Abe Lincoln, Civil War, Gettysburg, Museums, Pop Culture, Presidents, Travel

Statuary Myths and Urban Legends. John Rogers.

Part II

Original publish date:  October 1, 2020

If you are a fan of Victorian decor, or if, like me, you find yourself haunting antique malls and shops, you’re probably familiar with the work of sculptor John Rogers. Commonly known as “Groups” for their routine use of more than one subject per sculpture, Rogers’ work is distinctive for many reasons: historical themes, uncommon accuracy and exquisite detail. Rogers was the first American sculptor to be classified as a “pop artist”, scorned by art critics but beloved by the average American. His themes included literary themes, Civil War soldiers, ordinary citizens, animals, sports and luminaries from the pages of history. For Irvingtonians, his works depicting namesake Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle are particularly prized.

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John Rogers Rip Van Winkle Series.

I have a few in my office and one of my favorite places to eat, the “Back 40 Junction” in Decatur, is decorated with many John Rogers groups throughout their restaurant.
John Rogers was born in Salem, Massachusetts, on October 30, 1829, how can Halloween fans not love him already? His father, an unsuccessful but well-connected Boston merchant, felt that an artist’s life was no better than a vagabond and discouraged his artistic son from pursuing art as a profession. So, Rogers confined his love of drawing, painting and modeling in clay to his spare time. In 1856 Rogers ran away to Mark Twain’s Hannibal, Missouri where he worked as a railroad mechanic. Two years later, he moved to Europe to attain a formal education in sculpting. His first group, in 1859, he titled “The Slave Auction”. It depicts a white auctioneer as he gavels down the sale of a defiant black man, posed arms crossed, with his weeping wife and babies cowering at the side. Rogers, a strong abolitionist, was making a statement against slavery but New York shopkeepers refused to display his work in their windows for fear that the controversial subject matter would drive customers away. So Rogers hired a black salesman to peddle the statue from door-to-door and in a short time, Rogers’ statue, described as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin in plaster” became a best seller.

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Sculptor John Rogers.

That same year, Rogers went to Chicago, where he entered his next statue, titled “The Checker Players” in a charity event, which won a $75.00 prize and attracted much attention. Rogers soon began rapidly producing very popular, relatively inexpensive figurines to satiate the average Gilded Age citizen’s thirst for art. Over the next quarter century, a total of 100,000 copies of nearly 90 different Rogers Groups were sold across the United States and abroad. Unsurprisingly, the next few years were filled with Rogers groups depicting scenes from the Civil War to honor their soldier boys serving far from home. These statues would remain popular with veterans after the war as well.
Gettysburg Longstreet monument sculptor Gary Casteel remarked, “Rogers is very well known as an American sculptor. More for his collection of small group settings rather than large public works. Both are excellent in detail and representation. His collection of CW related plaster cast pieces are quite well know and continually sought after by collectors to this day.” Rogers’ work was innovative, preferring to create his statuary based on every day, ordinary scenes from life. While Rogers’ work rarely made its way into art museums, it did grace the parlors, libraries and offices of Victorian homes around the world. However, there is one work that stands out among the rest, for subject matter, realism, and controversy.

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                                                         Rogers’ Council of War.

“The Council of War”, created in 1868, stands 24 inches tall and, like all of Rogers’ groups, was designed to fit perfectly on a round oak “ball and claw” footed parlor table. It depicts Abraham Lincoln seated in a chair, studying a map held in both hands, as General Ulysses S. Grant and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton confer over his shoulders. The June 1872 issue of the “American Historical Record” describes the scene: “The time is supposed to be early in March, 1864, just after Grant was appointed a Lieutenant-General and entrusted by Congress with the largess and discriminatory power as General-in-Chief of all the armies. The occasion was the Council at which the campaign of 1864 was determined upon, which was followed by Grant’s order on the 1st of May for the advance of the great armies of the Republic against the principal forces of the Confederates.”

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Gettysburg Sculptor Gary Casteel.

Both Robert Todd Lincoln and Edwin Stanton proclaimed this version of the President to be the best likeness of the man either had ever seen. Secretary Stanton wrote to the sculptor in May of 1872 stating, “I am highly gratified with the genius and artistic skill you have displayed. I think you were especially fortunate in your execution of the figure of President Lincoln. In form and feature it surpasses any effort to embody the expression of that great man which I have seen. The whole group is very natural and the work, like others from the same hand, well represents interesting incidents of the time.” Although the two surviving subjects received the piece positively, the public allegedly saw it differently: quite literally.
The controversy surrounding the pose arose based upon the positioning of Stanton behind Lincoln. Stanton, is posed polishing his spectacles, held in both hands, directly behind the President’s left ear approximately where Booth’s bullet entered Mr. Lincoln’s head. The pose is thought to have aroused the ire of collectors who believed the awkward positioning somehow stirred memories of the assassination. Hence, John Rogers made three versions of this particular group to appease those sympathies. Although the depictions of Grant and Lincoln remained the same in all three, Stanton’s hands were emptied and placed at his side in the second version and then changed back to polishing his glasses, this time forward of Lincoln’s head, in the third version. Some historians surmise the changes were affected due to the alleged theory of Stanton’s involvement in Lincoln’s murder that were circulating at the time. On the other hand, art historians claim the change was made for purely structural purposes and ease of casting to prevent breakage.
Modern day sculptors like Gary Casteel utilize many of the same methods as Rogers did a century-and-a-half ago, just as Rogers used those techniques he learned about while studying in Europe. Casteel, who like Rogers, also studied sculpture in Europe, says, “Every sculptor has his own way of sculpture production. However, there are probably similarities. I do a lot of detail as he did just simply because it’s my natural style.” The advantage that Gary Casteel has is the internet. Gary has a website and blog (Casteel Sculptures, LLC / Valley Arts Publishing) that walks his “fans” through the process of wood, wire & clay step-by-step. If you have an interest in the process, I highly recommend you subscribe to Gary’s blog. Watching Gary’s scale sculptures of the ornately detailed monuments of Gettysburg might better explain that Rogers’ changes in his Council of War group may not have been all about myth and urban legends after all.
At the height of their popularity, Rogers’ figurines graced the parlors of homes in the United States and around the world. Most sold for $15 apiece (about $450 in 2020 dollars), the figurines were affordable to the middle class. Instead of working in bronze and marble, he sculpted in more affordable plaster, painted the color of putty to hide dust. Rogers was inspired by popular novels, poems and prints as well as the scenes he saw around him. By the 1880s, it seemed that families who did not have a John Rogers Group were not conforming to the times. Even Abraham Lincoln owned a John Rogers Group. My favorite account of a typical Rogers statue encounter comes from the Great American West. Libby Custer mentions in her book “Boots and Saddles” that her husband, General George Armstrong Custer, carried two prized John Rogers groups (“One More Shot” and “Mail Day”, both depicting Civil War soldiers) from post-to-post on the Western frontier including the couples’ final Indian outpost before the “Last Stand.”
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Libby and George Armstrong Custer.

Libby states, “Comparatively modern art was represented by two of the Rogers statuettes that we had carried about with us for years. Transportation for necessary household articles was often so limited it was sometimes a question whether anything that was not absolutely needed for the preservation of life should be taken with us, but our attachment for those little figures and the associations connected with them, made us study out a way always to carry them. At the end of each journey, we unboxed them ourselves, and sifted the sawdust through our fingers carefully, for the figures were invariably dismembered. My husband’s first occupation was to hang the few pictures and mend the statuettes. He glued on the broken portions and moulded (sic) putty in the crevices where the biscuit had crumbled. Sometimes he had to replace a bit that was lost… On one occasion we found the head of the figure entirely severed from the trunk. Nothing daunted, he fell to patching it up again… The distorted throat, made of unwieldy putty, gave the formally erect, soldierly neck a decided appearance of goiter. My laughter discouraged the impromptu artist, who for one moment felt that a “restoration” is not quite equal to the original. He declared that he would put a coat of gray paint overall, so that in a dim corner they might pass for new. I insisted that it should be a very dark corner!”
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Another article, this one from the January 1926 issue of “Antiques” magazine, encapsulates the love-hate relationship for Rogers’ work: “The fact that Rogers groups are fragile has made them rare enough to arouse the interest of collectors, although I doubt that they will ever be widely collected or will ever acquire high values. They are too large to be comfortably collected in quantity. Nevertheless there might be some slight activity in Rogers groups among collectors of American antiques and it is to be hoped that existing examples will be preserved for the sake of what they express of life some forty years since.”
In 1878 Rogers opened a small studio at 13 Oenoke Ridge in New Canaan, Connecticut. By the 1890s, his work had largely fallen out of favor. Poor health forced his retirement in 1893. Rogers died at his New Canaan home on July 26, 1904. His studio was designated a U.S. National Historic Landmark in 1965. Rogers sculpted what he saw, drawing his inspiration from the everyday beauty observed by his own eye or that created by his mind’s eye while interpreting the literary works he valued most. Although he died in relative obscurity, his works live on as perfect representations of Victorian Era life at the crossroads of the Gilded Age and the Second Industrial Revolution.

Politics, Pop Culture, Presidents

The 1952 Presidential Conventions Revisited.

Original publish date:  September 3, 2020

Many readers will recall that I have a minor obsession with old paper. Photos, brochures, booklets, newspaper, documents, letters… PAPER! Sometimes I run across an item that illustrates things really haven’t changed that much. During a recent trip to Lexington, Kentucky, I found a box of paper in an antique mall that seemed to be calling my name. It was full of a miscellany of every sort, type & design. Some of which belonged to a woman who, in 1960, had been president of the Lexington women’s club and a delegate to the 1960 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles that nominated John F. Kennedy for President.
Hidden among them was a six-page letter about the 1952 Democratic convention in Chicago that nominated Adlai Stevenson for President written by an Eisenhower supporter. As I read the letter, it all sounded very familiar to me. Written on three sheets of stationery from the Warner Hotel in Warren, Ohio on July 25, 1952, it was sent to a couple living in Lexington. The hotel was named after Jonathan Warner, a long forgotten Lake Superior iron ore magnate and leading manufacturer of pig iron. The letterhead touts the hotel as having 150 rooms, all absolutely fireproof, and as being on the “European plan”, which basically means, all you get is the room; no meals included.

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Adlai Stevenson at the 1952 DNC.


The letter reads: “Dear Mother & Daddy. – I surely did not intend to be so long writing you all, but I guess you know that what with cleaning up after our guests, getting Teresa off to camp, and then getting ready to leave myself, that I haven’t had too many spare minutes. And I must admit that what ones I did have were devoted to the Democratic Convention! Have you ever seen or heard such a brawl as was going on yesterday over the seating of the three southern states! We were so glued to the radio, that we forgot every thing else, and ran out of gas!! Did we ever feel silly! It was just at dark, and fortunately we were in town, and some kind soul gave us a push to a gas station. It’s the first time either of us can remember of that ever happening to us! We sure laughed at ourselves! How we wished and wished we had our television set to see that disgusting spectacle! Tom says he would have forgotten to eat!”
The 1952 Democratic National Convention was held at the International Amphitheatre in Chicago from July 21 to July 26. This was the same arena the Republicans had gathered in for their convention (July 7 to July 11). In 1952, the popularity of television was on the rise with 37% of American households owning televisions and both parties recognized the rising importance of television and the impact it would have on the political process. The 1952 Democratic convention was the second political convention to be televised live, coast-to-coast (following the Republicans three weeks earlier). After carefully watching the Republican Convention, the Democrats made last-minute alterations to make its broadcast more appealing to television audiences.

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The Democratic platform for 1952 called for a strong national defense, collective security against the Soviet Union, multilateral disarmament, repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act, equal employment opportunities for minorities and public assistance for the aged, children, blind, and the disabled, expansion of the school lunch program, and continued efforts to fight racial discrimination.
The 1952 Republican platform pledged to end the unpopular war in Korea, supported the development of nuclear weapons as a deterrence strategy, to fire all “the loafers, incompetents and unnecessary employees” at the State Department, condemned the Roosevelt and Truman administrations’ economic policies (Code word: SOCIALISM), supported retention of the Taft–Hartley Act, opposed “discrimination against race, religion or national origin”, supported “Federal action toward the elimination of lynching”, and pledged to bring an end to communist subversion in the United States.
z 18510_detailThe letter continues, ” Gov. Battle has a brother living in Charleston, who goes to our church, + Tom knows him quite well, + we have been in their home, so we were especially interested in what he had to say. We thought the Louisiana Governor was crying, – did you? But I’m a telling you, the more I see of the southern states vs. the northern states, the prouder I am of being a Southerner!” Virginia Governor John Battle, of whom the letter speaks, was a Delegate to the DNC in 1952. When the Virginia delegation was threatened with expulsion at the convention for refusing to sign a loyalty oath (to whomever the party nominated), Battle delivered a speech to the convention preventing their expulsion.
The letter continues: “And I believe that if anything saves this country from socialism and communism, it’s going to be the southern states! I’m sure you must have heard Gov. Dever’s keynote speech, – the best description I have ever heard of the Democratic Party, – pure socialism! And he seemed to be trimmed in a bright shade of pink! Just listen to some of the phrases they use, – they sound exactly like the “Daily Worker”, and the “hate – mongering” they are accusing the Republicans of doing! It’s all certainly very clear, – and they’re quite bold about it this year too!”

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Gov. Paul Dever on rostrum placing name of Adlai Stevenson in nomination.

Not only was Massachusetts Governor Paul Dever the keynote speaker at the convention, he also made an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, polling eighth out of sixteen hopefuls before dropping out after the third ballot. Both 1952 conventions came in the middle of a four-year period of anticommunist policies and attitudes, championed by Wisconsin Republican Senator Joe McCarthy, which came to be known as McCarthyism or more colloquially as the “Red Scare”. Beginning in February of 1950, McCarthy began denouncing the Truman administration for permitting known communists to remain working in the federal government. The accusations by McCarthy put the administration on the political defensive and led Truman to seek ways in which he might prove he was not “soft on communism.”
The letter continues: “We get a kick out of what they say about Eisenhower, because for months they were beating their brains out trying to get him to be their candidate!”
As early as June of 1943, politicians began suggesting to Eisenhower that he should run for President. Ike believed that a general should not participate in politics, and often told reporters that he did not want any political job “from dogcatcher to Grand High Supreme King of the Universe”. In January 1948, after learning of plans in New Hampshire to elect delegates supporting him for the forthcoming Republican National Convention, Eisenhower stated that he was “not available for and could not accept nomination to high political office”; “life-long professional soldiers”, he wrote, “in the absence of some obvious and overriding reason, [should] abstain from seeking high political office”. Both 1948 candidates, Harry Truman and Thomas E. Dewey, tried to get Ike to run for their respective parties but Ike maintained no political party affiliation during this time. Many believed that Eisenhower was too old to run.

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The letter continues, “Politics is a terrible thing, but thank God we still have it! What must foreign countries think of such behavior as goes on in these conventions! Barkley certainly packed a wallop in his speech, and had the perfectly tremendous over patience, one 35 minutes, the other over 45 minutes! He surely could end up with the nomination!”
After President Harry S Truman announced that he would not seek reelection, his Vice-President Alben Barkley declared his availability to run for president while maintaining he was not actively seeking the office. Barkley’s distant cousin, Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson II had not yet committed to run. When Kentucky’s delegation announced that they would support Barkley, Truman encouraged Missouri’s delegates to do the same. Hoosier DNC chairman Frank E. McKinney and former chairman James Farley also supported him. To dispel concerns about his age, failing eyesight, and heart problems,

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Harry S Truman & Alben Barkley.

Barkley arrived in Chicago for the 1952 DNC and briskly walked seven blocks from the bus station to his campaign headquarters. On July 20 a group of labor leaders, including UAW President Walter Reuther, issued a statement calling Barkley too old and suggested that Democrats nominate someone younger like Stevenson. Barkley was unable to persuade them to retract the statement, which caused delegations from large industrial states like Illinois, Indiana, and Pennsylvania to balk on their commitments to Barkley. On July 21, Barkley withdrew from the race. Invited to make a farewell address on July 22, he received a 35-minute ovation when he took the podium and another 45-minute ovation at the speech’s end. In a show of respect, a Missouri delegate nominated Barkley for president and House Majority Leader John W. McCormack seconded it, but Stevenson was easily nominated.

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The letter continues: “Glad the steel strike is over, but I wonder if there wasn’t a bit of timing involved? So that it would come during the Democratic convention?”
The 1952 United Steelworkers of America strike against U.S. Steel and nine other steelmakers was scheduled to begin on April 9th. President Truman, after being told that supplies of ammunition in Korea were already low and that even a 10-day strike would endanger the war effort, nationalized the American steel industry hours before the workers walked out. On June 2, 1952, in a landmark decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the President lacked the authority to seize the steel mills. The strike lasted 53 days and ended on July 24, 1952.
The letter concludes, “It’s 11:30 AM, and I had better be going out for some “brunch,” – slept until after 10. Want to thank you all again for all the food you sent by the kids, including the secondhand olives! – And also for meeting us halfway to take Jeane on. Hope you had a pleasant drive home, – we did, – it cooled off some, + we found we had a storm when we got home. It’s very pleasant here, – in fact, I had to wear a coat last night when we went out for dinner. Expect to leave about 3 o’clock this afternoon for Ashtabula, not very far from here. Then tomorrow afternoon we go to Akron to spend Saturday + Sunday with Ed + Margaret Bruner. Monday, Tom has to go to Cleveland, and we had hoped to spend that night with Mrs. Harrison, but she is visiting in Maine so will work that out later on. Anyhow, will be home Tuesday. Heaps of love – Mary Holley.”
Much in this letter written nearly seventy years ago should sound familiar to readers of today. Seems the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Abe Lincoln, Civil War, Indianapolis, Politics, Presidents

General Ulysses S. Grant earned his stripes here!

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Original publish date:  April 19, 2009             Reissue date: July 4, 2020

So you think you’re a Civil War buff ? Well, so did I. I’ve read, researched and written about many things connected to the American Civil War most of my life. Yet, I recently found out a factoid from my beloved home state and city of my birth that I had never heard before and I’d like to share it with you here. On Saturday October 17, 1863, Union General Ulysses S. Grant is given orders to travel to Indianapolis from Cairo, Illinois by General Henry Halleck, who also tells the General to bring his staff with him in preparation “for immediate operations in the field.”

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Generals Grant & Halleck

The General, his wife Julia Dent Grant, and his staff arrived in Indianapolis in the early evening and checked into the Bates House Hotel on the old National Road (Present day Washington Street). On the morning of October 18th, the party prepared to leave for Louisville, where Julia Grant expected to meet old friends. The train was just about to roll out of the Indianapolis Union Station when word came to delay it’s departure pending the arrival of an important passenger. It was non other than Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, who traveled west from Washington, D.C. to confer with Grant. Secretary Stanton made his way to Grant’s car and seeing a group of officers, strode forward with his hand outstretched and said, “How do you do, General Grant? I recognize you from your pictures.” Unfortunately, the man Stanton greeted so vigorously was not General Grant but his medical director, Dr. Edward Kittoe. The staunch Quaker lawyer was nonplussed by his mistake and as Stanton was pointed in the right direction by Grant’s staff, the General struggled to conceal his amusement. Before this Indianapolis meeting, Stanton had only communicated with Grant via telegraph.

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General U.S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln & Edwin Stanton by sculptor William Rogers.

Stanton handed Grant a telegraph from President Abraham Lincoln that read: ” By direction of the President of the United States, the Departments of the Ohio, of the Cumberland, and of the Tennessee, will constitute the Military Division of the Mississippi. Major General U.S. Grant, United States Army, is placed in command of the Military Division of the Mississippi, with his headquarters in the field.” These orders that Stanton felt necessary to travel the nearly 600 arduous, bone shaking miles by rail in order to hand deliver to a man he had never met, General U.S. Grant, placed Grant in command of three armies that would now be known collectively as “the Military Division of Mississippi.” Grant was thus in charge of all military operations from the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River, more or less.
z ChickamaugaGrant immediately relieved Rosecrans in Chattanooga and replaced him with Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas, soon to be known as “The Rock of Chickamauga”. Devising a plan known as the “Cracker Line”, Thomas’s chief engineer, William F. “Baldy” Smith opened a new supply route to Chattanooga, helping to feed the starving men and animals of the Union army. Upon re-provisioning and reinforcing, the morale of Union troops lifted and in late November, they went on the offensive. The Battles for Chattanooga ended with the capture of Lookout Mountain, opening the way for the Union Army to invade Atlanta, Georgia, and the heart of the Confederacy.

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U.S.Grant (left corner) atop Lookout Mountain.

Grant’s willingness to fight and his ability to win impressed President Lincoln, who appointed him lieutenant general in the regular army-a rank not awarded since George Washington- which was recently re-authorized by the U.S. Congress with Grant in mind-on March 2, 1864. On March 12, Grant became general-in-chief of all the armies of the United States. The rest is history. It’s also noteworthy to remember that Edwin Stanton was appointed by President Grant to the Supreme Court, but he died four days after he was confirmed by the Senate and never took the oath to become a Justice.
Why is this important? This was the first official step taken by General Ulysses S. Grant on his road to fame that ultimately ended at the White House. In U.S. Grant’s memoirs, the General remembered that the train arrived in Louisville at night in a cold drizzling rain. Secretary Stanton told Grant that he had caught a miserable cold from that trip from which he “never expected to recover from”. Grant believed that Stanton never fully recovered from this cold and that it contributed to Stanton’s death in 1869. The Galt House Hotel in Louisville always takes the credit for this important announcement meeting, although it actually happened right here in Indianapolis on a south bound train leaving Union Station on a crisp Hoosier autumn Sunday morning .

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Abe Lincoln, Civil War, Presidents, Travel

A Hoosier Wedding in Lincoln’s White House.

Lincoln White House Wedding photo

Original publish date:  June 11, 2020

Sometimes, I need to dig up a historical story for no other reason than I need a smile. And nothing makes me smile more than sharing a story with an Indiana connection. A story that many of you have never heard before. A story that might just make you smile. This is the story of Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War and a White House wedding. The only wedding to take place during Lincoln’s time in the White House.
In March of 1862, a 19-year-old Mount Sidney, Virginia woman named Elizabeth Amanda Sheets wanted to marry a 28-year-old farmhand living in the same town named James Chandler, a native of Bowling Green, Kentucky. Problem was, Elizabeth’s parents disapproved of the engagement, let alone a wedding, to the much older man, so the couple decided to elope. After several months of a secret courtship, the young couple obtained a marriage license and boarded a stagecoach bound for Harper’s Ferry to get hitched.
125 miles later, as they approached the outskirts the town, they were turned away because of the build-up of Federal forces there readying themselves for the soon-to-begin military campaign in the Shenandoah Valley. With no other options, they traveled on by stage, 63 miles away to Washington, D.C., a city neither was familiar with.
And so it was that this couple from the Rebel state of Virginia found themselves in the Union Capitol of Washington at the height of the Civil War. Luckily for them, during the war between the states, D.C. was the equivalent of Las Vegas. The stagecoach driver informed the couple that they could be married in any public building there. What’s more, the driver suggested they go and knock on the door of the White House and ask “Honest Abe” to marry them.
It sounded like a good idea to the starstruck couple, so they traveled hand-in-hand to the Executive Mansion to be joined in holy matrimony in the grandest of styles. While walking towards the White House, they asked a man who was coming towards them if it was true that they could get married there. The stranger replied that he did not know, pointed towards the front door and told them to knock and ask for themselves.

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White House Doorman Jeremiah Smith.

Tradition states that the door was answered by President Lincoln’s legendary doorman, Jeremiah Smith, a subject of past columns. Further tradition states that after President Lincoln heard of a young couple seeking some place to be married, he took them to the East Room and summoned a Baptist minister. The White House Historical Association reports that “a group of women then entered the room, along with First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, to serve as witnesses for the ceremony. After the minister announced their marital status, the president and first lady shook their hands, served an elegant dinner, and invited the newlyweds to spend the night.”
Thus, again according to the White House Historical Association, “Abraham Lincoln was credited with seeing to the marriage in the White House of a couple he did not know.” The incident first surfaced in the September 27, 1901 Indianapolis News in a story headlined “Married in a Parlor of the White House” less than two weeks after the assassination of President William McKinley. Then, as now, I’m guessing the world was in need of a little good news.
Screenshot (79)The 57-year-old widow, now known as Elizabeth Chandler, was living a quiet life in Anderson, Indiana; her husband James Henry Chandler having died six years earlier on Sept. 19, 1895, at the age of 61. The article recorded widow Chandler’s remarks about her White House wedding 44 years earlier made during a family dinner held in her honor at Rochester, Indiana. According to Mrs. Chandler, President Lincoln “shared in the happiness of the couple by suddenly finding it possible to have a wedding in the White House.”

 

The article understates the obvious by noting, “inasmuch as she is probably the only woman living in Indiana who has the distinction of having been a White House bride… Mrs. Chandler does not regard the circumstances of the wedding as being anything out of the ordinary so far as she is concerned.” The story broke “like a romantic picture out of the past” in newspapers all over the state and was soon picked up nationally. Over the next three decades, widow Chandler’s story proved irresistible whenever there was a wedding in the White House or an important Lincoln anniversary. On February 17, 1906 (a few days after Abraham Lincoln’s 97th birthday) the Indianapolis News ran the story on the day President Teddy Roosevelt’s outspoken daughter Alice married Ohio Congressman Nicholas Longworth at the White House. White House Wedding ChandlerThe story reemerged in 1909, the 100th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, and again in November 1913 as President Woodrow Wilson’s daughter Jessie prepared to marry Francis Sayre.
While it is difficult to prove whether the wedding actually took place, each succeeding story contained more details about the event. Elizabeth later recalled how President Abraham Lincoln led the couple up the stairs of the White House and into a big room all draped with flags. Elizabeth said she recognized the president because she had seen his picture. The young bride remembered that Lincoln summoned a messenger and, upon his arrival, the messenger and the groom left the room while Elizabeth remained with the president. Lincoln spoke to her about the war and asked whether she would be willing for her husband to fight for his country. When Lincoln noted that talk of war upset her, he changed the subject and began telling the blushing bride jokes and tall tales.
z inaugural-receptionAfter the minister’s arrived, Lincoln rang a bell and then led the wedding party into a big room, Elizabeth recalled. The president stood alongside the minister and not only did he give the bride away but also acted as the groom’s best man. Elizabeth recalled how he smiled throughout the ceremony. She stated that a Cabinet member stood up with them, but couldn’t recall his name or that of the minister. Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln were the first to shake the newlyweds’ hands. Elizabeth’s most vivid recollection of the nuptials was how scared she was. The president chatted with them awhile and then returned to his office with the unnamed Cabinet member. Elizabeth had worn a plain white cashmere dress for the ceremony. Afterwards, the couple was taken to separate rooms in the White House to change clothes, where Elizabeth changed into a navy blue cashmere dress.
According to the White House Historical Association, “a social function was being held at the White House that evening and when those present learned there were newlyweds in the house, they came ringing bells and compelled the couple to come and and join the party. The couple were greeted with handshakes and questions about where they were from and where they were going.” Elizabeth recalled that all of the guests were Northerners, and being a Virginian, she didn’t how nice Northerners were until that night. The newlywed described how she and her new husband hardly got a chance to speak during the evening because of the constant requests for her to dance the Virginia Reel.
After the party, the newlyweds were invited to a fine dinner in a room with the longest table she had ever seen. Elizabeth recalled that a hot punch was served and how everybody would stand up and drink while someone said something. The dinner lasted until the early hours of the morning. Because of the late hour and inclement weather, Elizabeth recalled that President and Mrs. Lincoln would not allow the couple to leave and insisted they stay the night. The next day, armed with a pass signed by the President himself, Mr. and Mrs. Chandler went up the Potomac River to Harper’s Ferry. From there they returned to Mount Sidney to deliver the news to the parents that they’d just got “married in the White House.”
Screenshot (156)After their fairy tale wedding in the White House, James and Elizabeth Chandler moved to a farmhouse in Augusta County, Virginia, near Mount Sidney. The couple’s home was in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley and in the path of Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Campaign. In a move that would have certainly dismayed their wedding host, 28-year-old James Henry Chandler joined the Rebel Army, enlisting as a private in the 52nd Virginia Infantry Regiment at nearby Mount Meridian on June 15, 1862. The regiment, organized the previous August, was made up of mostly Augusta County men. Perhaps because James was never paid his promised enlistment bounty, he remained in the Confederate service for only a month before going AWOL on July 17, 1862.
Chandler returned to the regiment May 23, 1863, where he remained until Oct. 14, 1863, when he was captured at the Battle of Bristoe Station, Virginia. Many years later, Elizabeth said her husband surrendered and asked permission to fight in Lincoln’s army. POW James Chandler was sent north to Washington and after some explanation and investigation, permission was granted. James took the oath of allegiance to the United States government on Dec. 13, 1863. Sixteen days later on Dec. 29, he enrolled as a private in Co. A, 1st New Jersey Cavalry. The following day he was mustered into Federal service under the name James Grimes.

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James Chandler’s Grave at Miller Cemetery Middletown,Indiana. 6/16/20. (Author’s Photo)

As a Federal soldier, James was promoted to the rank of corporal Nov. 1, 1864, and then sergeant June 1, 1865. At war’s end, Chandler was mustered out of service on July 24, 1865, but apparently did not return home for quite some time afterwards. Mrs. Chandler stated that, from the time he left the Confederate army in October 1863, she did not hear from him for five years and thought him among the dead. When he finally returned, he found his Virginia home intact and his wife working for a neighbor, awaiting his return. Likely because of the stigma associated with switching sides during the rebellion, the couple relocated to Henry County, Indiana. In 1868, the first of their five children was born. Census data reveals that the Chandlers were living in Jefferson Township in 1870 but by 1880 had moved to Fall Creek Township where they established a farm.

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The author at Elizabeth Chandler’s House- 2819 E. Lynn St. Anderson, Indiana. 6/16/20. 

After James Henry’s death in 1895, Elizabeth moved to a little unpainted house at 2819 E. Lynn St. in Anderson (the home still stands). She was living there when her White House wedding and Lincoln connection was revealed in 1901 and remained in the home until her death in the home at the age of 92 on Sept. 2, 1934. Elizabeth and James Chandler are buried on the east side of Miller Cemetery in Middletown, Indiana. It should be noted that the only couple ever married in Lincoln’s White House are surrounded by the graves of 15 former Confederate soldiers, the largest gathering of former Rebel soldiers in any cemetery in Indiana.

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The Author at Elizabeth Chandler’s Grave at Miller Cemetery Middletown,Indiana. 6/16/20.

Officially, there have been either 17 or 19 weddings conducted in the White House depending upon which source you use. These include nine presidential children and one president, Grover Cleveland. Because the Chandlers were not related to any of the official families and it was hastily arranged, the Chandler wedding does not register among the official records. However, the wedding date is contained in James Henry Chandler’s papers issued by the Pension Department. Following her husband’s death, Elizabeth was granted a Federal pension as a soldier’s widow by virtue of James’ service in the Civil War. However, those records do not note Chandler’s singular status as the only soldier who fought for both sides who could claim President Abraham Lincoln as his best man.

Assassinations, Black History, Criminals, Politics, Pop Culture, Presidents

Big Ben Parker: “one quick shift of his clenched fist…”

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Big Ben Parker

Original publish date:  February 20, 2020

Recently, I wrote a two-part series on Carnation Day, the little known holiday created to honor our third assassinated President, William McKinley. While researching that story, I came across a man whose name should rightly echo through the halls of American heroism. Instead, his name is forgotten, his place in history supplanted and his whereabouts remain unknown.
William McKinley’s presence at the the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York was no accident. McKinley loved world’s fairs. The President referred to them as, “the timekeepers of progress. They record the world’s advancement.” He attended the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 and the Cotton States Exposition in Atlanta two years later. He did not want to miss the Buffalo Expo, planned for the summer of 1901, his first World’s Fair as President.
On September 6, 1901, President McKinley spent his final hours on earth acting like a regular tourist. He awoke early at 7:15 A.M., dressed for the day in his heavy black frock coat and black silk tophat, and stealthily dodged his Secret Service guards for a solitary stroll down Delaware Avenue. Later that morning, William and Ida McKinley boarded a train for Niagara Falls. They visited the falls, walked along the gorge, and toured the Niagara Falls Power Project, which the President referred to as “the marvel of the Electrical Age.” After returning to Buffalo, Mrs. McKinley went to the Milburn house to rest, the president to the exposition and his date with destiny.
z 58-484-25 2The president was scheduled to meet the thousands of people who, in spite of the oppressive heat, were waiting at the Temple of Music on the north side of the fairgrounds. In that line, no one stood out more than James “Big Ben” Parker, a six-foot six inch, 250 pound “Negro” waiter from Atlanta who has been laid off by the exposition’s Plaza Restaurant only days before. One could conclude that “Big Ben” was the angriest man in the room and the one the Secret Service should be watching. However, that sobriquet would belong to the man standing immediately in front of the gentle giant. A stoop-shouldered, nervous little man whose hand was wrapped in a handkerchief.
Parker had been waiting outside the temple all morning. He wanted to be at the head of the line to meet the president. At 4:00 P.M. the doors of the Temple of Music opened and hundreds of people formed an orderly, single-file line to the front of the auditorium. Once members of the public shook hands with McKinley, they would continue on to exit the building. An American flag was draped behind the President and several potted plants were arrayed around him to create an attractive scene. There President McKinley, flanked by his personal secretary George Cortelyou and Fair organizer John Milburn, stood waiting.
The pipe organ began to play “The Star-Spangled Banner”. The room was over ninety degrees. Everybody was carrying handkerchiefs to wipe their brows or to wave at the president. Anarchist Leon Czolgosz (pronounced “zoll-goss”), although sweating profusely, was doing neither. His handkerchief was wrapped around his right hand like a bandage held tightly to his chest. No one suspected there was a revolver hidden underneath. The usual rule enforced by the Secret Service was that all those who approached the President must do so with their hands open and empty. Likely due to the scorching heat inside the breezeless building, that rule was not being enforced as everyone seemed to be carrying handkerchiefs.
McKinley could shake hands with 50 people per minute by first gripping their hands then guiding them quickly past while preventing his fingers from being squeezed at the same time. McKinley, seeing Czolgosz’s bandaged right hand, instinctively reached for his left hand instead. At 4:07 pm, as the two men’s hands touched, the assassin raised the makeshift sling and fired his hidden .32 Iver Johnson revolver twice.
z mckinley-shotThe first bullet sheared a button off of McKinley’s vest, the second tore into the President’s abdomen. The handkerchief burst into flames and fell to the floor. McKinley lurched forward as Czolgosz took aim for a third shot. Within seconds after the second pistol shot, Big Ben Parker was grappling with the adrenaline charged assassin. Secret service special agent Samuel Ireland described the scene: “Parker struck the assassin in the neck with one hand and with the other reached for the revolver which had been discharged through the handkerchief and the shots had set fire to the linen. While on the floor Czolgosz again tried to discharge the revolver but before he got to the president the Negro knocked it from his hand.” A split second after Parker struck Czolgosz, so did Buffalo detective John Geary and one of the artillerymen, Francis O’Brien. Czolgosz disappeared beneath a pile of men, some of whom were punching or hitting him with rifle butts. The assassin cried out, “I done my duty.”
z tumblr_oe7ao4J07K1ufdl9oo1_400A Los Angeles Times story said that “with one quick shift of his clenched fist, he [Parker] knocked the pistol from the assassin’s hand. With another, he spun the man around like a top and with a third, he broke Czolgosz’s nose. A fourth split the assassin’s lip and knocked out several teeth.” In Parker’s own account, given to a newspaper reporter a few days later, he said, “I heard the shots. I did what every citizen of this country should have done. I am told that I broke his nose—I wish it had been his neck. I am sorry I did not see him four seconds before. I don’t say that I would have thrown myself before the bullets. But I do say that the life of the head of this country is worth more than that of an ordinary citizen and I should have caught the bullets in my body rather than the President should get them.” In a separate interview for the New York Journal, Parker remarked “just think, Father Abe freed me, and now I saved his successor from death, provided that bullet he got into the president don’t kill him.”

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Leon Czolgosz

Parker clearly prevented Czolgosz from firing a third time, thereby saving McKinley’s life. However, poor medical technique would ultimately cause McKinley’s death. The wound was closed without disinfecting (sterilization being a fairly new concept at the time) so McKinley died of gangrene on September 14, 1901. Prior to McKinley’s death, when his outlook for recovery appeared promising, the Savannah Tribune, an African-American newspaper, trumpeted of Parker “the life of our chief magistrate was saved by a Negro. No other class of citizens is more loyal to this country than the Negro.” A Sept. 12 , 1901 Buffalo Times article described “Big Ben” as a “plain, modest, gentlemanly person”.
Later, Parker told a slightly different version of his story to the Buffalo Times. “I went to the Temple of Music to hear what speeches might be made. I got in line and saw the President. I turned to go away as soon as I learned that there was to be only a handshaking. The crowd was so thick that I could not leave. I was startled by the shots. My fist shot out and I hit the man on the nose and fell upon him, grasping him about the throat. I believe that if he had not been suffering pain he would have shot again. I know that his revolver was close to my head. I did not think about that then though. Then came Mr. Foster, Mr. Ireland and Mr. Gallagher. There was that marine, too. I struck the man, threw up his arm and then went for his throat. It all happened so quickly I can hardly say what happened, except that the secret service man came right up.Czolgosz is very strong. I am glad that I am a strong man also or perhaps the result might not have been what it was.”

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James Benjamin “Big Ben” Parker

James Benjamin Parker, an American of African and Spanish descent, was born on July 31, 1857 in Atlanta, Georgia to enslaved parents. Educated in Atlanta schools, he also traveled as far north as Philadelphia, but returned south to live in Savannah. At one time he had been a salesman for the Southern Recorder newspaper. While in Savannah Parker was a well respected constable for a Negro magistrate. Big Ben had the reputation of never returning an unserved warrant. The citizens of the East Side of Savannah also knew that he was man of few words and a command to submit to arrest was always quietly obeyed. For a time, Big Ben lived in Chicago and worked as waiter in the Pullman Car organization. He returned to Atlanta in 1895. When he relocated to New York City, Ben had only one living relative, his mother in Savannah. Prior to coming to Buffalo, he was in Saratoga, New York and came to Buffalo only days before the assassination to work at the Exposition for the Bailey Catering Co.
According to a September 10, 1901 newspaper article, after the incident Parker appeared near the west gate of the Pan American Exposition Mall. As details of his heroism began to circulate through the crowd, a group of people surrounded him and asked the avenger to sell pieces of his waistcoat and other clothing. He recounted the story of the assassination and sold one button off his coat for $1.00 (equivalent to $30 today). After the shooting, Parker was approached with several commercial offers, including one from a company who wanted to sell his photograph. He was asked to work on the Midway at the Exposition recounting his story and signing autographs. He refused, telling the Sept. 13, 1901, Buffalo Commercial newspaper, “I happened to be in a position where I could aid in the capture of the man. I do not think that the American people would like me to make capital out of the unfortunate circumstances. I do not want to be exhibited in all kinds of shows. I am glad that I was able to be of service to the country.”
The Atlanta Constitution ran a story in the September 10 edition relating how the Negroes of Savannah were planning to set up a substantial testimonial for Parker. On September 13 another article ran titled “Negros Applaud Parker. Mass Meeting in Charleston Hears Booker Washington.” Booker T. Washington delivered an address to a mass meeting of 5,000 African Americans including a resolution denouncing the reckless deed of the “red handed anarchist” and rejoiced that a southern Negro “had saved the President McKinley from death.”
z ParkerHistorians agree that Czolgosz’s trial was a sham. Sadly, what should have been Big Ben Parker’s time to shine instead became his disappearing act. Prior to the trial, which began September 23, 1901, Parker was expected to be a major character in the assassination saga. Instead,the trial minimized Parker’s participation in the events of three weeks prior. Parker was never asked to testify and those few participants who did never identified Big Ben as the person who first subdued the assassin. Czolgosz’s sanity was never questioned and the case was closed twenty-four hours after it opened. Newspaper reports after the trial failed to mention Big Ben’s role and witnesses, including lawyers and Secret Service agents, began to enlarge their own roles in the tragedy by going as far as saying they “saw no Negro involved” whatsoever.
The African American community was outraged. Apparently, the Secret Service and the military were embarrassed that a private citizen, a black man at that, essentially brought the assassin down instead of them. When Parker was asked for comment, he said, ” I don’t say it was done with any intent to defraud, but it looks mighty funny, that’s all.” Parker remained humble, telling another reporter, “I am a Negro, and am glad that the Ethiopian race has what ever credit comes with what I did. If I did anything, the colored people should get the credit.”
The African American community of Buffalo held a ceremony to honor Parker at the Vine Street African Methodist Church on September 27, 1901. The church was packed to standing room only and the Buffalo News reported that the audience was incensed that no credit or recognition was given to Parker. The speaker, a church fellow named Shaw, delivered a short testimonial concluding by saying, “The evident attempt to discredit Parker is a sign of conspiracy and should we fail to emphatically resent it, I claim we are a disgrace to our race. ” When Big Ben entered the hall, he refused all demands to make a speech and sat down amidst cheers.

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Big Ben Parker

Methodist preacher Lena Doolin Mason wrote a poem praising Parker for his actions, “A Negro He Was In It”, casting Parker as the latest in a long line of African Americans who risked their lives in service to their country and admonishing white Americans to recognize that bravery with the cessation of lynchings. To quell the simmering pot of racial tension, the U.S. Government publicly promised a lifetime government job for Big Ben Parker, but no such job ever materialized. James A. Ross, the “colored mason”, Buffalo politician and publisher of the “Gazetteer and Guide” (a magazine for Negro railroad porters and hotel workers), supported Parker’s heroism by hiring him to be a traveling agent (magazine salesman) for his publication. With this, Parker left Buffalo after the trial and dropped from public view.
The April 4, 1908 edition of the Richmond (Virginia) Planet newspaper reported, “Before a class of students at the Jefferson Medical College the body of James B. Parker, colored, was placed upon the dissecting table Thursday. Parker was the man who beat Louis Czolgosz to the ground and disarmed him after the latter had fired two shots into the body of President McKinley at Buffalo on September 6,1901. At the time of the President’s assassination Parker was a Pullman car porter. Like many other heroes of the present day, Parker died penniless, his death came almost two weeks ago at the Philadelphia Hospital, where he was a patient in the insane department. He was moved to the West Philadelphia institution several months ago, after having been picked up by the police. As far as known he had no friends in this city at the time of his death and the body was turned over to the State Anatomical Board. In this way it came into possession of the college authorities. Parker was petted by thousands of persons in Buffalo. Everybody praised him, and it was thought for a time, that his act had saved the President’s life. Senator Mark Hanna, of Ohio, presented Parker with a check for $1,000 in appreciation of his bravery. Parker was well proportioned and was six feet four inches in height. In his earlier days he was employed as a letter carrier in Atlanta, Ga. More than a year ago he came to this city, and the last heard of him before his death was his arrest in West Philadelphia. In speaking of his tussle with Czolgosz, Parker said the assassin fought like a tiger and was one of the most powerful men he had ever tussled with. His brain will be examined by a noted alienist of the city within the next few weeks and it is expected that it will prove one of the most interesting studies ever made in Philadelphia.” His final resting place remains unknown.
z leonJust as Big Ben is the forgotten figure in the McKinley assassination saga, Leon Czolgosz is the least known of all presidential assassins. Prior to his execution Czolgosz met with two priests and said, “No. Damn them. Don’t send them here again. I don’t want them. And don’t you have any praying over me when I’m dead. I don’t want it. I don’t want any of their damned religion.” Czolgosz was electrocuted on October 29, 1901 at Auburn penitentiary. Initially, Czolgosz’s family wanted the body. The warden convinced them that it would be a bad idea, that relic hunters would disturb his grave, or worse, that unscrupulous carnival promoters would want to display the body in traveling sideshows.
z DoDprmvXUAAnGh_His family agreed that the prison should take care of the funeral arrangements by giving the assassin a decent burial within the protection of the prison grounds. When Leon Czolgosz was buried in the Auburn prison cemetery, yards away from where he was executed, unbeknownst to the family, the decision was made to have his body destroyed. The local crematorium refused to undertake the job. So the assassin’s body was placed in a rough pine box and lowered into the ground which had been coated with quicklime. The lid was removed and two barrels of quicklime powder was caked on top of the body. Then sulfuric acid was poured on top of that followed by another two layers of quicklime.
z Prison_card_of_Leon_CzolgoszTheir intention was to make the anarchist’s body dematerialize. What the prison officials did not know was that when quicklime (calcium oxide) and sulfuric acid are combined, a chemical reaction occurs which creates an exterior coating best compared to plaster of paris. Since the shell is insoluble in water, the coating acts as a protective layer thus preventing further attack on the corpse by the acid. It is entirely possible that the body of Czolgosz was preserved in perpetuity accidentally.