. By this time, Garfield, a robust 200-pounder, weighed less than 150 pounds, and was in constant pain.

He needed to be lifted and carried from the sick room, down the stairs of the White House (no elevators), out the door, and placed in a wagon. Then he needed to be lifted again, carried into a specially refitted railroad car, jostled for 250-miles, then lifted once again into a cart, bouncing up and down at a slow pace for about a mile, lifted again and removed, and carried to his cottage bed. It would be agonizing.

Again the Corps of Engineers became inventive. They fashioned a large mattress made of thick rubber, and filled it with water. Then they suspended it on several long poles that could be supported by six burly men. This way, the patient could be carefully carried down the stairs. The water would cushion him against additional bumping.  The poles were also designed to be suspended over a bed-like structure on the train. Since it would not rest against a solid object, the jostling would be kept to a minimum.


No one but the family and the doctors were admitted to the sickroom, but the newspaper illustrators had a field day!

It worked. The President was able to be transported in relative comfort, and even commented that he enjoyed the ride.

The water bed was definitely an old design. Similar concepts had been around for thousands of years, but did not become commercially popular for another hundred years.   Don’tcha love low-tech?

PS – The Pennsylvania Railroad Company showed its own ingenuity.  Rather than remove the suffering President for another cart ride down an unpaved street, they built a mile-long spur track right up to the door of the cottage where the President would stay. And they did it overnight.

It was an incredibly active age of invention!


  • Kenneth D. Ackerman. The Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield. Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2003
  • Brown, E.E. The Life and Public Services of James A. Garfield, D. Lothrop & Company, 1881
  • Miller, Candice- Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President – Doubleday, 2011
  • Peskin, Allan. Garfield, The Kent State University Press, 1978


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Mary Lincoln: The Tragedy of Time

A thought.

Mary spent seventeen years as the Widow Lincoln.


Mary Lincoln: Choices of Tragedy

Millions of words have been spent on Mary Lincoln, her various tragedies, her various ailments and the peculiarities of her personality and disposition in general.

mary in mourning

Mary Lincoln was 46 years old when she became a widow.

Many Mary biographers have focused on her losses. She lost her mother when she was only six. But that was in 1825. Thousands and thousands of little children lost parents in early childhood. It is unfortunate, but hardly tragic. She lost a son when he was three. He had been sickly since birth. Infant and child mortality was very high at that time, and while it might always leave a hole in any mother’s heart, it was too common an occurrence to be considered “tragic.”

The death of her son Willie, not quite twelve, was different. Mary was in her early forties, at the pinnacle of whatever goals in life she might have dreamed of. She lived in the White House as First Lady. She was at the top of any social pecking order. On the other hand, she was unpopular and she knew it. There was a horrific war going on, which would get far worse before it ended.

The death of her son, so young and so full of promise, plunged her into an understandable abyss of grief.   Victorian mores, different from the mourning traditions of a century earlier, encouraged the grieving process, and Mary Lincoln was a child of her times. She would observe the traditions for nearly two years (the socially prescribed period), including wearing the deepest black, and limiting her social duties of First Ladies as much as possible. She was just beginning to emerge from this blackness in April, 1865 when the unthinkable happened.

Her husband was murdered in her presence. She was sitting beside him in the theatre, holding his hand. They were enjoying themselves. She had no time to prepare, or to even “say goodbye.” The violence of the situation traumatized her for life.

Mary Lincoln’s Choices:

Mary Lincoln (1819-1882) was forty-six years old in April, 1865 when her widowhood began.

gals at work

Women in the workforce quadrupled in the 1870s – but .5% and 2% does not say much. Anyway, Mrs. Lincoln was not about to work in a factory.

What was she going to do with her time? Victorian custom precluded any suggestion that a woman find employment, and Mary was unprepared for employment anyway. The thought of a former First Lady clerking in a shop was Unthinkable.

Now, as a widow, she had nothing in her life, except time. Most women, widowed or not, busied themselves with home and family and perhaps charitable activities. Mary had no home. The Lincoln house in Springfield held too many memories for her, so it was sold. She could not afford a real house of her own, so she spent most of those seventeen years in residence-hotels. She did not have to dust a table or cook a meal. While Tad lived, he was in boarding school much of the time. When he died at age eighteen in 1871, her last tie to tending family was gone.

tad lincoln

When Tad Lincoln died at eighteen, Mary had no one left to “mother.?

Her eldest son Robert Lincoln had his own life, one in which his mother was by and large excluded. Mary’s excessive emotions and erratic personality were an embarrassment to him, and a source of annoyance to his wife. Mary would cuddle only the oldest of his three children, and that was only as a baby. She had no close friends or the inclination to make anything other than superficial acquaintances, thus no support system to help her through the long days.

Robert Lincoln

Robert Lincoln, Mary’s eldest son, had a life of his own, including a wife who disliked her mother-in-law.

By the 1870s, women’s clubs had sprung up across the country.  Veterans Organizations and orphan relief  groups were welcoming women participation.  Subsequent First Ladies were happy to lend their names, their prestige, and their time to worthy causes.  But Mary Lincoln had no hobbies.  She did not paint or play card games.  She did not knit or crochet.  She was active in no church.   Perhaps she felt it was beneath her status as former First Lady.  Perhaps she felt she was above peers.  We will probably never know.

This constitutes its own overlooked tragedy.  She had a huge block of time on her hands. With no occupation for her lonely hours, like so many in similar situations, Mary focused on herself and her physical discomforts and ailments. Mary had suffered from migraine headaches all her life; menopause added its own symptoms, and loneliness and financial worries aggravated her myriad physical complaints. She was subject to chills and low grade fevers; to colds and ague; to insomnia and general malaise.

She consulted numerous doctors over the years, each prescribing as best he could what he hoped might provide some benign relief. There were some German physicians (said to be the best in Europe) who realized that most of Mary’s problems were psychologically either induced or exacerbated. (And this at a time when Sigmund Freud was still in medical school!) When they realized they could not be helpful, a change of climate was prescribed as a last resort. She would go away and no longer trouble them.

So she wandered. She wandered around Europe. She wandered from spa to spa in the United States. A few months here, a “season” there, always looking for the “miracle cure” for her various ailments.

In between spas and springs and healthy climates, she shopped. What else was there for her to do? She spent her days browsing at counters in various stores, chatting with the merchants or sales staff who were anxious to fawn over her, and perhaps leading her to purchase items she did not need, nor would ever need, in return for a brief chance at pleasant human interaction. It became her daily activity; her occupation, as it were. There was nothing else for her to do.



Baker, Jean – Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography – W.W.Norton & Co. 1999

Clinton, Catherine – Mrs. Lincoln: A Life, HarperCollins, 2009







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Elliott Roosevelt: Theodore’s Brother, Eleanor’s Father

Elliott Roosevelt is a sad footnote in history. His brother and his daughter are immortal.

TR’s Younger Brother

Elliott Roosevelt (1860-1894) was less than two years younger than his brother Theodore, sandwiched between two sisters in a prominent and well-to-do New York family. Elliott adored his elder brother but was quickly overshadowed.

Theodore was a sickly, asthmatic boy, whose father spared no effort trying to bring him to health. Meanwhile Elliott grew strong and decidedly loveable. For a time, he was considered the better intellect. But as Theodore became stronger and his obvious intellectual prowess and talents came to the fore, Elliott would rely more and more on his innate sweetness and ability to make friends easily.

When Elliott was only seventeen, an age when paternal guidance is essential, their father died suddenly. He not only mourned, but he floundered, at a loss about what to do with his life. He had no real vocation.

Young Elliott Roosevelt

It is suggested by some modern historians, that Elliott’s health may have not been all it seemed. Even in his youth he had complained periodically of headaches and other problems that might suggest a brain tumor, but it does not appear that any medical treatment was sought, and even if it had been, in the 1870s, there was no means of diagnosis or treatment anyway. Nevertheless, Elliott possessed the same competitive disposition that marked Theodore. He loved the outdoors, and was perhaps the better sportsman. He had also discovered a taste for hard liquor, and took unnecessary risks. It caused concern within the family.

Then there was a freak accident. On a hunting trip in Texas, Elliott’s horse shied and he was thrown and injured badly. His leg was fractured in multiple places, requiring a long and painful convalescence.   In the nineteenth century, the medication of the day was laudanum, a morphine-based opiate.   Elliott became addicted. Coupled with his increasing alcoholism, it evolved into a serious and chronic problem.

Mr. and Mrs. Elliott Roosevelt

The beautiful socialite Anna Hall, who had a tumultuous marriage to Elliott Roosevelt.

Despite his failings, Elliott fell in love with and married Miss Anna Hall, a beautiful young New Yorker in the Roosevelt social set.  They immediately embraced the fast lane where champagne flowed freely and the dancing continued far into the night.

On February 13, 1884, Elliott Roosevelt wired his brother, then a New York Assemblyman in Albany. It was good news. Theodore’s wife Alice was about to give birth to their first child. Only hours later he sent a second wire: to come at once. Alice was dying – and so was their mother.

“This house is cursed,” Elliott was known to have said when Theodore hastily arrived from Albany. Theodore barely had time to close his mother’s eyes and kiss his wife and infant daughter before twenty-three year old Alice died from the kidney disease that had been complicated by childbirth.

Elliott’s own grief likely was assuaged in Anna Hall’s arms; their daughter Eleanor made an appearance nine months later.

Elliott Roosevelt’s Tumultuous Years

Elliott Roosevelt and his young children: (l to r) Baby Hall, Elliott, Eleanor, Elliott Jr. (who died shortly after the photo was taken.)

Addiction was not unknown in the 1880s, but it was usually kept a secret, particularly among the upper classes. Elliott’s problem had begun to cause his brother and sisters alarm, but Theodore was not around to help. With his own grief to soothe, he departed for the Dakotas where he bought a ranch and became a cowboy, hardening into the man that would emerge. He kept in close touch with his family however, and his letters during those years periodically concerned “poor Elliott,” couched in vague terms. Addiction was such a delicate issue that even the family could not bring itself to name it.

Anna Hall Roosevelt did not seem to be much help either. According to the Roosevelt family, she was too frivolous herself, neglecting domestic responsibilities for the high life of society. Theodore would write, Anna, sweet though she is, is an impossible person to deal with. Her utterly frivolous life has, as was inevitable, eaten into her charade, like an acid. She does not realize and feel as other women would in her place.” She had evidently turned a blind eye to what had become very obvious.

The “cure” in those years was similar to today: a drying out spell in an isolated private sanitarium. With family funds available, Elliott went to several during the next few years.   But each time he returned to New York, he promptly fell into old habits.

Despite the fact that he dearly loved his children (Eleanor would cherish his memory for the rest of her life), he was unfit to live with the family. His erratic and often self-destructive behavior was obvious and detrimental to those closest to him.

Elliott Roosevelt’s Tragic Years

Perhaps a small part of Elliott’s problem was his lack of vocation. He had no real job. His inheritance provided a substantial income. He did not need to work, and did not seem to have much interest in anything other than his pleasures.

Knowing that Elliott again needed to be apart from the family (Elliott Jr. was born three years after Eleanor), his wealthy brother-in-law suggested he might look after some of his holdings in Abingdon, Virginia, in the western part of the state.  It was a fairly isolated place, where the addicted man might rest and recuperate.

According to several Abingdon residents, Elliott Roosevelt was a delightful and generous neighbor. His natural charm and pleasant disposition never deserted him. But when three-year-old Elliott, Jr. died, not long after the birth of baby Hall, and the unexpected death of Anna, Elliott seemed to fall apart and never recovered. His visits home were less frequent and more erratic and irresponsible. His siblings were distraught, but powerless to help.

In his final year, Elliott eloped with a woman of the lower classes, who would bear his son. By this time he was desperate and tormented beyond all redemption. He attempted suicide by leaping from a window. He survived, but only for a few weeks.

Elliott Roosevelt was only thirty four.


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The Adams Sorrow: The Second Generation

   John Quincy Adams was never a teetotaler. The eldest son of John and Abigail could even be considered a heavy drinker.

The Second Adams Generation

Having spent his formative years in the great capitals of Europe, John Quincy Adams (1767-1848) was introduced early on (as most Europeans are) to the fruits of the vine.

Even in his Harvard years, JQA (as he referred to himself,) was known to enjoy an evening of wine and song, roistering with his fellows in the taverns.

sully portrait

During his long diplomatic career, and even as President, it is said the wine or brandy flask was never far from his place at dinner. He was accused of nodding off, perhaps from a bit too much spirit, but JQA was never an alcoholic. Perhaps the genetic traits that caused addiction in his brothers had managed to escape him.

But John Quincy Adams and his wife Louisa Catherine Johnson had three sons who lived to maturity. Two fell under the old Smith-Adams curse. Only the third son would rise to meet their great expectations.

George Washington Adams and His Brother John

The eventual failures of George Washington Adams and his brother, John Adams II might be traced to their father’s appointment as Minister Plenipotentiary to St. Petersburg, Russia by President James Madison.

With very little notice, and over his wife Louisa’s bitter tears and anxieties, Mr. and Mrs. JQA left their older sons, then eleven and nine, with family, their education to be overseen by their grandparents John and Abigail.  Their youngest son, Charles Francis went with his parents. He was barely two, and not fully weaned.

John Quincy and Louisa Adams would not see their older boys again for five years. By that time, they were half-grown men.

In 1809, John Quincy Adams received a plum appointment: Minister Plenipotentiary to England, the highest diplomatic office the country could offer. Louisa Adams, English by birth and upbringing, was delighted. George and John  were sent for, and it was a happy family reunion.

But a Puritanical bloodline ran strong in the Adams family, and ran particularly cold and harsh in JQA. Perhaps because of his own parents’ expectations for his greatness, he had developed a powerful ambition, combined with unrelenting purpose and discipline. He expected no less from his sons.

Immediately dissatisfied by his sons’ inadequate education and moral deficiencies thus far, the demanding father spent hours creating detailed hour-by-hour schedules for the boys. No frivolity or idleness would be permitted. When they rebelled, as teenaged boys do, JQ merely tightened the tether. More moral lectures were preached. More detailed schedules were created. The young men became more and more discouraged.

Louisa Adams was helpless against her husband’s controlling ways.

George and John began to live in fear of displeasing their generally unpleasable father. And these were their happiest family years!

George Washington Adams: Uncle Charles’ Nephew


George Washington Adams, the eldest son of John Quincy and Louisa Adams.

George Washington Adams (1801-1829), named for the country’s first president was  a sensitive, poetic fellow, far more like his mother than his father. Nevertheless he went to Harvard and became a mediocre lawyer. He was handsome and charming and ripe for falling in love with Louisa’s niece, Mary Hellen, a flirtatious young woman who had made her home with Aunt and Uncle Adams when her parents died. After a whirlwind tease with Charles Francis, the youngest Adams son, Mary agreed to marry George, the eldest. When George returned to Massachusetts to make another half-hearted attempt at lawyering, it was “out of sight, out of mind” with Mary. Middle brother John was equally handsome. He was also available. He caught her eye, and  she married him instead. George was now a failure in romance as well as in his profession, and particularly in his father’s eyes.

The same depression and same inadequacy of the Adams-ness that had afflicted JQ’s brother, the Uncle Charles he had never known, took hold of George with the same intensity and results. His drinking, his inertia and his need for the human affection he could never find, became a freefall.

In 1829, when JQA was about to retire as President, he summoned his wayward 28-year-old son to Washington. A despondent George dutifully booked passage on a steamship. Perhaps unable to face more of his father’s certain disapproval, and perhaps realizing that his life had become an unending abyss, he slipped over the railing, and was never seen again.

Louisa Adams insisted it was an accident. Others knew better.

John Adams II: Uncle Tom’s Nephew

john adams ii

John Adams II was the middle son of John Quincy and Louisa Adams.

If George Adams resembled his Uncle Charles, John Adams II (1803-34) seemed to follow in the same footsteps of JQ’s other brother, Thomas Adams, a more or less controlled alcoholic.

When John Quincy Adams was elected President, his middle son became his secretary, a common practice. (Since Presidents paid a secretary out-of-pocket, most of the early ones engaged family members.) Meanwhile, Mary Hellen, the President’s fickle young ward, went along as well. A romance between her and John, her fiancee’s brother, blossomed, much to the dismay of the President and First Lady who feared sorrowful repercussions from their older son’s disappointment.

A silhouette of Mary Hellen Adams, the fickle young niece of Louisa Adams, who married her cousin John Adams II.

Concerned that the romance was in imminent need of the blessings of clergy, Louisa insisted that John and Mary marry immediately. It was a small wedding. Neither George nor Charles Francis attended. The couple then went on to have two daughters, which seemed to have a happy effect on Grandpa JQ’s disposition. If sons (and presumably grandsons) were to be disciplined, little girls were to be pampered and petted.

But John Adams II failed in his professional efforts both in law and in business. Alcohol took its toll as it did with Uncle Thomas, and John would die of its complications at only thirty-one.

It is said that the shared grief over the early deaths of their two older sons began to mend long-strained relationship between John Quincy and Louisa Adams.


Bobbe, Dorothie – Mr. & Mrs. John Quincy Adams – Minton Balch, 1850

Shepherd, Jack – Cannibals of the Heart – McGraw Hill, 1980

Unger, Harlow Giles – John Quincy Adams – DCapo Press, 2012

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Andrew Jackson and The Peggy Eaton Affair

Andrew Jackson came to Washington wearing a mourning band. His beloved wife Rachel had died only weeks before his inauguration in 1829.


Andrew Jackson wore a miniature of his beloved Rachel around his neck on a silver chain. He wore it all his life.

Jackson believed his sixty-one-year old wife was killed by the poisoned arrow of slander and calumny. (That she had a bad heart condition did not matter to him.) The hapless Rachel had been divorced before she became Mrs. Jackson, and their marriage had questionable overtones: Her divorce from an abusive and violent husband had not been finalized before their marriage. The scandal was revived regularly throughout the next thirty five years.

Peggy O’Neale Timberlake

One of Jackson’s young political supporters was John Eaton, a fellow Tennessean and who had penned Jackson’s “official” campaign biography. Prior to Jackson’s election, Eaton had been named Senator from Tennessee at the strong urging of his mentor. A widower in his thirties, he boarded at a local tavern in Washington while Congress was in session. Margaret (Peggy) O’Neale Timberlake (1799-1879) was the tavern-keeper’s daughter, a vivacious and outspoken young woman.

An “enhanced” portrait of the scandalous Margaret (Peggy) O’Neale Timberlake Eaton. Jackson’s Administration was at a standstill for two full years.

Peggy’s reputation had been badly flawed by the time she was in her teens, due to her flirtations with any number of Washington men, including some in prominent government positions. At sixteen she married a young sailor after a brief courtship, and it was expected that she would become a respectable matron, albeit of a lower station.   But her husband, John Timberlake, was a purser on a ship, away for long periods of time, so she continued to live at her fathers’ tavern. Into that setting moved Senator Eaton, who was charmed by Peggy and happy to befriend her family. When Timberlake’s accounts were found to be irregular (either from incompetence, misjudgment or design), it was Senator Eaton who helped quell the situation and find another purser position for Peggy’s husband.  Tongues wagged.

John Eaton was a 38-year-old widowed Senator from Tennessee when he boarded at the O’Neale tavern in Washington.

Again at sea, and again with faulty records, Timberlake died. Rumors abounded as to the cause: disease, accident, murder – but particularly suggesting that he committed suicide in despair over his wife’s alleged adultery with Senator Eaton. Nothing was ever confirmed; indeed, modern research suggests that Timeberlake died of natural causes.

The Andrew Jackson Connection

Andrew Jackson was slightly acquainted with Peggy O’Neale Timberlake. He had stayed at her father’s tavern on occasion.

The questionable relationship between Senator Eaton and the now-Widow Timberlake had become common gossip, despite claims by both parties that nothing untoward had occurred. Peggy’s already tarnished reputation was now further sullied. The rumors reached the ears of Candidate Jackson, who strongly advised Eaton to either marry Mrs. Timberlake or change his residence. Eight months after Timberlake’s death, Eaton married Peggy.  President Jackson then named Eaton as his Secretary of War. Washington socialites were aghast. Yet another war was beginning for Andrew Jackson.

Socio-political Washington was thrown into an uproar. No decent wife, daughter or sister of officialdom could dare be seen anywhere near the beauteous and morally flawed new Mrs. Eaton. Peggy’s social calls went unreturned. Her parties were unattended save for bachelors and foreigners. The snickering became grist for the gossip mongers.   An incensed Peggy appealed not only to her husband, but directly to the President.

Andrew Jackson was always a chivalrous knight-in-armor when it came to defending a woman’s honor.

Andrew Jackson, an expert at defending a lady’s honor, saw in the Peggy Eaton Affair a replication of all the scurrilous attacks on Rachel (although Peggy was far less an innocent victim). Always the chivalrous knight to any damsel in distress, the aging President dusted off his armor and gallantly charged into the fray, and for the next two years, most government business was in some way or other focused on the social acceptance (or non-acceptance) of the wife of the Secretary of War.

The Notorious Mrs. Eaton

Jackson took unprecedented steps. He gave Peggy his arm as escort. She sat beside him at White House dinners. He showered her with public attention. Washington matrons were unmoved. Mrs. Eaton was totally unfit for their company. Neither side would give an inch.

While the gentle Rachel Jackson would have been more than content to retire to her rooms, Peggy was vociferous and obnoxious, talking about her wrongful treatment to anyone and everyone in Washington who would listen. Vice President John C. Calhoun’s sanctimonious wife returned to her South Carolina plantation rather than nod to the scarlet woman. Other Cabinet wives stood firm in their refusal to associate with the scandalous Mrs. E.   Cabinet officers supported their wives.

Even Rachel’s beloved nephew and niece, Jack and Emily Donelson, who  served as the President’s secretary and hostess, shunned her.   An angry Jackson banished the Donelsons back to Tennessee. He openly  supported the Eatons, relying more and more on his “kitchen” cabinet of advisors than on his official appointees.

A photograph of the notorious Peggy Eaton taken somewhat later in her life. She lived to be eighty.

Peggy continued to exacerbate her own cause. Infuriated at her isolation, she badgered her husband into defending her “honor,” insisting on social acknowledgement, if not acceptance. Ongoing accounts of the “Petticoat Affair” as it came to be called, were regularly printed in the newspapers. Finally one prominent clergyman announced he had “proof” of Mrs. Eaton’s wantonness, and proceeded to accuse her of an assortment of immoral indecencies, including having had children out of wedlock – a fact she fulsomely denied. Slander followed slander, snub followed snub. Peggy demanded a public apology and vindication. Neither was forthcoming.

In an extraordinary act, the President of the United States summoned a Cabinet meeting specifically to discuss the character and social standing of Mrs. Eaton. He went so far as to declare himself personally and absolutely certain of Peggy’s virtue. Cabinet members resigned, ostensibly for other reasons, but the Eaton marriage had contaminated the Cabinet, and no one doubted on which side the President stood.

The cause célèbre dominated the first Jackson Administration. It would be years before the gossip finally abated, and then only because an exhausted Eaton had been dispatched as Minister to Spain, taking his notorious wife with him – where she became a minor celebrity.


Burstein, Andrew, The Passions of Andrew Jackson, Borzoi/Knopf, 2003

Marzzalek, John F. The Petticoat Affair, The Free Press, 1997

Meacham, Jon,  American Lion in the White House, Random House, 2008


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“Prince” John Magruder: Confederate Showman

John B. Magruder was the Confederacy’s master showman whose tactics have gone down in history as the best flim-flam of the Civil War.

“Prince John”, as General John B. Magruder was called, pulled off a giant flim-flam on Federal forces during the Peninsula campaign of 1862.

John Bankhead Magruder: Virginia Soldier

John Bankhead Magruder (1807-1871) was Virginia born and raised, University of Virginia and West Point educated and trained, and a lifelong professional soldier.

John B. Magruder was a man who loved dramatics.

During the in the War with Mexico he fought bravely and earned two brevet promotions and a solid reputation as a reliable and capable military officer. He also earned a reputation as a flamboyant and witty extrovert.

At six feet tall, sporting an elegantly trimmed mustache, he was considered handsome and courtly. He also was said to have a fine tenor voice and could easily be coaxed into song. Sometimes he even wrote his own melodies. He loved acting in amateur theatricals, which accounted for his nickname “Prince John.”

He also had a fondness for the bottle.

George McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign

At the outset of the Civil War, the regular United States Army was small.  There were only four generals.  Magruder was a colonel.

In April, 1861 however, Fort Sumter surrendered.   Within weeks, Virginia seceded from the Union, and Magruder, like many other Virginia-born officers, resigned his commission and enlisted in the Confederate army. His impressive credentials assured him of a quick promotion to major general, and given the command of the Army of the Peninsula, a small division deployed in Yorktown, a sleepy little village populated by farmers but rich in early history. Most importantly, it was near the vital strategic confluence of the Chesapeake Bay and the James River.

General George B. McClellan planned a mammoth campaign, taking a huge army down the Chesapeake, and marching up the Peninsula to Richmond.

By spring, 1862, General George B. McClellan was in command of the Army of the Potomac, and had whipped a huge Union army into impressive shape. He was an expert organizer who believed in a well-trained force. Goaded into action by the Washington politicians, he devised a complex back-door approach to capturing Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy. Rather than marching his army a hundred miles or so directly from Washington to Richmond, where he knew there would be intense resistance (and casualties) every step of the way, he planned to sail them down the Chesapeake, and march his army up the Virginia Peninsula.

Meanwhile, General Magruder’s forces had already been well entrenched. The general had also become familiar with the Peninsula’s geography with its numerous streams, creeks, boggy terrain and dearth of good roads. This was a definite advantage, and one that McClellan completely lacked. Knowing his forces were the first defenders along the way, Magruder also knew that he was hopelessly outnumbered and outsupplied.

General Joseph E. Johnston, the commanding officer of the Confederate Army was more than a hundred miles away. It might be days before he could march his army down the Peninsula with reinforcements.

The best Magruder could possibly accomplish was to buy time until General Johnston could provide assistance.

The situation was made for Magruder’s flair for the dramatic.

Magruder’s Old Razzle-Dazzle

Deceptive ploys to confuse the enemy have been around for centuries, and have always been a part of military training, but this flim-flam was one for the books! Using his theatrical disposition and experience as well as his better knowledge of the land itself, General Magruder embarked on an elaborate and wily subterfuge to confuse the Federals into believing they were facing mammoth forces.

Knowing the Federal pickets (advance guards) would be watching, Magruder stage-managed his ruse by marching his limited troops in a large circle, with many areas open to view. This line of soldiers, whooping and hollering and passing in sight of various sections of the Union army appeared endless. The reality, however, was that the same soldiers were passing and re-passing. This is a maneuver is commonly used in stage plays.

Magruder’s razzle-dazzle ploy bought valuable time for Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston to reinforce the small army at Yorktown.

Then Magruder deployed and redeployed his artillery. While his small army was marching in circles, he ordered the artillery to race quickly to various venues and do the same. The sounds of cannon fire were heard throughout a large area.  The drums tapped out their rat-a-tats and the bugles sounded their commands.  The upshot was that the Federals believed there was Confederate activity all around.

McClellan’s army fell for the scheme hook, line and sinker. They were easily flummoxed into believing they were vastly outnumbered, a phenomenon to which George McClellan would be personally vulnerable on numerous occasions. He regularly believed he was outmanned and outsupplied, and never quite realized the main fact: he was out-Generaled.

In actuality, the Yankee troops vastly outnumbered the Confederates and could have easily pushed Magruder’s miniscule force into the Chesapeake, had they pressed. Instead, they believed a siege would be necessary, and settled in for the long haul. This gave General Johnston sufficient time to reinforce Magruder, and slog it out and tussle with the Union army all the way to Richmond.

General John Magruder would perform capably throughout the Civil War, mostly in the west, but it was his Yorktown strategy that would prove to be “Prince John’s” finest hour, his tour de force, and his assure his place in the history books.


Catton, Bruce – The Civil War – The Fairfax Press, 1980

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The Death of the First Mrs. Wilson

One of the most underrated First Ladies of the 20th century is the intelligent, gentle and multi-talented Ellen Wilson – Woodrow Wilson’s first wife.

Ellen Axson: Georgia Peach

The life of Ellen Axson Wilson (1860-1914) was bookended by war: Born in Georgia, just as the cannons of the Civil War were getting ready to boom, died when the cannons of World War I were about to do the same.

At an early age, she had displayed a distinct talent for art. When she was still in high school, one of her drawings was submitted at a Paris Exposition by her teacher, and it won a medal. Ellen hoped to earn a living teaching art.

Young Ellen

Ellen Axson was an attractive woman of twenty-three when she met Woodrow Wilson.

Those goals were negated by her family needs. By the time she was twenty-three, both parents had died, and she had three younger siblings who need her

Then there was Woodrow Wilson.

Ellen Wilson: Professor’s Wife

Woodrow Wilson met Ellen in an appropriate setting: church. Both were children of ministers. Instantly attracted to the pretty young woman, he arranged for an introduction, and began an ardent courtship, mostly by correspondence. Three years later, they married, but from the start, the Wilsons never had an empty house. Her nine-year-old brother Eddie came to live with them, with Woodrow’s enthusiastic approval. The three Wilson daughters were all born within the first five years of their marriage.

The Wilson family

Woodrow and Ellen Wilson and their daughters

For the next twenty years, the Wilson home, wherever it was, became a revolving door of Woodrows, Wilsons and Axsons and assorted other relatives as long-term guests.

Professors do not traditionally make a great deal of money, even highly respected ones like Wilson. With all the mouths to feed, Woodrow wrote prolifically, and was a popular speaker. With him absorbed by his work, house management fell to Ellen Wilson, including the bookkeeping, home-schooling the girls, making her own (and their daughters’) clothes, watching over everyone’s health and well-being, entertaining their army of guests, and first and foremost, looking after her husband. She was keenly aware of Woodrow’s mood swings and their effects on his health, which was always iffy. Wilson was a man whose emotional comfort was totally dependent on a woman’s nurturing.

And he never made a speech or wrote a book without Ellen’s input and review. Her insights were intelligent and usually accurate. He listened.

Ellen Wilson: First Lady

It may have been a circuitous route, but Wilson’s rise in politics was neither surprising nor meteoric. He had aspired to “high political” office even before he became a professor of government studies, Princeton’s president or NJ Governor. By the time of his election to the presidency in 1912, Ellen had already had several years of high-level social activities and entertaining.


Ellen Wilson was very well respected as an American Impressionist. Her talents were highly regarded by her peers.


One of Ellen Wilson’s water colors. Her work stood on its own merits.

Also by the time she became First Lady, her daughters were grown, and she had some uncrowded hours to devote to her art. “EAW” as she frequently signed her paintings, was achieving serious artistic notice - not as Mrs. Woodrow Wilson, but for her art itself. Many American Impressionists knew her, knew her work, and respected her talents. She had an agent, sold her paintings, and was displayed in galleries and museums.

Life was good and all was well in 1912. But Mrs. Wilson came to the White House with a secret: one she did not even know herself.

At fifty-three, she embarked upon a very active agenda: daily political receptions, luncheons, teas and dinners, answering huge amounts of mail, planning and designing the Rose Garden (her permanent contribution), become actively involved in Washington slum clearance projects and issues for federal women employees, planning White House weddings for two of her daughters, attending to Woodrow, and finding a few spare hours for her art. If she felt tired, or her energy flagged, she likely suspected her age and her hectic schedule.

She was partially right. She was also partially wrong.

Ellen Wilson: The First Lady Dies


First Lady Ellen Axson Wilson. She died, in the White House in 1914, a little more than a year into her husband’s term.

Ellen Wilson was understandably tired, but in early 1914, about a year into Wilson’s presidency, she tripped in her bedroom and fell. It required medical attention, and Dr. Cary Grayson, the Wilsons’ personal physician was summoned. He quickly ascertained that while the fall was not serious (no broken bones or concussions,) it required care. It was a shock to her system, and she would have aches and pains for a while.

He prescribed bed rest with conventional treatment, but Ellen’s body decided otherwise. When Dr. Grayson realize that Mrs. Wilson was not responding as expected, he looked further, and discovered discover that she was in late stages of Bright’s Disease, a kidney ailment, then always fatal. She had had this disease for years and didn’t know it.

It was still the Victorian age. Doctors did not share an ominous prognosis with the patient or the patient’s family, but in this case, Dr. Grayson knew Ellen. She was a “steel magnolia,” who demanded the truth. They both agreed to withhold the information, and the prognosis, from Woodrow. They knew he would be so unnerved that it would affect his own health, and might compromise his abilities as President.

It was also a fearful time in Europe, a tinder-box about to explode. The United States President had to be fit to withstand the turmoil about to be unleashed.

For a few months, Ellen’s health ebbed and flowed, but mostly ebbed. Woodrow was not told of its hopelessness until two days before she died. As expected, his grief was devastating, and he rode in the baggage car, with the coffin, on the long train ride to her family plot in Rome, Georgia.

Ellen had begged Dr. Grayson to “take care of Woodrow,” a phrase he no doubt understood in both the overt and tacit implications. When Mrs. Galt came into Woodrow’s life some eight months later, both Dr. Grayson and even Woodrow himself may have been comfortable knowing it was with Ellen Wilson’s blessing.


McAdoo, Eleanor Wilson – The Priceless Gift – McGraw Hill, 1962

McAdoo, Eleanor Wilson – The Woodrow Wilsons – Macmillan Co. 1937

Miller, Kristie – Ellen and Edith – University Press of Kansas, 2010

Saunders, Frances W. – Ellen Axson Wilson – University of North Carolina, 1985


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