The Assassination Attempt on Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson

Political assassination has been around since Biblical times, if not longer.

Andrew Jackson: Public Figure

General Andrew Jackson was the ideal image of “The Hero.”

Andrew Jackson had been in the public eye since he was in his early twenties. As a Tennessee lawyer, planter, speculator, horseracer, duelist and legislator, he eventually became “General” Jackson, a militia title, and “Old Hickory” for posterity. With such a resume, it is easy to understand his huge number of followers – and  enemies.

When he became POTUS in 1829, he was sixty one, a recent widower,  skinny as a rail, white haired and practically toothless.

An idealized President Jackson.

By 1835, well into his second term, many Americans wondered how he lived as long as he had. At sixty-seven, the odds were that he would not survive his term. But Old Hickory was as tough as his nickname, and was now the crusading champion of dissolving the Bank of the United States, a controversial policy that had added long lists to his roster of detractors. The aging President, accustomed to having powerful political enemies, had become more paranoid than ever, and just as feisty. After all, he had participated in several duels over the years, with two bullets in his body as souvenirs.

Richard Lawrence, Assassin and Lunatic:

Richard Lawrence (1800?-1861) was born in England, but had migrated with his family to the U.S. when he was still a child. He had become a house painter, and was seemingly a solid citizen living in the Washington DC area.

By the early 1830s, however, it was apparent to Lawrence’s family that his behavior had become erratic, and downright peculiar. He ranted and raved, quarreled violently with family members and neighbors, left his job, insisted that he was the King of England and that the United States owed him vast sums of money. Then he insisted that such funds were not forthcoming due to President Andrew Jackson’s banking policy.

Speculation (since we will never know anything for sure) has centered on the possibility that exposure to the chemicals in the paint (perhaps lead poisoning) had affected Lawrence’s mind. Then again, many people painted houses in the 1830s with no ill effects on their sanity.

The Fateful Failed Shooting

President Jackson was in his late sixties, frail and toothless, when the assassination attempt was made.

It was January 30, 1835. The weather was damp and drizzling. Rep. Warren Davis of South Carolina had died a few days earlier, and there was a State Funeral Service at the Capitol. A frail President Jackson leaning on his walking stick, came to pay his respects. Richard Lawrence was lying in wait behind a pillar near the East Portico, ready to accost and shoot the President as he left the building.

Lawrence brandished two single-shot brass pistols. They were well made; the powder was considered to be excellent. As Jackson passed, Lawrence jumped out from behind the pillars, and fired his pistol at the President. The percussion cap resounded, but there was no explosion. The powder had not ignited and the pistol misfired. Legend has it that Andrew Jackson, exploded in rage, dropped twenty years, and once again became Old Hickory. He raised his cane, charged at the assassin, and began thrashing him soundly.

An etching of Lawrence’s attempt on Jackson’s life.

Lawrence fired the other pistol, this time at point blank range. Again, the pistol misfired. Meanwhile, some of those accompanying the President also had sprung into action, wrestling the assassin to the ground. It is said that western legend Davy Crockett was one of those who helped subdue the assailant. Lawrence was immediately taken to jail.

It was the first instance of a President of the United States being the target of an assassination. It is also the first (and only) time a President of the United States is reported to have fought back.  Maybe yes, maybe no – but it makes for a great story!

The Lucky Non-Shots. The Lunatic. The Trial.

The trial was short, and Lawrence’s lunacy was quickly determined.

Within a very short time, it became apparent that Richard Lawrence, the would-be assassin, was insane. When his pistols and his gunpowder were tested, the examiners were amazed to find them in good working order. They fired readily, and penetrated an inch-thick block of wood thirty feet away. The gunpowder was also said to be of good quality.

The fact that both guns and both shots had misfired puzzled the investigators, but they concluded that the gun had some history of being erratic in damp weather conditions. The day was definitely damp; the powder may have been affected. They also concluded that the odds that both shots had not fired were 125,000-to-1. Some said that Divine Providence had obviously been at work to protect Andrew Jackson.

Francis Scott Key was the prosecutor in Lawrence’s trial.

Lawrence was brought to trial a few months later. The prosecuting attorney was Francis Scott Key, of The Star Spangled Banner fame. It took the jury only a few minutes to determine that the defendant was “not guilty, by reasons of insanity.” He was still behaving preposterously at the trial, insisting he was King Richard III, or similar royal personage.

He was sent to Washington’s Government Hospital for the Insane, and remained there until he died in 1861.

Old Hickory and the Conspiracy

President Jackson, feeble in health, was still sound of mind – albeit a little warped. A lifetime of battling powerful political (and personal) enemies had made him paranoid and suspicious, particularly of long-time foes. He was always eager to believe that a nefarious plot was afoot, and that his enemies were always ready to conspire at mayhem. His decades-long animosity towards Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun led him to suspect that either or both were involved in his potential assassination, and had likely conspired with (or hired) Richard Lawrence to do their dirty work.

Some people insisted that Jackson had organized the attempted assassination himself to gain sympathy for his Bank policies, but that does not sound like Jackson, who never ducked an issue or a fight.


Meacham, Jon – America Lion: Jackson in the White House – Random House, 2008

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Montgomery Meigs: Civil War Quartermaster


Brigadier General Montgomery C. Meigs

The United States Army in April, 1861

On the eve of the Civil War, the regular United States Army consisted of 16,000 soldiers, most of which were deployed out west. Other than maintaining the always-touchy peace with the native tribes, there was little need for armed forces. The 1100 officers were, for the most part, West Point graduates, either fulfilling their obligations or pursuing a career.

The Quartermaster Department was miniscule. There was, of course the Quartermaster General. He was in charge of a mere thirteen clerks and a budget of about $4 million annually. This covered all supplies except for food and weaponry, which were assigned to other departments.

When the Union began to split following Fort Sumter, a full third of those officers resigned to re-enlist with the Confederate army. Meanwhile, President Abraham Lincoln called for volunteers.

With little mechanism in place for raising the kind of army that was needed, northern states were obliged to send their individual militias, most of which had little resources of their own. Private individuals were permitted to raise companies or brigades.  Governors were authorized to commission officers.

Within three months, the Union Army had 235,000 men in military service. By December, there would be 640,000. They all required  uniforms, shoes, tents, mess kits and sundries – and a means to transport them deep into rebel territory.

Montgomery C. Meigs: The Right Man for the Right Job

Whether Lincoln was a particularly good judge of ability, or he was incredibly lucky – or both – he found the perfect man to administer the mammoth job of supplying the army.


Montgomery C. Meigs met Lincoln shortly after he took office and impressed the new President, who promoted him rapidly.

Montgomery C. Meigs (1816-1892) was Southern born to a prominent patrician family. Smart and well-educated, he entered West Point at sixteen, and graduated fifth in his class. An engineer by training, and indeed by preference, he would spend his entire career associated with large public works. In the twenty-five years prior to the Civil War, he was engaged building forts, improving river navigation and aqueducts.


All the tools and component parts for the Union Army’s engineering projects, such as trestle bridges and corduroy roads, were part of Meigs’ Quartermaster domain.

When Lincoln took office, Meigs was a Major. He had come to Lincoln’s attention as the supervisor in charge of building the wings and dome of the U.S. Capitol building. Lincoln assigned him the unenviable task of attempting to provision the small force that was trapped at Fort Sumter. The project, of course failed, but not from want of effort. Meigs was promoted on successive days: first to colonel, then to brigadier general, and placed in charge of the huge task of provisioning the Union Army.

Engineers usually have a reputation for meticulous organization, with a temperament to match. Meigs was no exception. His detractors considered him stubborn, self-serving and thin-skinned. His admirers considered him scrupulously honest and an organizational genius.

Saddled with previous procurement scandals in his department, and determined to overcome them quickly, he instituted competitive public bidding for military contracts, which included speedy delivery of all goods. Bottom line: he would provide extraordinary service and exemplary results.

The Quartermaster Department: 1861

Little materiel was on hand when Brigadier General Montgomery C. Meigs assumed responsibility in June, 1861. One of his first orders of business was to determine what the needs were, and in what order they should be supplied. As he noted in his records, “men must be clothed before they could fight.”


Outfitting and supplying the Union soldier from cap to boots, and everything in his haversack was a mammoth task, since clothing and personal items were easily lost or damaged.

Under Meigs’ administration, detailed records was collected with an eye toward providing the kinds of statistics needed. A uniform wore out in four months; thus three uniforms per year must be procured for each soldier. Shoes barely lasted two months, requiring millions of pairs to be furnished. As the Civil War dragged on, the sheer numbers of supplies needed were staggering.

And if that were not enough, Meigs needed to create some standardized warehousing for all those supplies.

Military Transportation During the Civil War


Huge warehousing facilities to store all the supplies also came under Meigs’ purview.

Unlike the Confederate Army which obtained most of its supplies close to home, the Union Army had to ship its necessities deep into enemy territory.

For General George B. McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign into Virginia during 1862, Meigs would supply a 100,000 man army. Six hundred tons of clothing, shoes, tents, blankets and sundries would be necessary every day.


Horses, mules and wagons were also a part of the Quartermaster’s realm – and that included the tons of forage needed to maintain the animals.

Providing the various wagons and animals for transportation also fell under Meigs’ control. In one year, 200,000 horses were procured for the cavalry, 20,000 for the artillery; more than 60,000 mules were purchased to haul supply wagons. Each horse and mule consumed nearly twenty-five pounds of forage daily. The Quartermaster records indicated that more than half the daily provisions shipped to the army in the field consisted of forage.

Quartermaster General Meigs rose to the challenge of co-ordinating the efforts of private and public railroads. The department also organized a huge fleet of water transports, suitable for ocean, bay and river travel. Thousands upon thousands of wagons, plus the materiel for bridges, roads and infrastructure repair were also supplied.

The Quartermaster Department By the Numbers: 1865

Brigadier General Montgomers C. Meigs was the first government official in United States history with a budget of more than $1 billion.

A total of 3.5 million pairs of trousers, 3.7 million drawers and 3.2 million flannel shirts had been purchased and distributed.

The thirteen clerks of the Quartermaster Department in 1861 had grown to more than 650 by 1865.

At the end of the War, Senator James G. Blaine would comment that “Perhaps in the military history of the world there never was so large an amount of money disbursed upon the order of a single man … The aggregate sum could not have been less during the war than fifteen hundred million dollars, accurately vouched and accounted for to the last cent.”

Secretary of State William H. Seward’s estimate was “that without the services of this eminent soldier the national cause must have been lost or deeply imperiled.”


Henig, Gerald S. and Niderost, Eric – Civil War Firsts: The Legacies of America’s Bloodies Conflict, Stackpole Books, 2001



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Thomas Jefferson: Revolutionary: A Book Review

After two hundred and fifty years of mining the elusive Mr. Jefferson, one wonders what more could possibly be left to dissect…

Book Cover - Thomas Jefferson - RevolutionaryThomas Jefferson: Revolutionary is a complex dissection, albeit not for wimps or the casual reader of history. It is well written however, and will appeal to discerning readers outside the academic-and-related world. Looking at Mr. J. via the author’s crucible, it is a well-conceived and fascinating new view of one of the most fertile minds the country has ever produced.

Author and professor Kevin R.C. Gutzman assigns five separate concepts that commanded Thomas Jefferson’s intellect throughout his life: federalism (i.e. government), conscience (religion), colonization (slavery/race), the Indians, and his dearly beloved University of Virginia (education).

While most of the fine blurbs and recommendations already received by the author are from high-level academics, I am happy to add a non-academic voice to that throng.  Professor Gutzman would surely be delighted to have a few readers-for-pleasure among his fans.

I scoured to find Professor Gutzman’s personal definition of “revolutionary,” but I take the liberty to assign a humble and totally non-academic thought of my own: Revolutionary: the conceptual challenge of norms and ideas that have been in effect, not only in one’s own time, but sometimes for centuries.

Happily for posterity, the “revolutionary” Jefferson was a well-considered man, and never espoused the “down with” without providing an equally compelling “up with.”  Whether or not it was feasible is immaterial at this point.  In his case, it is truly the thought that counts.

Jefferson was a child of the Enlightenment, and arguably the most enlightened of them all. For two centuries, historians have found him “maddening,” “a sphinx,” “a mass of contradictions,” “an enigma” and you get the point… Some modern historians, who dedicate their entire careers to analysis-by-single-issue, usually fail to acknowledge whatever might be understood as a whole. Then of course, there is the sneaky feeling that Mr. J. did not wish to be so easily understood.

In “revolutionizing” Federalism (government), Jefferson had plenty of company, and that even included adversaries. After all, a government of-by-for the people had never been tried, at least never on such a large scale. Jefferson’s crystal ball into the future, however, may not have been as shiny as others. He envisioned a semi-utopia of yeoman farmers, generally left to their own devices, as the country expanded across the continent. He also believed it would take a hundred generations to populate it. It took perhaps, five.  And they weren’t all farmers.  And their own devices became divisive.

His thoughts about religious freedom, however, was not only revolutionary, but threatening. Some are still threatened by it today. As a deist, Jefferson advocated man’s right not only to believe, but to worship as he chose – or not – commenting that if a man believes in one god or twenty gods, “it neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” Perhaps he counted up the damage of religious wars over the centuries. Perhaps he believed that the yeoman farmers would be too busy yeoman-farming to be coerced into mandatory soul-saving attendance and taxation.

When Jefferson lived, slavery had been an institution in America for 150 years. The tiger by the tail. Believing that freeing black slaves was one thing; what to do with them once freed was another. How would they survive? There was widespread concern that all it would do is create a permanent under-class. Colonization (resettling freed slaves back to Africa, the West Indies or places elsewhere) was not his original idea, but would continue to be “on the table” as it were, and count as its supporters both Henry Clay and Abraham Lincoln a generation or two later. It never became an effective solution.

Thomas Jefferson’s interest in the Indians, the people who inhabited America long before the Europeans came, was not only sincere, but sincerely curious. While he was generally disdainful of Blacks as a race and as a culture, he was both respectful and appreciative of the Indians in all aspects, and hoped to happily assimilate them into American life. That in itself was not only revolutionary, but doomed to failure. He seemed to have little company from his countrymen in that regard. The general impression of Indians was savage, fierce, warlike, and people to keep as far away as possible.

Jefferson’s interest in education, in all its aspects, was revolutionary and lifelong. Basic free public education for all. Secondary education for the deserving. Scholarships for the intellectual cream. Down with pedantry and the rod, and up with engaging with the students in a collective assembly of the best and the brightest. Believing that an educated populace is the best protection of our freedom, he simmered the education pot for decades, until it became the food (make that dessert!) for his elderly mind and soul.

Mr. Jefferson was not perfect, but to paraphrase his fellow-Founder Benjamin Franklin, “he was a man, not a demi-god.” And since we cannot have perfection, posterity must be satisfied by his general excellence.

Gutzman’s book may be a challenge to read, but as the reader perseveres, it becomes thought-provoking and amazing as we recognize the heights that one intelligent mind is possible to attain. As Mr. J. looks down upon us from Mount Rushmore or otherwise, he would be pleased at Gutzman’s balanced evaluation of choices of subjects dear to his heart. The discerning reader will appreciate Thomas Jefferson: Revolutionary and enjoy it thoroughly!

Thomas Jefferson: Revolutionary: A Radical’s Struggle to Remake America

Kevin R.C. Gutzman

St. Martin’s Press, 2017

ISBN-10: 1250010802




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Julia Grant’s Eyes: A Love Story


Julia engraving

Julia Dent Grant seldom was photographed – and then, only in profile.

Julia Dent Grant was born with an eye condition medically called strabismus. People called “cross-eyed.”

JDG: A Plain Child

Strabismus is a common anomaly, and today, it is quickly and successfully corrected in very early childhood. But in the 1830s, when Julia Dent Grant (1826-1901) was growing up, that technology was in the far distant future.

Little girls, if they are plain, usually know it by the time they are eight. Julia was plain, along with having a wandering eye, and she was aware of it early on, but it never stopped her from being personable and warm-hearted. Bottom line: she was popular with her peers, and would always make friends wherever she went.


Young Mr. and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant

What Julia wasn’t, however, was academic. She spent several years at a St. Louis finishing school, but was never more than an “indifferent” student, by her own admission. Her eye problem understandably caused chronic eyestrain from close work. She learned to read and write and do arithmetic, of course, and even sewed a little and played the piano – but she was never tasked with pushing the scholastic envelope. If she preferred reading novels to Plutarch, sobeit. In the 1830s, academic achievement for women was not a necessity.

Julia’s Secret Engagement

Julia Dent Grant

Julia Dent Grant always knew she was “plain” in features. Grant didn’t care. He loved her anyway.

Julia Dent, was newly graduated and barely eighteen when she met Second Lt. Ulysses S. Grant, recently graduated from West Point. He had been a roommate of Fred Dent, her older brother, and it was love at first sight. The shy Grant found his soul-mate in the plain young woman with the warm heart and engaging personality. They could talk easily, and had an immediate affinity of heart and mind. From that point on, he only had eyes for her.

Only a few months later, Grant was re-assigned and was desolate at the thought of parting from the young woman he had come to love. He asked her to marry him.

Julia loved him, but knew there would be family obstacles. At eighteen, she was too young, and at twenty-two, so was he. In addition, Second Lieutenants were not financially stable, and prospects were poor at best. Grant could not refute those objections, so they decided to wait, and keep their engagement a secret. They did not know it at the time, but their “understanding” would last four years.

Grant wrote regularly. Julia was sporadic. Partly because of her eye condition, and partly because of her disinclination for letter writing, she wrote perhaps one letter to his five. With postal delivery still in primitive stages, the lag between letters could be weeks. Once the war with Mexico began, the lag-and-distance was even longer.

When Grant returned from Mexico, he was twenty-six, and a battle-hardened captain. Julia was twenty-two and old enough. Their affinity still held. They married.

Mr. and Mrs. Grant

Julia Grant_2

During the Civil War both Grant and Mrs. Grant became hugely popular.

Ulysses and Julia Grant were one of the true love stories among First Families. Three years into their marriage, however, Grant was assigned to the California-Oregon Territory shortly after the Gold Rush. It was not a place to bring a pregnant woman and toddler, so Grant went alone. Julia returned to St. Louis to be with her family.

The two-year separation was agonizing for Grant, who adored his wife and the children he barely knew. Once he returned, the Grants would never again be separated for more than a few weeks.

By the time of the Civil War, photography had progressed considerably, and everyone could afford to have a picture taken on occasion. Julia was well aware of her lack of beauty and her “wandering eye,” and frequently referred to herself as Grant’s “plain little wife.” The few photos she ever had taken were always taken in profile, since she had no control over her eye muscle that would not behave.julia-ltjulia-rt-profile

It was her left eye that was affected, although several of her photographs indicate that a right eye might be the culprit. This is merely because the photographic negative has been “flopped.”

The First Lady’s Eye

Julia and Ulysses

Cartes d’visite, or calling cards was popular in the mid-nineteenth century. Thousands were printed of the popular Grants.

By 1864, USG became the general of the Union, and an instant celebrity.  Plain or not, eye problem or not, so was Mrs. Grant. As a shoo-in candidate for President in 1868, they were a hugely popular First Couple. The White House, which had spent eight years of curtailed society due to the Civil War and the unpopular presidency of Andrew Johnson, was now ready to glitter in accordance with the Gilded Age. Both Grants’ photographs and cartes d’visite were in high demand, and Julia had spent decades ducking the camera.

With all the social contacts available to them, they had occasion to meet some prominent medical men. In the forty years since Julia’s girlhood, there had been substantial advances in eye surgery. Mrs. Grant was now advised that her strabismus problem could be surgically corrected successfully, easily and with little danger.

Julia was interested. She consulted a few eye specialists who concurred: the problem muscle could be repaired. She decided to undergo the operation, and made the arrangements to go to Philadelphia, said to have the finest medical experts in the country. She packed her bags.

Grant’s “Eye” Love You

The decision for eye surgery was Julia’s alone. Grant seldom interfered with her personal choices. But this particular decision unsettled him.

Shortly before the First Lady was about to leave for Philadelphia, she received a short note from him.

Dear Julia,

I don’t want to have your eyes fooled with. They are all right as they are. They look just as they did the very first time I ever saw them – the same eyes I looked into when I fell in love with you – the same eyes that looked up into mine and told me that my love was returned…

Julia unpacked her suitcase and cancelled her appointment.

She never had her eye repaired – or complained about it again.


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 – 2016, Koehler Books

Grant, Julia Dent – The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant: (Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant) – 1975, G.P. Putnam’s Sons

Ross, Ishbel – The General’s Wife – Dodd, Mead, 1959


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Dolley Madison’s Merry Party


James and Dolley Madison

The position of Secretary of State is the country’s premier diplomatic post.

James Madison and the Merrys


British Ambassador (modern term) Anthony Merry

Anthony Merry was the first British Minister Plenipotentiary (considered Ambassador) sent to the United States. He and his uber pretentious wife Elizabeth were pompous and snobbish, according to all who knew them, but in 1803, Great Britain was approaching the apogee of its Great Britain-ness, and the little backwater country across the pond was perceived as a punishment tour of duty.


President Thomas Jefferson

President Thomas Jefferson was rather obvious about his disdain for all things British, and the Merrys were no exception. They in turn, were enraged by what they perceived as deliberate slights from the President, who had invited them to a pathetically democratic (small ‘d’) dinner party.  No seating plan, a suspiciously offensive invitation to the French Minister (with whom their country was at war), no entrance “honors,” and other breaches of basic British etiquette. While it is always difficult to picture the usually hospitable and sophisticated Virginian as deliberately rude, the Merrys did have a point. President Jefferson’s dinner was a travesty, according to the Ambassador, who made no effort to hide his anger. He had been insulted, plain and simple.

James Madison was Jefferson’s closest friend as well as his Secretary of State. He was also an intellectual and cerebral man, who was put in an awkward position: loyalty to a) his friend, and more importantly the President of the United States, or b) his assigned duty as Secretary of State, to placate an enraged ambassador.


Secretary of State James Madison

Madison certainly needed to take his lead from the President, although he privately agreed that Ambassador Merry had righteous cause to be upset. European pompousness and pretensions have never set well with Americans, and in 1803, they set even less. But democratic or not, neither he nor President Jefferson was inclined to risk an international incident over trivialities.

Mrs. Madison’s Solution

Mrs. Dolley Madison was an adept hostess, and the widowed President Jefferson frequently called on her to do his honors when one of his daughters was unavailable. The Madisons occupied a fine residence near the White House, and the Secretary of State’s house had become a de facto center for entertaining social-political Washington.

After Jefferson’s fiasco at hosting Anthony and Elizabeth Merry, the Secretary of State stepped in to soothe the roiling waters as it were, and invited the couple to a dinner in their honor a few days later at their home, which was quickly becoming the place in Washington for meet-and-greets.

James Madison came from a well-to-do family with a thriving plantation in central Virginia, happy to have wagonloads of supplies sent from Montpelier to Washington, since all entertaining, official or not, was paid out-of-pocket by the host. Mrs. Madison held nothing back in her preparations for the Merry party; it would be damage control at its best.

The creme of Washington political hierarchy (save for the POTUS) were invited to an informal but sumptuous banquet. Mrs. Madison had an innate sense of classic style, and chose her wardrobe accordingly, elegant but simplistically democratic. Their table was set with their finest chinaware, crystal and silver. Meats and game, fruits, vegetables, baked goods and desserts were in profusion, along with fine wines.  And it was done in a way that still echoed and enhanced the American style that President Jefferson espoused. Some claim Madison offered his arm to Mrs. Albert Gallatin, the wife of the Secretary of the Treasury, although historian Paul Boller says not. Boller adds, however, that the guest list included a local haberdasher and his wife, said by Dolley, to be “good company.”

The Merry sense of august propriety was once again inflamed, and determined that it still wasn’t good enough for the British Minister’s etiquette expectations.

Mrs. Madison Charts A Course


The haughty Elizabeth Merry

According to First Lady biographer Lewis Gould (and perhaps citing Margaret Bayard Smith, a prominent Washington resident and guest at the party), the smarmy Elizabeth Merry took her venom out on Mrs. Madison, publicly sniping that the Secretary of State’s table was “more like a harvest home supper” than a banquet for the representatives of the most powerful nation in the world.

Dolley by Gilbert Stuart

The incomparable Dolley Madison, Queen of damage-control.

Dolley, being Dolley, did not miss a beat, smiling and remarking that the “profusion of her table that was so repugnant to foreign customs was merely due to the happy circumstances of abundance and prosperity in my country.” There is no indication that the Merrys countered that remark, but the British Ambassador and his wife never attended another function in the Jefferson White House.

Margaret Bayard Smith related this story some thirty years after the event, which may or may not be apocryphal, but the sense of it remains true to core: Dolley Madison was a diplomat in her own way. She could charm when she needed to, use wit and humor on occasion, and always, always be trusted to say and do the right thing.

For eight years, the house of Secretary and Mrs. Madison was the center of social Washington. It was there that Dolley fine-tuned her hosting skills and talents, and formed fast and lasting friendships with politicians of all philosophical persuasions.

When she became mistress of the White House in 1809, the White House would become center stage for society, and she would be Washington’s unchallenged social leader for the rest of her long life, and the epitome of charm and tact that all First Ladies try to emulate.


Allgor, Catherine, – Parlor Politics: In Which the Ladies of Washington Help Build a City and a Government, 2000, University of Virginia Press

Allgor, Catherine – A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation – 2006 Henry Holt and Company

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

Gould, Lewis L. – American First Ladies: Their Lives and Their Legacy – Routledge Press, 1996


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Robert Lincoln’s Secret Trip

Robert Todd Lincoln was a private man who assiduously shunned the spotlight.


Robert T. Lincoln: 1865

Robert Lincoln, the son of Abraham Lincoln, had neither of his parents’ outgoing personalities. He made friends easily enough, but he was a laid-back fellow, who treasured privacy and above all, his dignity.

Robert Lincoln

Robert Lincoln, about the time of his father’s assassination.

When President Lincoln was assassinated, Robert was twenty-one, and now man of the family. His future plans were aborted. Having been discharged from the Union Army, he had planned to return to Harvard Law School. Now, he would become a lawyer by “reading” law, still an acceptable legal education.

With his mother bedridden with grief, and a kid brother, ten years his junior and babyish at that, it was left to Robert to escort the funeral train and casket back to Springfield, Illinois, the home they would no longer call home. Then he came back to Washington to bring his mother and brother to Chicago, where they had decided to live.

Robert readily found a law firm to take him on (being a veteran, a Harvard graduate, and POTUS son of Illinois did not hurt). But living with a demanding and emotionally fragile and self-absorbed mother, given to loud weeping and wailing, plus a brother who was somewhat spoiled and abysmally educated, was intolerable for the young man’s ability to study. Much as he sincerely wanted to be helpful, he could not help them. He needed to help himself. He moved out.

Robert T. Lincoln: 1871

mary harlan

Mary Harlan Lincoln, Robert’s wife.

Robert Lincoln studied diligently and was admitted to the Illinois bar. He took a partner and opened a growing practice. He married Mary Harlan, the daughter of an Iowa Senator who he had courted since Lincoln’s Second Inaugural. They bought a house. They had a baby. He was now a proper Victorian gentleman, ready to mentor Tad, the brother he barely knew.

Meanwhile, his mother and brother had been living in Europe for three years. She had gone there to escape an embarrassing episode, to live more economically, and in large part, to see to Tad’s education that had been woefully neglected. Now they wanted to return. Robert and his Mary were delighted to welcome them to their Chicago home.


Young attorney Robert Lincoln

The welcome was short lived. Mrs. Lincoln Junior, who had previously enjoyed a pleasant association with Mrs. Lincoln Senior, now determined that close quarter living with her difficult and demanding mother-in-law was impossible. The relationship deteriorated precipitously to a point that she packed up, took the baby and ostensibly went to care for her mother now living in Washington. Obviously one house was not big enough to hold two Mary Lincolns.

Tad at 18

Tad Lincoln. Said to be the last photograph taken of the young fellow who died at only 18.

Then Tad sickened, worsened, and died at eighteen. His mother was understandably inconsolable and consumed by grief. And loud weeping and wailing.


Tad was buried in the Lincoln tomb, along with his father and two older brothers.

Once again, it was Robert Lincoln who escorted a funeral casket back to Springfield to be interred with his father and two child-brothers. He went alone. His wife inexplicably remained in Washington. His mother remained secluded in Robert’s house.

The Trip to the Rocky Mountains

By this time, Robert was exhausted. He was not sleeping nor eating well. He was estranged from his wife and child, the brother he had just begun to know had died, his mother’s grief was draining all his energy, and he could not concentrate on his law practice. He felt horrible. He consulted his doctor who quickly determined that Robert Lincoln was on the verge of a complete breakdown and insisted that he get away immediately.

mary in mourning

Mary Lincoln. Some claim that Tad’s death caused her the worst grief of all, since she was now virtually alone in the world.

In 1871, Sigmund Freud, three years younger than Tad Lincoln, would still have been in high school. But for several decades, medical interest in the psyche had been growing, and theories and treatments were becoming better known. Treating patients perceived to be mentally disturbed had become kinder, pulling away from shunning and isolation in dungeon-like facilities. There was also growing understanding that stressful situations and emotional strain could cause physical reactions.

Robert Lincoln’s doctor recommended a place in the Rocky Mountains that had been established for “troubled young men.” He believed he would benefit from a complete separation from his toxic situation at home, and in an environment where he could breathe fresh air, rest comfortably and have a respite from care, he would regain his ability to take charge of his life again.

Robert took his doctor’s advice. Telegrams were sent, arrangements were made and he departed, advising a friend that his “nerves were shot.” Instead of facing his mother directly regarding his diagnosis-decision, he sent her a letter. (One hopes he also sent a letter to his wife, now living in Washington with her parents.)

Much Much Later


Proper Victorian gentleman Robert Todd Lincoln.

It is interesting that with all the historical interest in Lincoln, Mary Lincoln and even Robert Lincoln, there is little available knowledge about Robert’s stay out west – other than the fact that he went, and stayed for a month – two weeks longer than he had planned. It is a gaping hole for many reasons, most notably due to his aversion to the public eye, maintaining his personal privacy, and being the de facto custodian of the Lincoln legacy.

In 1975, Robert’s personal file on Mary Lincoln’s insanity trial was discovered in a false-wall in his Vermont home. The trial which he truly believed was for her own protection, caused him unbearable anguish, and for more than a half century after his death at 83, history continued to portray him as a monster-son (his mother’s description) who had his mother “put away.” Among the letters and documents in that hidden file is the correspondence concerning his own private torments in dealing with his troubled mother. One could begin to understand what a burden it was to be the son of Abraham Lincoln.


Emerson, Jason – Giant in the Shadows: The Life of Robert T. Lincoln – Southern Illinois University Press, 2012

Emerson, Jason – The Madness of Mary Lincoln – Southern Illinois University Press – 2007


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Benjamin Harrison and the Body Snatchers

Grave robbing, and its cousin, body snatching has been around since

Grave Robbers and Body Snatchers

Archaeologists always sigh at the amount of priceless treasure and artifacts and history  lost over the centuries to grave robbers who search tombs and cemeteries for the remains of wealthy or prominent citizens for treasures that may have been entombed with them. Taking one’s valuables to the afterlife was a long-time tradition in many societies.


Anatomy students dissecting a cadaver.

Body snatching is somewhat different. This entails taking the corpse itself, a practice that had become widespread during the 18th and 19th century in America (older than that in Europe), mostly for the purpose of selling corpses to medical schools for dissection. Students had to learn. Cadavers had to be provided for anatomy classes.

Occasionally, a body might be snatched for truly nefarious purposes, such as the aborted ransom scheme to steal the corpse of Abraham Lincoln in 1876. When the martyred president was re-buried, it was in a steel lined casket, buried in a ten-foot deep crypt, covered by ten feet of cement.

John Scott Harrison: Son and Father


John Scott Harrison, son-of and father-of presidents.

The only man who holds the distinction of being both the son and the father of a president is John Scott Harrison (1804-1878), youngest son of the 9th President, William Henry Harrison, and the father of the 23rd President, Benjamin Harrison (by his second wife). While John Harrison came from a distinguished family (his grandfather was a signer of the Declaration of Independence), the low birth order and a couple of generations of large Harrison families had diluted their fortune. To wit, he was not wealthy.


William Henry Harrison, grandfather of Benjamin Harrison.

He had studied early on to become a doctor (much like William Henry Harrison had done), and gave it up to manage his property in North Bend, Ohio. He served for two terms as Whig Congressman in the 1850s, and past that, little is known of him. Until he died.

Benjamin Harrison: Lawyer, General and POTUS-to-be.

Benjamin Harrison (1833-1901) had an undistinguished youth-to-manhood, save for the fact that he  moved to Indianapolis and became an attorney of mediocre success. In a profession where young lawyers were dependent on referral scraps from established colleagues’ tables, Harrison received few opportunities or encouragement, since he had a reputation of being aloof, or a cold-fish, with few friends. He took on several paying-positions within the court system to augment his meager practice.


Benjamin Harrison, sandwich president between Cleveland administrations.

Then came the Civil War. Northern Governors were tasked to provide volunteer soldiers, and authorized to commission officers. Harrison duly set up a recruiting office, raised a regiment and was commissioned Colonel, despite the fact that he had no military experience. Nevertheless, he served with Sherman’s army capably, competently, learning on-the-fly, and with sufficient distinction to become brevet Brigadier General.

After his discharge in 1865, he returned to Indianapolis where being a lawyer, a Republican and a Brigadier General overcame his lack of personality. Having Grandpa WHH didn’t hurt, either. He became a political figure, ran-and-lost in some local elections, but at only 43, was considered someone to “keep a political eye on” in 1876.

The Death of John Scott Harrison

John Harrison died in 1876, and the family gathered to pay their respects. At the cemetery, however, one of Ben Harrison’s brothers noticed a nearby grave of a friend who had died a few days earlier. It had been visibly disturbed, and the Harrison family was suspicious of mayhem. They insisted their father’s coffin be covered with heavy rocks and cement prior to final interment, and engaged a guard to watch the gravesite for a month.

The next day, Ben’s brother John and a friend, accompanied by three policemen went to investigate the suspected grave-robbery of their friend, a young man in his early twenties, who had died of consumption. Their investigation took them to the Medical College of Ohio, a prime venue for receiving stolen cadavers.  The newspapers even reported that someone had seen “a stiff” wrapped in white cloth being taken into the school in the wee hours of the morning.

The janitor of the school hemmed and hawed, but the body of Augustus Devin, the fellow in question, could not be found. Young Harrison and his friend (and presumably the policemen) pressed on, and investigated further. Their snooping uncovered what looked to be a trap-door in an upstairs floor. When they pried it open, they were stunned to see a naked corpse suspended upside down by a rope, inside the shaft, obviously to hide it from prying eyes until it could be “utilized” by the college anatomy students.

But the amazing surprise was that it was not the body of a young tuberculosis victim – it was the body of their father, the 73-year-old John Scott Harrison! The body snatchers had obviously been watching the interment, and later drilled opened the casket from the “foot” end, pried the body out, yanking it by the ankles.

The Aftermath of the Body-Snatching


Twelve years after his father’s body snatching incident, Benjamin Harrison was elected president.

Of course it made the newspapers! The medical professors were unapologetic, insisting it was the only way sufficient cadavers could be obtained for research and training purposes. There were no answers and no indictments were brought. But the backlash was strong.

Benjamin Harrison, son-and-lawyer, filed a civil suit against the medical college, but Ohio’s Hamilton County Courthouse burned down in 1884, and all records pertaining to the suit were lost. It was also not an episode that the Harrisons were eager to share, particularly once Ben became a US Senator, en route to the White House in 1888.

But in reaction to the Harrison body-snatching, at least five states amended their grave-robbing laws to include stiff penalties (no pun intended) for illegal stiffs. Medical schools would thereafter rely solely on unclaimed bodies who had died in state care or institutions: paupers, the insane, orphans or prisoners.


Sievers, Harry J. – Vol. 2 Hoosier Statesman From The Civil War To The White House 1865–1888 – University Publishers, 1968




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