William McKinley and Czolgosz the Assassin


McKinley was a popular President, and easily won reelection in 1900.

William McKinley was one of the best liked Presidents. Why would anyone want to kill him?

William McKinley, the Popular


President William McKinley

By all accounts, William McKinley was a warm, friendly and agreeable fellow. Born in 1843 in a small Ohio town, he was raised in a hard-working, devout Methodist family, with education a high priority for their children.

At eighteen, McKinley enlisted as a private in the Civil War, and remained for the entire four years. He was popular among his superiors and his peers, despite the fact that he had none of the vices-of-camaraderie. He did not smoke, drink, swear, dance, play cards, gamble or chase women. The soldiers liked him anyway, and never thought him sissified or priggish.

By the end of the War, he had become a brevet Major, and an aide de camp to Ohio General Rutherford B. Hayes, who encouraged the younger man to read law and become an attorney. McKinley took the advice, became a lawyer, moved to Canton, Ohio, a growing community, and proceeded to join every civic and fraternal association in town. He was a popular member with dozens of friends. His law practice grew. He married Ida Saxton, the daughter of the town’s most prominent banker.

In 1876, he was elected to Congress, and served for seven terms, making even more friends. It is said that while he may have some political adversaries, he had no enemies.  It is further said that when a colleague rose to argue a point with him, they usually apologized to him first. Then he became Governor of Ohio.

All told, he was an extremely well-liked man, much like Ike and Ronald Reagan who followed many decades later: While you may not agree with him, it was practically impossible to dislike the man!

Leon Czolgosz, the Loner


Leon F. Czolgosz, anarchist and assassin.

Loners, and even a fairly new expression, a loner-loser, has become a common description for many terrorists of all kinds today. Most terror attacks, whether they are international, religious, racial, economic or otherwise, and whether they are carried out by bomb-throwing, suicide attacks, vehicle driving, or out-and-out shooting, usually point to the perpetrator as a loner, or someone who has never been able to succeed in a societal atmosphere. They find it hard to find work or make friends. One commonality however, they find it very easy to blame others for their failings.

Such a man was Leon Czolgosz (1873-1901). He was born and raised in Michigan, the son of a hard-working Polish immigrant, considered lower middle-class. Nevertheless, his education ended when he was fourteen, and he became a laborer with varying amounts of skill.

In the early 1890s, there was an economic panic (recession), and Czolgosz became unemployed, along with thousands of other men. Now, essentially an out-of-work loner at twenty, he became interested in the “anarchist” movement in the United States. Their adherents believed that governments, and authorities in general, were responsible for the woes of the world, and in particular, the economic woes. Anarchism had begun in Europe in the early-to-mid 19th Century, and had strengthened increasingly in the later decades. Violence was their nihilistic activity of choice: Tear down governments (authorities) via assassination of rulers.

Czolgosz (pronounced Chol-gotch, but few people could pronounce it) began to read the anarchist newspapers and magazines and attended their rallies. If he attended any smaller meetings or joined any specific clubs, it is vague. Anarchists, by their very essence, loved to talk and pontificate, philosophize and write polemics, but they shunned structured organizations and hierarchies.

The Inevitable Clash

In September, 1901, President McKinley was six months into his second term, and at the height of his popularity. The country, optimistic about its new century and opportunities, flocked to the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, New York to celebrate its progress. The President planned to attend.


William McKinley shook hands with the crowd at the Pan American Exposition.

Always affable, McKinley was shaking hands with a crowd of five hundred people waiting in line for the honor. Toward the end of that line was Leon Czolgosz, his hand wrapped in a bandage-like handkerchief, concealing a pistol.

The rest is history. The assassin pumped two bullets into the President, and was immediately pummeled by the crowd, which was quickly becoming a mob. The POTUS admonished them “not to hurt” that man, as he was taken away.

Despite the fact that McKinley was believed to be out of danger and expected to recover, infection set in, and he died within the week. Czolgosz was now not only an assailant, he was an assassin – of the President of the United States.

Disposing of Czolgosz


Actual photographs were taken of Czolgosz at his execution.

Of course there was a trial. Of course there was an attempt to portray Czolgosz as insane. But most of the general public still remembered the assassination of Lincoln, and of James Garfield twenty years earlier. The mood of the country was not inclined to be overly sensitive to the noisy anarchists let alone generous toward political assassins. Nor did Czolgosz help his case.  He was unrepentant, saying, “I killed the president because he was the enemy of the people – the good hard working people….I am not sorry.”  This of course did not sit well with the people, including the good hard working people.

The jury deliberated briefly. He was found guilty, and sentenced to die in the electric chair. The general reaction was to get it over with, good riddance and to never speak his unpronounceable name again.

With little publicity, before interment, the body was destroyed with quicklime to deter souvenir hunters or martyr-makers.  Concerned that lime was insufficient to decompose the body, they added sulfuric acid.  Some chemists claimed that the combination of the lime and acid merely created plaster of paris.

Whether it did or did not is irrelevant.  The assassin with the unpronounceable name is dead, buried and all but forgotten, which is exactly what was wanted in 1901.


Leech, Margaret, In the Days of McKinley – Harper & Brothers, 1959

Morgan, H. Wayne – McKinley and His America – Syracuse University Press, 1964







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Mrs. Coolidge and Baseball: A Love Affair


President and Mrs. Coolidge at a Washington Senators game.

Calvin Coolidge liked baseball so-so. But First Lady Grace Coolidge was a enthusiastic fan!

Coolidge the Indifferent Sport

calvin coolidge

Calvin Coolidge, so-so baseball enthusiast.

Calvin Coolidge was always a hard fellow to figure, unless, of course, you were a New Englander. Then he was easy to understand: Except for politics, he was not a joiner. And even in politics, his “joining” at best, was at arm’s length.

He was a man with no hobbies. He neither enjoyed nor played any particular sport as boy-to-man. There is no record of him being on any team. There is also no record of him enjoying or playing any “solitary” pastime, such as hunting or golf or horseback riding. His interest in fishing came much later in his life, and even then, it was mild.

He was also not a man of games. He collected nothing; not stamps or coins or cigar silks. He did not play chess, checkers or cards, at least not with any regularity. Nor did he sing, dance, play an instrument, play-act or draw.

He read his newspaper regularly. That was about it.

Mrs. Coolidge, Baseball, and Politics

By the mid-nineteen-teens, women were becoming more and more involved in politics, and some of that was the “social” end of politics. Even the more austere menfolk (Coolidge being among that group) were beginning to recognize that their wives had some social-political value.

Young Grace

Grace Coolidge, baseball fan of fans!

Grace Coolidge (1879-1957) was a good looking woman. She was stylish. She had a terrific personality. She made friends easily, where Coolidge was diffident. As he advanced in state office, he had occasion to bring his wife to various functions, and began to recognize that she was indeed an asset.

Also by the nineteen-teens, baseball had become the National Sport. Grace’s knowledge of baseball was an automatic entree into the man’s world of social conversation – especially in a state like Massachusetts, where the Boston Red Sox dominated. Grace knew wherein she spoke. Both the Coolidge sons played on local teams, and she had played catch or pitched the ball to them in the yard. She knew the rules of the game. She could keep the box-scores. She followed the sporting pages. She knew the players and their statistics. She could share the heartbreak with the men, when the Sox traded Babe Ruth, their best pitcher, to the New York Yankees, who were determined to make him their best batter.

The First Lady and Baseball

President William Howard Taft had enjoyed baseball, and began the time-honored custom of throwing out the first pitch on opening day. Woodrow Wilson had loved baseball as a youth, and even managed his college team. Warren Harding continued the baseball tradition.


Babe Ruth as a Red Sox.

With First Lady Coolidge, only one thing changed. The Washington Senators were the “home team,” and politics mandated that her allegiance needed to be switched from the Red Sox (although that would only be temporary). She was quoted as saying, “I venture to say that not one of you gives a hoot about baseball, but to me, it is my very life.”

Whether he liked it or not (and his interest was only lukewarm), Calvin Coolidge was tasked with becoming a fan. It wasn’t always easy. The White House Historical Association tells of the time the POTUS and Missus went to a World Series game. The score was tied at the bottom of the ninth inning, and President Coolidge rose and declared that he was ready to go home. Mrs. Coolidge yanked his coat tails and insisted that he sit right down. She wasn’t leaving.

The Coolidges and Pop Culture


President and Mrs. Coolidge went to many baseball games. She loved it.

The Roaring 1920s, known for bootleg whiskey and flappers, can be credited with the boom in what today would be called pop-culture. There were movies, radio, phonograph recordings, vaudeville, magazines, sports of all kinds, and particularly baseball, all of which produced people who were catapulted to fame.

calvin and grace

The Coolidges were a nice couple, but the antithesis of the Roaring Twenties.


The Coolidges and a few celebrity pals.

Calvin and Grace Coolidge neither roared nor flapped, but in their own ways, were also catapulted to fame. They occupied the White House. And all the ancillary stars of stage, screen, radio, song, sport – and baseball – found their way to the White House to shake hands with the unflappable President, and his charming First Lady.

Frequently, the cream of the celebrities were invited to stay for lunch. A few for dinner. People like Charlie Chaplin and Al Jolson and Will Rogers were delighted to have their photographs taken with the President, and/or the First Lady, and the POTUS did not seem to mind that the photos usually turned up in the newspaper headlines the following day. That included Babe Ruth. He showed up too. One surmises that Mrs. C. forgave him for his apostasy of leaving Boston.

The Faithful Mrs. Coolidge

President Coolidge (1872-1933) did not live that long after his term in office. Five years after retiring as Chief executive, he died. He was only sixty.


The widow Coolidge and the aging Babe. She forgave him.

Mrs. Coolidge, however, lived for another quarter century. She stayed on in Northampton, MA, still taking her daily hour-long walk in the parks or streets. She was frequently seen knitting on her favorite park bench. Everyone knew her.

Mrs. C. managed to forge a quiet but pleasant life for herself. She spent time with her married son and his growing family. She went to Europe. She flew in an airplane. She compiled a series of essays into a “memoir” of sorts. And she continued her long love affair with baseball.

Every year, practically until her death in 1957, she went to Boston for a Red Sox game – or two or three. She kept up with all the players and all their statistics. There is even a story of a time that she was among a crowded audience when an obscure question about an obscure baseball player was asked, and no one knew the answer. Except one person. Mrs. Coolidge. And she was right!


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

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

Foster, Feather Schwartz – The First Ladies – Sourcebooks, 2011

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



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Robert E. Lee at the Crossroads



General Lee and Traveler.

April 9, 1865 was only the beginning of a difficult time in the life of Robert E. Lee.

The Surrender

It was a horrible day for General Robert E. Lee (1807-1870). He has been famously quoted as preferring to die a thousand deaths rather than to go see General Ulysses S. Grant.


The famous meeting at Appomattox Court House.

But he bit the bullet, donned his last best uniform, complete with sash and sword, and rode off to a modest farmhouse in Appomattox Court House. In little more than an hour, it was all over. The terms were decided and signed, and for all intents and purposes, the four-year American Civil War, which destroyed the cream of a generation of men, was over.

Several more days passed as the business of signing paroles, the usual paperwork and reports, and formally discharging the remains of the Army of Northern Virginia was complete, and General Lee could discharge himself.

But in that interim, one more horrific deed changed every hope the South may have entertained for the “let ’em up easy” policy that President Abraham Lincoln had planned. An assassin’s bullet put an end to that.

Later in April

Appomattox Court House is about a hundred miles from Richmond, the Confederate capital whose charred buildings were visible for miles, and the smells of its self-inflicted burning were still in the air. General Lee rode with no escort nor entourage. Occasionally he encountered another ex-soldier en route in that direction, but past the nominal courtesies, it was a silent ride for the tired soldier. No one would dare to intrude on the General’s privacy.

Young RELee

Robert E. Lee, about fifteen years before the Civil war.

Lee was only fifty-eight years old, but his white hair and beard, mostly acquired within the last three years, made him look ten years older. From the time he graduated West Point, more than thirty-five years earlier, he had been a soldier. Duty. Honor. Country. Once that country had been the United States, but in his heart, it was always Virginia, his native state, and the state of his distinguished forebears.


Mary Anna Custis Lee was the great grand-daughter of Martha Washington.

He was a quiet man, not given to close friendships. His personal habits were moderate, a sip of wine on occasion. At 24, he married Mary Anna Custis, the great-granddaughter of Martha Washington. They had seven children, and he no doubt loved his family deeply.  But the Army was Lee’s greatest love.

The Dilemmas of General Lee

It is always difficult to project possible thoughts into long-dead silent men, but the General unquestionably had much on his mind on that long, long hundred mile journey.

Robert E. Lee was a deeply religious man, and assuredly was grateful that his life was spared, as well as the lives of his three sons, all of whom fought bravely and with honor. Their wounds would heal. He just as assuredly mourned those lost sons of America, North and South. Hundreds of thousands of them, at last count. He was never a man of hatred. Like all soldiers, battle memories are intensely private. To a man of silent disposition, even more so.

To a military officer accustomed to action and decision-making all his life, the limbo of not being in control was perhaps the most burdensome.  The once-wealthy Lee-Custis family was now homeless. Their beautiful Arlington plantation overlooking Washington, DC had been confiscated early in the War. Then it was turned into a huge cemetery, making it forever uninhabitable. Another Virginia family property had been burned. Mary Lee, badly crippled by arthritis was now living in a small rented row home in Richmond.


A sketch of the Lee-Custis home at Arlington, prior to the Civil War. The property would be turned into a national cemetery.

Lee had no occupation and no property. Soldiering was all he knew, other than some mild plantation management. How was he to support his invalid wife and three unmarried daughters?  He could not make any decisions in that regard.


Mrs. Lee was an arthritic invalid at the end of the Civil War. She was confined to a wheel chair.


The quintessential General Robert E. Lee.

The assassination of Abraham Lincoln presented yet another problem. The mood of the North had grown increasingly ugly, and there were strident calls for arresting, trying and hanging those rebels responsible for the War. General Robert E. Lee was at the top of the list of those expected to hang. He had signed his parole, pending law-abiding behavior. At least he could make one decision. He intended to honor his pledge and be an example to those who still looked to him for leadership. Nevertheless, the likelihood of his arrest was strong. He would have to prepare his family for the inevitable.


The row house in Richmond that the Lees had rented.

Then of course, there was his own private secret. His doctors had told him more than two years earlier that the pains and tingling in his arm from time to time were indicative of heart problems. He believed them, but he kept it to himself. That was another decision he could make.  Nothing would be served by disclosing that information to his family – unless, or until such a time as it became imperative. They had enough cares as it was.

He would rest for a while in Richmond, enjoying the comfort of Mary and the girls, who he never got to see very often. He would stay there, at least until his sons could find him and the whole family could be reunited, and perhaps plan some kind of future.

He would wait. He would wait for the soldiers he assumed would be coming to arrest him. But mostly he would wait for the hand of Providence which he firmly believed would guide every decision.


Fishwick, Marshall W. – Lee After the War: The Greatest Period in the Life of a Great American – Dodd, Mead & Co. 1962

Flood, Charles Bracelen – LEE: The Last Years – Houghton, Miffli Co. – 1981



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Thomas Jefferson’s Merry Party

white house 1807

The White House, as it looked in Thomas Jefferson’s time.

Thomas Jefferson was a sophisticated gentleman, not usually associated with rudeness, but…

President Jefferson’s Hosting Attitudes

thomas jefferson

The sophisticated Virginian, Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) had grown up in a time and place of elegance and form. As a young student at William and Mary, he was a frequent guest at the Governor’s Palace, where fine dining and fine manners were matter of course in Williamsburg, the capital of the Virginia colony.

In due time, he himself was Governor of Virginia (not a colony, not yet a state), and even with the Revolutionary War in full throttle, managed to entertain cordially from time to time.

His half-decade or more in Europe, particularly in France, exposed him to the crème de la crème of social settings. When he returned to the United States as President Washington’s Secretary of State, he earned a well deserved reputation of hosting some of the finest dinners. His estate at Monticello, of course, bespeaks the man himself.

Perhaps the most important facet of Jefferson’s style of hosting was that he was a man of the “small” table. He did not care for the European (and later Federalist style) of large levees or receptions, and did not continue the traditions of the Washingtons or Adamses. Frequent dinners for twelve, or perhaps as many as twenty, was far more agreeable to him. This insured interesting conversation enjoyed by all. There could be some active politicking as well, since he chose his guest lists carefully, never mixing Federalists and Democrats, or cabinet members with congressmen. But the food was always delicious and served with elegance. The wine was invariably superb.

Anthony and Elizabeth Merry


The British Minister, Anthony Merry

Anthony Merry (1756-1835) had been appointed Minister from Great Britain to the recently United States. He had already enjoyed two decades in various European diplomatic posts, and it has been inferred that Merry considered his assignment to upstart America in 1803 as some kind of punishment. His wife Elizabeth definitely believed this backwater country to be beneath them.

Most of the Americans who became acquainted with the Merrys considered them snobbish, stiff, unfriendly, pompous, and a few other choice adjectives of the same genre.


The gentle conciliator, Secretary of State James Madison

When the Merrys arrived, Washington was a muddy, unpaved, half-finished town. They moved into the largest house they could rent, along with wagons loaded with their sumptuous belongings. Ambassador Merry (using the word in its modern sense, since the term “Ambassador” was not formally used until McKinley’s time) presented his credentials to Secretary of State James Madison, who arranged to introduce him to President Jefferson the following day.

Merry bedecked himself in his most formal attire, complete with ribbons, sashes, gold braid and a sword, and accompanied Secretary Madison to the White House. Jefferson did not greet them, nor did he have them received in a formal reception room. Instead, the visitors had to go looking for the President, and finally found him in a small study, in “a state of undress” (a term that connoted informal, and thus unsuitable clothing) with “shoes that were run down at the heels” – or more or less slippers. The Ambassador was dumbstruck, and surmised that Jefferson’s actions in dress and presence was a deliberate insult. He may have been right.

Jefferson had little fondness for the British, and was well known to be a Francophile. He was also a man who wished to instill democratic (small ‘d’) traditions in the American government, which included the social sphere as well.

Nevertheless, President Jefferson extended an invitation to Ambassador and Mrs. Merry to be his guests at a White House dinner a day or two later. Merry got over his miff, and accepted. assuming he would be the guest of honor. After all, he was the official representative of Great Britain, the most powerful country in the world.

The Dinner, Pell-Mell and The Un-merry Merrys


The uber-snooty Elizabeth Merry

Anthony and Elizabeth Merry, bejeweled and dolled up in their very finest clothes, came to the White House at the appointed hour, and assembled with a small contingent of other guests. One of those guests was the French Ambassador. Merry was apoplectic. England and France were at war, and had been at war for years (if not for centuries). It was another insult.


The delightful Mrs. Madison

Then, the widowed President Jefferson, who was expected to give his arm to Mrs. Merry as matter of courtesy, gave his arm to Mrs. Madison, who frequently served as his hostess, and escorted her to the round table in the dining room. There was no official or planned seating arrangement. Round tables have neither head nor foot, thus precluding seating honors.  Secretary Madison graciously gave his arm to Mrs. Merry, leaving Mr. Merry perplexed. Where should he go? The rest of the guests escorted themselves to the table, sitting wherever they chose.  Merry wound up sitting wherever there was an empty chair.  He was livid.

Jefferson charmingly explained that this was the “new fashion” of pell-mell. Sit wherever you like. It did not sit well with the Merrys, and they couldn’t wait to leave. They believed they were being deliberately insulted by Jefferson’s coarse and ungracious behavior, and despite whatever fine food and wine might have been served, they did not care. International incidents have been created with much less provocation.

The Merrys never accepted another invitation at the White House.


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

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



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Mary Lincoln: The Last Sad Years

mary in mourning

The Widow Mary Lincoln

In late 1880, Mary Lincoln, no longer able to live on her own, left Europe and returned to live with her sister in Springfield, Illinois. She was sixty-one.

The Widow Lincoln in Exile

When Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in April, 1865, the effects on the country would be far-reaching. So would the effects on his widow, who was 46 at the time. Her emotional health had always been fragile. She frightened easily, had submerged herself into the Victorian mode of perpetual mourning, and could barely cope with the realities of her situation.

mary in mourning

Mary Lincoln would never be the same after her husband’s assassination.

At the time of Lincoln’s death, Mary Lincoln had already lost two sons; one at three years, the other at eleven. She would lose another son at eighteen, and her sole surviving son would be lost to her by estrangement. Despite coming from a large family, she was, for all intents and purposes, alone in the world.


Elizabeth Todd Edwards, Mary’s oldest sister, would be her lifeline for the rest of her life.

She had gone to Europe in 1868 to escape the humiliation and scandal from her aborted financial scheme to sell her clothing. Returning to America in 1871, she lost her last son, and saw her relationship with her eldest son Robert deteriorate along with her emotional health. By 1875, her condition had worsened to a point that Robert felt compelled to have his mother tried for insanity and placed in a sanitarium. Recovering from her “insanity” (which many historians believe may have been drug interaction from her various physical and psychosomatic ills), she lived for a time with her sister Elizabeth Edwards in Springfield, Illinois, in the very house where she met and later married Abraham Lincoln.

Unable to face the second humiliation and scandal of her troubled widowhood, she once again departed for Europe. This time she went to Pau, France.

Mrs. Lincoln in Pau

Pau, in the south of France, was specifically chosen by Mary Lincoln, since it was said to have the best climate in Europe, and she was always prone to chills and fevers.  Good weather was a necessity for her refuge and the solitude she claimed to want.

She lived in a residence-hotel, one of many she had lived in during those years of her widowhood. Unable and unwilling to move back to the Lincoln house in Springfield, with its sad memories, she became virtually homeless. Residence hotels were common in those times. People who were alone in the world favored them for providing the amenities they needed while relieving them of the responsibilities of home-ownership they could neither afford or maintain.

For the better part of three years, she remained in general seclusion, making a few superficial acquaintances, and indulging in her preoccupation with shopping. Then her physical health began to fail. She was losing her eyesight, likely due to cataracts (and possibly an undiagnosed diabetes some historians suspect). In addition, she suffered a severe back injury from a fall. X-rays would not be invented for more than another decade, but it is not unlikely that a bone or two may have been broken. The chronic pain would plague her for the rest of her life.

It was time to go home. The only place she could call “home” was her sister Elizabeth’s house in Springfield. She booked passage.

Mary Lincoln’s Belongings


The home of Ninian and Elizabeth Edwards in Springfield, IL. Mary was married in that house, and died in that house.

ninian edwards

Mary Lincoln’s brother-in-law, Ninian Edwards

lewis baker

Lewis Baker, Mary Lincoln’s great-nephew. One of the few people she cared for in her later years.

One of the very few people who the Widow Lincoln cared for and trusted was young Lewis Baker, her sister’s grandson, now a young man around twenty. He was sent to New York to meet Mary’s ship, and escort her back to Springfield. He was also tasked with helping to ship her belongings to the Edwards’ house.

elizabeth edwards

Elizabeth Todd Edwards in her older years.

Despite Mary’s homelessness, she had a huge amount of possessions trailing after her wherever she went – like the scattered debris tail of a comet. More than sixty crates and trunks and boxes were filled with the stuff of her life. Clothing and jewelry and household goods she hadn’t used in years and never would, Lincoln memorabilia, mementos from her White House years, artwork and decorative items she had purchased. Some things had never been taken out of their original boxes.

Elizabeth and Ninian Edwards had agreed to have her come.  She was family, and they knew she had nowhere else to go.  But they were unprepared for the general disturbance Mary-in-residence would cause them. They knew she was demanding and difficult, but they were overwhelmed at the wagonloads of her baggage.

last mary

A “doctored” photograph of Mary, said to be the last ever taken.

In those days, an upstairs room was usually assigned to store a family’s empty luggage. Trips usually lasted for several weeks; clothing and accessories required a great deal of care and room in packing. Families could easily have more than a dozen large trunks.

With Mary’s arrival, sufficient room needed to be found in the Edwards’ house to store her  filled crates and trunks. Within days of Mrs. Lincoln’s arrival, the Edwards’ long-time housemaid resigned. It seems her bedroom was directly below one of the rooms containing Mary’s heavy trunks, and the ceiling was buckling. The maid had a legitimate fear that the ceiling would collapse from the weight, and fall on her when she was asleep.

more mary

First Lady Mary Lincoln – in better days.

Mary Lincoln seldom (if ever) left the house, and usually kept to herself and her room. Instead, she “visited” her trunks and belongings. Despite her bad back, she climbed the stairs and remained on her knees for hours, bending over various cases, examining their contents, unfolding and refolding, and thinking whatever private thoughts came to her mind.

Springfield children, too young to remember the First Lady of two decades earlier, regarded her as a peculiar old woman who sat alone in a darkened room upstairs, never lifting the shades. They were not completely wrong.


Baker, Jean – Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography – W.W.Norton & Co. 1999

Clinton, Catherine – Mrs. Lincoln: A Life – HarperCollins, 2009

Turner, Justin G. & Turner, Linda Levitt (eds.) – Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters – Knopf, New York, 1972





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Benjamin Harrison and the Washington Centennial. And Me.

The 100th anniversary of George Washington’s Inaugural Centennial in New York City was a very big deal.


George Washington takes the Presidential Oath of Office in 1789.

The Inauguration of George Washington

George Washington was elected unanimously and with no opposition.  Everyone was enthusiastic about the new President of the United States. Therefore, one can safely assume that it was no surprise to the former General when a delegation from a newly elected Congress came to Mount Vernon to inform him of his election. Washington had already written his speech of response.


A famous depiction of Washington receiving accolades  in Trenton, NJ en route to his inauguration. Note the white horse.

But arrangements had to be made, not only for the inaugural ceremonies slated to be held in New York (which had donated itself as the temporary capital), but for George Washington’s personal needs as well. He required sufficient housing – with a ballroom large enough to hold a hundred guests. He needed sufficient servants. The handful he planned to bring from Mount Vernon were not nearly enough. And he needed all the accouterments that Mrs. Washington would require, which included the needs of her two young grandchildren they were raising. They also wouldn’t dream of jumping the gun as it were, and overtly plan ahead.

Transportation and communication were both long and arduous. Washington was not inaugurated until late April of 1789. Mrs. Washington, additional house servants and the children would not arrive until some weeks later.


George Washington arrives in lower Manhattan, where he is greeted by the throngs!

The new President’s journey between northern Virginia and New York City took a long time, not merely due to distance, but to his enormous popularity and the momentousness of the event. Every town and city along the way wanted to host him, to invite him, to proclaim him, to present him with honors and gifts.  It would have been rude to decline.

Thus, by the time of his arrival in what is now the Battery section of lower Manhattan, the arrangements had all been put into place. NY Governor George Clinton was on hand to officially greet him. When Washington formally took the oath of office on April 30, a huge crowd came to bear witness to important history.

The Benjamin Harrison Connection


President Benjamin Harrison, grandson of a President, was inaugurated on March 4, 1889.


A centennial parade souvenir.

Benjamin Harrison (1833-1901) was born three decades after George Washington’s death, and in 1889, had recently been inaugurated as President, and thus a successor in the office begun by Washington.

There was also a personal connection of sorts between Harrison and Washington. Benjamin Harrison was the grandson of President William Henry Harrison, who filled the same office for only a month in 1841. Benjamin Harrison’s boyhood memories of his grandpa were limited at best. Nevertheless, WHH was a President, and it counts. And if being the grandson of a President was not enough of a connection, there was more.

President Benjamin Harrison’s great-grandfather, also named Benjamin Harrison, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and a good friend of George Washington.  He was also one of the first Governors of the State of Virginia. The relationship between Washington and the new President’s namesake and great-grandfather was a long and personal one.

The Inaugural Centennial

A centennial of anything is an important anniversary.  The country had gone wild for Philadelphia’s centennial of the Declaration of Independence in 1876, and even for accepting the great gift from France, the Statue of Liberty, which did not actually take place until a decade later.

New York City wanted to match the earlier hoopla of Philadelphia, and declared a huge party in late April, 1889.


President Harrison re-creates the landing of George Washington in lower Manhattan.  There were even bigger crowds!

According to information from the helpful researchers at Mount Vernon, re-enactments had always been popular, and while there is little formal documentation, it is likely that George Washington’s entire progress from Mount Vernon, through all the towns along the way to New York, was re-enacted in various ways, which may have included prominent citizens standing-in for the General, and riding a few miles,  like the traveling Olympic torch.

What is known, and is well documented, is that newly-inaugurated President Benjamin Harrison rode the last leg of that journey. He took the train up from Washington to the Governor’s Mansion in Trenton, (only a few hours), and later boarded a ferry from Elizabeth, NJ to New York City, where he rode a white horse (a la George Washington) to be greeted by the multitudes for a three-day shindig.

New York Plays Host


The parade itself lasted for nearly eight hours. Every club and organization, trade association and thousands of ex-Civil War soldiers marched.

The Big Apple always does parties right! Every organization, from local fire brigades and police departments, to all the “ethnic” clubs, civic associations, and countless regiments of Civil War veterans and every Ladies Auxilliary unit lined up for a grand parade that lasted for nearly eight hours. Every club that boasted a band had a contingent marching and playing. Wagons were decorated in bunting, pulled by teams of horses. Girls in white dresses rode the floats throwing rose petals. (Rose petal throwing was definitely a documented activity when GW was inaugurated!)

Then there were the dinners. The balls. The presentations. The speeches, and oh yes, the actual recreation of Washington’s inaugural. Every notable was on hand to participate. Senators, Congressmen, Governors and Mayors came from miles around.

A Personal Connection


It is very doubtful that my grandmother and her sisters were part of this photo, but they definitely were watching the parade!

When I was around eight, my grandmother told me that when she was my age, living in the tired-and-poor tenements of New York’s Lower East Side she went to a parade and saw President Benjamin Harrison riding a white horse. At eight, I did not know what questions to ask. When I got a little older, and asked what the event was, she couldn’t remember.

I had often wondered what the connection was with President Benjamin Harrison, the white horse, and Grandma’s childhood recollection. It would not be till some thirty years ago that I learned about the Inaugural Centennial. So much time had elapsed, and so many other celebrations of mega-importance had eclipsed 1889, that the event is all but forgotten today. But not by me.

The hand of history stretches from me to Grandma, to President Benjamin Harrison, who stretched his hand back to a great-grandpa who had shaken the hand of George Washington.






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John Hay, TR and Lincoln’s Hair


Lincoln and his secretaries, Nicolay (l) and Hay (r)

John Hay had just graduated from Brown University when he met Abraham Lincoln.

Hay and Lincoln

President Lincoln

President Abraham Lincoln

John Hay (1838-1905) was the nephew of Milton Hay, an Illinois attorney and friend of Abraham Lincoln, nominated in 1860 as the Republican candidate for President. The uncle arranged for his nephew, in a 19th century equivalent, to “work the campaign.”

Lincoln took a shine to the young fellow who was obviously bright, and had a ready wit. Hay also met young Robert Lincoln, who at eighteen was about to enter Harvard. They became lifelong friends. He also met a young journalist a few years his senior – John G. Nicolay.  They would become lifelong friends as well.


Young John Hay was only twenty two when he became Lincoln’s private secretary.

Lincoln was elected President and invited Hay to be part of his staff in Washington, as assistant to Nicolay, who he appointed as his private secretary. Only one secretarial position was budgeted, but Lincoln was certain there would be plenty of work. He put Hay  on the payroll of the Department of Agriculture – assigned to the White House. Presidents usually know how to finagle.

Lincoln was personally and paternally attached to his secretaries, often relaxing in their office during “down time.” They in turn, were deeply devoted to The Tycoon, as Hay nicknamed him.

Lincoln’s Hair


One of several “recreated” deathbed vigils of the death of Abraham Lincoln.

At the time of Lincoln’s death, it was a common Victorian tradition to cut locks of the deceased’s hair for mementos. One of the doctors at the deathbed vigil did so, carefully cutting six strands of hair from the head of the dead President.

A few years later, John Hay purchased two of those strands, for the enormous sum of $100 – the equivalent of a few thousand dollars today. Still, a bargain. He had it enclosed in a ring, another common Victorian tradition.

Hay: The In-between Years

In late 1865, John Hay, still in his twenties, held some modest posts abroad as secretary to various US legations. Returning to the U.S. in the early 1870s, he became a newspaper reporter, wrote a little, to some success, and married Clara Stone, the daughter of a bona-fide millionaire, who was happy to turn many of his business interests over to his son-in-law. It made Hay financially independent, and assured their children’s future.

Robert Lincoln

Robert Lincoln was a student at Harvard when he met Nicolay and Hay, but they became lifelong friends.

In the late 1870s, John Hay and John Nicolay began a decade-long task collaborating on an impressive 10-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln.  They were given rare access to Lincoln’s files and papers, now legally in the possession of Robert Lincoln. The volumes enjoyed limited popularity, but became the mainstay for two generations of Lincoln scholars.

One reader of the Nicolay-Hay work was a 30-years-old Theodore Roosevelt, just embarking on a national political career. He was a huge admirer of the sixteenth president and wrote John Hay a complimentary fan letter.

Hay and Adams


Henry Adams, historian and author, would be another lifelong friend of John Hay.

Sometime during those years when he served in Lincoln’s White House, Hay became acquainted with a young man his age, with an excellent pedigree of his own. Henry Adams’ father, Charles Francis Adams was Lincoln’s ambassador to England. His grandfather and great-grandfather had both been Chief Occupants of the White House.

Hay and young Adams bonded instantly for a legendary friendship. But they both needed to go their separate ways and make their own marks.


The original adjoining townhouses of John Hay and Henry Adams. Washington’s famous Hay-Adams hotel stands on that spot today.

By the mid-1880s, Hay and Adams had renewed their friendship and had moved to Washington, DC, walking distance from the White House. Their intellectual compatibility attracted the A-listed elite of the capital to the salons in their adjoining town houses.

Hay and TR

In 1889s, a cyclone otherwise known as Theodore Roosevelt moved to Washington, as a member of Republican President Benjamin Harrison’s new Civil Service Commission. The post was mid-level at best, as government posts go, but TR whipped it into his usual frenzy of importance.

He also came with a New York pedigree that could not be ignored. But pedigreed or not, lower-level position or not, Theodore himself could not be ignored. He was invited to the Hay-Adams salon, and immediately proved his “interestingness.”

Benjamin Harrison lost his bid for re-election, and TR took a hiatus back in New York for a few years. John Hay, who had always kept a finger in the political diplomatic pie-of-sorts, rekindled his statesman role and served as the Ambassador to England.


Dapper John Hay in his older years.

When William McKinley was elected President in 1896, the Republicans were back in the White House. John Hay was appointed Secretary State. Theodore Roosevelt was back in Washington, this time as Assistant Secretary of the Navy.

Hay and TR: The Lincoln Ring

young TR

Young up-and-coming Theodore Roosevelt

John Hay always had a benevolent and somewhat paternal affection for TR, who was twenty years his junior. He and Adams would shake their heads in exasperation at Roosevelt’s frenetic pace and never-ending interests, but they always found him superb company. He was again welcome in the Hay-Adams salon.

Four years later, TR was named as McKinley’s running mate in 1900, but McKinley was assassinated six months later, and Roosevelt was now President.


John Hay’s ring encasing two strands of Abraham Lincoln’s hair, photo courtesy of the Sagamore Hill collection.

Hay was amazed. He was also invited to remain Secretary of State. While TR in many ways preferred his own statesmanship, he relied on Hay’s broad knowledge of foreign affairs, and his endless charm, wit, and uncommonly good common sense. They had also spent many hours discussing Lincoln, the man they both admired over all others.

In 1905, when TR was inaugurated to a term of his own, Hay’s health was failing rapidly.   But he made an extraordinary offer: Would TR like to wear the Lincoln Ring at his inaugural? The President was dee-lighted to accept and wore the treasured ring.

Hay died only a few months later, and  the ring fittingly remains in Theodore Roosevelt’s Sagamore Hill Collection in New York.


Morris, Edmund – Theodore Rex – Random House, 2002

Taliaferro, John – All the Great Prizes: The Life of John Hay from Lincoln to Roosevelt, Simon & Schuster, 2014 (Reprint)


The Sagamore Hill Collection archives

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