Black History, Criminals, Wild West

Bass Reeves: The Real Lone Ranger.

 

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Deputy US Marshal Bass Reeves.                                                                       The Real Lone Ranger.

Original publish date:  January 9, 2020

Nearly thirty years ago, I was cutting the grass on an ancient, unreliable Sears Craftsman riding lawn mower when my new bride came rushing out of the door of our first apartment excitedly waving her arms. Of course, I shut the mower off to see what was the matter. I was chagrined when Rhonda said, “You’ve got a phone call.” I should point out that it took me 45 minutes to get the mower started in the first place and I was not sure that I could replicate that action. “A phone call? Couldn’t you have taken a message for me to call them back?” I asked. “It’s Baretta,” she answered, “Robert Blake is on the phone…for you…Baretta’s on the phone.”

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Robert Blake as Baretta.

I was certain someone was pulling my leg as I walked inside and picked up the phone. “Alan, this is Robert Blake” the voice on the other end of the line responded. “I just found a letter you wrote me several years ago,” he said. “I have moved around a lot over the years and it got packed away in a box and forgotten. I have it now.” I was stunned. It really was Baretta! Turns out I had written a long forgotten fan letter to Mr. Blake years before, while still a teenager, asking him to sign a photo of the Our Gang crew. Blake (real name Mickey Gubitosi) had been part of the cast from 1939 to 1944 as well as Red Ryder’s sidekick “Little Beaver” from 1944 to 1947.

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Robert Blake (Center) in “Our Gang.”

“I wanted to ask a favor of you,” Mr Blake responded, “I have never seen this photo before. Could I swap you for it?” Well, uh yes, you can, you’re Baretta was my thought. “I’ll send it out today,” he said. “Here’s my phone number. Call me when you get it.” Sure enough, a week or so later, the package arrived and it was full of several photos of Blake as Mickey in Our Gang, from Red Ryder, from Baretta, from Electra Glide in Blue and there were a couple images of his character Perry Smith (playing the guitar) from the Truman Capote classic “In Cold Blood.” All hand signed and inscribed to me. I called him back to thank him for the photos and we talked for quite some time.

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Robert Blake as Little Beaver from the Red Ryder Serials.

Turns out, he was a collector of Lone Ranger memorabilia. “My folks never saved anything. My old man was a drunk. My mom stole all my money and sold all my stuff. I ran away at fourteen and never looked back.” Blake’s father ultimately killed himself and he cut off all ties with his mother. Turned out to be the first in a series of several phone conversations. So, from that time forward, anytime I went out “junkin” and found a Lone Ranger item, I’d send it to him. Posters, photos, adverts, movie programs, even one lobby card written entriely in Spanish. He would call and share some great Hollywood trivia. For instance, he informed me that he turned down the role of Little Joe on Bonanza, a role that made Michael Landon famous. He also turned down roles in The Godfather, The Wild Bunch, All That Jazz, Funny Lady and Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy. Over the years, we lost touch and, well, soon he had bigger issues to deal with.
z 1032402917.0He also shared stories of the Lone Ranger from movie, television and real life. “The closest I ever got to the part was in 1945 when I played Little Beaver with Wild Bill Elliott in the Red Ryder serial “Lone Texas Ranger.” Blake said, “I always modeled Little Beaver after Tonto you know.” Keep in mind, this was WAY before Google in an age when these tidbits were only known to the participants. It was Robert Blake who first told me the true story of the Lone Ranger.

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Bass Reeves.

The real Lone Ranger, it turns out, was based on an African American man named Bass Reeves, the first black Deputy U.S. Marshal west of the Mississippi River. Reeves worked mostly in Arkansas and the Oklahoma Indian Territory. During his long law enforcement career, he was credited with arresting more than 3,000 felons and he shot and killed 14 people (in self-defense of course). Although Reeves the man is mostly unrecognizable in much of the Lone Ranger legend, some of the basic aspects remain intact. Both were lawman hunting bad guys, both were accompanied by a Native American, both rode a white horse, and both gave away a silver trademark to people they encountered. Historians of the American West have, until recently, mostly ignored the fact that this man was African American, a free black man who headed West to find himself less subject to the racist structure of the established Eastern and Southern states.

z bass badgeReeves, born a slave in July of 1838, accompanied his “master” Arkansas state legislator William Steele Reeves’ son, Colonel George R. Reeves, as a personal servant when he went off to fight with the Confederate Army during the Civil War. Col. Reeves, of the CSA’s 11th Texas Cavalry Regiment, was a sheriff, tax collector, legislator, and a one-time Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives. During the Civil War, the Texas 11th Cavalry was involved in some 150 battles and skirmishes. Records are sketchy, but one report states that although 500 men served with the unit, less than 50 returned home at the end of the war.
It is unclear how, and exactly when, Bass Reeves gained his freedom during the Civil War. One account states that Bass Reeves and his owner had an altercation over a card game. Reeves severely beat his owner, and, knowing that there was no way he would be allowed to live if he stuck around, fled to the Indian Territory (today known as the state of Oklahoma). Here Bass lived harmoniously as a fugitive slave among the Cherokee, Creeks and Seminoles. Bass stayed in the Indian Territories, assimilating to their culture and learning their languages, until he was freed by the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery, on January 31, 1865.
Interestingly, like a plot from a Hollywood serial, in 1882, Bass Reeves “owner” Col. Reeves was bitten by a rabid dog while protecting a young child from danger. During his final days, Col. Reeves was placed in a wooden shed padded with mattresses to protect him from the potential self-inflicted violent tendencies associated with the disease. He died of hydrophobia in September of that year. During those intermittent years, his former slave, Bass Reeves, married and eventually fathered ten children (five boys and five girls) and tried his hand at farming.

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Judge Isaac Parker-The Hanging Judge.

Bass Reeves big break came when former Missouri Congressman Isaac Parker was appointed federal judge for the Indian Territory and Reeves was assigned as a deputy U.S. marshal for the Western District of Arkansas. Parker, known as the “Hanging Judge”, hired 200 deputy U.S. marshals and the Reeves hire was highly prized because he knew the Indian Territory and could speak several Indian languages. In 21 years on the federal bench, Judge Parker sentenced 160 people to death (out of 344 charges carrying the death penalty that came before him); 79 of them were executed. Many of these men were brought to justice by Deputy Marshal Bass Reeves.

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Bass Reeves.

Like the Lone Ranger, Reeves was a master of disguises. He often used these disguises to track down outlaws by dressing similarly and adopting their mannerisms to infiltrate the fugitive gangs, ultimately to identify and arrest them. Just like the Lone Ranger’s silver bullets, Bass Reeves always carried, and often gave out, silver coins as a personal trademark or calling card of sorts. Reeves handed out these valuable coins with a dual purpose; to ingratiate himself to the townspeople and as a future incentive for intel while collecting bounties. Thus insuring that a visit from Bass Reeves, the real Lone Ranger, brought only good fortune for the town by virtue of a criminal off the street and the gift of a lucky silver coin. Reeves was an expert with a gun who, according to legend, was barred from entering shooting competitions, not because of his race, but rather because no one could beat him. Reeves rode a white horse throughout his career, riding a light grey horse for a short while only. In addition to being a marksman with a rifle and pistol, Reeves developed superior detective skills during his long career, some of which are still in use by law enforcement today.

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Deputy US Marshal Grant Johnson.

And, like the Lone Ranger, Reeves worked with a Native American companion. Reeves’ “Tonto” was a capable Deputy U.S. Marshal in his own right named Grant Johnson. Johnson was an expert tracker and posse man who often accompanied Reeves into the Indian Territory in search of the most wanted outlaws hiding there. Johnson was a Native American Indian whose lineage included two tribes; his father was a Chickasaw, his mother a Creek. Born in north Texas during the Civil War, Johnson began his career as a Deputy U.S. Marshal in 1888 working out of Judge Parker’s court at Fort Smith, Arkansas where he teamed up with Bass Reeves. Judge Parker often cited both men as his best deputies ever to work for his court.
z Bass-Reeves-Statue-Plaque-PhotoIronically, Bass Reeves was himself once charged with murdering a posse cook. At his trial before Judge Parker, Reeves was represented by former United States Attorney W. H. H. Clayton, who had been his colleague and friend. Reeves was acquitted. On another instance, Reeves arrested his own son for murder. One of his sons, Bennie Reeves, was charged with the murder of his wife. Although understandably disturbed and shaken by the incident, Deputy Marshal Reeves nonetheless demanded the responsibility of bringing Bennie to justice. Bennie was eventually tracked and captured, tried, and convicted. He served his time in Fort Leavenworth in Kansas before being released, and reportedly lived the rest of his life as a responsible and model citizen.
Bass continued to serve as a U.S. Marshal in the Indian Territory until 1893. That year he transferred to the Eastern District of Texas in Paris, Texas. In 1897, he was transferred again, serving at the Muskogee Federal Court in the Indian Territory where he once again teamed with Grant Johnson. When Oklahoma became a state in 1907, 68-year-old Bass Reeves became an officer of the Muskogee Police Department. He served for two years before he became ill and retired. Reeves worked for 32 years as a federal peace officer in the Indian Territory, and during his career he brought in some of the most dangerous criminals of the time, but was never wounded, despite having his hat and belt shot off on separate occasions.

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Bass Reeves Monument- Fort Smith, Arkansas.

In 1909, Bass Reeves’ health began to fail, and he died of Bright’s disease (nephritis) on January 12, 1910. That day, a comet of almost unrivaled brilliance burst onto the celestial stage. Known historically as the “Great January Comet of 1910, it is most often referred to as the “Daylight Comet”. As Deputy Bass Reeves breathed his last, it was already visible to the naked eye. At its brightest, it outshone the planets Venus and Mercury, and was possibly the brightest comet of the 20th century. The comet’s approach had been slightly hidden by the daylight until its growing luster pierced the approaching dusk by unfurling a gossamer tail against a pure azure sky. One hundred and ten years ago this Sunday, the real Lone Ranger died as his silver Deputy star streaked brightly across the sky one last time.

 

Politics, Presidents

January 4, 1974; A Reflection.

 

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Original publish date:  January 1, 2020

It’s the Friday after Christmas. Trashcans are filled with cardboard. Garbage bags, stuffed with ripped and torn wads of wrapping paper. News channels are remembering the events of the past year and recalling the names of the dear departed. The news story recaps are sometimes painful, occasionally lamentable and often met with a wince. And the political news seems designed, and is almost always presented, in such a fashion as to widen the divide. Each side trusting that they are in the right. Each side considering themselves the guardians of the future. Each side firm in the belief that times like these have never been seen before. In times like these, it is sometimes beneficial to cast a rearward glance just to see how we compare.
Friday January 4, 1974, forty-six years ago this Saturday, is worth a backwards glance. Jim Croce’s song “Time in a Battle” was at the top of the Billboard charts, “Earthquake” was number one at the box office, “All in the Family” and “The Waltons” battled it out for top spot in the Nielsen ratings, followed closely behind by “Sanford and Son.” Gore Vidal’s “Burr” was the preferred read and “Raisin” (the musical adaptation of “A Raisin in the Sun”) was tops on Broadway. The Vietnam War, on hold since the 1973 Paris Peace Accords of 1973 intended to end the Vietnam War, was declared “back on.” President Thiệu of Democratic South Vietnam announced on January 4, 1974 that the war had restarted and that the Paris Peace Accord was no longer in effect. And here at home, President Richard Nixon had problems of his own.
z nixon downloadThat Friday, President Richard Nixon refused to honor a subpoena by the Senate Watergate Committee to hand over tape recordings and documents during the impeachment proceedings. It would prove to be the beginning of the end of his Presidency and would lead to his resignation in disgrace eight months later. In Nixon’s hometown of San Clemente, California, the newspaper proclaimed, “President Nixon declined flatly today to produce any of the more than 500 documents subpoenaed by the Senate Watergate committee, branding the request “an overt attempt to intrude into the executive office to a degree that constitutes an unconstitutional usurpation of power.”
Addressed to President Nixon, the Senate’s request read (in part): “Pursuant to lawful authority, You are hereby commanded to make available to the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities of the Senate of the United States, on Jan. 4, 1974, at 10 A.M., at Room 1418 Dirksen Senate Office Building all materials listed on attachment A, hereto… Any or all records and documentation of access to the original and copies of tape recordings of Presidential conversations, from the Installation of the taping system to December 19, 1973 . . .President Richard Nixon’s daily diary for Jan. 1, 1970, to Dec. 19, 1973…Telephone records from January, 1971, to Dec. 15, 1973, for all phones in the following locations …” The request not only covered the Oval Office, the President’s offices in the Executive Office Building and in Key Biscayne and Camp David, it also included the offices and homes of Nixon’s secretary Rosemary Woods and aides Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Haig, Colson, E. Howard Hunt. All names that by now were as familiar as those found in any boxscore or line-up of the most popular sports teams in the country.
z maxresdefaultIn a letter addressed to committee chairman (North Carolina Senator Sam J. Ervin Jr. Democrat), Nixon refused to supply recordings of his Oval Office conversations or any related written materials. The letter arrived on Capitol Hill three hours past the deadline set by the committee to hand over the documents. Speaking to reporters at the Western White House, “La Casa Pacifica” in San Clemente, Deputy Presidential Press Secretary Gerald L. Warren declined to say what his boss’s next move would be, or to comment on Federal Judge John J. Sirica’s threat of contempt-of-court action against Nixon.
Nixon wrote to Ervin, “Only six months ago, your committee concluded that recordings of five conversations were necessary for your legislative determination…Now, in one subpoena alone, you list, with widely varying precision some 492 personal and telephone conversations of the president ranging in time from mid-1971 to late 1973 for which recordings and related documents are sought; and, in addition, in the same subpoena, recordings and related documents are sought for categories of presidential conversations, identified only by participants and time spans measured in months and years.”

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Senator Sam Ervin.

President Nixon responded to Ervin’s request for papers (in particular that of his personal diary) that “formulation of sound public policy requires that the president and his personal staff be able to communicate among themselves in complete candor, and their tentative judgments, their exploration of alternatives, and their frank comments on issues and personalities at home and abroad, remain confidential,” and that “even limited selected disclosures of presidential confidences would inevitably result in the attrition, and the eventual destruction of the indispensable principle of confidentiality of presidential papers.”
Nixon told Ervin, that honoring any such Congressional request “would unquestionably destroy any vestige of confidentiality of Presidential communications, thereby irreparably impairing the constitutional function of the office of the Presidency. Neither the judiciary nor the Congress could survive a similar power asserted by the executive branch to rummage through their files and confidential processes.” Nixon also argued that this “could seriously impair the ability of the office of the special prosecutor to complete its investigations and successfully prosecute the criminal cases which may arise from the grand juries.” The President closed by saying, “that in the current environment, there may be some attempt to distort my position as only an effort to withhold information.” But he emphasized that he took his position today to protect the presidency “against incursions by another branch, which, I believe, as have my predecessors in office, is of utmost constitutional importance.”

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Richard Nixon & Gerald Warren.

At San Clemente, Warren explained that Nixon “was sticking to his long-standing principle of adhering to the tradition of the separation of power; and that when he handed over some of the Watergate tapes to Sirica last year, it was “an extraordinary step, and he was making exception.” That same day, Nixon announced a shake-up of his legal team. He elevated acting White House counsel Leonard Garment to the post of special assistant to the President while J. Fed Buzhardt Jr. moved from special Watergate counsel to the position of counsel to the President (the post formerly held by John W. Dean III; fired by Nixon) and the hiring of James D. St. Clair as Watergate counsel.
Also that day, the January 4, 1974 issue of “Christianity Today” hit the newsstands. The publication’s founder, the Reverend Billy Graham, had been under pressure from the religious community to speak publicly on Watergate and rebuke President Nixon. If not to rebuke the President, than at least to disassociate himself from identification with the White House inner circle. Graham had presided over Christmas at the White House a month before in services attended by the President and Mrs. Nixon, Vice-President and Mrs. Ford, Senator Ted Kennedy and other dignitaries including many of those implicated in the scandal. Despite the urging by the editorial staff of Christianity Today to condemn the alleged cover-up, Rev. Graham explained privately that such an act would be ethically in poor taste and would ignore the sins of many others.
z 1101541025_400Graham instead remained more general in his remarks, even eschewing humorous suggestions by his inner circle that he preach on tithing in light of recent disclosures that Nixon reported less than $14,000 in total charitable contributions while reporting nearly $1 million over the past four years. The closest the evangelist came to the alleged scandal came when he spoke out on social justice. “We must remake the unjust structures that have taken advantage of the powerless and broken the hearts of the poor and dispossessed,” he asserted. But, he cautioned, “we all admit that we need some sweeping social reforms—and in true repentance we must determine to do something about it—our greatest need is a change in the heart.”
When asked what his reaction was to the invitation to speak at the White House during such a tumultuous time in Presidential history, Rev. Graham replied, “when Mrs. Nixon called, she asked if I would come and hold a Christmas service on December 16. Naturally, I realized the delicacy of such a visit in the present “Watergate” climate. However, I recognized also the responsibility of such a service and the opportunity to present the gospel of Christ within a Christmas context to a distinguished audience. I have said for many years that I will go anywhere to preach the gospel, whether to the Vatican, the Kremlin, or the White House, if there are no strings on what I am to say. I have never had to submit the manuscript to the White House or get anybody’s approval. I have never informed any President of what I was going to say ahead of time. They all have known that when I come I intend to preach the gospel. If Senator McGovern had been elected President and had invited me to preach, I would gladly have gone. I am first and foremost a servant of Jesus Christ. My first allegiance is not to America but to “the Kingdom of God.”
For the sake of retrospective historical context, it should be noted that up until this same time, the National Rifle Association had mainly focused on sportsmen, hunters and target shooters. With the dawning of this new Watergate scandal world, the NRA switched it’s focus to politics and began to map out its lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action (NRA-ILA). The next year, its political action committee (PAC), the Political Victory Fund, was created in time for the 1976 elections.

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The Trumps.

In 1974, just months after he and his father were sued by the U.S. Department of Justice for allegedly violating the 1968 Fair Housing Act in the operation of 39 apartment buildings in New York City, Donald Trump became president of the Trump-owned corporation, which he later named the Trump Organization.. The Trumps initially counter sued the Justice Department for $100 million, alleging harm to their reputations. The suit was settled two years later under an agreement that did not require the Trumps to admit guilt.

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Hillary Rodham.

Conversely, in 1974, Hillary Rodham (Clinton) was a member of the impeachment inquiry staff in Washington, D.C., and advised the House Committee on the Judiciary during the Watergate scandal. Her duties included helping to research the procedures of impeachment and the historical grounds and standards for it. The committee’s work culminated with the resignation of President Richard Nixon in August. All the while, boyfriend Bill Clinton had repeatedly asked Rodham to marry him, but she remained hesitant. After failing the District of Columbia bar exam and passing the Arkansas exam, Rodham followed Clinton to Fayetteville, Arkansas. Bill was then teaching law and running for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Clinton lost that Arkansas congressional race, after-which the couple bought a house in Fayetteville in the summer of 1975 and she agreed to marry him.

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Nancy Pelosi & John Boehner.

Ironically, 33 years later, on January 4, 2007, Speaker of the House John Boehner handed the gavel over to Nancy Pelosi, a Democratic Representative from California. With the passing of the gavel, she became the first woman to hold the Speaker of the House position, as well as the only woman to get that close the presidency. After the Vice President, she was now second in line via the presidential order of succession. That same year, Kentuckian Mitch McConnell arrived to Washington, D.C. to fill a position as Deputy Assistant Attorney General under President Gerald R. Ford, where he worked alongside Robert Bork and Antonin Scalia.
There are many out there who will recall the year 1974 just as there are an equal number who were either not around or too young to recall that seminal year. 1974 fueled the discontent that would foment the remainder of the seventies. Patty Hearst and the SLA. Huey Newton and the Black Panthers. The Weathermen Underground network. All remained active and, in their eyes, relevant. And, although tattered and bruised, the Republic remained intact and the Democratic system survives. Proving once and for all that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Christmas, Ghosts

Washington Irving-Father Christmas?

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Original publish date:  December 19, 2010   

Reissue date: December 19, 2019

Last week I wrote of Irvington namesake Washington Irving’s connection to the author most associated with the Victorian Era, Charles Dickens. While nearly everyone is familiar with Dickens classic seasonal ghost story, “A Christmas Carol”, not many have experienced the magic of a Washington Irving Christmas tale. Although Irving lived a portion of his life as a European vagabond meticulously chronicling the customs, traditions and lore that was fast fading away from the centuries old landscape, he is best remembered today for his American folklore stories like Rip Van Winkle and Ichabod Crane.
For decades, Irving’s description of traditional English Christmas celebrations that influenced nearly every author that came after him were thought to have been formulated and influenced by parties and gatherings he had personally attended. However, its closer to the truth to say that Irving’s Christmas stories were not solely based on any holiday celebration he had attended, but rather many were accounts intentionally created by the imagination of Irving himself. In other words, Washington Irving’s masterful prose influenced generations of experts and historians through the power of his superior skill of embellishment.
z $_57In 1808, Irving created an updated version of Old St. Nick that rode over the treetops in a horse-drawn wagon “dropping gifts down the chimneys of his favorites.” Irving described Santa as a jolly Dutchman who smoked a long-stemmed clay pipe and wore baggy breeches and a broad-brimmed hat. Irving’s work also included the familiar phrase, “laying a finger beside his nose” some 14 years before a Troy, New York newspaper published the iconic children’s poem “Twas the night before Christmas,” which turned Santa’s wagon into a sleigh powered by reindeer.
Irving describes St. Nicholas’ holiday activities by saying, “At this early period was instituted that pious ceremony, still religiously observed in all our ancient families of the right breed, of hanging up a stocking in the chimney on St. Nicholas eve; which stocking is always found in the morning miraculously filled; for the good St. Nicholas has ever been a great giver of gifts, particularly to children.” These descriptions were first published as observances of New York’s old Dutch tradition. His “Old Christmas” tales, first published in 1820, are among the earliest popular accounts of 19th century English Christmas customs, many of which would soon be adopted in the United States and remain familiar to us today.
z CarteNoel_1906_3Irving’s stories are full of mistletoe and evergreen wreaths, Christmas candles and blazing Yule logs, singing and dancing, carolers at the door and the preacher at the church, wine and wassail, and, of course, the festive Christmas dinner. The description of Old Christmas as Irving experienced it in “Merrie Olde England,” helped to popularize these traditions in his native land.
The modern day reader might not realize it but Irving’s descriptions of his own Christmas vision were a subtle form of protest. In an era when our new nation was busy finding its own footing, barely two decades after the writing of the American Constitution, Irving’s first formations of the “New” Christmas were created in an attempt to pull the religious holiday away from the churches and government buildings and take it back where he felt it belonged, with the people. Irving describes it thusly, “Even the poorest cottage welcomed the festive season with green decorations of bay and holly…the cheerful fire glanced its rays through the lattice, inviting the passenger to raise the latch, and join the gossip knot huddled around the hearth, beguiling the long evening with legendary jokes and oft-told Christmas tales.” Irving, ever the bard, also wrote, “At Christmas be merry, and thankful withal. And feast thy poor neighbours, the great and the small.”
Irving’s work was our fledgling country’s first introduction to Christmas tradition and, although many of them survive to the present day, some have morphed into modern versions slightly different from those described by Washington Irving. The mistletoe is still hung in farmhouses and kitchens at Christmas; and the young men have the privilege of kissing the girls under it, plucking each time a berry from the bush. When the berries are all plucked, the privilege ceases.
z christmascardThe Yule-log is a great log of wood, sometimes the root of a tree, brought into the house on Christmas eve, laid in the fireplace, and lighted with a piece of last year’s log. While it burned there was great drinking, singing, and telling of tales. The Yule-log was to burn all night; if it went out, it was considered bad luck. If a squinting person come to the house while it was burning, or a barefooted person, it was considered bad luck. A piece of the Yule-log was carefully put away to light the next year’s Christmas fire.
Washington Irving profoundly influenced the modern day American Christmas in two distinct ways. First, his reinvention of jolly St. Nick into a gift toting ambassador gave hope to every child across the land. Second, the timing of the Christmas holiday during an other wise bleak wintry season offered an emotional waymark to a cabin-fever populace, both young and old. Within a decade of the publication of Irving’s Christmas “Sketch Book,” Americans were greeting each other with “Merry Christmas” wishes, and stores on main streets across America extended their hours to accommodate holiday shoppers.
So remember, this Christmas weekend, as you gather together with friends, loved ones and family to celebrate holiday traditions, think of Washington Irving, America’s Father Christmas.z 2016_Fall_Irving Christmas_ cover tumblr_lwq13icXfI1qac76ro1_r1_1280

Christmas, Ghosts

Washington Irving’s A Christmas Carol?

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Original publish date:  December 12, 2010       

Reissue date: December 12, 2019

Perhaps no single Indianapolis community has a stronger connection to the Victorian Era than Irvington. The Victorian era is defined as the period of British Queen Victoria’s reign from 1837 until her death in 1901. Irvington was founded in 1870 at the height of the Victorian Era. The man widely acknowledged as the most prolific chronicler of this Era is English novelist, Charles Dickens. It is Dickens whom we look to when we envision a Victorian Christmas and it is Dickens beloved story “A Christmas Carol” that most Irvingtonians think of at Christmas. After all, it just wouldn’t be Christmas in Irvington without the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future, now would it?

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Washington Irving Statue-South Irving Circle-Irvington.

However, Irvington’s ties to a Dickensian Christmas are stronger than you might think. Charles Dickens drew upon many personal memories and influences while writing “A Christmas Carol”; grim memories of his father’s imprisonment for debt, his depressing year spent working in the cellar of a shoe factory as a 10-year-old, his outrage over the condition of the poor and uneducated (especially the children working in the mines and industry), and remarkably the influences he found in the works of his literary hero, famed American author and Irvington namesake Washington Irving.
z 51Yrte403LL._SX302_BO1,204,203,200_Dickens’s memorable descriptions of Christmas scenes in “A Christmas Carol” owe a great deal to Irving. In February of 1842, while attending a New York dinner hosted by Irving, Dickens amusingly revealed his devotion to the great American author when he rose his glass in a toast and said, “I say, gentlemen, I do not go to bed two nights out of seven without taking Washington Irving under my arm upstairs to bed with me.”
Dickens drew upon Irving’s, “The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon Gent”, to recreate the joyful warehouse party scenes that the ghost of Christmas past reveals to Ebenezer Scrooge at the start of Dickens classic novel. Irving’s “Sketchbook” featured a squire who invited the peasants into his home for the holiday. In Irving’s mind, Christmas should be a peaceful, warm-hearted holiday bringing groups together across lines of wealth or social status. Irving’s influence can be found elsewhere in the novel as Mr. Wardle tells the party that it is customary for party guests to play games or tell ghost stories until Midnight on Christmas Eve.
Irving traveled extensively throughout Europe recording his experiences in notebooks, and he was especially fond of England and its old world character. He spent a couple of years living in Birmingham, where he wrote “Bracebridge Hall” in 1822, a blend of fact and fiction centered on an old manor house, its residents and guests, and their elaborate parties and tales. It was here that Irving enjoyed and later chronicled the grand Christmas festivities and rituals that had largely faded from English history. Irving’s descriptions of the Bracebridge Hall Christmas celebrations, with their dancing, singing, games, tales, mistletoe and holly clearly helped to shape those seen in Dingley Dell, site of Mr. Fezziwig’s ball, and at the home of Scrooge’s nephew, Fred. Not coincidentally, these Irving inspired Dickensian images are now the visions we dream of when we conjure up a Victorian Christmas.
z old-christmas-1Irving’s descriptions of the short and cold winter days in his story “Old Christmas” make their way into the moral landscape lacking in Scrooge’s character in Dickens “A Christmas Carol”: “In the depth of winter, when nature lies despoiled of every charm, and wrapped in her shroud of sheeted snow, we turn for our gratifications to moral sources. The dreariness and desolation of the landscape, the short gloomy days and darksome nights, while they circumscribe our wanderings, shut in our feelings also from rambling abroad, and make us more keenly disposed for the pleasures of the social circle. Our thoughts are more concentrated; our friendly sympathies more aroused. We feel more sensibly the charm of each other’s society, and are brought more closely together by dependence upon each other for enjoyment. Heart calleth unto heart; and we draw our pleasures from the deep wells of living kindness, which lie in the quiet recesses of our bosoms; and which, when resorted to, furnish forth the pure element of domestic felicity.”
Irving’s romantic memories of Christmas clash with his characteristic dark writing style prompting Dickens to offer his own vision, shaped by personal painful childhood memories from his past and his sympathy with the suffering of children brought on by the Industrial Revolution from his contemporary reality. Irving’s ancient Christmas rituals were set in an idyllic country mansion populated by stage coaches crowded with cheerful travelers over a broad, snow-covered landscape. Dickens places his Christmas tale squarely in the heart of London. Dickens setting is a claustrophobic fog choked, bone-chilling city seemingly caught in the grip of a final ice age: “the fog and darkness thickened so, that people ran about with flaring links, proffering their services to go before horses in carriages, and conduct them on their way. The ancient tower of a church, whose gruff old bell was always peeping slily down at Scrooge out of a gothic window in the wall, became invisible, and struck the hours and quarters in the clouds, with tremulous vibrations afterwards, as if its teeth were chattering in its frozen head up there. The cold became intense. In the main street, at the corner of the court, some labourers were repairing the gas-pipes, and had lighted a great fire in the brazier, round which a party of ragged men and boys were gathered: warming their hands and winking their eyes before the blaze in rapture. The water-plug being left in solitude, its overflowings sullenly congealed, and turned to misanthropic ice.”
z s-l500Dickens Washington Irving inspired story popularized the phrase “Merry Christmas” and introduced the name ‘Scrooge’ and exclamation ‘Bah! Humbug!’ to the English language. However the book’s legacy is the powerful influence it has exerted upon its readers. A Christmas Carol” is widely credited with the “Spirit” of charitable giving associated so closely with the holiday today. Victorian Era examples can be found many places; in 1874, “Treasure Island” author Robert Louis Stevenson vowed to give generously after reading Dickens’s Christmas book, a Boston, Massachusetts merchant, expressed his generous hospitality by hosting two Christmas dinners after attending a reading of the book on Christmas Eve in 1867, and was so moved he closed his factory on Christmas Day and sent every employee a turkey and in 1901, the Queen of Norway sent gifts to London’s crippled children signed “With Tiny Tim’s Love.”
Historians claim that our modern day Christmas celebrations are largely the result of a mid-Victorian revival of the holiday spearheaded by “A Christmas Carol”. Charles Dickens restructured Christmas as a family-based festival of generosity in place of the community-based and church-centered observations most prevalent during the 18th and 19th centuries. Dickens Washington Irving inspired story influenced many aspects of current Christmas traditions found in Western culture, such as family gatherings, seasonal food and drink, dancing, games, and a festive generosity of spirit.
Despite Dickens description, the cold London streets do not preclude the warmth of Christmas. Christmas, Dickens seems to be saying, can now be celebrated by anyone, that its rituals and joys are no longer the exclusive province of the upper classes in their country estates, but can be found in a London warehouse or in a simple London home, such as that of the Cratchit family. Because the population of London was growing exponentially its inhabitants could look to A Christmas Carol for much needed inspiration during a period of great economic and social stress.
z 4Speaking solely for myself, I often find myself drawing upon Dickens description of Old Fezziwig when I think of how others may observe me. In the novel, the Ghost of Christmas Past conjures up the memory of Scrooge’s old employer, Mr. Fezziwig, who converts his warehouse into a festive hall in which to celebrate Christmas: “Clear away. There is nothing they [Fezziwig’s employees] wouldn’t have cleared away, with old Fezziwig looking on. It was done in a minute. Every movable was packed off, as if it were dismissed from public life for evermore; the floor was swept and watered, the lamps were trimmed, fuel was heaped upon the fire; and the warehouse was as snug, and warm, and dry, and bright a ball-room, as you would desire to see upon a winter’s night.” Thus the ledger books, the daily grind, and the cold give way to music, dance, games, food, and fellowship.
As the ghost observes Scrooge wistfully watching the spirit riddled vision from his past he remarks, “A small matter,” mocks the Ghost of Christmas Past, “to make these silly folks so full of gratitude. He has spent but a few pounds of your mortal money: three or four perhaps. Is that so much that he deserves this praise?” To which Scrooge replies, “Fezziwig had the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lay in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count them up: what then? The happiness he gave was quite as great as if it cost a fortune.” I’ve often thought of this passage when I lament the high cost of Christmas and marvel at the eloquence of Dickens prose. I’m even prouder to learn that Washington Irving’s talent for the turn of a phrase contributed to that eloquence.

Criminals, Politics, Pop Culture

J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Hoover-MLK

Original publish date:  December 5, 2019

Politics. No matter where you go, you can’t escape it. No doubt last week Thanksgiving tables all across the Hoosier state either artfully dodged or spiritedly discussed politics in one form or another. Luckily, if you don’t like the political situation in this country, you can do your part to change it by exercising your right to vote. But what about the influence wielded by those most powerful “influencers” who never ran for office nor received a single vote? I’m not talking about the Kardashians, Oprah, Ellen or Taylor Swift. They may influence style and pop culture, but they do not steer public policy.

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An argument could be made that today we are living within the most powerful unelected government in history of the United States. I would imagine that the average citizen could name more unelected policy influencers than they could legislators. Doubt that? Names like Buffet, Gates, Zuckerberg, the Koch Brothers, Limbaugh, Hannity, Maher, O’Reilly, Soros, Bezos, Musk ring a bell? However, any child of the sixties would counter those examples with names like Dylan, Lennon, Leary, Ali, Malcolm X, and Chavez. The difference is that today’s policy influencers attempt change through money while baby boomer influencers attempted change through ideals. In the case of the sixties, the two most powerful unelected influencers came from opposite ends of the spectrum. They were FBI leader J. Edgar Hoover and Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Although J. Edgar Hoover was never elected to any office, for decades, he was every bit as powerful as any person in the country. Hoover’s power emanated from his leadership of the FBI but was enhanced by his ready use of blackmail and, ironically, other criminal practices to stay in power. Since his death in 1972, Hoover’s legacy remains in conflict. Hoover’s critics say he harassed civil rights leaders, discriminated against gays (particularly federal workers) and gathered incriminating evidence to blackmail political figures; friend and foe. While his supporters point to Hoover’s modernization of law enforcement methods, his standardization of the the FBI’s fingerprint database and for bringing forensic science into criminal investigations as his legacy.

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During a three week period 55 years ago, the dichotomy of the Hoover-King affair was defined. On Nov. 18, 1964, Hoover told a gathering of women reporters, “In my opinion, Dr. Martin Luther King is the most notorious liar in the country.” Hoover’s statement was in response to Dr. King’s suggestion that the F.B.I. was not doing enough to protect Freedom Riders fighting Jim Crow racism in the South. That “Freedom Summer” campaign to get African Americans to register to vote was marred by violence, including the killings of three civil rights workers in Mississippi.
Hoover’s comments prompted a request by Dr. King for a meeting with the Director. “I was appalled and surprised at your reported statement maligning my integrity,” King wrote in a telegram to Hoover. “What motivated such an irresponsible accusation is a mystery to me.” King turned the tables on the Director by telling reporters: “I cannot conceive of Mr. Hoover making a statement like this without being under extreme pressure….I have nothing but sympathy for this man who has served his country so well.” In contrast, privately Hoover called King “the burrhead” and “a tom cat with degenerate sexual urges.”z mlk-fbi-1
But before that meeting could be arranged, FBI assistant director and head of the Domestic Intelligence Division at the time, William C. Sullivan, sent an anonymous letter to King, threatening to make public the civil rights leader’s sex life. Hence known colloquially as the “suicide letter” for its suggestion that King kill himself to avoid the embarrassing revelations, it is unknown whether the letter was sent at Hoover’s direction. However, a full and uncensored copy can be found in Hoover’s confidential files at the National Archives. The letter dictated: “There is only one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal, fraudulent self is bared to the nation”.
On Dec. 1st, Dr. King meets with J. Edgar Hoover to discuss the perceived slander campaign by the Director. Hoover later told Time magazine, “I held him in complete contempt…First I felt I shouldn’t see him, but then I thought he might become a martyr if I didn’t.” Hoover hated King for several reasons, first, because he believed King was a Communist, but also for King’s criticism of the FBI for failing to solve civil rights-related crimes. And, as Wm. Sullivan wrote in his memoir, “Hoover was opposed to change, to the civil rights movement, and to blacks.”

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John F. Kennedy, J. Edgar Hoover & Robert F. Kennedy

In 1963 Hoover used the King Communist accusation to convince Attorney General Robert Kennedy to allow the FBI tap King’s phones and bug his hotel rooms. Although Kennedy only gave written approval for “limited wiretapping” of Dr. King’s phones “on a trial basis, for a month or so”, Hoover extended the clearance so his men were “unshackled” to look for evidence in any areas of King’s life they deemed worthy. The bugs revealed that King was having extramarital affairs, which disgusted Hoover, a lifelong bachelor whose own sexuality remains a mystery. The bug also picked up King describing Hoover as, “old and senile.” Hoover shared his tapes of King’s sexual romps with President Lyndon Johnson, who then allegedly played them for his aides. Hoover also directed his assistants to leak the details of King’s sex life to reporters. A tape was also sent anonymously to King’s wife Coretta.

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Hoover & LBJ

Around Thanksgiving, Newsweek reported that President Johnson had decided to “find a new chief of the FBI.” FBI agent Sullivan wrote that it was “Johnson who ordered Hoover to meet with King and patch things up.” Hoover ordered his aide Cartha DeLoach, “Make sure the meeting is in my office. And no press. Do you hear me, no press!” While DeLoach followed orders no-one informed Dr. King’s aides, and when the civil rights leader arrived at Hoover’s office, there was a mob of reporters waiting outside.
The 69-year-old Hoover met with the 35-year-old Dr. King and his aides, Ralph Abernathy and Andrew Young. “I’m grateful for the opportunity to meet with you,” King said. He told Hoover that he appreciated the work the FBI had done in civil rights cases and said that while “Many Negroes have complained that the FBI has been ineffective but I, myself discount such criticism. And I want to assure you that I have been seriously misquoted in the matter of slurs against the FBI.” Dr. King’s statement took about two minutes. After which, Hoover spoke without stopping for the better part of an hour extolling the virtues of the FBI and denouncing the communists. Meanwhile, America’s greatest Civil Rights orator sat quietly and listened.
During the meeting, Hoover was asked why the FBI didn’t have more black agents. “The problem is, we require not only a college diploma, but in most cases an advanced degree,” Hoover said. “We won’t water down our qualifications because of the color of a person’s skin.” The meeting ended without addressing the issues that had prompted the meeting. “We never got around to discussing the ‘most notorious liar’ business. Nor did we even get to mention the FBI surveillance,” Andrew Young later wrote in his memoir. “In fact, nothing happened except that Hoover rambled on and on about the virtues of the FBI.”
z famous-disputes-hoover-kingIn 1970, two years after King’s assassination, Hoover told a Time reporter. “King was very suave and smooth. He sat right there where you’re sitting and said he never criticized the FBI. I said, ‘Mr. King’-I never called him reverend- ‘stop right there. You’re lying….If you ever say anything that’s a lie again, I’ll brand you a liar again.’ Strange to say, he never attacked the Bureau again for as long as he lived.” Nobody else present that day remembered that confrontation-not Young, not Abernathy, not even Deputy Director Deke DeLoach, who was taking notes that afternoon.

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Deke Deloach and J. Edgar Hoover.

In the years after that meeting, Hoover tasked several FBI agents to 24-hour monitoring of the activities of Dr. King. The FBI Director directed his agents to set up wiretaps, monitor travel, conduct surveillance, and record all of King’s activities- including those he met with, what they discussed, how long they stayed, and how often they interacted- in an attempt to discredit or charge him with something.
President Truman once said, “We want no Gestapo or secret police. The FBI is tending in that direction.” J. Edgar Hoover used his power to further his own agenda and secure his position as leader of the most powerful law enforcement agency in the country. And black people were a favorite target of Hoover’s FBI. Legal scholar Randall Kennedy said that Hoover “viewed protest against white domination as tending toward treason.” This view of the world led Hoover to align himself with all of the forces of racial oppression, but he may have done his greatest damage not through action, but through inaction. He relentlessly pursued high profile targets like the Black Panthers, but neglected to protect the basic human rights of “ordinary” black citizens.
Because Hoover hated communists as much as he hated black people, he often equated one with the other, claiming that the civil rights movement was a tool of the communist party. Make no mistake about it though, J. Edgar Hoover’s enemies list did not end with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.. The great crime fighting G-man’s other targets included Ralph Abernathy, Muhammad Ali, James Baldwin, H. Rap Brown, Stokely Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver, Tom Hayden, Ernest Hemingway, Abbie Hoffman, Malcolm X, and Huey P. Newton and wiretappings and illegal break-ins of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference that King headed.

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Dr. King accepting the Nobel Prize.

While the Hoover-King meeting was deemed unremarkable and went mostly unnoticed by the American press, it was viewed otherwise by the citizens of the world at large. On Dec. 10th, 1964 the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Dr Martin Luther King Jr., making him the youngest winner of the prestigious award. Officially, it was awarded to him for leading nonviolent resistance to racial prejudice in the U.S. At Dr. King’s acceptance speech in Oslo, he remarked, “I accept the Nobel Prize for Peace at a moment when 22 million Negroes of the United States of America are engaged in a creative battle to end the long night of racial injustice…I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind. I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history…I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality…I believe that wounded justice, lying prostrate on the blood-flowing streets of our nations, can be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men…I still believe that We Shall overcome!”
After King accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, Hoover wrote his reaction on a news clipping: “King could well qualify for the ‘top alley cat’ prize.” And even by 1969, a year after Dr. King’s death, FBI efforts to discredit the Civil Rights leader had not slackened. The Bureau furnished ammunition to opponents that enabled attacks on King’s memory, and tried to block efforts to honor the slain leader. The campaign to tarnish Dr. King’s legacy persisted until Hoover’s death in 1972.

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MLK and Hoover.

Hoover’s meeting with Dr. King 55 years ago did nothing to enhance his personal legacy. Today, he is remembered as a cross-dressing closet homosexual suffering from paranoid delusions. But could self-loathing also qualify as a symptom of Hoover’s obsession of Dr. King, the Civil Rights movement and personal persecution of the black race?
In his 1993 book “Official and Confidential” author Anthony Summers said that ,in some black communities in the East, he discovered that it was generally believed J. Edgar Hoover had black roots and was even referred to as a “soul brother” in some circles. Writer Gore Vidal, a contemporary of the Director who grew up in Washington, D.C. in the 1930s also said in an interview: “It was always said in my family and around the city that Hoover was mulatto. And that he came from a family that passed.”
So, as you contemplate the many layers of political intrigue addressed in this article and populating the headlines, airwaves and social media today, keep in mind that things may not always appear as they seem. As the Wizard of Oz himself, Frank Morgan said way back in 1939. “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” Oftentimes it is the legacy that reveals the real truths of an age or era. And that legacy can only be accurately deciphered through the lens of time.

Abe Lincoln, Ghosts, Politics, Presidents

Jeremiah Smith and Abraham Lincoln’s ghost

Jeremiah “Jerry” Smith

Original publish date: November 28, 2019

As Thanksgiving approaches, I must admit, I’m still stuck in Halloween mode. After all, despite the recent measurable snowfall, autumn is still in session and my thoughts always wander towards ghost stories at Christmas (remember friends, Scrooge is a ghost story). In a couple weeks, families will gather together to give thanks for all of the blessings bestowed upon them during the past year. While images of Pilgrims in high hats, square-toed shoes and plain brown clothing dance through our heads, it should be remembered that it was Abraham Lincoln who gave us the modern version of Thanksgiving. On October 3, 1863, three months to the day after the pivotal Union Army victory at Gettysburg, a grateful President Abraham Lincoln announced that the nation will celebrate an official Thanksgiving holiday that November 26. Well, the nation north of the Mason-Dixon line anyway.
z 130043scr_06051f04c8db3d0Although Lincoln was the first to officially recognize the U.S. holiday of Thanksgiving, Halloween was just beginning to take root during the Civil War. Some historians credit the Irish for “inventing” Halloween in the United States. Or more specifically, the Irish “little people” with a tendency toward vandalism, and their tradition of “Mischief Night” that spread quickly through rural areas. According to American Heritage magazine (October 2001 / Vol. 52, Issue 7), “On October 31, young men roamed the countryside looking for fun, and on November 1, farmers would arise to find wagons on barn roofs, front gates hanging from trees, and cows in neighbors’ pastures. Any prank having to do with an outhouse was especially hilarious, and some students of Halloween maintain that the spirit went out of the holiday when plumbing moved indoors.”
z VintageHalloween_artSo it is that the origins of our two most celebrated autumnal holidays trace their American roots directly to our sixteenth President. And no President in American history is more closely associated with ghosts than Abraham Lincoln. However, where did all of these Lincoln ghost stories originate? After all, they had to start somewhere because one thing is for certain, they didn’t come from Abraham Lincoln. Many historians believe that most of those stories (at least the Lincoln ghost stories in the White House) came from a middle-aged freedman born in Anne Arundel County Maryland who worked as a White House “footman” serving nine Presidents from U.S. Grant to Teddy Roosevelt. His duties as footman included service as butler, cook, doorman, light cleaning and maintenance.

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Jeremiah “Jerry” Smith.

Jeremiah “Jerry” Smith was a free born African American man born below the Mason-Dixon line in 1835. No small feat when you consider that, in 1850, 71 percent of Maryland’s black population was enslaved. Smith was an imposing figure, standing over 6 feet tall in an age when the average man stood 5 foot 8 inches in height. Although little is known about Smith’s personal history, by all accounts, Jerry had the manners of a country gentleman. During the Civil War, he served as a teamster for the Union Army, guiding vital supply trains made up of wagons, horses, and mules. It is believed that somewhere during the conflict, he made the acquaintance of General Ulysses S. Grant. Grant, perhaps our greatest presidential horseman, no doubt appreciated Smith’s equine expertise.
At war’s end, Smith was working as a waiter in a Baltimore restaurant when his old acquaintance U.S. Grant came calling. After Grant was elected President, Smith went to work in the Grant White House and would serve from the age of Reconstruction through the Gilded Age and into the Progressive Era.
One of the few detailed descriptions of Smith comes from Col. William H. Crook, a White House Secret Service agent and onetime personal bodyguard of Abraham Lincoln. Crook, in a book detailing his nearly 50 years of service in the White House, said that Smith was “one of the best known employees in the WH, who began his career as Grant’s footman, and remained in the WH ever since, and still was one of the most magnificent specimens of manhood the colored race has produced. In addition to his splendid appearance, he had the manner of a courtier, and a strong personality that could not be overlooked by anyone, high or low.”

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Col. William H. Crook

Crook claimed that Smith was “incredibly superstitious and believed in ghosts the same way a five-year-old believes in Santa Claus – and no one could tell him any different. Since the WH has always been home to benevolent ghosts, Jerry Smith had a varied assortment of stories about the origin of the creaks and groans he heard, and happy to share them with all who would listen…he was always seeing or hearing the ghosts of former deceased Presidents hovering around in out-of-the-way corners, especially in deep shadows at sundown, or later.” Smith believed these ghosts had every right to haunt their former home and never questioned that right, “being perfectly willing to let them do whatever they wished so long as they let him alone.”
gettyimages-468377946Jeremiah would often spin yarns for visiting reporters. Most of these tall tales were pure Americana always designed to bolster the reputation of his employer and their families, but some of Jerry’s best remembered tales were spooky ghost stories. Smith claimed that he saw the ghosts of Presidents Lincoln, Grant, and McKinley, and that they tried to speak to him but only produced a buzzing sound.
However, when it came to White House spirits, Abraham Lincoln’s ghost grabbed the lion’s share of the headlines. Smith most often held court at the North Entrance (where the press corps came and went) with his signature feather duster in his hand and a fantastical story at the ready (if needed). Soon, newspapermen began calling him the “Knight of the Feather Duster” and routinely consulted Smith for comment on days when Presidential news was thin.

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The White House attic.

z attic 2One Chicago reporter said this about Smith: “He is a firm believer in ghosts and their appurtenances, and he has a fund of stories about these uncanny things that afford immense entertainment for those around him. But there is one idea that has grown into Jerry’s brain and is now part of it, resisting the effects or ridicule, laughter, argument, or explanation. He firmly believes that the White House is haunted by the spirits of all the departed Presidents, and, furthermore, that his Satanic majesty, the devil, has his abode in the attic. He cannot be persuaded out of the notion, and at intervals he strengthens his position by telling about some new strange noise he has heard or some additional evidence he has secured.”
Turns out that the noises in the attic were made by rats and the story of the devil was a ruse devised to keep young Nellie Grant and her girlfriends from playing up there. When McKinley was mortally wounded while standing in a receiving line at an exposition in Buffalo, it was Smith who first announced it in the White House by shouting the news down a White House stairwell, “The President is shot!”
Sadly, Smith was saddled with the social mores and ignorance of his era. Some members of the press derisively called Smith, a Civil War veteran with an inside track to his country’s chief executive, “Possum Jerry” and “Uncle Jerry” or caricaturized him as a “faithful old servant” and “Uncle Tom.” What was never in dispute was Smith’s grace, manners and deferential self-deprecating sense of service. Although highly intelligent, when quoted in newspapers, Smith always spoke with an overly exaggerated dialect. In one example found in a D.C. newspaper story about White House ghosts, Smith describes his communications with the deceased benefactor, President U.S. Grant as: “I done shore ’nuff hear de gin-al’s voice. I done shore ’nuff hear it jes de same as ef it was in dis room, so strong an’ powerful.””

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Ulysses S. Grant & Julia Grant

Along the way, Smith’s close relationships with some of the Presidential Families added to his legend. For U.S. Grant’s wife Julia, Smith accompanied the First Lady on her rounds of daily “calls,” a popular tradition in Washington for several decades. Dressed in his finest navy blue uniform with silver trim, it was his responsibility to help the First Lady from the carriage and escort her to the door of whichever home she was visiting. If the lady was “at home,” he would stand by until Mrs. Grant was ready to leave and then escort her back to the carriage. If the lady was not “at home,” Jerry would take Mrs. G’s calling card from a silver case, and leave it with whoever answered the door.
Kind-hearted Julia Grant took a maternal interest in all the White House servants, paying special attention to Jeremiah. During the Grant’s eight years in the White House (1869-1877), real estate prices in the District were low, and affordable housing was available for the poor and minority citizens of Washington. Julia strongly advocated to her servants that they purchase houses as an investment for their golden years. At first, Smith resisted Mrs. Grant’s urging, and she is said to have scolded him, adding that if he did not make arrangements to purchase a house immediately, she would buy one for him, and garnish his monthly wages to pay for it. The result? Jerry bought a house.

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First Lady Frances Cleveland.

There is a well-known story about Smith and First Lady Frances Cleveland, about to depart the White House following Grover Cleveland’s first term loss to Hoosier Benjamin Harrison. On March 4, 1889, as Mrs. Cleveland departed her White House home, she told the doorman to “be sure to keep everything just the same for us when we come back.” When Smith asked the First lady when she would be back, she replied “four years from today.” Sure enough, Grover Cleveland defeated “Lil Ben” Harrison in a rematch and she returned to the White House on March 4, 1893. By then, Smith was such a fixture at the Executive Mansion that several members of President Grover Cleveland’s cabinet attended the celebration of his 25th (Silver) wedding anniversary at his home in 1895. On the couple’s special day, Jerry completed his doorman duties as usual, including lowering the flag, and quietly disappeared for a small celebration only to be surprised by the White House delegation arriving to celebrate with the couple.
According to Crook, “And to that home, that evening, wended a procession of dignitaries such as never before had graced its precincts. Everyone who came to the White House during Jerry’s service there of nearly a quarter of a century, knew the old man, and thoroughly liked him. So great was the general regard, that not merely clerks and assistant secretaries went to his silver wedding, but one carriage after another drove up to his door, containing Cabinet Officers and members of the Diplomatic Corps, sending in to him and his wife some personal gift appropriate to the occasion.” A pile of silver dollars were left on his table as tribute. Jerry was the envy of all his neighbors.
During the McKinley administration, Jerry Smith’s title was the “Official Duster” at the White House because it was less physically demanding and stressful. He retired due to infirmity in 1904 during Theodore Roosevelt’s administration. Months later, shortly before Jerry’s death by throat cancer, TR visited the beloved “duster” at his home and sat with him for a while. It was same little house that Julia Grant had insisted that he purchase all those years before.

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Teddy Roosevelt

When Smith passed away at age 69 in 1904, his Washington, D.C. obituary called him “the best gentility that democracy has produced.” A Los Angeles Times obituary noted, “He was not favored by position, for he was the dustman and the charman; but his dignity and his courtesy made him the most conspicuous and the most liked servant in the place. . . . He was not born to live a life of obscurity, for with dust broom he was as dignified in his bearing as a king on his throne. . . . For more than a quarter century he held his place, and the White House was more changed by his disappearance than by the architects who remodeled it.”
Luckily one photo survives picturing Jerry in his prime. Taken by Frances Benjamin Johnston in 1889, Jerry is posed wearing a full-length white apron, white jacket, plaid necktie, and dark skull cap. Smith stands on the North Portico of the White House smiling sweetly for the camera, the thumb of his left hand tucked inside the apron, his right hand holds his ever-present feather duster at a jaunty 45-degree angle. Although perhaps viewed at the time as the perfect illustration of domestic servitude at the highest level, Jerry Smith’s self-confidence, dignity, and authority dominate the pose. So, whatever one thinks about the ghosts of the White House (Abraham Lincoln in particular), Smith was certainly a memorable character at the White House. And one helluva storyteller.

Hollywood, Indianapolis, Indy 500, Pop Culture, Sports

Paul Newman and the Indy 500.

Paul Newman

Original publish date:  June 8, 2015     Reissued: November 21, 2019

I have many heroes in my life ranging from the rich and famous (Abraham Lincoln, Jimmy Carter, Harry Truman, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Jr. to name a few) to the not-so-famous (My wife Rhonda, my kids Jasmine & Addison, and my mother Ruth McDuffee) as well as people I admire but really wouldn’t want to emulate (Hunter S.Thompson, Wilt Chamberlain, Frank Sinatra, Keith Richards). However, one of the people from my life that I admire and aspire to emulate has a strong connection to Indianapolis and the month of May is no longer with us. Paul Newman died on September 26, 2008 but his spirit lives on at Indy and he will always be one of the first things I think of when I imagine the Indy 500.

            Way back in 1968, when I was a small child living on Bluebell lane (near 34th & High School Road) on Indy’s west side, I remember laying in my room in the middle of the day listening to the sounds of cars whizzing around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway track and napping to the sound of speed. A.J. Foyt was a frequent visitor to our neighborhood. A.J.’s chief mechanic lived two houses away and my dad was a time keeper in the tower for 40 years. The big deal for us was to walk over to the neighborhoods bordering the track in search of sites usually reserved for carnival sideshows. I remember seeing drunks sleeping in shopping carts and scantily clad women passed out in the grass of the coke lot. We ALWAYS found money, pop bottles to return for 8 cents a piece and coolers full of goodies left over by people watching the race who were obviously flying home.

z WINNING1SHHRws           Even though I was very young, I can remember that in May of 1968, Hollywood came to town to film a major movie at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Although I didn’t know it at the time, the film was called “Winning,” and starred Paul Newman and his real-life wife, Joanne Woodward. The plot focused on an ambitious race driver determined to win the Indianapolis 500 in an effort to resurrect his flagging career. The film also starred Richard Thomas, soon to become more famous as “John Boy” on “The Waltons” TV series and Robert Wagner (of “Hart to Hart” TV fame). Several real-life racing figures-including the Speedway’s owner, Tony Hulman, and race driver Bobby Unser-portray themselves in the movie.

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The Greenie Meanie.

            I could have easily ridden my Schwinn “Greenie Meanie” 5-speed with sissy bar and wheelie poppers over to the Speedway Motel and see these guys. After all, they were filming some of the scenes in the motel itself and many of my neighbors and some of my family members could’ve gotten me access with no problem. Things were different then, there were no stalkers, no serial killers, no crazy Manson family maniacs on the Indy radar screen back then. Looking back, I sincerely wish I’d have made the trip.

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Paul Newman’s US Navy photo.

            Born January 25, 1925 in Shaker Heights, Ohio, Paul Newman showed an early propensity for acting and landed his first motion-picture role in 1954. He went on to star in more than 60 movies, including “The Long Hot Summer,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “The Hustler,” “Hud,” “Cool Hand Luke,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “The Sting,” “Slap Shot,” “Absence of Malice,” “The Verdict,” “Nobody’s Fool” and “Cars.” He garnered 10 Academy Award nominations, including eight for Best Actor. His sole Oscar win came in 1986 (Best Actor) when he reprised his role from “The Hustler” as Fast Eddie Felson alongside Tom Cruise in “The Color of Money.”

            Newman began racing cars in 1972, three years after completing the movie “Winning”. Newman and Wagner attended the Bob Bondurant racing school to prepare for the movie, and Newman performed many of the racing scenes himself without a stunt driver. The experience resonated with Newman for the rest of his life, to the point that he embarked on a successful second career as a driver. Newman’s greatest accomplishment as a driver was a second-place finish in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in ’79, driving a Porsche 935. He remained active in endurance racing, making his last start at the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway in 2006 at the age of 81. When he was racing, Newman kept a low profile at the track and maintained an intense focus on the task at hand. He always raced under the name P.L. Newman to avoid drawing attention to his status as a Hollywood icon.

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Mario Andretti & Paul Newman.

            Paul Newman, who died from cancer at the age of 83, was best-known as one of the most famous actors in the world, one of the most fervent race fans on the planet, one of the best race car drivers as a second career and, as founder of the popular Newman’s Own brand of organic food products, one of the most successful private sector philanthropists in the history of the United States, donating more than $250 million of after-tax profits to charity since 1982.

            It helped fuel my admiration for Paul Newman to know that many of the values he stood for in his lifetime were shared by me. For his strong support of Eugene McCarthy in 1968 and his strong opposition to the War in Vietnam, Newman was placed nineteenth on Richard Nixon’s enemies list, which he claimed was his greatest accomplishment. He attended the first Earth Day event in Manhattan on April 22, 1970. Newman was a vocal supporter of gay rights, including same-sex marriage. Newman was concerned over global warming and supported alternative energy development as a solution to our nation’s addiction to fossil fuels. In short, he was a man with a conscience.

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Roselyn Bakery.

            I was lucky, I got to meet Paul Newman several times at the track through my time keeper dad. Contrary to his reputation, he was always a gracious autograph signer for me and for anyone who was polite and said please and thank-you. But it was an unexpected encounter in 1992 that I will always cherish the most. I pulled into the Roselyn Bakery on Rockville road during the month of May to pick up Toffee Cookies for me and Butter Jumbles for my wife. As I waited in line behind a large crowd of people, I didn’t notice that there was a limousine parked idling on the side of the building.

             I was standing in line holding my 2-year-old daughter in my arms and waiting for my turn when the crowd of people parted and Paul Newman himself stepped from the crowds wearing his trademark glasses and said “Boo” to my daughter while tickling her tiny tummy. Jasmine squealed with delight and Paul Newman formed his finger and thumb into the shape of a gun and “shot” at us saying “Get the Butter Jumbles, they’re my favorite kid.” It happened so fast that before I knew it he was in the limo and out of the lot. Paul Newman was a good husband, father, grandfather and human being. I’m just happy I had the opportunity to meet him.

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Paul Newman on his last visit.

           When the Speedway Motel was torn down in February of last year, I recalled a quote from Newman’s last visit to the city of my birth a short time before his death, “It’s good to be back at Indianapolis,” he added. “It brings back a lot of fond memories. My favorite tradition was that it took a whole month. Indy started at the first of May, and you had your reservation at the Speedway Motel. If you wanted a room for two days, you took it for the whole month or you wouldn’t get it.”

So, if you really think about it and take that statement literally, it can easily be said that all of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway heroes of our youth, A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Al and Bobby Unser, Rick Mears, Johnny Rutherford, Rodger Ward, Gordon Johncock, the Bettenhausens’, the Vuckovichs’, and Paul Newman called our city home for one month every year. The month of May in Indianapolis.