Nabby Adams: The Mastectomy

John and Abigail Adams’ daughter underwent a mastectomy when she was forty-four.

The Oldest Adams Offspring

abigail and john

Nabby Adams’ illustrious parents: John and Abigail.

The eldest of the four surviving children of John and Abigail Adams was a daughter, named Abigail (1765-1813) and forever nicknamed “Nabby.”   Somewhat withdrawn and shy by nature, she was bright enough, but never displayed the brilliance or intellect of either of her illustrious parents.

Nevertheless, she learned the domestic virtues and skills of a colonial woman and at twelve, had assumed substantive household activities. By this time, her father had been dispatched to Europe as diplomatic minister by a fledgling United States government.  John Quincy, Nabby’s younger brother and close companion, went with him. The long separations that John and Abigail suffered throughout the 1770s drew mother and daughter closer together.

When Nabby was in her mid-teens, she caught the eye of Royall Tyler, a local young man, recently graduated from Harvard. In those early days, romance and courtship was under the eye of everyone, and there was no such thing as a “casual date.” From the start, inquiries were made, and it seems that Mr. Tyler appeared unsatisfactory. There is some indication that Abigail’s sister March Cranch vented her disapproval. There is some indication that Abigail herself put the kibosh on it. There is definite indication that John Adams, far off in Paris, left the matter in his wife’s capable hands.  There is little indication, however, that either Royall Tyler or Nabby Adams had much to say about it, or that Nabby’s heart was broken past perhaps the slight wound stage.

Nabby Adams Smith


Nabby Adams was a stylish young woman in her late teens when she went to Europe with her mother. (from the Adams. Natl Historical Park)

In part to soothe whatever slight wounds she may have felt from the romantic breakup, and in greater part to be her mother’s companion, when John sent for his wife and she agreed to meet him in Paris, Nabby went with her. By that time, she was a young woman of pleasing looks and marriageable age.

Col. William Smith (one of a handful of “William Smiths” who pepper and confuse the Adams’ family tree) had been graduated from the College of New Jersey (Princeton) and had served as one of George Washington’s adjutants during the Revolution. Now he served as John Adams’ secretary. Ten years older than Nabby, he wooed and won her. Both John and Abigail were pleased with the match – a decision they would come to regret.

nabby husband wm smith

Col. William Smith was John Adams’ secretary while he was in Europe. He became the Adams’ only son-in-law.

Within a year of their marriage, the Smiths were now parents of an infant. There would be three more. They returned to the United States and settled in New York City, at that time  the capital of the new United States.  All went well. Then the capital was moved to Philadelphia, and William Smith was hard pressed to find stable and/or satisfying employment. Inclined toward the “quick deal,” he was always on the lookout for a speculative venture, and the couple spent many months apart while Smith set out to seek his fortune, which was never forthcoming. Nabby was hard pressed to keep food on the table. Her parents and her brother John Quincy helped where they could.

Despite the senior Adams’ change of heart toward their son-in-law, Nabby seems to have remained supportive, never speaking ill of him, and disdaining those who did. Eventually Abigail took two of their daughters to live with them in Quincy, Massachusetts – to spare her daughter the additional expense.

Nabby Becomes Ill


An engraving of the young Abigail Smith (nee Adams)

In 1811, when she was only forty-four and living in the “frontier” of upstate New York, Nabby Adams Smith discovered a lump in her left breast, along with a general malaise. Doctors were summoned, but medical knowledge was still in its infancy, especially in remote locations. They recognized the cancerous tumor easily enough, but were at odds as to how to treat it. When she finally told her parents, they insisted she come to Boston for better treatment.

benj rush

Dr. Benjamin Rush, a Signer of the Declaration of Independence and close friend of John Adams, was the one who insisted that Nabby Adams Smith undergo an immediate mastectomy.It bought her a little time.

It was Dr. Benjamin Rush, one of the best known physicians in the country, and a close friend of John Adams, who insisted that Nabby undergo immediate surgery. She would not survive otherwise.

Very little actual and factual documentation exists regarding Nabby’s surgery, other than that it was done on the kitchen table of John and Abigail’s house. She was also fully clothed for modesty, required only to expose her left breast. One can only surmise the event from similar experiences and procedures of that time.

To wit. The likelihood was that every spare piece of linen or cloth was brought to make her “bed” comfortable, and to provide dressings. It is also probable that every candle they had was brought to provide the best possible lighting. There was no anesthesia. Nabby may have had strong whiskey forced down her throat, if anything at all. If she was fortunate, she might faint and be spared excruciating pain. There was no antisepsis. Doctors were casual in washing their hands and instruments; more likely a wipe-swipe on their aprons. When the breast was completely removed, the doctors noticed that the tumor appeared larger and more widespread than originally believed, but they had done their best. According to Jim Olson’s excellent article on Nabby Adams’ Mastectomy, it took longer to dress the wound than it did to remove the breast.

Nabby’s recovery was long, mostly due to her weakened condition. She stayed in Quincy with her parents, and the family sustained themselves hoping that the operation had been successful. It was seven months before she was well enough to return to upstate New York.

But she was not cured. The cancer had metastasized even before her operation. Within weeks, Nabby’s brief remission-of-sorts had ended and she began experiencing assorted aches and pains, that at first were regarded as “rheumatism.” But it was not. It was the cancer returning with avengance.   In spring 1813, she returned to Quincy once more “to die in her parents’ home.” It was her choice. When she arrived, after an excruciating trip, she was a shadow of her former self.

Nabby died on August 9, 1813, a few weeks after she arrived. And, just she had wished, with her family around her.


Gelles, Edith B. – Abigail and John: Portrait of a Marriage – William Morrow, 2009

Levin, Phyllis Lee – Abigail Adams – St. Martin’s Press, 1987




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Jane Pierce: First Lady of Sorrows

Some people are born with a melancholy gene. Like Jane Appleton Pierce.

A Solemn Girl


Jane Appleton Pierce, First Lady 1853-57) was always a sad figure. The adjective used to describe her was “woebegone.”

There was nothing in Jane Appleton’s (1806-63) childhood that suggested merriment. She was a New Englander, her father a Congregational minister, and strict religious observance was key to her personality and character. But it was morbid devotion, inasmuch as she believed in a punishing God. Whatever ill befell her (as it must to everyone from time to time), Jane believed it was due to her own shortcomings – even though she couldn’t understand what it was she had done to displease the Almighty.

As she grew into womanhood, she was pretty, dark-haired and petite, with finely chiseled features. Pretty enough to attract a very good-looking New Hampshire attorney.

A Convivial Man

Franklin Pierce (1802-1869) was her polar opposite. Outgoing by nature, religion was acquired rather than bred into him. Yet it was willingly “acquired” and he sincerely tried to abide by its tenets.   He became a lawyer, and gravitated easily to the social end of it: i.e politics.

franklin pierce

Franklin Pierce was an outgoing and convivial man with many friends. He was the complete opposite of his wife, who led a much more secluded life.

He courted Miss Jane Appleton off and on for a few years. He seemed genuinely attracted to her, and every indication is that he truly cared for her. But they were a mismatch of personalities.

Her family was reluctant to encourage the romance; in fact they were not pleased at all. Rumor was, Pierce drank. Rumor was correct. Pierce enjoyed passing an evening with his fellows at the tavern, bending the elbow and talking politics.

The Pierce Marriage

The courtship may have been mild, rather than intense, but they married. Jane, by that time, was twenty-eight, and courted or not, considered an “old maid.” Franklin Pierce at thirty-two, was established firmly enough to win a seat in Congress as a Jacksonian Democrat. Their honeymoon was to be in Washington.

It began auspiciously, but deteriorated. The Washington climate in the 1830s was abysmal. Hot and sultry in the summer, damp and chilling in the winter. Jane, always frail, caught cold easily, and found herself confined to her boarding house rooms.

In addition, small town Washington (and it was still a small town) was nothing like small town Concord, New Hampshire. Washington was extremely sophisticated, worldly and, of nature, political. The few women who accompanied their Congressional husbands were not to Jane’s liking. If she went out at all, it was to church. When Pierce socialized, he usually went alone.

Subsequent Congressional sessions saw him alone as well. Jane remained in Concord, but this time she had a purpose. She was pregnant. In her limited world, the highest, if not the only duty of a woman, was motherhood.

jane and bennie

Following the deaths of her first two sons, Jane Pierce focused her life on her remaining son Bennie.

The true pleasure she felt from bearing her first son was short lived. The infant died shortly after his birth.

Her second son, Frank, was born healthy, as was Bennie, her third son. But Frank died before his fourth birthday, and all Jane’s hopes and dreams became centered on Bennie.

The Acquiescence of Pierce

More than anything (other than motherhood), Jane Pierce wanted her husband home with her. Not in Washington. She obviously made her wishes known, and Pierce, no doubt reluctantly, agreed. He would practice law in Concord and forsake politics – except on a local level.   He even declined a cabinet position under President James Polk. But of course, he would continue to correspond with many of his political friends throughout the country.

Then too, Jane wanted him to forsake drinking. He agreed to that as well and took the pledge. For a time he was the President of their local temperance society.

Jane may or may not have realized what a great effort it was on her husband’s part. He loved politics. He loved socializing in the taverns. But he obviously loved his wife more. Then.

When the War with Mexico was declared, Pierce was in his mid-forties, but he wished to serve and volunteered. It is unknown if he wished to have a respite from his generally somber wife.

The First Straw

By 1852, the country was reeling through abolitionism, secession, states’ rights and a host of other divisive issues. Pierce had been away from the national scene for a decade, and told his wife everyone had forgotten about him.


Fourteenth President President Franklin Pierce

Not true. Nor did he want to be forgotten. The political situation assured that no Southerner (slaveholder) could be elected. If the presidency was to go to a Northerner, it could only go to someone who was sympathetic to the needs of the South. Pierce was sympathetic, and encouraged his supporters to quietly promote his candidacy.

It took 49 ballots, but he won the nomination. He told Jane it was a complete surprise, and it is said that she fainted.   A few months later, he won the election. When she finally adjusted to the reality of the situation, she determined it was God’s will.

Only a few weeks before they were to depart for Washington, the Pierce’s and 11-year-old Bennie went to visit family in Massachusetts. En route, the train derailed, and their son was killed instantly.

Jane was completely devastated and never recovered from the shock.

The Second Straw


It is said that First Lady Jane Pierce spent many hours in the White House writing letters to her dead son.

It was a gloomy President-elect and Mrs. Pierce, still in deep mourning, who took another train to Washington in late February, 1853.  Along the way, Jane overheard some Pierce supporters discuss the nomination and election, indicating that Pierce had personally encouraged his nomination.

Her husband had blatantly lied to her. She had just lost her son, and now she lost faith in her husband’s word. She left the train in Baltimore, unable to continue. She would not arrive in Washington till a month after the inauguration.

Her four years in the White House were glum and morose. She wore black continually, made few public appearances, and relied on an aunt-by-marriage to “do the honors” when honors were required.

As their long-time close friend author Nathaniel Hawthorne would remark, “Jane Pierce 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.)

Shenkman, Richard – Presidential Ambition: Gaining Power at Any Cost – Harper, 1999





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Martha Washington’s “Disposition”

Martha Washington had very few memorable “quotes” – but one of them bears repeating. Often.

Martha Washington: Correspondent

Martha and George grave

Both George and Martha Washington are buried at their beloved Mount Vernon home.

When George Washington died in 1799, his distraught widow of more than 40 years systematically burned most of their correspondence. George Washington was the most famous man in the country, but Martha wanted to keep their privacy intact. This was not uncommon in those days. Letters between spouses were private, not for public consumption. Thomas Jefferson burned the letters between him and his wife shortly after her death. It is likewise believed that Mary Lincoln, nearly a century later, burned the private letters between herself and Abraham Lincoln shortly before they left Springfield, Illinois.

But if Martha Washington was not a prolific correspondent (a la Abigail Mrs. Adams), she was nevertheless regularly in touch with her family members, and many of the ladies she came to know during her “travels with George” during the American Revolution. Letters being the only form of communication other than face-to-face conversation, they played more than merely a keep-in-touch role: they were a form of entertainment, meant to be kept; to be read and re-read.

In a surviving letter to her friend Mercy Otis Warren, Martha remarks that she is “still determined to be cheerful and happy, in whatever situation I may be; for I have also learned from experience that the greater part of our happiness or misery depends more upon our disposition, and not upon our circumstances.”  It is more than likely that the comment itself may not have been not original to Martha, merely that she quoted it. But since she did quote it, and since it suggests so much of the Lady Washington that we know, it bears repeating.


martha young-2

Photographs did not exist in Washington’s time; this likeness is said to be the young Martha Washington.

One can use the word “circumstances” in many ways. Financially, Martha Dandridge was raised in comfortable circumstances. Her father was solidly middle class gentry. When she married Daniel Custis, she would never have to worry about money. Ever. He was one of the wealthiest planters in Virginia, and at his death, she inherited nearly 20,000 acres and a labor force of 300. And a house containing some of the finest household goods in the colony. And ready cash, too.

But sometimes “circumstances” are merely the capriciousness of fate. Martha and Daniel Custis had four children together. Two died before they were five. When Daniel died, she was left with Jacky and Patsy, ages four and two. Then she remarried.  These circumstances were kind.

George Washington would be the only father those little children would remember. They called him “Father,” and he was as affectionate and devoted to their well being as if they were his own blood. The Washingtons had no children together.

young GW

General George Washington – about the time of the Revolutionary War when he was in his forties.

When Patsy was fifteen, she died in an epileptic seizure. She may have had early childhood “fitts”, but they became more problematic and severe as she approached puberty. The Washingtons made every effort and spared no expense to find a cure for her affliction. As might be expected, Martha was devastated by Patsy’s early death.

A decade later, her son Jacky, now around twenty-seven with a young wife and four children, died from a camp-fever in Yorktown, where he was attached to the Colonial Army. General Washington raced home on his only trip to Mount Vernon during the entire Revolutionary War, to be at his stepson’s bedside, and to comfort his wife, who was profoundly grieved.

She had borne four children. She had lost them all.

Nevertheless, despite a perfectly natural depression following her children’s untimely deaths, Martha did not become “a depressive.” While it no doubt left a deep scar on her heart, she survived. When one thinks of the life-altering depressions of Jane Pierce (losing all three of her children), and Mary Lincoln (also losing three children), one cannot help recognizing the truth of Martha Washington’s “disposition-over-circumstances.”

More Circumstances


George and Martha Washington with her two grandchildren, George Washington Parke Custis and Nelly Custis.

Portrait of First Lady Martha Washington

The famous Gilbert Stuart likeness of First Lady Martha Washington.

Lady Washington, as Martha was known following the American Revolution, was by nature a homebody. She was a domestic woman, happiest at their beloved Mount Vernon, surrounded by nieces, nephews, grandchildren and kin-of-kin. She had always disliked traveling, and encamped with General Washington solely to please him.   Traveling was hard, cumbersome and at times, dangerous. Weather itself could be dangerous. It was wartime; her carriage might be intercepted by the enemy. Roads, where there were roads, could be hazardous to her carriage and the wagon of supplies she usually brought with her. Communication was difficult and could take days.

After the Revolution, both she and the General  returned to Mount Vernon and planned to remain there for the rest of their lives.

george and martha

George and Martha, as posterity likes to remember them.

But circumstances led to a divergent path. General Washington was still needed by the infant country he helped found, and in 1789 he took office as the first President of the United States. Like it or not (and she did not especially like it), Martha Washington would be needed in New York, and later in Philadelphia.

That same disposition that saw her through the deaths of a husband and four children, and that kept her cheerful during seven years of long separations from her husband, interspersed with the trepidations of long journeys, was a disposition that would win her many friends and acquaintances. Wherever she went, those she met would remark on her agreeable personality, and surviving letters are filled with kind words about the first First Lady.

Her distaste for her exalted position was well known to her husband, but she managed to hold her tongue and her pen…and remain “cheerful.”

It was her disposition.


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

Randall, Willard Sterne – George Washington: A Life – Galahad Books, 1997










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Frances Cleveland: The FLOTUS As Celebrity

When 49-year-old sitting president Grover Cleveland took a 21-year old bride, the country was enchanted.  

Frances Folsom: White House Bride

Adorabe Frances

Frances Folsom Cleveland was only twenty-one when she became First Lady.

New First Lady Frances Cleveland was not only young, but she was pretty.  She had a nice figure, a peaches-and-cream complexion – and dimples! The very antithesis of the grumpy looking and seriously overweight president.

At her very first reception, only a year out of Wells College, Frances delighted the crowds that came to greet her. She smiled easily, shook hands for hours on end (youth smiles on stamina), and had a kind word for all.

formal portrait

President Grover Cleveland

Within the month, she was the media darling. Letters poured with requests for her photograph. The White House ordered 10,000 photos to fill the demand. Within another few months, they had to re-order their supply.

The “Media” of the 1880s

After the Civil War, women began taking on an entirely new importance. Their activism during the Civil War had not only been impressive, it had been essential. They helped raise millions of dollars (North and South) for the war effort: planning dinners, fairs, dances, and bazaars . They organized hundreds of knitting and sewing circles. Most of all, they learned how to organize; how to spend their time effectively and efficiently; how to work together in committees – and some even learned how to speak in public.

To address this huge change in the public perception of women, magazines emerged  catering to those domestic issues: personal appearance, household management, child care, and even “suitable” hobbies. McCalls, Redbook, Ladies Home Journal and Good Housekeeping magazines made their initial appearances in the last decades of the nineteenth century – and are still around today. Supporting these magazines were thousands of advertisers of “womanly” and/or domestic products, from hand creams to the latest model sewing machine.


First Lady Frances Cleveland was featured on covers of dozens of magazines.

Immediately after the Cleveland marriage, the magazines were pasting illustrations and sketches of Mrs. C. on their covers – with or without President Cleveland. They quickly found that their circulation boomed with every issue featuring the new young FLOTUS.

“Frankie” the Celebrity

Frances as an ad

Her image was used to endorse all sorts of patent medicines…

To promote mega-interest in their products, advertisers commandeered the likenesses (implying tacit endorsements) of well known persons without their knowledge or consent – let alone any monetary payment. There were no laws against it.


…and undergarments…

Once the photographs of the new Mrs. Cleveland became available, they began appearing in magazines and newspapers, attached to advertisements for a broad variety of goods.


…and even chewing tobacco.

She was seen in ads patronizing sewing machines, fabrics, a piano, and any number of pills and potions, implicitly suggesting that the First Lady was using, or endorsing said products. One of the products said to be used (daily, no less) was arsenic, claimed to be a beauty treatment for her complexion. Of course Mrs. Cleveland never did any such thing.

Mrs. C. and the Children

By the time of Cleveland’s second term (non-consecutive), First Lady Frances had become a mother. Ruth was born between the Cleveland presidencies. Esther was first Presidential baby to be born in the White House. (Frances was pregnant at the time of Cleveland’s second inaugural.) A couple of years later, their third daughter, Marion, made an appearance – but she was born in their summer home.   Their two sons were born after Cleveland’s term ended.


Illustrations were made depicting the entire Cleveland family tacitly “endorsing” department stores.

Now, as a young matron still in her late twenties, Frances was receiving letters soliciting advice on child care. Now the magazine covers were sketching idealized portraits of the Cleveland family unit: Mother, Father and children in a garden, or at the dinner table. Department stores ran “tacit” endorsements of Frances and the girls “window shopping” at their stores.

There were still no laws against the President, the First Lady, or even the First Children being “commandeered” in such a fashion – without their permission.

According to the New York Times, “The problem became so widespread that one of the president’s supporters introduced a bill in Congress to prohibit using the image of any real woman without her express written permission.  The bill’s failure left the Cleveland’s with no legal recourse, so they could only plead with businesses, usually to no avail, to cease and desist.”

The President grumbled and groused about the intrusions, but the advertisers paid no mind.  The Clevelands continued to have their likenesses used commercially.

The End of the Era


President and Mrs. Cleveland had their photographs used to promote cigarettes.

Grover Cleveland’s second term was not successful. There were mounting issues, both domestic and international; some even pitted the conservative Democrat against members of his own party. Frances, of course, continued to be popular.

But once the second term ended, and the couple and their children “retired” to private life, the pervasive merchandising of their family dwindled. Cleveland, by that time, was sixty, and never considered “fashionable.” Mrs. C. was now occupied as wife and mother, and active in several community activities, such as the Kindergarten movement, and as a trustee for Wells College, her alma mater.

Cleveland’s health deteriorated, and he finally died at age 71. When Frances remarried a few years later (the first First Lady to do so), everyone wished her well, and for the ost part, forgot about her.


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

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

       Dunlap, Annette – Frank: (Frances Folsom Cleveland) – SUNY/Excelsior, 2009

            Foster, Feather – The First Ladies, Sourcebooks 2011


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Lucy Hayes and the Spectacular Dinner Service,

The White House, then and now, requires a huge amount of china place settings.

The Precedents of China


The Reagan Presidential Service is one of the most elegant ever created for the White House. It cost a mega-fortune, but was paid for with private funds.

Formal Presidential dinner services have always been needed for formal occasions since the time of George Washington’s terms of office in New York and Philadelphia. It is a mark of sophistication and elegance. It shows the world that the United States can hold its own among nations when it comes to gracious entertaining. Not only are traditional five-piece place settings required, but there are soup plates and bowls, including “handled” cream soup bowls. There are usually oyster plates. Plates for other fish and fowl. Service chargers. Serving bowls and trays. Dessert bowls and plates for any number of dessert types. Even finger bowls.

“Every day” settings (still elegant) are used by the President for less formal occasions. Then of course, there is a humungous need for cups, saucers and cake plates for afternoon luncheons, teas and receptions. The White House regularly replaces them by the gross – if not more. Today, the needs of a large White House staff, with its own need to feed and entertain, requires china services befitting the hosts and guest list. Despite all precaution, breakage occurs. So does “souvenir” hunting.

The Lucy Dishes

In 1779, First Lady Lucy Hayes found need to replace the Grant china service with one of her own.

pres rud and lucy

President and Mrs. Rutherford B. Hayes, a pleasant and morally upright couple.

Her tenure in the Presidential mansion had been one of mixed reviews: she was nice looking, charming, educated and morally upright. She was also firmly committed to “temperance” and no alcoholic beverages would be served in the Hayes White House, earning her jeers from the less morally upright personages of Washington.

Nevertheless, a new set of formal tableware was needed, and she decided to break all tradition with her choices.

hayesin conservatory

Lucy Hayes and her children in the White House conservatory. It was one of her favorite places, and the inspiration for her unique dinner service.

Lucy’s inspiration was to have the dessert service depict some of the ferns and flowers that were planted along the promenade to the conservatory – a “must see” tour following a White House dinner. Several manufacturers submitted estimates for the project, and Haviland & Co. of Paris and New York won the bid – for $2996.50, later revised to $3120.

Coincidental to the project, Theodore Russell Davis, an illustrator for Harper’s Weekly, one of the prominent magazines of the time, was visiting the White House, and by chance met Mrs. Hayes.  She discussed her “china” idea with him. The artist praised the concept, and according to William Seale, of the White House Historical Association, he “suggested that she go a step further and consider decorating the entire banquet set with American flowers and wildlife.”

The First Lady was fascinated. She immediately decided that while Haviland would manufacture the china, the design and supervision would fall to Davis. Davis was thrilled. It gave him a chance to be a creative artist as well as an illustrator. Harper’s Weekly was delighted, too. They donated Davis’ time to the project.

The idea of the service was to depict the flora and fauna of America the beautiful and bountiful. Dinner plates would be adorned with game animals, usually served at the most formal of banquets: deer in a forest, wild geese in flight, and even a buffalo falling prey to wolves. Fish plates, obviously depicted with shad, lobster, trout and even bullfrogs, would be for seafood. Plates featuring pheasant and quail would be used for game poultry. Soup bowls would be decorated with tomatoes, beans, buckwheat and corn. Fruit plates with apples, berries, pecans and persimmons. And the most original – ice cream plates – decorated with a snowshoe.

hayes china3

The artistic oyster plates were among the most copied designs.

hayes china2

A serving platter from the Hayes Presidential service, with its uniquely upturned edges.

Even more unusual and avant garde for the time, was the shape of the plates and bowls and trays. Rather than the customary round plates and oval or rectangular trays, the shapes were oddly fashioned, with upturned and under-curled edges and asymmetrically sculpted trims, all  decorated in gold. All in all, there were 592 pieces made, with 130 different decorations – suitable for a nine-course dinner. They were works of art, and so unique, that Haviland produced an 88-page catalog describing the china in detail.

When the service was finally delivered in 1880, Haviland-hallmarked and signed by Davis, the Hayes’ used it at banquets honoring President-elect James Garfield, and later at a dinner honoring General and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant who had recently returned from a round-the-world trip.

The Public Reaction and the Price Tag

The Hayes china service astonished the public, who, for the most part were accustomed to the traditional designs favored by more sophisticated Europeans. Some people thought it was magnificent; other believed it to be gaudy. Art critics were, well, critical. The service was seldom used by other Presidents. Many pieces today are in museums.

hayes china1

Reproductions of the oyster plates were among those allowed to be retailed in only the finest shops.

But it was (as might be expected) such an expensive service for the time, that the Haviland manufacturers found that they were producing it at a great financial loss. It was determined then, with artist Davis’ (and presumably the Hayes’) approval, that a limited number of modified sets of specific plates would be produced for public consumption, and retailed in only the finest department and jewelry stores in America. Those pieces bear a different hallmark on the reverse side, and are not signed by the artist.

It is said that Galt’s Jewelers, Washington’s leading jewelry store, was one of the retailers who were permitted to sell reproductions of the Hayes’ service. They had been one of the oldest mercantile establishments in Washington. Thomas Jefferson had been a customer. Mrs. Lincoln had been a customer. And thirty-five years after Mrs. Hayes purchased her dishes, the widow of Norman Galt, once owner of that prestigious landmark, became Mrs. Woodrow Wilson.


Landau, Barry H. – The President’s Table – HarperCollins, 2007

Rhode Island School of Design Museum:

Seale, William – The President’s House – White House Historical Association, 2008

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The Plot to Assassinate General Grant

General Grant was one of John Wilkes Booth’s targets on April 14, 1865.

Julia's book

The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant was published some seventy-five years after her death.

This is Julia Grant’s story, penned some 35 years after it occurred, and not known to the general public for more than a century.

April 14, 1865

The article had appeared in the newspapers. General and Mrs. Grant would join the President and Mrs. Lincoln at Ford’s Theater later that evening. The audience would be getting a double treat. Not only the President, but the Hero of Appomattox.

Julia Grant did not wish to go. She did not care for Mary Lincoln. Her husband complied, knowing that his generally agreeable wife was uncomfortable with the high strung First Lady. Besides, the Grants wanted to return to their rented house in Burlington, NJ to see their children, whom they hadn’t seen for several weeks.

Julia engraving

Julia Grant, about the time of the Civil War.

Some time around noon, a disheveled looking man came to Julia’s door with a purported message from Mrs. Lincoln. The message stated that the Lincolns would call for the Grants at exactly 8:00 that evening. Mrs. Grant detected an imperious tone that she found offensive, and told the messenger to tell Mrs. Lincoln that the Grants would be unable to accompany them.

Mrs. Lincoln had never sent any message, nor was she even aware of it.


Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth

Later that afternoon, while Mrs. G. was having lunch at their hotel with the wife of General Rawlins, Grant’s aide-de-camp, four unsavory looking men seated themselves at their table.  One of them, Julia believed, looked like the same man who had delivered the message. Another dark-haired, pale man looked vaguely familiar, and (according to Mrs. G. many years later) may have been John Wilkes Booth. The strangers made her uncomfortable.

Julia Dent Grant was not a particularly intellectual woman, but she was very intuitive, especially about her husband. The two were very close. They kept no secrets from each other. She made a point of telling the General about this peculiar encounter. He listened attentively and asked for a description. The description she gave seemed unknown to him, and he advised her to forget it.

The Trip to Burlington

the hero

After April 9, 1865, General Ulysses S. Grant was the most famous man in the country.

Burlington, New Jersey is a small town near the Delaware River. The Grant’s rented house there was about an hour from Philadelphia, a city where trains to Washington were frequent. General Grant had not been able to spend much time with his children during the past few months, and he missed them. Now he was planning to spend the Easter weekend in the bosom of the family he loved so dearly.

The Grants left Washington in the early evening. On route to the train station, their carriage was passed by a galloping rider.  He rode twenty yards ahead, then wheeled around and rode past, facing them. Julia recognized that same dark haired pale man she had seen earlier, the one who had made her uneasy. According to Mrs. G. “He thrust his face quite near the General’s and glared in a disagreeable manner… I noticed the General draw back as the man returned and came so close.

They continued to Philadelphia without incident. While they were waiting for the ferry across the Delaware River, they stopped for a meal. They no sooner sat down when a messenger came running up to the General with a telegram. Within moments, two more telegrams arrived. Grant’s face paled noticeably, and Julia asked if it was bad news. Grant nodded, and told her quietly that President Lincoln had been shot, and that he had to return to Washington right away.

He said he would take her to Burlington, spend an hour with the children, and then order a special train back to the capital.

The Following Days

The days following Lincoln’s death on the morning of April 15 were filled with grief and anger and despair. They were also filled with information.

Lincoln Hearse-1

When Lincoln was assassinated, the country was thrust into profound grief. His hearse was viewed by millions.

Almost immediately, John Wilkes Booth, a well-known stage actor, was identified as the man who shot the president, and who had spearheaded a complex conspiracy.  Secretary of State William Seward had been brutally attacked in his home that same night. Within a day, it was learned that Vice President Andrew Johnson had been targeted for assassination as well, but the assailant had cold feet and the plot was aborted. Several conspirators were hunted and found and eventually tried.  Four were hanged.

What is not known, however, is that the day after the horrific deed, Grant received an anonymous letter. He had directed Julia to open all telegrams and letters in his absence, and she read the following:

“General Grant, thank God, as I do, that you still live. It was your life that fell to my lot and I followed you on the cars. Your car door was locked and thus you escaped me, thank God!

Many Years Later

Older Julia

Julia Grant was around 70, and a widow, when she penned her memoirs. There were no publishing takers at the time, and it would be another seventy-five years until they were rediscovered.

According to John Y, Simon, who edited The Personal Memoirs of Julia Grant nearly a century later, in 1878 the General told a reporter about the incident, and added that he later learned it was John Wilkes Booth who passed them on the road. He also mentioned the letter, “but how true the letter was I cannot say.”  Many years after that, their son, Jesse Root Grant wrote that he had heard about the letter.  He had been a small boy at the time.

At the conspiracy trial, Michael O’Laughlin was accused of attempting to murder General Grant, but was acquitted. Grant testified, but made no mention of a plot on his life.  Between the Civil War and Lincoln’s assassination, perhaps there had been enough turmoil.

No further charges were ever pressed by General Grant.

As it was, the matter lay dormant and unknown until Julia Grant’s Memoirs were published 1975.


Grant, Jesse R. – In the Days of My Father, General Grant – Harper & Brothers, 1925

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

Young, John Russell – Around the World with General Grant, 1970, New York


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Lincoln’s Secret Spy: A Book Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jane Singer & John Stewart

Lyons Press  $26.95

ISBN-13: 978-1493008100

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