The Three Lives of Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt was only 60 years old when he died. The country was stunned. How could TR allow himself to be blindsided by the Grim Reaper?

TR’s Death

The real truth was that TR, the poster-boy for the strenuous life, had been in poor health for several years, stemming from his South American adventure-cum-tropical-diseases, an assassin’s bullet still lodged in his chest, and an assortment of other ills. That he survived as long as he did is a testimony to his aforesaid strenuous life and indomitable will.

The metaphorical truth is that Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) died of extreme old age, having lived (at least) three lives at a time, and all to the fullest. That would make him nearly two hundred years old, a big number, by any calculation.

TR: The Life of a Politician

Sargeant Teddy

The formal Presidential portrait of Theodore Roosevelt depicts every inch the professional statesman and politician that he was.

Interestingly enough, our Founding Fathers and their contemporaries believed wholeheartedly in the concept of noblesse oblige. Those who were privileged were expected to take a place on their governing council, whatever and wherever it was. Our originators wanted the best and the brightest to assume the heaviest responsibilities.

A century later, or post-Civil War, things had changed. Most people of privilege looked upon a political life for their sons as they would look at a career on the stage for their daughters. A presidential “advisor” perhaps. A member of a “blue ribbon panel” perhaps. But a candidate for office? Abhorrent!

Theodore Roosevelt was then, an anomaly. He was a member in good standing, not only of the upper crust, but of New York’s Knickerbocker upper crust. His family came over on one of the next ships post-Mayflower. They made a fortune and thrived. But they were never a) snobbish, and b) were always inclined toward the noblesse oblige. Philanthropic, generous and morally upright.

How a Harvard educated, foppish, intellectually inclined Theodore chose to mix it up with the hard-drinking, back-scratching recent immigrants who filled every spittoon in every City Hall in the country has always presented a puzzle for historians.

But mix it up he did – and they loved him for it! Toothy, bespectacled and non-stop fist-thumping talker notwithstanding. He was real. He was decent. He obviously relished the company, and (much overlooked) he was very, very smart.

He spent the better part of forty years in Republican politics, and made the profession respectable-for-gentry again. His political interests were far reaching: from New York tenement sweatshops to building navies, and from war and peace in the abstract to War and Peace in the specifics. This in itself is a wonderment: the most bellicose of Presidents was the first American to win a Nobel Peace Prize!

And, as a professional politician (in the true sense of the word), he was one of the best.

TR’s First Love

cowboy ted

Hunter, sportsman, natural scientist – all were a part of TR’s great love for the great outdoors.

Politics, however, was not Theodore’s first love or first choice. Long before he even knew what politics was, a sickly, frail and asthmatic child fell in love with natural science. His far reaching political interests were dwarfed in comparison to the wide and varied interests he found in nature, whether it was plants or rocks, insects, birds, critters of all kinds, or merely a good view. He learned everything he could about them. By age seven, his collections were already impressive. By twelve, he was a bona fide taxidermist.

That TR would choose “natural science” as a profession is a no-brainer. But he did not.

Today, natural science offers literally hundreds of opportunities for a professional to make his mark. In the 1870s, the field was limited to the university or the laboratory. Perhaps Theodore realized that such a “small” professional universe would never fulfill his oversized personality, or give him the chance to make His Name.

TR and muir

. As President, TR was in a position to use his love of natural science for the good of all Americans.

Nevertheless, natural science would be his truest love, and would last a lifetime. As President, he set aside millions of acres out west as national parks, wildlife preserves, and national monuments for the benefit of generations of future Americans (and visitors).   It was not “in name only.”  He spent weeks and months personally enjoying his camp-outings.

Theodore Roosevelt might have made a substantive-but-limited professional career in natural history in the nineteenth century. He could easily do the same today, and be at the top of his game (no pun intended.)

TR: The Author’s Life

By the time twenty-one-year-old Theodore was about to graduate Harvard, he had already drafted a book about (of all things) The U.S. Naval War of 1812. Naval history, and indeed, history of all kinds, was another of his passions. His book, when published shortly thereafter, became the gold standard on that subject for many years. Writing may or may not have been secondary to reading for him, but he managed to write forty books in forty years. How many books he read in fifty-five years is unknown. And that doesn’t count the dozens and dozens of articles he wrote for newspapers and magazines. And the thousands of personal letters he wrote.

the great room

The Great Room at Sagamore Hill, TR’s home on Long Island Sound, is a treasure trove of his favorite things: presidential, scienc-y, and, of course, loaded with books!

All writers are readers, by sheer necessity as well as inclination. Theodore Roosevelt, partly due to his childhood frailties and partly due to his enormous intelligence, but mostly due to the breadth and scope of his interests, was a prodigious reader. It is said that he read a book-a-day just about all his life.

So how does he rate as a writer?

Theodore Roosevelt-the-author would not be a serious challenge to Shakespeare, Poe or even Stephen King. He wrote off the top of his talents; meaning that he did not put the same serious effort into the craft as he did with science or politics. But he did possess a dandy way with a phrase, a superb vocabulary, a gift of on-the-mark clarity, and if nothing else, a huge volume of words.


Theodore Roosevelt packed more life into sixty years than Methuselah did in nine-hundred and sixty.

We are lucky to have had him, for goodly and for badly, in our lives and memory.


Brands, H.W. – TR: The Last Romantic – 1997 BasicBooks

Dalton,, Kathlen – Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life – 2004, Vintage

McCullough, David – Mornings on Horseback – 1982, Simon & Schuster

Morris, Edmund – Theodore Rex – 2002, Random House


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Grace and Calvin Coolidge on the Farm

President Calvin Coolidge loved to take his wife with him on Presidential out-and-abouts. She was pretty, she was stylish, and she had an impish humor. She was enormously popular.

President and Mrs. Coolidge

calvin and grace

President and Mrs. Calvin Coolidge. He loved taking her with him when he appeared publicly.

Calvin Coolidge was arguably the most sexist president we ever had. He believed politics was a man’s business, in fact, ALL business was a man’s business. Women were for home and family and always as supporting players. “Don’t try anything new, Grace,” was his advice to her when they assumed the First Couple-hood.

If Grace didn’t like being shunted to the background, she never seemed to object. Despite her own college education (University of Vermont), and despite being a teacher of the deaf – back in 1900 – Grace Goodhue was content to be Mrs. Calvin Coolidge, housewife. He would always be the breadwinner, she the bread baker.

Nevertheless, despite the inequality of the marriage to modern eyes, it was a happy union. Calvin Coolidge loved his wife dearly and she knew it. And if anyone had suggested that he was dismissive of her, or disrespectful, he would have been crushed. His love went deep and it was true. And for her part, when her parents tried to dissuade their outgoing and personable daughter her from marrying such a silent and cold fish, she countered with, “But he makes me laugh.”

And indeed, a good part of the success of that marriage was due to their senses of humor. His was Saharan in its dryness, all the more so because of the unexpected wit from such a bland persona. And when it was delivered in his usual dead-panned expression, people were hilarious. Her humor was teasing and mocking; delightful when it was accompanied by her wall-to-wall smile. And they never seemed to tire of bantering with each other.

Smiling Grace

Grace Coolidge was enormously popular during her time as First Lady. She had an infectious smile.

At every opportunity, President Coolidge loved to have his pretty wife along wherever he was invited. Not only was she attractive to look at, but she had innate charm and a genuine love of people which came across all the time.  She could also be trusted to avoid making any public statements other than “thank you for the flowers.”

The Farm Story

One delicious (and oft-told) story about the Coolidge tease, is when the President was invited to inspect a government-run experimental farm. It was reputed to have some of the most modern technology for the 1920s. Coolidge was a farm boy himself, having grown up on his father’s farm in Plymouth Notch, VT. He knew about a lot about farming. Grace was not a farmer’s daughter, but ever since her marriage, regular visits to the Coolidge farm were on their agenda. Calvin and his dad were particularly close.

So Coolidge accepted the invitation, and brought his Missus. They were both treated to a comprehensive tour – but they were separate tours. She, to get the “overall” view, and he to inspect in greater detail.

The Coolidges

You would never guess from the serious expressions that both Coolidges had a delicious sense of humor.

En route, Mrs. Coolidge was taken to a large enclosure with a henhouse, filled to capacity with hens and little chicks, but she could see only one rooster. When she remarked about it, the farmer boasted of his “prize” rooster – one able to “service” the enter lot. She queried, “Just how many times a day does this prize rooster ‘copulate’?” When told that rooster could mate perhaps 35-40 times a day, Mrs. Coolidge twinkled to her host, “You must be sure to tell that to President Coolidge when he passes this way.”

Sure enough a half hour later, the President and his escorts passed that same henhouse, and was given Mrs. Coolidge’s “message.” Coolidge nodded, and was his usual silent self, until they were about to leave the area.

“Hmmmm. Thirty or forty times a day,” he twanged. “Same hen?” “Oh no,” said the farmer, “he services them all.” Coolidge didn’t miss a beat. “You be sure to tell that to Mrs. Coolidge,” he added.


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Lucy Hayes and the Laced Oranges


Young Rutherford and Lucy Hayes. Shortly after they married, he “took the pledge” of abstinence, and remained true to his word.

Lucy Hayes has gone down in history as “Lemonade Lucy” for banning spirits in the White House – but did people find a way around it?


The Spirits of ‘76

Samuel B. Tilden was the Democratic Governor of New York, and won the popular vote in the Presidential election of 1876. He also won the electoral vote, but was outflanked by some Republican maneuvering.

The election of 1876 was one of the most fractious and genuinely corrupt in history. A decade after the Civil War, an unpopular Reconstruction policy was splintering the country. Samuel Tilden, Democratic Governor of New York, was the likely victor, winning the popular vote but was seemingly finagled out of the presidency by some very fancy political footwork by the Republicans in the electoral college, thus making Rutherford B . Hayes, Governor of Ohio, the 19th President.

The incoming First Lady Lucy Webb Hayes (1831-1889) was a devout Methodist, and a lifelong teetotaler. A devoted wife and mother, she had become enthralled by the preachers and orators who railed against John Barleycorn. Her husband, a tad less virtuous, had been known to bend a convivial elbow in fellowship. But that was back in his youth. In the early days of their marriage Hayes had taken the pledge, possibly in compliance with Lucy’s request, and signed the book in the presence of the pillars of local society who bore witness. Breaking one’s word was a serious offense against one’s honor and integrity. Rutherford B. Hayes was a man of his word.

President Rutherford B. Hayes

“Rud” Hayes was a lawyer, who at aged forty, enlisted in the Union army and rose to become a major general – a field general.  He had led his troops in battle and was wounded four times, once seriously. He was blessed with a character and kind personality that engendered not only respect from his men, but their sincere affection. Both Rutherford and Lucy Hayes would remain deeply involved in veterans’ affairs for the rest of their lives.

Rutherford B. Hayes, 19th President, had been a lawyer, a wounded Major General, Congressman and Governor of Ohio. He distanced himself from ay chicanery, but was happy to assume the Presidency.

After the war, he served two terms in Congress and then was elected a two-term governor of Ohio. In those post-rebellious years, a Republican lawyer, a wounded general, congressman and governor were impeccable credentials. Being from Ohio, an important industrial state with thousands of veterans, neither North nor South, made him practically unbeatable.

Alas for him, the scandals of the Grant administration, along with the violence created by a heavy-booted Reconstruction policy, turned the tables and did the unthinkable: nearly elected a Democrat – the party many claimed had caused the Civil War. Fortunately for the political powers that were and still wanted to be, they could nitpick a few electoral votes (which indeed had produced a few elements of viable corruption) into Republican victories and swing the election.

Hayes himself was a decent sort.  He assiduously remained above the fray, turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to the disputatious electors, preferring to keep his image of “squeaky clean.” The Republican politicians won out. Hayes was elected.

The Dry Decision

At the time the Hayeses were in the White House, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union had grown into a huge moral lobby with major political implications. Neither Hayes nor his wife had actually joined the organization, nor would they ever.

Perhaps because of the scandals and suspicions surrounding the election, plus the polarizing Reconstruction issues facing them, banning spirits in the White House must have seemed like a good idea for a diffusing red herring. After all, who could find fault with people who opposed drunkenness? The new First Couple were unassailably righteous. And dry. But whose decision was it?

pres rud and lucy

President and Mrs. Rutherford B. Hayes were a conventional and morally upright First Couple.

Lucy Hayes usually gets the blame or credit, depending on your point of view. The moniker “Lemonade Lucy” was given to her during their administration, and she reportedly wasn’t happy about it. By her own admission in letters and diaries, she considered herself a shy woman, and while personally temperate, she insisted that she did not wish to tell other people what to do. She claimed that if someone wanted a glass of brandy or champagne, it was not her concern. Besides, she claimed to be in favor of temperance, not abstinence.

Nevertheless the morally upright women of the WCTU commandeered her as their heroine, singing her praises to all who would listen. They wrote stories about her in their newspapers, commissioned her portrait, and refused to be swayed by the fact that she still declined to formally join their ranks.

The Laced Oranges

One of the elaborate and lavish pieces of dinnerware that Mrs. Hayes commissioned for the Hayes White House. The oranges created more excitement, however.

Making the White House bone dry may have been honorable, but it was not a popular call amongst Washington politicos who enjoyed their casual vices of fellowship. Perhaps it was Hayes himself who issued the dictum. Perhaps Hayes enlisted Mrs. Hayes to take the heat, since chivalry was still in flower, and nobody would dare criticize the First Lady for her unimpeachable virtue. They might poke a little fun, but they would not be rude.

The upshot was that there was no booze of any kind, not even wine or champagne, for four years. The White House social scene between 1877-1881 was always gracious and occasionally lavish, but very dull.

The story goes that a large bowl of oranges was always placed in the gentlemens cloakroom of the White House prior to a social occasion. They went like hotcakes. It became a popular congregating place for the politicians since (the story continues) the oranges were laced with rum.  Ha ha.

Then, of course, there was the conflicting story that yes, there were “laced” oranges, but it was only “rum flavoring.” Ha ha HA.

Historians have pondered over this for more than a century and they are still as divided about it as they are about the election of 1876.

We will probably never know for sure.


  • Anthony, Carl Sferrazza – First Ladies 1789-1961, William Morrow,1999
  • Boller, Paul F., Jr. – Presidential Anecdotes, Oxford University Press, 1981
  • Geer, Emily Apt – First Lady: The Life of Lucy Webb Hayes, Kent State University Press, 1984
  • Whitney, David C. – The American Presidents: Biographies of the Chief Executives from Washington through Clinton, The Readers Digest Association, Inc., 1996


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John Adams and The Validation of America


John Adams. First Vice President. Second President. One of the giants of American history.

March 4, 1797 is one of those barely recognized dates – but it is a pivotal one.

The Lonely Inaugural of John Adams

Inaugurals today are times of celebration: parades, parties, balls. People come from all over the globe to attend. It is hard to believe that poor John Adams had very little personal support to celebrate with him on the day he rose to the highest office in the land. It was essentially a lonely day for the Second President.

He was in Philadelphia. Washington, DC was still under construction. His devoted wife and loving companion Abigail was home in Massachusetts. John’s aged mother, was failing rapidly, and Abigail had returned to nurse the elderly woman, who would die a few weeks later.

abigail adams-2

Abigail Adams was back in Massachusetts caring for her dying mother-in-law. She never witnessed her husband’s moment in the sun.

John Quincy Adams, his eldest son, was in Europe. The thirty-year-old man was a new bridegroom, on his way to becoming one of our foremost foreign diplomats.  The President’s youngest son, Thomas Adams, was also abroad, serving as his brother’s secretary.

John’s daughter Abigail Smith, called Nabby by everyone, and his middle son Charles, were in New York, too far away to make the journey. Neither were prospering in their lives, and would cause John and Abigail Adams considerable anxiety and grief during the next four years.

But John Adams, lonely or not, put on his best gray broadcloth suit, glanced through his carefully worded speech, and prepared to take the oath of office as it was written in the Constitution.

George Washington: The Main Attraction

John Adams had never been a particularly popular man. At sixty-two, he was short, pudgy, balding and well known for his irascible disposition. He was admired and respected to be sure, but hardly beloved.

houdon washington

George Washington, every inch the towering figure of his era.

The beloved one was George Washington. At sixty-five, he was still tall, stately and every inch the man of the hour befitting the many statues that would be erected in his honor.   Now he was finally retiring to Mount Vernon, more than happy to return to his vine and fig tree. His wife Martha did not attend the inauguration either. She had gone home some weeks earlier to prepare the estate for her husband’s arrival.

The outgoing president was the best known and most popular man in the country. George Washington had been on the national scene for a quarter century, as a legislator, a great general, and finally as President of the United States for two terms. Both his elections had been unanimous. The throngs of people gathered at the Philadelphia State House that March 4th, were to say farewell and pay their respects to George Washington, the greatest man of their time. They were not there to see John Adams.

Adams knew this. He also knew he had a hard act to follow. His election was not unanimous.

The Election of John Adams

George Washington congratulates John Adams at his inaugural.

John Adams had been Vice President for eight years under President Washington – a thankless and inconsequential position, according to John, “The most insignificant office ever devised by the mind of man.” This time around, there was a rival for the office, the man who would now become his Vice President: Thomas Jefferson.

The constitution of the still very new United States of America had not been established with political parties in mind. Indeed, the thought of political factions filled many of its founders with grave trepidations. Parties were strongly discouraged.

The original idea was that the President would be the one who received the most votes; the Vice Presidency would go to the runner-up. The country was already beginning to suspect that this was not a good or effective process. But Adams and Jefferson had been good friends for more than twenty years. They might not always agree on everything, but they certainly could work together. So they believed.

The Legacy of 1797

John Adams was right to believe that the event was not so much about him as it was about the outgoing George Washington. But in a way, it was one of the country’s most important inaugurals.

Prior to 1789, there had never been an elected government. For thousands of years, there had only been monarchies or quasi-monarchies. A government-by-law and election had been untried. George Washington could have been made king had he wished. He did not wish. But there was no one else in the fledgling nation who enjoyed the level of Washington’s prestige and regard, so he agreed to serve, and after his two unanimous terms, the presidency would be contested from that time forward.

Neither George Washington nor John Adams were inaugurated at the Capitol Building, which was still under construction in 1797.

On March 4, 1797, George Washington voluntarily stepped down. He would be fairly out, John Adams would be fairly in. They had known each other for decades. While they were not close personal friends, they had always enjoyed an amicable relationship, and they regarded each other with sincere respect. When the two men shook hands at the end of the ceremonies, it was heartfelt and with good will.

It was orderly.

There was no uprising. There was no coup d’etat. There were no armies, no soldiers, no protesters jamming the streets seeking to undermine the lawful transfer of power.

There was no plot to overthrow the lawfully established government.

The Constitution had worked. The system was validated. It was a seminal moment.

Both George Washington and John Adams knew it. And they both knew the enormity of what it all meant.



  • Ellis, Joseph J. – Passionate Sage – W.W. Norton Co., 1993
  • McCullough, David – John Adams – Simon & Schuster, 2001
  • Shepard, Jack – The Adams Chronicles – Little Brown, 1975




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Eleanor Roosevelt Roosevelt

young eleanor2

Young Eleanor Roosevelt

The trick question is “what was Eleanor Roosevelt’s maiden name?”

It was Roosevelt. She was Anna Eleanor Roosevelt Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt: Poor Little Rich Girl

baby eleanor

Little Eleanor was a plain and serious child. Her beautiful mother called her “Granny.”

Anna Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) was a patrician-born New Yorker. Her father was Theodore’s brother Elliott, her mother, Anna Hall, was a stunning socialite. While the family was not wealthy by Rockefeller or Vanderbilt standards, their pedigree was older and even higher.  Money was never a problem.

Anna Hall died when Eleanor was eight, and her father, an alcoholic with an addiction to pain killers, died when she was only ten. He had adored his “Little Nell,” but he had been unfit to live in the family surroundings most of those years. Nevertheless, she would be devoted to her father’s memory for the rest of her life.

So little orphan Eleanor went to live with her eccentric Grandmother Hall and some equally dotty Hall aunts and uncles. There was always food on the table, a roof over her head, a decent enough education and a complete lack of affection or fun. It was a loveless and excruciatingly lonely childhood, and the little girl became understandably shy and inward.

little nell and family

Baby Hall, Elliott Roosevelt, Eleanor and Elliott Jr. Elliott Jr. would die when he was only four.

Uncle Theodore and his brood of rambunctious Roosevelts were happy to include her at various Sagamore Hill outings, but Eleanor was always uncomfortable. She grew too fast, eventually reaching 5’9″, was skinny, awkward, unathletic, plain as a post – with a hopeless overbite.

Eleanor Roosevelt and The Allenswood School

By adolescence, “what to do with Eleanor” began to concern her Roosevelt kin. It would be Theodore’s sister, her Aunt Anna Roosevelt Cowles who suggested the lonely young girl might benefit from the Allenswood School in England.  She had attended the school herself years earlier, and found it to be stimulating.

Run by Mlle. Marie Souvestre, the Allenswood School was a fine, well regarded boarding-finishing school for young women that focused on academics, where Eleanor Roosevelt had always excelled. The Allenswood School proved to be a seminal experience, and perhaps her happiest years. For sure they were the happiest years of her youth.

young eleanor

Eleanor Roosevelt was sent to the Allenswood School when she was fifteen. Her three years there were the happiest of her childhood.

The most important thing (among several) that Eleanor learned, was that she could actually make friends – something that had been woefully missing. For the first time in her life, she was popular. Her classmates liked her. She was invited to participate.  Her teachers admired her and encouraged her natural abilities. With no real home to return to, she occasionally stayed at the school during vacations, and accompanied her teachers on stimulating outings that exposed her to the treasures Europe had to offer.

When she graduated, Grandmother Hall insisted that Eleanor return to New York to prepare for her social debut. She was undoubtedly a reluctant debutante, but a debutante she was. Her societal pedigree made the experience mandatory.

Eleanor Roosevelt and The Junior League

Once Eleanor had completed her obligatory year of balls and luncheons and parties, she was once again at a loss. Her social standing made it impossible for her to “get a job.”   The college education she truly wanted, was equally frowned upon in a circle that encouraged social skills and early marriage. She was expected to continue socializing – and to find a suitable husband quickly. Neither of those choices were appealing.

Eleanor Roosevelt was always a serious minded young woman, although the hairdo was one of the fashionable styles of the early 20th century.

About that time – the early days of the 20th century – the Junior League was formed. It was an adjunct of the Woman’s Clubs that had first appeared after the Civil War, and boomed thereafter as an outlet for intelligent women with time on their hands. The Junior League dedicated itself to charitable activities, and recruited the younger set – women between eighteen and thirty-five.  Eleanor joined. It was socially acceptable.  Not even Grandmother Hall could disapprove.

Membership in the Junior League also offered the young woman exposure to a whole new world, with new people and new experiences that she believed were worthwhile. Not quite twenty, Miss Eleanor Roosevelt volunteered to help out at the settlement houses.

Eleanor Roosevelt on Rivington Street

Settlement houses on New York’s Lower East Side were akin to today’s community centers. They were founded in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and some still exist today.  They were generally located in the midst of some of the poorest neighborhoods in the country’s large cities, and dedicated to assisting the tired and poor who came to huddle on our teeming shores. They provided a hands-on lifeline for the entire immigrant family, from childcare and sewing classes to recipe exchanges, English classes and employment counseling, dances and picnics and even Sunday baseball games for the men.

Eleanor had signed up to help at the Rivington Street Settlement House, and after the first day, decided that she enjoyed it. She also discovered her true vocation, and the one she would follow for the rest of her life: being useful. She immersed herself in organizing activities to help these people of much promise and broken English.  The days passed quickly for her, and her original plan of spending a day or possibly two each week at the settlement house turned into a daily job, albeit unpaid.

young couple

Eleanor Roosevelt would marry her 5th cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt when she was twenty.

The people in charge of the facility liked Miss Roosevelt. The fact that she was the niece of the President of the United States was not lost on them either. But even without her famous uncle, Eleanor had found a home and a purpose. She also made new friends. She was needed.  She was happy.

On one of her train trips back uptown, she ran into her fifth cousin, home on vacation from Harvard. As they chatted, Eleanor’s usual shyness disappeared as she shared her enthusiasm for this new experience. Her cousin was sincerely interested, and asked many questions. Eleanor invited him to go with her and see for himself. To her complete surprise, he did.

That would be another seminal experience for Eleanor – and one for her cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


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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 0rganizations and orphan relief  groups were welcoming women as active participants.  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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