Woodrow Wilson and the Spanish Flu

Woodrow Wilson had delicate health from childhood.

Woodrow’s Delicate Health

If health problems were a major campaign issue a hundred or more years ago, it is unlikely that Woodrow Wilson would have been considered for high office.

Severe headaches, stomach problems and vague discomforts began early in his adolescence, and many physicians today believe them to have been caused by, or at least exacerbated by psychological stress, striving, thwarting, or other emotional issues. That would never go away. He complained frequently about not-feel-wells.

Then there were at least three un- or misdiagnosed strokes that he suffered before he was fifty. For some reason, he pooh-poohed the serious issues as “overwork” or “writers’ cramp”.

The President and his physician, Dr. Cary Grayson,

His White House physician, Dr. Cary Grayson (who became a close personal friend) noted his history as well as his arteriosclerosis and high blood pressure, and put him on strict healthy regimen. A bland diet. Fresh air and exercise. As much rest and relaxation as possible. Wilson felt better than he had in years.

The Spanish Flu

The Spanish Flu, circa 1918, was not Spanish. Some even say it originated in the USA and was “brought” to Europe by the American Expeditionary Force. The origins may be debated endlessly, but the upshot is that it was virulent throughout Europe toward the end of the First World War. It also  killed more people than the millions who died fighting.

Any influenza is not something to be taken lightly. Nowadays, most people who get it feel lousy for a week or so, and then recover. But if one’s health is already compromised (the elderly, the chronically ill, etc.) it can be a killer.

The Spanish Flu, more lethal than most, affected the already weakened without pity. It was especially hard on thousands of young soldiers, already debilitated by fetid, unsanitary trench living, by wounds, by malnutrition etc. It also decimated non-combatants, regardless of country, sex, or age who had suffered terribly from deprivation, exposure and starvation. It lasted for the better part of two years.

President Wilson, Possible Victim?

President Wilson in his best days.

Woodrow Wilson had truly tried to keep us out of war, but when it finally became inevitable, it came quickly. We mobilized and sent our military “over there” much faster than anyone believed possible. It has been said by most historians that WWI was won because the USA provided fresh troops for the exhausted European Allies.

President and Mrs. Wilson were treated like royalty.

President Wilson was determined to play a prominent part in the peace negotiations in Paris once the war ended. It was his passion and the culmination of his life’s work. Against 1918 tradition (sitting Presidents never leave the country) he decided to go in person. Against political and diplomatic counsel, he chose his own “team,” which most politicians faulted as skewed and poorly balanced. And against administrative counsel, his “support staff” was woefully inadequate.

Georges Clemenceau, Premier of France, cared little about lofty ideals.

British Prime Minister David Lloyd George didn’t care about lofty ideals either.

The hoopla and the fanfare and the parades celebrating “Weel-son” grew tiresome in short order. He found himself overly preoccupied with mundane chores (acknowledging bouquets, for example) that others, if he had brought them along, could have easily handled. He was not getting the rest he needed. The banquets were wreaking havoc on his delicate digestion.

And the wily European politicians were focused on blame and restitution, and cared nothing about the lofty ideals that had consumed Wilson all his life.

No wonder he fell ill.

How Sick Was The President?

The late 19-teens was still tied to Victorian times, especially medically. Doctors still had limited knowledge, and the conventional wisdom was to sidestep unfavorable information from all concerned, including the patient.

Treating casualties from the Spanish Flu

Dr. Grayson, who accompanied the Wilsons on their diplomatic mission, insisted to his counterparts, to the press, and even to Wilson and his staff, that the President was overworked, the weather was too damp, and that he was merely suffering from a severe cold. Administration personnel back in Washington were determined to keep any “grave situation” about the President’s health from the public.

But Grayson was seriously concerned. Wilson had a high fever and body aches and pains. He had a gagging cough and a sore throat. He was so weak he could barely sit up. Those symptoms strongly suggest “flu,” and since the virulent “influenza” was still rampant in Europe, it is easy to surmise that Wilson had the flu.

But others who were physically close to the President noted other symptoms, not usually associated with flu: forgetfulness, incoherence, inability to remember names of intimate associates, or even the purpose of his trip to Paris. He had suffered from strokes previously – and Grayson knew it. Wilson biographer Scott Berg indicated worrisome behavior, becoming testy and obsessed by minor details that seemed delusional, perhaps presaging behavior patters to come.

Was it the Spanish flu? Or did the President suffer another stroke? The two are not mutually exclusive, and high fevers can temporarily affect a patient’s cognitive ability. We may never know for sure.

What we do know, however, is that Woodrow Wilson had a long history of health issues that challenged and changed his personality. Nine months after his “flu,” he was futilely coaxing a recalcitrant Congress to ratify the Treaty he had signed on behalf of the American public – which included a League of Nations, his most treasured lifelong goal.

Tense and stressed to the point of nervous collapse, Wilson had a major stroke. Once again, the extent of his condition, prognosis, limitation and its consequences were smoothed over and withheld from the general populace. The powers that were had become very good at it.

President Wilson was seriously incapacitated for the rest of his term, and indeed until his death in 1924.


Berg, Scott A. – Wilson – G.P. Putnam’s Sons – 2013

Heckscher, Augustus – Woodrow Wilson: A Biography – Scribner’s – 1991

Smith, Gene – When The Cheering Stopped – Wm. Morrow & Co. – 1961





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The Death of Rachel Jackson, “A Being so Gentle…”

Rachel Jackson was almost a First Lady; she died a few weeks prior to Jackson’s inauguration. 

Rachel Donelson: The Three Marriages

When Rachel Donelson (1767-1828) was seventeen, she married Lewis Robards, a prosperous Kentucky planter ten years her senior. She was said to be attractive, with dark, flashing eyes and an outgoing, lively personality. Her family considered Robards a fine match and Rachel went willingly. It did not take long for her to discover that Robards was a jealous and abusive man, who perhaps confused her outgoing nature with flirtation. He, on the other hand, was known to have a violent temper, and a disposition toward infidelity. Rachel was unhappy. So was Robards.

The basic story goes that one of her brothers came, supposedly at the urging of Robards himself, to bring Rachel back to her mother’s house in Nashville. While there, she met one of her mother’s boarders, a lanky young lawyer named Andrew Jackson, who had recently come to make his home in Tennessee.

The attraction between Jackson and the unhappy Mrs. Robards was quick to flower – although it was claimed by all that nothing inappropriate ever happened between them, despite Robards’ continued violent suspicions.. 

Then the story gets very murky. What seems to be generally true (although in what order may be questionable), is that Robards and Rachel reconciled, and she returned to Kentucky with her lawful husband. But things did not improve, and the Donelsons (who had come to like young Jackson) asked him to bring Rachel back home – permanently.

Then things get even murkier. Rachel decided to visit friends in Natchez, then part of Spanish Florida, ostensibly to escape Robards’ wrath and/or any further reconciliation. Andrew Jackson signed on for the riverboat trip, ostensibly to protect them against Indians. He escorted Rachel to her Natchez friends and returned to Nashville, where he learned sometime later that Robards had petitioned for a divorce. Believing the divorce had been granted (seriously murky here), he hurried back to Natchez to marry his now-free Rachel. This was in 1791. They were both 23.

General and Mrs. Andrew Jackson

The new Mr. and Mrs. Jackson returned to live happily in Nashville, among a close-knit clan of Donelsons. That is, until 1794, when it was learned that the Robards divorce had never been finalized, thus the Jacksons were  “living in sin.” They immediately remarried on January 15, 1794.

Rachel the Reclusive

General Andrew Jackson. Statesman.

Even though the Jacksons married for a second time, and the Donelson family adored their brother-in-law, the scandal of Rachel’s divorce and possibly bigamous marriage to AJ changed then both.

Jackson, always a volatile sort with a mix of good points and bad points, became even more thin-skinned. Having as many foes as friends, those foes quickly learned that the fastest way to Jackson’s spleen was to talk freely about Mrs. Jackson’s “character.” He fought duels and carried bullets in his body defending her good name. He was also destined to be a public figure of national proportions.

The Jackson Plantation as we know it was not built till later in their lives.

Rachel became more reclusive. And then more reclusive. And finally reclusive enough to suit the name they gave to their Nashville home: The Hermitage. With no children of their own, she found comfort in the company of her large family and select friends, happy to be their beloved “Aunt Rachel.”

Although the Jacksons adopted a couple of children, and foster-raised a couple more, there has always been some indication that Rachel believed her empty womb was God’s punishment for leaving her first lawful marriage, no matter how miserable she was. And of course, periodic aspersions about her bigamy, her character, her adulterous marriage, etc., managed to bubble up from the murk (and Jackson’s enemies), and caused her added distress.

When Rachel Jackson was around forty, she became acquainted with Rev. Gideon Blackburn, a Presbyterian minister. Her religious fervor now deepened that reclusiveness. Later, at his wife’s request, AJ had a small adjoining chapel built for her daily devotions.

That Last Year: 1828

1828 began very poorly for Rachel. Lincoya, the Indian orphan boy they adopted when he was a toddler, developed tuberculosis and died. He was only 17. Rachel loved him dearly, and was devastated at his death. 

Her own health had been failing as well. Now, past 60, she had slowed down visibly, and tired easily. She had grown stout and puffy and was said to wheeze when she walked. Even then, early doctors suspected heart problems. Modern medicine concurs, although it is hard to determine if it was chronic angina, congestive heart failure, or otherwise.

Her depression grew throughout the year. Jackson’s growing likelihood as the next President deeply disturbed her.  She wrote a friend, “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the House of the Lord than live in that great white palace.” Like it or not, Jackson won the election.

Rachel acquiesced about going to Washington in order to please the husband she loved so dearly. She planned to take two nieces to handle the social obligations. She would remain secluded.

When she learned, either by reading a Nashville newspaper or by local gossip (everything is always murky with the Jacksons!), that in addition to the old adultery charges, people said she was unfit for the White House, and that she would bring shame to the presidency. She became hysterical, and friends brought her home.

A few days later, she suffered a major heart attack. Jackson never left her side. Legend has it that three days before Christmas, 1828, she insisted she felt a little better and that he get some rest. He went into to next room, and shortly afterward, she died, thus sparing him the pain of witnessing her last breath. Legend continues that Jackson held her for hours, hoping she would revive.

Rachel’s grave in the Hermitage garden. Jackson lies beside her.

Her funeral on December 24, was also legendary. Businesses throughout Tennessee were closed; church bells rang for an hour; 10,000 people came to the Hermitage to pay their respects to “A being so gentle and so virtuous, slander might wound but could never dishonor.”

Nevertheless, Andrew Jackson would never forgive those who he believed hastened her death.


Burstein, Andrew – The Passions of Andrew Jackson – Borzoi/Knopf, 2003

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

Remini, Robert V. – Andrew Jackson 1767-1821 – Vol. 1: American Experience – History Book Club, 998




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Lincoln’s White House: A Book Review

If one had to describe Lincoln’s White House: The People’s House in Wartime, one could easily call it a string of pearls encased in a Tiffany box. It is more than just a mere delight. It is a treasure that belongs in every Lincoln lover’s library.

James B. Conroy, the author of this gem, is not an historian by profession, or even a writer by profession. He is an attorney, but we do forgive him. He has managed to put together an eminently well-constructed book. Lawyers are usually excellent at the well-constructed. Conroy is also readable, detailing the ins and outs of the White House for four years of Civil War, the Lincolns, and Washington DC in general.

He has included drawings of the main and second floor of the White House as it was in 1861, which adds to the understanding of the book’s thrust. The better to visualize the areas upstairs (in those days before the West Wing) – where the President’s office was, where the waiting room was, usually filled with office and clemency seekers; the connection to his secretaries’ office; even the shared bedroom of his secretaries, Nicolay and Hay – and the long hall from the President’s Bedroom where Lincoln was said to wander from time to time, even in his nightshirt, to share a story with his secretaries, who he came to regard as family. 

The book flows effortlessly (and effortlessness always results from very hard work!) from the beginning of Lincoln’s presidency – even prior, with a walk-through and goodbye from President Buchanan. It introduces the House, its modest staff, its critical personae, and the facts of the matter: directing and managing the “irrepressible conflict” that was tearing the country apart, and likely unavoidable. Conroy discusses the myriad of visitors, mostly the “pigs at the teats” clamoring for office, and later, the heart-wrenching supplicants, sometimes on their knees, seeking pardons for their miscreant loved ones. It is usually said that the bulk of Lincoln’s wartime correspondence was devoted to clemency issues. 

Mary Lincoln, of course, rates more than just passing interest, or even the chapter Conroy assigns to her on her own. She had inherited a structure sorely in need of refurbishing. Little had been done since the mid 1840s, and the White House always gets a lot of wear and tear. Mrs. L. was never a popular First Lady, partly due to the War, partly due to her Southern upbringing, partly due to her well-known shopping habits and poor choices of companions, and partly due to her difficult personality. It is up to the reader to determine which “partly” belongs to which paragraph. Mostly, however, she tried her best.

The author relies heavily on the writings (public and private) of Lincoln’s young (under thirty) secretaries: John G. Nicolay, John Hay, and a lesser known William O. Stoddard. All of them were excellent diarists/writers, although Hay is the one who sparkles. They not only described the “what’s and when’s and where’s” but added in a lot of their own opinions as to the why’s. That in itself adds to the wonderful readability. 

Who knew, for instance, that while Mary Lincoln was in the Conservatory nearly every day, if Lincoln passed through once a year, it was a lot. While it is fairly well known that the 16th President had been ill with smallpox at the time of his Gettysburg speech, it is a revelation how really sick he was – and that calling it “variola,” a mild form of the disease, was more a public relations waffle (partly to ease Mrs. Lincoln’s anxieties). These are personal tidbits that make the occupants real, honest-to-goodness, easy to care about people, rather than the stuffy almanac facts that history students are force-fed and generally turned off by. 

Conroy has written his own personal “care-about” paragraph in his introduction (and I always read introductions, since it offers insights into the author’s thinking). He tells his own anecdote about a long-ago professor challenging him to “engage with the past and its purpose” and state his own purpose. Authors (including history writers) do have the liberty and responsibility of a point of view, whether you agree with it or not.

Lincoln’s White House does have a purpose, and it is told well. In Conroy’s hands, the House itself becomes its own main character, with its smells, its bones, its ghosts, its visitors, its politics and arguments and its towering sense of time, place, history, tradition and, hopefully, lessons.

The book is wonderful. Get it. Read it. Treasure it!

Lincoln’s White House: The People’s House in Wartime

By James B. Conroy

Rowman and Littlefield, 2016

Lincoln’s White House: The People’s House in Wartime,

Available HC/Paper ad e-book



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Lucretia Garfield: The Rough Road to a Happy Marriage

When the Garfields became First Couple in 1880, they had a solid and happy marriage, but…

…A Long Time A-Comin’

When James Garfield and Lucretia Rudolph married in 1858, they were both twenty-seven – and had been engaged for five years.

An early photo of young James and Lucretia Garfield

Both came from the “Western Reserve” part of Ohio, not far from Cleveland and Lake Erie. Both came from families of very modest means. Both were raised on farms rather than towns, and both were part of the Disciples of Christ evangelistic faith. Then there were the differences. James was only two when his father died, and his mother raised him and his three elder siblings alone. But James was an outgoing and warm-hearted fellow, and surprisingly smart academically. He grew to be a strapping young man – about six feet tall, two hundred pounds. With steel blue eyes.

Lucretia, or “Crete” as she was called by family, was petite, with a delicate figure that would never desert her – not even after seven children! She was introverted, raised by a family devoid of emotion or demonstrative affection. She would later write, “I do not think I was born for constant caresses, and surely no education of my childhood taught me to need them.” Education, on the other hand, was strongly encouraged – even to girls – and Crete had good mind for it.

She first met James Garfield when they were both around sixteen and attended the local Geauga Seminary.

The “Eclectic”

Crete’s father, an elder with the Disciples of Christ, was instrumental in founding the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute (later to be called Hiram College, and still later to be part of Case-Western Reserve). His daughter was duly enrolled, and studied a classical education, which included French and literature. It suited her, and equipped her well for becoming a school teacher, which she eventually became.

James Garfield was a surprisingly fine classical student.

James Garfield also attended the Eclectic, studying a more rigorous curriculum of Latin, Greek, sciences, mathematics and plenty of religion. He excelled, seriously considered the ministry as a profession, and was ordained and preached a sermon by the time he was twenty. He was also so prolific in his studies that he student-taught a few classes and was popular.

By 1853, it was noticeable that he was paying marked attention to Miss Rudolph. Their courtship progressed, and they considered themselves “affianced.” Sort of.

But the elders of the Church and the Eclectic believed that Garfield was “their future,” and thus deserving of a better education than their little college could provide. They arranged to send him to Williams College in Massachusetts, where there happened to be a large community of Disciples, to keep him on the straight and narrow.

The Williams Separation

The years Garfield spent at Williams College were seminal to him in many ways. He and Crete corresponded steadily, but his “straight and narrow” had a few bends and detours in the road. He became acquainted with other young ladies, one of whom seems to have been a more serious acquaintance. But the gals in his circle were apprised of his “engagement” and considered Crete as their “sister.” Garfield also became interested in politics, and was an ardent supporter of abolition.

Since Massachusetts was several hundred miles from the Western Reserve, he did not come back for vacations. Crete went there once in 1855, and then again for his commencement in 1856.

By that time, their relationship was somewhat strained, and Garfield suspected that Crete did not really “love” him. She felt neglected by a fiancée who spent little time with her. Undemonstrative like her family, the story goes that she was unable to convey her feelings verbally, but permitted Garfield to read a few select pages in her diary, where she admitted to her deep feelings. They finally married in November, 1858.

Separations of the Heart and Body

General James A. Garfield

Meanwhile, Garfield was steadily progressing in his career. He became principal and then president of the Eclectic, but discovering a better stepping stone to fame and fortune, began to read law. Then he was elected to the State Legislature, and spent much of his time in Columbus. And, despite their first child, born in 1860, he was as neglectful of his wife as he had been of his fiancée.

In 1861, when the Civil War began, Garfield entered the Union Army, and eventually became a Major General. There was another long separation. Then, in absentia, he was elected to Congress, but Since he did not need to take his seat until late 1863, he remained in the Army.

Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase

Pretty young Kate Chase looked good on Cong. Garfield’s arm.

For a while, he was assigned to Washington, DC, and stayed with Secretary of the Treasury Samuel P. Chase – a former Ohio Governor. Garfield soon attracted attention by squiring his lovely daughter Kate to various social events. Then, on a trip to New York, he engaged in a brief romance. Crete found out, and her errant husband confessed all to his patient, and very forgiving wife.

Meanwhile, she was obviously disappointed and lonely, and wrote him in 1863, that after five years of marriage, they had only spent twenty weeks together – and offered him a separation, if he chose.

The Ties That Bound

In 1863, three-year-old Eliza Garfield died of diphtheria. Both parents were devastated, and it is believed that their shared grief allowed Crete to respond to her husband in ways she had never been able to do before. She would write to him, “…our love has been made so perfect through this great suffering.”

The five Garfield children.

Crete began visiting him in Washington, but still felt disconnected. Finally, after living apart so much, and after his Congressional seat was secure, they built a house in Washington, and eventually had five more children (A sixth died in infancy.)

Whether Garfield chose to repair his precarious marriage because it would reflect poorly on his political future is undocumented. Nevertheless, the couple found common bonds in their scholarly pursuits, delighted in their children, joined several Washington literary clubs, attended the theater frequently…and in other words, became a strong and loving family till death did they part.

President Garfield was assassinated in 1881. She survived him by nearly forty years.


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FDR and Crown Princess Martha of Norway

A month before the famous visit between Franklin Delano Roosevelt and King George VI of Great Britain, the Crown Prince and Princess of Norway visited the US.

The Young Norwegians

Prince Olav V and Princess Martha at the time of their wedding.

In 1939, Norwegian Crown Prince Olav V and his charming wife, the former Swedish Princess Martha came to the USA on a semi-official visit. They had the pleasant opportunity to meet President and Mrs. Roosevelt, but they mostly spent time out west – skiing. Both were superb athletes, who had originally met at the 1928 Olympics.

Olav and Martha were a real love match, delighting both Swedes and Norwegians, cementing the amicable dis-union between the two Scandinavian countries some 25 years earlier. 

Martha was not only a devoted wife, mother of three and hostess, but embodied many of the qualities that would endear her to her adopted country: happy to lend her name, energies and prestige to various charitable, cultural and historical organizations. 

But 1939 was a European tinderbox, and the Norwegian Storting (their parliament) had deep concerns for their country’s safety and security against Germans on the march. Olav became a symbol of national resistance to the invading German army in 1941, holding out with his father and other government officials in the north woods. Nevertheless, the Norwegian politicians insisted on evacuating their monarch and leadership to England as government in exile. Olav, a naval officer, became a secret emissary to the US, making several trips to meet with President Roosevelt. 

King Haakon and Olav needed to remain in London, but to secure his family’s safety, and protect the royal succession, Martha and the children were sent to the United States, care/of President Roosevelt.

The Royal House Guest

The Norweigian Royals’ house in Bethesda, MD

FDR was happy to welcome his Royal visitors, and offer the hospitality of the White House, which became their “second home” in the US. Shortly after their arrival, Princess Martha obtained a suitable house (on 140 acres) on Pook’s Hill, in Bethesda, MD.

Franklin Roosevelt always enjoyed feminine company and companions. If they were young and attractive, so much the better. If they were intelligent – another plus. And if they were gentle tempered, non-demanding and content to bask in the President’s limelight, it was the epitome. Martha not only embodied all the above, but one additional plus: like FDR (who was twenty years her senior), she had a marvelous sense of humor, according to those who knew her.

The Norweigian Royals in the 1940s

FDR and the Princess became fast friends. She was regularly invited to White House functions, and even private luncheons and dinners for selected guests. She was the President’s guest at his home at Hyde Park, and also at Shangra-La, the presidential retreat in Maryland (now called Camp David.) He, in turn, was invited to visit her Bethesda home – particularly on those occasions when Prince Olav had slipped quietly into the country for a brief visit.  

Martha championed Norwegian causes and charities throughout her four year stay in the US. She traveled tirelessly throughout the US and Canada, happy to lend her name, make appearances and speeches, and do whatever she could to be useful to her country’s sovereignty.

“Look To Norway” 

The “Look to Norway” appearance.

In April, 1940, the Nazi Army invaded Norway, a neutral country. Despite the valiant heroism of Prince Olav and others, many in the USA perceived Norway to be indifferent to the advancing Germans, and that foreign aid and support would be futile. Princess Martha did much to dispel that notion. Norway was obviously no match for the Germans, however they were not, nor ever were acquiescing, and indeed were deserving of American assistance.

By 1942, the US was actively supporting Norway, and supplied them with a naval vessel, rechristened the King Haakon VII, to “hunt U-boats.” When it was launched at the Washington Navy Yards, the President and Mrs. Roosevelt, accompanied by Princess Martha, did the honors. FDR made one of his most noteworthy speeches, saying, “If there is anyone who is still wondering why this war is being fought, let him look to Norway. If anyone has any delusions that his war could have been averted, let him look to Norway; and if anyone still doubts the democratic will to win, again I say, let him look to Norway.”

The Princess added a few comments, thanking the President, saying “…everywhere on this globe…Norwegian men and women are praying and working and fighting to regard the free and happy Norway.”

Wagging Tongues

Prince Harald (the present King of Norway) played with Fala.

As historians evaluated and re-evaluated FDR over the past decades, leaving nothing to privacy, some biographers unearthed several close female relationships in his life. Including Princess Martha. The guest logs of the White House include her name dozens of times, leading some to believe in an intimacy between the crippled President and the attractive Princess.

Perhaps the definitive response lies in the recollections of Diana Hopkins, daughter of Harry Hopkins, FDR’s closest advisor, who lived in the White House. Diana recalls her mother Louise telling her, how after an exhausting day volunteering at the Washington hospitals, she came home to a message from the president, requesting her to be a chaperone for his visit to Pook Hill to have tea with the Princess. Still in her uniform, she drove over with the President to visit Martha. 

The likelihood that anything improper was going on is probably just gossip. She was very happily married, and FDR was genuinely fond of both Martha and Olav. But they were definitely great pals! 


Martha never became Queen of Norway. She died of cancer in 1954 at age 53.

Prince Olav became King Olav V in 1957. He died in 1991. He never remarried.

Their youngest child, Prince Harald (the little boy who played with Fala) became King of Norway in 1991, and is still living.


Davis, Kenneth – FDR: The War President: 1940-43 – Random House, 2000

Morgan, Ted – FDR: A Biography – Simon & Schuster, 1985




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TR and the Bull Moose Assassin

Former POTUS Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 – in Milwaukee.


When Theodore Roosevelt retired after seven-and-a-half years of the presidency, he was only fifty. Too young. Too vigorous. Too antsy. In a phrase, Too Theodore.

POTUS Wm. H. Taft

He had hand-picked his successor and good friend, William Howard Taft, to carry on his progressive Republican policies, but Taft was a jurist by profession and disposition – and politics was never his strong suit. The “Old Guard” Republicans, a very conservative bunch, were happy to see TR spend a year or more hunting big game in Africa, so they could revert to their old style and old ways and firm control. Will Taft, nice moderate fellow that he was, was no match for them.

Within two years of his ex-Presidency, Theodore had been inundated by complaints from his loyal followers: his progressive policies and ideas were systematically being dismantled.

Roosevelt, whose greatest political mistake (so say many) was “shooting himself in the foot” in November, 1904, when he was elected to a term of his own. As Vice President, he had come to the White House when popular William McKinley was assassinated only six months into his second term. Thus, on election night, TR formally announced (while his friends winced audibly) that he would not run for a “third term.” He kept his word, even though he quickly realized what a mistake it was.

John Flamming Schrank: Assassin-to-Be

By 1912, political assassinations had become all too common in the US. It has been suggested that presidential assassins are usually insane, at least in some way. Note “usually,” and not always. John Wilkes Booth had some political warping of his mind, but no one ever suggested insanity. Charles J. Guiteau, James Garfield’s assassin was a certifiable lunatic (no matter what the old history books claim). Leon Czolgosz, the man who assassinated McKinley was an anarchist, perhaps tainted with the same political warping that consumed Booth. In the case of Schrank, he was unquestionably insane.

John Flamming Schrank, the assassin

John Flamming Schrank was born in Bavaria, but emigrated to America when he was nine. His parents died shortly thereafter, and he was foster-raised by an aunt and uncle, a saloon keeper and owner of several properties in New York City. Schrank worked for his uncle for several years, and when he died, he was their heir, with a considerable inheritance. It was expected the young man would have a good start in life.

Losing his aunt and uncle hit Schrank hard. He became depressed, sold the properties, and drifted from place to place. He became extremely religious, and was known to wander around the city parks at night – but never causing any disturbance.

1912: A Pivotal Year

By 1912, with Republicans fraying at the political edges between the “Stand Pat” wing and the “Progressive” wing, most party members knew that there would be a battle – especially if Theodore Roosevelt was involved. He was.

With the backing of young, vigorous and forward-thinking Republicans, he stumped the country, and counted at least a dozen state governors in his corner. He challenged the voting electorate at the Republican nominating convention, but was denied a huge percentage of electors that he believed were his – fair and square. Calling the convention “rigged” he marched out with scores of followers, and formed the Progressive Party – nicknamed the Bull Moose Party, for posterity. They nominated Theodore Roosevelt by acclaim.

Meanwhile, with the Republicans split, the Democrats believed they could regain the White House after a twenty year gap, and kept their own infighting to a quiet minimum.

Schrank the Stalker

Schrank waiting to be arrested.

In 1912, TR was fifty-three and an indefatigable campaigner, traveling all around the country, shaking hands, kissing babies and making dozens of speeches.

In 1912, John Schrank was thirty-five, and had become decidedly peculiar. He was having strange dreams, insisting he was visited by the ghost/spirit of William McKinley, who wanted to be avenged by having Theodore Roosevelt killed. He wrote several accounts of these “visitations.”

For several weeks, Schrank followed TR’s campaign train from New Orleans all the way to Milwaukee, looking for his opportunity. With only a few old Rough Riders as “security escort”, and knowing he was personally popular, TR had no inkling that he was being stalked.

But on October 14, the newspapers reported that TR was dining at the Gilpatrick Hotel, and scheduled to speak afterwards at the Milwaukee Auditorium. Schrank was waiting. As Roosevelt left the Hotel, he entered an open car, whereupon Schrank pumped a bullet into his chest. It hit a steel eyeglass case, and a 50-page speech folded in half – before it entered the ex-President’s chest. TR stumbled, but regained his composure.

The bullet punctured TR’s metal eyeglass case…

The Next Two Hours

The Rough Rider escort, and other close associates immediately surrounded, wrestled and subdued Schrank.

…and went through a 50-page speech – folded in half!

One of them asked TR if he was all right. “He pinked me, Harry,” said TR. Then he coughed. As an experienced natural scientist, TR noticed there was no blood, and ascertained correctly that his lung had not been punctured.

He insisted the assailant be brought to him face to face. “Poor creature,” TR said, and ordered the crowd to hand the man over to the police – and “see there is no violence done to him.” Schrank was hustled into the hotel kitchen until the police came.

The bullet was never removed.

Meanwhile, TR insisted on continuing to the Auditorium and making his speech. He told the huge crowd they must be very quiet, since he could not speak loudly, You see, I have just been shot. But it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose.”

The bloody shirt.

He went on to speak for an hour and a half, then opened his suit jacket to show everyone his blood-stained shirt. It was only then that he agreed to be taken to a hospital.


TR’s doctors determined that it was too dangerous to remove the bullet. It remained in his chest till his death several years later.

John Schrank was never tried, but was declared insane and committed to a mental hospital where he remained until his death in 1943.


Brands, H.W. – TR: The Last Romantic – Basic Books, 1977

Morris, Edmund – Colonel Roosevelt – Random House, 2010





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Abigail Adams: On Virtue, Duty and Manners

Abigail Smith Adams was a Puritan born and raised.

Abigail Adams: Intellectual Puritan

Abigail Smith (1744-1818) was born to William Smith and Elizabeth Quincy of Weymouth, MA, a family peppered with Congregational clergy. Her father was a minister of solid repute, and also an educator with a fine library.

Church services and long sermons exhorting congregants to exemplary behavior, and pious thought and deeds through reason and morality, was part of her unquestioned upbringing. While Abigail was taught the domestic arts of cooking, sewing and housekeeping, it was not her strongest suit. She was intellectually inclined and a conceptual thinker. She relished difficult, thoughtful books on government and philosophy, on history and political theory. Perhaps most important, she treasured the precepts of moral behavior and a sense of upright duty.

John and Abigail Adams, Puritan parents.

At nineteen, she married John Adams, and for the next fifty-four years enjoyed a particularly happy and well-balanced union. He was fortunate with a wife whose knowledge and good judgment made her an intellectual companion. She was fortunate with a husband who appreciated her brilliance and encouraged her to speak her mind. They were cut from the same moral cloth.

Thus when it fell mostly to her, to raise their children, Abigail Adams believed it was her bound duty to raise/influence the younger generation according to the moral teachings of her own youth, including apropos quotations. She and John expected the highest virtue from them and lost no opportunity to guide – and chastise them as needed. They both may have been a little more chastising than understanding. But again, they were Puritans, and that is how Puritans behaved.

AA: The Maternal Correspondent

Young John Quincy Adams

Abigail and John were separated on and off for the better part of a decade. She remained home with the children while he was in Philadelphia, but when her husband was dispatched for diplomatic service in Europe in 1778, he took John Quincy, their ten-year-old son with him. In 1780, Abigail wrote to her brilliant twelve-year-old son, as she would an adult:

“I cannot fulfill the whole of my duty towards you…without reminding you of a failing which calls for a strict attention and watchfull [sic] care to correct. …You must curb that impetuosity of temper, for which I have frequently chid you, but which properly directed may be productive of great good. …  It will be expected of you, my son, that, as you are favored with superior advantages under the instructive eye of a tender parent, your improvement should bear some proportion to your advantages. Nothing is wanting with you but attention, diligence and steady application…. If you indulge yourself in the practise [sic] of any foible or vice in youth, it will gain strength with your years and become your conqueror…. you will not swerve from her dictates, but add justice, fortitude and every Manly Virtue which can adorn a good citizen, do Honour to your Country, and render your parents supreemly [sic] happy, particularly your ever affectionate Mother.”

Charles Adams disappointed his parents.

A year later, father and son returned home briefly. When they departed again, he took nine-year-old Charles along. The parting of Mother and son was hard, and Abigail obviously understood the differences between the intellect and maturity of her two young sons.  She wrote them both in early 1781:

“My dear sons … I fear you will think Mamma is unmindful of you if she does not write… I hope you are both well and very good children which is the best News I can possibly hear from you.” 

It was decidedly a letter to children (rather than the adult letter she wrote to 12-year-old John Quincy.) It was maternal and obviously loving. She mentioned the mild weather and asks how it is in Holland and if they learned to skate well. But invariably, she was always exhorting them to be “good.”

So did Thomas Boylston Adams

Thomas Boylston (1772-1832) barely knew his father, who was serving in Philadelphia’s Continental Congress when Tom was a baby. Then John left for a decade in Europe. By the time he returned as Vice President in 1789, Tom was at Harvard. In 1796, the young man left for Europe to serve as secretary to his brother John Quincy.

Always mindful of her duty, she wrote him: “As I consider it one of my chief Blessings to have Sons Worthy of the confidence of their Country So I hope in imitation of their Father they will serve it with honor and fidelity, and with consciences void of offense, and tho they may sometimes,{sic] meet with ingratitude, [sic] they will have, “The souls [sic] calm Sunshine and the Heart felt Joy.”

Abigail’s nephew William Shaw was brilliant – but an alcoholic like his cousins.

The ever-vigilant Abigail also believed it her duty to “lecture” her nephew, William Shaw, who at twenty-one became President John Adams’ secretary. He was a caustic, misanthropic fellow, brilliant, but a chronic alcoholic, like many in the Smith-Adams family.

“… it would be well for the Youth of our Country to attend with the veneration due to an oracle to the following eloquent observations of the late mr Burk [Edmund Burke] upon Manners –  ‘… Manners are what vex or sooth, [sic], corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarism or refine by a constant, steady, uniform, insensible opperation [sic] like that of the air we breathe in. They give the whole form and contour to our Lives. According to their quality, they aid Morals, they supply them or they totally destroy them.”

Nevertheless, despite vigilant guiding or lecturing, Abigail’s four children did not always fare well. Only John Quincy rose to his parents’ exalted expectation (although he became “chastising” as well).

The Senior Adamses wound up providing a home for their son Charles’ wife and two daughters when he died from chronic alcoholism. They provided a home for two of their daughter Nabby’s children, when her husband proved improvident. Ditto a home for Abigail’s niece, the daughter of her alcoholic brother William. And eventually home for their alcoholic and improvident son Thomas, along with his wife and seven children.

Reads the letters of Abigail Adams. THey may be a little lecturing or chastising, but oh, the substance!


Butterfield, L.H. (ed.) – The Book of Abigail and John – Harvard University Press, 1975

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

Massachusetts Historical Society – Letters from Abigail to John Adams, 13-14 July, 1776





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