Original publish date: December 7, 2013 Republished June 1, 2018
As many of you know, I collect “stuff.” In particular, historical stuff. Especially, slightly creepy historical stuff. For years, whenever my kids saw a $ 20 bill, they would delightfully squeal out the phrase “That Glorious Mane” and giggle devilishly between themselves. While I always understood the reference to Andrew Jackson’s famous head of hair. I never really understood the origin of their inside joke. It was like reading a New Yorker magazine cartoon, sure, I can read it and smile, but I don’t always get it. And try as I might, I still have not found the source for the “Glorious Mane” quote. So, when I ran across a genuine lock of Andrew Jackson’s hair at several years ago, I had to have it.
The lock of hair is held in place by an ornate wax seal affixed to a descriptive card of provenance and has been professionally framed for posterity. The card reads: “Hair of Andrew Jackson, a portion of lot 96 of the personal relics of President Andrew Jackson consigned and guaranteed genuine by Andrew Jackson the fourth. The item came from the collection of Forest H. Sweet of Battle Creek Michigan, one of the most famous autograph manuscript and relic collectors of his day. Sweet specialized in Abraham Lincoln, so much so that during the years around World War II, he compiled a comprehensive book of Lincoln collectors and their collections that is still prized by collectors today. So, the provenance of the Andrew Jackson lock of hair was beyond reproach.
Long story short, I won the item. Needless to say, I was excited. Hours turned into days and days turned into weeks as I waited for the General’s lock of hair to arrive. It came via the United States postal service and I could hardly wait to get my first peek at it. Turns out, the item was far more attractive than I expected (for a lock of dead guy’s hair that is). The thick lock of reddish grey hair is about 1.5 inches in length and looks to contain somewhere between 25 and 50 strands of hair. The blue wax seal features an “S” initial that was undoubtedly applied by Forest H. Sweet himself. I could hardly wait to reveal the relic to my children. Sadly, the unveiling was less than I expected. “That’s nice daddy” was the general consensus. It was like buying a kid a Christmas present only to find that they are more interested in playing with the shipping box.
Okay, so my kids weren’t excited, but I was. Macabre as it seems, bestowing locks of hair on friends, family members, and admirers was common practice in the 19th century. Locks of hair from many renowned historical figures can be found in the collections of museums all over the world. I must admit, this is not the first lock of celebrity hair that has found it’s way into my collection. I once owned well documented strands of hair from George Washington, Robert E. Lee and Abraham Lincoln. But this Andrew Jackson blood relic is a full robust lock, a good ole’ hank, a veritable pinch of hair right off the head of Old Hickory himself!
I simply could not resist researching (my wife might say obsessing over) my cherished new relic. Much to my surprise, while searching the net I actually found a website and active blog devoted to “That Glorious Mane“. The website, called “American Lion”, is associated to Andrew Jackson’s hair in name only. But it does touch on the macabre hobby and, more importantly, vindicates my strange purchase by discussing famous locks of hair that have sold recently at auction. In December of 2011, 12 strands of Michael Jackson’s hair, reportedly fished out of a shower drain at New York’s Carlyle Hotel after Jackson stayed there for a charity event during the 1980s, sold at auction in London for around $1,900 to an online gaming casino. The casino plans to use the hair in the construction of a special roulette ball (I don‘t understand it either).
The King of Pop apparently can’t hold a candle to the King of Rock-N-Roll though. For the day after Jackson’s hair was sold, a Chicago auction house sold clumps of Elvis Presley’s hair (cut and saved after Elvis’ 1958 Army induction) in Illinois, selling for $15,000.
Okay, if you’re still creeped out by the thought of collecting hair, which truthfully, I can’t blame you for, keep in mind that the hobby was once considered to be the height of cool. The Victorians LOVED designing and wearing hair jewelry, often weaving strands into intricate designs which they incorporated into necklaces, earrings, and pins. To say nothing about picture frames, paperweights and other household decorations. Seems that Queen Victoria is credited with starting the trend. When her beloved Prince Albert died, the distraught monarch had several rings made out of his hair, which she wore daily. Consider that famous Victorian writers like Jane Austen, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sir Walter Scott, and John Keats often referenced locks of hair in their works.
Keep in mind, the Victorians did not only collect hair from dead people, though. Most often it was the living that handed out their hair to be woven into special keepsakes, as a reminder of life’s fleeting beauty. Remember, hair changes color and falls out in time, so young lovers and fans might ask for a few locks to be woven into watch chains and jewelry so they might think of their idol daily. And in fairness, most locks of the rich and famous were asked for while the subject was still very alive, just like you might ask for an autograph. Hair collecting has been traced all the way back to the 16th century Swedes, who are believed to have started the practice out of sheer boredom during endless Nordic nights.
Nowadays, with the introduction of D.N.A. to the daily lexicon of society, collecting hair takes on a whole new meaning. In the case of “The General” (Jackson’s personally preferred title) a lock of hair could conceivably unlock the mystery of the man himself. With apologies to my dear Irvingtonian friend Dawn Briggs (bring up the name to her and you‘ll understand why I‘m apologizing), it is hard to deny that Andrew Jackson was an interesting man. You either loved him or you hated him. Jackson was long and lean, standing at 6 feet, 1 inch tall, and weighing between 130 and 140 pounds. He had penetrating deep blue eyes and was known for his unruly shock of red hair, which had turned completely gray by the time he became president at age 61. Jackson was one of our more sickly presidents, suffering from chronic headaches, abdominal pains, and a hacking cough caused by a musket ball in his lung that he carried for most of his life. Jackson had a few bullets in his body, the results of at least two known duels, both of which he won. The lead bullet often caused the General to cough up blood and sometimes made his whole body shake.
In addition, Jackson suffered from dysentery and malaria contracted during his military campaigns. He was known to have an addiction to coffee, enjoyed a drink or two on occasion, and incessantly chewed tobacco to the extent that brass spittoons were everywhere in the White House. Despite Doctor’s orders, Jackson refused to give up these three vices, regardless of the fact that they gave him migraines. The afore mentioned bullets undoubtedly caused the General to suffer from lead poisoning, quite literally. Luckily, 19 years after that 1832 duel, the bullet causing the most damage was extracted in the White House without anesthesia. Afterwards, Jackson’s health improved tremendously .
The first recorded attack on a sitting President was against Andrew Jackson. On May 6, 1833 while in Fredericksburg Virginia dedicating a monument to the mother of George Washington, a disgruntled sailor named Robert B. Randolph jumped from the crowd and struck the President with his fist. Randolph fled in hot pursuit by several members of Jackson’s party, including the famous writer (and Irvington namesake) Washington Irving. Jackson did not press charges.
On January 30, 1835, the first attempt to kill a sitting US President occurred just outside the United States Capitol, again against Andrew Jackson. As Jackson exited the East Portico after a funeral, Richard Lawrence, an unemployed housepainter from England, aimed a pistol at Jackson, which misfired. Lawrence quickly pulled a second pistol, which also misfired. Legend claims that Jackson then beat Lawrence senseless with his cane. The President’s friend, frontiersman Davy Crockett, restrained and disarmed Lawrence, undoubtedly saving the would be assassin’s life. Lawrence, who claimed to be England’s King Richard III (dead since 1485) blamed Jackson for the loss of his job. Lawrence was judged insane and institutionalized. Ironically, afterward the pistols were test fired again-and-again and each time they performed perfectly.
For years, Jackson treated his aches and pains by self-medicating with salts of mercury (often used as a diuretic and purgative in the mid 19th century), as well as ingesting sugar of lead (a lead acetate-used as a food sweetener). Historians have long believed that Andrew Jackson slowly died of mercury and lead poisoning from two bullets in his body and those medications he took for intestinal problems. As proof, historians believe that his symptoms, including excessive salivation, rapid tooth loss, colic, diarrhea, hand tremors, irritability, mood swings and paranoia, were consistent with mercury and lead poisoning. One of Jackson’s doctors liked to give the lead laden sugar to both Andrew and his wife Rachel. They not only ingested it, but used it to bathe their skin and eyes. Jackson’s well-documented, unpredictable behavior were textbook signs of mercury poisoning. Historians described these signs as “thundering and haranguing,” “pacing and ranting” and “at one moment in a towering rage, in the next moment laughing about the outburst. “
In an effort to settle the case once and for all, in 1999, two strands of the General’s hair were acquired from the Hermitage for testing. Tony Guzzi, assistant curator at The Hermitage, Andrew Jackson’s home in Nashville, Tennessee said, “We have several samples of Jackson’s hair. Admirers often requested a lock, and he would just cut one off and send it to them.” An account left by one person who visited the retired statesman at his home in 1844 relates, “we were each given a lock of Jackson’s hair, which we received with eagerness, and it will be kept as a rich legacy by each of us.” Over the years, some of the locks of hair were returned to The Hermitage by descendants of the original recipients.
The submitted strands were taken nearly a quarter century apart for better comparison to check for elevated levels of the heavy metals. The first sample was from 1815, the year of Jackson’s victory at the Battle of New Orleans, the second was from 1839, toward the end of Jackson’s life. According to the American Medical Association, while the mercury and lead levels found in the hair samples were “significantly elevated” in both samples, they were not toxic, said Dr. Ludwag M. Deppisch, a pathologist with Northeastern Ohio University College of Medicine and Forum Health. Officially, Andrew Jackson died at The Hermitage on June 8, 1845, at the age of 78, of chronic tuberculosis, dropsy, heart disease and kidney failure. In other words, the General died a natural death after leaving an extraordinarily unnatural life.
So, you see, a scientific argument might be made for my acquisition of a lock of Andrew Jackson’s hair. I know, I know, that might be compared to the old “reading Playboy for the articles” argument. But the hobby is not as strange as it may sound, or, as you may think. A quick search of the net will turn up locks of hair belonging to Poet John Keats and our first President George Washington in New York City’s Morgan library, Thomas Jefferson in the Library of Congress and from Frankenstein author Mary Shelley in the New York Public Library. Collecting hair may have fallen out of favor nowadays, but it must be noted that hair is one of the few body parts to survive well after the death of the original owner. For the bereaved and the beloved, it presents a direct link of faded youth and lives lost in an intensely personal way that no picture or video could ever achieve. As for my part, I just think its cool.