Assassinations, Auctions, Politics, Presidents

Eleanor Roosevelt’s Pistol.

Eleanor permit

Original publish date:  November 14, 2019

Eleanor Roosevelt is widely acknowledged as the most influential First Lady in our country’s history. She routinely ranks first or second with Jacqueline Kennedy whenever public opinion polls are tallied. Dolley Madison, Abigail Adams and Martha Washington usually round out the top five but rarely displace either of these two ladies for the top spots. Her White House tenure is littered with firsts. She was the first presidential spouse to hold regular press conferences, write a daily newspaper column, write a monthly magazine column, host a weekly radio show, and speak at a national party convention.
Eleanor served longer than any other first lady, from March 4, 1933, to April 12, 1945, during her husband’s record four terms in office. But make no mistake about it, Eleanor Roosevelt was her own woman. On several occasions, she publicly disagreed with her own husband’s policies. After her husband’s sudden death, Mrs. Roosevelt served as the first United States Delegate to the United Nations General Assembly from 1945 to 1952. President Harry S. Truman once called her the “First Lady of the World” in tribute to her human rights achievements.

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A young Anna Eleanor Roosevelt.

Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was born on October 11, 1884 into the prominent American Roosevelt and Livingston families. She had an unhappy childhood, having suffered the deaths of both parents and one of her brothers at a young age. The memory of her mother, the beautiful socialite Anna Hall Roosevelt, a notoriously shallow and vain woman, was forever marked in her daughter’s memory for telling her she was as ugly as an old lady. It was her mother who nicknamed her “Granny.” In 1905 she married her fifth cousin once removed, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The Roosevelts’ union was complicated from the beginning by her acrimonious relationship with Franklin’s controlling mother, Sara. After Eleanor discovered her husband’s 1918 affair with Lucy Mercer, she resolved to seek fulfillment in leading a public life of her own.
She was the driving force behind her husband’s decision to stay in politics after FDR was stricken with polio in 1921, which cost him the normal use of his legs. It was Eleanor who toured the country giving speeches and appearing at campaign events in his place. Following Franklin’s election as Governor of New York in 1928, and for the rest of Franklin’s life, Eleanor regularly made public appearances on his behalf, and as First Lady, she significantly reshaped and redefined the role of First Lady.

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Eleanor & Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Her quiet, respectful, matronly countenance effectively masked an acerbic wit and her grace and poise disarmed some of the most powerful men in the world. Though widely respected in her later years, Roosevelt was a controversial First Lady at the time for her outspokenness, particularly on civil rights for African-Americans and Asian Americans, a subject her husband often dodged. She advocated for expanded roles for women in the workplace and the human rights of World War II refugees.
Following her husband’s death in 1945, Roosevelt remained active in politics for the remaining 17 years of her life. She served as the first chair of the UN Commission on Human Rights and oversaw the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Later, she chaired the John F. Kennedy administration’s Presidential Commission on the Status of Women. By the time of her death, Roosevelt was regarded as “one of the most esteemed women in the world”; The New York Times called her “the object of almost universal respect” in an obituary. In 1999, her gender became a non-issue when she was ranked ninth in the top ten of Gallup’s List of Most Widely Admired People of the 20th Century.
7dd06433-577d-4b6d-d838-560c04c7ae38Oh, and by the way, Eleanor Roosevelt, the First lady of the world, icon of liberalism, fighter for civil rights, champion of the poor and marginalized and powerful advocate for women’s rights was a gun owner. Yes, Eleanor Roosevelt, mother of six, grandmother to twenty, was packing heat. Her application for a pistol permit in New York’s Dutchess County can be found at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park. With debate raging around the nation about gun control and Second Amendment rights, the fact that one of the icons of the Democratic womanhood not only owned a gun, but carried it for protection, may come as a surprise.
It should be remembered that Eleanor Roosevelt received several death threats during her public career and her husband had survived an assassination attempt in Miami while awaiting his first presidential inauguration. That attempt killed Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak and no doubt left an impact on the young first lady. Who knows how many threats were fielded while FDR was governor of New York from 1928-32. That Miami assassination attempt in February 1933 prompted FDR to suggest to his wife that she let the Secret Service protect her. A protection she declined.

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Eleanor’s pistol.

Mrs. Roosevelt did not like traveling with a large entourage, preferring instead to travel alone whenever possible. Regardless, in October 1933, Eleanor Roosevelt received a gift or her 49th birthday from her bodyguard, New York State Trooper Earl Miller. It was a .22 caliber High luster blue finish Smith & Wesson pistol with a 6-inch barrel, partridge front sight and a round top frame with an adjustable rear sight. Mounted with smooth 2-pc pearl grips and accompanied by original silver medallion, diamond checkered walnut grips matching numbered to this revolver. The pistol rested inside a green velvet lined, brown leatherette covered hard case with silver plaque on the lid engraved “OCT. 11, 1933 / May your aims always be perfect / EARL”. The case interior is recessed it fit the revolver and included a nickeled brass, marbled pocket cleaning rod and a small collapsible screw driver.

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Eleanor’s pistol and case photo from James D. Julia auction house catalog.

Earl Miller served in the Navy during World War I and during this period, he became the Navy’s middleweight boxing champion. Handsome and athletic, Miller was an alternate for the 1920 US Olympic boxing team and even spent time working as a circus acrobat. After joining the New York State Police, he taught boxing and judo to cadets. He later served as the personal bodyguard of Governor of New York and 1928 Democratic presidential candidate Al Smith.
Miller gave Eleanor a chestnut mare named Dot and gave the first lady riding lessons, coached her in tennis and swimming, and taught her how to shoot targets with her new pistol. He also encouraged her to develop self-confidence, a trait Eleanor often lacked. Eleanor considered herself not photogenic, and attempted to hide from photographers early in her political career; Miller encouraged her to face reporters and smile, on occasion standing behind photographers to make faces at her. Scholars continue to discuss whether the pair’s relationship was romantic in nature.

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Bodyguard Earl Miller & Eleanor Roosevelt.

Eleanor’s son James described the relationship as the “one real romance in mother’s life outside of marriage”, stating that Miller “encouraged her to take pride in herself, to be herself, to be unafraid of facing the world. He did a lot for her. She seemed to draw strength from him when he was by her side, and she came to rely on him … He became part of the family, too, and gave her a great deal of what her husband and we, her sons, failed to give her. Above all, he made her feel that she was a woman.”
In 1937, the First Lady traveled to New Orleans and was accompanied by bodyguards. She made an off-handed comment at that event that she “sometimes did carry a gun when she traveled and knew how to use it.” At the same event, she also made the comment, ‘I hate guns.’” Oddly, she didn’t feel the security was necessary when she traveled in New York or Washington, because people knew who she was.

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The First Lady at Target Practice.

After her days in the White House were over, Mrs. Roosevelt carried the unloaded gun in the locked glove compartment of her car. The story of Eleanor’s gun ownership is confirmed by that 1957 pistol permit granted in Dutchess County when she was 72 years old. The permit was among the items in Eleanor Roosevelt’s wallet when she died on Nov. 7, 1962. The date on the pistol permit was Aug. 5, 1957. Her address on the permit is listed as “ValKill Cottage, Hyde Park.” Her occupation is listed as “Writer & Lecturer.” She wrote that she was employed by “Self.” The permit is on display at the library.
Ironically, in 2008, Dutchess County Clerk Brad Kendall, revealed that Eleanor Roosevelt’s pistol permit remained active 51 years after it was issued. A stunning example of how the deaths of permit holders can make the the accuracy of many handgun databases difficult to maintain. Mrs. Roosevelt’s pistol application revealed that she had previously been granted a pistol license in 1933. No further information was available. But the application was accompanied by a document with her fingerprints.
635721149610783934-15-15-1-The application was processed by the Dutchess County Sheriff’s Office and signed by then-Sheriff C. Fred Close. It included a photo of Eleanor Roosevelt wearing a hat, fur stole and double strand of pearls. The reason for the pistol, according to Eleanor Roosevelt’s application, was “protection.” The timing of the pistol permit coincided with Eleanor Roosevelt’s travels throughout the South-by herself-in advocacy of civil rights. Those trips prompted death threats.
After the application was discovered at the county clerk’s office, it was returned to long-term storage. When the older pistol permits were purged and, after consulting with the county historian and New York State Archives, it was turned over to the FDR Library. Perhaps fittingly, the formal transfer of the permit took place after a naturalization ceremony conducted at the FDR Library’s Henry A. Wallace Visitor and Education Center. Although the gun license rests safely in the archives of the Roosevelt’s Hyde Park museum, Eleanor Roosevelt’s pistol was sold at a Maine auction in October 2014 to a private collector for $50,600.
635721153559949249-15-15-2-Viewed from the perspective of 21st century politics, where Republicans and Democrats have lined up on opposing sides of the gun control debate, Eleanor Roosevelt’s pistol offers a fresh take on the ongoing debate over the rights of gun owners, the Democrats who want to curtail them and the Republicans who want to expand them.
Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “It isn’t enough to talk about peace. One must believe in it. And it isn’t enough to believe in it. One must work at it.” Knowing that her statement was made while the First Lady was packing heat, one can’t help but think of Teddy Roosevelt’s famous credo to “speak softly and carry a big stick.” After all, Eleanor was the favorite niece of Rough Rider President Theodore Roosevelt. Bully for her!

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Assassinations, John F. Kennedy, Politics, Presidents

A Christmas Car Bomb For JFK. Part II

kennedy car bomb attempt ii

Original publish date:  December 20, 2018

The Secret Service alerted Palm Beach police to be on the look out for Pavlick’s 1950 Buick. Around 9 p.m. on December 15, he was arrested as he entered the city via the Flagler Memorial Bridge onto Royal Poinciana Way. Palm Beach motorcycle police officer Lester Free stopped the light colored Buick for driving erratically on the wrong side of the road and for crossing the center line. When Free called in the license plates authorities realized they had Pavlick. Squad cars sped to the scene and surrounded the dynamite laden car and arrested the feeble old man without incident.
Once in custody Pavlick begin “singing like a bird.” He unashamedly admitted to his plans and detailed his movements and activities. Pavlick told the arresting officers, “Joe Kennedy’s money bought the White House and the Presidency. I had the crazy idea I wanted to stop Kennedy from being President.” When the Secret Service learned those details the agency was shocked. Secret Service Director U.E. Baughman later said it was the most serious assassination attempt since militant Puerto Rican pro-independence activists stormed the Capitol in an attempt on President Harry S Truman on November 1, 1950.
An Associated Press dispatch, dated December 16, 1960, announced: “A craggy-faced retired postal clerk who said he didn’t like the way John F. Kennedy won the election is in jail on charges he planned to kill the president-elect. Richard Pavlick, 73, was charged by the Secret Service with planning to make himself a human bomb and blow up Kennedy and himself.” It was only then that the public learned just how close Pavlick came to killing Kennedy.
kennedy-presidency-almost-ended-before-he-was-inaugurated-2Because Pavlick didn’t get near Kennedy on the day he was arrested, the story was not immediate national news. The story of Pavlick’s arrest happened the same day as a terrible airline disaster, known as the TWA Park Slope Plane Crash, in which two commercial planes collided over New York City, killing 134 people (including 6 on the ground). The plane crash story, the worst air disaster in U.S. history up to that time, occupied the national headlines and led the television and radio newscasts.
The media was laser focused on the crash’s only survivor, 11-year-old Stephen Lambert Baltz who had been traveling alone on his way to spend Christmas in Yonkers with relatives. The boy was thrown from the plane into a snowbank where his burning clothing was extinguished. Barely alive and conscious, he was badly burned and had inhaled burning fuel. He died of pneumonia the next day. The assassination plot quickly faded from public attention.
Initially, Pavlick was charged with attempting to assassinate the new President. Pavlick told reporters that he was looking forward to the trial as an opportunity to voice his theories about the rigged election, Kennedy was a fraud and that he (Pavlick) was simply a patriot trying to save the Republic. For his part, Kennedy remained nonplussed about the attempt to kill him. On the day of the incident, JFK held a news conference outside his Palm Beach “Winter White House” to introduce his choice for Secretary of State, Dean Rusk. The sympathetic Kennedy urged the Justice Department, headed by his Attorney General / younger brother Bobby, not to bring Pavlick to trial. Political adversaries theorized that Kennedy and his advisers worried that a trial might turn Pavlick into a hero for right wing causes and may even inspire copy cats.
ar-812049453On January 27, 1961, a week after Kennedy was inaugurated as the 35th President of the United States, Pavlick was committed to the United States Public Health Service mental hospital in Springfield, Missouri. He was indicted for threatening Kennedy’s life seven weeks later. The case would drag on for years without resolution. Belmont Postmaster Thomas M. Murphy had been promised that he would remain an anonymous informant, but was quickly identified as the tipster by the media. At first he was hailed as a hero and his boss, the Postmaster General, commended his actions. Congress even passed a resolution praising him. But then, fervent right wing publisher William Loeb of the Manchester Union Leader, New Hampshire’s influential state-wide newspaper, began defending Pavlick. Turns out, Loeb held many of the same opinions about Kennedy as the would-be assassin.
richard-paul-pavlickLoeb very publicly protested that Pavlick was being persecuted and denied his sixth amendment right to a speedy trial. Loeb’s newspaper disputed the insanity ruling and insisted the defendant have his day in court. Once the newspaper took up Pavlick’s cause, Murphy and his family began receiving hate mail, death threats and anonymous phone calls at all hours of the day and night accusing him of helping to frame Pavlick and for “railroading an innocent man.” The abuse continued for years after Murphy’s November 14, 2002 death at age 76. Even today, the surviving Murphy children are targeted by right-wing groups whenever the case gets a new round of public attention.
Charges against Pavlick were dropped on December 2, 1963, ten days after JFK’s assassination. Judge Emett Clay Choate ruled that Pavlick was incapable of telling right from wrong-the legal definition of insanity-but nonetheless ordered that the would-be assassin remain in the Missouri mental hospital. The federal government officially dropped charges in August 1964, and Pavlick was released from custody on December 13, 1966. Pavlick had been institutionalized for nearly six years after his arrest, and three years after Oswald killed John F. Kennedy.
After his release, Pavlick returned to Belmont. He began parking in front of the Murphy house seated in his car for hours every day watching it. But since there were no laws on the books against stalking in 1966, police could do little to inhibit the suspicious activities. Pavlick always denied any malicious intent and was never found to be armed. Belmont police officers would park their squad cars nearby to keep an eye on Pavlick, sometimes for several hours at a stretch. If the officer was called away, the family felt unsafe. Pavlick continued his old habit of letter writing and phone calling media outlets and government officials with rants proclaiming his innocence yet strangely justifying his actions. Pavlick died at the age of 88 on Veteran’s Day, November 11, 1975 at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Manchester, N.H. He remained unrepentant to the end.
Pavlick is unique among Presidential Assassins (would-be and otherwise) for one reason: his age. Of the four successful Presidential assassins, Lee Harvey Oswald was 24; John Wilkes Booth, 26; Leon Czolgosz was 28 when he assassinated William McKinley, and Charles Guiteau 39 when he murdered James A. Garfield. Of those unsuccessful few, Richard Lawrence was 35 when he attacked Andrew Jackson, John F. Schrank was 36 when he shot Teddy Roosevelt, Giuseppe “Joe” Zangara was 32 when he attempted to assassinate then-President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme was 27 and Sarah Jane Moore 45 when they individually tried to shoot Gerald Ford and John Hinckley Jr. was 25 when he shot Ronald Reagan. Richard Paul Pavlick was 73 years old at the time of his attempt.
gty_jackie_kennedy_011_nt_131017_9x14_1600In today’s 24-hour-a-day, scandal-driven media environment, it is hard to believe that an incident of this magnitude would go unnoticed. Or would it? Sure, we all know about the very public assassination threats and attempts once they are out in the open. But what about those threats that are never reported? In Pavlick’s case, the public learned about it from the would-be assassin himself. He was proud of his plans and, after capture, boasted about it to anyone that came within earshot. The answer can be found in the name of the organization protecting the President: The Secret Service is, well, secret.
Although records prior to the “information age” are hard to come by, former Secret Service Agent Floyd M. Boring (who worked for three presidents and was with Franklin D. Roosevelt when he died at Warm Springs, Georgia) stated that during the period 1949–1950, the Secret Service investigated 1,925 threats against Harry S Truman. Another study, in the September 7, 1970 issue of Time magazine, claimed the number of annual threats against the President rose from 2,400 in 1965 to 12,800 in 1969.
The Secret Service does not generally place a number on the threats they receive, nor do they feel the need to investigate each and every one nowadays. On June 1, 2017 CBS news reported “Threats against President Trump for his first six months in office are tracking about six to eight per day…It’s about the same number of threats made against former Presidents Obama and George W. Bush while they were in office.” Another report contrarily states that President Barack Obama received more than 30 potential death threats a day. That was an increase of 400% from the 3,000 a year or so under President George W. Bush. A recent news story reported that In the first 12 days of Donald Trump’s administration, 12,000 assassination tweets alone were recorded. The vast majority of the tweets are jokes or sarcastic jibes, but still, that is a BIG number.
Today, Presidential death threats are handled by approximately 3,200 special agents and an additional 1,300 uniformed officers guard the White House, the Treasury building and foreign diplomatic missions in Washington. So it can be assumed that these crackpots in search of lasting infamy are a lot more common than we think and will, sadly, continue to pop up from time-to-time. The best we can hope for is that the vast majority will remain unknown and forgotten. Like Richard Paul Pavlick.

Assassinations, John F. Kennedy, Politics, Presidents

A Christmas Car Bomb For JFK. Part I

kennedy car bomb attempt i

Original publish date: December 13, 2018

I’m not the only “History Nerd” in my family. A while back, Rhonda asked me to to tell her the story about the “Kennedy Car Bomb.” What? I replied. I have NO idea what you’re talking about, but, DO go on. She then outlined the story about a 73-year-old postal worker who hatched a plot to kill President-elect John F. Kennedy back in December of 1960 to keep the “Catholics” from taking over the world. This Saturday marks the the 58th anniversary of the arrest of Richard Paul Pavlick, a retired United States postal worker from New Hampshire whose name is familiar to only the most dedicated assassinologists out there.
Pavlick was born on February 13, 1887, in Belmont, New Hampshire. Belmont was also known as Upper Gilmanton in reference to the town of Gilmanton located four miles away. Gilmanton is best known for two pop-culture references. First, it was the model for the scandalous New England town setting for both the novel and the Soap Opera “Peyton Place” and was in fact the birthplace of the story’s author Grace Metalious in 1964. And second, Gilmanton is the birthplace of America’s first serial killer, H.H. Holmes (Herman Webster Mudgett) on May 16, 1861.
After serving in the U.S. Army during World War I, Richard Pavlick was appointed postmaster at one of several branches in heavily Irish Catholic, Democratic Boston, Massachusetts. Pavlick owed his appointment to President Calvin Coolidge, a fellow New Englander. Pavlick, a loyal Republican, hated Catholics and Democrats with a burning passion. And most of all he hated Boston’s powerful Fitzgerald and Kennedy Families. After he retired in the 1950s, Pavlick spent most of his days writing enraged and belligerent letters to public figures, magazines and newspapers.
73-year-old Pavlick, like all assassins (would-be or otherwise), was a nobody from 117308037_1402438300nowhere. He lived alone and had no family to speak of. Locals in his hometown of Belmont remember him for his angry political rants and public outbursts at local public meetings. After accusing the town of poisoning his water, Pavlick once confronted the local water company supervisor with a gun, which was then promptly confiscated. His central complaint was that the American flag was not being displayed appropriately. He often criticized the government and blamed most of the country’s problems on the Catholics. But the perpetually grumpy, prune-faced Pavlick focused most of his anger on the Kennedy family and their “undeserved” wealth.
Pavlick’s hatred toward the Kennedy clan boiled over after the close of the 1960 election when John F. Kennedy defeated Republican Richard Nixon to become President of the United States. JFK’s election sent Pavlick to new heights of paranoid rage. At that moment, Dick Pavlick determined that Kennedy would never serve a single day in office. Pavlick became convinced the pope would be running the government from Rome. He started to make comments like “someone should shoot him (Kennedy) before he takes office.” One witness heard Pavlick say, “The Kennedy money bought him the White House” and that Pavlick “wanted to teach the United States the presidency is not for sale.”
Pavlick signed over his run-down property to a local organization known as the Spaulding Youth Center, packed everything he owned into the back of his 1950 Buick and left town. Soon, Thomas M. Murphy, Belmont’s 34-year-old U.S. Postmaster began receiving bizarre rambling rant postcards from Pavlick stating that soon, the town would hear from him “in a big way.”
It had been almost a century-and-a-half since New England had produced a U.S. President (John & John Quincy Adams) so Granite Staters took a keen interest in their new Commander-in-Chief from Massachusetts. Postmaster Murphy was concerned at the strange tone of the postcards, so he did what postmasters do; he began looking at the postmarks. Murphy noticed that the postmarks were from communities where Kennedy had recently visited and the dates coincided with those visits. Murphy contacted a local police officer named Earl Sweeney, who then contacted the Secret Service.
The Secret Service uncovered several rambling, vaguely threatening letters which Pavlick had sent to President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Later, agents discovered that not only was Pavlick stalking Kennedy on the campaign trail, he had also visited the Kennedy compound at Hyannis Port, cased the house in Georgetown and traveled south to the family winter quarters at Palm Beach. Along the way, Pavlick photographed the Kennedy homes, cars, family and friends, all while checking out JFK’s security. When agents interviewed locals they learned about Pavlick’s explosive temper and worse, that Pavlick had recently purchased enough dynamite which, according to a Secret Service official, was “enough to blow up a small mountain.” They immediately put out a nationwide alert for Pavlick with descriptions of him and his Buick.
Shortly before 10 a.m. on December 11, 1960, Kennedy was in Palm Beach, Florida preparing to assume the office of the President by deciding on his Cabinet selections and working on his Inaugural address. Unbeknownst to the President-elect, Pavlick had shadowed Kennedy south with the intention of blowing himself up and taking JFK with him. His plan was simple and deadly. He loaded his car with 10 sticks of dynamite, packed them into the body of the car and wired them to a detonator switch within easy reach of the driver’s seat. Then, he parked outside the Kennedy’s Palm Beach compound, positioned his car near the door and waited. His plan was to sit tight until Kennedy left the house to attend Sunday Mass at St. Edward Church and then ram his car into JFK’s limo in a Kamikaze attack.
gettyimages-89859906Luckily for Mr. Kennedy, fate stepped in to save the day… and the President-elect’s life. Kennedy did not leave his house alone that morning. Much to Pavlick’s surprise, JFK opened the door holding the hand of his 3-year-old daughter Caroline alongside his wife, Jacqueline who was holding the couple’s newborn son John, Jr., less than a month old. While Pavlick hated John F. Kennedy, he hadn’t signed up to kill Kennedy’s family. So Pavlick eased his itchy trigger-finger off the detonator switch and let the Kennedy limousine glide harmlessly past his car. No one realized that the beat-up old Buick and the white haired old man in it was literally a ticking time bomb. Pavlick glared at the car as it slipped away and decided he would try again another day. Luckily, he never got a second chance.
Over the next few days, Pavlick planned his next opportunity to kill the Catholic President. Pavlick came up with a brand new plan. This time, he would enter St. Edward Church wearing a dynamite vest and explode it during Mass the next Sunday. Apparently the thought of killing innocent bystanders was no longed a concern. He couldn’t pass up the opportunity to kill JFK and take as many Catholics with him along the way. A couple of days later, while visiting the inside of the church to scout it’s lay out, his disheveled appearance and suspicious behavior aroused suspicion. He was escorted out of the church and the incident reported to the police. The Secret Service now knew that Pavlick was definitely in town and actively pursuing Kennedy. But one problem remained. Where was Richard Paul Pavlick?
Next Week: PART II

Abe Lincoln, Assassinations, Auctions, Museums, Politics

Abraham Lincoln’s Hat Needs You!

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Original publish date:  September 3, 2018

Attention Hoosiers, Abraham Lincoln needs your help. More specifically the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation in Springfield, Illinois is appealing to all friends of Mr. Lincoln to lend a hand in their hour of need. Last week I traveled to the ALPLM to speak with the State Historian of Illinois and Director of Research and Collections, Dr. Samuel Wheeler. Although his title and resume may sound imposing, “Sam” is a breath of fresh air for the Lincoln historical community. Dr. Wheeler’s appearance is immediately disarming, his countenance inviting and friendly. Sam breaks the long-established mold of the elderly historian whose gray hair, Meerschaum pipe and leather-elbowed corduroy jacket are calculatedly designed to intimidate. Sam’s youthful appearance and ready smile invite everyone to come, sit and talk history for awhile.

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Dr. Sam Wheeler

Dr. Samuel Wheeler is the tenth State Historian in Illinois history and when you consider that 2018 is the state’s Bicentennial year, you may deduce that they choose their historians carefully. Sam’s specialty is the cool stuff: the history of Illinois, the Civil War Era, and the Life and Legacy of Abraham Lincoln. Dr. Wheeler’s life mission is to protect, preserve, and promote history through education. During his three years at the helm, he has devoted much of his time to assisting other museums, libraries, historic sites, documentary projects, and historical societies. He regularly speaks to diverse audiences across the country, writes for scholarly journals and popular magazines, and offers commentary to newspaper, radio, and television outlets. In short, Dr. Wheeler is a busy man.
The subject of my visit is a topic that has occupied social media, blog spots and chat rooms for the past few weeks. The ALPLM is in danger of losing some of its most precious Abraham Lincoln relics and associative memorabilia. If the ALPLM cannot satisfy a substantial financial liability by October 2019, priceless Lincoln relics will have to be sacrificed to meet their obligation. Meaning that these items will likely end up in the private collections of millionaires never to be displayed publicly again. While the amount of the liability, $9.7 million is staggering, Dr. Wheeler points out that “if we could just get every citizen of Illinois to donate one dollar each, we would wipe out that debt in no time.” Sam continues, “and if you could get Indiana to pitch in the same, we can keep the collection open for generations to come.”
LogoThe ALPLM’s “problems” began back in 2007 when it purchased the famous Taper collection for $23 million. “The collection is amazing,” says Sam, “the Lincoln top hat and bloodied gloves seem to be the items that resonate most with people, but the collection is much more than that.” Dr. Wheeler says that the uniqueness of the Taper collection centers around its emphasis on assassination related items, a field that had been largely ignored by Lincoln collectors at that time of its assemblage. The collection was created by Louise Taper, daughter-in-law of Southern California real estate magnate S. Mark Taper. She created the exhibition The Last Best Hope of Earth: Abraham Lincoln and the Promise of America which was at the Huntington Library from 1993–1994 and at the Chicago Historical Society from 1996-1997.
According to the ALPLM’s website, “Louise Taper amassed the largest private collection of Lincolniana in more than a half-century, highlighted by 1 of 3 stovepipe hats known to have belonged to Lincoln; the earliest of his boyhood sumbook pages, ca. 1824-1826; and more than 100 letters or notes in the hands of Abraham or Mary Lincoln. Also among the 1,500 items in the collection are manuscripts by friends and contemporaries, personally owned books and clothing or other accouterments, prints, broadsides, newspapers, artworks, period photographs, and assassination-related materials.”
The ALPLM acquired the Taper Collection two years after they opened the $150 million facility on April 19, 2005. To blunt public charges that the ALPLM had bit off more than it could chew, Dr, Wheeler compares the museum to a 13-year-old child. He states, “Not too many 13-year-olds have got it all together. We’ve matured a lot in the last two years.” Sam notes that in those two years, the ALPLM has streamlined much of their operation citing as examples that more of the collection has been digitized for research and the museum’s six research rooms have been pared down to one.
Presidential-Museum-CreditALPLM3“Bottom line,” Sam says, “we need to keep the collection here. That is our first priority.” It is easy to see how important this collection is to Dr. Wheeler by simply watching his eyes as he speaks. To Wheeler, the collection is not just a part of the museum, it is a part of the state of Illinois. Sam relates how when he speaks to groups, which he does quite regularly on behalf of the ALPLM, he often reaches into the vault to bring along pieces from the Taper collection to fit the topic. “People love seeing these items. It gives them a direct connection to Lincoln.” states Wheeler.
When asked if he has a particular favorite from the Taper collection, Dr. Wheeler smiles and says, “I’m particularly drawn to the gold cufflink that Lincoln was wearing at Ford’s Theater that night.” However, Sam is quick to point out that what makes the Taper collection so special is the depth of quality it represents. The collection contains Mary Lincoln’s hand fan carried to the theater that night, locks of hair from members of the Lincoln family, and the oldest piece of writing by Abraham Lincoln known. It is a page from 15-year-old Abraham Lincoln’s 1824 schoolbook whose content Dr. Wheeler can recite by hear. “Abraham Lincoln is my name/ and with my pen I wrote the same/ I wrote in both haste and speed/ and left it here for fools to read.”
Dr. Wheeler also informs that the Taper collection contains a treasure trove of letters written by John Wilkes Booth and his entire family as well as the ring J.W. Booth presented to his fiancée Elizabeth Sumner. “We also have stage costumes and the handwritten character sketch for John Wilkes Booth’s role in Shakespeare’s Macbeth,” says Wheeler. “Our main objection for the collection, is that we keep it in the public realm. That is imperative.”
The Lincoln Library foundation recently said, “If the foundation is not able to secure commitments in the very near future to retire most-if not all-of the remaining $9.7 million debt, it will have no choice but to accelerate the possibility of selling these unique artifacts on the private market-which would likely remove them from public view forever.”
gettyimages-468377946Hoosiers may ask, why doesn’t the ALPLM just ask the state of Illinois for the money? After all, with 300,000 visitors annually, the Lincoln Library Museum is one of the most popular tourist sites in the state of Illinois and is prominently featured in all of their state tourism ads. Well, the state is billions of dollars in debt despite approving a major income-tax increase last summer and as of the time of this writing, has yet to put together a budget. To the casual observer, one would think that financial stalemate between the state and the museum would be a no-brainer when you consider that the ALPLM has drawn more than 4 million visitors since opening in 2005. The truth is a little more complicated than that. Illinois State government runs and funds the Lincoln library and museum. The separately run foundation raises private funds to support the presidential complex. The foundation, which is not funded by the state, operates a gift store and restaurant but has little role in the complex’s operations, programs and oversight.
Aside from the items previously mentioned, the Taper collection, which numbers over 1500 pieces, also includes a pair of Lincoln’s eyeglasses and his billfold. The Taper collection includes about 100 Mary Todd Lincoln letters, giving the Lincoln presidential library a total of 500-out of only 600 in the world.
Museum officials are sorting out which Taper collection items were donated and transferred to the state, and what might end up for sale-if it should come to that. One item that won’t be on the auction block is the state’s rare copy of the Gettysburg Address, written in Lincoln’s own hand. Luckily, the document wasn’t part of the Taper purchase. The state’s collection of Lincoln artifacts, tens of thousands strong, draws researchers from across the globe and gives the public a chance to see up close the man many Americans feel was the greatest President in U.S. history.

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Carl Sandburg and Marilyn Monroe

The Taper collection also included a dress worn by 1950s movie star Marilyn Monroe, an admitted “fan girl” of the 16th President. The blonde bombshell’s dress was considered a non-Lincoln item that potentially would fetch big bucks to help pay off the loan. Perhaps to show that they were serious, in late July the ALPLM sent Monroe’s slinky black dress off to a Las Vegas auctionhouse, where it fetched $50,000 from the lucky bidder. Also sold were seven original photographs of Monroe, which sold for $3000 each. However, an original bust of Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg failed to sell. All proceeds from the Julien’s sale went towards the outstanding debt. Hopefully Lincoln relics will not be next up on the auction block.

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Author Doris Kearns Goodwin

Dr. Wheeler is doing his best to get the message out. Aside from his normal 60 hour work week he spends nights and weekends all over the state and country talking about Lincoln, the museum and sounding the alarm to save the collection. The museum is getting help from cherished friends like Doris Kearns Goodwin who will be speaking at the ALPLM on October 29 with “proceeds from this event to benefit the campaign to secure a permanent home for Lincoln’s most personal effects comprising the Taper collection.” Interested and concerned Hoosiers can help by visiting the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum and Library website at http://www.alplm,org and there is a “Save the Lincoln Artifacts” go find me page on the web.
If every Hoosier would chip in a few bucks we could honor our state’s favorite son and help our neighbors in Illinois at the same time. Skip that latte for Lincoln. Snap off that sawbuck for the rail splitter. Honest Abe is depending on you.

Abe Lincoln, Assassinations, Museums

Osborn Oldroyd-Keeper of the Lincoln flame. Part III

z osborn-oldroydOriginal publish date:  July 20, 2017

In the past two columns I’ve introduced you to Osborn Oldroyd, king of all Lincoln collectors. Over the years, I have chased Oldroyd from Springfield, Illinois to Washington D.C. to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and most recently to Marshalltown,Iowa. In Gettysburg, I purchased a collection of Oldroyd memorabilia assembled over two decades by a former Abraham Lincoln impersonator named Bill Ciampa.                                                   The collection of over 300 items included photos, postcards, books, literature, brochures, business cards, certificates and even a paperweight. But the bulk of the assemblage consisted of letters written to Oldroyd spanning the time he spent living in the Lincoln family home in Springfield to his move to the “House Where Lincoln died” across the street from Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C.           Granted, the letters were a bit picked over by the time they landed in my lap. Gone were the letters from the big names associated with the life and death of Abraham Lincoln that Oldroyd quoted in his many books about our sixteenth President. There was no U.S. Grant, Andrew Johnson, Mary Lincoln, Winfield Hancock or George Meade, although Oldroyd was known to have corresponded with all of them. But there were a couple famous, albeit obscure, personalities from the Lincoln Era that remained. I recognized a letter from suffragette and women’s Temperance leader Frances Willard as well as another from T.M. Harris, a Brigadier General who served on the Lincoln Conspirators trial in Washington, D.C. Harris wrote the forward to one of Oldroyd’s books.

There was a fascinating letter from Ferdinand Petersen, son of the owner of the House where Lincoln died, who was present the night Lincoln was assassinated. The letter was written in October of 1913 by Ferdinand to Oldroyd in an effort to clear up several myths that had plagued his family for years about that tragic night. “It makes me tired as the youngest man living of the very few left who were there at the time…I own and still have the pillow cases on which President Abraham Lincoln died and I have mostly all of the pictures that were in the room at the time and…I do not wish to sell them to the Government either nor any relic I have…Someday I’ll hand them over to the government for preservation.” Ferdinand also makes it a point to dispel the rumor that the Petersen house was ever a rooming house, “it was a home”.

z Louis-WeichmannAnother of the letters, dated Dec. 10, 1902, touched me personally because it was written by the sister of Louis Weichmann, the main government witness at the trial of the conspirators. Weichmann lived in Mrs. Surratt’s boarding house and many believe it was Weichmann’s testimony that got Mary Surratt hung. Weichmann moved to Anderson Indiana after the trial and founded Anderson business college. He is buried in Anderson’s St. Francis cemetery in an unmarked grave. “Dear Sir-I am sending you a copy of Sundays Indianapolis Journal containing a confession of one of the conspirators of President Lincoln….With best regards from our family, I remain Sincerely yours, Mrs. C.O. Crowley Sister of the late L.J. Wiechmann.” Curiously, Mrs. Crowley misspelled her own maiden name in her letter.

There is an amusing letter dated April 9, 1906 from Teddy Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Treasury to Oldroyd: “It is requested that the flag in which J. Wilkes Booth caught his spur, and which was loaned to you for temporary use in the house in which President Lincoln died, be delivered to the bearer for return to the Treasury Department.” It’s easy to imagine Oldroyd’s dismay at the prospect of returning such an important artifact from his museum. More so, it intonates that this may not have been the first request for return.

However, it was the letters from common, everyday people that proved to be the most fascinating. The letters began in 1869 while Osborn was just an average autograph seeker and continued through to 1929 after Oldroyd sold his collection to the US Government and just months before he died in 1930. Several of the letters are from prospective customers wishing to obtain a copy of one of Oldroyd’s many books or souvenirs about Lincoln. Many of the letters were sent by visitors to his Lincoln museum. They extol the hearty virtues of Oldroyd’s collection and his superior tour guide skills. (Funny, most of these are from women leading me to believe that Captain Oldroyd was an unashamed flirt.) Still more are from folks wishing to send Oldroyd some cherished family Lincoln memento for display in his museum. All of the letters offer a fascinating glimpse into the life of Osborn Oldroyd.

Two of the letters hail from the Hoosier state. One written in 1929 from L.N. Hines, President of Indiana State Teachers College (modern day ISU in Terre Haute): “I always remember my wonderful visit with you a year ago last February. I hope that I may be fortunate enough to come your way again before long.” and the other from a man in Larwill, Indiana written in 1926: “We have in our possession (sic) a campaign button of Lincoln & Hamlin. Would you care to have it among your other relics? Resp. Burton R. White”

The others, well, they’re from all over. They address Oldroyd variously as Colonel, Uncle, Cousin, Father, or Captain. A Boston lawyer writes: “I send you, herewith, a ticket of admission to the ‘Green Room’ (at the White House) on the occasion of President Lincoln’s funeral, April 19, 1865.” A York, Pennsylvania museum curator writes: “We have…a wooden short sword made out of the table that ‘Peanut Johnny’ used in front of Ford’s Theatre the night Lincoln was shot. It was ‘Johnny’ who held Booth’s horse.”

A Chicago businessman writes, “I want you to know how keenly I appreciate the kindness and courtesy which you showed me while in your museum. I count the hours spent there and with you, as the most pleasent (sic) and profitable ones of my weeks visit to our capitol.” A famous Washington DC female lawyer writes, “I have a friend who is in limited circumstances who has a very small lock of President Lincoln’s hair-which she wishes to dispose of-It occurs to me that you must know persons interested in Lincoln relics who might like to purchase this. It was given to Miss Gardner’s father Alexander Gardner, photographer to the Army of the Potomac by the undertaker who prepared Lincoln’s body for burial.”

Over the past several years, I feel like I’ve traveled in the footsteps of Oldroyd many times. I’ve experienced his highs and his lows. I’ve struggled alongside him as he labored to gain legitimacy for what Abraham Lincoln’s son Robert referred to as “Oldroyd’s Traps”. I agonized with his quest to sell his priceless collection to the United States Government (far below value) that took years to finalize. I think I understand him better now and, after three articles, you should too.

I think my feelings may best be summed up in a letter found in the collection that has become one of my favorites: “Washington, D.C. May 2, 1926. Dear Father Oldroyd: Accept hearty congratulations! I am glad I have lived to see your long years of effort rewarded, and your dream of sixty-three years come true. Very Sincerely, Kathie.” That letter sums it all up for me. Besides, my mother-in-law’s name is Kathie and I kinda like her too.

In the few years that have passed since I first wrote this series, a few things have changed. I have continued my pursuit of all things Oldroyd by picking up a few things here and there. I spent a weekend at the Lilly Library (on the campus of Indiana University in Bloomington) to examine a small group of letters and documents written by, or belonging to, Osborn Oldroyd. The library was created in the late 1950s by Josiah Kirby “Joe” Lilly Jr. (1893 – 1966) grandson of Pharmaceutical magnate Eli Lilly. The Lilly Library, named in honor of the family, houses the university’s rare book and manuscript collections.

Lilly was a prolific collector of rare books and Indiana historical memorabilia. His collection included a First Folio of the works of William Shakespeare, a Gutenberg Bible, a double-elephant folio of John James Audubon’s Birds of America, the first printing of the American Declaration of Independence (the Dunlap Broadside), and a first edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s Tamerlane. Lilly’s gold coin collection is in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. In a November 26, 1954 letter to I.U. President Herman B Wells, Lilly outlined his intention to donate the bulk of his collection to the university. IU announced the donation, which the New York Times estimated at over $5 million, on January 8, 1956. Lilly’s donation eventually totaled over 20,000 books and 17,000 manuscripts, including over 350 oil paintings and prints.

z IMG_9951Included within that collection was a group of several dozen items that once belonged to Osborn Oldroyd himself. This included correspondence from Anderson’s Louis Weichmann to Oldroyd about shared information for books about Abraham Lincoln both men were simultaneously working on as well as photos and several handwritten eyewitness accounts of the assassination of President Lincoln. My personal favorite was a pencil drawing of Lincoln Conspirator Lewis Thornton Powell drawn by Crawfordsville, Indiana’s General Lew Wallace.

While most people recall General Wallace as the author of Ben Hur, many forget that he had other claims to fame including nearly single-handedly saving Washington DC from capture by Rebel General Jubal Early’s troops at the Battle of Monocacy in 1864. He would later be appointed Governor of the New Mexico territory during Billy the Kid’s exploits and also served as a member of the Lincoln assassination conspirator’s trials. General Wallace made the drawing of Powell during the trial while sitting just a few feet away from the man who nearly killed Secretary of State William Seward. Powell would be hanged for his crime. No doubt this single item is the reason these particular Oldroyd items ended up at the Lilly Library.

What I came away from, after my Springtime visit to IU’s Lilly Library, was an even deeper understanding of the passion that must have driven Osborn Oldroyd’s pursuit of Lincoln Memorabilia. It became easy to understand the euphoria that surely overcame Oldroyd as he received, opened and read these personal accounts written by people connected to Mr. Lincoln. Viewing these priceless relics also reinforced the value of Osborn Oldroyd’s obsession. For without them, precious details and specific memories of historic events would have been lost forever. And thanks to Mr. Lilly, these particular objects are henceforth and forever available for viewing by all Hoosiers at the Lilly Library in B-town. Little did I know that this Springtime visit to my alma mater was just the beginning of a journey that would occupy the next month of my life.
Next week: part IV of “Osborn Oldroyd-Keeper of the Lincoln Flame.”

Abe Lincoln, Assassinations, Criminals, Indianapolis

John Mathews, Abraham Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth and six degrees of separation.

SONY DSCOriginal publish date:  February 19, 2016

Remember the game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” that was so popular a few years back? It was a parlor game based on the concept that any two people on Earth are six or fewer acquaintance links apart. The winner is determined by the person able to use the least links to get to Kevin Bacon. Example: Someone draws the name Elvis Presley. Elvis was in the 1969 film CHANGE OF HABIT with Ed Asner. Asner was in the 1991 movie JFK with Kevin Bacon. Next player gets Will Smith. Smith and Jon Voight starred in ENEMY OF THE STATE… Jon Voight and Burt Reynolds starred in DELIVERANCE… Burt Reynolds and Demi Moore starred in STRIP TEASE…Demi Moore and Kevin Bacon starred in A FEW GOOD MEN . So Elvis wins.
I sometimes find myself playing six degrees with two of my favorite subjects: Abraham Lincoln and Indiana. I also love historical trivia. This article involves both. John Mathews was an actor and childhood friend of Abraham Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth. Mathews grew up with Booth in Baltimore Maryland and remained a close friend right up to that fateful night in April of 1865. They had the same jet black hair and classic features, but Mathew lacked the style and charisma that made Booth the superstar who many considered the most handsome man in America at the time. In fact, Mathews was acting on stage at Ford’s Theatre the night his friend killed the President.
Sometime around 11:00 am on April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth left the National Hotel and went to Ford’s Theatre to pick up his mail. At Ford’s he learns that President Abraham Lincoln would be attending the evening performance of Our American Cousin. Booth paced around the theater in a trance for some time before he decided that this would be the perfect time to assassinate the president.
zjohn-h-mathews-croppedThat afternoon, Booth sat down and wrote a letter to the editor of a Washington D.C. newspaper called the National Intelligencer. In it, he explained that his plans had changed from kidnapping Lincoln to assassinating Lincoln. He signed the letter not only with his own name but also three of his co-conspirators: Lewis Powell, George Atzerodt, and David Herold. Then he got up and walked his rented horse down Fourteenth Street.
Around 4:00 pm, Booth runs into his old friend Mathews on the street near Willard’s Hotel. As it happens Mathews was playing the role of Richard Coyle in Our American Cousin that night. Booth greeted his friend with excited handshake, Mathews later recalled that Booth squeezed his hand so tightly that his nails left marks in his flesh. He gave Mathews the letter and asked him to deliver it to the National Intelligencer the next day. Booth got on his horse and rode off, passing General Ulysses S. Grant’s carriage along the way. Mathews, used to his friend’s odd behavior, tucked the letter into his coat pocket and thought no more about it.
Six hours later Booth enters Ford’s Theatre lobby around 10:07 P.M. He walks in the shadows along the curved back wall of the theatre up to the President’s box. Within minutes, Booth mortally wounds the President, jumps from the box 12 feet to the stage (breaking his leg in the process) and vanishes into the night. Inside the theatre, chaos ruled. Mathews and many of his fellow actors decided fairly quickly that the best thing they could do was to get out of there quick. Back then, actors were considered in the same vein as pickpockets, confidence men, rat catchers and prostitutes and they wanted nothing to do with the police. Those few actors who remained were quickly rounded up and jailed by the police. Harry Hawk, the actor who had been on stage at the moment of the shooting, wandered the streets of Washington aimlessly all night too afraid to go home.
In the chaos following the shot, Mathews retreated to his nearby boardinghouse. The streets were choked with people and soldiers guarded the entrance to every building. Mathews climbed the gutter to the open window of his upstairs room totally unaware that Booth’s letter was still secreted away in his overcoat pocket. As he removed his coat, the envelope dropped out with a pop onto the hardwood floor. Time stood still as a terrified Mathews stared at the unopen letter laying at his feet. “Great God,” he surely thought, this could be the instrument of my doom.zjonathan-h-mathews-cropped
30-year-old Mathews picked up the envelope with the care and concern of a surgeon. He slowly turned it over in his hands, unsure of what to do. Finally, he decided to open the letter. While the true contents of the letter are known only by Mathews and Booth, Mathews claimed it was a detailed confession to the assassination. Mathews quickly destroyed the letter by throwing it into the fireplace after reading it. After all, no one wanted the authorities to believe that they were associated with the assassin, childhood friendships notwithstanding.
After watching the fires consume the murderous edict, Mathews climbed back out the window and nervously walked back to the place he knew best; Ford’s Theatre. John Mathews almost got himself hanged twice on assassination night. Two separate crowds tried to hang him based on his resemblance to Booth and because he was in the theatre that night. He escaped the first unscathed. The second time, the rope had already been placed around his neck when some soldiers rescued him. Eventually, Mathews was detained by the authorities; partly for his own safety and partly for interrogation.
In time, Mathews revealed his long association with Booth and the details of the mysterious letter. He tried to reconstruct the letter for authorities but strenuously proclaimed his innocence and complete ignorance of his friend’s murderous intentions. Despite his protestations, he was detained for several days as an accomplice. Luckily for Mathews, Booth read newspaper accounts smuggled to him while hiding in the pine thicket of the southern Maryland woods. He discovered that Mathews had not delivered his manifesto to the newspaper as promised. Booth recreated it for posterity in his diary and it would match, nearly word-for-word, Mathews account of the letter.
After his release, Mathews was so frightened that he thought briefly of changing his name, but relented. Although risky and unpopular, Mathews remained faithful to his friend Booth for the rest of his life. He told friends and fellow actors, his sole reason for burning the letter was to erase any evidence against his friend. Even three decades later, he referred to the country’s first presidential assassination as “the great mistake.”
Interesting to be sure, but what about the trivia and the six degrees? John Mathews lived upstairs at Petersen’s Boardinghouse, the house directly across the street from Ford’s Theatre where President Lincoln was taken after he was shot. Petersen often rented rooms to the stock actors playing at Ford’s. During the 1864-65 season both John Mathews and fellow actor Charles Warwick had previously rented the room Willie Clark was renting on April 14. It was in private Willie Clark’s room where Abraham Lincoln died at 8:22 am on April 15, 1865.
Booth knew both actors well enough that he often stopped and chatted with each of them there. A few accounts go so far as to claim that Booth himself spent the night in the Petersen house, possibly even in the room in which Lincoln died. What historians know for sure is that Mathews was boarding at the Petersen House on March 16th when he returned to find Booth stretched out on the bed, hands clasped behind his head calmly smoking a cigar while waiting for him. It was the very same bed in which Lincoln died less than a month later.
z attachment-image-154bab99-e5ab-487c-82b3-f53b57612c82Apparently Booth visited Mathews and Warwick at the Petersen house and both rented the Lincoln death room on numerous occasions. Both actors recalled Booth visiting them there, stretching out on the bed, laughing and telling stories, chomping on a cigar or with his pipe hooked in his mouth. There are several unconfirmed claims that Mathews was actually staying in an upstairs room at the Petersen House on the night of Lincoln’s assassination. The accounts are speculative at best but tantalizing to be sure. If that were the case, then Mathews burned Booth’s confessional letter in a fireplace just feet away from the dying President.
As for the six degrees? John Mathews is buried in the Actors Fund plot of Kensico cemetery in Valhalla, New York a few feet away from vaudevillian actor Pat Harrington, Sr. His son Pat, Jr. played handyman Dwayne Schneider in the TV show “One Day at a Time” that also starred Bonnie Franklin, Valerie Bertinelli and MacKenzie Phillips. The sitcom was based in Indianapolis. I win!

Assassinations, Pop Culture

The Kings of Ebenezer. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Family.

alberta-kingOriginal publish date:  July 11, 2014

Although the anniversary date has recently passed, my mind wanders back to a sad incident from forty years ago. I was almost 12 years old and thunderstruck by the news, and even more stunned by the fact that no-one seemed to care about it as much as I did. I suppose age and experience have help me accept the fact that the incident that was so important to me four decades ago is even less remembered today.
On Sunday, June 30th, 1974, 23-year-old Ohio State University dropout Marcus Wayne Chenault, Jr. walked into Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta Georgia and shot dead the mother of Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Alberta Christine Williams King. Chenault also killed the church deacon, Edward Boykin, and injured another member of the congregation, Mrs. Jimmie Williams.
Alberta King was excited by the chance to play the church’s newly installed organ that morning during a reunion of past Ebenezer choir members. After all, Ebenezer Baptist was the church where her father, A.D. Williams, her husband, Martin Luther King Sr., and son, Martin Luther King Jr., all had served as pastors. As a pastor’s wife Alberta (called “Bunch” by her husband) followed in her mother’s footsteps as a powerful presence in Ebenezer’s affairs. She had grown up in Ebenezer and had played many significant roles at her beloved church; teacher, music director, official organizer, president of the Ebenezer Woman’s Council and church organist since 1932. As usual, Alberta was front and center that Sunday morning.
Conversely, nobody noticed as the short, chunky ex-MCL cafeteria busboy Chenault, wearing a tan suit and thick glasses, took a seat a few feet away from the organ. Later, co-workers would recall the otherwise nondescript young man they new as “Markie” telling anyone who would listen that “Someday, they would all be reading about me.” Mrs. King had just finished playing “The Lord’s Prayer” for the estimated 500 in attendance that day. Most of the congregation sat with their heads bowed and eyes closed in preparation for prayer when the shout: “I’m taking over here!” broke the silence. Chenault was standing on a pew at the front of the church with a deranged look in his eyes. He jumped down, bolted to the pulpit, faced the choir, and pulled out two guns. Chenault screamed “I’m tired of all this!” and then opened fire with both revolvers.
Chenault emptied both guns, killing Alberta King, church deacon Edward Boykin, and seriously wounding congregation member Mrs. Jimmie Mitchell. As the gunman sprinted out the side door leading to Jackson Street, the sanctuary was chaotic. Police apprehended Chenault quickly a short distance away.
downloadAfter Chenault’s arrest, police found a hit list of names in his pocket that included 10 black clergymen and strangely, Aretha Franklin. Weeks before the incident, witnesses said that Markie went through numerous personality changes. One day he was an anti-communist; the next day a Black Panther militant. One day he was a Christian, the next, a Muslim or a Jew. One week he was chasing women, the next week he claimed to be homosexual.But mostly, Markie turned lonely and withdrawn. His motivation for the dastardly crime was a mystery.
Alberta King however, she was no mystery. Beloved by all, she was often referred to by her eldest son Martin as the moral foundation of his life. Mrs. King worked hard to instill self-respect into her three children. In an essay written at Crozer Seminary, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote that his mother “was behind the scenes setting forth those motherly cares, the lack of which leaves a missing link in life.” Martin Luther King Jr. was close to his mother throughout his life. Although her soft-spoken nature compelled her to avoid the publicity that accompanied her son’s international renown, she remained a constant source of strength to the King family, especially after King, Jr.’s assassination.
Chenault’s other murder victim Edward Boykin was also no mystery, having been a 39-year member of the church. At the time of his death, Boykin worked as a chauffeur for the widow of the late Clark Howell, Sr., former publisher of the Atlanta Constitution newspaper. He had served the Howell family for 32 years. He and his wife Lois had no children. Mrs Jimmie Wilson, the only surviving victim, was a 66-year-old retired teacher who considered herself lucky to be alive. She was quoted as saying, “He (the gunman) was standing right over me, and I was saying to myself, ‘this is it.'” before being struck in the lower neck by one of the bullets.
Details of the crime, the crime scene and the victim’s became well known, Chenault’s motive for such a dastardly crime was never discovered. The only thing for sure is that this was a seriously disturbed young man. Raised in the bluegrass country of Winchester, Ky., Chenault’s religious beliefs appeared to be a confused amalgam largely of his own devising. When he dropped out of Ohio State University, he was a junior majoring in education. The core of his personal religious philosophy was hatred of Christianity when, coupled with his sense of inadequacy and need for attention, became a lethal combination. Only two weeks before the killings he told a friend that he would soon “be all over the newspapers.”
According to the New York Times, Chenault “told the police that his mission was to kill the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr., but he shot Mrs. King instead because she was close to him”. During arraignment on murder charges, Chenault blamed his actions on a split personality, a “Hebrew” he called “Servant Jacob”. In court, Chenault was observed to be biting and licking his lips, and obsessively clasping his hands together while rocking back-and-forth. When asked about the shooting, he responded, “I’m a Hebrew and was sent here on a mission and it’s partially accomplished.” When Alberta’s widowed husband, Martin Luther King, Sr., asked Chenault why he did it, the youth replied: “Because she was a Christian and all Christians are my enemies.” He further claimed that he decided months earlier that “black ministers were a menace to black people and must be killed.”
Alberta_KingAlberta Williams King died at the age of 69 by the actions of little Markie Chenault. Her death was a shock to the congregation, the city, and the nation. In her honor, Atlanta mayor Maynard Jackson ordered the flags on all Atlanta city buildings to be flown at half-staff. Her body came back to Ebenezer Baptist Church to lie in state for public viewing, just a few feet from where she was shot. Alberta’s funeral was held at Ebenezer Baptist Church; U.S. representative from Georgia Andrew Young, who was on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel when her son was killed six years earlier, officiated at the service. Funeral attendees included members of the King family, second lady of the United States Betty Ford, and Georgia governor Jimmy Carter. She was buried in the same double mausoleum at Atlanta’s South-View cemetery that had previously held her son Martin Luther King, Jr.’s remains.
Bunch’s death was the crescendo of the often sad King family tenure at the church. Although Ebenezer remained a strong and vibrant congregation, it was never the same. Barely a year after her eldest son’s assassination in Memphis, Alberta King’s younger son, A.D., died in a mysterious accidental drowning.
A.D., like Martin Sr. & Jr., was a powerful, although much quieter, force in the Civil Rights Movement. In 1965, A.D. moved to Louisville, Kentucky, and became pastor at Zion Baptist Church. After his brother’s assassination in April 1968, there was speculation that A.D. might become the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). A.D., however, made no effort to assume his deceased brother’s role, although he did continue to be active in the Poor People’s Campaign and in other work on behalf of SCLC.
After Martin’s death, A. D. King returned to Ebenezer Baptist Church, where in September 1968 he was installed as co-pastor. But by now, A.D. was struggling with alcohol and depression. On July 21, 1969, nine days before his 39th birthday, A. D. King was found dead in the swimming pool at his home. The cause of his death was listed as an accidental drowning.
fieldsdrkingHis father said in his autobiography, “Alveda had been up the night before, she said, talking with her father and watching a television movie with him. He’d seemed unusually quiet…and not very interested in the film. But he had wanted to stay up and Alveda left him sitting in an easy chair, staring at the TV, when she went off to bed… I had questions about A.D.’s death and I still have them now. He was a good swimmer. Why did he drown? I don’t know — I don’t know that we will ever know what happened.” Naomi King, A.D.’s widow, said, “There is no doubt in my mind that the system killed my husband.”
Having lost both sons, Rev. King Sr. found the loss of his wife, especially in such a way, almost too much to bear and, not wanting “the church to decline under my leadership,” he tendered his resignation a short time after her death. By January 1975, the mighty King family was gone from Ebenezer Baptist Church. Years later Ebenezer dedicated it’s new pipe organ in their new sanctuary across the street in Alberta’s name to honor her “passion for beautiful worship music”.
Markie Chenault’s lawyers pleaded insanity stating that “the young man has repeatedly said he was on a mission to kill all Christians” but the defendant was given a death sentence for his crimes. During sentencing for the crime of capital murder, Chenault violently spat in the faces of his mother and father. The sentence was later reduced to life in prison, in part at the insistence of King family members who opposed the death penalty. His motivation remains unknown and Chenault took his secret to the grave. On August 22, 1995, he suffered a stroke in prison and died in hospital in the Atlanta suburb of Riverdale at the age of 44.
Again, through an act of violence, there ended a life that was totally nonviolent, a life that was thoroughly spiritual, a life that reflected love for all persons and unselfish service to humankind. Once more, the indomitable faith of the King family was tested, and again love prevailed amid sadness. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr., struck by the violent deaths of his two sons and by the tragic death of his wife Alberta, said at his beloved Bunch’s funeral service, “I cannot hate any man.” While her death is a tragic end to a life that sacrificed so much, I can’t help but feel that at least she died singing the Lord’s praises, surrounded by friends and family in the church she grew up in, was married in and where she raised a young man that would go on to change the world.
During this summer travel season, should you find yourself passing through the Sweet Auburn area of Atlanta, by all means stop in Ebenezer Baptist Church for awhile. There, you can sit in the same pews that witnessed the King’s in all their glory and all their sadness. The National Park Service maintains the historic church, there is no admission charged and you are invited to come in for a quiet respite while audio of Dr.Martin Luther King Jr.’s regular Sunday sermons are piped through the sanctuary. These are not the famous words we most associate with King, but rather his normal weekly lessons. And those sermons resonate to this day. But while there, take a moment to look up at that stage and remember Alberta Williams King. A quiet dignified servant of the Lord who cast a long shadow and left us too soon four decades ago.