The Lincolns: A Tale of Two Stepmothers

Among the many commonalities between Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd was the sad memory of being motherless at an early age.

Abraham Lincoln: Semi-orphaned at Nine

Nancy Hanks Lincoln died of the milk sickness, said to be from poisonous grasses that cows eat and disperse in their milk. Her aunt and uncle had been infected and died two weeks earlier.

Thomas Lincoln and an image of his first wife Nancy Hanks

Thomas Lincoln, poor, semi-skilled and uneducated was now left with nine year old Abe and eleven year old Sarah. Perhaps at a loss of how to raise young children, a few months after his wife’s death, Tom Lincoln left them in care of Dennis Hanks, his late wife’s 19-year-old cousin, and returned to his Kentucky boyhood home to seek out an old childhood playmate that had been recently widowed.

Wasting little time on romantic courtship, Tom Lincoln proposed marriage to the widowed Sarah Bush Johnston, with three children of her own. It may not have been a love-match, but it was a good match, and the marriage was a successful one.

A few months later, Lincoln returned with a new Mrs. Lincoln, three children (close in age to Abraham and Sarah) – and a wagon full of real furniture, including a bedstead, tables and chairs, linens and clothing. And a couple of books she had inherited. In short: a windfall. Sarah Bush Johnston remembered being greeted by two children badly in need of bathing – and mothering.

The only known image of an elderly Sarah Bush Lincoln

Sarah was a nurturing mother – and a good household manager. She took charge immediately, to the benefit of all.

Mary Todd: Semi-Orphaned at Six

Robert Smith Todd’s marriage to Eliza Parker had been happy and prolific. When Eliza died, it was giving birth to her seventh child (one had died at birth some years earlier). But Eliza contracted a puerperal fever and died shortly after baby George was born. Mary, the fourth little Todd, was only six years old.

Mary Lincon’s father, Robert Smith Todd

The Todds were well-to-do, having property and a house in town. Her father, an attorney, was a state legislator and businessman as well. They had a household servant staff of at least six. And Grandmother Parker lived next door. Perhaps overwhelmed by six motherless children under twelve, Robert Todd left for Frankfort, the state capital, only six weeks after his wife’s death. Wasting little time on romantic courtship, he wooed Betsey Humphreys mostly by correspondence, who at 26, was bordering on spinsterhood, and not wildly enthusiastic about marrying a man ten years her senior – with six children! Eighteen months later, the two married, however.

More remote than nurturing, Betsey was greeted by stepchildren, none of whom were wildly enthusiastic about having a new “mother.” Nevertheless her marriage would be considered successful – and definitely prolific. She bore eight children who lived to maturity.

Betsey Humphreys Todd

Stepmother and Stepson

From the moment Sarah Bush Johnston met Abraham Lincoln, there was a true affinity on both parts. She intuitively understood her new stepson’s sensitivity, and need to learn and grow. Tom Lincoln never truly understood his son, but easily bonded with his new stepson, John Johnston – who enjoyed hunting and fishing and the subsistence farming lifestyle.

Abe remained with his family until he was twenty-one and struck out on his own. It was Sarah who believed in him and encouraged him on whatever paths he chose to take. He would later say that Sarah Bush Johnston was arguably the most seminal relationship of his early life. She, many years later, after Lincoln had become Lincoln, would tell an interviewer that any time she asked her stepson to do something for her, he did it quickly and completely without argument.

Stepmother and Stepdaughter

The relationship between Mary Todd and her stepmother was chilly at best. It was chilly with all the “first family” children. Perhaps immediately inheriting six little Todds overwhelmed her. Perhaps her own personality was a cool one, and even later, with her own eight children, she lacked demonstrative affection. Nine pregnancies, of course, took a toll; she spent a good deal of her time in her room, nursing her “unwellness.”

Mary Todd was not the easiest child to raise, stubborn and emotional and given to tantrums. This was anathema to Betsey Humphreys, who had been raised to believe “it took six generations to make a lady,” and insisted on scolding that mantra into her four stepdaughters, none of whom were devoted to their new mother. Elizabeth, the eldest, married at sixteen – to escape her unhappy household. She was determined to rescue each of her three full sisters from their miseries.

Mary’s eldest sister Elizabeth Todd Edwards

By twelve, Mary was the eldest girl in the family that grew every year. Much was demanded of her, little attention was paid, and she couldn’t wait to get away. She boarded at her finishing school, which was only a mile from their house.

The Reflective Stepchildren

Time is always the great healer and leveler.

Mary Todd was indeed “rescued” by her sister Elizabeth, who at a young age became a core member of society in nascent Springfield, Illinois. Mary joined her sister’s household at nineteen, and like her sisters Frances and Ann, married and settled in Springfield.

Interestingly enough, when Mary became a wife and mother herself, she mellowed toward her stepmother and began to understand the challenges she faced. While they never became close, and no personal correspondence between them has ever surfaced, Mary’s attitude softened.

Lincoln never needed to mellow toward his stepmother. Even when money was scarce for the young attorney, he bought property for his father and Sarah to provide for for their old age. After Tom Lincoln died, his son made sure his stepmother was never in want. Their affections never wavered.

And the last personal visit AL made before moving to Washington, was to visit his aging stepmother, who sensed it would be the last time she would see him.


Baker, Jean- Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography – W. W. Norton & Company, 1989

Donald, David H. – Lincoln – Simon & Schuster, 1995

Helm, Katherine – MARY: Wife of Lincoln – Harper and Brothers – 1928

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George Washington: Disposing of Stuff

Senior Citizen George

The Retired General

George Washington (who preferred his military title of “General” once retired from the Presidency) was only 67 when he died in December, 1799 – a couple of weeks before the turn of the nineteenth century. No doubt he and his wife had been looking forward to that momentous event. 

His death was unexpected and quick. At 67, GW was still vigorous, strong and in full command of his faculties. He still rose early, and enjoyed spending the day in the saddle, inspecting every inch of his beloved Mount Vernon plantation. Sometime he ventured farther afield, since he had many land holdings in various parts of Virginia and elsewhere.

But 67 was a ripe age in the 18th century, and a few months earlier, the former POTUS composed his last will and testament. 

George Washington’s Wealth

George Washington was born to comfortable circumstances, but hardly considered wealthy. Most of his family wealth was in fine Virginia land. When his father died, George was eleven, and oldest sibling to a sister and three younger brothers. Two considerably older half-brothers would inherit the substantial portion of the Washington estate (which included what is now Mount Vernon). George got what was left over, along with the obligation to provide for his now-widowed mother and siblings. 

Fifteen years later, when he married the very wealthy widow Martha Custis, his holdings vastly increased. Where he owned perhaps a few hundred acres and perhaps ten servants, her dower inheritance consisted of more than 18,000 acres. And more than 300 laborers.

The Martha we know and love.

During the next forty years of happy marriage, George Washington proved to be an astute businessman and honest manager of her inheritance, which also included the guardianship of her two children, Jacky and Patsy, who were four and two when she remarried. While the inheritance was legally the future property of her children, George managed to increase his own land holdings exponentially, particularly since much of his “militia” salary was paid in land. By the time of his death, he was one of Virginia’s wealthiest landowners. 

The Will of George Washington

As one might expect, GW’s 15-page handwritten will was complex and carefully prepared. His bequests were generous, especially since he had no children of his own. 

First, he had prepared a complete summary of all his property holdings, including how much acreage, its boundaries (which he likely surveyed himself) and how much were tenanted. Having survived all his siblings, these properties were parceled out among his many nephews, nieces and in some cases grand-nephews and nieces. He had been an affectionate uncle, and legal guardian to several of them.

He also made provisions for Martha’s four grandchildren, daughters and son of her late son John Parke Custis (Jack), who had died at Yorktown at age 27. Two of those grandchildren, Eleanor Parke Custis (Nellie) and George Washington Parke Custis (Washy), were “adopted” by George and Martha and raised at Mount Vernon (and NY-Philadelphia, while GW was President). The older granddaughters, Elizabeth Parke Custis and Martha Parke Custis had gone with their mother Eleanor Calvert Custis when she remarried Dr. David Stuart. The Washington’s adored their daughter-in-law, and approved of the remarriage. The family ties were always excellent.

As expected, Mount Vernon and all its accoutrements went to Martha during her lifetime. This not only included the plantation and its household furnishings, but made specific provisions to manumit his slaves – upon Martha’s death. He would have manumitted them directly, but during their forty year marriage, many of his servants had intermarried with hers – and since they (and their offspring) had come to her through Daniel Custis’ estate, he had no legal right to do so. It was a very complex situation. His only direct manumission was Billy Lee, his valet and manservant, along with an annuity to provide for his old age and infirmities. Martha, however, manumitted George’s servants more than a year before she died.

The Mount Vernon we know and love.

Mount Vernon

Mount Vernon is a large and successful plantation, beautifully situated on the Potomac River, and would have always been considered valuable property, but being the home of our beloved (even then) first president, it was all the more valuable.

There have been some indications that George Washington Parke Custis (GWP) was bitterly disappointed that he did not inherit the property. He been raised there since he was an infant. Other than his part-time residences in New York and Philadelphia, he knew no other home. The fact that George Washington left his beloved estate to his nephew Bushrod Washington must have been a hard pill for GWP to swallow.

George Washington Parke Custis

But GWP was only 19 when his step-grandfather died, and hardly in a position to manage such a large property. Youthful immaturity aside, there is also some strong indication that George Washington was less than impressed by his step-grandson’s intellectual acumen. His father, Martha’s son Jack, had been lackluster in the same way. 

The Bushrod Part

Among the many offspring of George Washington’s siblings, Bushrod Washington, son of John Augustine, was not only the eldest, but perhaps the most promising as well. He attended William & Mary, read law, became a well-regarded Richmond attorney, and subsequently a Supreme Court Justice (appointed by John Adams), shortly before GW’s death.

According to Washington’s will, the Mount Vernon property had been assigned to Bushrod decades earlier (oldest nephew), when GW was still in the Virginia Militia and his brother John looked after it. Had GW sired offspring of his own, that would have changed. But he didn’t.

Mount Vernon duly went to Bushrod, but GW had neglected to provide funds for its upkeep, and the Justice learned first hand that the bequest was a double-edged sword. Neither he, nor his son and grandson could not maintain it at all, and it deteriorated rapidly.

Until the Mount Vernon Ladies Association came to its rescue in 1858…


Fraser, Flora – The Washingtons: George and Martha, “Join’d by Friendship, Crown’d by Love” – Knopf Publishing, 2015

Randall, Willard Sterne – George Washington – Galahad Books, 2000

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Mother Bickerdyke: Civil War Ranking Nurse

Right after the Civil War, there was a huge parade in Washington, DC.

Leading the Soldiers

On May 23, 1865, as the intense mourning over the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln began to slowly ebb, the newly discharged Army of the Potomac, some 100,000 spit-and-polished strong, marched 12 abreast down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington in grand review. Leading the parade was General Ulysses S. Grant, who peeled off to join new-President Andrew Johnson and his guest dignitaries on the reviewing platform. 

With military bands playing the songs that had become standard in every household, thousands of spectators from miles around lined the streets to witness the singular event. It lasted for hours. 

The following day, some 80,000 soldiers of the Army of Tennessee/Georgia had their turn in the spotlight. Not quite as spit-and-polished as the Potomac fellows, this was Sherman’s Army – the ones who had slogged up from Atlanta and iced the cake on the victory. They marched corps by corps, division by division and brigade by brigade.

Mary Bickerdyke

Leading the 15th Brigade was a rare sight. At the specific order of General Sherman himself, a woman was at its head: Mrs. Mary Bickerdyke, a widow.

Mary Bickerdyke

Mary Ann Ball (1817-1901) was a very rare example of Civil War-era womanhood. Born to a prosperous Quaker family in Ohio, she had the unusual distinction of studying herbal medicine at Oberlin College. At twenty, she was assisting doctors in Cincinnati by voluntarily nursing patients through a cholera epidemic. 

At thirty, she married Robert Bickerdyke, relocated to Illinois, had children, and was widowed a dozen years later. Between financial need and perhaps a desire to be useful, or perhaps due to her take-charge nature, she became a full time nurse-of-sorts. Nursing, as a structured discipline of its own, did not take place until after the Crimean War, and that was in 1850s England. It would take another two or three decades to hop the pond.

The Sanitary Commission

Wars produce casualties. Casualties require treatment. And care. And supplies. And attention. During the American Civil War, hospitals were still in a fairly primitive state, doing the best they could, vis-a-vis care and treatment. Trained professional medical corps were haphazard. A functioning nursing corps was just beginning. The Red Cross (and similar entities) did not exist.

Civil War field hospital

But shortly after the Battle of Bull Run, when the unexpectedly high number of casualties stunned the citizenry (and it would rise exponentially), The Sanitary Commission was born. It was a voluntary organization of concerned civilians to help provide goods and services to the soldiers, mainly the sick and wounded. In very short order, the organization had chapters throughout the Northern states, with smaller chapters in practically every city, town and village. Everyone wanted to participate.

Whether the members raised funds to provide ambulance wagons or medicines and supplies, or physically went to inspect field facilities, lobbied Congress for better conditions, or knitted, sewed or rolled bandages in their own homes, the Sanitary Commission provided an outlet for everyone who wanted to be part of the war effort. 

“Mother” Bickerdyke

At the outset, Mary Bickerdyke had made a name for herself as an extremely competent nurse, and was entrusted by her fellow townsmen to take $500 worth of medical supplies to Cairo, IL. She not only delivered the supplies, but remained to establish a field hospital. She remained with the Army for the full duration of the war, traveling from battlefield to battlefield, and by the end of the war, had established more than 300 field hospitals for the sick and wounded.

Her energy was matched by her superb managerial skills, and her absolute refusal to take “no” for an answer. She begged, borrowed, “appropriated” and vigorously faced-down commanding officers in order to get proper supplies for her “patients.” She established regular laundry service to wash soiled linens and bedding for the hospital. She scoured the battlefields at night with a lantern, in order to find wounded soldiers who hadn’t been brought to treatment areas. She had the audacity to ”discharge” one inebriated commanding officer. When he appealed to General Sherman, Bickerdyke’s discharge was upheld.

Improvements were made….

One story told about the lack of fresh milk and eggs in Memphis, where there was a large military hospital. Available ”secesh” sources were expensive and of poor quality. Bickerdyke wangled a 30-day furlough to go north and purchase what she needed. Dismissing her request as fruitless, since both the eggs and milk would spoil en route back to Memphis, she said it was nonsense. She would return with the suppliers themselves. In her home state of Illinois, she received a hundred cows – gratis – to be shipped in small herds. Ditto more than a thousand hens – also in small flocks. Before her thirty day leave had ended, she returned with her bizarre procession, mooing and cackling along the way.

An eloquent and articulate speaker, she appeared at numerous Sanitary Commission events to raise needed funds. 

Her continuous devotion to the soldiers earned her the nickname “Mother” Bickerdyke. It also earned her supreme regard and respect of both General Ulysses Grant and General William T. Sherman.

Both Generals were of the opinion that “Mother” Bickerdyke outranked them both, and were happy to say so.

Epilogue to Mother Bickerdyke

Mary Bickerdyke remained in the Union Army throughout the war, and assisted veterans for the remainder of her long life. She helped Union veterans obtain pensions – and that included pensions for more than 300 female nurses. She was awarded a $25/month pension herself in 1886.

An older Mary Bickerdyke

She moved to Kansas after the War, studied law, and continued to help veterans with legal problems, and to settle and begin new lives. It is said that General Sherman authorized government wagons and teams to transport their belongings.

Her later years were spent in California, mostly for health reasons, but she eventually returned to Kansas and died at nearly eighty. She was buried in Galesburg, IL.


Boykin, B.A. (editor) – A Civil War Treasury of Tales, Legends and Folklore – The Blue and Gray Press, 1985

Flagel, Thomas R. – The History Buff’s Guide to the Civil War – Sourcebooks, 2010

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The Tragic Death of Bennie Pierce

Benjamin Pierce was the third and last child of Franklin and Jane Pierce.

The Pierce Parents

When Franklin Pierce (1804-1869) married Jane Means Appleton (1806-63) in 1834, he was nearly thirty, a fine age for a man to marry. Mature, and financially solid enough in trade or profession to provide for a wife. She, at twenty-eight, was considered “old”.

Jane Pierce

She was a nice looking woman, petite, with fine-chiseled features and generally delicate health.  Childhood tuberculosis may have contributed to her frailty. She was well read and extremely pious. She may also have been inclined toward melancholy. Those traits became more pronounced as time went on. 

But the Pierces had courted for some time, and all indications are that he was eager to marry. Her family, however, was reluctant to approve. It was no secret that he liked his whiskey. And politics. But on the plus side, he was an attorney, considered particularly good looking and convivial. And he had been elected to Congress.

So marry they did – and honeymooned in Washington.

Franklin Pierce

Alas, Jane quickly developed a total distaste for the country’s capital. The weather was abysmal, and her easily compromised health suffered from chills and colds. The companionship of other congressional wives was not to her liking. She considered the women ungodly, unladylike and much too focused on (gasp) politics. She wound up staying in their boarding house rooms most of the time, seldom venturing out except for church services. 

Subsequent congressional sessions saw her husband going alone. But Jane now had an excuse. She had become pregnant, and motherhood, being the supreme function of a woman’s life (at least hers), her duty and inclination was to remain home in Concord, New Hampshire. 

The Pierce Children

Alas again, the first Pierce son, Franklin, Jr., lived only a few days. But three years later, Frank Robert, their second son, was born healthy. And his father, elected in 1837, was now Senator Franklin Pierce. 

In 1841, Benjamin Pierce was born. By then, Jane was in her mid-thirties, and realized it was likely her last chance at motherhood. When little Frank Robert was four, he contracted typhoid and died. Jane was understandably devastated, and her inherent melancholy led to two major turning points in the Pierce lives.

She became insistent that her husband resign his Senatorial seat and return to New Hampshire. His place was with his wife and child. In 1843, he duly resigned, pledged to renounce both Washington and alcoholic spirits. He focused on his law practice – and a little “local” New Hampshire politics. On occasion they visited her family in neighboring Massachusetts.

Bennie became her entire raison d’etre. Her life now revolved around her last surviving child.

Bennie had no memory of either of his older brothers. His own life revolved around trying to please his hovering mother.

Little Bennie

Bennie was a healthy child. He was mostly home schooled until he was ready for Philips Academy. Jane was well educated and her attitudes toward education were strong. Her own father had been a minister/educator, and President of Bowdoin College in Maine.

Bennie’s religious education was supreme, however. Sunday school classes were mandatory, and it is said that Jane’s great pleasure was listening to him recite his Bible lesson while she was sewing or knitting. Their pastor was a regular guest for tea or dinner. Jane was happy with her husband home and sober.

Mother and son

As Bennie grew, his attitudes were influenced by his mother’s strong feelings. Against politics. Against alcohol. Against anything that was not heavily dosed with religious morality and convention. 

Some contemporaries have suggested Bennie was becoming priggish.

In 1852, as the great divide of political factions was becoming a chasm, Franklin Pierce had been voluntarily removed from national office for a decade. Nevertheless, he maintained a broad and active correspondence, astutely suspecting that the conflicting dilemmas might cause the Democratic Party (and he was a Democrat) to seek the rare Northerner (like himself) whose politics were acceptable to the South. He subtly pursued, all the while assuring his wife that he had been long forgotten. 

When he received the Democratic nomination (after 49 ballots), he told Jane that no one was more surprised than he was.

14th President Franklin Pierce

But Bennie was said to have remarked to his mother, “I hope Papa loses. I don’t want us to live in Washington. I know we shan’t be happy there, will we Mama?”

The Freak Accident 

Jane Pierce fainted at the election news, and struggled to reconcile her mind that Pierce not only was nominated, but won the election by a landslide. It was obviously God’s will, but why? Why? 

Only weeks before the inauguration, The Pierces spent Christmas with her sister Mary and her husband John Aiken in Amherst – and took Bennie, now eleven and attending Philips Academy. It was not a long trip, and train travel had improved rapidly in time and speed and even comfort.

They planned to return home on January 3, 1853 – a bitterly cold day. Only a mile past the Amherst station (and there are several versions to this story), the train hit rocks (or derailed, or, or…). Bennie, said to be playing between adjoining cars (or standing near a window, or, or…), was thrown from the train (or crushed as it overturned).

It was a freak accident. Bennie was the only one killed. 

His body was taken back to the Aiken home for private funeral services. His grief-stricken mother was too overcome to even attend. Nor could she accompany the casket back to Concord for burial. Nor could she attend her husband’s inaugural ceremony. It was weeks before she even arrived at the White House. It would be two years before she could even assume any limited First Lady duties.

First Lady Jane Pierce

She word black for the rest of her life.

Pierce’s good friend Nathaniel Hawthorne remarked, “Jane was never really of this world.”


Caroli, Betty Boyd – First Ladies – Oxford University Press, 1995

Nichols, Roy Franklin – Franklin Pierce: Young Hickory of the Granite Hills – University of Pennsylvania Press, 1959 (rev.) Townsman

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Corinne: The Long Neglected Roosevelt

Corinne Roosevelt Robinson

Little Sister Corinne

Young Theodore Roosevelt

The iconic Theodore Roosevelt was one of four siblings. The oldest of the four remarkable Roosevelts was Anna (1855-1931), called “Bamie” by her siblings, and “Auntie Bye” by the next generation. Despite an early childhood illness which left her with some spinal deformity, she was a dynamo, both in intelligence and energy. She assumed much of the household management by the time she was sixteen, and never relinquished her “leadership” in the family.

Elliott Roosevelt

Theodore came next, about three years later, followed closely by Elliott. Always considered the best looking and most convivial/likeable among the four, Elliott began a downward trajectory by the time he was twenty. With a substantial inheritance and little motivation or inclination toward a vocation, he became a “sportsman,” with a definite inclination to alcohol. A riding accident with serious injuries added to his problems: a laudanum addiction.

Anna (Bamie) Roosevelt

Not long after Elliott’s birth came Corinne (1861-1933), the baby of the remarkable Roosevelt family.

Practically from birth, she developed a close friendship with Edith Carow, a child of a neighboring family. Some have said that their nannies were close friends and wheeled the baby carriages together.

But while Bamie stood apart as a semi-adult, and both the boys were educated according to their exceptional abilities, Corinne’s education was more circumspect. Just as intelligent as her siblings, she was “a girl,” and her educational needs were adjusted accordingly. Finishing School. Even when the family traveled to Europe, an adolescent (and desperately lonely and homesick) Corinne was “boarded” separately from Theodore and Elliott.  

She was always well read and artistically inclined, and at not-quite thirteen, was a founding member of their Dresden Literary American Club, secretly nicknamed W.A.N.A., which even more secretly stood for “We Are No Asses.” It was then that she began writing poetry.

Young Corinne Roosevelt

Nevertheless a college education was never on the table. A career of any kind was out of the question. She was expected to marry and raise a family. 

What was never unquestioned, however, was her complete devotion to her family, and especially to brother Theodore. 

Douglas Robinson

It was Corinne’s brother Elliott who introduced his little sister to Douglas Robinson. She was eighteen, having made her social “debut;” he was six years her senior. Robinson was half-American (a great-great nephew of James Monroe), but born and raised in Scotland, educated at Oxford, and now returned to his American ties.

He was wealthy, well educated, a financial wizard at property management, and a superb sportsman – which drew him into Elliott’s circle – and he fell in love with Corinne. The Roosevelt family liked Robinson, and encouraged the match. In fact, Corinne Roosevelt was nice looking, athletic, well-read, and indeed marriageable. All the Roosevelts encouraged young marriages, ostensibly to protect them against youthful temptation, it is said. 

Alas, the family failed to consult Corinne. She liked Douglas Robinson pleasantly enough, but was hardly in love with him, nor particularly attracted. To her, he was loud, bullying and bad-tempered. Perhaps most importantly, she did not want to get married – at least not then. She had just begun to enjoy her own autonomy, had several suitors, and was not inclined to give up her freedom.

Douglas Robinson

She hemmed and hawed, and delayed for two years, accompanied by many tears. Robinson was patient enough, but the Roosevelts, including her mother, Mittie Bulloch Roosevelt, pressed somewhat awkwardly, saying that she could “learn to put up with him.”  When they finally married, Corinne was just shy of her 21st birthday, and was said to have spent most of her wedding morning sobbing.

Mrs. Robinson

Corinne and Douglas Robinson had four children and were married for 36 years before Douglas’ death in 1918. It could hardly be termed a happy marriage. Nor could it be termed an unhappy marriage. It was likely stuck in neutral. 

On the positive side, Robinson was an astute businessman with considerable wealth. He was a constant friend to Elliott, who died at 34 of severe alcoholism. He was always a strong supporter of Theodore’s political ambitions. He denied Corinne nothing that money could buy. In fact, his preoccupation with business and making money may have been Corinne’s greatest blessing: he let her do pretty much what she wanted. That included her interest in politics, especially once Theodore rose in prominence.

On the negative side, Corinne may have learned to “put up with him,” but there was never any romance or real love, despite common-for-the-time effusive letters. Plenty of money helped.

Once her children were grown, she began to find her own calling. She had always written poetry.

Corinne: On Her Own

All the Roosevelts (including subsequent generations) were fine writers. And they all loved poetry. Corinne wrote poems as a child. In 1911; when she was fifty, she finally published her first poem in Scribner’s Magazine. The death of Stuart, her youngest son, via a freak accident at Harvard when he was only twenty, had plunged her into an understandable depression, and poetry was her solace.

In 1912 a full volume of her poetry was published by Scribner’s. Additional volumes were published in 1914, 1919, 1924 and 1930. She also wrote and published a memoir, My Brother Theodore Roosevelt, which Scribner’s published in 1924.

Meanwhile, once women had received suffrage, in 1920 Corinne Roosevelt Robinson became the first woman to address the Republican national convention, seconding family friend General Leonard Wood’s nomination in 1920. She was surprisingly good and invitations for public speaking engagements followed, earning a substantial reputation of her own.

Corinne Roosevelt Robinson was the sole survivor of the remarkable Roosevelt siblings. Her health became iffy, complicated by a chronic eye infection that required several surgeries.

In 1933. she died at 71, only weeks before her distant cousin (and husband of Elliott’s daughter Eleanor) took the oath of office that had once been held by Theodore.


Caroli, Betty Boyd – The Roosevelt Women

Dalton, Kathleen – Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life

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G.P.A. Healy and the Portraits of Presidents

The idea of a poor, starving artist does not apply to George Peter Alexander Healy.

The Young Artist

George Peter Alexander (usually known as G.P.A.) Healy was definitely born poor in 1813 to Irish immigrants in Boston. A bit late to his calling, he was sixteen when he first picked up a brush, but the talent was obvious. His response was immediate. He decided then and there that he would make his living as an artist. 

Fate, luck, and a pleasing personality must never be taken lightly.

While in his teens, Mrs. Harrison Gray Otis, a grand dame of Boston society, commissioned him to paint her portrait. She liked it well enough to circulate his name among other potential clients. Healy also made an important friendship with Jane Stuart, a young woman his own age. She was the youngest daughter of the renowned portraitist Gilbert Stuart, and a serious artist in her own right.

It is Ms. Stuart who introduced young Healy to Thomas Sully, who had made his own reputation with his portrait of Thomas Jefferson, among other notables. Sully noted Healy’s genius immediately and encouraged and critiqued the young man’s work, and advised him to study in Europe.   

Healy inherited the mantle of Gilbert Stuart

In Europe, where he lived on and off for decades, he continued his studies, and his affable manners as well as skill won him many important (and profitable) commissions. George Healy was prolific, in demand from the start, and by the time he was forty, had produced nearly 600 portraits, and had an A-list of clientele.

Painting and Copying Presidents

For more than fifty years after the United States became its own “nation,” prominent people, including its Presidents, had portraits commissioned as the only means of obtaining a likeness. The accuracy depended on the artist’s skills. Photography did not become its own recognized discipline until the late 1840s, when John Quincy Adams became the first POTUS to be photographed. By then, he was an ex-POTUS and an elderly man. 

But portraits were always one-of-one, and when the subject (and sometimes the artist) becomes well known and popular, copies need to be made. Sometimes the original artist made a few copies himself, but many fine artists made comfortable livings by copying the works of others.

George Washington had several portraits painted, notably by Gilbert Stuart, and copied numerous times (including by his daughter Jane). Etchings were made from those paintings. Both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had also been painted by Stuart, long after their Presidencies, when they were in their elder years. The prolific Charles Willson Peale and his equally prolific and multi-talented family was also responsible for several portraits and copies of early Presidents.

The Healy-Jackson Portrait

King Louis Phillipe of France
The elderly Andrew Jackson

Nevertheless, the very first Presidential portrait that G.P.A. Healy painted from life, was Andrew Jackson, in 1845. The actual commission came from King Louis Philippe of France, who was a long-time admirer of Old Hickory. The King had also become a Healy fan and sent the artist back to the US, all expenses paid.

Jax was ill, seventy-eight, and looked every day of his vigorous and often dangerous life. The sitting was done only a short time before Jackson’s demise, and according to lore, AJ was not an easy subject. He was obviously failing, and posing for a portrait at such a difficult time made him even more irritable than usual. 

But it made Healy’s reputation. He was only 32. 

Becoming Famous, In Demand and Highly Paid

President Polk

Encouraged by the high level commission, Healy arranged to paint a pair of portraits: Sitting President and First Lady, James Knox Polk and Sarah Polk. Polk was a strong admirer and supporter of Old Hickory, and welcomed the artist to the White House for a few days. The result was perhaps one of the most iconic FLOTUS portraits: Sarah Polk in an elegant burgundy velvet gown with a gold tasseled cap. (It has been copied several times.) Polk’s portrait was a traditional pose, and Polk grumbled to his diary regarding the time-consuming and tedious “sitting” for a portrait – a common complaint of several Presidents.

Sarah Polk

While he was spending time in the USA, Healy also managed to paint a likeness of an elderly John Quincy Adams, who grumbled, hoping it would be the last portrait he would sit for. He did not care for it, but his wife said it was an excellent likeness. 

The Posthumous POTUS Portraits

G.P.A. Healy (1813-1894) lived a long and prolific life, said to have painted some 50 or more portraits (or copies) per year. He ping-ponged living between Europe and the USA, where he made his home in Chicago, and was a founding member of its prestigious Art Institute. He also found time to write his memoirs.

Having gained a reputation via his portraits of Presidents Jackson, Polk and J. Q. Adams, he was later commissioned (mostly by the Corcoran Gallery) to paint other Presidential portraits. Congress did not pay for “official” POTUS portraits until the early 20th century. Healy used previous portraits, photographs or etchings to depict Martin Van Buren, John Tyler, Franklin Pierce, Millard Fillmore, James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant and Chester Alan Arthur.

The Peacemakers

Perhaps Healy’s most famous Presidential portrait was The Peacemakers, painted in 1869, depicting the meeting between Lincoln, General Grant, General William T. Sherman, and Admiral David Porter, only weeks before the surrender at Appomattox Court House. It was originally purchased by Robert Todd Lincoln.

It became immediately popular – and the Healy image of Lincoln was the inspiration for his single portrait of Abraham Lincoln – and if one looks closely, his later singleton portrait of Ulysses S. Grant. 


Eleven Presidents in all. More than any other artist. 


Healy, G.P.A. – Reminiscences of a Portrait Painter (reprint) – Forgotten Books, 2015

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General Grant’s No-Exchange Order

Ulysses S. Grant took command of the entire Union Army in early 1864

Hard to Believe, But…

After millenniums of savage butchery, more “civilized” armies faced each other on the most favorable empty grounds they could find and they became battlefields, far from villages and towns and private citizens. If a belligerent was vanquished, the surrender was honorable, and the subdued officers were usually treated with respect for having fought bravely.

To that extent, both soldiers and officers, if captured (whether in battle or surrender), were periodically exchanged. Or ransomed.

There was honor in defeat.

When General Cornwallis surrendered to General Washington at Yorktown, once the salient terms were effected, a magnanimous GW invited his opposing leadership staff to an elegant dinner. After all, officers were gentlemen.

…Even To the American Civil War…

This was a brothers’ war. Families were torn apart blue and gray, and long time friendships were severed. But the exchange standard applied.

When General Ulysses S. Grant rose to prominence at Fort Donelson, along the Cumberland River, he faced an old West Point pal. Now a CSA general, Simon Bolivar Buckner had known USG for two decades. They had been good friends. Despite Grant’s own eponymous “Unconditional Surrender” message, the two adversaries had a cordial half-hour reunion, once their business had been completed.

CSA General Simon Bolivar Buckner

Remembering Buckner’s assistance years earlier when USG was down on his luck, General Grant offered “his purse,” since he knew Buckner would be taken prisoner of war. Buckner was aware of his situation-to-be, but was a man of means, and declined the well meant offer. 

But the point to remember was that Buckner was indeed taken prisoner of war, but later exchanged – and even reassigned to fight again another day – for the Confederate Army. It was customary.

A Long and Deadly War of Numbers

Two years of vicious fighting took place between Grant’s Ft. Donelson victory and his promotion to General of the Army. Thousands upon thousands of Blue/Gray soldiers fought and died. Many languished in prison camps, hoping and waiting for exchange.

The siege at Petersburg

Ulysses Grant had grown to understand the arithmetic. The North outnumbered the South in population by more than 3 to 1. In financial wealth, perhaps 4 to 1. Union troops could be supplied and replaced far more easily than the Confederates. 

By 1864, desertion in both both armies had become a problem that could not be overlooked. Some soldiers were homesick. Some were scared. Some were battle scarred and drained. Some received pleading letters from their families. They were needed at home. Many young fellows slipped away, usually in twos and threes, to return to their loved ones. 

In the South, it was crucial. The deaths, casualties and desertions could not be replaced.

Grant’s Decision

Both General Grant and President Lincoln had concluded that the war had become one of attrition: Which army could outlast the other. 

Lincoln signs the Emancipation Proclamation

In the Union Army, with an influx of immigrants and most importantly, the huge numbers of free Blacks and ex-slaves who had enlisted, replacements were available. And it was not only men and munitions, but an almost limitless ability to sustain them with food, medicines, horses and forage, and the essentials of human survival. The South could not match that, and the blockades preventing those essentials had tightened the noose to strangulation point.

Black soldiers of the Civil War

To insure that trained soldiers could not be re-recruited by the Confederate Army, on August 18, 1864, as a military necessity, Grant ordered that no prisoners of war would be exchanged.  

“It is hard on our men held in Southern prisons not to exchange them, but it is humanity to those left in the ranks to fight our battles… If we commence a system of exchange which liberates all prisoners taken, we will have to fight on until the whole South is exterminated. If we hold those caught they amount to no more than dead men. At this particular time to release all rebel prisoners North would insure Sherman’s defeat and would compromise our safety here.” – Gen. USG

The Back Story

While General Grant’s order to halt prisoner exchange always receives the most publicity, earlier incidents had occurred that presaged that grim order. In late 1862, President Lincoln had made his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation public, opening the door to recruiting free Blacks, runaway slaves and “contraband” into the Union Army – as soldiers, not merely teamsters and ditch diggers.

To Confederates, it rubbed salt into their perceived wounds. In April, 1864, at Ft. Pillow in Tennessee, a Confederate victory, U.S. Colored Troops (as they were called) were given “no quarter.” This meant that no Black Union soldiers were taken as prisoners-of-war. They were either killed, or sold back into slavery. Confederates were twice as vicious facing Black soldiers as they were with other damnyankees. The North was horrified by the blatant brutality.

The infamous Andersonville Prison

Lincoln knew that, but fine lines needed to be tacitly addressed. Making an already horrific war vengeful or retaliatory could not be allowed. He tried valiantly for three years to make the primary purpose “saving the Union,” and knew that by shifting the purpose to one of emancipation, a large part of the Union Army could collapse. Northerners may not have approved of slavery, but many were totally opposed to fighting – or dying, to prevent it.

Northern POW camps were not much better

Meanwhile, in spring, 1863, as he was slogging his way through Vicksburg, General Grant learned first hand to appreciate the value of Black soldiers. They had fought valiantly and successfully in supporting roles at both Port Hudson and Milikens Bend. With honor.

They had earned the public respect of USG.


Boller, Paul F., Jr. – Presidential Anecdotes, Oxford University Press, 1981

Chernow, Ron – Grant – Penguin Press, 2017

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

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Frances Cleveland: Saturday

Frances Folsom Cleveland was only 21 when she became First Lady.

The Young FLOTUS-To-Be

Frances Folsom (1864-1947) was the total antithesis of her husband, sitting President Grover Cleveland. She was young (he was 49), slim and trim (he weighed in around 300 lbs.), and pretty-with-dimples. His face was usually grouchy – with a walrus-like mustache. 

Frances Folsom was a pretty gal!

In addition to those obvious conditions, the one most likely to raise eyebrows, was that Grover Cleveland was Frances’ legal guardian. He had known her since birth (or before), since he had been the close friend and law partner of her father, Oscar Folsom. When Folsom died, GC, as executor of his very modest estate, became guardian to 11-year-old Frances and her mother. He managed their funds wisely, enabling them to live comfortably. Always engaged in Frances’ upbringing as a devoted “Uncle Cleve,” he arranged for her education at Wells College. 

Once her hems were lowered and her hair pinned up, his attention shifted – although he always joked (if he was capable of joking), that “he was waiting for his wife to grow up.” It was no secret that now-NY Governor Cleveland was Frances’ guardian, so if letters and bouquets were sent to her, or she and her mother were invited to occasional social galas in Albany, no one batted an eye. They were considered “family.” 

Grover Cleveland, non-Adonis

But by the time Frances graduated, and GC had been elected President in 1884, he had already proposed to his ward, and she had accepted. But they agreed to keep it a secret for a while. Frances and her mother spent several months in Europe before the nuptials were held – in the White House.

This placed the pretty, young First Lady on a merry-go-round of fame and paparazzi, 1880’s style.

FLOTUS Receptions

The first FLOTUS

From the very beginning, when Martha Washington joined President George Washington in NYC, her major responsibilities were a) managing and overseeing their home and personal needs, and b) entertaining the new President’s many guests. And their wives, daughters, mothers, sisters and assorted female guests. 

Martha’s “levees”, as they were called, were formal social occasions, not to be confused with smaller dinner parties, usually stag affairs, for GW’s political/governmental associates. Some of the levees were “for ladies only,” but many were “mixed.”

Some quarter century later, FLOTUS Dolley Madison, now ensconced in the White House, upped the ante. Her Wednesday evenings were legendary. Anyone, regardless of social position, so long as they were “properly dressed” and behaved, was welcome.

The incomparable Dolley!

For the next half-century or more, “receptions,” his/hers/or both were a major social function of the Presidency. While many Presidents found them to be time consuming and even irritating, none dared to cancel the event, other than for illness. FLOTUSES, of course, were expected to  enjoy them. In the instance of a POTUS being widowed, or with an “invalid” spouse, a young daughter/niece or other female relative was recruited to stand-in. The young gals usually were delighted by the high-level recognition. 

The President and “Notions”

After the Civil War, women in the workforce quadrupled (not counting farm work or servants). Hundreds of thousands were widows or orphaned daughters. Many suffered the loss of their sweethearts. Many had menfolk who were so badly wounded they no longer could ply their usual trades. Many “marriageable” women remained single because of a shortage of available men.

Meanwhile, there was an industrial sea change: inventions and industry opened doors for women as clerks, secretaries, typists, telephone operators, etc. They had also learned to be vocal and active. They taught on high academic levels. They wrote books and gave lectures. They actually liked it. And they wanted to vote.

Rose Elizabeth Cleveland

For year, while Frances and her mother were in Europe, the bachelor President had his unmarried sister Rose Elizabeth Cleveland serve as his “hostess.” She did so reluctantly, mainly to help her brother. She, after all, had emancipated-female “notions,” which GC claimed “gave him a headache.” 

Grover Cleveland was receptive enough to a woman’s education, but his lines were clearly drawn. He was a conservative, traditional man. A married woman’s place was in the home. Husband and family came first. Women did not work – unless the financial need was dire. And the idea that a wife, HIS wife, might support the nascent-but-growing woman’s suffrage movement was unthinkable! 

GC was a lucky man. His bride did not have “notions”.

Mrs. Cleveland’s Receptions

Frances altered her wedding gown to wear at receptions.

As might be expected, anyone in or around Washington flocked to the White House to meet and shake hands with the pretty new First Lady. It is said that thousands of people, dressed in their best clothes, lined up outside on her “at home” days, happy to stand in line waiting to be presented. 

The young FLOTUS had the energy of youth, and did not mind standing for two or three hours with a perpetual smile on her face. It is reported, however, that sometimes her aching arms and hands needed to be massaged after 2 or 3,000 greetings. 

She held her own receptions twice a week. One of those days was on Saturday afternoon. Perhaps in an effort to minimize her strenuous activities, a White House aide suggested she might give up her Saturday afternoon receptions. 

According to lore, Frances Cleveland replied that Saturday afternoons was the only day that shop girls, office clerks and other gainfully employed women were available to attend.

Her Saturday receptions were not cancelled. Young women continued to attend in droves. Frances continued to have her arms massaged.

It is unknown whether or not she ever had a notion that had it not been for “Uncle Cleve’s” fiscal management and guardianship, she might be one of those “gainfully employed” women herself.


Boller, Paul F., Jr. – Presidential Anecdotes, Oxford University Press, 1981

Carpenter, Frank G. – Carp’s Washington – McGraw Hill, 1960

Dunlap, Annette – FRANK: The Story of Frances Folsom Cleveland, America’s Youngest First Lady – Excelsior Editions, 2009

Foster, Feather Schwartz – Mary Lincoln’s Flannel Pajamas and Other Stories From the First Ladies Closet – Koehler Publishing, 2014

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Martha Washington’s Speckled Apron 

Mrs. Washington had a big house to manage.

Mistress Custis, Mistress Washington

Martha Dandridge (1731-1802) was not born to wealth per se. She was born, very much like George Washington, to a family of gentry. Her father, John Dandridge, owned several hundred acres. This entitled him to a comfortable living, respect from his neighbors, and a seat in the House of Burgesses.

It was not even close to the wealth of Daniel Parke Custis, the man Martha married when she was eighteen. Twice her age, Custis was the heir to nearly 18,000 acres across five separate plantations, fine houses and all the accoutrements of gracious living.

Daniel Parke Custis

Their marriage was a happy one for seven years. They had four children, two died in early childhood. Then Daniel died. At 26, Martha was one of the wealthiest young widows in Virginia, with not only land and a workforce of 300 souls, but investments and the rarest of planter commodities: ready cash.

Several months later, she met Colonel George Washington of the Virginia Militia, who had inherited Mount Vernon from his half-brother. He was ready for a career change, and determined to turn it into a showplace. They found themselves like minded, and once Martha was assured that Washington would be an affectionate stepfather to her children and honest guardian of their estate, they agreed to marry.

Mistress of Mount Vernon

Martha had been the eldest of five surviving children, and was well accustomed to life on a plantation. Her years as Mistress Custis raised the level to mistress of a wealthy Virginia planter. The household goods (silver, porcelain, linen, etc.)  she brought along to Mt. Vernon were some of the finest in the colony.

Said to be a young Martha Washington

Young Mrs. W. was no stranger to the work of a plantation wife, and was happy in domestic life. She loved Mt. Vernon from the start, helping to transform it hands-on, into exactly the showplace ex-Col. Washington had envisioned. Her gardens were bountiful, her house furnishings luxurious, and her pride and joy, the kitchen, provided sumptuous meals for their many visitors. 

Run Up To Independence

With a savvy sense of business that became legendary, George Washington was a successful planter who became increasingly aware of the constrictions Great Britain, the Mother Country, was placing on American trade. And taxes.

When Virginia led the “colonies” in declaring non-importation of British goods and encouraging “Buy American”, both Washingtons embraced the concept. Martha no longer purchased fine imported silks, satins and laces, but contented herself with the best “American” cloth she could find. She was a superb needlewoman, and her hands were never idle. Her fancywork was well known to her friends and neighbors.


Dry cleaning was more than a century in the future. Laundering was laborious – centered around boiling hot water, harsh lye soap, and plenty of elbow grease. Followed by hot irons. And that was for the “washable stuff.” Naturally, velvets and taffetas, silks and satins, could not be immersed in boiling water. The best that could/might be done, was gentle spot cleaning.

Modern – but in colonial style.

Therefore, the optimum way to care for clothing was to keep from getting it soiled or stained to begin with. Thus aprons. They could be washed and ironed relatively easily. For the daily work around the plantation, they were usually bib, or pinafore style, covering much of the entire gown. For a more social atmosphere, a half-apron might suffice. For a woman of Martha Washington’s social status, it would likely be made of a fine linen. Just as likely, she would have had several of them.

Morristown, New Jersey

Once the Revolutionary War was underway, General George Washington was Commander-in-Chief. One of his important-but-subtle duties was to recruit financial assistance for the army. It was no secret that the General was one of the wealthiest men in Virginia, and needed to face wealthy patriot-colonists as a peer, which he was. He had been to Morristown earlier, and had “commandeered” the finest house in town as his headquarters, befitting his station.

GW’s HQ in Morristown, NJ

Armies were seasonal then, and the cold and snow sent them into winter quarters. This provided time to tend the wounded, train the soldiers, gather supplies and plan for a spring offensive. Maybe even some fund-raising. He always sent for Martha when he could.

The General

Late in 1779, she arrived.

The Apron and The Message

Naturally several wealthy Morristown women came to call on her, dressed in their finest clothes, befitting their status. Surprisingly, the general’s wife greeted them with a cheerful smile, but wearing a plain homespun brown cloth gown.

Even more surprising to the colonial ladies, she wore a speckled apron. (By the way, this information has repeatedly been included in many old books about Mrs. W.) For the uninitiated, “speckled” cloth, as opposed to fine linen or lace, is a coarse material, possibly an unbleached muslin, more associated with servants rather than a fine lady.

The older Mrs. W.

Nevertheless, Mrs. Washington welcomed her callers, engaged them in pleasant conversation, all the while taking needles from her workbasket, and continuing with her project – knitting socks for the soldiers. It is unknown whether the fine ladies were taken aback by Mrs. W’s plain appearance, but her obvious hospitality and pleasant charm won them over. And her subtle message was not lost on them.

After their tea, she invited them to call on her again. They would do so, and she in turn would call on them during those long winter months of 1780.

But when they called, satins and plumes were left behind. The ladies came ready to work, with their knitting baskets in hand. The fine ladies were now part of the war effort too.


Boller, Paul F., Jr. – Presidential Wives, An Anecdotal History, Oxford University Press, 1988

Bourne, Miriam Anne: First Family: George Washington and his Intimate Relations, 1982, New York, NY, W.W. Norton

Brady, Patricia – Martha Washington: An American Life – Viking, 2005

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

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Al Smith: The “3-P” Loss of 1928

Alfred E. Smith was from the “Sidewalks of New York.”

Al: A Brief Run-Up

Alfred Emanuel Smith (1873-1944) was born to Catholic immigrants in a rough neighborhood on NY’s lower East Side. He identified with his Irish forebears, but in fact, he was a mixed breed. His father was working class, but strong for education, so Al was sent to St. James, a parochial school. In his early teens his father died, and Al was needed to help support the family.

For the next seven years, he worked at the Fulton Fish Market, not far from the Brooklyn Bridge that was under construction. Al would later say, that the Fulton Fish Market was his alma mater. He did some of everything, and learned about life. He was blessed with an outgoing disposition, a cheery smile, and the politician’s gift for remembering names and faces. The Democratic political bigwigs of NY’s Tammany Hall took a liking to him, and by the time he was thirty, Al was elected to the NY State Legislature. 

His fellow legislators viewed the young fellow who spoke with the “dese, dems and doses” of the lower undereducated class, as a Tammany hack. Al was always a flashy dresser, and his fractured pronunciation never changed – but his efforts, diligence, native intelligence, good will and honest devotion to his constituents began to win him grudging support. And then more support. 

It was a horror story!

After the horror of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, Al Smith’s name became prominent. He was Vice Chair of a special commission that recommended and implemented dozens of new laws and regulations for worker and workplace safety. His constituents continued to re-elect him by large margins. And he, in turn, would live in their neighborhood for the rest of his life.

More than 150 people died.

By the end of WWI, the street-kid from the Lower East Side was Governor of New York.

The Tenor of the Times 1920s Style

By 1920, the boys had “seen Paree,” and there was no keeping ’em down on the farm. That of course, gave rise to the Roaring 20s, with sea-changes in American morals, goals and dreams and opportunities.

When Prohibition became law of the land, the morally emancipated rejected the piety of their elders, leading to an unintended and seemingly unstoppable wave of crime. That caused the pious ones to double down on their goals, which now included war on the speakeasies and racketeers. 

When Women Suffrage became law of the land, hemlines went up, corsets were trashed, hair got bobbed, lipstick was in every purse, and the gals were ready for a good time, to the consternation of their parents.

When Henry Ford priced his automobile to fit the pocketbook of every worker (around $300), the flivver became as common as a cup of coffee. Cars were everywhere.

Meanwhile the stock market was rising and the good times were rolling.

The Governor and the Aristocrat

New York was the most populous state in the union in the 1920s. Naturally its governor was (and still is) observed closely for higher political office. A NY governor who is re-elected a few times like Al Smith, was a high seed for the Presidency.

He had known the aristocratic Franklin D. Roosevelt of Hyde Park for more than a decade, when FDR served in the State Legislature and then as Asst. Secretary of the Navy. They agreed on many fronts and their relationship was invariably pleasant. Their styles however, were poles apart.

FDR at the 1924 convention

As the Democratic convention of 1924 approached, top-seeded Smith asked polio-stricken Roosevelt to place his name in nomination. FDR, whose jaunty grin belied his obvious pain and cane, actually stole the show as he introduced “The Happy Warrior.” But the convention went to 103 ballots and finally to John W. Davis of WV, who nobody ever heard of – to face incumbent Calvin Coolidge. Davis lost.

The Problems of 1928

Al Smith finally won the next Democratic nomination and was ready for 1928, but faced a formidable opponent: Herbert Hoover, of the impressive resume. 

Al Smith had a better smile!

If Al Smith was a poor-boy-makes-good story, Herbert Hoover was Horatio Alger on steroids. Poor Iowa farm-boy, orphaned by ten and foster raised by family members in Oregon, Hoover worked his way through Stanford University, became a mining engineer, a millionaire by thirty, and had consulting offices in six countries by forty. During WWI, he became a mega-philanthropist whose name was known far and wide. He also served as Secretary of Commerce for eight years.

The election was a no-brainer between the affable Smith, and the reserved Hoover with the stiff collar.

In retrospect, who was happier?

Journalists of the time believed that Smith might have made a decent President, but was defeated by the Three-Ps: Prosperity, Prohibition and Prejudice.

Prosperity was indeed a way of life in 1928, when even newsboys and garage mechanics could dabble in the stock market and double their weekly wages in a month – or less. Nothing succeeds like success.

Prohibition… the fly in the ointment. Hoover was a reluctant “dry” supporter; he had been accustomed to fine wining and dining for decades. But as law of the land, he was bound to support it. Al Smith was a loud and avowed “wet.” He liked a beer. His constituents liked a beer. No two ways about it.

But the Prejudice part. As the 20s continued to roar, the Ku Klux Klan of post-Civil War notoriety had a resurgence. Al Smith was not only an Irishman, but a Catholic, in a country still deeply connected to the Protestant faith and still not crazy about the Irish. Some insisted that if Smith became President, he would be taking orders from the Pope.

And if that wasn’t enough, Al Smith was also picturesque: flashy, undereducated, and a potential embarrassment compared to the cosmopolitan heads of state around the world.

He didn’t have a chance.


Stoddard, Henry L. – Presidential Sweepstakes: The Story of Political Conventions and Campaigns – G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1948

Troy, Gil – See How They Ran: The Changing Role of the Presidential Candidate, Free Press, 1991


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