Abe Lincoln, Museums, Politics

Osborn Oldroyd-Keeper of the Lincoln flame. Part I

OLDROYD Part IOriginal publish date:  July 6, 2017

In the seven years since I ran parts I and II of this article, much has changed. Osborn Oldroyd has remained the windmill I tilt at and he has never strayed far from my side. I will share the “new” developments about this man in part III of this series. But first, let me reintroduce you to Captain Oldroyd.
As a fan of history, I find myself drawn to characters who populate the sidelines of historic events in a way that sometimes threatens to overtake the subject itself. Anyone familiar with my musings knows that I am, like many a homegrown Hoosier, a fan of Abraham Lincoln. If Lincoln had never been born, literature would surely have created him. In November of 2010, I traveled to Springfield, Illinois on the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s election to the Presidency in search of the man who I believe to be the original keeper of the Lincoln flame.
I met with historian James Cornelius, curator of the Lincoln Presidential library and museum. The state-of-the-art museum opened in 2005 and featured as it’s principal speakers President George W. Bush and a then little known Illinois Senator named Barack Obama. However, this is not the first Lincoln museum in Springfield, Illinois. There was an unofficial version housed in the Lincoln Home from 1884 to 1893 created by Civil War veteran Osborn Oldroyd, a man as quirky and controversial as the museum he created.
When Oldroyd began collecting Lincoln items in 1860, Honest Abe was still very much alive. Oldroyd was among the first Americans to attempt such an undertaking, a collection he himself described as “books, sermons, eulogies, poems, songs, portraits, badges, autograph letters, pins, medals, envelopes, statuettes…anything related to the man”. In many cases, it is Oldroyd’s collecting habits we have to thank for the preservation of priceless Lincoln relics. However, to some, he was as much historical huckster as hero. It was Oldroyd’s “P.T. Barnum” sideshow approach that continues to rankle Lincoln scholars to this day.
Eccentricity ran in his genes. The evidence can be found in the very first thing he owned: his name. His parents, William and Mary, named their son “Osborn Hamiline Ingham Oldroyd” so that his initials would spell the name of their beloved home state, Ohio. Sergeant Osborn Oldroyd was only nineteen years old when he enlisted with the 2Oth Ohio Volunteer Infantry on October 15, 1861. He was mustered out of the army on July 19, 1865. During his years in the Union Army, he was a careful diarist keeping day-by-day observations of the war. His 1885 book, “A Soldier’s Story of the Siege of Vicksburg” gives a sixty-five day account of the Vicksburg Campaign. Oldroyd re-enlisted after the Vicksburg campaign but his chronic asthma made him unfit for duty. Following the war, Oldroyd returned to Ohio and was made Steward of the National Soldiers’ Home in Dayton. Friends lovingly referred to him as ‘Captain’ or ‘Colonel’ while others simply called him ‘Ozzie’.
Oldroyd found his life’s calling when he attended memorial services at Lincoln’s Tomb on the 15th anniversary of the president’s death just a few months after his arrival in Springfield in 1880. He came up with a plan to build a Memorial Hall in Springfield to display his growing collection of Lincoln memorabilia. Within two years after that first visit, Oldroyd wrote a 500-plus-page book, containing excerpts from Lincoln speeches and writings, as well as anecdotes and memories collected by Oldroyd from Lincoln’s friends and contemporaries, to raise money for the Memorial Hall. Book sales were fairly good, but Memorial Hall was never constructed.
Oldroyd croppedDuring his early years in Springfield, he ran a succession of failed businesses. All the while, Oldroyd was moving his family ever closer to the Lincoln Home at Eighth and Jackson streets. The Oldroyd family first lived at 1101 South Seventh, then 500 South Eighth Street (immediately south of the home) and then, in 1883, when the Lincoln Home became available to rent, Oldroyd moved his family in before the last occupants had completely moved out. At that time, Lincoln’s only surviving son, Robert, owned the home and reluctantly charged Oldroyd $25 per month rent. Contemporary accounts claim that Robert Todd Lincoln agreed to the idea of a museum as long as it was free to the public, a stipulation in place to this day.
Oldroyd could not believe his luck. He immediately began to arrange his nearly 2,000 piece Lincoln collection on the home’s first floor, while he and his family lived on the second floor. On April 14, 1884, the 19th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination, he opened the ” Oldroyd Lincoln Memorial Collection” museum. Admission was 25 cents, although later in his life Oldroyd denied ever charging admission. According to the Illinois State Journal “The reception at the Lincoln residence last night was a brilliant affair. Mr. Oldroyd has been at work for years on this matchless collection, and it is believed its equal does not exist in the United States. At last his labors have been crowned with success, and the hundreds of people who thronged the rooms last night are loud in their praise.” z 9c5921de875bf4f37876d22de69952c0--illinois-state-historic-homes
Oldroyd, ever the promoter, found creative ways to publicize his museum while at the same time filling the public’s desire to own Lincoln artifacts. He sold photographs of his collection for 25 cents and a box of “Lincoln relics” for 75 cents. These boxes contained bits of the Lincoln Home and grounds: pieces of brick, shingle, ceiling plaster, elm tree, apple tree, lath, joist, and floor that Oldroyd claimed he saved during house repairs. In an ominous portent of things to come, two years after moving into the home of the man he adored, Oldroyd began stiffing the man’s son when he stopped paying rent in 1885. Robert Lincoln, a lawyer, was reluctant to attract public attention to the matter. He refused to pursue legal proceedings against Oldroyd even after no rental payments arrived for two years.
Not only did Robert feel he was being used, but “he was not happy with the way Oldroyd had turned the home into a sort of carnival sideshow, selling pieces of it and putting other things into it that had not been the Lincolns’,” says James Cornelius. “Robert referred to Oldroyd as a deadbeat and called the exhibits in the house traps.” Even though Oldroyd wasn’t paying rent, he continuously schemed for a way to live rent-free in the home with his collection indefinitely. Behind the scenes Oldroyd lobbied Illinois legislators to acquire the Lincoln Home for the state and let Oldroyd and his museum remain in it. The legislature’s first two attempts to ask Robert Lincoln for the house failed because Lincoln’s eldest son said he wasn’t ready to part with the home just yet. The third time was the charm. In 1887 the legislature succeeded and Robert deeded the Lincoln Home to the state of Illinois. Robert insisted on only two provisions; that his father’s home “be kept in good repair” and that it be”free of access to the public.”
Osborn Oldroyd was appointed custodian of the house for a salary of $1,000 per year (just under $ 25.000 today) and was allowed to continue living in the home rent free. He was also allowed to keep his museum as long as he didn’t charge admission anymore. Ever the operator, Osborn made up for that loss of income by allowing several of his in-laws to move in and charging them rent. The records don’t reveal whether Oldroyd ever paid Robert the two years of rent he owed, but I highly doubt it.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor the next five years “Captain” Oldroyd kept the Lincoln Home and added to his Lincoln collection. At one point, reports claim that Robert Lincoln was furious when Oldroyd allegedly displayed a photograph of John Wilkes Booth in the home, reportedly on the fireplace mantle. Some sources claim that Robert protested and in 1893, when the Illinois state political tides shifted, Robert had Oldroyd unceremoniously ousted as custodian. The new governor put one of his own men into Oldroyd’s former position as political patronage.
The Illinois State Journal, writing nearly 9 years to the day after its first article on Oldroyd, criticized the move by saying, “The removal of Captain O. H. Oldroyd…means that the Lincoln Home will be stripped of the features of most interest to visitors, which are the personal property of Captain Oldroyd, and…the new custodian…will have nothing to show to those who visit the Home.” Nothing, that is, but the Lincoln home itself. In the July 1888 issue of Harper’s magazine, Charles Dudley Warner wrote after a visit to the home that he could not find Lincoln’s “sense of personality there… although the parlor is made a show-room and full of memorials, there is no atmosphere of the man about it.” Oldroyd, it appears, had wedged himself into the very fabric of the home and many citizens felt that without his passion and guidance, the Lincoln home would eventually fail in its pursuit to attract the steady stream of visitors so carefully courted under the “Captain’s” care. But Oldroyd, ever the huckster, had other plans for his unmatched collection of Lincoln memorabilia.
Next week: part II of “Osborn Oldroyd-Keeper of the Lincoln Flame.”

Abe Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln Parenting Skills. Part I

GettyImages-535801559-1600x1015Original publish date:  June 3, 2013

This has been an epiphinal year for the Hunter family. Recently, I watched as my daughter Jasmine graduated from Indiana University and tomorrow I’ll watch as my son Addison graduates from high school and readies himself to head down to I.U. this fall. I’ve raised these kids surrounded by history. Vacations, TV programs, movies, books, publications, heck, just about everything we do as a family has a historical tint. I’ve always told them that no matter what problem you face today, the answer can be found in history. Every modern situation has been faced and dealt with by someone we admire and emulate at some point in the past.
Recent weeks have set my mind a wanderin’ about parenting skills. Effective parenting is defined as a matter of strengthening the bond between the parent and child, and building positive parenting skills. I just returned from a two-day getaway to the Springfield, Illinois home of President Abraham Lincoln. I love to go and visit his house on Seventh Street in the early morning hours before the National Park Service employees, buses full of schoolchildren and tourists arrive. This during these early morning hours when you can really feel a connection with the old house.
Lincoln fenceMy eyes are always drawn towards the upper second-floor balcony and a wrought iron gate contained there. Upon closer examination, one notices that there is a small piece of the ornate iron fencing that is broken. The balcony railing has been maintained in a state of “arrested decay” to honor Lincoln’s rambunctious boys, Willie and Tad, who allegedly broke off a piece of the ornamentation while playing on the balcony. While I have a deep affinity for Abraham Lincoln the man, I don’t think I’d aspire to adopt the parenting qualities of Abraham Lincoln, the father.
I often wonder how Lincoln, or any historical figure for that matter, would cope with raising children today. After all, many of the issues parents face today would have seemed like science fiction in Abraham Lincoln’s time. Monitoring kid’s online activities, cell phone usage, accelerated sports programs, complicated homework assignments and the litany of social media activities can be a difficult challenge requiring delicate handling nowadays. Yet, as far as parenting philosophies go, the Lincolns and their contemporaries have more in common with modern parents than they did with their own parents and grandparents. It seems that Civil War era families shared more in common with us than we think.
In colonial America, the family functioned as a single economic unit with each member of the household responsible for contributing to the families production and survival. Families were large, and children were expected to pitch in as soon as they were old enough to be useful. Life expectancy was short and it was not uncommon to find the same first name used over and over in family trees in anticipation of the child not surviving to adulthood. Colonial households did not allow a lot room for sentimentality where the family was concerned.
Marriages were often arranged for practical purposes: a father might marry his daughter off to a neighbor’s son to combine their parcels of land, for example. Romantic love between spouses was the exception, not the rule. Children were viewed as products of original sin that needed to have their wicked wills broken in order to become upright and productive citizens. All that was changing around the time that young Abe Lincoln wrote in to Springfield. As urban, middle-class professional men started working in offices separate from their homes, the family was increasingly bound together by ties of affection rather than economy. Men and women started marrying for love, limiting the size of their families and investing additional care and affection in their children. Childhood then, as today, was seen as a time of innocence and natural goodness that parents sought to indulge and enjoy.
Consider the difference between Lincoln’s experience and that of his children. Lincoln was born on a farm and expected to work for the families benefit until he legally came of age at 21. He later recalled that at age 8 he “had an ax put into his hands at once; and from that till within his twenty-third year, he was almost constantly handling the most useful instrument – less, of course, in plowing and harvesting seasons.” Lincoln left home at his earliest opportunity and his relationship with his father was so cool that he opted not to visit him on his deathbed.
Lincoln_Family.in_Abraham_Lincoln_MuseumLincoln’s own children, however, spent their days playing with their toys in their carpeted sitting room or attending school. Both luxuries not available to young Abe Lincoln. While Abe grew up in poverty, Mary came from a prominent, wealthy Kentucky family-the Todds. Although she grew up in considerable luxury, her childhood was affected by the loss of her mother, emotional alienation from her father and disenfranchisement from her step-mother. Mary’s unhappy childhood caused her to dote on her children as equally as her husband but for vastly different reasons. In short, most people would consider the Lincoln children to be perfect “brats”. Mary Lincoln later recalled that Lincoln “was very – exceedingly indulgent to his children… He always said it is my pleasure that my children are free, happy and unrestrained by parental tyranny. Love is the chain whereby to bind a child to its parents.”
Examples of Lincoln’s indulgence towards his children can be found in every volume that mentions his family life. Some of the accounts are romantic and flowery in their descriptions, while other, more contemporary accounts offer a more frank, unvarnished view. Lincoln’s law partner and biographer William Herndon described the Lincoln boys thusly: “Had (his children) sh-t in his hat, and rub it on his boots, Lincoln would have laughed and thought it smart.” Willie and his younger brother Tad were considered “notorious hellions” during the period they lived in Springfield. They were recorded by Herndon for turning their law office upside down; the boys regularly discarded orange peels and other trash on the office floor, jumped from desk to desk and pulled books off the shelves. While Lincoln appeared oblivious to their behavior.
The Lincolns had four sons. Undoubtedly, Mary would have liked to have had a little girl to dress up and fuss over, but she loved her boys deeply. The Lincoln boys had extremely varied personalities; Robert was serious and dour, Eddie and Tad bubbly, curious and energetic while Willie was precocious and much more contemplative. Only two of the children survived their father and only one lived to maturity. Eddie was the first to die and we do not know as much about him as the other boys. He died at an early age before the Lincolns were well known. From all accounts it was a tragedy from which their parents never recovered, especially his mother.
By all accounts, the Lincolns were permissive parents. On one train trip the other passengers were appalled by the behavior of the boys who Lincoln referred to as the “little codgers”. They were racing down the isles disturbing the other passengers. The Lincoln home was a child-centered home. Every year, Mary would hold birthday parties for her boys during an era when such events were very out of the ordinary. Mary would dress up for roles in Robert’s many theatrical performances. The Lincolns encouraged the boys to recite poetry (usually Burns and Shakespeare). Viewed in context with the times, these were considered inappropriate intrusions into adult social functions. In short the Lincoln boys did as they pleased and attempts at discipline in the Springfield household were rare.
The permissive approach continued in the White House. The two middle boys entered the White House together with their parents while Robert was initially away at school and later serving in the Union Army. The roof of the White House was converted to a play area for Willie and Tad. But make no mistake about it, the entire White House was domain to the devilish pranksters as they ran wild throughout the White House. Their antics amused a nation immersed in the tragedy of the Civil War. Visitors, employees, and Cabinet members became so used to the sight of Willie and Tad sliding down the banisters, that they quickly ignored it. Sometimes the President himself could be seen romping about the White House with them. Both boys delighted in their father carrying them on his shoulders. Lincoln was of course very tall and the boys could often reach the rafters in the ceiling which delighted them.
They were the two most famous presidential boys and they left a trail of destruction and mayhem in their wake. The President for the most part saw it as great fun. Tad was impulsive, unrestrained, and did not attend school. Some historians have described Tad as being “slow”, or worse, as mentally challenged. Willie, however, was a deep thinker who regularly memorized railroad timetables and chided his brother for breaking White House property because it didn’t belong to the family, it belonged to the American people. Lincoln’s personal secretary, Hoosier John Hay, wrote that Tad’s numerous tutors in the White House usually quit in frustration. While Willie read, Tad had free run of the White House. Tad collected animals, charged visitors to see his father, and once sentenced a pet rat to death by hanging. His father quickly pardoned the rat and set it free.
It is a little-known fact that Abraham Lincoln issued more presidential pardon’s than any president before or since. It is understandable as so many of them were for deserters in the civil war. For much of history deserting your post has been punishable by death. Harsh perhaps, but when your actions [falling asleep at your post etc] can get your fellow soldiers killed it was an effective way to maintain discipline. Lincoln recognized that war is awful and felt that if, in his own words, “God gave a man cowardly legs” then perhaps some lenience when they “run away with him” was appropriate. Lincoln once heard about a 16-year-old soldier who was scheduled to be executed for desertion. He telegraphed the General in charge to pardon the young man and asked that they institute a policy of not executing anyone under the age of 18.
Although remembered as angelic in nature, Willie was not immune to the military atmosphere in which he was surrounded. When one of Tad’s soldier dolls “fell asleep at its post”, Willie sentenced the doll to death. Tad brought the issue to his father knowing that he was the only one that could help. In the midst of dealing with the pressures and physical hardships brought on by the rigors of the Civil War, Abe still took the time to address the situation by issuing an official pardon on presidential stationary signed, “A. Lincoln”. Weeks later, in 1862, when 11-year-old Willie died of fever in the White House, the entire nation grieved. Less than 100 years after the Lincolns inhabited the White House, first lady Jacqueline Kennedy told a reporter, “If you bungle raising your children, I don’t think whatever else you do well matters very much.”