Elizabeth Jennings Graham

Elizabeth Jennings Graham

If the face of Elizabeth Jennings Graham ever appears on a U.S. dollar coin, part of the credit will go to Chester A. Arthur, the reluctant 21st president.

Arthur, as I recounted in a recent post, was a product of the New York Republican machine of the late 19th century. He was a successful candidate for vice president in 1880 only because the party needed an easterner to balance the ticket led by James A. Garfield of Ohio.

When Garfield was murdered and Arthur was vaulted into the presidency, no one was more shocked than Arthur himself. Although he was a decent man despite his connection  to the GOP machine, he wasn’t Mr. Ambition, and he did not have his sites set on the presidency.

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Chester A. Arthur

He surprised many people, and at times dismayed his own party, by being not only a serious chief executive but something of a reformer—the most notable example being his successful call for a civil service system in which merit and not political connection determined who got public jobs.

Although he finishes low in the perennial polls that rank the presidents, he had some admirable qualities, and none more admirable than his unswerving opposition to slavery before and during the Civil War and his belief that black citizens should be afforded the same rights as white citizens—and that’s where Elizabeth Jennings Graham comes in.

Elizabeth Jennings was born in New York City in March 1830. Her father, Thomas, was a free black American, and her mother, Elizabeth, had been born in slavery and was an indentured servant during the period in which the State of New York gradually abolished human bondage. Thomas—a tailor and the first known black American to hold a patent in the United States (for a dry-cleaning process) was prosperous enough to buy his wife’s freedom.

Thomas Jennings

Thomas Jennings

Both parents were prominent members of the black community. The elder Elizabeth Jennings was a member of the Ladies Literary Society of New York, an organization established by black women who wanted to encourage self-improvement for black females. In 1834, she delivered an address, “On the Cultivation of Black Women’s Minds,” in which she stressed that black Americans must cultivate their minds if they did not want to remain subordinate to white people.

The younger Elizabeth Jennings was her mother’s daughter. She was well educated, and she became a teacher at the private African Free School, and then in the public schools, and a church organist. She was also a forerunner of Rosa Parks.

On Sunday, July 16, 1854, Jennings was rushing to play the organ at the First Colored Congregational Church. At the corner of Pearl and Chatham streets, in her haste, she boarded a segregated horse-drawn streetcar operated by the Third Avenue Railroad Company. The New York Tribune reported what happened next:

NYC streetcar

A New York City streetcar in the 19th century

The conductor undertook to get her off, first alleging the car was full; when that was shown to be false, he pretended the other passengers were displeased at her presence; but (when) she insisted on her rights, he took hold of her by force to expel her. She resisted. The conductor got her down on the platform, jammed her bonnet, soiled her dress and injured her person. Quite a crowd gathered, but she effectually resisted. Finally, after the car had gone on further, with the aid of a policeman they succeeded in removing her.

Elizabeth Jennings sued the driver, the conductor, and the railroad company. She was represented by the law firm of Culver, Parker, and Arthur, and the case was handled by the junior partner, Chester A. Arthur, who was 24 years old.

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Arthur was successful. The three-day trial ended in Jennings’ favor: Judge William Rockwell of the Brooklyn Circuit Court said, in his charge to the jury, that “colored persons” who were sober, orderly, and free of disease, had the same rights as anyone else and, therefore, the company could not bar black people from its conveyances.

The jury also awarded Jennings damages in the amount of $250, which was a substantial amount of money in 1855. The day after the trial concluded, the Third Avenue Railroad Company ordered its streetcars desegregated. In 1895, after the death of her husband, Charles Graham, Jennings, who had lived for a time in New Jersey, returned to Manhattan and established at her West 42nd Street home a kindergarten for black children; she operated it until her death in 1901.

Rev Pennington

Rev. James Pennington

Only a month after the Jennings trial, the Rev. James W.C. Pennington who, with Thomas Jennings, was active in a campaign to end discrimination on transit facilities—was prevented from boarding a whites-only car operated by the Eighth Avenue Railroad Company. Pennington also took legal action and won a judgment on appeal to the State Supreme Court. In 1865, New York’s public transportation system was finally fully desegregated—the culmination of a movement in which Chester A. Arthur had played a critical role.

 

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When someone—Donald Trump, for example—assumes the presidency of the United States, he knows from the first day that eventually he will be compared to all those who held the office before.

When the history professors and other analysts cast their periodical votes, the new president, in most cases, can hope to rank higher than, say, 34th of 45 places. That’s the place now occupied, in one prominent poll, by Chester Alan Arthur, subject of a biography by Zachary Karabell.

To rank below Arthur, one has to have had a name such as Tyler, Harding, Pierce, or Buchanan.

But Karabell’s biography, one of The American Presidents Series by Times Books, shows that even in his lowly niche, Arthur deserves credit from some unexpected effectiveness in office. Without intending to, Karabell’s book also portends—if the events of the past seven months are any indication—that Arthur stands to move up at least a notch.

U.S. Presidential Portraits

Arthur and Trump have this in common: They went to the White House from New York City where each, in his own way, took as much personal advantage as possible of the prevailing system—real estate for Trump, political cronyism for Arthur.

A native of Vermont, Arthur had a reputation for being, if not lazy, not energetic either. He arrived late and left early. When he could choose how he spent his time, his choice was usually an evening at the club with his cronies, whisky, and cigars. But he was efficient and even effective at what he did, and he was successful in the practice of law in New York City.

Arthur also signed on with the Republican machine which at the time was run by U.S. Senator Roscoe Conkling. Arthur’s association with the party paid off, and in 1871 President Ulysses Grant appointed  him collector of the Port of New York.

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Roscoe Conkling

The post was both powerful and lucrative, although Karabell points out that Arthur never took money that he was not legally entitled to. He was consistent in this respect: during the Civil War, he had been appointed brigadier general and was put in charge of arranging housing and other accommodations for troops arriving in the city to serve in the New York militia. “Arthur did not take advantage of the numerous opportunities for skimming,” Karabell writes, “and his gains were not ill-gotten.”

In 1880, the Republican Party was unable to break a convention deadlock between Conkling’s “Stalwart” faction, which wanted to nominate Grant, and the “Half-Breed” faction that wanted to nominate U.S. Senator James G. Blaine of Maine.

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James A. Garfield

The convention finally compromised on U.S. Rep. James A. Garfield of Ohio. Garfield was a “westerner” and was not aligned with either faction; in order to guarantee the support of the New York Republicans, the party sought to balance the ticket by nominating Arthur, who by then was a widower, for vice president. Folks who were familiar with the amiable, efficient, but unexceptional Arthur reacted with emotions that ranged from shock to mirth.

In the event, Karabell reports, Arthur’s hail-fellow skills were instrumental in the election of Garfield:

“From his baronial suite in the Fifth Avenue Hotel, Arthur worked tirelessly on behalf of Garfield, levying assessments, raising money from donors, handling correspondence, wheedling and cajoling, wining and dining, getting speeches printed and distributed, organizing events and, of course, collecting and doling out campaign funds.”

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James G. Blaine

It was a dirty campaign but, although Arthur was clearly in the Stalwart camp, he was so downright nice that few held that or anything else against him.

“His ego,” Karabell writes, “unlike Conkling’s and Blaine’s, did not walk into a room before he did, and few people felt strongly enough about him to hate him. He was the Teflon candidate of his day. …”

The election of Arthur as vice president might not have mattered in the long run had it not been for Charles Guiteau—a man with a tentative grip on reality—who shot Garfield in July 1881. Garfield died two months later, and Chester was sworn in as president on September 20.

Few people, including Arthur, considered him a good fit for the presidency, but when

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Charles Guiteau

two months had passed between the shooting and Garfield’s death, the country was prepared to make the best of it. In some ways, the country got more than it expected.

For one thing, when Arthur took office there was already an investigation of a scandal in which federal officials had been grossly overpaying contractors for operating postal routes. Although he was the willing product of spoils-system politics, Arthur and his Justice Department played hardball with the offenders. Arthur forced some public officials to resign and fired others. Although those tried in the scandal were not convicted, Arthur’s administration had removed the cancer.

In another ironic move, considering Arthur’s background, he took the occasion of his first “state of the Union” message to call for civil service reform—namely, a system in which civil servants were employed based on merit, not on their political connections or on graft. In 1882, Congress passed the Civil Service Reform Act, and Arthur, the one-time political hack, signed it and acted quickly to put it into practice, launching an historic sea change in the way public jobs were filled.

Chester A. Arthur 8Immigration was a hot topic in the 1880s, and one on which Congress and the President, for the most part, could work together. They butted heads, however, over a bill designed to cut off immigration from China for twenty years and deny citizenship to Chinese immigrants already in the country. The bill was unpopular in the East but not in the West where Chinese laborers, who had been allowed to enter the United States without restrictions, had long been a welcome source of hard labor. But in a development that should sound familiar in our own time, an economic downturn turned the tide opinion against the Chinese, who were accused of taking jobs that should have been available to Americans.

In response to this trend, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, and Arthur shocked his own party by vetoing it. He didn’t like the ban on citizenship, and he believed that the 20-year moratorium on immigration would violate a treaty with China. But when Congress passed a new bill that reduced the moratorium to ten years, Arthur knew there would be enough votes to override another veto, so he signed the bill.

Chester A. Arthur 9An important aspect of Arthur’s life was his unwavering opposition to slavery—a point of view he no doubt inherited from his father, who was an abolitionist preacher. Arthur did not adopt the comfortable position of many other northerners who said they were opposed to slavery in principle, didn’t want slavery in their own states, but were content to let it endure in the South where the citizens felt otherwise. No, Arthur was dead against it anywhere, including in the West.

When Arthur was president, Reconstruction had pretty much collapsed and the government was not vigorously enforcing the rights of black Americans. When the Supreme Court struck down the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which claimed “to protect all citizens in their civil and legal rights,” including the right to equal access to public accommodations and public transportation and the right to serve on juries, Arthur tried, though unsuccessfully, to prod Congress into adopting a new measure.

Arthur was not nominated to run for reelection in 1884. He returned to his law practice in New York but was not well enough to devote much energy to the firm. He died in 1886 at the age of 57 after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage.

Arthur is largely forgotten among the Washingtons, Lincolns, and Roosevelts, but he probably deserves at least a little better. His career was not without its achievements—civil service reform being a major one that benefitted generations of men and women. And he was a decent human being in an environment of cut-throat politics—a characteristic not to be lightly brushed aside. “In everything he did,” Karabell writes, “Chester Alan Arthur was a gentleman, and that is rare and precious.”

Isn’t it, though?

Dickie, Don, and Andy

July 28, 2017

Impeach 1

Andrew Johnson shortly before his death in 1869.

A former colleague of mine used to say that I could work Enos Slaughter, Harpo Marx, or Andrew Johnson into any conversation.

He might have been right, but where Johnson is concerned, I didn’t need any help to work him into the general discourse about the presidency of Donald Trump. Others did it for me by invoking the impeachment of Andrew Johnson as a precursor to what—in theory, at least—could be in store for the 45th president of the United States.

That was understandable. Once impeachment was added to the discussion, there were only three precedents to turn to—the cases of Johnson, Nixon, and Clinton. The impeachments of Johnson and Clinton and the likelihood that Nixon would have been impeached had he not resigned all arose from circumstances that were particular to the behavior of those three men. In Johnson’s case, the circumstances were also particular to that time in history—the immediate aftermath of the Civil War and the murder of Abraham Lincoln. There is a limit to the parallels that can be drawn between those three cases and that of Donald Trump.

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Richard Nixon

There are parallels, though, limited as they might be. The myriad authorities—the former directors of this and the professors of that—who help TV faces torture and dissect the matter virtually around the clock—have frequently recalled Nixon’s dismissal of special Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox as the sort of  decision that Trump might take regarding the investigation of Russian meddling in the last presidential election. And the authorities have speculated that such a decision on Trump’s part—with respect to special prosecutor Robert Mueller II, for example—would lead to the same sort of disaster that befell Nixon.

There is also this parallel—in this case concerning, if you’ll forgive me, Andrew Johnson. This has to do with the arms-length dust-up between Trump and his attorney-general, Jeff Sessions. Johnson also had a falling out with a member of his cabinet—the able secretary of war, Edwin M. Stanton, who had served in that capacity under Abraham Lincoln and as attorney-general under James Buchanan.

Johnson, although an admirable man in many respects, was famously the wrong person to succeed Lincoln at such a contentious and sensitive time in the nation’s history. There were several reasons for that, and one of them was that he was incapable of compromise. He and a Congress that was dominated by the Republican Party disagreed fundamentally about how the federal government should proceed with the defeated Confederate states and with the millions of black men and women who had been freed from lives of slavery.

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Edwin M. Stanton

The short-hand version of this dispute is that the Republicans—led by the so-called Radical wing—wanted to put the southern states through a process of re-admission to the Union—including a period of military government—and extend to black Americans the same right to vote enjoyed by white Americans. Johnson, a southern Democrat who had stuck with the Union to the point of risking his life—wanted to restore the southern state governments with relatively little to-do, and he did not want to give the vote or much of anything else to the former slaves. Besides the obvious disagreements, there was an underlying difference with respect to the prerogatives the states and the prerogatives of the federal government—or the “general government,” as it was sometimes called in those days.

Included in the thrusts and parries of this contest was the Tenure of Office Act, a law passed by Congress, over Johnson’s veto, restricting the president’s power to remove from office, without the consent of the Senate, any federal officer the president had appointed with the consent of the Senate. That would include cabinet officers, of course, and it was designed to protect Stanton, who not only supported the whole Radical program but worked against the president’s agenda. This was a wry turn of events, because one of the bona fides Johnson could lay claim to was that he had retained Lincoln’s whole cabinet, even though Johnson was a conservative Democrat. In fact, he and others believed that he could not have violated the Tenure of Office Act by removing an officer he had not appointed in the first place.

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Ulysses S. Grant

The law was in place, however, and it specifically provided that if the president suspended an officer while the Senate was not in session, the Senate, when it reconvened, could reinstate the rascal, and the president would have to keep him on. That provision meant a lot more then than it does now, because in the mid 19th century, Congress was not in session for most of the year.

Eventually, Johnson had enough of Stanton; while the Senate was in recess in August 1867, Johnson suspended Stanton and told him to turn the office over to Ulysses S. Grant—who not only opposed the suspension but disagreed with Johnson’s policies regarding reconstruction of the South. When the Senate returned in January, it did not uphold the suspension. Johnson believed, correctly, that the law was unconstitutional, and he decided to force the question in the courts. He removed Stanton and appointed in his place the comic-opera Adjutant-General Lorenzo Thomas who was not up to the fight when Stanton refused to leave office. When Johnson was impeached in February 1868, the charges against him boiled down to his violation of the Tenure of Office Act and his public challenges to the legitimacy of what he had referred to as a “rump Congress”—meaning that it represented only part of the country.

Johnson was acquitted by one vote, although some historians have maintained that several more Senators were prepared to vote for acquittal if there was a chance of conviction. Being partisan politicians, they weren’t about to climb out on that limb if it were not necessary.

The charges against Johnson regarding the dismissal of Stanton were flimsy, and the charges related to his public speeches were absurd. But impeachment is a political process, not a legal one, which is why—whenever the possibility of impeachment arises—the question of what constitutes an impeachable offense is argued anew. Gerald Ford once observed that grounds for impeachment are whatever Congress says they are; that’s true on a certain level, but the republic can’t stand if Congress can remove a president for expressing his opinion, much less for the color of his ties.

Many wished for the conviction of Andrew Johnson, but they might unwittingly have been wishing too for a serious jolt to the balance of powers intended by the founders.

 

 

 

 

 

Ink Spots 3When we saw Arlo Guthrie at Carnegie Hall in November, he recalled—again—how he was having a beer after a gig in Chicago when he was approached by a young man who wanted Arlo to listen to a song. Arlo grudgingly agreed. The young man was Steve Goodman, the song was “City of New Orleans,” and rest is—well, never mind the cliche.

It’s one of those “near miss” stories. If Arlo had told Goodman to buzz off, who knows how history would have been altered?

The same goes for Jack Lawrence—or so it seems. There are differing accounts of this event, but according to Marv Goldberg in his book More Than Words Can Say: The Music of the Ink Spots, Lawrence made a cold-call visit on January 12, 1939 to the Decca Records recording studio in Manhattan where The Ink Spots were about to cut “Knock Kneed Sal,” and offered his own composition, “If I Didn’t Care.”

Jack Lawrence

JACK LAWRENCE

The Ink Spots, whose membership evolved over the years, had been around since the early 1930s and by the middle of the decade were popular in the United States and abroad. They continued performing into the mid 1950s, although other groups peddled themselves as the originals for many years after that.

“If I Didn’t Care” was the first studio recording in which The Ink Spots used a style that would become the group’s trade mark. The lead vocal was sung by tenor Bill Kenny, and a spoken bridge was provided by bass Hoppy Jones.

Kenny, who is often cited as a forerunner of Johnny Mathis, sang with a precise, elegant diction and a remarkable high register. Jones would recite the bridge in a colloquial drawl, improvising on the original lyrics and peppering them with terms such as “darlin,” “honey chile,” “doggone,” and “askaird.”

Ink Spots 1I recently bought a double-CD collection of 50 of The Ink Spots’ recordings, the preponderance of them delivered in this fashion. I was familiar with The Ink Spots because my parents were fans of theirs, and there were some of the group’s Decca records around our house. But until I listened to the collection I just bought, I didn’t appreciate the effect created by the contrast between Kenny’s refined phrasing and Jones’s down-home style.

Besides Kenny’s purported influence on Mathis, The Ink Spots are regarded as ancestors of  the R&B, rock ‘n’ roll, and doo-wop groups of later generations.

“If I Didn’t Care” never got higher than No. 2 on the pop charts, but it sold 19 million copies, making it the tenth best-selling single of all time. Their numerous other hits included “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire,” “My Prayer,” “Don’t Get Around Much Any More,” and “Lovely Way to Spend an Evening.”

Ink Spots 2My favorite among their recordings is “Whispering Grass,” written in 1940 by Fred Fisher and his daughter, Doris Fisher. Perhaps it appeals to me because the lyric seems to have been inspired by Kahlil Gibran: “If you reveal your secrets to the wind, you should not blame the wind for revealing them to the trees.” You can hear “Whispering Grass” by clicking HERE.

You can hear “If I Didn’t Care” by clicking HERE.

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Billy Bowen, Bill Kenny, Hoppy Jones, and Bernie Mackey at the Club Zanzibar in New York City, October 18, 1944. Hoppy Jones died that same day.

Cassius Clay 1

Mohammed Ali, who died yesterday, was named after his father, Cassius Marcellus Clay Sr., a descendant of slaves.

The senior Clay, in turn, was named after a 19th century political and diplomatic figure. When Ali adopted Islam and changed his name, he explained that it was his “slave name,” that he didn’t choose it and didn’t want it.

I get what he meant by “slave name,” but there was a certain irony in the term inasmuch as the original Cassius Marcellus Clay was an abolitionist. In fact, although he was a Kentucky planter, the scion of a wealthy family, and a member of the state legislature, he argued for the immediate abolition of slavery.

During a political debate in 1843, a hired assassin named Sam Brown shot Clay in the chest, but Clay went after Brown with a Bowie knife and threw him off an embankment.

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Two years later, Clay founded an anti-slavery newspaper in Lexington. Kentucky. This inspired so much antagonism toward him, that he carried two pistols and a knife and sealed himself behind armored doors at his office, which was equipped with two cannons. After a crowd of about sixty men broke into the office and confiscated the printing equipment, Clay moved his operation to Cincinnati, Ohio, but continued to live in Kentucky.

Clay served in the Mexican-American War as a captain with the 1st Kentucky Cavalry from 1846 to 1847. He opposed the annexation of Texas and expansion of slavery into the Southwest. While making a speech for abolition in 1849, Clay was attacked by six brothers, who beat and  stabbed him and tried to shoot him. Clay fought them all off and killed one of them, Cyrus Turner, with a Bowie knife.

Clay later served as minister to Russia under Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, resigning after Ulysses S. Grant took office. Clay was in Russia when Tsar Alexander II issued an edict emancipating serfs throughout the empire. Clay received a military commission from Lincoln and returned to the United States for a time during the Civil War, apparently influencing Lincoln to prepare the Emancipation Proclamation.

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Clay was influential in the Tsar’s decision to threaten war against France and Britain if they were to recognize the Confederate States of America, and also in the sale of Alaska to the United States, which occurred during Andrew Johnson’s administration.

Clay and his wife, Mary Jane, had seven children, but the marriage ended after forty-five years, due to Clay’s chronic infidelity. At 84, he married Dora Richardson, who was 15 years old at the time. Not surprisingly, two of Clay’s daughters, Laura and Mary Barr, were women’s-rights activists.

 

Mudd 2In the 1936 film Prisoner of Shark Island Samuel Mudd is portrayed (by Warner Baxter) as a well-meaning country doctor who unwittingly abetted the escape of John Wilkes Booth and wound up in a federal prison on an island in the Caribbean. He is pardoned after stemming a yellow fever epidemic that swept the prison.

It’s a good story, but it isn’t entirely true. The truth, some might think, is even more interesting, and it is laid out in detail in The Assassin’s Doctor  by Robert K. Summers.

Summers, a great-grandson of Dr. Mudd, has written several books on this and related subjects, but he is not an apologist for his forebear. He seems more interested—particularly in this book—in spreading the record before the reading public.

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Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas Islands, where Dr. Mudd was imprisoned for four years.

Booth murdered Abraham Lincoln just as the Civil War was ending, and the reaction of the federal government—particularly of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton—was affected by the intense feelings rippling through the country, feelings that included fear, disillusionment, desperation, and paranoia.

After shooting Lincoln, Booth jumped from the presidential box to the stage of Ford’s Theatre, breaking a leg. He stumbled out of the theater, mounted a waiting horse, and galloped off to Maryland where, in the company of David Herold, one of his co-conspirators, he arrived around 4 in the morning at the home of Dr. Mudd.

Aroused from his sleep, Dr. Mudd took Booth in, put a splint on the broken leg, and provided Booth with a makeshift pair of crutches. Booth remained at Dr. Mudd’s home until the following day, and then left with Herold, heading for Virginia where Herold surrendered and Booth was shot to death by a Union soldier.

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Dr. SAMUEL MUDD

Dr. Mudd did not tell anyone about his visitors until several days later, and even then he didn’t do so directly but asked his cousin, Dr. George Mudd, to notify federal authorities in a nearby town. Military personnel visited Samuel Mudd’s home where the Mudds eventually turned over a boot that had been cut from Booth’s leg and that bore the inscription “J. Wilkes.”

Dr. Mudd was arrested, charged with conspiracy, tried by the same military commission that condemned to death three men (including Herold) and one woman (Mary Surratt); Dr. Mudd was sentenced to life imprisonment at hard labor at Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas islands south of Key West. He was pardoned in 1869 by President Andrew Johnson after working diligently to treat victims of yellow fever at the prison and contracting the disease himself.

There are no serious disagreements about these facts, but there is a lingering discourse about certain aspects of Dr. Mudd’s behavior. The most important question is whether Dr. Mudd recognized Booth when the assassin came calling with his broken leg. Dr. Mudd had met Booth before, when the actor was in the neighborhood ostensibly looking at real estate and seeking to buy a horse. But the doctor and his wife, Sarah, maintained that Booth was wearing false whiskers when he came seeking help with his injury and that Dr. Mudd did not recognize him and had no reason to suspect him. The Mudds’ account was that Booth left their house on Saturday, April 15, while Dr. Mudd was absent, and that Mrs. Mudd noticed the false whiskers at that time. According to this version of events, when Dr. Mudd resolved to notify authorities about these now-suspicious men, Mrs. Mudd prevailed on him to stay at home inasmuch as the men might still be in the area and might pose a danger to the family. So Booth used his cousin as a surrogate messenger.

mudd 5I think the consensus among historians now is that Dr. Mudd’s acquaintance with Booth was more than the incidental encounter Dr. Mudd described, and that Dr. Mudd participated in conversations with Booth and others concerning Booth’s earlier plan to kidnap Lincoln and take him to Richmond, hoping to enable the Confederate government to negotiate a release of military prisoners. Dr. Mudd was a slave holder and a Southern sympathizer living in a border state, although not an activist against the Union government. It is unlikely, however, that he knew anything about Booth’s decision to murder Lincoln, both because Booth seems to have made that decision only shortly before carrying out the murder and because Dr. Mudd’s character suggests that he would not have agreed to have any part in such a crime. If he did help facilitate Booth’s escape, his primary motive might have been to purge the Mudd household of a murderer.

All the questions about what Dr. Mudd knew and when he knew it are explored in this book. Summers also includes extensive documentation, including many letters that Dr. Mudd wrote to his wife and others while he was a prisoner at Fort Jefferson. These letters include a description of his one attempt to escape from the prison, the harsh conditions under which he and the other prisoners lived, his relationship with other men who were sentenced in connection with the conspiracies against Lincoln, and his heroic part in stemming the yellow-jack epidemic. The average reader might not want to read all of these documents—although a history wonk such as me might devour them—but they do present in a convenient collection an opportunity to hear history unfolding in the voices of those who were taking part in it.

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HENRY RATHBONE

HENRY RATHBONE

Last summer, I wrote a post here about Scott Martelle’s book, “The Madman and the Assassin,” which was a biography of Thomas “Boston” Corbett, the eccentric soldier who shot John Wilkes Booth. What was interesting about that book, besides the fact that Martelle executed it so well, was the fact that in the 150 years that elapsed since Booth died, no one else had written a book-length account of Corbett’s life. Now, hard on Martelle’s heels, comes Caleb Jenner Stephens, with a rare and perhaps unique book-length account of the life of Henry Rathbone, one of only four people present when Booth murdered Abraham Lincoln. Rathbone, an army major at the time, and his fiancé, Clara Harris, joined Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln at Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865 for a performance of the comedy Our American Cousin.

CLARA HARRIS RATHBONE

CLARA HARRIS RATHBONE

The only reason the couple accompanied the Lincolns that night was that everyone else who had been invited—notably including General Ulysses S. Grant and his wife, Julia—had declined. The advance chatter that the Grants and the Lincolns might attend together just days after Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia had caused some excitement in Washington, but Julia Grant was one of many people in the capital who could not abide Mary Lincoln, so the Grants avoided the appointment by repairing to New Jersey to visit their children. Rathbone, who was sitting in the rear of the presidential box when Booth entered, confronted the assassin after the murder had been committed and sustained a serious knife wound in his left arm.

The dagger with which John Wilkes Booth wounded Maj. Henry Rathbone

The dagger with which John Wilkes Booth wounded Maj. Henry Rathbone

Despite the injury, he tried unsuccessfully to prevent Booth from leaping from the box to the stage from whence he made his escape. Rathbone, who came from a wealthy Albany family, later married Clara Harris, who was also his stepsister, and the couple had three children, including U.S. Representative Henry Riggs Rathbone of Illinois. Rathbone recovered from the wound to his arm, but his mental health seems to have been permanently impaired by his experience at the theater and especially by the fact that he had been unable to either prevent Lincoln’s death or keep Booth from escaping. It was unreasonable for Rathbone to assume guilt for this, but the event was so sudden and shocking that reason didn’t play a part in his reaction to it. Stephens makes that argument, in some detail, that Rathbone suffered from what is now known as post traumatic stress syndrome. The author also explores an account of the murder—raised in a contemporary publication—which holds that Rathbone saw Booth enter the presidential box before the murder and rose to ask Booth what business he had there, but was brushed aside as Booth approached the president from behind and fired the fatal shot.

JOHN WILKES BOOTH

JOHN WILKES BOOTH

I am not aware that this version appears in any public record. Stephens attributes it to The Public Ledger, a daily newspaper then being published in Philadelphia. According to The Public Ledger, Clara Harris gave this alternative version during an interview with Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. Stephens gives weight to this account and repeatedly—and, I think, unfairly—refers to Rathbone’s “failure to protect the president.” In one instance, in fact—in a stunning exercise of hyperbole—the author accuses Rathbone of “failing the whole world.”

Rathbone remained in the army until 1879 and retired with the rank of brevet colonel. He and his family were living in Germany on December 23, 1883, when, after many years of psychic and emotional instability, he murdered Clara and tried to commit suicide. He was consigned to a reasonably comfortable asylum in Germany for the remaining twenty-seven years of his life. This book suffers from bad grammar and syntax to a degree that is very distracting. However, Stephens has made a contribution to the literature surrounding the murder of Abraham Lincoln by compiling a chronicle that has been neglected.

 

Sutton 1

During the 22 days that David Sweat and Richard Matt were on the loose, I had occasion to mention to an acquaintance the name Willie Sutton. I was dismayed by the blank expression that name inspired. This happens to me more and more often as I get older and older. There was a time when, just as the name Enrico Caruso could be used interchangeably with the phrase “great singer,” the name Willie Sutton could be used interchangeably with the phrases “bank robber,” “prison escapee,” and “master of disguise.”

Sutton, who was born in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn in 1901, was a bank robber and prison-escape artist. Because of his use of disguises, he was known as “The Actor.” At various times in his career, he posed as such things as a mailman, a telegraph messenger, a police officer, a window cleaner, a prison guard, and a maintenance man.

After a series of robberies and a prison term for safe cracking, Sutton was sent to 30 years in Sing Sing in 1931. He got his hands on a firearm, took a guard hostage, and escaped on December 11, 1932, using a makeshift extended ladder to get over the prison wall.

Willie Sutton, right, is questioned after his arrest in Brooklyn in 1952.

Willie Sutton, right, is questioned after his arrest in Brooklyn in 1952.

He moved to Philadelphia and resumed his vocation until he was arrested again and spent about 15 years as a guest of the commonwealth. On April 3, 1945, Sutton and eleven other inmates escaped from the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia by crawling through a tunnel — Sutton’s fifth attempt to break out of this prison — but he was arrested the same day by city police.

Because he was a four-time loser, Sutton was sentenced to life in prison and sent to the Philadelphia County Prison in Homesburg. On February 10, 1947, he and other inmates, dressed as prison guards, carried two ladders across the prison yard to the wall after dark. The story goes that the watchtower searchlights found the men, but Sutton yelled, “It’s okay,” and no one interfered with the escape.

That escapade earned Sutton a place on the FBI’s list of ten most-wanted fugitives.

Sutton 3

 

Sutton was said to have good manners, and he dressed to go along with his demeanor. In a wry coincidence, that turned out to be his undoing. Police, knowing of Sutton’s penchant for fine clothes, distributed his photograph to tailors and haberdashers. A clothing salesman — 24-year-old Arnold Schuster — saw that photograph in his father’s store. On February 18, 1952, the young man recognized Sutton on a subway in Brooklyn and followed him to a gas station where Sutton intended to buy a car battery. The young man called the police, and Sutton was arrested yet again. Less than a month later, Schuster was shot to death in what was presumed to be a mob hit against a squealer. No one was ever charged with the crime. In an autobiography published in 1976, Sutton wrote, ”Throughout my career I had plotted and planned my jobs to make sure that I would not have to hurt anybody, and now, after it was over and I was sitting in jail, a good-looking, promising young man had been killed because of me. The laughter of the gods.”

Sutton already had a life sentence plus 105 years hanging over his head, but he was tried again for a bank robbery in Queens and had his lease extended another 30 years, this time at the Attica State Prison.

The dapper Sutton at the Queens County Courthouse where he was tried and convicted for the final time.

The dapper Sutton at the Queens County Courthouse where he was tried and convicted for the final time.

Because of his failing health, however, he was released on December 24, 1969. The following year, he did a television commercial promoting a new credit-card program offered by the New Britain, Connecticut, Bank and Trust Company.

Sutton was reputed to have said, when he was asked why he robbed banks, “That’s where the money is.” Sutton, however, denied having said that although, he added, if someone had asked him that question that might have been his reply.

“Why did I rob banks?” he wrote toward the end of his life. “Because I enjoyed it. I loved it. I was more alive when I was inside a bank, robbing it, than at any other time in my life. I enjoyed everything about it so much that one or two weeks later I’d be out looking for the next job. But to me the money was the chips, that’s all. Go where the money is…and go there often.”

BOSTON CORBETT

BOSTON CORBETT

I don’t know how John Wilkes Booth thought his journey was going to end, but I’m sure Boston Corbett didn’t figure in his plans.

Booth made a sincere effort to get away with murdering Abraham Lincoln. With one of his accomplices, David Herold, he was heading south, hoping to get deep into the former Confederacy where folks might see what he did–sneaking up on a man and shooting him in the back of the head–as something more than an act of cowardice. Like many criminals, however, Booth left a trail, and federal detectives and troops tracked him down to a Virginia farm, cornered him and Herold in a barn, and set fire to the structure. Herold gave up and eventually hanged, but Booth, who was armed, stayed in the burning building. Corbett, an army sergeant, watched the assassin through an opening in the wall of the barn and–as he later said–thinking that Booth was about to fire on the soldiers outside, shot him in almost the same place that Booth’s bullet had struck Lincoln. Booth fell, paralyzed, and died after being removed to the farmhouse porch.

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Thomas “Boston” Corbett, the man who killed Booth, is the subject of this engrossing book by Scott Martelle. It’s an important contribution to the history of the epoch surrounding the end of the Civil War and the murder of Lincoln; relatively little has been written about Corbett and some of what has been written has been incorrect. By Martelle’s account, Corbett was a complicated and eccentric character. He frequently worked as a hatter — specifically as a finisher — and that meant that he was exposed to a great deal of mercury. That has led to speculation that mercury poisoning led to Corbett’s peculiarities as it led to the odd behavior of many others. His lifelong vocation, however, was not as a hatter but as a Christian preacher. He was deeply religious in his own way, so much so that Martelle reports that Corbett castrated himself while still a young man in order to spare himself the inclination to sexual sin. His overriding goal was to live as a Christian — as he understood that term — every hour of every day. Whatever his foibles, he performed many acts of kindness in his pursuit of that ideal.

He served four separate hitches in the Union Army during the Civil War, and a colleague later wrote of him, “He was a very religious man, faithful at his post of duty, a good speaker, and a skillful and helpful nurse to those who were ill or in distress, and [he] knew no fear.” Still, he was once court-martialed for walking off his post, and he threatened to kill a fellow soldier in order to dissuade him from picking blackberries on the Sabbath. Corbett thought the war was justified and reportedly had no qualms about killing enemy soldiers, although he prayed for them before pulling the trigger.

ANDERSONVILLE PRISON

ANDERSONVILLE PRISON

At one point, Corbett was an inmate at the notorious prison camp in Andersonville, Georgia. The conditions there were so heinous that they permanently damaged Corbett’s health. He did survive, however, and returned to service, and so was available when a cavalry detachment was sent to hunt down Booth and Herold.

In the wake of Booth’s death, some people regarded Corbett as a hero, and some condemned him. Although there were claims to that effect at the time, Martelle determined that there was no order to take Booth alive. Corbett was in demand as a speaker and, one imagines, as a curiosity, but in the long run he had a difficult time sustaining himself. In desperation, he moved to Kansas and tried his hand at raising livestock and selling the wool from his sheep.

Eventually, he became unglued, was confined to a asylum, escaped, and vanished from history.

If Corbett hadn’t shot Booth, Booth would have hanged anyway. Whether he would have revealed anything to assuage the doubts, which still linger, about the culpability of Mary Surratt and Dr. Samuel Mudd, we can only conjecture. As it is, Mrs. Surratt hanged and Dr. Mudd was sent to the federal prison in the Dry Tortugas Islands off Key West but pardoned after he helped stem a yellow-fever epidemic among the inmates.

But Corbett did shoot Booth, and, like Jack Ruby after him, became a key if shadowy player in a great drama. Martelle, a diligent reporter and a skillful writer, has done us a service by recreating the life of this strange man.

 

 

 

THEODORE ROOSEVELT

THEODORE ROOSEVELT

Justin S. Vaughn, a political science professor at Boise State University, writing recently in The Times, raised the question of which of Barack Obama’s predecessors have been the best and the worst former presidents. It’s an uncommon way to look at the presidency, and it adds a useful context. Those of us who are only casual observers of history tend to think of the presidents strictly in terms of their time in office and evaluate them accordingly. But, as Vaughn points out, “Our greatest ex-presidents have engaged in important work, sometimes at a level that rivaled their accomplishments in the White House. Our worst ex-presidents, on the other hand, have been noteworthy for taking strong positions against the national interest and consistently undermining their successors for personal and political reasons.”

Vaughn’s choices as the best former presidents included John Quincy Adams, Jimmy Carter, William Howard Taft, and Herbert Hoover. When the Washington Post, in 2014, asked 162 members of the American Political Science Association’s Presidents & Executive Politics section to rank the presidents, Taft was 20th and Quincy Adams 22nd. Carter and Hoover did not place in the top 24. That implies, if one were to take these things literally, that the four best former presidents by Vaughn’s estimation were only middling or worse as presidents.

HERBERT HOOVER

HERBERT HOOVER

But Adams, one of only two presidents to be elected to public office after leaving the White House, was a leading member of the House of Representatives for almost 20 years; Carter has devoted himself to promoting human and political rights all over the world. Hoover headed the program to stave off starvation in Germany after World War II and he was appointed by Presidents Truman and Eisenhower to lead commissions that successfully recommended reforms in the operations of the federal government.

Vaughn’s nominees for the worst former presidents include John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and Theodore Roosevelt. The first three did not distinguish themselves as president, but Roosevelt is regularly ranked among the best. He finished fourth in the 2014 survey, following Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and Franklin Roosevelt.

WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT

WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT

I recently got a belated education regarding Taft and Theodore Roosevelt by reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book The Bully Pulpit, which is sort of a double biography. The careers of these two men — their whole careers, not only their presidencies — occurred during a critical era in American history in which the nation grappled with the tension between free enterprise and the government’s attempts to prevent large business interests from unfairly controlling whole sectors of the economy. Goodwin paints impressive portraits that convey the personal and political integrity and the spirit of public service that characterized both Taft and Roosevelt. Both men were highly distinguished before they were elected to the presidency. Taft, as Goodwin relates, was mostly interested in the law and hoped to some day serve on the United States Supreme Court. He did not aspire to be president, but accepted the role under the heavy influence of his wife and of Roosevelt, who had promised after he was elected to his second term that he would not seek a third — a promise he lived to regret.

One of the reasons Roosevelt lands in Vaughn’s list of worst former presidents is that he disapproved of Taft’s administration and, forsaking his “two and through” pledge, challenged him for the 1912 Republican nomination and, failing at that, ran for president on a third-party ticket, guaranteeing the election of the Democrat, Woodrow Wilson. Taft, on the other hand, realized his ambition when President Warren Harding appointed him chief justice of the United States, a position in which he served with distinction for a decade.

Although Roosevelt was an egocentric and therefore sometimes childish character, his life and that of Taft, on the whole, were among the most exemplary among American public figures. Goodwin’s account of their careers, by bringing them to life, also brings to life an often neglected epoch in American history.