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.

Abe Lincoln, National Park Service, Presidents

Abraham Lincoln Dies in Indiana.

Lincoln in Indiana photo

Original publish date:  February 13, 2020

“In his 10th year he was kicked by a horse, and apparently killed for a time.” The words were Abraham Lincoln’s. He was describing his boyhood in the hills of southern Indiana. Although much has been written about Abraham Lincoln’s life, his time as a Hoosier has been woefully neglected. Lincoln’s family moved to Indiana in 1816, when Lincoln was seven years old. Multiple noteworthy events in Lincoln’s life occurred during his time in Indiana. The most important of these was the death of his mother, Nancy Hanks, who died of “milk sickness” from drinking poisonous cows’ milk on October 5, 1818.
Her death was a tragedy Lincoln never got over, however her death resulted in a “rebirth” of sorts when the young railsplitter’s father Thomas married Sarah Bush Johnston of Kentucky in December 1819. Lincoln’s stepmother moved into the family’s Pigeon Creek cabin, bringing with her three children (two girls and one boy). More importantly Sarah brought with her the attention and educational encouragement that young Abraham Lincoln craved and was lacking from his relationship with his father. Lincoln attended school sporadically in present-day Spencer County during the years 1820-24 where he learned to read and write.
On January 20, 1828, Lincoln’s sister Sarah passed away while delivering a stillborn child and both were buried in the Pigeon Creek Baptist Church Cemetery attached to the church the Lincoln family attended, and in which Abraham worked as a janitor for a short time. Perhaps the most significant theological event in Lincoln’s life occurred while he was a Hoosier. In December of 1828 he and his friend Allen Gentry embarked on a trip to New Orleans down the Mississippi River where Lincoln witnessed a slave auction, after which Lincoln said, “If I ever get a chance to hit that thing (slavery), I’ll hit it hard.” Also during those formative years in Indiana, Lincoln worked as a store clerk and met lawyers like John Pritcher, who he borrowed law books from. On March 1, 1830, the Lincolns packed up and moved to Illinois.

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Scripps Original letter to Lincoln.

When Lincoln ran for President in 1860, John Locke Scripps, senior editor of the Chicago Press and Tribune, asked the candidate for an autobiography. This third-person account, the longest of his autobiographies, offers fascinating details about his early years told in the folksy, homespun style only Lincoln could relay. In this autobiography Lincoln refers to himself alternatively as ‘A’ or ‘Mr. L.’ It is remarkably brief about certain periods of his life, including his years spent in Indiana “A. now thinks that the aggregate of all his schooling did not amount to one year. He was never in a college or Academy as a student; and never inside of a college or academy building till since he had a law-license. What he has in the way of education, he has picked up.’”
Although historians, beginning with biographer Carl Sandburg, love to weave homespun stories about Lincoln into nearly every written account of the 16th President’s life, Lincoln himself was ashamed of the poverty of those early days spent in the Hoosier state and was uncomfortable talking about his life before Springfield. When Scripps interviewed him in 1860, Lincoln explained “Why Scripps, it is a great piece of folly to attempt to make anything out of my early life. It can all be condensed into a single sentence and that sentence you will find in Gray’s Elegy; ‘The short and simple annals of the poor.’ That’s my life, and that’s all you or anyone else can make of it.’”

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Scripps Chicago Tribune Biography.

But what about Lincoln’s statement that he was, “apparently killed for a time”? Well, as you might expect, there is more to the story. Like many a Hoosier farm boy in 1818 frontier Indiana, Lincoln the boy was assigned certain chores perhaps better suited for a man. One of those chores was to deliver corn to Gordon’s gristmill located about two miles from the Lincoln cabin. Abraham rode one of Thomas’ horses to the mill with the sack of corn for grinding stowed safely behind the saddle. Upon his arrival the young railsplitter found a considerable line of others waiting their turn at the wheel. Gordon’s gristmill utilized a horse engine as the power source, but the mill could also be powered by dogs, donkeys, oxen or humans. Watching the horses slowly go round and round, young Lincoln remarked that “my dog could eat the meal as fast as the mill could grind it.”
z horse millEventually it was Abraham’s turn to hitch his old mare to the gristmill’s arm. As he tediously walked his horse round and round, he grew impatient at having wasted most of the morning already. He began to apply a hickory switch to the beast’s behind while shouting, “Git up, you old hussy; git up, you old hussy” to keep his horse moving at an accelerated pace. This tactic worked for a short time until the horse had had enough and, just as his young master clucked out the words “Git up”, the horse kicked backwards and hit the boy in the head with a rear hoof. Lincoln was knocked off his feet and into the air, landing some distance away where he came to rest bruised and bloodied. Noah Gordon rushed to the aid of the unconscious young man. Realizing the seriousness of the situation, Gordon picked the boy up and brought him in to his house, placing him on a nearby bed.
z 9a02e410581fb8ed0f4421e10404f724Meanwhile, Dave Turnham, who had come to the mill with Abraham, ran the two miles to get Abraham’s father. Thomas Lincoln rushed to his wagon and lit out to the scene. The elder Lincoln, seeing his son’s grave condition, hauled the injured boy home and put him to bed where the young man remained prone and unconscious all night. Neighbors from the small, close knit community, including mill owner Noah Gordon, gathered at the Lincoln cabin believing Thomas Lincoln’s boy was close to death. The next morning one witness jumped from their seat, pointed and shouted, “Look he’s coming straight back from the dead!” Abraham was shaking and jerking from head to toe when he opened his eyes and finished his cadence from the day before by shouting “You old hussy”.
After the family relocated to Illinois, settling in Macon County, 10 miles west of Decatur, Abraham became increasingly distant from Thomas and those low days in Indiana. In 1831, as Thomas established a new homestead in Coles County, Illinois, Abraham left home for New Salem, where he lived for six years. Leaving his “Angel Mother”, his only sister, his only niece or nephew, and that ornery mule far behind him. But, according to most historians, that angry mule kick stayed with him for the rest of his life.
Edward J. Kempf, an accomplished neurologist and psychiatrist, theorized in his 1965 book, “Abraham Lincoln’s Philosophy of Common Sense”, that the incident caused cerebral damage and contributed to the “melancholy” Lincoln felt throughout his life. The book featured numerous “psychobiographies” of many great figures, including Lincoln. Kempf’s study brought unusual expertise to the subject and is among the best works of its genre. Kempf’s hypothesis was based on what generations of artists, sculptors and photographers already knew; that Abraham Lincoln’s face had a good side and a bad side.
z cabinLincoln’s contemporaries noticed that at times his left eye drifted upward independently of his right eye, a condition doctors diagnosed as “strabismus” but more derisively known as “Lazy Eye”. The resulting affliction results in the eyes failure to properly align with each other when looking straight ahead, particularly when trying to focus on an object. As proof, experts point to the best surviving evidence; two life masks of Lincoln. One a beardless portrait made in April of 1860 and the other, a bearded image made in February of 1865. Laser scans of both masks reveal an unusual degree of facial asymmetry. In short, the left side of Lincoln’s face was much smaller than the right, resulting in the double diagnosis of “hemifacial microsomia” compounded by “strabismus”. The defects join a long list of posthumously diagnosed ailments including smallpox, heart disease, bi-polar disorder and depression that doctors claimed afflicted Lincoln.
Lincoln’s case can be identified by the bony ridge over his deep-set left eye, which was rounder and thinner than the right side. In life, Lincoln’s appearance was mocked by friend and foe alike. In 1862, author Nathaniel Hawthorne, a Lincoln admirer, noted the president’s “homely sagacity” and his “sallow, queer, sagacious visage.” A description considered so disrespectful and inflammatory that it was deleted by Hawthorne’s Atlantic Monthly magazine editor. The strongest evidence for the “case of Lincoln’s lopsided face” can be found in the iconic November 1863 Alexander Gardner photograph taken shortly before the Gettysburg Address.
z lincmaskAccording to a cadre of modern day medical historians, Gardner’s photo is worth a thousand words. Although modern neurologists admit that a positive diagnosis would require a complete examination of the living Lincoln, photographic evidence strongly supports their theory. The mule kick to the forehead undoubtedly fractured the skull at the point of impact, the size and depth of the depression attesting to the incident’s severity. In addition, the nerves behind the left eye were damaged by the violent snapping of the head and neck backward. That whiplash also caused several small hemorrhages in the brainstem resulting in the permanent ocular and facial effects and was likely responsible for Lincoln’s high pitched, rasping voice.
Other symptoms included Lincoln’s tendency to lapse into a lower conscious state of mental detachment, occasional bouts of sadness and melancholy, accentuated by a near constant gloomy facial expression. These symptoms were described by contemporaries and friends as “ugly and stupid looking”, “dull,” “sad and abstract,” “detached” and “withdrawn.” In those rare moments of joy, humor and happiness, Lincoln’s facial expression turned on a dime from dull indifference to animated interest and boisterous laughter, which doctors point to as a further sign of brain injury.
z lincoln boyYet another after effect of that boyhood mulekick was noticed by Josiah Crawford, a neighbor from Gentryville, Ind. who employed the boy Lincoln, loaned him books for study. Gentry liked to playfully needle the young railsplitter about the way he “stuck out” his lower lip while in deep concentration. When 35-year-old Lincoln returned to to make a speech in southern Indiana in 1844 for Henry Clay, Crawford noticed Abe’s lower lip still protruded abnormally. When Crawford asked what books he consulted before making the speech, Lincoln replied humorously, “I haven’t any. Sticking out my lip is all I need.”
The study of Lincoln’s alleged malady through photos began when many who knew the martyred President were still alive. In 1914, Dr. S. Mitchell found “evidence of left hyperphoria” and suggested that “the corrugations of his brow and crow’s feet at each corner of the eyes showed that he habitually used auxiliary facial muscles to support the external muscles of the eyes in the work for visual coordination.” In 1932, ophthalmologist Dr. W. H. Crisp observed that “Fullface photographs show an upward deviation of the left eye, great enough to produce a lack of fusion of its images with the right eye. The two eyes did not work together, possibly as a result of a vertical strabismus of the left.” And in 1948, Dr. K. C. Wold suggested that the “diplopia was caused by a decoordination of the external muscles of the left eye which was inherently connected in some way with the other facial asymmetries. No physician of record, in so far as I know, has offered an explanation of the nervous origin and nature of the asymmetrical functioning of the left facial and ocular muscles, although some of the nervous effects of eyestrain have been discussed.”
Perhaps due to that mule kick, Lincoln’s adult years were filled with nervous attacks, characterized by eyestrain and headache with nausea and indigestion, so severe that often he became unable to work and had to lie down with a cold compress over his eyes. He had couches in his law office, at home, and in the White House, for this purpose. Mount Rushmore sculptor Gutzon Borglum unknowingly described the disparity of Lincoln’s face for posterity. Before creating the great marble head of Lincoln in the Capitol rotunda at Washington (and also located at the entrance to the tomb in Springfield) Borglum made meticulous comparative measurements of all known photographs, life paintings and masks of Lincoln before attempting his sculpture.

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Gutzon Borglum’s Lincoln.

The Danish-American Borglum later gave careful interpretations of the relative meanings of the right and left sides of his face as indicated by its lines and measurements detailing that he saw greater strength of function on the right side rather than the left. The sculptor determined that the lines around the right eye revealed that it was more active, more dominant, and that Lincoln “naturally thought and planned with the visualized imagery of this eye.” The lines around Lincoln’s mouth on the right side indicated that “he smiled very, very often when his nature took no part in it.”
Borglum also noticed that the tip of Lincoln’s nose pointed slightly to the right and the left eye was “wide open” and out of focus, “indecisive,” “noncommittal and dreamy.” The left side of the face seemed “primitive,” “immature” and “unfinished.” Its weak expression was “sad and undetermined” in contrast to the determined strength of the right side. The left brow was “anxious, ever slightly elevated and concerned.” Written on his face was “humor, pathos, half-smile, half-sadness; half-anger, half-forgiveness, half-determination, half-pause; …. a dual Nature struggling with a dual problem delivering a single result.” Borglum’s description of Lincoln’s face is most noteworthy because he made no attempt to find a medical determination to explain why the left side was characterless, weak and undeveloped and the right side expressed the real personality and state of mind of Lincoln.
One final symptom of that childhood mule kick was noted by many biographers and contemporaries (like Ward Lamon and Noah Brooks) over the years. Mr. Lincoln spoke often of several impressive mystifying episodes he experienced as “double visions” that all had superstitious meanings for him. These dreamstate visions were welcomed by the President, who believed them to be good luck omens foretelling good news. That is all but his last vision that foretold of a death in the White House; the death of the President by an assassin’s bullet. A bullet that came to rest behind Abraham Lincoln’s left eye. The very same eye which that errant mule kick at an Indiana gristmill cast toward the heavens nearly fifty years before.

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.

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.

Assassinations, Auctions, Politics, Presidents

Eleanor Roosevelt’s Pistol.

Eleanor permit

Original publish date:  November 14, 2019

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

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A young Anna Eleanor Roosevelt.

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

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Eleanor & Franklin D. Roosevelt.

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

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Eleanor’s pistol.

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

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

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

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Bodyguard Earl Miller & Eleanor Roosevelt.

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

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The First Lady at Target Practice.

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

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