Lincoln’s Secret Spy: A Book Review

Lincoln’s Secret Spy: The Civil War Case that Changed the Future of Espionage, by Jane Singer and John Stewart

Authors Jane Singer and John Stewart are very quirky writers. Not a bad thing by the way. Quirk works. And they chose a very quirky subject for their anti-hero look at “the great con” of the Civil War.

Had Lincoln lived, the con would not have proceeded. Our anti-hero wouldn’t have dreamed of trying to hustle the President for ten grand – a huge sum in 1865. Especially when Lincoln, or “Honest Abe” as he was known even then, would deny the whole thing – and be right.

Nevertheless, Lincoln did not live, and Lincoln’s Secret Spy: The Civil War Case that Changed the Future of Espionage is an interesting albeit confusing read-around.

Our anti-hero is a fellow named William Alvin Lloyd (referred to mostly as Alvin), born to a poor-but-hardworking family, and learning tailoring as a youth. Obviously tailoring bored him, and he had quick-riches and larceny, and most of all, adventure in his soul.

He was a man of various talents and abilities, not the least of which was organizational skill. Discarding the needle and scissors for the more rewarding sound of applause, he became a minstrel performer. He was successful. So successful that he organized his own troupe and began obtaining booking engagements. Most of the time. Then of course, he ran into the lack-of-funds syndrome that plagues all theatrical entrepreneurs at one time or another, and stiffed his cast and crew.   Not unusual – even now.

Then he parlayed his perpetual wanderlust into devising an interesting new proposition: publishing a railroad guide mostly for the Southern Railroads and Steamship Lines. (There were dozens of them, usually for short runs.) He would list their departures, destinations, costs and timetables, and in return, solicit advertisements from the trains and steamboats, and ancillary services (hotels, restaurants, boarding houses, etc.) at the various locations. Hmm. Interesting. Nineteenth century AAA. He had a lot of takers, and seemed to make a fair amount of money. His publication dates however, were spotty, and in some cases, nonexistent.

And finally, he had another talent: an unfathomable ability to attract women. (And we have no indication that Alvin was an Adonis.) He was a serial bigamist, trigamist, and even quadrigamist. (Polygamists usually collect wives; Alvin was a wed-’em, bed-’em and shed ’em sort.) You need a score card. The one ladylove who seemed to stay true was a child-bride of thirteen when he married her. Perhaps she had adopted his larcenous tendencies. If nothing else, she was the forgiving type.

So without divulging too much, how do we get to President Lincoln and the scam?

Shortly after Ft. Sumter, Alvin found himself up North, and needing to get back to his publishing livelihood, he showed up at the White House and asked Lincoln for a “pass” to go South. This was a common occurrence, and the President acceded, and a little slip of cardboard with the POTUS’s OK was granted. This was the key to the entire con. A safe travel pass from Lincoln. And Alvin was no more Lincoln’s secret spy than you were. In fact, he was a dedicated Southerner.

Fast forward to 1865 and Lincoln is dead. Alvin, with the assistance of his child-bride (who is now around twenty), a slippery shyster lawyer named Totten, a few out-and-out rogues of the Alvin mold concoct a retroactive scheme wherein they said that Alvin had been Lincoln’s secret spy, who would use his Lincoln pass, plus his knowledge of the railroads and army bases in the South to determine enemy strength and troop movements. At a price of $200 per month for the duration of the War. Four years. It was a lot of money. They even wrote a special “diary” where activities purporting to glean information were entered. It further included a great deal of time (true) that poor Alvin spent in Southern jails, detained for a) either being a Northern spy, or b) a bigamist. (Southerners do not take lightly to embarrassing womenfolk.)  And the con worked so well, that even a bona fide bigwig like Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton believed him!

The sheer amount of chutzpah in presenting the U.S. government a bill for services supposedly rendered (about $10,000!) is only matched by the sheer amount of train travel Alvin accomplished during those years. With and without a lady companion.

How Singer and Stewart managed to get all the times, places, dates, railroad schedules, “wives” and incidental information in order boggles the imagination. Thank goodness for Excel spreadsheets. If they had to do it by hand, they would have needed to work on a barn floor. It must have been a monumental researching project.

You will have to read for yourself whether or not the great scam worked – all the way up to the Supreme Court, no less. You will also need to focus very hard on the wheres, the whos, the whys, and the whatnots of those four years of peripatetic train travel. And the fifteen years post-Civil War when the supporting cast of players (Alvin having died, probably of exhaustion) kept the “enterprise” going.

Lincoln’s Secret Spy is an engrossing read, especially since it is well-written, once you appreciate the genuinely quirky style.  The only thing missing is some Scott Joplin music!

Lincoln’s Secret Spy: The Civil War Case that Changed the Future of Espionage

Jane Singer & John Stewart

Lyons Press  $26.95

ISBN-13: 978-1493008100

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Warren Harding and the Ohio Gang

The term “The Ohio Gang” is misleading. First of all, not all of them were from Ohio.

Warren Harding: A Lackluster Politician

Warren Gamaliel Harding (1865-1823) was a lackluster fellow.  His abilities were moderate, not stellar. His ambition for high achievement was only mediocre.  If it required effort, he was happier to decline. His only true gift was friendliness. He was a first-class back-slapper and glad-hander, as natural to him as breathing.

Warren Harding

Handsome Warren Harding, the man who “looked like a President.”

Harding was a successful newspaper publisher – a career he fell into as a young man. With his wife, the former Florence Kling, managing the circulation department of the Marion Star, he was free to pursue politics.  Since the local newspaper publisher is always a popular speaker at civic organizations, Harding was happy accept the invitations to “bloviate” as he called it. He “bloviated” himself into the State Legislature for a couple of terms, followed by a stint as Ohio’s Lt. Governor.

When Harding was about thirty-five, he became acquainted with Harry M. Daugherty, an Ohio politician and political boss. Daugherty was immediately taken with Harding’s personal charm, and his strong, handsome features, believing him to be a man “who looked like a president.”

Harry Daugherty: Ohio Political Boss


Harry Daugherty latched on to Warren Harding early in their careers. He thought Harding could be useful.

Harry M. Daugherty (1860-1941) was a lawyer and politician. He became a political boss, not in the sense of “Boss” Tweed or Tom Platt, or even Mark Hanna, the serious bigshots who called the big shots in various locations across the country after the Civil War. Daugherty was a mediocre politician, and one of those hangers-on who populate every county courthouse in the country, making his living and reputation from “those he knew.” He had a decidedly strong inclination toward the shady side of the street. He was indicted and tried more than once for possible malfeasance – but was never convicted. The taints of those activities would always follow him, and even today, his name is associated with slimy dealings.

While Daugherty and Harding were never buddy-buddy close friends, they became solid political allies, espousing the traditional early 20th century Republican platitudes of country, flag, motherhood and apple pie. When the constitutional amendment was passed to elect US Senators by popular vote (rather than by state legislatures) in 1913, Harding won easily, especially since he had “bloviated” himself around Ohio, and was delighted to use his growing local influence to assist the higher-ups. Now he would be a higher-up himself.  Daugherty stayed close, keeping the new Senator apprised of the players and the politics.

When Harding was a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 1920, Daughterty, the orchestrator of the “smoke filled room,” was relentless in promoting the good-looking Harding, who looked like a matinee idol.

Jess Smith: Ohio Hanger-On

jess smith

Jess Smith was a shadowy figure, mostly known as Daugherty’s sidekick, particularly when it came to bootlegging interests.

Jess Smith was a young orphan at loose ends when he was “discovered” and mentored by Harry Daugherty, about a dozen years his senior. Smith had little to offer intellectually or even personally, but his loyalty to Daugherty was tantamount to idol-worship, and he was happy to do whatever “odd-jobs” Daugherty asked of him.

Daugherty and Smith were regulars at the poker games that Harding would host at his house in Marion, Ohio, where liquor and cigars and fellowship – and politics – were the mainstays of a good time. These poker games continued for decades, even during Prohibition. With the unpopular banning of spirits during the 1920s, the bootleggers had a field day, providing liquor “for medicinal purposes” to an “ailing” public who could pay for it.  Jess Smith was the go-to man in the bootlegging business.

Non-Ohioans in “The Gang”


NM Senator Albert Fall would become Harding’s Secretary of the Interior, implicated in the Teapot Dome scandal that broke shortly after President Harding’s death.NM Senator Albert Fall would become Harding’s Secretary of the Interior, implicated in the Teapot Dome scandal that broke shortly after President Harding’s death.


Michigan Congressman Edwin Denby would be made Secretary of the Navy, and was also part of the Teapot Dome scandal.


Charles Forbes was named by Harding as head of the Veterans’ Administration. Huge corruption and graft took place during his watch.

In Washington, Warren Harding continued the card games with his old Ohio pals, and a few new ones.  Senator Albert Fall was from New Mexico; Congressman Edwin Denby was from Michigan; Charlie Forbes was from all over the place. They had all become acquainted with Harding early in his career, and grew closer while he was Senator. The so-called “Ohio Gang” was not a “gang” per se, with leadership and agendas. It was a collection of opportunists who clung to a potentially important person who happened to be their long-time good pal.

Once Warren Harding was elected President (and by a large margin!), the “gang” was in in line for cabinet posts. Daugherty the lawyer, sleazy though he may have been, was named Attorney General.  Albert Fall, became Secretary of the Interior; Denby was Secretary of the Navy, and both of them would finagle public old reserves into private hands in what would become known as the Teapot Dome scandal. Jess Smith, qualified for practically nothing, was not considered for any official post, but in a sense became the “influence peddler.” None of them were particularly loyal to their President-pal. They were in it for the money.

Daugherty and Smith maintained a “little green house” in Washington where the poker games and politicking (and bootlegging issues) were held regularly. Sometimes the “gang” met upstairs in the White House, where, despite the “dry downstairs,” the liquor continued to flow.

Mr. & Mrs. Harding: Gang Members?

The Duchess

First Lady Florence Harding was just as heartbroken as the President as they learned of the systematic corruption. They had all been such good friends.

Warren Harding and his wife were a mismatched couple in temperament, but the one thing they had in common was a passion for politics. He, of course, was the potential candidate for whatever office was available. She, on the other hand, was considered a behind-the-scenes power. Daugherty knew and respected her early on, and the other “old pals” would figure it out soon enough. Florence Harding was thrilled to be included in their poker games (although she did not drink or usually play cards).  She was delighted to be called by her nickname “Duchess,” and considered one of the boys.

But while First Couple palled around at the card games and such, neither of them were included in any of the schemes that were hatched at the little green house. When they learned that some of their dearest friends were lining their pockets with the public’s money “on Harding’s watch,” it broke their hearts.


Russell, Francis – The Shadow of Blooming Grove: Warren G. Harding in His Times – McGraw Hill, 1968

Sinclair, Andrew – The Available Man: Warren Gamaliel Harding – The Macmillan Co., 1965











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William R. King: The VEEP Who Never Was

William Rufus King

William Rufus DeVane King was the highest ranking Alabaman in US government – even to this day.

The office of Vice President was merely an afterthought to our Constitution’s founders. It was so insignificant that for nearly 39 years(!), the office remained empty.

The Early VEEPS

For the first twelve years of the USA being the USA, the Vice Presidents (John Adams and Thomas Jefferson) were serious political heavyweights. Both were unquestionably qualified to serve as President, which they both did.

After the murky Vice Presidency of Aaron Burr (Jefferson’s first VEEP), the office itself seemed tainted, and with the exception of John C. Calhoun filling the second spot for both John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, the Vice President was a non-entity position.   It became a geo-political accommodation, handed to either an “elder statesman” as a lifetime achievement award, or to a pleasant but non-threatening politician to balance North and South, or East and West.

The Hon. William King

William Rufus DeVane King (1786-1853) was a well-born son of North Carolina. Educated at the University of North Carolina as an attorney, he gravitated early into politics, and became a Congressman at only 25. A few years later, he followed his family in a move to Alabama, where he remained for the rest of his life. Within two years of the move, he became Alabama’s first Senator. A lifelong Democrat, he was elected four times.


William King spent several years serving as President Pro Tem of the Senate. He was considered an excellent parliamentarian.

King’s family was very wealthy, and became one of the largest cotton planting families in the State, necessitating a slave-labor force of more than 500. As Senator, King was a proponent of the “southern” way of life. He supported the “gag rule” of the early 1840s, prohibiting “discussion” of anti-slavery petitions in Congress, opposed prohibiting slavery in the District of Columbia, and supported the expansion of slavery into the territories, believing that the “peculiar institution” was protected by the Constitution. On the other hand, he was strongly opposed to secession, and was never considered among the “Fire Eaters” of Southern politics.

Following a two-year stint as Polk’s Minister to France, he returned to Washington, and was reappointed (and subsequently re-elected) as Senator from Alabama.

The Personal William R. King


James Buchanan and King were close friends. Both were bachelors and shared quarters in Washington.

There is little question that William King had what could be termed “effeminate” mannerisms. Andrew Jackson himself referred to him used the common phrases “Miss Nancy” or “Aunt Fancy.”  When King became acquainted with Senator James Buchanan, also in the “Nancy-Fancy” mold, the two men became close friends, and shared bachelor quarters in Washington for the next ten years.

Homosexuality in the nineteenth century was considered an aberration; deviant behavior. If there was any “improper” behavior between them, it remains secret, unproven and conjectured.  Both of them were far too experienced in politics to allow any stigma to be attached to their personae.  Both Buchanan and King were considered viable for higher political office. They both knew it, and had even considered a Democratic ticket of “Buchanan and King.”

But the truth was that they were indeed extremely close friends, and when apart (due to overseas assignments) they wrote each other regularly, albeit sharing little private information other than an occasional cryptic line about missing each others’ company.

The Veep-hood Comes to King

The office of Vice President was a position of honor with no onerous duties.  During the 1840s, when VP John Tyler became President after the death of William Henry Harrison, King had the experience of serving for several years as Senate President Pro Tempore.  Again, in 1850 when Vice President Milliard Fillmore assumed the presidency after the death of Zachary Taylor, the office remained empty, and in effect, King, as Senate President Pro Tem, was “next in line.” He had seniority and the genuine respect of his colleagues. He had wanted the Vice Presidency since 1840, but despite making his wishes known, the office still eluded him.

By 1852, the clouds of secession, of abolition, of slavery and states’ rights were darkening the political horizons. Northerners would never vote for a slave-owning Southerner; Southerners would never consider a Northerner with abolitionist tendencies.


Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire was the Democrat’s dark horse candidate for President in 1852. King was dying and everyone knew it, but he was still elected as Vice President on Pierce’s ticket.

It took 49 exhausting ballots for the Democrats to nominate Franklin Pierce, a New Hampshire man, an ex-Congressman and ex-Senator who had been gone from the national scene for a decade. Possibly as an afterthought, they finally nominated William R. King to be Vice President, but it was too late. King was dying of tuberculosis. He declined, but giving the Vice Presidency it usual short shrift, the committee obviously didn’t care. He was on the ticket. Pierce and King won.

The Inauguration of King

In 1852, King was sixty-seven years old and had suffered from the disease for perhaps two years, but now he took a turn for the worse. When his doctors advised that a warm climate might be helpful, King went to Havana, Cuba, and was thus out of the country on inauguration day.

Knowing the extenuating circumstances, Congress enacted a one-and-only bill to permit the Vice President to take the oath of office in a foreign land. An emaciated and frail William King was sworn in, and shortly after, perhaps in a desire to die in his own bed, he sailed back to Alabama. The throngs that met his ship (since he was the highest ranking Alabaman ever elected to national office – to this day!) were subdued and respectful.

He died two days later.

He had been Vice President for six weeks.

His position was never replaced.

Franklin Pierce served without a Vice President for four years – minus six weeks.



Barzman, Sol – Madmen & Geniuses: The Vice-Presidents of the United States – Follett Publishing, 1974

Purcell, L. Edward, (Editor) Vice Presidents: A Biographical Dictionary – 2005, Facts on File Publishing





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Emilie Todd: Mary Lincoln’s Little Sister

Mary Todd Lincoln came from a huge family. There were fourteen children.

Children and Steps:

Mary Todd was the fourth of six children born to Robert Smith Todd and his first wife, Elizabeth Parker.   She died when Mary was only six, and a year and half later, her father remarried, as was very common at the time. He and his new wife, Betsey Humphreys would have another eight surviving children.


Emilie Todd Helm, Mary Lincoln’s baby sister, was said to be the prettiest of all the Todd sisters.

Emilie Todd (1836-1930) was nearly eighteen years younger than her half-sister Mary, just a baby when Mary left the Todd house in Lexington, KY to make a permanent home in Springfield, IL.  Needless to say, there were no shared memories of youth.

When Mary and Abraham Lincoln were married, they made a few rare visits to the Todd house in Lexington. It is said that Lincoln, who was old enough to be her father, scooped her up in his long arms saying, “So this is ‘Little Sister!’ And of all the Todd half-siblings Mary had, it would be Emilie who had the “sisterly” relationship, even though the girl was only a few years older than her “nephew” Robert.

Emilie Visits Springfield

young mary lincoln

Mary Lincoln helped “host” her sister Emilie’s visit to Springfield. She and Emilie became particularly close.

Years would pass with only sporadic contact between Mary and Emilie. Living in Springfield with her full-sisters, Elizabeth Edwards, Frances Wallace and Ann Smith, Mary had little occasion to go to Lexington. She had never been close to her stepmother, and once her father died, and her own family was still young, the ties loosened.


Ben Hardin Helm declined Lincoln’s offer of high Union command, and joined the Confederate army, even though his home state of Kentucky remained in the Union.

But in 1854, when Emilie was eighteen, she paid a visit to her four Todd half-sisters. She did not stay with the Lincolns, but according to her later recollections, she saw Mary nearly every day, and it was Mary that she loved the best. And also according to those recollections, Mary treated Emilie, said to be the prettiest of all the Todd sister, to a new bonnet – at a time when the Lincoln funds were tight.

Not long after that visit, Emilie married Ben Hardin Helm, a young West Point trained attorney and legislator from Kentucky. Lincoln liked him. Shortly after Lincoln became President, he offered Helm a plum position: Paymaster of the Union Army. Helm declined. His sympathies were with the South, even though Kentucky did not join. He enlisted in the Confederate army, became a Brigadier General and was killed in the fall of 1863 at the battle of Chickamauga. He was 32.

Emilie Comes to Washington

Emilie Helm and her young daughter who had traveled to Tennessee to retrieved General Helm’s body, sought “safe passage” to return to Kentucky. Union soldiers were quick to accommodate, so long as she took an obligatory oath of allegiance to the Union. Emilie adamantly refused. The soldiers, knowing her close relationship to the Lincolns, were in a quandary, and telegraphed the President for instructions. “Send her to me,” was the order.

Older Emilie Helm

Emilie Todd Helm never married after her husband’s death, and became a very attractive and wealthy widow.

Emilie and her daughter Katherine duly went to Washington, and was warmly embraced by the Lincolns who had always had a great fondness for her.   Lincoln was particularly grateful to have her there, since Mary was still mourning deeply over the death of their young son a year earlier, and he was concerned about her mental and emotional health. He believed that the two sisters could find comfort by mourning together. Tad Lincoln was delighted to have a young cousin to play with = even if she was a girl.

Lincoln was solicitous of General Helm’s death; Emilie was tender in her response noting that her husband felt compelled to follow his conscience – like most of Mrs. Lincoln’s other half-siblings. And it was Emilie who told Lincoln in confidence that she was becoming concerned about her sister’s growing infatuation with spiritualism.

Lincoln had hoped to have Emilie and little Katherine spend the summer with them at the Soldiers Home, but her presence was becoming a source of complaint to various Congressmen (“harboring spies in the White House”). He let the Congressmen know in uncertain terms that while his sister-in-law was possessed of the “Todd tongue”, he firmly maintained the right to invite guests without their permission. Emilie was uncomfortable, however, and decided to return to Lexington, Kentucky.

When she left the White House, it would be the last time Mary Lincoln saw her little sister.

Some months later, Emilie wrote to Lincoln requesting permission to send clothing to Confederate prisoners being held in Chicago, and in November 1864, requested a pass to sell her cotton. By this time, Lincoln (and probably Mary, too) was becoming annoyed by her ardently Confederate Todd-half-sibs. They had become more an embarrassment than any comfort. Lincoln denied the pass, and revoked previous passes, saying “Deal with her for current conduct, just as you would any other.”

Emilie and Katherine Helm: The Mary Book


Mary’s niece Katherine Helm was a talented amateur artist and painted the portrait that is now the “Official” Mary Lincoln portrait. She also wrote Mary’s first biography, more than 40 years after her aunt’s death.

Emilie Helm was still in her twenties when she became a widow – and a wealthy one at that.   She never remarried – nor did her little daughter Katherine.

When Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865, none of Mary’s family rallied to her side in Washington. While the Widow Mary would be in sporadic contact with her full-sisters during the remaining seventeen years of her life, there is no evidence that she ever saw any of her Todd-halves again. There is no correspondence between Mary and Emilie that has surfaced.

Later in their lives, Mary’s niece Katherine Helm, a small child during the Civil War, decided to paint what is now the “official” White House portrait of Mary Lincoln.  She also wrote a biography of her Aunt Mary, titled “Mary, Wife of Lincoln” and written in the ponderous Victorian style that was still popular in the 1920s.  It was the first biography ever penned about Mrs. L. and contained wonderful information about the early years of Mary Todd,  based in large part on information provided by Emilie Todd Helm, who was still living – and would eventually reach the ripe old age of ninety-four.  “Little Sister” outlived all the Lincolns – including her nephew Robert, who lived to be eighty three himself.


Berry, Stephen – House of Abraham: Lincoln & The Todds, A Family Divided by War – Houghton Mifflin, 2007

Clinton, Catherine – Mrs. Lincoln: A Life – Harper Collins, 2009

Helm, Katherine, Mary, Wife of Lincoln, Harper & Brothers, 1928



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McKinley and Bryan: The Second Battle of the Bills: 1900

The rematch election in 1900 between “Bills” – William McKinley and William Jennings Bryan – was not an unusual occurrence.

There have been a few “rematch” Presidential elections. Adams & Jefferson in 1796 and 1800, where the office exchanged hands. In 1836 & 1840, Martin Van Buren and William Henry Harrison exchanged the office. In 1888 and 1892 Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland exchanged offices. (The last one was between Ike and Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and 1956. Ike won both times.)

Growth of the Candidates:


President McKinley won his second term by “being presidential.” Things were looking good for the country, he won easily.

William McKinley, Republican President of the United States, was 57 years old in 1900, still vigorous and in good health. And now, after a marked improvement in the general economy, and a quick and successful war with Spain, the President was looking more and more like a real statesman. He was likable and had proven his competence. He had no opposition winning renomination.


William J. Bryan was a youthful 40. He campaigned vigorously – just as he did four years earlier.

Some of the Democrats toyed with the idea of nominating the conservative 63-year-old Admiral George Dewey, recent hero of the lopsided Battle of Manila Bay, but Dewey had a case of political foot-in-mouth disease and withdrew. Thus William Jennings Bryan, who at 36 years old was the Democratic candidate in 1896, was renominated.

Now 40, Bryan had cemented his influence on the Democrats – and maintained his even stronger influence as a Populist, which by the turn of the century had become a solid third party, mostly representing midwestern farmers and small businessmen. Billy the Kid could crisscross the country making speeches if he wanted. He liked that. William the Elder could sit back and be “presidential.” He liked that.

The VEEP Contest

rough rider

The main attraction was arguably Republican VP candidate Theodore Roosevelt. The 41-year-old was fresh from his Rough Rider derring-do.

It would be a Vice Presidential candidate who caused the stir this time around.

Garret Hobart, the well-respected sitting Vice President, had died in 1899, and the office remained empty. President McKinley, who had been particularly close to Hobart, left the decision to the convention at large. Now the Republicans were proposing 41-year-old Col. Theodore Roosevelt, the heroic Rough Rider and current Governor of New York. He was popular with New Yorkers, but his progressive politics were giving the Republican bosses migraines. In a stroke of genius, they decided to kick him upstairs to the Vice Presidency, where he could do no harm. TR wasn’t thrilled, but he bit the bullet.

Matching Bryan’s youthful energy, he also crisscrossed the country grinning and speaking. McKinley had little to say about it, but his close friend and campaign manager, Senator Marcus Hanna was apoplectic about “that cowboy” and advised McKinley that his most important job would be to stay alive for the next four years.

The Main Issue

In 1896, the main issue had been bimetallism, or the free coinage of silver to help stimulate a depressed economy. Bryan was for it; the Republicans dead set against.


It was the age of color lithography. Posters and buttons and campaign ephemera had become a major communication tool.

But in 1900, the economy had improved substantially, and even most Democrats believed it was a non-issue (except for Bryan, who would always be a “Silverite”). The recent War with Spain in 1898, short, victorious and comparatively bloodless, had left us with three Former Spanish territories: the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico. Like it or not, we were now an Imperial power, and a good many Americans did not like it. Even the ones who supported it were usually half-hearted, since “a free country” is the American way.


McKinley had Mark Hanna’s money, but the Democrats spared no expense getting the words & pictures out themselves!

The problem, as many saw it, was the fractious and wildly factional violence in the Philippines, which only worsened under American control.

Even those who believed the Islands should be given their freedom (like Cuba), believed it was America’s moral obligation to help stabilize their political situation first: a daunting and thankless task.

Third Parties

Third parties are frequently “spoilers” in political contests, and while the Populists were the third largest splinter group and made a good deal of noise, they did not truly affect the outcome.

By 1900, the Populists had been quarreling amongst themselves for four years; they had their own “right”, “left” and “center” wings, some allied with the Democrats, some with the Republicans. Some fielded their own tickets.

In the end, they again chose Bryan as their candidate, although some of their die-hards fielded Wharton Barker on a separate ballot line. The Socialists, on the way to making increased gains, nominated Eugene Debs. But it would be the Prohibition Party’s John Woolley who received nearly a quarter of a million votes.

McKinley would have won just as easily without them.

The Outcome

The outcome was never in doubt. William McKinley received a little more than 51% of the votes; William Jennings Bryan garnered only 45%, and that included the Populists. The balance was split between other splinter groups.

President McKinley looked forward to his second term with confidence. He was always personally popular. Most people liked him. One of the few that didn’t was Leon Czolgosz, an anarchist, who pumped a couple of bullets in him six months after his second inaugural

And “that cowboy” would be in the White House.


Leech, Margaret, In the Days of McKinley – Harper & Brothers, 1959

Morgan, H. Wayne – McKinley and His America – Syracuse University Press, 1964



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The Horrible Health of Andrew Jackson

How Andrew Jackson managed to live to be seventy-eight is a wonderment, considering his dreadful health.

AJ: The Young Frontier Boy

Young AJ

Said to be a portrait of young Andrew Jackson.

Andrew Jackson (1767-1845) was a posthumous boy; his father died only weeks before Andy was born. Raised in the remote Waxhaw area betweeun North and South Carolina (both states are still battling for claiming rights), he was brought up by his mother, two older brothers and a few assorted relatives. Always an indifferent student, he much preferred hunting and games to schoolwork.

In 1779, as the American Revolution came to southern shores, the three Jackson brothers “enlisted” in the American army. At only twelve, Andrew was used as a messenger, since he was a superb rider, knew the trails and paths, and possessed a daredevil spirit. He was caught.

When a British officer told him to “clean his boots,” the arrogant Andrew refused, and the officer slashed him with his sword, scarring his face, his hand and mostly his soul. Then they threw him in jail, where fetid and unsanitary conditions spawned immediate disease. Andrew contracted smallpox, which may have weakened his system.

AJ: The Duelist

No question about it, Andrew Jackson was a hothead (“born for the storm, and calm does not suit me”) and the young lawyer-plus-planter-plus-speculator-plus-business owner had married (gasp, horrors!) a divorcee, a rare occurrence in 18th century Tennessee. The circumstances and details of Rachel Donelson Robard’s divorce and remarriage then and now, are murky.

From the start, Jackson would have as many enemies as supporters, and those enemies soon learned that the quickest way to Jackson’s spleen was to comment on Mrs. Jackson.   Insults were traded, challenges demanded, and duels fought. Some were averted, but Jax would carry two bullets in his body for decades – from said duels.


One of the few likenesses ever made of Rachel Jackson, the love of the General’s life.

One bullet was in the arm, where it festered regularly and gave him chronic pain. In those days before x-rays, anesthesia and basic antisepsis, removal of a deep bullet wound could often be worse than the wound itself. This bullet would not be removed until Jackson was in the White House, a quarter century later.

A second bullet, which he took to his grave, was considered inoperable. It lodged in his chest, near his lung and his heart. It suppurated frequently, causing serious pulmonary problems including a bloody sputum that could take weeks to subside.

Then, of course, there was lead poisoning. But they didn’t know anything about that.

AJ: The Warrior General


When Andrew Jackson became General of the Tennessee Militia, he found his true calling and never practiced law again.

Andrew Jackson was “elected” politically as General of the Tennessee militia – a circumstance that changed his life forever.  It was his true calling, and from that time forward, he never practiced law again.

During the War of 1812, the Indian tribes in “the West” (meaning west of the original thirteen colonies) were allied for and against the Americans. The Creek Indians in particular, were fearsome warriors, but they met their match in a fearsome Jackson.

Indian fighting in the eighteen-teens, was harsh and rugged, qualities that earned Jax the “Old Hickory” nickname. The malarial fevers and dysentery associated with swampy woods and outdoor survival found a home in Jackson’s skinny-as-a-rail body. His digestive tract was permanently damaged. In New Orleans, when a huge banquet had been prepared in his honor, he barely ate a bite.  Even in the White House, the aging President (now in his sixties) ate only sparingly and blandly.

Malaria, typhoid, typhus and dysentery are notoriously recurring diseases, and they flared up regularly with Jackson. There were times when more dead than alive, he limped his way back to Nashville, where Rachel Jackson would tenderly nurse him back to health.

Andrew Jackson’s Medical Care

Frontier doctors did their best of course, but they had little formal training, and absolutely no knowledge of sanitation. The most common treatments for any number of ailments were poultices, plasters and “bleeding.” Jackson’s vein would be opened and a considerable amount of blood would be released. This was supposed to balance the “humours” (whatever that meant), but it likely did more harm than good, further weakening the scrawny man.

Jackson was a firm believer in bleeding, so much so that he bled himself periodically. He opened a vein with his penknife (unsterilized, of course), and expected a cure. More likely his own warm bed, nourishing food and Rachel’s devoted care helped more.

The common treatment for the malarial fevers and agues, was calomel – a potion containing huge amounts of mercury.   They didn’t know anything about that either, and Jackson took large doses of it for years

AJ: More Health Issues

Old Man Jackson

One of the last portraits Andrew Jackson ever sat for.

If Jackson’s chronic fevers, infections from old wounds, turbulent tummy problems and abysmal medical treatment weren’t bad enough, he was plagued by badly rotted teeth.

Old AJ

Photography had just been invented shortly before Andrew Jackson’s death in 1845. This is the only known photograph of the old man.

Dentistry in the early 19th century was not its own profession. Barbers still yanked teeth; doctors sometimes yanked teeth. Most of the time, the crumbling tooth fell out on its own. Jackson’s decaying teeth, unsurprisingly, caused him severe headaches, which in turn further irritated his delicate stomach.

Add to all his physical woes, was the fact that his presidential and post-presidential years were sorrowful ones. His beloved Rachel had died only weeks before his inauguration in 1829. He was lonely for her, and despite dozens of Donelson nieces and nephews, some wards, foster children and an adopted son, he had no blood relatives. Every one of his kin was gone when he was still in his teens.

Toothless, wrinkled, plagued by years of physical punishment to his body, and suspected incremental lead and/or mercury poisoning, the man “made for a storm” finally expired.

He was seventy-eight.


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

Marx, Rudolph, M.D. – The Health of the Presidents – 1960 – G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Meacham, Jon – America Lion: Jackson in the White House – Random House, 2008


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VP John Nance Garner: “Cactus Jack”

The longest lived Vice President was FDR’s first VEEP, John Nance Garner. He lived to be just shy of his 99th birthday.

JNG: Rural Texan

John Nance Garner (1867-1965) lived between Johnsons: born during VP-turned-POTUS Andrew Johnson’s administration, and died during the term of VP-turned-POTUS Lyndon Johnson.

cactusjack garner

The young John Nance Garner. between state and national office, he would spend more than forty years in office.

He came from rural Texas, and lived in rural Texas all his life. The small-in-stature poor farm boy briefly attended Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, but withdrew because of ill health (although some say he was not academically prepared for higher learning).

The “health” part was true, and Garner consulted a physician who suggested a warm climate, further intimating that he should not expect a long life. Garner moved to Uvalde, Texas, a hot desert town near the Mexican border, adjusted his attitude on living, and proved his doctor wrong.

Garner duly “read law” and was admitted to the Texas bar. He immediately gravitated to politics, and was elected as a “solid South” Democrat to the state legislature in 1898.

“Cactus Jack” is Born

Most people surmised that his famous “Cactus Jack” nickname came from his prickly personality (which he had), or even from his sharp way with words, also one of his natural gifts. But the nickname came elsewhere.

At the turn of the 20th century, the Texas legislature decided to choose a “state flower.” John Nance Garner, firmly entrenched in Uvalde with its hot, dry climate, nominated the “prickly pear cactus,” and true to his bantam rooster posturing, promoted his cause aggressively, thus earning his nickname.

He lost to the bluebonnet, which still remains the Texas state flower.

JNG: Congressional Jack

Garner was elected to Congress in 1902, and was devoted to his district, took care of its needs and was re-elected regularly with very little opposition. He served his constituents well and they were appreciative.

john nance garner

Garner was a popular Congressman on both sides of the aisle.

His politics were conservative and “rural” and even narrow-minded in philosophy, but Garner still made friends easily, notably on both sides of the aisle.

He was also a hard drinker, decidedly opposed to Prohibition, whose laws were easily circumvented in Congress, and a “private” office became nicknamed the “Board of Education.” The less prim and proper legislators who liked their whiskey gravitated after hours, or, as Cactus Jack called it, “Striking a blow for liberty.” Much was and could be accomplished in this “spirit” of camaraderie.

JNG: Speaker at Last

The political party demographics, hugely Republican for a quarter of a century, changed in the 1930s, as the Great Depression began to erode the country’s economy. Congress turned Democratic, and with his years of seniority-cum-personal-relationships, Cactus Jack had a new title and a new persona: Speaker of the House of Representatives. It was the second-highest political post in the country.

Garner had his eye on the top spot however. It was a long shot to be sure, but 1932 would be a Democratic year. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a man with a famous name and a winsome charm, had been NY Governor for two terms. His nomination was practically assured, but wheeling and dealing was still required and a vice president was needed. A geo-political balance was important and the deal was struck.

Cactus Jack was not enthusiastic about being VP. No one of importance or political standing had run for vice president since Thomas Jefferson. It was a throwaway job. Honorable and respectable, but according Garner’s colorful prose, “not worth a bucket of warm piss.” Why would he give up the second-most powerful position for something so insignificant?

JNG: Vice President


FDR and Cactus Jack got on well at first, but the relationship frayed noticeably. Garner was very conservative and grew unhappy with the New Deal.

Nevertheless, whatever bait was offered, Garner bit. Perhaps he believed that at nearly seventy, he better make his move if he ever wanted the top spot.

FDR was elected handily, and set in motion a whirlwind of activity. FDR needed Garner, whose legislative experience was something FDR lacked. Dozens of bills were introduced to Congress during Roosevelt’s “hundred days,” all of them requiring aggressive, yet careful shepherding through the House, where all money legislation originates.

Garner was superb through that first term. His skills, his knowledge, his experience and his energy were used to the fullest, but Garner was a product of the legislative (as opposed to the executive) branch of government, and FDR’s liberal New Deal policies were beginning to clash with the conservative Texan. The relationship began to cool, and Garner began making his own plans for 1940.

FDR’s Third Term

In 1940, JNG was past seventy. It was now or never, and he was vehemently opposed to a third term for the still-popular FDR.


Garner truly believer he had a chance for the 1940 Presidential nomination, but that was before FDR decided on a third term.

The ties that had been continually fraying between the two men was now at a breaking point. With a World War lapping on US shores, their differences grew even wider. Garner, the isolationist and “traditional” Democrat, found himself at serious odds with the internationalist and liberal FDR.

Anti-third term sentiment was strong enough for Garner to make a concerted effort to challenge Roosevelt, but when the President “allowed himself to be drafted” he won easily.

Garner was now out of political office for the first time in nearly fifty years. He went back to Uvalde, where he lived for another quarter-century, surprising everyone, including himself.

The Garner Legacy

JNG is a forgotten name now, but his TEXAS legacy had long legs. Cactus Jack was without doubt, an extremely effective legislator. While in Congress, he began “grooming” another Texan for leadership: Sam Rayburn.   “Mr. Sam,” as he was nicknamed, earned his own reputation as a potent Speaker of the House. He in turn, cultivated another Texan destined to be the Majority Leader of the Senate, a Vice President himself, and finally President: Lyndon B. Johnson.

On November 22, 1963, Garner’s 95th birthday, President John F. Kennedy called to congratulate him – and even made a special trip to the Garner ranch in Uvalde to film a brief interview with the elderly Texan. Then Kennedy flew to Dallas.


Barzman, Sol – Madmen & Geniuses: The Vice-Presidents of the United States – Follett Publishing, 1974

Purcell, L. Edward, (Editor) Vice Presidents: A Biographical Dictionary – 2005, Facts on File Publishing


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