Abe Lincoln, Assassinations, Civil War, Museums, National Park Service, Politics, Presidents

Lewis Gardner Reynolds, Carnation Day & Abraham Lincoln. PART II

Carnation Day Part II
Lewis Gardner Reynolds in the House Where Lincoln Died.

Original publish date:  February 6, 2020

Last week the oft forgotten holiday known as “Carnation Day” was detailed in Part I of this series. The holiday, today observed mostly only in Ohio, was created to commemorate assassinated President William McKinley on his birthday (January 29) by wearing his favorite flower, a red carnation, to honor him. The formal recognition of the holiday was due largely to the efforts of a man named Lewis Gardner Reynolds from Richmond, Indiana. In 1903, Reynolds formed the Carnation League of America to establish the custom of observing the McKinley floral holiday. That alone might be enough for most historical resumes, but not for Mr. Reynolds. Among this (and other noteworthy achievements) it should be noted that Reynolds was the last person to meet the living Abraham Lincoln.

z 1064_112582Mr. Reynolds was born at Bellefontaine, Ohio on June 28, 1858 and grew up in Dayton, Ohio. In Dayton, he worked for his father at the Reynolds & Reynolds Co., manufacturing notebooks and other school supplies. Later he started his own company, manufacturing paper cartons and served for 10 years as a member of the school board of that city. While in Ohio, Mr. Reynolds came to know many American leaders, including President McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt and Ohio politicos Myron T. Herrick, and Mark Hannah. In 1896 he married Miss Jeanette Lytle in Dayton. She died in 1903 and in 1909 he married Mary V. Williams of Richmond, Indiana. The couple relocated to Richmond and during World War I, Reynolds was prominent in organizing Liberty Loan drives for the war effort.

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Teddy Roosevelt

Upon the death of Teddy Roosevelt on January 6, 1919, Lewis G. Reynolds was made chairman of the Wayne County Theodore Roosevelt Memorial committee. Reynolds led Indiana’s fundraising plans to honor Roosevelt with monuments in Washington D.C., the national shrine at Oyster Bay, Long Island, restoration of his birthplace at No. 28 West Twenty-Second Street in New York City and lastly, through an endowment fund, “to perpetuate Colonel Roosevelt’s ideals of courageous Americanism.” The next year, Reynolds traveled to Indianapolis for a speech to the Indiana General Assembly advocating for the construction of the World War Memorial in the capital of the Hoosier state. Thanks in part to his efforts, the resolution was adopted, the memorial built.

After World War I Reynolds led the European Relief Commission, in particular the Wayne County Council headquartered at 1000 Main Street in Richmond. The January 11, 1921 issue of the Richmond Palladium noted, “Lewis G. Reynolds today received the following telegram: “Congratulations on dignified and successful manner in which you are conducting campaign for European relief. The American people are thoroughly aroused to the appealing need of this great mercy call. The need is great. The call urgent. Let mercy impel us to give relief to the starving children of Europe. Herbert Hoover. ”

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Osborn H. Oldroyd

After Osborn H. Oldroyd, the first Lincoln museum curator, sold his collection to the US government in 1926, Reynolds was called to Washington by Col. U.S. Grant, III to take charge of the Oldroyd collection. Ironically, the Reynolds family moved from their house on North Tenth Street in Richmond to their new house on Tenth Street Northwest in Washington D.C.:The House Where Lincoln Died.
A year before Oldroyd’s death, the two old friends were profiled together one final time in the February 12, 1929 Battle Creek Enquirer. “Two men who spend most of their time in the house where Abraham Lincoln died are probably more interested in the anniversary of his birth than anyone else in the country. They are Osborn Oldroyd, aged 87, who has spent 65 years collecting mementos and documents relating to the life of Lincoln, and Lewis Gardner Reynolds, 71, who sat on Lincoln’s knee as a little boy of six…Mr. Reynolds in the last year has shown 20,000 persons from all over the world through the room where Lincoln died.”
So not only was Mr. Reynolds in charge of the world’s largest Lincoln object collection contained within the house where the sixteenth president died, he could now also entertain visitors with the story of how he, as a six-year-old child, once sat upon Abraham Lincoln’s knee in the White House. In 1929, while the Nation celebrated the 120th anniversary of the Great Emancipator’s birth, Mr. Reynolds recalled that meeting to a local Washington D.C. newspaper reporter. Although not positive about the exact date, Mr. Reynolds said he felt reasonably sure that it was June 28, 1864, his sixth birthday, when the memorable event occurred.

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6-year-old Lewis G. Reynolds.

“Father, (Lucius Delmar Reynolds 1835-1913), a captain of one of the companies of the Treasury Guards, was to have a conference with his Commander-in-Chief, and I accompanied him,” Mr. Reynolds said. “While they were discussing the matter of the conference, which lasted nearly an hour, the President picked me up, set me on his knee, and I can feel yet the gentle stroke of that big firm hand as he stroked my head, like the halo of a great benediction. I almost remember his voice. Toward the end of the conference Mr. Lincoln carried me to one of the large windows overlooking the Potomac River, rested me on the deep window seat and stood there with one arm about me while pointing out to the captain some points of vantage he wished him to be familiar with…I saw President Lincoln scores of times,” Mr. Reynolds says, “as father’s duties took him frequently to the Executive Mansion, and he often took me with him. But I recall being actually on Lincoln’s lap and in his arms but once.”
In 1928 Reynolds authored a leaflet titled: “A Wonderful Hour with Abraham Lincoln” which he handed out to friends and special guests visiting the museum. While the leaflet ostensibly tells the story of his encounter with Lincoln, it also offers more details. “The very earliest recollection I have of anything is intimately connected with the Civil War…We removed to Washington and resided there from 1862 to 1866. Father was chief of one of the many bureaus of the treasury department. All the clerks and higher officials of the department were organized into military companies, known collectively as “The Treasury Guards.” They were intensely drilled by officers of the regular army, and as well-equipped as the soldiers in the field, except that they were not uniformed. They represented a potential army of nearly 2,000 men. Their military duties were to be, in case of an emergency, to protect the Treasury Department and the Executive Mansion, nearby. Father was made captain of one of these companies, and to his command was assigned the protection of the White House, and the President. Upon that fact rests my story.”

z img132The Reynolds leaflet further reveals,”Father and mother were at Ford’s Theatre the night of the assassination, and although it was late when they returned home, the general excitement of the night had reached our neighborhood. The newsboys shrill cries of “Extra! Extra! President Lincoln Shot” had awakened everybody in the boarding house. I, too, was awake. Young as I was, I realized what dreadful thing had happened, and I lay wide-eyed in my little trundle bed while father and mother related to the others their personal story of the tragedy. Father, accompanied by several of the men guests, went back to the scene and did not return until after the fateful hour of 7:22 the next morning. I remember as clearly as though it were of yesterday, wearing a wide band of black around the sleeve of my bright plaid jacket, and, carried in father’s arms, of passing the somber catafalque in the rotunda of the Capitol, which inclosed (sic) all that was mortal of the beloved Lincoln. A few weeks later I witnessed the Grand Review of the Army – that wonderful spectacle of the returning boys in blue – which took several days in its passing.”

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Lewis Gardner Reynolds in the House Where Lincoln Died.

On February 5, 1931 a story and photo of Lewis G. Reynolds appeared in newspapers all over the world. Mr. Reynolds was pictured standing on the spot where Lincoln died and speaking into a CBS radio microphone. The article details the radio address commemorating Lincoln’s upcoming birthday titled, “A World Tour of the Lincoln Museum”. It read in part, “In telling of the Lincoln Museum and the relics it contains, Reynolds said no story of it would be complete without reference to Col. O.H. Oldroyd to whom the world is indebted for the collection. ‘A monument should be erected to that man,’ he declared.”

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Lewis G. Reynolds-Osborn Oldroyd & Abraham Lincoln.

Mr. Reynolds supervised the removal of the Oldroyd collection out of the House Where Lincoln Died and into Ford’s Theatre across the street. It began on December 8, 1931 and by New Years day of 1932, Oldroyd’s collection had been fully moved into the newly repurposed Ford’s Theatre. The Oldroyd collection officially opened in its new location at 2:00 P.M. on February 12, 1932. In an article for the Washington Sunday Star magazine on February 12, 1933, Reynolds states, “Twenty-five thousand one hundred and eighty-one persons have visited the Lincoln house since it was open to the public and the number will increase from month to month as the rehabilitation of the shrine becomes more widely known.”

Mr. Reynolds continued in charge of the Lincoln memorial collection until 1936, when he retired after suffering a stroke. He returned to his home at 39 North Tenth street in Richmond to convalesce but never worked again. Custodian Reynolds met a sad and untimely end. On August 21, 1940, police and fire were called to the Reynolds home at 39 North Tenth street where, upon entry, Reynolds was found seated in an invalid’s chair seriously burned. His clothing caught fire when the tip of a lighted match ignited his clothing while his nurse, Mrs. Anna Farlowe, was in the kitchen preparing his evening meal. Investigators believed the accident took place while Reynolds was trying to light his pipe. His wife Mary, who heard his screams for help, rushed to his aid, and with Mrs. Farlowe, succeeded in putting out the fire with blankets. Mr. Reynolds was taken to a nearby hospital by ambulance and both women were treated for severe burns on their hands. Lewis G. Reynolds died in Reid Memorial hospital in Richmond; He was 82 years old. Mr. Reynolds was survived by hls widow, Mary V. Reynolds; two daughters. Mrs. Horace Huffman. Dayton, Ohio, Mrs. John W. Clements, of Richmond; a stepson, Edward B. Williams, of Richmond; 10 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

A 82 R1Two decades later, in 1960, the Richmond Palladium-Item newspaper profiled the widow of the former curator, offering new insight. The article is titled: “Local Woman Conducted Tours In House Where Lincoln Died.” It reveals, “Mrs. Reynolds and her husband lived on the second floor of the house at 516 Tenth street, Washington, DC, at the time Mr. Reynolds was curator of the Oldroyd Lincoln Memorial collection. This was from 1928 through 1936. “I never heard anyone ask Mr. Reynolds a question about Mr. Lincoln he could not answer,” Mrs. Reynolds recalls. Her husband acquired the job as curator when he heard Oldroyd wanted to retire… “I have had visitors say to me doesn’t it give you a creepy feeling?” (sleeping in the house where Lincoln died.) Her answer was always “No.” To the reporter, she said, “I never had a creepy feeling. When I thought about it, it was just a feeling of awe and reverence.” Mr. Reynolds described the collection via radio from the Petersen house several times.”

Finally, the article makes note of the widow Reynolds role at the House Where Lincoln Died. “Mrs. Reynolds read the Lincoln Library in the Oldroyd collection. In her study of history and Lincoln material, she qualified herself to talk with visitors on Lincolniana. “I met most interesting people,” Mrs. Reynolds said, “I often took them through the rooms…even the people from the South were pleasant. It was a wonderful experience.”

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Lewis Gardner Reynolds

Lewis Gardner Reynolds accomplished more in his 82 years than most could ever dream of. When he died in 1940, Abraham Lincoln had transcended into secular sainthood and Reynolds was the last tangible connection to the mortal Lincoln. Not only was Lewis Gardner Reynolds the last to encounter the living Lincoln, the Reynolds family (following the Petersons, the Schades, and the Oldroyds) were the last to reside in the House Where Lincoln Died. And of course, he was a Hoosier.

Abe Lincoln, Assassinations, Civil War, Criminals, Health & Medicine, Medicine, Politics, Pop Culture, Presidents

Lewis Gardner Reynolds, Carnation Day & Abraham Lincoln. PART I

Carnation Day Part I

Original publish date:  January 30, 2020

So what did you do last Wednesday? Did you place a red carnation in your lapel or buy a small arrangement for your table? Most likely, like most Americans, you did nothing remarkable at all. Our neighbors one state to the east probably joined you in your average humpday activities. Well, most of them anyway. Some were busy celebrating Carnation Day. What? You’ve never heard of that holiday? Well, don’t feel bad. You are not alone. Carnation Day was created to honor our country’s third assassinated President: Ohio’s favorite son, William McKinley. And, it was created by an Ohioan who lived and died in Richmond, Indiana.
z lfMost Americans remember President William McKinley solely for the way he died. His image a milquetoast chief executive from the age of American Imperialism who was at the helm for the dawn of the 20th century. McKinley’s ordinary appearance belied the fact that he was the last president to have served in the American Civil War and the only one to have started the war as an enlisted soldier. It is long forgotten that McKinley led the nation to victory in the Spanish-American War, protected American industry by raising tariffs and kept the nation on the gold standard by rejecting free silver. Most notably, his assassination at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York unleashed the central figure who would come to personify the new century; his Vice-President Teddy Roosevelt.
z carnMcKinley’s favorite flower was a red carnation. He displayed his affection by wearing one of the bright red florets in his lapel everyday. The carnation boutonnière soon became McKinley’s personal trademark. As President, bud vases filled with red carnations were conspicuously placed around the White House (known as the “Executive Mansion” back then). Whenever a guest visited the President, McKinley’s custom was to remove the carnation from his lapel and present it to the star struck visitor. For men, he would often place the souvenir blossom into the lapel himself and suggest that it be given to an absent wife, mother or child. Afterwards, he would replace his boutonnière with another from a nearby vase and repeat the transfer again-and-again for the rest of the day. McKinley was superstitious about these carnations, believing that they brought good luck to both him and his recipient.
s-l500 (4)One account alleges that McKinley’s “Genus Dianthus” custom began early in his presidency when an aide brought his two sons to the White House to meet the President. McKinley, who loved children dearly, presented his carnation to the older boy. Seeing the disappointment in the younger boy’s face, the President deftly retrieved a replacement carnation and pinned it on his own lapel. Here the flower remained for a few moments before he removed it and gave to the younger child, explaining “this way you both can have a carnation worn by the President.”
z lanbornHowever, McKinley’s ubiquitous floral tradition can be traced to the election of 1876, when he was running for a seat in Congress. His opponent, Dr. Levi Lamborn, of Alliance, Ohio, was an accomplished amateur horticulturist famed for developing a strain of vivid scarlet carnations he dubbed “Lamborn Red.” Dr. Lamborn presented McKinley with a “Lamborn Red” boutonniere before their debates. After he won the election, McKinley viewed the red carnation as a good luck charm. He wore one on his lapel regularly and soon began his custom of presenting them to visitors. He wore one during his fourteen years in Congress, his two gubernatorial wins and both 1896 and 1900 presidential campaigns.
Years later, Dr. L.L. Lamborn recalled, “We differed politically but were personal friends. Fate decreed that we looked at political questions through different party prisms. We canvassed the district together, and jointly discussed the issues of that campaign.

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Dr. Levi Lamborn Mural in Alliance, Ohio.

The contest was fervent but friendly. I was then raising the first carnations grown in the West. In our contests on the political forum, McKinley always wore carnation boutonnieres which were willingly furnished from my conservatory. I have distinct recollection of him expressing his admiration for the flower. It was doubtless at that time he formed a preferential love for the divine flower. That love increased with his years and honors of his famous life. Through it he offered his affections to the beautiful and the true.”
Ohio Senator Mark Hannah recalled, “Oftentimes the President would wear 100 flowers in one day. Mr. McKinley always appeared at the executive office in the morning with a carnation in his buttonhole, and when it became necessary to turn down a candidate for office who had succeeded in obtaining a personal interview he frequently took the flower from his own buttonhole and pinned it on the coat of the office seeker. It was generally understood by the officials in the outer rooms that when a candidate came from the President’s office thus decorated the carnation was all he got.”
z William-McKinley-Political-Poster-703x1024After his second inauguration on March 4, 1901, William and Ida McKinley departed on a six-week train trip of the country. The McKinleys’ were to travel through the South to the Southwest, and then up the Pacific coast and back east again, to conclude with a visit to the Buffalo Exposition on June 13, 1901. However, the First Lady fell ill in California, causing her husband to limit his public events and cancel a series of planned speeches. The First family retreated to Washington for a month and then traveled to their Canton, Ohio home for another two months, delaying the Expo trip until September.

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Ida & William McKinley

On September 5, the President, wearing his trademark red carnation, delivered a speech to a crowd of some 50,000 people at the Exposition. One man in the crowd, Leon Czolgosz (pronounced “zoll-goss”), was close enough to the President that he could almost smell the fragrant blossom. Czolgosz, a steelworker and anarchist from Alpena, Michigan, hoped to assassinate McKinley. Although close to the presidential podium, unsure that he could hit his target, he did not fire. Instead, Czolgosz waited for the next day at the Temple of Music, where the President was scheduled to appear for a one-hour meet-and-greet with the general public.
The President stood at the head of the receiving line, pleasantly shaking hands with visitors, and wearing his ever-present lapel flower. A little 12-year-old girl named Myrtle Ledger, standing in line with her mother, asked the President, “Could I have something to show my friends?” True to form, McKinley removed the red carnation, bent down and handed it to the child. Years later, Myrtle recalled that McKinley said, “In that case, I must give this flower to another little flower,” as he gave over his personal good luck charm.

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McKinley greeting children on the campaign trail.

However, this time McKinley was not in his familiar surroundings and had no replacement flower at hand. Ida, who usually sat in a chair next to the President armed with a basket full of carnations during such events, though in Buffalo, was not present at the event. Meanwhile, Leon Czolgosz edged closer to the President, his handkerchief wrapped hand concealing a .32-caliber Iver Johnson “Safety Automatic” revolver. At 4:07 P.M., the President smiled broadly and extended his hand to greet the next person in line. Czolgosz slapped it aside and shot the President twice, at point blank range: the first bullet ricocheted off a coat button and lodged in McKinley’s jacket; the other, seriously wounding the carnation-less President in the abdomen.
z mckinley-shotAs McKinley fell backwards into the arms of his aides, members of the crowd immediately attacked Czolgosz. McKinley said, “Go easy on him, boys.” McKinley urged his aides to break the news gently to Ida, and to call off the mob that had set on Czolgosz, thereby saving his assassin’s life. McKinley was taken to the Exposition aid station, where the doctor was unable to locate the second bullet. Ironically, although a newly developed X-ray machine was displayed at the fair, doctors were reluctant to use it on the President because they did not know what side effects. Worse yet, the operating room at the exposition’s emergency hospital did not have any electric lighting, even though the exteriors of many of the buildings were covered with thousands of light bulbs. Amazingly, doctors used a pan to reflect sunlight onto the operating table as they treated McKinley’s wounds.
In the days after the shooting McKinley appeared to improve and newspapers were full of optimistic reports. Eight days after the shooting, on the morning of September 13, McKinley’s condition deteriorated and by afternoon physicians declared the case hopeless. It would later be determined that the gangrene was growing on the walls of his stomach, slowly poisoning his blood.
z 58-484-25 2McKinley drifted in and out of consciousness all day. By evening, McKinley himself knew he was dying, “It is useless, gentlemen. I think we ought to have prayer.” Relatives and friends gathered around the death bed. The First Lady sobbed over him, “I want to go, too. I want to go, too.” Her husband replied, “We are all going, we are all going. God’s will be done, not ours” and with final strength put an arm around her. Some reports claimed that he also sung part of his favorite hymn, “Nearer, My God, to Thee” while others claim that the First Lady sang it softly to him. At 2:15 a.m. on September 14, President McKinley died. Czolgosz was sentenced to death and executed by electric chair on October 29, 1901.
The light had gone out of Ida McKinley’s life. She could not even bring herself to attend his funeral. Ida & William McKinley’s relationship has always been a marvel to me. She was an epileptic whose husband took great care to accommodate her condition. Contrary to protocol, he insisted that his wife be seated next to him at state dinners rather than her traditional position at the opposite end of the table. Guests noted that whenever Mrs. McKinley encountered a seizure, the President would gently place a napkin or handkerchief over her face to conceal her contorted features. When it passed, he removed it and resumed whatever he was doing as if nothing had happened. A story of true devotion that is rarely remarked on by modern day historians. Ida’s health declined as she withdrew to the safety of her home and happier memories in Canton. She survived her husband by less than six years, dying on May 26, 1907 and is buried next to him and their two daughters in Canton’s McKinley Memorial Mausoleum.
z crimsonLoyal readers will recognize my affinity for objects and will not be surprised by the query, “What became of that assassination carnation?” In an article for the Massillon, Ohio Daily Independent newspaper on Sept. 7, 1984, Myrtle Ledger Krass, the 12-year-old-girl to whom the President gave his lucky flower to moments before he was killed, reported that the McKinley’s carnation was pressed and kept in the family Bible. Myrtle, at the time a well-known painter living in Largo, Florida, explained how, many years later while moving, “The old Bible had been put away for years, when I took it out to wrap it for moving, it just crumbled in my hand. Just fell away to nothing.”
Carnation Day Pin 1In 1902, Lewis Gardner Reynolds (born in 1858 in Bellefontaine, Ohio) found himself in Buffalo on business on the first anniversary of McKinley’s death. While there he found that the mayor of Buffalo had declared the day a legal holiday. Gardner recalled, “without thinking at the time that I was doing something that would become a national custom, I purchased a pink carnation which I placed in the button hole of my coat after tying a small piece of black ribbon on it. As I went through Buffalo I explained to questioners the reason for the flower and the black ribbon. Many of those who questioned me followed my example.” On his return to Ohio he explained to his friend Senator Mark Hannah what he had done in Buffalo. Later, in Cleveland, Reynolds met with Hannah and Governor Myron T. Herrick. Soon plans were made to celebrate Jan. 29, the anniversary of McKinley’s birth, as “Carnation Day.”

Lewis G. Reynolds close up June 13, 1903
Lewis Gardner Reynolds

In 1903, Reynolds founded the Carnation League of America and instituted Red Carnation Day as an annual memorial to McKinley. Standing for patriotism, progress, prosperity and peace, the League encouraged all Americans to wear a red carnation on McKinley’s birthday. Not only did the new holiday honor the martyr’s birthday, it also encouraged people to patronize florists. In Dayton alone that year, more than 15,000 carnations were sold on McKinley’s birthday. On February 3, 1904, to honor McKinley, the Ohio General Assembly declared the scarlet carnation the state flower. After the U.S. entered World War I, people started wearing an American flag instead of a carnation on January 29. In 1918, Red Carnation Day celebrations began declining and eventually stopped altogether.
Carnation Day Pin 5Today, the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus continues observing Red Carnation Day every January 29 by installing a small display honoring the assassinated President. Last year, the Statehouse Museum Shop and on-site restaurant offered special discounts to anyone wearing a red carnation or dressed in scarlet on that day. Yes, the sentimental association of the carnation with McKinley’s memory is due to Lewis Gardner Reynolds.
However, that is not the only claim to fame to be made for Mr. Reynolds. He would meet and fall in love with a girl from Richmond and, after moving there, he would spearhead the Teddy Roosevelt memorial effort and post-World War I European Relief Commission efforts in Wayne County. He would travel to Washington DC and take over curatorship of the Lincoln collection after it’s owner Osborn Oldroyd sold it to the US Government in 1926. He would supervise the collection’s move across the street to Ford’s Theatre, where it remains today. And, he would survive to the dawn of World War to stake his claim as the last living person to have met Abraham Lincoln.Carnation Day Pin 3

Carnation plate 1

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William McKinley’s death mask.
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McKinley Needle 1901 on display at the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site Foundation.
Politics, Presidents

January 4, 1974; A Reflection.

 

1-4-1974

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.

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.