Lady Macbeth On the Couch: Inside the Mind and Life of Lady Macbeth

A book review.

Lady Macbeth On the Couch: Inside the Mind and Life of Lady Macbeth by Alma H. Bond, PhD

Dr. Alma Bond does not suffer fools gladly. She is an insightful and hard-hitting author and demands an intelligent and discerning reader. Choosing Lady Macbeth, a semi-fictional character immortalized by Shakespeare, immediately selects her audience. Lady Macbeth, On the Couch: Inside the Mind and Life of Lady Macbeth is of course, a novel, but it is designed and treated like a psycho-biography. It is a book for Shakespeare lovers, Scottish history lovers, psychology lovers and even adventure lovers. But not for the faint-hearted.

What made Lady M. behave as she did? Dr. Bond, a psychoanalyst of no small accomplishments (both professionally and as an author of more than a dozen books) has researched the factual evidence thoroughly, as indicated by her extensive bibliography. She is further challenged by the fact that Sigmund Freud himself could/would shed no light on Lady Macbeth’s psyche.

Eleventh century Scotland was a violent, rough, superstitious country, reminiscent of the blue-faced near-barbarians of Braveheart.   A dozen kings had already been murdered by men who a) believed they had a better claim to the throne, b) thought they could do a better job of it, or c) because they felt like it. Prior to her marriage, Lady Macbeth was born into a royal line, and raised as a queen-to-be. She was abducted twice, abused, ravaged and treated as violently as the rest of her counterparts since her claim was just as good, if not better, than anyone else’s. Her marriage to Macbeth, which according to Dr. Bond, became a love match sometime later, and following the usual murders and mayhem. Perhaps Macbeth was merely her vehicle to achieve her birthright.

If the prophesies of Shakespeare’s three weird sisters were instrumental in Macbeth’s vision of his future, then too, Lady M had her own prophesy of a sort: the reinforcement of a childhood trait. If she set her mind to something, while others would waver, she would not. She was very proud of that steadfast quality, according to Dr. Bond, and, of course, much to her later regret, she did not waver. She pushed, she prodded, she cajoled, she challenged, she humiliated and did whatever she needed to do to set Macbeth on his quest for their throne, and his bloody and murderous decline into damnation and ruin. Once she realized her role, she could not live with the consequences any more than he could.

There is no weakness in Dr. Bond’s writing style nor in her psychoanalytical abilities. She is a fluent and articulate author. If there is any weakness, it is in the believability of Lady M as written. She is described as young, beautiful, sultry, sensuous and red-headed – shades of Rita Hayworth. The blue-faced bravehearts were a scraggly, snaggle-toothed grimy lot – male and female.   It doesn’t fit. Besides, the intensity of Lady M suggests Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca rather than Gilda.

The one question of Shakespeare’s fictionalized character that is answered (although not by Dr. Bond) is why the great playwright never gave her a first name. She is always and only “Lady Macbeth.” According to Dr. Bond, who is an excellent researcher, her given name was Gruoch.  Our beloved poet-bard, was likely aware of that as well. The name “Gruoch” alone is death to young, beautiful, sultry, sensuous and red-headed.   And he who created Juliet, Ophelia and Desdemona, names that dance trippingly on the tongue, likely could not stomach a Gruoch, which comes gaggingly up the gullet. What’s in a name, indeed!

Lady Macbeth: On the Couch, nevertheless is a fascinating into-the-mind-of book for those who want a challenging and interesting psychological expose.  And if you are a Shakespeare lover, even more so!


LADY MACBETH: On the Couch: Inside the Mind and Life of Lady Macbeth

Bancroft Press, 1914

ISBN: 978-1-61088-093-0

Available Hardcover, Paperback and Kindle

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Young Herbert Hoover’s Best Career Move

The story of Herbert Hoover is a true Horatio Alger story. Poor boy makes good through his own pluck and hard work. And a little bit of help along the way.

The Making of an Engineer

Herbert Hoover was an Iowa farm boy, completely orphaned by ten and sent to live with relatives in Oregon. He received kind and affectionate treatment from them, but as strict Quakers, they also instilled the values of diligent hard work and initiative. Hoover obliged. He studied first, did his household chores second, earned extra spending money third, and finally, if there was a little time, he could play. Or go fishing.

Young Herbert Hoover, about the time he entered Stanford University.

A summer job in an engineering firm while he was in high school gave him some direction for a future career in engineering. Stanford University had just opened in Palo Alto, California, and the tuition was free – if you could pass the entrance examination. (Even then, Stanford did not take dummies!) Since there were other expenses associated with a college education besides tuition, Bert, as his friends called him, took on a variety of part-time jobs to earn his room and board and books and modest spending allowance. He did everything from working in the registrar’s office to delivering laundry. Plus, he managed the baseball team. And became Class Treasurer. Needless to say, with all those part time jobs and activities, he became very well known on campus. His dormant leadership and administrative talents began to surface.

His class work did not suffer, either. His professors liked him and were delighted to encourage the shy young man whose diligence was worn on his sleeve. They were also delighted to introduce him to many mining and engineering executives who frequently visited the newly-created University.

Herbert Hoover 1898

Herbert Hoover, not long after he graduated from Stanford.

The introductions to those well-placed engineering professionals provided young Hoover with summer employment as well as future contacts.

Herbert Hoover: Graduation Choices

Herbert Hoover was well aware of his “aloneness” in the world when he graduated from Stanford. While his relationship with his Oregon family would always be cordial, he knew that they had done their best for him, and would/could do no more. His own natural brother and sister would be dear to him for the rest of his long life, but they could do little to guide his future. At twenty-one, he needed to chart his own course.


Wedding day

Lou Henry, at the time she married Herbert Hoover. She had an adventuresome soul, and would be a perfect companion.

Then there was another slight “concern.” He had become pleasantly acquainted with a fellow geology student, a Miss Lou Henry. Born in the same year as he, and also in Iowa, Miss Henry had already graduated from a Normal School (Teacher’s College) prior to attending Stanford. They were the same age, but she was a freshman while Bert was a senior.

Lou Henry Hoover was a “western” woman, who loved the outdoors, and was eager for the new, novel and adventurous life.

The two of them had bonded easily, despite her outgoing middle-class upbringing, and his introverted hard-working shyness. The two parted when Hoover graduated, but they agreed to correspond. It seems that Miss Henry’s interest in the bashful Bert had been apparent from the start.

And despite the introductions to some of the leading mining executives, there was no offer of a job for Herbert Hoover.

The Job Finally Appears

The only opportunity that seemed to present itself to the newly graduated Hoover was a bottom-level position in a gold mine in Nevada City, California: pushing a heavy tram cart loaded with ore for ten hours a day, at the sumptuous salary of $2 a day. Grueling work – especially for a Stanford University graduate.

One biographer would claim that taking that menial job was the best career move Hoover ever made.

Many of those Nevada City miners were from Cornwall in western England, near the Welsh border, where mining had been the family occupation for generations. There was nothing about mines and mining that these Cornish men did not know.

Young Mr. Hoover, not long after he embarked on a life that would make him a multi-millionaire by the time he was thirty.

They took a liking to the young college fellow with the moon-face. He was hard working and not snobbish, qualities they admired. He was also eager to learn. They were just as eager to share their decades of empirical knowledge with him: the kind of knowledge that cannot be learned in a classroom.

It would be said later of Mining Engineer Herbert Hoover, that he could “smell” a mine and intuitively determine  if it would be productive. He would always credit those Cornish miners for helping him develop those intangible instincts.

Herbert Hoover: Upward Mobility

Bert Hoover did not stay very long at the bottom of the mine, both literally and figuratively.   A few months was all that was needed.  The young “trainee” with the college degree was ready to move up.

From a $2-per-day job in 1895, his next position paid $2,000 per year, considered a sizable sum: nearly $50 per week. This was at a time that the average man made $20 or $25 a week, and could support a family.

Herbert Hoover was a hands-on mining executive. Many of his skills and “intuitions” were the results of working with Cornish miners at the start of his career.

Bert impressed his employers with his diligence and desire to get ahead. He was sent to remote regions of Australia for his next opportunity in a position considered far above his age and experience level. He did not disappoint. All the while, he maintained a correspondence with Miss Henry.

Finally, in 1899, after Lou Henry graduated with her own degree in geology, Bert Hoover sent her a long telegram telling her about a new position he had been offered. In China. He would be earning $40,000 a year, and he was only twenty-five years old. (The President of the United States only earned $75,000 a year!) Then he asked her to marry him.

Her reply was short.  She said “Yes.”


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

Mayer, Dale M. – Lou Henry Hoover, A Prototype for First Ladies – Nova History Publications, 2004

Smioth, Richard Norton – An Uncommon Man: The Triumph of Herbert Hoover – Simon and Schuster, 1984



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Chasing Grover Cleveland in 1886

History would come to regard Grover Cleveland as one of our most tight-lipped Presidents. The secrecy surrounding his nuptials would rank high on that list.

President Cleveland: Affianced for a Year

When Grover Cleveland (1837-1908) was inaugurated in 1885, he was a 49-year-old bachelor and looked the part: rotund (nearly three hundred pounds), scowly-faced, mustachioed, cigar smoking and obviously meaning business all the way. Naturally every Washington matron sought to introduce him to a potential bride, via their maiden aunts or widowed sisters or otherwise eligible ladies in their circles.

Frances Folsom was twenty-one years old when she became Mrs. Grover Cleveland – and First Lady of the land.

He did not rise to the bait. No one knew it at the time, but President Cleveland was already engaged to be married. The object of his affection was 21-year-old Frances Folsom, recently graduated from Wells College in Aurora, New York, and currently traveling in Europe with her widowed mother. For months there was no inkling that this marriage was in the offing, but shortly before the Folsom women were about to return, newspaper reporters in Washington began to suspect something was afoot.

It has never been completely documented as to what exactly tipped them off, but it may well have been the fact that Grover Cleveland, who had never owned a house before, had just closed on a large home in Georgetown. Real estate sales and purchases are public record. This was big news. Speculation was that the President was set to marry Emma Folsom, Frances’ mother, the long time widow of Cleveland’s former law partner and close friend. Nope.

By the time the Folsom women docked in New York, the cat was out of the bag. As the popular song  from the hit Gilbert & Sullivan operetta The Mikado went, “He’s Going to Marry Yum-Yum.” Frances was not only young, but she was pretty, had a nice trim figure, a peaches-and-cream complexion – and dimples!

The Wedding Behind Closed Curtains

The American public was delighted at the President’s marriage – and doubly delighted at his lovely choice.

The White House wedding between the President and the young Miss Folsom took place a week after she arrived. The mother-of-the-bride had absolutely nothing to do with planning the wedding. Neither did the bride. Their only “assignment” was procuring the wedding gown. The President did everything else. He hand-wrote the invitations - less than fifty of them. He arranged for the minister and the honeymoon. His sister, Rose Elizabeth, who had been serving as his hostess for a year, planned the menu and the floral arrangements. John Philip Sousa and the Marine Band had been summoned.

It has been suggested that the reason Grover Cleveland wanted the wedding in the White House was that he could keep it completely under his control. If it had been elsewhere, it would be difficult to arrange the privacy he demanded. As it was, the press, which by the mid-1880s had become increasingly intrusive, was specifically barred from attending.   The President refused all interviews, and insisted that Miss Folsom and her mother do the same. Ditto the White House staff.

Only a handful of people actually saw the ceremony of President Cleveland and Miss Frances Folsom. Newspaper artists made sketches from general information and imagination.

To make sure that the President’s wedding would remain private, he blackened the windows and had all draperies closed so no one could even peek in.  There were guards to keep spectators at a safe distance. The only small concession that was made, was sending a signal when the “I Do’s” had been said, so all the church bells in town could ring out the happy news.

Once the ceremony had been completed, the dinner served and the guests greeted and thanked, the President and the new Mrs. Cleveland changed into their traveling clothes, and slipped of the White House via a side entrance where a carriage was waiting to take them to their honeymoon train.

The Chase Begins

Newspaper artists had a field day producing romantic likenesses of the President and his bride.

Reporters are usually credited with having a “nose for news.” A special sense-of-imminent-activity. The reporters in 1886 were no different than they are today. The smelled an “escape” plot and were hot on the trail.

The President had not only arranged for a head start, but had further arranged that their train would not be in the station, but would be waiting for them a mile down the tracks, giving the new couple an added advantage.

A bunch of intrepid reporters with the deep expense-account pockets of their publishers chartered a private train for a “follow that train!” pursuit. They proceeded to chase the Clevelands to the Deer Park Lodge in the Catoctin Mountains in Maryland, about an hour from Washington, where they had settled in for a five day honeymoon.

The Honeymoon Watch

The proprietors of the resort were naturally thrilled to be hosting the honeymoon of the President of the United States, and had agreed to whatever terms he had demanded regarding his “privacy.” His cottage was in a secluded area, away from the main building, and far from the main road where he and his bride could enjoy a few days alone-together. So he thought.

The main house of the Deer Park Lodge Resort. The President and Mrs. Cleveland had a private cottage on the premises.

As promised, the “ghouls of the press,” as Cleveland would refer to them, were given no co-operation from the resort’s proprietor. That did not deter them in the slightest.

Some determined newsmen, armed with binoculars, shinnied up trees to get a better view of the comings and goings of the President and his bride. They bribed waiters carrying meals to the honeymoon cottage to lift the service covers so they could report “what was for dinner.”

When Cleveland took his new missus out for an afternoon in the nearby trout stream, banner headlines reported “Mrs. Cleveland Fishes.”

When it was reported that Mrs. Cleveland played the piano for the President, piano manufacturers around the country offered to “donate” a piano to the White House for the First Lady’s pleasure. All they wanted was the opportunity to publicize the “donation.” The President’s perpetual scowl was now etched.

The President was no longer a political figure. He was now becoming a celebrity and he did not like it one bit! But the new Mrs. Cleveland was as sweet as pie about it. Definitely yum-yum!


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

       Brodsky Alyn – Grover Cleveland: A Study in Character. NY, St. Martin’s Press, 2000

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

            Foster, Feather – The First Ladies, Sourcebooks 2011

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Civil War Medicine: Dr. Letterman’s System Evolves

Dr. Jonathan Letterman had devised, implemented and had gained success with a well-trained ambulance corps.  Then he turned his attention to medical practices itself.

Civil War Doctors and their Equipment

By 1860s, medical practice in America had barely evolved since colonial times. In Europe, however, both Louis Pasteur and Joseph Lister were poised to revolutionize medicine with their concepts of bacteria, germs and antisepsis. Nevertheless it would be decades before those theories were accepted as science in the United States.

Dr. Jonathan Letterman, the Father of Battlefield Medicine, pioneered the Civil War Ambulance System and then turned his attention to arranging medical instrument kits and field hospitals.

During the Civil War, medical doctors with varying degrees of training and competency enlisted in the both North and South. In the South, which was desperately in need of any amount of medical expertise, all doctors were welcomed. In the North, however, there was a rigorous hierarchy of army surgeons, medical doctors, assistant doctors and even nurses. The animosity and friction it caused was understandable, but it was frustrating.

Dr. Jonathan Letterman, who had a decade of experience as an army surgeon out West, was not about to brave the shoals of in-fighting, especially since doctors were urgently needed. He was, however, prepared to implement two system to improve the mechanics of medical practice, both of which were readily executed and accepted enthusiastically by the Army itself as well as the doctors.

The Civil War Medical Kit

Dr. Letterman pioneered and devised a standardized medical kit of various instruments needed for immediate surgery. The instruments were interchangeable so they could be easily replaced due to loss or damage.

Most army doctors, whether from within the Army Corps itself or as private recruits, brought their own instruments at the start of the Civil War. Some of those instruments were antiquated. Some were in dire need of repair. Unsurprisingly, many were lost or damaged in transport and on the battlefield. A good many were inadequate to treat the types of wounds inflicted by the bone-shattering minie balls.

Most doctors brought their own instruments at the start of the Civil War. Many of them were antiquated, damaged or lost.

Dr. Letterman’s prior experience as an army surgeon had inspired him to develop a list of basic medical tools that he believed were necessary to treating battlefield casualties. He believed wholeheartedly that a standardized kit was essential, along with a fully equipped medical wagon-per-brigade. Then the instruments could easily be transported, and more importantly, replaced if and when needed. Every doctor would then be equipped with all the tools he needed to meet all possible situations.

These medical kits contained various sizes and shapes of knives, scalpels, forceps, bistouries (long, narrow knives for minor incisions), curettes for scraping and cleaning, and lancets for making punctures. In addition, there were tourniquets, bone saws, chain saws, sutures and bandages.

Every Army Ambulance wagon was equipped with an array of medicines, vials and syringes for emergency treatment.

Each medical wagon was outfitted to contain seventy-six different medicines, dressings, medical books, and additional surgical instruments. They were further equipped with bedding, basins, vials, bedpans, basic food staples (hardtack and beef stock), kettles, plates, drinking vessels and spoons. When the extravagance of these supplies was raised, Letterman is said to have responded, “Lost supplies can be replaced, but lives lost are gone forever.”

Letterman’s Final Reform: The Field Hospital System

Shortly after the Second Battle of Bull Run (Manassas), Dr. Letterman introduced and implemented a system to provide a “dressing” station at the front, headed by one assistant surgeon from each regiment. Their purpose was to perform basic “triage”, and tend to immediate first aid and/or minor wounds.

To try to make some sense out of overcrowded, confused and often filthy field hospitals, Dr. Letterman organized a system to triage and treat casualties promptly and more efficiently.

The remainder of the medical staff would be organized into teams, and divisional field hospitals would be set up a few miles behind the lines. While people today are appalled by the lack of sanitation, it was a huge improvement over previous conditions.   With hundreds, and frequently thousands of casualties brought to these makeshift facilities, only the most skilled physicians would be permitted to perform surgery. It would be left to the others to dress wounds, handle the record-keeping, supply maintenance, etc.

Throughout the North, the precursor to today’s VA Hospitals were established for long-term care, which included battlefield illnesses and/or providing prosthetic limbs, etc. These would be solid permanent structures, rather than tents or makeshift facilities at the front.

While some doctors groused and complained that their experience was being slighted, both the Army and the senior medical professionals agreed that it was “a brilliant achievement in hospital management,” despite the lack of sanitation. Countless lives were no doubt saved.

Dr. Letterman’s models for Ambulance Corps, a standardized medical kit and wagon, and field hospital management would be the model for armies throughout the world for the next half century.


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

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FDR Glimpses the Future: 1920

In 1920, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was thirty-eight years old, and the Democratic party’s candidate for Vice President.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, VP candidate in 1920, poses with the Democratic Presidential standard bearer James M. Cox.

FDR: A Moderate Career

Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) was not a spectacular rise to success by any means. He had a rather spoiled patrician upbringing. His scholastic career at Harvard was satisfactory, but hardly the outstanding example of his 5th cousin Theodore Roosevelt, who was then President of the United States.

Since he passed the New York Bar prior to completing his course work at Columbia University’s law school, FDR never bothered to finish. He joined a prestigious law firm as a law clerk, and remained in that junior position for several years, with no advancement and seemingly little interest in practicing law.

On a political whim of the Dutchess County Democratic party, he was encouraged to run for the New York State Senate. He jumped at the chance, and possibly for the first time in his young life, found the perfect match for his hitherto untapped talents.

As a young man, FDR was a handsome, athletic six-footer. Most of his contemporaries considered him a political lightweight.

Roosevelt’s success as a State Senator was modest, but he managed to attract the attention of Louis Howe, a newspaper reporter whose political genius sniffed out FDR’s potential. He would become the “Jiminy Cricket” for the future president. It was a stellar matching of temperaments and talents.

During the 1912 Presidential campaign of Woodrow Wilson, FDR met Josephus Daniels, who liked the promising young man with the winning smile and memorable “name.” When Wilson won and Daniels became Secretary of the Navy, he invited Roosevelt to become his assistant. It was a position once held by now-Uncle Theodore (via marriage), a fact not lost on Franklin Roosevelt. He remained in that second-tier post for eight years. But then again, he was still very young.

FDR: VEEP Candidate in 1920

The election of 1920 did not augur well for the Democrats.   President Woodrow Wilson had served for eight years, two of which as the country was fighting “the war to end all wars.” Wilson had as many detractors as he had supporters, mainly due to his idealistic (i.e. unrealistic) vision for the country (and the world), plus his tenacious (i.e. intransigent) refusal to compromise, so it was said.

Louis Howe, a New York political reporter, was one of the few people who believed early on that FDR had presidential leadership.

Wilson had suffered a severe stroke in late 1919, but had recovered sufficiently according to one contemporary, to remain the leader of his party, but not enough to lead it. Nevertheless, Wilson hoped that the Democrats would turn to him once more – for an unprecedented third term. It was not going to happen, and there was no one waiting in the wings.

The Democrats eventually turned to a dark horse, James Cox, an Ohio newspaper publisher, as their standard bearer, and an equally dark horse, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, possessed of little more than charm and a memorable name, in the second spot.

In an oddball coincidence, the Republicans also chose a dark horse, Warren G. Harding, another Ohio newspaper publisher as their candidate, with equally “dark” Calvin Coolidge for Veep.

FDR: The Mirror Image

President Woodrow Wilson was a broken man by 1920. His stroke left him crippled and frail.

President Woodrow Wilson was a bitter man, somewhat inclined dispositionally, but overwhelmingly so after his stroke. He planned to sit out the election that (in his mind) repudiated him, and support no one. Convinced by others that a gesture from the President would be welcome, helpful, and mostly his “duty,” Wilson agreed to meet with Cox and Roosevelt in the mid-summer of 1920.

The Democratic candidates came to the White House and were ushered into the garden where the ailing President was sitting, and despite the warm weather, was wrapped in a shawl to keep his crippled left side from view. His face, however, was drawn and haggard. He had lost considerable weight, and he was never heavy.

But after the perfunctory greetings, Wilson came alive as he talked about his long-held dream of a League of Nations, an international forum to arbitrate the myriad issues that divide nations, and prevent the horrors of the Great War, as it was then called, from ever happening again.

Wilson had expounded on the League-dream-and-theme even before the end of the War. It was his brain child, and the culmination of his life’s work. His passion, coupled with the political reluctance of an equally intransigent Congress likely caused the physical strain that led to his stroke.

That passion so infected his party’s standard bearers that afternoon that they agreed to campaign enthusiastically for the League. They were soundly trounced.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt could not have known that day when he was thirty-eight years old, that he was facing himself a quarter century later: President of the United States, wheelchair bound, crippled by polio, covered by an old navy cape to conceal his withered legs. Like Wilson, his blood pressure was sky-high, with other ailments un-, or misdiagnosed, or perhaps just ignored. But oh, how he could rise to the occasion with the old spark when need arose.

FDR: Looking Backwards

FDR frequently covered himself in his old navy cape to help conceal his atrophied legs.

Of course FDR could not see into his future in 1920, but hindsight is always 20/20. It is easy to conjecture that the aging and ailing Roosevelt, in his private insights, may have thought about that long ago day from time to time, and saw himself.

Polio would cripple FDR only a year after that interview with Wilson. He would never walk again without crutches, canes or heavy braces on his legs. The forge of overcoming handicaps would change a charming-but-lightweight politician into an extremely potent leader whose irresistible optimism carried a nation through a Great Depression and an even greater war than the first one.

At sixty-three, the same age as Wilson had been in 1920, FDR was the prime mover and champion of a United Nations, a world organization dedicated to the same principles Wilson had espoused.

And FDR, like Wilson, and even Lincoln before them both, could claim to be a casualty of war.

Goodwin, Doris Kearns – No Ordinary Time – Simon and Schuster, 1994

Miller, Kristie – Ellen and Edith: Woodrow Wilson’s First Ladies – University Press of Kansas, 2010

Miller, Nathan – F.D.R.: An Intimate History – Doubleday & Company, 1983

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Andrew Jackson Introduces the Polks

James Knox Polk and his wife, Sarah Childress, had a match made by none other than General Andrew Jackson himself.

James K. Polk: Young Attorney

James Knox Polk (1795-1849) was North Carolina born, but Tennessee raised and matured. An unimposing man by stature, he was perhaps 5’6″ and slight of build. Perhaps 135 pounds. His lack of physical presence was compounded by his rather dour and bland personality. Bottom line: forgettable.


James Knox Polk was a physically unimposing man, but one of a diligent and tenacious ethic.

But he was diligent and tenacious, and became an attorney in Nashville. His success was modest, and he even became a court clerk for a while to augment his income – and presence. Whether he enjoyed the practice of law is subject to conjecture, however what he did enjoy was politics. It was said that despite his unimposing stature, he was a good orator, but even with that advantage, his rise was slow.

Jackson the Matchmaker

The one with the imposing stature, both physically and in persona, was Andrew Jackson (1767-1845), 6’1″ and at the height of his glory when Polk began to practice law.   Jackson had come to Nashville, Tennessee when he was twenty-one and just starting his varied career: law plus business plus land speculation plus horse racing plus plantation owning plus politics, dueling and other mayhem. He was a superstar from the get-go, and was elected Tennessee’s first Congressman.

the hero

General Andrew Jackson was a towering giant of history by 1820. He attracted a large following of young Tennesseans to his cause: the Presidency. Polk was among them.

When he became “General” of the Tennessee militia (more a political than military appointment), Jackson found his true calling and never practiced law again.

James Knox Polk was fortunate to meet Tennessee’s favorite son at the outset of his career, and the great General was happy to befriend the younger man, as he usually did with devoted “followers.”

Miss Sarah Childress

Sarah Childress (1803-1891) was born to Murfreesboro, Tennessee’s middle class, but middle class “educated”. Current events, newspapers and politics were part of the dinner table discussions. Visiting dignitaries passing through town were often invited to the Childress home.


Miss Sarah Childress was a well-educated young woman, deeply committed to her Presbyterian faith.

In keeping with the family’s focus on education (which included female children), Sarah was sent to a Moravian Female Academy in North Carolina when she was in her early teens. It was considered one of the finest finishing schools for young ladies in the South. Sarah learned the usual “womanly subjects,” plus a generous helping of literature, science, geography, philosophy, and mathematics. She was far more inclined toward the “other” subjects than the domestic curriculum. She never seemed to be fond of housewifery.

The Bachelor, The Matchmaker and The Bride

Possibly because of Polk’s lack of physical attributes, his unexciting personality or both, his success with the fair sex was as lackluster as his law practice. By his mid-twenties, he felt in need of the benefits of matrimony on all levels, but was at a loss on how to begin a courtship – or who to court.

Legend has it that Polk turned to his mentor for advice. General Jackson was known to be a devoted husband, who by that time, had been happily married for nearly thirty years.

“Look no further than Miss Sarah Childress,” Jackson is said to have counseled, adding that the young lady possessed all the qualities that young Polk would require for a happy union, commenting that she was “wealthy, pretty, ambitious and intelligent.”

The twenty-five year old man duly called upon the nineteen year old young lady, and within six months, married her. His career began to blossom as well.

A Match Made in Nashville Heaven

One of the few photographs taken of Sarah and James K. Polk. He died at age 52, only months after his term in office ended.

James and Sarah Polk would be married for a quarter of a century, until his untimely death at only fifty-two. Sarah would later write that in all those years, they never had a cross word.

Her attributes were indeed what Polk needed in his life: an intelligence that would provide him with companionship, much like the happy balance between John and Abigail Adams.

Perhaps the singlemost (albeit conjectured) reason for their contentment was the fact that they were childless. Childless couples tend to become particularly close. The Polks no doubt would have welcomed parenthood, but it was not to be. This fact, in turn, spared Sarah from the many female ills and ailments common with childbirth in the early nineteenth century. She enjoyed a long life (nearly ninety years), of remarkably good health. In addition, with no obligations and responsibilities “at home,” Sarah was free to accompany her husband when and wherever he traveled. He enjoyed having her along.

She would be among the select few Congressional wives who joined their husbands in Washington DC where Polk served for six terms, including a stint as Speaker of the House, during the Jackson Administration.

Despite Sarah’s well-remarked disdain for housekeeping chores like churning butter (“I can buy butter,”) her obvious intelligence and political acumen, plus her sultry good looks and glamorous-for-the-time fashion sense, she was well liked by both men and women. She could keep her mouth shut. Her opinions on political matters were reserved only for her husband’s ears.  And that included during her four years as First Lady.

Sarah Polk had discretion, perhaps the most important attribute she could offer to her husband. Perhaps Andrew Jackson sensed that part, too.


Anthony, Carl Sferrazza – First Ladies: The Saga of the Presidents’ Wives and Their Power, 1789-1961, Harper Perennial, 1992

Boller, Paul – Presidential Wives – 1988 Oxford University Press


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Mrs. Madison: The Widow Dolley

The widowed Dolley Madison spent the last decade of her life in poor finances, but rich in friendships.

Dolley by Gilbert Stuart

The Gilbert Stuart portrait of Dolley Madison when she was at the height of her good looks and popularity.

The Legacy of James Madison

James Madison lived to be eighty-five, frail and failing, but mentally alert.

James Madison was eighty-five years old when he died, frail, nearly blind from cataracts, but mentally alert. Montpelier, his once thriving Virginia plantation was failing, partly due to the vagaries of farming itself, partly due to his deteriorating health, curtailing his personal management, and mostly due to Payne Todd, his stepson. His wife Dolley had been a twenty-five year old widow with a two-year-old son when he married her more than forty years earlier. The Madisons would have no children together.

Payne Todd, was good looking and personable like his mother, given every advantage and opportunity, but it was clear from early childhood, that he was doomed to be a wastrel. By the time he was twenty, he was on the road to wine, wenching and wagering. As might be expected, he fell into debt, regularly turning to his gentle stepfather, who would shield the wife he dearly loved from the hard truth about her dissipated son. Then he would sell more acreage to pay Payne’s debts.  Dolley knew, but she did not know the half of it.

As James Madison’s life drew to a close, his overwhelming thought was to provide for his beloved wife. For some years, he had been reworking and annotating his papers, including the comprehensive diaries he had kept fifty years earlier, during the Constitutional Convention, which, in essence had turned an amalgam of not-very-united ex-colonies into a cohesive country. These diaries would be left to Dolley, with his explicit instructions: sell them for publication. He expected that they would fetch a substantial sum.

Dolley Madison’s Inheritance

The Madison estate in Orange County, VA, before it was restored to its former glory. It was too much for the Widow Dolley to handle.

Dolley could not run Montpelier alone, let alone profitably. In 1836, when Madison died, she was close to seventy, a considerable age at the time. Not long after her husband’s death, Dolley was invited to visit friends in Washington, where she had spent nearly twenty years at the pinnacle of society. She had been the leader of social Washington since the days of Jefferson, happy to extend her generous hospitality to any and all who wished to call.  She knew everybody, and everybody knew Dolley – and loved her. Then after Madison’s two terms as President, they returned to Virginia to spend twenty years of retirement in the rural countryside.

Realizing that she was a city girl at heart, The Widow Dolley decided to move back to the capital where she had spent her happiest years. She sold Montpelier and paid its debts, which included honoring Madison’s bequests to nieces and nephews. She herself was left in poor circumstances. Her health was being to show her advancing years, adding more troubles to her financial stress. She had no trusted family members to rely on for guidance and assistance. But she had those diaries – and hope that a publisher would be found.   Then she moved to Washington.

Hello Dolley!

The town had grown from a tiny village in Dolley Madison’s heyday, to a burgeoning city. Everyone was delighted to have Dolley back where she belonged, and it is said that the day she moved in to her little rented house on Lafayette Square, more than a hundred calling cards were waiting for her.

Photography was a new invention when Dolley was an elderly widow living in Washington.

But a commercial publisher was not forthcoming for the Madison diaries, but an old friend suggested that Congress might purchase them. Congress loved Dolley – everyone did. Her hopes rose again. And again, were dashed. Congressmen being Congressmen, they took their sweet time about it, dickering and bickering and referring the matter to committees.


Dolley’s son Payne Todd was a great disappointment. Congress wisely set up her funds as an annuity, so could not wheedle money out of his already impoverished mother.

Meanwhile the Widow Dolley was hard pressed for ready cash, and everybody knew it.  It was also no secret that her son Payne was largely responsible for her pecuniary difficulties. Congress would take nearly two years to finally complete the purchase of the Madison papers, but they also did her a great service. They arranged that the contract be paid as an annuity, thus insuring that Payne Todd would not be able to wheedle the money from his always doting, but seriously impoverished mother.

She was, of course, invited everywhere, and went everywhere. No Washington gathering was complete without Mrs. Madison, the virtual Queen Mother of society. Dolley was always delighted to accept invitations, but she could only afford to entertain guests once a month. But everybody came! No matter that her refreshments were simple. No matter that the once great lady-of-fashion still wore the old turban hats of yesteryear. Her delightful presence was sufficient to make every occasion an event.  Assorted great-nieces were invited and delighted to stay with their Great Aunt Dolley. The young girls had the enviable distinction of being under the wing of the one woman who could introduce them to every eligible young man in the capital. She had the reputation of being a superb matchmaker.

When she died at eighty-one, she was given the largest funeral ever before seen in Washington. She was a National Treasure, and everybody knew it. She was also the last link to the Founding Fathers, all now long deceased. She had known them all very well. And they loved her too.


  • Anthony, Carl Sferrazza – First Ladies: The Saga of the Presidents’ Wives and Their Power 1789-1961 – William Morrow & Co., 1990
  • Anthony, Katharine – Dolly Madison: Her Life and Times, Doubleday & Co., Inc. 1949
  • Moore,Virginia – The Madisons: A Biography , McGraw Hill, 1979



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