Dolley Madison: Some Evicted Evening

Dolley Madison’s reputation as the most popular First Lady is enshrined for all times…except

Washington: The Summer of 1814

Whether he wanted it or not, President James Madison found himself embroiled in the War of 1812, in essence, the “second” war of independence from Great Britain.  England had been committing serious outrages on American shipping, impressing American sailors, and a host of other “crimes” that were enraging the populace. Armies were raised and English soldiers were once again poised to reclaim their erstwhile colonies.

President James Madison

Two years after hostilities began, the “war” was still being fought, and was coming dangerously close to Washington City itself. Things did not bode well.

The decidedly un-warlike sixty-three-year-old President Madison believed it was his duty to follow the lead of George Washington, and assume personal command of the army. He mounted his horse, and rode off toward Baltimore, less than a hundred miles from Washington. 

Prior to that decision, he and his wife Dolley had taken precautions to protect the physical treasures of the White House. They packed the important documents (before the National Archives, those papers were entrusted to the President), as well as the silver and other items of value, and sent them to places of safety.

One of the earliest images of the  White House

Madison further instructed his wife to remain in the White House until further notice. Believing evacuation was indeed inevitable, they arranged to meet at a friend’s home, several miles away in Virginia – once he sent word. Then he left for Maryland.

Dolley Leaves the White House

From the time Dolley Madison first came to Washington in 1801, when the widowed Thomas Jefferson became President, she became its social leader. As wife of Secretary of State Madison, their house was open for luncheons, teas, receptions, dinners and suppers nearly every day. She had a naturally gregarious disposition and a warmth that assured hospitality to all guests. 

When she became First Lady in 1809, hosting was magnified several times over in the White House. All officialdom – as well as visitors to the capital city – were welcome at her Wednesday Evening Soirées. No invitations needed. Just come!

On August 24, 1814, the day after Madison left for Baltimore, a luncheon was scheduled at the White House. The table had been set; food had been prepared. Nevertheless the tone was ominous, and residents (official and otherwise) were vacating in droves. Several sent servants to the White House with “regrets;” they would not be able to attend lunch. Some of the Madisons’ close friends sent a carriage and driver, urging Mrs. M. to join them.

Meanwhile, a concerned (but never panicky) Dolley Madison ran up and down the stairs to the White House roof every hour, looking through her spyglass down the road to Baltimore, hoping to see either her husband – or his messenger. She had checked and re-checked all the valuables that could be carried away – including the painting of George Washington that had been cut from its fame and entrusted to some passing merchants from New York.

The famous portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart.

Finally word came for Dolley to leave the White House, and proceed to their appointed meeting place. Her carriage and driver was waiting; her personal satchel was packed. They left. 

The White House in flames: 1814

Not long afterwards, British soldiers marched into Washington, and proceeded to torch the White House, and other federal buildings. En route, Dolley could look back and see red skies above a burning structure.

And The Rains Came

Providence, in the form of a hurricane (or at least a mega-storm) came later that day to quench the fire.

Having crossed the Potomac into Virginia, Dolley was spared the wrath or indignity of facing British soldiers – but not the wrath of God. The carriage and driver were pelted and soaked by the drenching rains, and nightfall impaired their view and bearings. They were lost.

The story continues (and there are several versions, by the way), that sometime later, as night had fallen, they spied a small farmhouse. Smoke from the chimney indicated it was occupied. Dolley’s soaking wet coachman knocked at the door and asked the woman if she might give some shelter to “his lady,” who was in the carriage. 

The rains came – hard and furiously!

The farmer’s wife agreed, and wet, tired, and likely disheveled Dolley was escorted inside, and invited to warm herself by the fire, and have a cup of  hot coffee. The grateful First Lady was happy to accept the hospitality. The two women spent a pleasant hour chatting away like old friends.

The Eviction of Dolley

After a time, the farmer’s wife introduced herself, and asked the name of her newfound friend. Dolley admitted that she was Mrs. Madison. “The Mrs. Madison that everyone is talking about?” asked the stunned farm wife. “I suppose so,” replied the FLOTUS.

The farmer’s wife became indignant. Obviously times had been tough for her, what with the war. She went on to complain vociferously that Mrs. Madison’s husband had HER husband out fighting instead of farming, leaving HER to muddle by the best she could – and she would not offer Mrs. Madison the hospitality of HER house!

She handed Dolley her wet cloak and sent her away. It is likely the only time that the popular Mrs. M. was asked to leave!

In due time, Dolley and her coachman found their way again and arrived at their “safe house,” to meet up with the President. It is said that when she told her husband of her run-in with the farmer’s wife, they both had a good laugh about it.


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

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

Moore, Virginia – The Madisons: A Biography, 1979, McGraw Hill

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James Garfield’s Tea House

The last physical relic of President Garfield’s death in Long Branch, NJ

The Beleaguered President

President James Garfield

James A. Garfield (1831-81) was a surprise candidate in 1880, mostly due to the vicious political infighting among various factions of the Republican party. Despite having been the youngest Major General in the Union Army, and having served for seven terms as an Ohio Congressman, he was virtually unknown outside of Washington – or Ohio.

The election was a squeaker. Less than 10,000 votes separated the candidates.

With all the trauma and drama of a fractured party, poor POTUS Garfield spent his first three months trying to fill his cabinet posts and other senior political appointments. It wasn’t easy, generally rancorous and alien to Garfield’s more accommodating disposition. It was also coupled with his wife’s severe case of malaria, only six weeks into his term.

Many depictions were etched of Garfield’s assassination…

Thus on July 2, he was eagerly looking forward to a summer vacation in New England. He had earned the rest.

Within minutes of his arrival at the Washington train station, he was shot by an assassin. He was taken back to the White House, and never left his bed again.

The Long Branch Connection

By 1880, Long Branch, NJ had become one of the premier summer watering holes in the US – along with Saratoga Springs (NY) and Newport (RI). Located in central NJ, it was an easy commute to both Philadelphia and New York, and it attracted a host of wealthy business industrialists. By the late 1860s, the attraction was magnified a thousandfold when General (and President) Ulysses S. Grant became a summer resident. To cement the drawing card, magnificent Monmouth Racetrack was built. Grant, while never a serious gambler, was a great appreciator of fine horses!

…And many depictions etched of his sickroom.

Meanwhile, Garfield languished for several weeks that summer of ’81, as infection set in on the wound from the bullet in his side that no one could locate.

By the end of an especially hot August, and despite the exhortations of hope and prayer, the POTUS (who always maintained his reason) had no illusions about his prognosis. He was dying and knew it.

He wanted to return to his Ohio home near Lake Erie – and “see the old folks” again. In rare consensus among his truculent medical team, they absolutely forbade the move: too far (500 miles), over the Appalachian Mountains – and most of all, it would be excruciatingly painful.

First Lady Lucretia Garfield

It was Lucretia Garfield who suggested Long Branch. The Garfields had been before and enjoyed it. Moreover, she had spent a month there recuperating from malaria, and extolled the curative powers of the ocean breezes. It was a shorter trip (250 miles), and no mountains, ergo doable – and if nothing else, the President would be cooler and more comfortable.

An old postcard of the Francklyn Cottage.

Arrangements were made. The Pennsylvania Railroad was happy to put a special train at his disposal. Charles Francklyn generously made his opulent “cottage” available. Every consideration was given to making the trip as comfortable as possible.

When a rough, rutted road, nearly a mile long, separated the train station from the Francklyn cottage, the Pennsylvania Railroad sent a special crew-cum-equipment to build a spur track right down Lincoln Avenue to the cottage’s front door – overnight. The entire town turned out to help however they could.

(top) Garfield’s last days; (bottom) The train at the Francklyn Cottage.

Despite all, Garfield died twelve days later. The train holding his coffin, now draped in black crepe, retraced it way along the spur track, to make the long slow trip to Washington.

Then the track was torn up.

The Tea House Connection

The Tea House is the only physical link to Garfield’s death in Long Branch, NJ

Oliver Byron was a resident of Long Branch. He was also a stage actor on Broadway. He obviously did well enough to live and own property in affluent Long Branch. Not long after Garfield’s death, for reasons known only to himself, he purchased spikes and ties and planks as souvenirs.

Then he engaged a local carpenter named William Presley to build a small cabin (about 10’x10’) from the planks, and painted it red, white and blue. Brown was sometimes quoted as commenting that since President Garfield was born in a log cabin, it was a fitting tribute. He put a couple of small tables and chairs inside, and occasionally served tea and pastry to “customers” willing to pay a small fee.

When Byron died, he willed it to Presley, who in turn willed to his son, and his son after him.

As might be expected, it became a rundown, faded and weatherbeaten eyesore.

By the 1920s, the Francklyn house burned, but later, a very small commemorative stone plaque was placed on the site. Another building stands there now.

The little Elberon train station on Lincoln Avenue, which was linked by the spur track to the Franklyn cottage, is still there, but has been remodeled many times over. Long Branch itself has undergone major renovations in the past two decades.

But Garfield’s Tea House still exists.

The Church of the Presidents is undergoing massive restoration.

It has been repaired after years of weather and neglect, kept freshly painted, and is properly and respectfully installed on the property of one of the last relics of 19th century Long Branch – The Church of the Presidents, which is presently undergoing its own restorations.

James Garfield and his wife had attended services there, before his lingering demise. So did General and Mrs. Grant – and a few other presidential visitors.

Garfield’s Tea House has finally found a suitable and permanent home. You can go and see it, but alas, no tea or cake is available. Yet.


Ackerman, Kenneth D. – The Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield. Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2003

Brown, E.E. The Life and Public Services of James A. Garfield, D. Lothrop & Company , 1881

Peskin, Allan. Garfield, The Kent State University Press, 1978

The Writers Project, WPA State of New Jersey – Entertaining A Nation: The Career of Long Branch – The American Guide Series, 1940

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Grace Coolidge and Helen Keller

First Lady Grace Coolidge and Helen Keller

Nearly 100 years ago, First Lady Grace Coolidge met a truly exceptional woman.

GC: Special Ed Teacher

Grace Goodhue Coolidge (1879-1957), a Vermont New Englander born to a middle class family, was the First FLOTUS who earned a full four-year college degree – from the University of Vermont in Burlington, where she graduated in 1901.

By the beginning of the 20th century, higher education for women was no longer the fringe issue it had been a generation earlier. Teaching, then as now, was one of the most popular (and socially acceptable) course of studies for women.

Grace Coolidge always maintained her interest in teaching the deaf.

Thus, by the time she graduated, Miss Grace Goodhue had opted to become a teacher, but had become interested in what today would be called “special-ed.” Perhaps influenced by Dr. Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, who had pioneered the cause of teaching the deaf, Grace was fascinated by its needs and challenges.

Grace Coolidge mastered American Sign Language.

Once graduated, she began working at the Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton, Massachusetts.  The curriculum for the deaf at that time mostly focused on developing proficiency in American Sign Language. Young Miss G. had mastered ASL, and became a popular teacher – mostly for younger children. She maintained her skills and her interest in the deaf throughout her life.

Helen Keller, Inspiration

Helen Keller (1880-1968) was the same age as Grace Coolidge, an Alabama Southerner born to a middle-class family. Born healthy and particularly bright, by eighteen months she was toddling around exploring everything and could form dozens of words.

Then she became very very sick. Many modern sources believe it may have been a form of meningitis. She survived, but was left blind and deaf. Hers would be a permanently dark and silent world.

Helen Keller and her magnificent teacher, Anne Sullivan

Arthur and Katherine Keller were naturally devastated by the crushing blow to their little girl, and spared no expense trying to find ways to help her. It became obvious early on, that while her sight, sound and speech capabilities were destroyed, her brain remained intellectually intact. She could learn – if there were some way, and someone, who could penetrate her disabled senses.

When Helen was around six, the Kellers became aware of, Laura Bridgman, a young girl similarly afflicted, but who had made prodigious strides to lead as normal a life as possible. Mr. Keller assiduously set out to find a means to unlock his little girl’s potential. He took Helen to consult doctors or specialized schools that could provide direction. This included an introduction and visit to Dr. Bell, considered the foremost exponent and devoted advocate for the deaf.

One road led to another and another, until finally it led to Anne Sullivan, a young woman recently graduated from the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Massachusetts. Miss Sullivan came to Alabama, and began what would become a 50-year relationship with Helen Keller. It took several months as the patient “Teacher” tapped finger patterns into the little girl’s hand. Then there was the miracle breakthrough when Helen realized that those finger games were words – and words had meanings. The door to her bright and inquisitive mind had been unlocked.

She learned Braille. Now she could read. She learned to use a typewriter. Now she could write. By touch-sensing a person’s lips and breath, she learned to speak fairly intelligibly.

Helen Keller was Phi Beta Kappa at Radcliffe University.

Around the same time Grace Goodhue was attending the University of Vermont, Helen and her indispensable companion, Anne Sullivan, went to Radcliffe College in Massachusetts. She was the first blind-deaf student to earn a college degree – and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa.

While in college, she wrote The Story of My Life. Her achievements and accomplishments made her famous. The book became a worldwide perennial best seller, reprinted in dozens of languages. Helen Keller would be on every “most admired woman” list for the rest of her long life – and she lived to be 88.

The iconic Miss Keller

Following her college education and her book publication, Helen became a star. She traveled extensively and lent her name and prestige to worthy causes from labor unions and woman suffrage to anti-militarism.

A Meeting of Consequence

The lovely Mrs. Coolidge

The rise of Calvin Coolidge, mediocre lawyer, Massachusetts politician and husband of Grace, was in many ways, a fluke. As Governor of Massachusetts (from the western part of the state) following WWI, he was thrust into prominence during a crippling Boston police strike. It earned him the VP spot on the Republican ticket in 1920. The unexpected death of President Warren Harding in 1923 made the unassuming Coolidges the most famous couple in the country.

The Coolidge time in the White House coincided with the Roaring Twenties and the rise of pop culture as we know it today. Throngs of newly minted celebrities – vaudeville stars, recording artists, moving picture actors, sports figures, etc., flocked to the White House to shake hands with the POTUS and FLOTUS – and maybe stay for lunch.

Helen Keller and President Coolidge

The much-regarded Helen Keller, now in her mid 40s (the same age as Grace Coolidge), was far better known, and when the opportunity arose for her to visit the White House, Mrs. C., a long time advocate for the deaf, was delight to meet her.

Helen Keller touch-reads the First Lady’s lips

Helen placed her fingers on the FLOTUS’ lips as Grace spoke words of pleasant greeting. A short film (silent) was made of that occasion.

If the two women kept in subsequent touch, it is unknown, but certainly not unlikely.

Helen Keller continued to make appearances, write articles and lend her name to a variety of causes for the rest of her long life.

And after her tenure in the White House, Grace Coolidge reactivated her association with the Clarke School and served on their Board of Trustees for the rest of her life.


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

Wikander, Lawrence & Ferrell, Robert (eds) – Grace Coolidge, An Autobiography, 1992, High Plains

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The Lincolns and the Showman

1862 was a horrible year for the Lincolns.

The Bludgeon Blow

The Sixteenth President

When he was elected President in 1860, Abraham Lincoln knew that the challenges ahead, as he put it, were “greater even than those of George Washington.” Problems abounded from the start, with seven states already seceded from the Union, and Fort Sumter already under siege when he took his oath of office on March 4, 1861.

First Lady Mary Lincoln

Mary Lincoln, the new FLOTUS, born and raised as a Kentucky belle, was well educated, cultured and a little snooty, believing herself well suited to leading the Washington social scene. But even before they entered the White House, Mrs. Lincoln was out-snooted by a group of Congressional wives who insinuated (at least to her) that she was “western” which they equated with low taste and sophistication. Then, of course, there were those who erroneously accused her of having southern sympathies.

Both Lincolns were navigating through very rough waters. Both muddled through their first year, with few triumphs and many headaches. But one thing they adamantly believed, was that the White House should still function as the strong executive nexus, both politically and socially.

Willie Lincoln died at only eleven.

Thus, in early February 1862, with the Civil war slogging away and casualties far more than anyone imagined, the Lincolns decided to host a gala affair. But coincidental to their plans, their sons Willie (11) and Tad (8) had taken ill with the usual childhood flus and fevers. The doctor assured the worried parents that the boys would recover. Tad did, but Willie developed typhoid fever and two weeks later, he died.

The bereaved Lincolns, particularly the emotionally fragile First Lady, never fully recovered.

Phineas T. Barnum: Showman

P.T. Barnum (1810-91), about the same age as Lincoln, was already a household word by the time Lincoln married in 1842.

Phineas T. Barnum, one of the great showmen of his time.

Early in his life, he discovered his unique genius for razzle-dazzle and showmanship, along with a world filled with “curiosities” that could be hyped into appearing even more curious. He was a whopping success, and owned a New York museum on Broadway that drew a half-million visitors.

Barnum and “General Tom Thumb” – one of his biggest attractions.

One of those curiosities was Charles Stratton (1838-83), a 3’8” little fellow, smart, personable, and in tune with Barnum’s philosophy of moneymaking. The impresario and star joined forces, and drawing upon an old English fairy tale called Tom Thumb, Barnum renamed his great attraction “General” Tom Thumb. The name-and-rank stuck and he was a hit from the start.

Possibly to keep the hype hyped, Barnum scoured the country, and discovered Lavinia Warren, a few years younger than “the General,” and about the same height. Nature took its course, and they fell in love.

General Tom Thumb and his bride Lavinia Warren.

By 1863, both were of marriageable age, and the pot-of-gold opportunities of a wedding between Barnum stars was much too good to ignore. This time, sheer publicity and hype were not necessary. The affections were real. Nevertheless, Barnum pulled out all the stops as well as his wallet.

An elaborate wedding was held in New York’s Grace Episcopal Church, and it is said that more than 2000 guests were invited. Barnum and Co. planned to go to Washington as part of a three-year honeymoon-cum-ballyhoo.

The Lincoln Connection

P.T. Barnum knew his business better than anyone, and could not resist the juxtaposition of miniature bride and groom and President Abraham Lincoln – all 6’4” of him. He contacted the President, whose sense of humor and good nature was already legendary. The POTUS was amenable to hosting a small post-wedding gathering. Nine-year-old Tad would certainly enjoy it, and it might be a pleasant respite for still grieving Mary Lincoln.

Mrs. Lincoln was not only willing to attend, but even selected a lovely fire screen to give to the newlyweds. It is also said that she shed her black mourning clothing that night and wore a pink silk gown for the occasion. Perhaps she did not wish to throw a pall on the happy couple.

The Problem With Robert

Robert Lincoln, the oldest Lincoln offspring, was not blessed with a sense of humor.

Robert Lincoln, the President’s oldest son, was nineteen in 1863, home on break from his studies at Harvard, and staying at the White House with his family.

Robert was (and always would be) a serious fellow of great reserve, who inherited little of either parents’ humorous inclinations. Perhaps, at nearly twenty and at Harvard, he may have been just a bit overimpressed by his sense of personal dignity.

Robert believed that this level of crass showmanship was far below the President and First Lady’s august position. He is generally quoted as saying, “No, Mother, I do not propose to assist in entertaining Tom Thumb. My notions, perhaps, are somewhat different than yours.” The President’s eldest son remained in his room.

The Reception

Tad Lincoln had a grand time!

Robert or no Robert, the President was delighted to play host, and treated the event with great courtliness. One attendee remarked on how graciously he bent down to shake hands with the “General,” and to lift the new Mrs. Stratton’s tiny hand to kiss it.

The guest list for this unusual event at the White House was impressive. Along with the family (sans Robert) and staff members, Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles were in attendance. So was General Benjamin Butler (never known to have much humor either).

Mrs. Lincoln enjoyed herself, perhaps having that brief respite from melancholy that her husband hoped for. Lincoln enjoyed it. And Tad had a grand time!

And of course, Barnum reaped the benefit!


Conroy,James B. – Lincoln’s White House: The People’s House in Wartime – Rowman and Littlefield, 2016

Donald, David Herbert – Lincoln – Simon and Schuster – 1996

Abraham Lincoln Greets General and Mrs. Tom Thumb

East Room: Reception for General Tom Thumb

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Harriet Lane’s Bracelet Story

Harriet Lane served as de facto First Lady for her bachelor Uncle, POTUS James Buchanan.

Little Orphan Harriet

James Buchanan was a brother among many sisters. Having received a solid education, he became a successful Pennsylvania attorney, elected to Congress at a young age, and rose in Democratic political circles. Since he never married, he became guardian or semi-guardian to several nieces and nephews, all of whom he treated generously and affectionately. 

But when his niece Harriet Lane (1830-1903) became completely orphaned at nine, she became not only his ward, but as near a daughter as he would ever have. He adored her, and she was devoted to “Nunc,” as she called him, for the rest of her life. 

Young Harriet (second from left) with President and Mrs. Polk – and Dolley Madison (far right).(LOC)

In her early teens, Harriet came to live with him in Washington, and attended the finest schools. She was a superb student, with a keen interest in the political scene. By her mid-teens, she had become a pretty, impeccably dressed and mannered young lady, accustomed to meeting and greeting politicians at the highest level.

Whether she was aware of it or not, she was being groomed for the role she would eventually play: consort/escort for a prominent figure. 

The Years Abroad

President Franklin Pierce appointed Buchanan to the Court of St. James

In 1852, James Buchanan was on the short list for the top spot, as he had been for the past three elections. Nevertheless, Franklin Pierce was elected President – a complete surprise to the country; Most people had never heard of him. A high-level position was definitely in the offing for Buchanan, a Pennsylvanian. He was definitely a Northerner, but many of his closest friends were Southerners.

Minister to the Court of Saint James was practically made for him. Independently comfortable, his appearance and manners were impeccable. His tact and political skills made him popular in England. When he brought Harriet Lane with him, she was around 23, attractive, educated and the perfect “escort” for her bachelor Uncle. 

The Queen had nice things to say about Miss Lane.

So popular was she, that both Queen Victoria and her consort, Prince Albert, were very much taken with her – and Her Majesty was sparing with compliments. 

The White House Years

The 1850s was an extremely turbulent time, with slavery literally tearing the US apart. Finding an “available” (i.e. electable) Democratic candidate in 1856 was a challenge.

Buchanan, well-known to officialdom, was a) from Pennsylvania, an anti-slavery Northern state; b) well-liked and regarded by most of his fellow Democrats, who also knew of his close ties with many Southern counterparts (i.e. he could be reasoned with.) But perhaps most importantly, he had been out of the country for four years – far from the fray and the fracturing. 

Harriet Lane was a popular White House hostess.

The Democrats could nominate the aging politician (he was 65) with a sigh of relief. Despite a surprisingly strong showing by John C. Fremont, the Republican first-time-ever nominee, Old Buck, as he was nicknamed, won easily.

Harriet Lane came to live with him in the White House, assuming the house management and social responsibilities traditional to the First Lady. It was not difficult for her; she had been trained for it. 

Prior to taking office, the President-elect discussed Harriet’s role with her. She would have complete charge of the place and the social scene. All her wants and needs would be provided – by him. He gave her a generous personal allowance, and indicated she could come to him for anything extra that she needed.

One caveat: “Other than the nominal bouquets or chocolates, do not accept any gifts, Miss Harriet. It would reflect badly on me.”

Harriet Lane was a close companion to her uncle, President Buchanan

Harriet duly promised, and expensive gifts – and even inexpensive trinkets – were declined graciously.

But Harriet was 26 in 1856, with an attractive appearance. Her wardrobe was stylish, and every new fashion innovation she espoused was immediately popularized. She was also considered a pleasant young woman, with many friends. Being the highly eligible niece of the President assured her of numerous suitors. 

The Picnic

One old story (repeated numerous times, by the way) tells of Augustus Schell, a wealthy young beau who came to the White House numerous times to court her.

One spring afternoon, he suggested a picnic along the banks of the Potomac……

It was a beautiful day, and they had a fine time. After their luncheon, they went for a stroll along the river bank, and Harriet spied a pretty colored pebble, and picked it up.  Some yards later, she saw another colored pebble, and began a small collection. By the end of their picnic, she had a half dozen or so pebbles in her hand.

When they returned to the White House, her smitten suitor begged Harriet to let him have the pebbles – as a souvenir of their lovely afternoon. She agreed, and handed over the little colored stones. 

A Few Weeks Later

“Nunc” said she could keep the bracelet.

Schell brought the stones to Tiffany’s, suggesting they might be made into a bracelet. The jeweler fashioned a suitable design: a slim gold chain, containing a half-dozen or so little colored pebbles – with a discreet diamond in between.

Some time later, her admirer returned to the White House with his “gift,” and begged Miss Lane to accept it. Harriet definitely liked the bracelet, but she had promised to decline gifts, and insisted she had to ask permission from her Uncle.

She explained to “Nunc” that the bracelet was merely pebbles found on the riverbank, and obviously of no real value. Buchanan acquiesced. So Harriet got to keep her bracelet. 

She conveniently had omitted the part about the little diamonds included – and years later was said to remark that “diamonds are pebbles, too.” 


Caroli, Betty Boyd – First Ladies: An Intimate Look at How 38 Women Handled what may be the most Demanding, Unpaid, Unelected Job in America – Oxford University Press, 1995

Henneman, John Bell (ed.) The Sewanee Review Quarterly – Longmans, Green & Co. 1905

Pryor, Sara Agnes Rice – Reminiscences of Peace and War – The Macmillan Co. – 1905

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The Hoovers’ Christmas Eve Fire

Most people know about the Burning of the White House in 1814….but in 1929?

The White House Hoovers

Few First Families were as well known, or came to the White House with higher expectations from their countrymen as Herbert and Lou Henry Hoover in 1928.

Not only was Hoover a world renowned mining engineer whose substantial fortune was all self-earned, but he achieved global fame as a mega-humanitarian, organizing aid to countries decimated during World War I. Once the US had entered the War, President Wilson summoned Hoover “home.” He had been living abroad for two decades. Assuming the position of Food Administrator, he managed to voluntarily save/increase food production by more than 15%, in order to feed our own military forces, supply our overseas allies, and help feed millions of starving Europeans as well.

With little if any serious political interests (or ambitions), he served as Secretary of Commerce to both Presidents Harding and Coolidge.

Herbert Hoover looked like a President in 1928

By the election of 1928, Herbert Hoover was well-poised to be the Republican candidate for president.

Meanwhile, his wife had achieved her own well-earned recognition via her humanitarian efforts – plus her deep and abiding interest in the Girl Scouts, where she served as its National President.

Hoover won by a landslide, and everyone expected great things!

Let The Bad Times Roll

In a private moment, during those months between election and inauguration, Hoover was known to remark to a friend, that he worried that the country might encounter a problem “he couldn’t fix.” He was not an economic maven, but the boom market of the Roaring 20s had become a concern to him.

Only six months into his term, the Stock Market tumbled, ushering in a decade-long deep depression.

But the Great Depression (as it would be called) did not happen all at once. The Stock Market crash in October was definitely an unsettling hiccup, but the weeks that followed were a more gradual slide – with even a few days indicating possible recovery. People were concerned – but not panicked.

That came later.

Christmas Eve, 1929

A rare photo of President and Mrs. Hoover with their grown sons and daughter-in-law.

Some six weeks after the Stock Market tanked, a holiday party for White House staff members and their families was scheduled for Christmas Eve, and the festivities were in full swing. Senior aides, their wives and children had been invited for dinner, with plenty of games, treats and presents for the children. The Marine Band was playing Christmas carols to entertain the President’s guests.

The West Wing caught fire on Xmas Eve, 1929. (LOC)

Around 8 pm, one of the White House aides checked the West Wing offices smelled smoke, investigated, and realized that the attic, in which was stored thousands of government pamphlets dating back to the time of Theodore Roosevelt (when the West Wing was built) had caught fire, possibly from electrical wiring or a faulty chimney. Everything was burning like a brushfire.

A messenger quickly alerted the President, advising that the Fire Department had been summoned and was already en route. The President’s staff, secretaries and Secret Service agents immediately ran to help remove important papers and furnishings. Insisting that he would go too, Hoover joined them. They physically crawled into the President’s office through a window to remove desk drawers filled with important files. A huge tarpaulin was thrown over the President’s desk.

President Hover personally helped salvage important files and documents. (LOC)

While the Hoover’s female guests were ushered to safety, Mrs. Hoover, always clear-headed, took charge of the children, evacuating them to a place on the other side of the White House, far away from harm. She made a game of waiting to see the fire trucks come and put out the fire.

The Fire Trucks Come

The fire had begun in the attic of the West Wing, where thousands of pamphlets were stored. (LOC)

Granted, the Christmas Eve fire was not nearly as severe as the one back in 1814, when the Executive Mansion was deliberately torched by British soldiers. Nevertheless, in 1929, it was a four-alarm fire. Nineteen engine companies, four truck companies – and 130 firefighters showed up to put out the flames, first breaking a domed skylight and part of the roof to let smoke out – and the water in.

According to White House archives, the below-freezing temperatures hampered the firefighters as ice formed around their efforts, which included pumping water in from more than five blocks away. A few firefighters were overcome by smoke and flames – but their injuries were considered minor and treated quickly.

The fire was declared contained, and completely put out by 10:30 that night.

Assessing the Damage

Interestingly enough, the White House was not insured. (That “oversight” would be immediately remedied!) An appropriation had to be rushed through Congress so proper repairs could be made.

The Executive offices had been severely damaged; the press office was ruined beyond repair; the roof, attic and floors were badly burned, charred and soaked. The walls, however, while water-logged and sooty, held strong.

Repairing the damage and making the West Wing offices fit for occupancy use took three and a half months. Hoover and his aides moved back in on April 14, 1930.

The President and Mrs. Hoover hosted another holiday party for staff members and their families at Christmas, 1930. The First Lady, to commemorate the unforeseen “events” of the previous year, had miniature fire trucks made to give to the children as Christmas gifts.

Much Much Later

The 2016 White House ornament. You can still get one!

Since 1981, more than 50 years after the West Wing Fire, the White House began offering specially designed and crafted annual Christmas ornaments, available to anyone willing to pay their nominal fee. Most of the ornaments commemorate structures, symbols and White House or Americana-related events.

In 2016, the White House Historical Association commissioned a “fire truck” to memorialize the Fire of 1929 – and Mrs. Hoover’s Christmas fire truck “gift” to the children.


Caroli, Betty Boyd – First Ladies: An Intimate Look at How 38 Women Handled what may be the most Demanding, Unpaid, Unelected Job in America – Oxford University Press, 1995

Hoover, Irwin Hood – 42 Years in the White House – Houghton Mifflin Co. , 1934–122416-20161224-story.html

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Lafayette’s Sentimental Journey: 1824-25

The Marquis de Lafayette was only nineteen when he was appointed Major General in the American Continental Army.

The Marquis: A Quick Background:

The Marquis Gilbert (with a pile of middle names) de Lafayette (1757-1834) was one of the wealthiest noblemen in France, orphaned early in life, and raised as a ward of the King. As such, he was well educated, including military training.

While still in his teens, he was infected by a passionate love of American independence. He outfitted his own ship, recruited a contingent of soldiers at his own expense, and sailed to America to volunteer. Arriving in Philadelphia in 1777, the 19-year-old Frenchman announced his “availability to Congress.” When he also advised that he and his men were volunteering and expected no pay, Congress was impressed enough to send him to General George Washington in Massachusetts.

George Washington and Lafayette at Valley Forge

It is assumed that Washington may have been surprised by his young “General,” but it did not take him long to recognize that the Marquis was indeed well trained, an excellent soldier, with a quick understanding of military command. By the time Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, Lafayette had become invaluable to the cause, and would forever be a hero to his American comrades.

The young Lafayette a little older.

He returned to France, but the ensuing years of the French Revolution, the “Terror”, Napoleon et al, were not particularly kind to him.

The Marquis: Fast Forward 50 Years

President James Monroe and the Marquis, both close in age, had been comrades in arms during the Revolution. Later in their lives, when Monroe served in diplomatic posts in France, they renewed their old friendship and indeed became very close. In 1824, now-President Monroe invited Lafayette to visit the United States, soon to celebrate its 50th anniversary as a nation.

Lafayette was happy to accept, and the country was overjoyed to welcome its favorite “adopted son” and rolled out the red carpet in all 24 states. The Marquis was honored in every one of them.

Citizen Lafayette – in his middle sixties.

Visiting each state, and many of the old battlefields he had seen decades earlier, was only a part of his sentimental journey. His old Commander-in-Chief, George Washington had been dead for nearly a quarter century, but other US Presidents were on hand to welcome their old and very dear friend.

John Adams, nearly ninety, had known Lafayette briefly during the Revolutionary War, and better as a diplomat to France in the 1780s. Old enough to be the Marquis’ father, Adams was in failing health, but sound in mind. They embraced warmly, although both could not help but marvel how the other had “aged.” John Quincy Adams was currently Secretary of State (under Monroe), and soon to be elected President in his own right. JQA had known Lafayette in Paris – when young Adams was a teenager.

Lafayette’s visit to Monticello to see an aging Thomas Jefferson was equally poignant. The two men had worked closely in Paris, in the run-up years to the French Revolution. The Marquis was an important Frenchman at the time, and Jefferson helped him draft the French Declaration of The Rights of Man. Their minds as well as their hearts were in tune, and the Sage of Monticello was delighted to escort the Frenchman around his beloved plantation – and his equally beloved University of Virginia.

The Tearful Reunions:

Remembering George Washington

While the tearful-but-joyous occasion between Lafayette and Jefferson also brought tears to the dozens of people come to witness the momentous reunion, arguably the most heartfelt visit was the Marquis’ journey to Mount Vernon, along with his son George Washington Lafayette, the namesake and godson of the Great General.

Lafayette-the-orphan, despite his enormous wealth, was understandably in need of a father figure, which he found in the person of his commanding officer, George Washington. The older, and colder Washington eventually melted in the warmth of Lafayette’s youthful charm and Gallic exuberance. His military ability and diplomatic skills won over his commander completely. Washington, with no children of his own blood, grew to love the Frenchman as a son he never had; to Lafayette, Washington was the father he never had. When the French “troubles” came, his son, George Washington Lafayette, was sent to live with President Washington, his godfather.

Both Lafayettes spent time and tears at Washington’s Mount Vernon grave, laying wreaths and reliving fond memories. They also visited Arlington, the home of George Washington Parke Custis, Washington’s step-grandson, who was an infant at the time of Lafayette’s victory in Yorktown.

America Honors Lafayette

Once the personal and private reunions were commemorated, Lafayette went on to visit all the states, which included eleven that had not existed when the Marquis first set foot in the US.

Every state welcomed him with parades and banquets, testimonials and honors of appreciation for all the Frenchman had done to help the US become its own country.

By this time, while the Marquis was still a reasonably wealthy man (by any standards), his fortune had been depleted substantially by more than thirty years of volatility in France. Many states presented him with large plots of land, hoping to tempt him to make America his permanent home.

Lafayette’s grave in France, honored by America.

Lafayette Park, across the road from the White House, is named him. The first city named in his honor (1824), and one he actually visited, was Fayetteville, North Carolina. Nine counties have been named for him, plus dozens of towns and cities, streets, schools, parks and related places of interest.

When France was threatened by World War I, even before the US became a participant, volunteer US airmen joined the Lafayette Escadrille, (part of the French Air Service,) with their famous quote, “Lafayette, we are here.”

His US honors far outnumber any memorials to him in his native country. But when Lafayette returned from his 1824-5 visit, he brought back a small container of dirt, with the express wish that he be buried, at least in part, on American soil.


Chernow – Washington: A Life – Penguin Press, 2010

Unger, Harlow Giles – Lafayette – Wiley Publishing, 2002




Posted in A POTUS-FLOTUS Blog, George Washington, James Madison, James Monroe, John Adams, Nifty History People, Thomas Jefferson | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments