Ellen Herndon: Mrs. Chester Alan Arthur

Chester Alan Arthur was a recent widower when he was elected VP in 1880.

Ellen Herndon Arthur

The Private Arthurs

No one was more surprised than Chester Alan Arthur when he was nominated for (and elected) Vice President in 1880. Had she lived, Ellen Herndon Arthur would have echoed that surprise.

Chester Alan Arthur (1829-1886) was Vermont-born of a “humble” family. His father, a farmer-teacher-minister, was long on faith and short on funds. When Chet was still a toddler, the family moved from place to place in upstate New York for better opportunities. In a land where one (with pluck and luck) can rise from modest means to wealth, Chet leaped at the opportunity for an education at Union College. He excelled, studied law, and in time, decided to seek his fortune in The Big Apple, where, if you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere. 

Nevertheless, while he never denied his modest beginnings and kept in contact with his family, like Lincoln, he seldom discussed personal details. 

Ellen Lewis Herndon (1837-80) came from both means and distinction. She was a Virginian, born to a high ranking naval officer; her father’s cousin Matthew Fontaine Maury, was an even higher ranking naval commander (both USA and CSA) and scientist of renown. 

Due to her father’s long absences at sea, Ellen (usually called Nell) was an only child, and had little contact with him. She would later admit she never knew her father very well. When he died in a tragic hurricane shipwreck in 1857, he became a bone fide hero, rescuing scores of passengers, but losing his life in the effort. 

A magazine image of Mrs. Arthur

Born in Fredericksburg, VA, young Nell lived mostly in Washington DC, and blessed with an excellent singing voice, sang in the St. John’s Church choir. She eventually moved with her mother to New York. For a while.

Becoming Mrs. Arthur

Chet Arthur (as his friends called him) adapted easily to the New York City lifestyle. He became a nifty dresser and epicure. His legal talents, especially those of administration, were recognized quickly, and the then-Governor of New York took a personal interest. When the opportunity arose, Governor Morgan appointed his young protege to high level positions, particularly once the Civil War began.

Prior to meeting Ellen Herndon in 1858 at a Saratoga Springs resort, Arthur focused on furthering his career and seems to have had little serious romantic involvement. But when his friend Darnley Herndon introduced the young attorney to his cousin Ellen, that changed quickly. 

A much later impression of Ellen Arthur

Despite the fact that Arthur the New Yorker and Miss Herndon the Southern belle came from backgrounds that were miles apart, they were attracted and the courtship proceeded apace. He visited the Herndon home in Virginia, and met many of her well-placed kinsmen. Their gracious lifestyle was embraced by the up-and-coming lawyer; the Herndon family liked him.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is young-chet-arthur.png
Chester Alan Arthur, the young dude.

They married in 1859. She was 22, he was 30. They purchased a townhouse in Manhattan, and proceeded to entertain frequently – and lavishly. She had inherited a considerable fortune from her recently-deceased hero-father.

The Happy Couple

In many ways Nell and Chet were a happy couple. They had three children, the first died in infancy. Chet readily acknowledged how much he owed to the genteel Southern social style that his bride brought to the table, along with her finances. She, on the other hand, found fulfillment singing in the Episcopal Church choir, and the Mendelssohn Glee Club, where she sang their soprano solos, and performed at many benefit occasions. 

The Arthur townhouse on Lexington Avenue, NYC

The Civil War took a toll on the Arthur spouses as it did on many marriages. Nell openly favored the Confederacy, deeply concerned about her many relatives. Meanwhile Chet had become essential to New York’s military efforts, provisioning all the volunteer NY troops, to include housing, feeding, clothing, arming and sundries. He eventually was given the title of Quartermaster General, which allows history to consider him as a military general. When the 30-something Arthur tried to enlist for active duty, the Governor would not permit it. He was needed in New York. 

Very few photos of the Arthurs (rear, right) exist.

The Maybe Not-So-Happy Couple

After the Civil War, politics in general underwent many changes, not the least of which was the rise of the political boss who controlled all the patronage jobs in said city/county/state (wherever the boss reigned). “To the victor belongs the spoils,” and that meant politics. In the 1870s, it was primarily Republican, and usually corrupt. The emergence of Civil Service regulation was still years away.

While never personally corrupt, Chet Arthur was deeply rooted in the boss system, and became a high-ranking behind-the-scenes advisor. Few Republican decisions were made in New York without his input. In return, he was assigned plum positions that paid more than the President of the United States.

CAA was having a grand time of it. Delmonico dinners, speaking engagements, champagne and caviar meetings. Some may have included show girls or amiable waitresses. Bottom line, he was seldom home.

Here’s where things get a little iffy. His marriage was drifting, and some historians have conjectured that Nell planned to take the children and return to Virginia. Maybe. Both Arthurs were intensely private people. They kept no diaries, were seldom separated for any length of time, thus few letters survive. And the former POTUS Arthur burned most of his papers shortly before he died.

Nevertheless, in January, 1880, she was singing with her glee club on a cold and snowy night. She caught cold which became pneumonia, and died shortly afterwards. She was 42. 

She never saw her husband elected VP, nor become President of the United States following the assassination of James Garfield.

CAA’s endowed window to his wife’s memory.

Arthur never remarried. But as President, he endowed a magnificent Tiffany stained glass window in Washington’s St. John’s Church in her memory. It is still there.


Greenberger, Scott S. – The Unexpected President: The Life and Times of Chester Alan Arthur – De Capo Press, 2017

Karabel, Zachary – Chester Alan Arthur – Times Books, 2004




Posted in A POTUS-FLOTUS Blog, Nifty History People | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Lincoln, Brady and the Cooper Union Photograph

Said to be the earliest photograph of Lincoln.

Lincoln of Illinois

In February 1860, Abraham Lincoln, a country lawyer from Illinois was little known outside of his home state. He was fifty-one years old and a former Whig. Despite having served in the state legislature while he was still in his twenties, he had done little else to attract high political recognition past a single term in Congress in 1847-8.

But in 1858, he made a strong Republican challenge for Illinois’ Senate seat, held by Stephen A. Douglas, a well-known Democrat, who had served on a national level for more than a decade, and was considered a political force to be reckoned with. 

An illustration of the Lincoln-Douglas debate

In a startling and headline-grabbing campaign, tall and lanky Lincoln vied with “the Little Giant” (a full foot shorter than Lincoln) in a series of seven debates throughout Illinois. Thousands of people came from miles around to hear them. 

The issues, particularly those regarding slavery and secession, were deep and compelling, and both parties made effective arguments. Lincoln actually won the popular vote, but the bottom line was that Stephen Douglas was reelected by the Illinois legislature, which in those days elected the U.S. Senators. Lincoln returned to being an attorney.

But he had begun to attract widespread attention, was invited to speak throughout the Midwest. He was a rising star.

Mathew Brady of New York

If Abraham Lincoln was just beginning to achieve notoriety, Mathew Brady (c. 1822-96), a New Yorker by birth and choice, and photographer by talent, was already famous. 

Mathew Brady

He had made a name for himself early on by photographing an elderly John Quincy Adams. When he won top honors with his photos at the Great Exhibition in London in 1851, his fame was assured on both sides of the ocean. A few months later, when impresario Phineas T. Barnum brought Swedish soprano Jenny Lind to the USA, Brady took her photo, had it displayed prominently in his studio – and his reputation was absolute. 

Jenny Lind
Brady’s studio

In short, Mathew Brady became to photography what John Singer Sargent would later become to art: a supreme portraitist. Every well known personage wanted to sit for Brady.

Brady had yet another great gift – an instinct for publicity. His studio became a mecca for tourists in NY, and a photograph of a prominent person in Brady’s window guaranteed hundreds of copies to be purchased – and fame to the subject.

Lincoln Comes East

In fall 1859, Lincoln received an invitation from The Young Men’s Central Republican Union to speak in New York City. NY was a prime venue, so he accepted with alacrity.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is cooperunion.jpg
Cooper Union had more seating capacity

The venue originally selected for Lincoln’s speech was at the Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, where Henry Ward Beecher, one of the preeminent ministers of his time, based his congregation. By the time Lincoln arrived for the event, in late February 1860, the venue had been changed. It was not large enough to support the huge number of politically savvy New Yorkers who wanted to attend. Cooper Union in Manhattan, with its great hall that could (and did) accommodate 1500 listeners was chosen. Those 1500 attendees were happy to pay the $5 admission fee. Lincoln had spent many hours crafting his speech. They would not be disappointed.

The Sitting, or Standing

Earlier on February 27, the day of the lecture, Abraham Lincoln visited Mathew Brady’s studio to have his photograph taken. Lincoln was an astute politician who had realized early on that the proverbial “picture being worth a thousand words” could easily apply in politics. He sat for countless photographs during his lifetime. 

A beardless, standing Lincoln

Brady, already at the pinnacle of his fame, was happy to have the gangling midwesterner pose for the camera. He was well aware of Lincoln’s growing popularity, and happy to add him to his portfolio of prominent portraits. 

Lincoln’s “Brady” photograph is unusual in many ways. He was beardless, and only a dozen or so (usually unflattering) images were taken prior to his new facial “acquisition.” He was also standing. This is very rare (other than among the soldiers), because of his great height. It is said that Brady personally arranged Lincoln’s collar, which Lincoln recognized as an effort to minimize his long neck. 

Brady always favored “props” as part of the artistic setting. Lincoln had his hand on a book, and in the background was a pillar. Bottom line: Lincoln looked like a statesman. The character that showed through his deep-set eyes made exactly the statement that both subject and photographer wanted.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is lincoln-brady-portrait2.jpg
A carte d’visite

Knowing that Lincoln was speaking that night, Brady’s photo was immediately developed and placed in the photographer’s studio window. Hundreds of cartes d’visite were printed – and immediately sold! 

Later, the photograph would be reworked as a woodcut by artist Winslow Homer (en route to being a premier artist on his own merit), and graced the cover of Harper’s Weekly, one of the foremost magazines of its day. The orientation was “flopped,” and an open drape displayed a scenic view.

It was also copied many times once Lincoln received the Republican nomination for president a few months later.

The woodcut done by Winslow Homer

The Aftermath

Lincoln’s speech at Cooper Union was a long one, arguably the longest speech he ever made. But it was a rousing success. Rather than lofty political fluff or the backwoods anecdotes that some expected, it was well-considered, well phrased and well balanced. His list of admirers grew. 

His name was now featured prominently as a potential presidential candidate that year. Magazine articles were written about him, most of them featuring the Brady photograph. 

Some time later, when Lincoln and Brady met again (Lincoln was his subject on several occasions), Lincoln credited the photograph in helping make him President.


Guelzo, Allen C. – Lincoln and Douglas – Wm. B. Eerdsman Publ. – 1997

Oates, Stephen B. – The Approaching Fury – HarperCollins, 1997

Pistor, Nicholas, J.C. – Shooting Lincoln: Mathew Brady, Alexander Gardner, and the Race to Photograph the Story of the Century – DeCapo Press, 2017



Posted in A POTUS-FLOTUS Blog, Abraham Lincoln, Nifty History People | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Thomas Jefferson: Smuggler

Thomas Jefferson was a man of many talents and interests…

The Agronomist

Long before Monticello as we know it was built and rebuilt by “Thomas Jefferson, Architect,” his love of the land on his little mountain was deep and lifelong.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is monticello.jpg
Monticello as we know it today.

TJ was more than just a Virginia planter. Most of our early colonial plantation owners immersed themselves in agricultural knowledge. It was their means of livelihood, whether or not they personally dug, weeded, sowed or reaped. 

Jefferson, however, was a cut above. He not only cultivated his property for monetary profit (which never quite happened), but his football field of a kitchen garden, specifically for his personal use and for feeding his large labor force, was his own laboratory. His garden book meticulously details the weather, the season, the first bud of whatever flower, fruit or vegetable, the size and weights of the aforementioned, sometimes with hand-drawn illustrations. He was keen to graft seedlings to create (or try to create) new hybrids wherever possible. He was an agricultural scientist in the same sense that his friend Benjamin Franklin was a physicist. It was his hobby. It was his joy.

TJ’s kitchen garden…today.

The Making of a Cosmopolitan

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is tj-european.jpg
Thomas Jefferson, by Mather Brown

While Thomas Jefferson always straddled the line between a country farmer and a city fellow, slipping effortlessly into Virginia’s then-capital of Williamsburg, and later Philadelphia, his real transformation into a man of the world began when he was induced to go to Paris in 1784, as a “successor” to ambassador (to use the modern term) Benjamin Franklin.

He lived in a fine Parisian house. (Monticello had been named, but was piecemeal and under creation.) He purchased new clothing in the French fashion. He bought and wore a powdered wig. He polished his French language skills and learned other languages sufficient to get by. He sampled French cuisine and wines and quickly sent for a servant to learn the art of cookery. 

Always a master of the courteous bow and behavior, he enjoyed the company of an elegant class of people he seldom encountered in rugged America. He sat for portraits. And he met the crème de la crème of European intellectuals, philosophers, writers, artists and scientists. 

And he traveled. He spent three months traveling (as private citizen) through southern France and into northern Italy. He went alone, hiring post horses for his personal carriage en route as needed. He wanted to meet the people as they lived, writing, “You must ferret the people out of their hovels…look into their kettles, eat their bread… You will feel a sublime pleasure in the course of this investigation.” 

His visit through “wine country” – Beaujolais, Burgundy, Champagne and Bordeaux – was an oenophile’s delight, introducing him to some of the best wines, grapes and agricultural techniques in the world. He had cases of fine wines shipped back to Monticello. 

He planned to introduce vineyards in central Virginia, believing its soil was conducive to the craft. It was not successful during his lifetime, but TJ would be thrilled with the popularity of dozens of Charlottesville-area wineries that exist today.  

If the love of agriculture was high on TJ’s list of avocations, the same might be said of his passion for architecture. He was a fine draftsman with an instinct for design and building. 

Palladio’s huge influence on TJ
Andrea Palladio

Andrea Palladio was a Renaissance architect of the mid-sixteenth century, already dead for 200 years by the time Jefferson showed up in Italy. But his Greco-Roman-influenced buildings were still very much in evidence. Not only did Palladio design public buildings, but he specialized in the villas and private homes of prominent citizens.

Jefferson became a devotee of the old master, particularly his symmetry of design, and his domes and arches. These elements caused the Virginian to “rethink” his plans for Monticello, and rework them to the masterpiece that now exists, and is the only Presidential home on the list of UNESCO’s world heritage sites.

Then There Was Rice

Rice was known in America, of course, particularly to natives living in and around marshy lands – but it drew mosquitos and disease. Rice was also one of the main crops in northern Italy (and still is) with none of the American “problems.” So while there, Jefferson investigated several new techniques for growing the long-grain, or “rough” Basmati variety. He believed it would prove conducive in in the low-lying areas of South Carolina where rice was already being grown.

The problem was that the Italian city-states of northern Italy (Milan, Genoa, Turin, etc.) zealously guarded their crops from competition abroad. They had very strict laws – as in “punishable by death” – for taking it out of the country.


In defiance of punishment-by-death customs laws to take “rough rice” out of the country, TJ arranged for a muleteer to smuggle a couple of sacks to his attention back in France. He also sent a small packet of the grain to his good friend James Madison, and members of the South Carolina delegation.

Basmati rice

Later, he stuffed his pockets with some of the rice grains, and “walked it” out of the country. Perhaps he believed that customs officials would not insult an American gentleman by physically searching him for a minuscule amount of contraband. 

It appears that this smuggling foray of Mr. Jefferson was a one-off. There is no record or indication of him ever doing it again.

But an unapologetic Jefferson would later write that “the greatest service that can be rendered any country is to add  an [sic] useful plant to its culture.” 

TJ the agronomist was correct. The type of rice that he “imported” from Italy was easily and successfully grown in the Carolinas. And much of “Carolina Rice” as we know it today, can trace its roots to Mr. Jefferson, Smuggler.


Howard, Hugh – Mr. Jefferson, Architect – Rizzoli Intl. Publications – 2003

Malone, Dumas – Jefferson and the Rights of Man (Vol. 2) – Little, Brown – 1951

McLaughlin, Jack – Jefferson and Monticello – Henry Holt – 1988



Posted in A POTUS-FLOTUS Blog, Thomas Jefferson | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Funeral of Theodore Roosevelt

When Theodore Roosevelt died on January 6, 1919, the world was stunned.

TR Dies

Not only was the world stunned at the death of former President Theodore Roosevelt, who was only sixty, but perhaps TR himself would have also been surprised, had he not succumbed to a heart attack, or perhaps an embolus – in his sleep. No pain. He had plans for his future, which included (maybe) becoming the Republican candidate for President (again) in 1920. 

Actually, TR had been in declining health for some time, but mostly precipitated by his Amazon adventures in 1913-14, and the tropical disease/infection that nearly cost his life. He recovered, but never completely. Tropical diseases have a nasty way of recurring periodically. 

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is older-tr.jpg
Older TR

The Great War in 1918 had been one of the roughest years for the old “Colonel.” President Woodrow Wilson had adamantly refused to allow his predecessor to raise a voluntary army and “lead it over there.” Instead, TR sent his cubs. All four of his sons saw service in the Great War, as it was then called. 

His eldest, Theodore Jr., had been severely wounded, and was still recovering. His second son, Kermit, was attached to the British Army, fighting in Mesopotamia (Iran, today). His third son, Archie, had been grievously wounded, and shipped home for further treatment and slow recuperation. But perhaps the greatest blow for the family happened six months earlier with the death of their youngest, Quentin, who at twenty was in the air service, flying little more than box kites with motors. 

Theodore was proud of all his boys, but Quentin’s death totally devastated him and subverted what remained of his health. He had continued his active schedule, but had been hospitalized for nearly two months for inflammatory rheumatism “with complications.” Nevertheless, he returned home to spend Christmas with his family. The doctors were seriously concerned, and advised him to return to the hospital after the holidays. But TR was optimistic, and the devotee of the strenuous life was happy to deceive himself that he was recovering.

TR’s last Christmas
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is sagamore-hill.jpg
TR’s favorite place: Sagamore Hill

On his last night he remarked to his wife how much he loved their home at Sagamore Hill. He asked his valet to turn off the bedroom light so he could sleep. And then he died in the wee hours. 

State Funerals

State funerals are awash in tradition, pomp and ceremony, protocol and procedure, an A-list of invited guests, and a White House and/or Capitol Building lying-in-state. The military brass are heavily involved, along with high officialdom. No detail escapes their attention. 

Prior to ex-President Roosevelt’s death, only five Presidents had been afforded State Funerals: William Henry Harrison, President for a Month (DIO); Zachary Taylor, President for about 18 months (DIO); Abraham Lincoln, who set the benchmark for the state funeral (DIO); James Garfield, assassinated President for 6 months (DIO), and William McKinley, assassinated President six months into his second term (DIO). There was a pattern: they all Died In Office. Other POTUSES, from the august figure of George Washington on down, had private funerals, although well attended memorial services were frequently held in various locations.

The first non-sitting President to be honored with a state funeral (in 1930) was TR’s immediate successor, William Howard Taft, ex-President and recently retired (due to health) Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

The Private Funeral; The Public Mourning

“The old lion is dead,” was the telegram TR’s son Archie sent to his brothers overseas. 

It had been barely two months since the Armistice, the formal end of the Great War, where literally millions of young men had given their lives. President Woodrow Wilson was in France to take part in the peace processes, determined to create a new world order. In his absence, Vice President Thomas Marshall was dispatched to represent “the country” at TR’s funeral, held two days later (January 8) in the little village of Oyster Bay, on Long Island. The entire town was stunned. Their flags were immediately lowered to half mast, and public buildings, businesses and private homes were draped in crepe. Extra telegraphers had to be engaged at the Oyster Bay telegraph office to handle the thousands of wires pouring in. 

It was a private funeral

TR’s son Archie, his daughters Alice Longworth and Ethel Derby, and their spouses immediately came. Cousins and nieces and nephews came. Following a private service in the Great North Room at Sagamore Hill, an additional service was held at Christ Episcopal Church in Oyster Bay, filled to overflowing.

Cabinet members from both the Wilson Administration, and TR’s Administration marched in the procession. Senior military officers marched. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, TR’s closest friend for nearly 40 years marched. Charles Evans Hughes, the 1916 Republican candidate marched. Senator Warren G. Harding, who would win the Republican nomination in 1920 marched. 

Contingents of Rough Riders who had followed their “Colonel” up San Juan Hill two decades earlier came to pay respects. Mounted policemen from New York City rode in to honor their former Commissioner.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is tr-and-taft.jpg
Old friends

Squadrons of pilots from the recently re-named Quentin Roosevelt Airfield in Mineola, NY circled the area and dropped wreaths.

And former President William Howard Taft, who had been one of TR’s closest friends for more than twenty years, also marched. It was a bittersweet memory. Their long attachment had been severed in 1912, although there had been a reconciliation in 1918. After the burial at Young’s Memorial Cemetery, Taft was seen remaining at the gravesite for several minutes of private introspection. 

And dozens of children from the local school, and even now-grown former “students” lined the streets of town, to say goodbye to their friend and neighbor, the man who was their Santa Claus every year. 

“Death had to take Roosevelt sleeping, for had he been awake, there would have been a fight.”

– VP Thomas Marshall

Perhaps the way he would like to be remembered.


Brands, H.W. – T.R.: The Last Romantic – Basic Books, 1997

Millard, Candice – The River of Doubt – Random House/Doubleday – 2005

Morris, Edmund – Colonel Roosevelt – Random House -2010




Posted in A POTUS-FLOTUS Blog, Theodore Roosevelt | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

The FDRs: Home for the Holidays

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is franklinandeleanor2.jpg
President and Mrs. FDR

After the First War

When Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt married in 1905, it was a love match. Despite differences in their personalities and natures (he was outgoing, she was introverted), they truly cared deeply for each other, and found more commonalities than disparities.

But fifteen years and six children later (one died in infancy), those commonalities were weakening, and the differences were becoming more apparent. During the Great War (as WWI was called), they were living in Washington, where Franklin served as assistant Secretary of the Navy. He enjoyed the job and the town immensely. He was a social fellow with an easy smile and sanguine outlook. He also had ambitions.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is fdroosevelt-family.jpg
The young Roosevelt family

On the other hand, Eleanor disliked the social constraints of the capital city, and the proscribed activities that wives of high level officialdom were practically forced to undertake. Socializing. Paying regular calls. Having people pay regular calls on them. Eleanor had been active years earlier in nascent “social work,” volunteering at the settlement houses of New York’s lower east side. She loved it. She felt needed – and useful. 

As the Great War began reaching US shores, she found opportunities to renew those activities. Her husband also discovered opportunities elsewhere, in the form of the part-time social secretary Eleanor had hired.

The War over, his secret love affair was out of the bag. For various reasons, it was more expedient for Franklin and Eleanor to remain together, but while both their lives followed the political path, their trails were separate. 

The Ties That Bound

Despite the emotional turmoil that destroyed the intimacy of their marriage, both Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt truly cared for and about each other. They were not rancorous by nature, and the relationship never devolved into spite or angry confrontation. They merely developed and encouraged separate lives, as well as genuinely bound themselves to what remained of “family” ties.

Gov. FDR and his family

But only two years later, Franklin contracted polio and it colored the entire family’s life forever. FDR spent more than half a decade seeking a cure, or at least treatment for his crippled legs. Since warm water exercise was top on the therapeutic list, he spent months away from Hyde Park on New York’s Hudson River, and swam in the temperate waters of Florida and Georgia. 

The five Roosevelt children went to boarding school. Eleanor began finding her own activities.

Although they were largely absentee parents, both cared about their five children. Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays became important. With a few exceptions, wherever they were, the holidays brought them together at Hyde Park, or Warm Springs, GA and later, at the White House.  

The Holiday Table

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is carvingturkey.jpg
FDR carves the turkey

A holiday dinner was a lifelong tradition with the Roosevelts. It was one of the few family ties binding them together (except during World War II when their four sons’ active service prevented a complete gathering). An enormous turkey with all the trimmings graced their table, and FDR took his place at its head.

Long before the convenience and accuracy of an electric knife, FDR had learned to carve a turkey with the precision of a skilled surgeon. First the legs and wings were dismantled and drumsticks were divided however that year’s recipients were awarded. The turkey breast, however, was his masterpiece, sliced neatly and paper thin and distributed accordingly to the recipients’ preferences. Gravy was passed. Cranberry sauce and sweet potatoes made rounds at the table.

Usually there was a family photograph with FDR, Eleanor, Granny (FDR’s mother), and the five children: Anna, James, Elliott, Franklin Jr., and John. In time, spouses (and there would be a revolving door of them), and grandchildren would join that table, and smile for the photographer.

Christmas With FDR and Tiny Tim

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is hydeparkestate.jpg
Hyde Park: The place he loved best
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is fdr-christmas-card-1942.jpeg
Most of POTUS FDR’s Christmases were spent at the White House

For numerous reasons, FDR spent 10 of his 12 POTUS Christmases in the White House. But in 1943 and ’44, they returned to Hyde Park, perhaps sensing it might be FDR’s last Christmas at home – or anywhere. Since it was wartime, and all the Roosevelt sons saw active service, whoever was available was urged to attend, especially spouses and grandchildren.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is fdr43-xmasspeech.jpg
FDR wishes the nation a happy holiday season in 1943

Hyde Park was decorated lavishly, with a huge tree (cut from their own property) in their big living area, decorated in Victorian style – including candles on the tree. Boughs and wreaths were prominently displayed. Of course there was a turkey dinner. With the trimmings. Of course there were presents. Eleanor shopped and knitted all year long, and never forgot anyone. Sweaters, scarves, hats and mittens in various sizes were wrapped for the appropriately-aged grandchildren.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is fdrandgrandkids.jpg
The POTUS and his grandkids

Stockings were filled by Eleanor late at night with candies and small trinkets. Christmas morning provided another tradition. First thing in the morning, a pile of children descended on FDR’s bedroom to receive their filled stocking, climbed into bed with him and opened their gifts. Even when grandchildren were part of that picture, their parents (if available) showed up in bathrobes and slippers. If they thought it was corny, it was still not to be missed!

But the highlight and lifelong tradition of the FDR household was after Christmas Eve dinner, whether in Hyde Park or the White House. The family gathered around, and FDR, in his comfy chair, opened his well-worn copy of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and “performed” the entire story in one reading. He had a voice for each character, elocuted with the style and imagination of a trained actor.

No matter how many times, over how many years the Roosevelt children heard the story, it was always a warm recollection of the holiday spirit, and a chorus of Tiny Tim’s parting words, “God Bless us every one!”


Davis, Kenneth – FDR: The Beckoning of Destiny: 1882-1928 – History Book Club, 1971

Lash, Joseph – Eleanor and Franklin – W.W. Norton, 1971

Roosevelt, Eleanor – Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt – Harper & Bros. 1961

Roosevelt, Elliott and Brough, James – The Roosevelts of Hyde Park – G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1973



Posted in A POTUS-FLOTUS Blog, Franklin D. Roosevelt | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Ida McKinley’s Slippers

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is ida-mckinley1870.jpg
Ida McKinley was dealt some nasty woe…

Poor Ida McKinley

Ida Saxton McKinley (1848 – 1908) was the pretty, wealthy and privileged daughter of a well-to-do Canton, Ohio businessman/banker.  At twenty-three, she married young attorney William McKinley, formerly a brevet-major in the Civil War. His practice was successful, and the Saxtons were delighted when “The Major” proposed to their daughter.  The newlyweds had a baby daughter within a year after their wedding day, and everything was going well for them.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is youngmckinleys.jpg
The devoted McKinleys

Ida’s second pregnancy two years later left her with two major physical ailments: phlebitis (blood clots) in her knee, which caused pain and lameness; and epileptic seizures which colored the rest of her life. At twenty-seven, she was forced to curtail most activities, and required a cane.

Phlebitis is considered serious, even today. There is a dangerous potential for the clots to break apart and travel to the lungs, with fatal consequences. Today it can be effectively treated, but in 1875, all that could be prescribed was rest, elevation, a cane, and possibly something for the discomfort.

Epilepsy, known since Biblical times, bore a stigma. The word “epilepsy” itself was never used by Ida’s doctors or mentioned by name in the presence of either McKinley. Ida’s seizures were couched in phrases like “fainting spells” or “a nervous condition.” Today it can be successfully treated with medication and careful monitoring, but in the 1870s, there was no treatment other than heavy opiates and sedatives.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is little-katie-mckinley.jpg
Little Katie McKinley

Ida’s medical problems also precluded any thought of more children, limiting the McKinley’s private life as well. Then came the final one-two punches: Her little baby, which had triggered the decline of her health, was born sickly and died after a few months. Soon afterwards, little Katie, the darling of their hearts, sickened and died before her fourth birthday. It had been a horrendous year.

It was too much for Ida to handle, and she fell into a severe (and understandable) depression. This in turn developed into what some psychologists might call a personality disorder of intense self-absorption and a strangulating focus on her husband (the only one who was left to her). She became fixated on McKinley to the point that if he were detained, she could become hysterical with worry. And those hysterics frequently triggered a seizure. Her world became extremely small. Her interests revolved solely around herself, her husband and their life together.

Ida McKinley’s Medical Prognoses

One hundred and fifty years later, both modern medical and psychological treatment has advanced enormously. Ida would likely require specialized medication and careful watching even today, but her physical condition and emotional outlook surely would be more fulfilling and less limiting.

In part, to provide a change of scenery for both himself and his distraught wife McKinley, ran for and was elected to Congress. He sold their house in Canton with its sorrowful memories. Since Ida was unable to assume any household responsibilities, he took rooms at the Ebbitt House Hotel. He also engaged a full-time nurse-maid, since his wife could not be left alone for very long. 

But most of all, Ida required a well-regulated regime. No stress. No demands. And no surprises. In 1875, this was a major part of whatever treatments were known and available, and the McKinleys spared no expense consulting physicians. During the next quarter century, they consulted dozens of them, even traveling to New York and Philadelphia, hoping in vain for a cure to Ida’s afflictions.

Ida’s Hobby

Needless to say, with so many doors closed to her, Mrs. McKinley needed to find quiet pastimes and activities to fill her days. One of her hobbies was crocheting yarn slippers. During the next thirty years, it is estimated that she made more than 4,000 pairs. Slippers do not take long to craft, and with practice, Ida became an expert. She likely could crochet a pair a day – or even more, and she taught her aide to piece together the finishing touches.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is slippers.jpg
A pair of Ida’s slippers (courtesy of the Ohio History Connection)

As a part of the strict routine of her her life, the slippers were always made to the same pattern, although she did make them in various sizes. They were usually in the same colors: gray (for men) or blue (for women). She also made them for children. She disbursed them generously – to friends and family, to friends-of-friends, to casual acquaintances and to total strangers. Thousands of pairs were given to charity.

Every president since George Washington has been inundated with requests for donations to all sorts of charities or institutions. During the McKinley presidency, Ida’s slippers became a godsend. No legitimate charitable request was denied by the President or First Lady. A pair of slippers, hand-made by Mrs. McKinley was graciously sent to be raffled or auctioned off. It is said that considerable sums of money were raised this way. A few pairs still remain today.

McKinley the Beloved

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is plumed-ida.jpg

Interestingly enough, Ida refused to remain secluded, and insisted on participating in her husband’s life as much as possible, both before and during their years in the White House. McKinley was delighted to indulge her at every opportunity, although it caused gargantuan travel problems via trains, carriages and unfamiliar settings (since he might need to quickly spirit her away from public humiliation), but Ida accompanied McKinley a surprising amount of time. And always with her crocheting bag in hand.

Ida adored her gentle and very devoted husband who had sacrificed so much of his own happiness to provide for hers. Framed photographs of him surrounded her in every room, wherever she was. In an odd, but touching display of devotion, she selected her favorite photograph of him, and carefully sewed it to the bottom of her crocheting bag. 

Ida’s crocheting bag (courtesy of the Ohio History Connection)

This is not a story. It is a good yarn! The bag exists, and yes, McKinley’s photograph is neatly affixed to the bottom.


Anthony, Carl Sferrazza – First Ladies 1789-1961, William Morrow,1990

Foster, Feather Schwartz – Mary Lincoln’s Flannel Pajamas and Other Stories from the First Ladies’ Closet – Koehler Publishing, 2016

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

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



Posted in American Civil War | 1 Comment

The Unexpected Death of Zachary Taylor

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is deathoftaylor.jpeg

During the past few decades, a couple of mild kerfluffles were posed by eminent scholars who suspected that POTUS Rough and Ready may have been done in!

Ol’ Zach

Zachary Taylor (1784-1850) was Virginia born to a middle class family who moved to Louisville, Kentucky when the future president was still a youngster. He received a moderate education, and by 20, decided to make the army his career. He rose in the ranks, and was considered a good officer.

He married Margaret Mackall Smith, originally from Maryland, when he was 23, and the young couple began a life on the move. They traveled from pillar to army-post, living in barracks, forts, tents, cabins, and wherever the army put them. Major, and later Colonel Taylor was said to be able to sleep in the saddle. In the expected time, the couple raised four children to maturity. Two died in infancy. It was a hard life.

During his decades in the regular army, which included service in the War of 1812, Taylor managed to put by enough money to purchase a plantation in Louisiana, and planned to make it their “retirement” home. It may have been a hard life, but it was a decent one. 

Older Zach

Army officers are expected to be non-political, obeying orders from whoever is Commander-in-Chief at the time. Taylor was no exception. He took little interest in politics, never voted, and was never known to express any notable opinions, even if pressed.

The General

He had also acquired his “Ol’ Rough and Ready” nickname, since he was the antithesis of the spit-and-polish image of a military general, like his counterpart, the towering Winfield Scott. At average size, perhaps 5’8, his boots were seldom shined, his clothes were whatever he pulled from the saddlebag, and the general impression was disheveled. Strangers meeting him had no clue that he was a senior army officer. 

When the War with Mexico became a pending crisis in 1846-7, Taylor was already a General serving in the “west”, not far from the disputed area in Texas poised to ignite hostilities. He was ordered to take his command to the border. He did, was victorious in several skirmishes, incidents and bona fide fame-and-name-making battles. With President James K. Polk, committed to a single term, and not wildly popular anyway, General Taylor was considered a viable political option.

Problem was, he wasn’t interested. He was non-political, believing as a good soldier, his loyalty was to his Commander-in-Chief, period. He had never shown the slightest inclinations for office.

Henry Clay, Whig-Maker

In 1848, Henry Clay was not only the foremost Whig in the country, but at 71, had been on the national scene for nearly 40 years. But the Whig party had only existed for perhaps a decade, and they were still a motley group of assorted regional and fractious factions. Clay had already run for President three times – and lost. The last loss, in 1844, against the unknown dark horse Polk, was a total upset. That should have been his year – but Harry of the West blew it, so to speak. 

Henry Clay

Clay was not overly anxious to run again and lose – but neither was he anxious to throw serious support to another unknown. The one and only successful Whig election (in 1840) saw elderly ex-General William Henry Harrison win the presidency, but he died a month later. His in-name-only Whig VPOTUS, John Tyler, gave the Whigs nothing but agita. 

Nevertheless, the political big-Whigs decided that another military hero could win and settled on Zachary Taylor, dangling whatever might seduce him away from his retirement in Louisiana. He offered a rare anomaly of being a Southerner and a slaveholder, but a staunch Unionist, strongly opposed to the extension of the “peculiar institution” in the territories. Perhaps against his better judgment, and surely against his (and Mrs. Taylor’s) personal inclinations, he relented, allowed others to do his campaigning, and won.

Agita….and Death

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is zachary-taylor.jpg
President Zachary Taylor

Zachary Taylor, 12th President, may not have been political by nature but he was an independent man, whose core philosophies were truly core: Presidents should not be involved in legislative matters, other than the constitutional veto power. Secession is abhorrent. Slavery should be contained where it was, and not expanded. Manifest Destiny (i.e. sea to shining sea) was perhaps a little too much.

Elder Statesman Senator Henry Clay, no huge fan of Taylor, was nearly 75 and in failing health, but began crafting a “compromise” bill of packaged-together diverse issues. He had done a similar service back in 1820 when slave-vs.-free states were an issue, alarming the Union even then. 

Taylor threatened to veto the “Compromise of 1850” and some Congressional Whigs, in their own usual shambles of factions, even threatened Taylor’s impeachment. 

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is unfinished-washmon.jpg
The unfinished Washington Monument (WH Hist. Soc.)

No one expected that Taylor would die in 1850. His health had been robust for a man of 65. The story goes that after a ceremony at the unfinished Washington Monument on a blistering July 4, he consumed a great amount of cherries and ice milk. Or ice water. (Milk wasn’t pasteurized, and Washington water was generally foul.) He became violently ill and died a few days later. The formal diagnosis (then) was cholera morbus, or (today) acute gastroenteritis. Even then, given the political situation, Taylor was a suspected victim of poisoning.

Under a more compliant President Millard Fillmore, The Compromise of 1850 passed, made nobody happy, caused seismic rifts, but delayed the Civil War by ten years. 

150 Years Later

In 1991, some fine scholars arranged to have Taylor’s body exhumed for possible evidence of poison. They did find minute traces of arsenic, which most people have in their systems today, but not nearly enough to cause harm, let alone death. Some intrepid scholars still persist, seeking more evidence, but the Taylor descendants have declined further investigation, preferring to let Ol’ R and R RIP.


Eisenhower, John S.D. – Zachary Taylor – Times Books, 2008

Hamilton, Holman – Zachary Taylor: Soldier in the White House – Bobbs-Merrill, 1951

Hoyt, Edwin P. – Zachary Taylor – Reilly and Lee, 1966




Posted in A POTUS-FLOTUS Blog, Nifty History People, Zachary Taylor | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Bess Truman: Waiting for Harry

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is bessandharry.jpg
Bess and Harry Truman on their wedding day.

The Old Soldier

Harry Truman was 33, well past the age for a man to be a volunteer soldier, unless, of course, the country is in severe danger. In 1917, when the US entered the Great War, as it was called then, the country was not in severe danger, and most people believed it was a “European” War best left to the Europeans. After all, that was the sage advice of George Washington.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is captain-harry.jpg
Captain Harry

Nevertheless, once the US was committed, Harry Truman, mostly farmer, and part-time off-season employee decided to enlist. Not only was he somewhat over age, medium in size, with little education past high school, his eyesight had been poor from earliest childhood. 

But he memorized the standard eye chart, signed the papers, and was now a soldier. Perhaps the higher-ups detected some hidden leadership. They made him a captain.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is young-bess.jpg
Bess Wallace

Bess Wallace, his long-standing sweetheart, thought he was nuts and said so. But Harry persisted in doing his patriotic duty, and prepared to go “over there.” Bess wanted to get married immediately, but Harry disagreed. He was concerned that something might happen and she would be left a widow. Or worse. He could be wounded, and she might be saddled with an invalid for the rest of her life. 

So she gave him her photograph, wished him luck, and off he went. 

Harry and Bess

Harry Truman always claimed that he met 5-year-old Elizabeth Wallace in little kid dancing school, and loved her from that time on. He was a few months older. Even though he was a farm boy in rural Lamar, MO, he attended school in Independence, where they two were in the same class – at least in the same grade. Their social class was miles apart. 

The Trumans were a poor farming family, and the Wallaces were considered upper crust. Harry and Bess always knew each other and said hello, but the distinctions prevented anything other than the superficial pleasantries. With little money and plenty of farm chores, Harry had no hope of further education, despite being a fine student. 

Much of that changed when Bess was eighteen and recently graduated from high school. Her father, David Wallace, with a long history of alcoholism and inability to find/keep employment, stepped in the family bathtub and put a bullet in his head. It was a horrific scandal in 1903, and any hopes Bess might have had for further education or employment of her own were now rendered impossible.

David Wallace

Her mother, Madge Wallace, the daughter of the wealthy Gates family, had always been difficult and headstrong, which included her marriage to the handsome-but-hapless David, which her parents had strongly objected. Now she became more difficult, and took Bess (the eldest) and her three younger brothers to Colorado for a year – to let the scandal die down. When they returned, they moved in with her aging parents. And Bess was needed at home.

Hello Again

Years passed and Harry worked the farm, which need him even more after his father died. In the winter months, he took whatever positions he could find in town to make a little extra money. 

When he was in his mid-twenties, he was visiting a relative in Independence, who mentioned in passing that she needed to return a pie plate to Mrs. Wallace, who lived down the street. Harry volunteered to return it, remarking that he and Bess Wallace had been classmates. 

A rare early photo of Bess and Harry
Madge Wallace

Armed with the pie plate, he knocked at the door, was greeted by Bess, who seemed happy enough to chat with him awhile. The chat led to Harry asking if he could come by again, and a very mild and long courtship began. It lasted for nearly twelve years. Harry didn’t have any money, so their “outings” had to be whatever was free. Bess did not seem to mind, and was always happy to go. 

Bess had plenty of friends and a nice social life, but her marital opportunities were limited. Harry kept coming by however, and soon enough most people assumed that Harry and Bess would marry. Eventually. If he ever had enough money.

Money and the Family

Money was only part of Harry’s problem. The other part was that he was truly needed by his mother and a younger brother and sister. Then too, was the fact that he had little skills other than farming and the occasional jobs he held. Nor did he have any guidance in what kind of work to seek. 

Bess’ grandparents had money – and one of the finest houses in town. But they were getting on in years, and Madge Wallace was dispositionally unfit to manage a household. It fell to Bess to see to those details, and also make sure her younger brothers got a) an education and b) the opportunity to get out of that household. She was, by her own admission, a homebody.

And then there was the fact that Madge Wallace bitterly opposed any union between her daughter and the socially-way-down-the-line Farmer Truman. But after three years of courtship, Bess finally agreed to an “understanding, albeit she was in no rush. It lasted for six years.

So while “Captain” Harry was gone, she continued her pleasant social connections with her bridge group and discussion club. She sold war bonds, and sewed for the Needlework Guild. And the two corresponded “over there.”

Hello Again, Again

Harry Truman came home from the War. He was not killed, nor maimed in any way. He had justified his superiors’ confidence in him, and his men liked him immensely.

Meanwhile, with both parties now in their mid-thirties, they decided it was now or never, and they got married. Their wedding date was one of the rare details that Bess publicly admitted to the press. It was June 28, 1919.


Foster, Feather Schwartz – The First Ladies from Martha Washington to Mamie Eisenhower – Sourcebooks, 2011

Truman, Margaret – Bess W. Truman, 1986, MacMillan

Truman, Margaret – Harry S Truman – 1972, William Morrow



Posted in A POTUS-FLOTUS Blog, Harry S Truman, Nifty History People | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Abraham Lincoln: Quibbling Thanksgiving

In 1863 Thanksgiving Day had been a local or regional holiday for more than two centuries.

Quibbling The Day

Massachusetts has long maintained that a day of Thanksgiving was celebrated a year after the devout Pilgrims landed in Plymouth in 1620. Even today, Thanksgiving celebrations are filled with decorations of Pilgrims and Indians, corn/maize, and of course, turkey.

Virginia, however, midway down the Tidewater peninsula between Richmond and Williamsburg, insists that the first inhabitants of Berkeley Plantation beat the Pilgrims to the punch a whole year prior. And those first inhabitants were not Pilgrims, but people of property, albeit just as devout.  

Giving thanks for one’s blessings is a fine thing, but starting dates are a silly quibble.

And if that quibble wasn’t enough, our Founders quibbled as well. Nobody was against giving thanks of course, but they quibbled about making it a federal holiday, rather than a state occasion. 

Thus the concept of separation of church and state, inherent to the Constitution of the Country, kept the celebrations local, and mostly in the north. If a community or region, or even a state wished to make a holiday of it, nobody objected – but there was no national consensus. George Washington was known to have proclaimed a Thanksgiving Day – but it was not an ”established” holiday.

Sarah Josepha Hale

Sarah Josepha Buell Hale (1788-1879) was a New Hampshire woman, left widowed at a young age, along with five small children. Forced to support herself at a time when women working outside the home was near-scandalous, she turned to writing. She could do that at home.

Sarah Josepha Hale

She produced a fairly successful book of poetry and stories, which included the eternally popular “Mary Had A Little Lamb” that all children know today.

This led her to the editorship of Godey’s Lady’s Book in 1837, a position she held for forty years! Godey’s was the precursor of women’s magazines, and a staple of journalism for decades. By the 1840s, it was subscribed to by practically every woman who could read. While it contained stories and articles from men, it also featured articles written by and for women. As time went on, it included articles/advertisements for products ladies needed and wanted to know about. Recipes. Child-raising. Home-making. And always, the latest feminine fashions, which were regularly featured on the cover. 

Godey’s was popular for years!

While Mrs. Hale was a traditional believer in “a woman’s place,” she was also socially inclined, supported the construction of the Bunker Hill Monument, donated to the restoration of Mount Vernon, and believed strongly in education for women – and their right to own property. 

Godey’s fashions

She also believed that Thanksgiving Day should be a national set-and-fixed holiday, not merely regional, or at the whim of local governments. 

For more than twenty years, she wrote articles and editorials and letters every year to every sitting President, as well as to other important statesmen. The editor of Godey’s Ladies Book, was credible and had a long reach. By the mid-1850, 34 states had Thanksgiving Day celebrations, but the holiday was never “national.”

President Lincoln Signs On

Abraham Lincoln, sixteenth POTUS, had far more on his plate than a turkey dinner in 1863. A horrific Civil War had begun two years earlier, and the casualties and devastation far surpassed even the wildest imagination. The once-United States was split in two, North and South, with no telling when, or if, it could be mended.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is lincoln-family.jpg
Lincoln and Family in 1863

But in July of 1863, two coincidental and remarkable events occurred simultaneously. In Gettysburg, PA, following three days of intense fighting-cum-casualties, the Union Army had defeated its Confederate counterpart. And in Vicksburg, MS, after months of intense waiting, preparation, feints, skirmishes and long siege, the southern forces surrendered.

Interestingly enough, Confederate President Jefferson Davis had proclaimed a ”day of thanksgiving” after earlier Southern victories. But each Southern state seemed to celebrate it at their own whim. Lincoln declared a day of thanksgiving a year earlier, following Union victory at Fts. Henry and Donelson, and again after Gettysburg. Nobody opposed the concept, but they managed to quibble over the unifying “when.”

This time, Mrs. Hale’s letter of September 23 reached two pairs of responsive ears. Abraham Lincoln’s, and Secretary of State William Seward’s. They believed that a ”national” Thanksgiving Day (at least in the “national” North) would have a healing effect. Secretary Seward drafted the proclamation. (As an aside, presidential proclamations do not require congressional advise/consent or voting.) Perhaps our POTUSES, whoever they are, need a respite from quibbling.

The event itself was not controversial in the slightest. The fourth Thursday of November was selected for the occasion.

Lincoln Gets the Credit…

William Seward

…but it was mostly William Seward’s doing. He was the one who actually drafted the proclamation, which seems a little gabbier than Lincoln’s prose. Lincoln’s secretary John Nicolay acknowledged that it was Seward’s composition, and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles recorded in his diary, that he complimented Seward on its writing. The “authorship” is another silly quibble.

The salient points are really thus:

Washington, D.C.
October 3, 1863

By the President of the United States of America.

A Proclamation…..to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving….

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the United States the Eighty-eighth.

By the President: Abraham Lincoln

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is rockwelllthanksgiving.jpg
Norman Rockwell’s Thanksgiving image

And while there are countless reasons for giving thanks, and plenty of prayerful supplications, there is no mention of turkey, sweet potatoes, cranberries, green bean casserole and pumpkin pie. People can quibble over turkey vs. ham on their own. And do.

Nevertheless, a year after the proclamation, the original manuscript was sold to benefit Union troops and has never resurfaced. But we celebrate it nationwide today: Fourth Thursday in November..

Happy Thanksgiving!


Schultz, Duane – The Most Glorious Fourth Vicksburg and Gettysburg, July 4, 1863 – W.W. Norton, 2003





Posted in A POTUS-FLOTUS Blog, Abraham Lincoln, Nifty History People | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Grant, Grant, The Tanner’s Son…

Held his nose and away he run…

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is general-grant.jpeg
The quintessential Ulysses S. Grant

Jesse Grant, Tanner

Jesse Root Grant (1794-1873) was Pennsylvania-born, but migrated to southern Ohio as a small child. He had a decent education for his time and station in life, but possessed a strong desire to get ahead, and a fair aptitude for business.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is jesse_and_hannah_grant.jpg
The parents Grant

As an adult, he became a tanner. He bought horse and cow carcasses, processed them in vile-smelling chemicals to make them pliable, and sold the leather to saddle makers, shoemakers, harness makers, and anyone else who worked with leather. Occasionally he sold those finished goods in his store.

By his late twenties, he was considered a prosperous middle-class businessman, with several holdings. He had sufficient means to begin his own family, and courted and married Hannah Simpson, also Pennsylvania-born, but migrated to Ohio as a young woman.

The two were polar opposites. Jesse was bombastic opinionated and dominating. Hannah was silent and deeply religious. Perhaps the only thing they had in common was their strong antipathy toward slavery.

In the expected period of time, the Grants had six children, Hiram Ulysses being the eldest. The next five followed about three years apart.

Their home in Georgetown, Ohio was a fine brick house, with ample room for their growing family. The tannery was nearby, perhaps at a sufficient distance to keep the reek from permeating the house itself.

The Tanner’s Eldest

The first born son to Jesse and Hannah Grant, was named Hiram Ulysses, better known to history as Ulysses S. (for Simpson) Grant. Nobody ever called him Hiram. Quiet and taciturn like his mother, Ulysses was a diligent enough student, brought up to mind his manners. Like most children of the early 19th century, he was also expected to do household chores. Or help in the family business. Young Grant hated the tanning business, with its stench and blood.

Etching of Grant house and tannery

Fortunately for him, at a very young age he showed a distinct affinity for horses. Some said he liked horses better than people. Others merely indicated that he ”had a way” with horses. Whatever those gifts were, by the time he was eight, his father trusted him enough to drive a team eight or ten miles away – on his own.

As long as he could pick up and deliver goods, and escape the nauseating atmosphere of the tannery, Ulysses was happy to help out. It is also likely that Jesse Grant sensed his son’s aversion, and permitted him to be useful on his own terms.

Since the elder Grant was a man of reasonable means and definite ambition for his offspring, Ulysses was sent to a Kentucky boarding/prep school while in his mid-teens. At seventeen, however, it was his father who took a hand in directing his future. He arranged for his eldest son to receive an appointment to West Point. It was free, and despite the reasonable means, Jesse was a thrifty man.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is wedding-photo-of-grant.gif
The young U.S. Grant

Ulysses Simpson Grant (now his official name, since his Congressman-sponsor knew nothing about the Hiram part, and assumed the traditional middle naming of an eldest son with his mother’s maiden name), did not wish to attend West Point or become a soldier, and said so. His father, always dominating, said his son would go, and learn to like it. Ulysses S. Grant would not stand up to his father until he was past forty.

So he went, and liked it well enough to fit in, and graduate mid-class. His academics were average, and he showed ability in mathematics and drawing. But he excelled in horsemanship.

Once graduated from the Academy, he had no fears of being expected to work in his father’s tannery.

Ten Years Later and Then Some…

The tannery business was the furthest thing from Lt. Grant’s mind during the next ten years. He was sent to St. Louis MO for his first assignment, where he wooed and wed Julia Dent, the sister of his West Point roommate. The wooing was easy, the wedding took four years of devoted waiting while USG served ably, including service in the Mexican War. His marriage and subsequent deployments were comfortable enough, and his marriage thrived and was fruitful.

But when Ulysses and Julia were separated, he assigned to California/Oregon territory, and she to return to St. Louis to have their second son, he fared poorly. Boredom, financial disappointment and most of all, homesickness for his beloved ones, led him to the all-too-convenient whiskey barrel. That led to a “requested” resignation from the army, embarrassment on many fronts and severe depression.

He finally had to wire his father for enough funds to return to St. Louis. He was thirty years old. His father was livid, but he sent the money.

Back to the Tannery

For the better part of seven years, former Captain Ulysses S. Grant fought his own losing battle of the wilderness, trying to find suitable work and means of supporting his family in St. Louis.

By 1860, things were so bad that Grant was forced by necessity to write to his father begging for a job in one of his tanneries. It may have been the hardest letter USG every wrote. But Jesse Grant grudgingly obliged, and sent his son-and-family to Galena, IL, where he had a partnership in a tannery, now being managed by USG’s younger brothers.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is perkins-grant-galena.jpg
Grant & Perkins, Galena, IL

Knowing his aversion to the blood and stench of the business, USG was usually assigned clerking and/or delivery duties, although one source indicates that the former army captain was a strong physical specimen, and loaded the heavy carcasses down the chute into the vats of boiling, stinking chemicals. All sources claim that he scrubbed down in a makeshift outdoor shower before Julia would let him in the house.

Less than a year later, when the Civil War began, and Grant, the only citizen of Galena with military experience, was asked to train a company of ”volunteers,” he accepted with alacrity.

And he never set foot in the tannery again.


Chernow, Ron – Grant – Penguin Press, 2017

White, Ronald C. – American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant – Random House, 2016




Posted in American Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment