March 5, 2016
In 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.
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.
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.
I 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.
February 13, 2016
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.
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.
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.
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.
June 4, 2015
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.
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.
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.
August 5, 2014
When President Martin Van Buren died, 19 of his successors had already been born. At the onset of the Civil War, four of them — John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan — joined Van Buren in that exclusive category, former presidents. That was the only time five former presidents were living at one time until 1993 when Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush were still kicking around. It happened again in 2001 with Carter, Ford, Reagan, Bush, and Bill Clinton. The quintet that formed a sort of elite gallery watching the Union unravel are usually ranked in the bottom dozen or so when retrospective experts, who never faced such decisions, cast their ballots. But none of the former presidents saw themselves that way and, in that rough-and-tumble time, they didn’t pose as aloof elder statesmen while Abraham Lincoln dealt with the crisis of secession. What they did do is the subject of The Presidents’ War by Chris DeRose.
This is an unusual and possibly unique approach to the history of the three decades leading up to the war and the prosecution of the war itself. The Civil War is sometimes remembered simplistically as a war over slavery — either over whether slavery should be permitted in new states as the nation expanded westward or whether it should be abolished altogether. Both of these questions were at issue, but the controversy was more complicated than that because it was intertwined with the evolving understanding of the relationship between the states and what was then often referred to as the “general government” — the federal government. The rights of individual states vis-a-vis the federal government are still the subject of often contentious discourse, but the question was far less settled in the decades before and immediately after the Civil War than it is now.
Differing views over that question led to a crisis in 1832 when South Carolina declared that tariffs imposed by the federal government that year and in 1828 were null and void. Andrew Jackson, a tough customer, was president at the time, and he ordered that the duties be collected by whatever means were necessary and he formally declared that states did not have the power to nullify federal regulations or leave the federal union. The crisis was put off, in a sense, by a political compromise; it was put off, but not settled, and it would simmer and occasionally come to a boil until it exploded in secession and war. After Jackson, eight men, beginning with Van Buren, would exercise the executive authority while these fundamental questions remained unresolved and repeatedly threatened to rupture the union. Two of them — William Henry Harrison, the ninth president, and Zachary Taylor, the twelfth president, would die in office and would not play a significant role in government, and one of them, James Knox Polk, the 11th president, would die shortly after leaving office in 1849. Those five who would live to see the nation descend into the bloodiest war in its history had differing points of view on the seminal questions of the time. Although they are usually overlooked or derided in accounts of this period, DeRose explains in detail how they all were engaged in promoting their positions and often were active participants in the political dynamics of the time.
Perhaps the most interesting character DeRose brings back into the light is John Tyler of Virginia, the first man to serve as president without being elected to the office (succeeding Harrison, who died after a month in the White House) and the only former president to become a sworn enemy of the United States. During the administration of James Buchanan, Tyler acted as a go-between seeking an accommodation between the United States and the newly formed Confederacy. Tyler promoted and chaired a ill-fated peace convention in 1861 and then participated in the convention in which Virginia voted to secede from the Union. Tyler was eventually elected to the Confederate Congress, although he died before he took his seat. Although the circumstances were dubious, this last achievement made him one of only four former presidents to serve in public office, the others being John Quincy Adams, Andrew Johnson, and William Howard Taft.
Martin Van Buren of New York, who served one term as president, had ambitions to return to the White House, but they were ultimately frustrated. He was one of many Americans who held that slavery was morally wrong but that it was protected by the Constitution. Although he was initially opposed to the election of Abraham Lincoln, Van Buren ultimately supported him and the war effort. Millard Fillmore, also of New York, was the last Whig president and, therefore, the last president who was not associated with either the Democratic or Republican parties. When the crisis had reached the point of no return and Lincoln called on the northern states to raise troops, Van Buren supported him, as did Fillmore. Van Buren argued that “the attack upon our flag and the capture of Fort Sumter by the secessionists could be regarded in no other light than as the commencement of a treasonable attempt to overthrow the Federal Government by military force. ….”
Fillmore was elected vice president on the ticket with Zachary Taylor and was vaulted into the presidency by Taylor’s death. He, too, skated on the thin ice between his own professed abhorrence of slavery and both the fact that it was protected by the Constitution and his desire to avoid antagonizing the southern states. He was sufficiently repulsed by slavery, in fact, that he raised money and contributed some of his own to enable his coachman to buy his own freedom and that of his family, but Fillmore supported enforcement of the fugitive slave law because it was the law of the land and because, like his four contemporaries, he did not want to provoke the South into Civil War. Three years after he left office, he unsuccessfully ran for president on the ticket of the anti-Catholic American Party, although he himself was not anti-Catholic. Although he was opposed to secession, he did not support Lincoln’s decision to emancipate slaves as a means of expediting an end to the war.
Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire, who was a brigadier general during the war with Mexico, was a Democrat who was opposed to secession but openly supported the institution of slavery in the South. He was a close associate of Jefferson Davis, who became president of the Confederacy, and antagonistic toward Lincoln. Pierce, who was beset by personal tragedy and drinking problems, attempted to undermine Lincoln’s policies by organizing an unprecedented “commission” of the living former presidents to mediate the differences between North and South. The commission, which would have been heavily weighted against Lincoln’s positions, never materialized.
James Buchanan of Pennsylvania, Lincoln’s immediate predecessor, had adopted the problematic view that states did not have a right to secede from the union and that the federal government did not have the power to stop them by force.
Buchanan, who had had a distinguished career, particularly as a diplomat, failed to preserve the peace between North and South and left office stinging with the idea that he would be regarded as a failure as president. It wasn’t known at the time, but he had exerted pressure on the Supreme Court to broaden its pending ruling in the Dredd Scott case to not only determine Scott’s status but to state that Congress did not have the power to prohibit slavery in the western territories. He spent his retirement years at his home in Wheatland, but he persistently trumpeted the idea that his policies were precursors to Lincoln’s. Buchanan busied himself during that time writing a memoir in hopes of vindicating himself, but he is generally regarded as having been hopelessly inept, at least with regard to secession.
DeRose covers a lot of ground in this book, but by telling the story in terms of the presidents who tried to cope with nagging and explosive issues, he brings as clarity to the subject that is not always present in accounts of that complex period. And besides writing a history of the run-up to the war, he provides a chronicle of the evolution of a public office — the presidency — noting that the five former presidents who lived to see secession and war had “feared that he would break the customs of the office that they had established and carefully cultivated. Their concerns were well founded. The American presidency is now a dynamic institution and powerful force for principle in the hands of the proper occupant…. Often American has been bereft of the leadership it wanted. But … in hours of great crisis for the Republic, America has never failed to find the reader to match the moment.”
March 12, 2013
The recent movie Lincoln is serving an important function if it adds some balance to the public perception of the 16th president. No film that I have seen has presented Abraham Lincoln in such realistic terms, and the decision to focus on his campaign to get the 13th Amendment enacted was inspired, because that aspect of Lincoln’s presidency is not well known.
In a way, Lincoln is a victim of his own success. Under his watch, the Union was preserved and human slavery was outlawed in the United States. As a result, Lincoln is enshrined in the national memory as a miracle worker, a savior, almost super human. The apotheosis began almost the moment the public learned of his death.
Among the titles applied to Lincoln is “great emancipator,” but the sobriquet doesn’t reflect Lincoln’s internal struggle and his political struggle over the notion that the federal government should free the millions of people who were being held in bondage in the South when the Civil War erupted.
The book is marketed by the publisher, Abrams, as being for young readers but the clear and concise treatment would be serviceable for any adult who wants to catch up on this topic.
Lincoln was progressive for his time. He hated human slavery and would have abolished it if he thought he could. But the relationship between the states and the federal government was still evolving in the mid 19th century, and Lincoln didn’t think Constitution gave the federal government the power to interfere with slavery where it already existed.
Inasmuch as the Civil War erupted shortly after and largely because of Lincoln’s first inauguration,he was preoccupied with one thing, and that was saving the Union. He said in so many words that whatever he did about slavery — abolish it, modify it, leave it alone — he would do only because it would save the Union. In the end, he was true to his word, because the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared free only those people who were being held as slaves in states or parts of states in rebellion against the federal government, was a war measure. Lincoln reasoned that he could take that action as commander in chief even if he couldn’t have taken it as a peacetime president. Even then, he hesitated.
While Lincoln was considering the advisability of freeing slaves as a way of weakening the southern economy, he had to take into account the potential reaction of the border states — slave states that hadn’t left the Union — as well as the reactions of white Union soldiers who were willing to fight to save the Union but not to free black slaves. Meanwhile, he was under pressure from the swelling abolitionist movement to simply put an end to slavery in one sweeping gesture.
Lincoln also gave a lot of thought to what would become of the slaves once they were emancipated, and his thoughts were shaped by the fact that he didn’t believe in the equality of the black and white races and didn’t think black and white people could live together in peace. Accordingly, his solution was to colonize the freed slaves, preferably in South America or West Africa, even though most slaves at that time had been born in the United States. But by February 1865, Lincoln was publicly endorsing voting rights for at last some educated black men.
This is an attractive book — an art book, really — richly illustrated with images from the period and embellished with break-out quotes from prominent men and women with an interest in the subject of emancipation.
December 18, 2012
If the Chicago Tribune had it right, William H. Seward was the prince of darkness.
In 1862, when Seward was Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of state and the Civil War seemed as likely as not to permanently destroy the federal union, the “world’s greatest newspaper” knew whom to blame. Seward, the Tribune said, was “Lincoln’s evil genius. He has been president de facto, and has kept a sponge saturated with chloroform to Uncle Abe’s nose all the while, except one or two brief spells.” The Boston Commonwealth was about as delicate in its assessment of Seward: “he has a right to be idiotic, undoubtedly, but he has no right to carry his idiocy into the conduct of affairs, and mislead men and nations about ‘ending the war in sixty days.’ ”
This demonic imbecile, as some editors would have it, is the subject of Walter Stahr’s comprehensive and engaging biography, Seward: Lincoln’s Indispensable Man. Stahr has a somewhat different take than the Tribune’s Joseph Medill. While Stahr acknowledges that Seward was overly optimistic about prospects for the federal government to prevail over the seceding states, and while he acknowledges that Seward sometimes turned to political chicanery and downright dishonesty, he also regards Seward as second in importance during the Civil War era only to Lincoln himself.
Seward, a former governor of New York and United States Senator, was by Stahr’s account, very close to Lincoln personally, which probably contributed to the rancor directed at Seward from others in the government who wanted the president’s attention. Their relationship was interesting in a way that is analogous to the relationship between Barak Obama and Hillary Clinton in the sense that Seward was Lincoln’s chief rival for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860. Seward’s presidential ambitions, which were advanced by fits and starts by the political instigator Thurlow Weed of New York, are well documented in this book. But, as Stahr makes clear, Seward’s disappointment at losing the nomination to Lincoln did not prevent him from agreeing to serve with Lincoln at one of the most difficult periods in the nation’s history nor from serving him loyally.
As important an office as secretary of state is now, it was even more so in the 19th century, because its reach wasn’t confined to foreign affairs. It wasn’t uncommon for the secretary of state to be referred to as “the premier.” At first, Seward’s view of the office might have exceeded even the reality; he seems to have thought at first that he would make and execute policy and Lincoln provide the face of the administration. Lincoln soon made it clear who was in charge, and he and Seward worked well together from then on.
Seward’s service in Lincoln’s administration nearly cost him his life on the night that Lincoln himself was murdered by John Wilkes Booth. One of Booth’s accomplices, Lewis Payne, forced his way into the house where Seward was lying in bed, recovering from injuries he had sustained in a serious carriage accident. Payne, who was a wild man, tore through the place, cutting anyone who tried to stop him, and he attacked Seward, slashing his face. Payne fled the house — he eventually hanged for his crime — and Seward survived.
After the double trauma of Lincoln’s death and Seward’s own ordeal, it would have been understandable if Seward had withdrawn from public life. Seward wasn’t cut of ordinary cloth, however, and he agreed to remain at his post in the administration of Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson. Johnson was an outstanding American in many respects—he was the only southern member to remain in his U.S. Senate seat after secession, and he gave up the relative safety of the capital and took his life in his hands when Lincoln asked him to serve as military governor of Tennessee — but he was not suited for the role that was thrust on him by Booth.
Stahr explores the question of why Seward stayed on during the troubled years of Johnson’s tenure. He infers, for one thing, that Seward agreed with Johnson’s idea that the southern states should be quickly restored to their place in the Union without the tests that the Republican majority in Congress, and especially the “radical” wing of the party, wanted to impose. Stahr also writes that Seward believed that if Congress succeeded in removing Johnson on impeachment charges that were politically motivated it would upset the balance of power in the federal government for decades to come.
I mentioned Seward to a co-worker today, and she said, “of the folly?” She was referring to the purchase of Alaska, which Seward completed during Johnson’s administration. Stahr writes that much of the press supported the purchase of “Russian American” at first, and although the term “folly” was tossed about later, prompted in part by Seward’s further ambitions for expansion, the epithet was never widely used.
Alaska was only one of Seward’s achievements. He was a skillful diplomat who was equipped to play the dangerous game that kept Britain and France from recognizing the Confederate States of America. Although he may have underestimated the threat of secession and the prospects for a protracted war, he was at Lincoln’s side every step of the way—playing a direct role, for instance, in the suspension of habeas corpus and the incarceration of suspected spies without trial. He was not an abolitionist—and in that respect he disagreed with his outspoken wife, Frances— but Seward was passionate about preventing the spread of slavery into the western territories. He believed that black Americans should be educated. He did not support fugitive slave laws and even illegally sheltered runaway slaves in his home in Auburn, N.Y.
Seward was a complicated character who stuck to high moral and ethical standards much of the time, but was capable of chicanery, deceit, and maybe even bribery if it would advance what he thought was a worthy purpose.
A world traveler, he was one of Washington’s leading hosts, known for his engaging manner, and yet with his omnipresent cigar and well-worn clothes he appeared to all the world as something akin to an unmade bed. Henry Adams, who admired Seward, described him as “the old fellow with his big nose and his wire hair and grizzled eyebrows and miserable dress” who nevertheless was “rolling out his grand, broad ideas that would inspire a cow with statesmanship if she understood our language.”
May 24, 2012
When I discussed the book I wrote about in a post here this week, I got an unexpected response from several people who thought I couldn’t distinguish a camel from an elephant.
The book was “The Last Camel Charge” by Forrest B. Johnson, which reports on an experiment in which the U.S. Army imported several dozen camels from North Africa in the 1850s to see if they would perform better than horses and mules in the difficult conditions in the American Southwest. In about a half dozen cases in which I started to discuss this book, my companion asked me if I didn’t mean elephants. In all of these cases, they were mixing up the episode Johnson wrote about with the incident in which the King of Siam offered to send elephants to the United States for use as beasts of burden.
Most people who know about that offer heard about it in the musical play or the movie “The King and I,” in which, not surprisingly, it was badly distorted. In the movie and the musical, the King of Siam—Rama IV Mongkut—dictates, in English, a barely literate letter to Abraham Lincoln, offering to send the elephants. In reality, the king — who was fairly fluent in English — wrote such a letter, in his own hand, to Lincoln’s immediate predecessor, James Buchanan.
The king’s idea was that the elephants could be set free in the American wilderness and allowed to breed so that, as the herd grew, the animals could be captured and trained to carry cargo. Transportation being what it was in those days, that letter didn’t reach the White House until Buchanan had left office. So it was Lincoln who responded.
Lincoln, who signed the letter “your good friend,” wrote in part,
“I appreciate most highly Your Majesty’s tender of good offices in forwarding to this Government a stock from which a supply of elephants might be raised on our own soil. This Government would not hesitate to avail itself of so generous an offer if the object were one which could be made practically useful in the present condition of the United States.
“Our political jurisdiction, however, does not reach a latitude so low as to favor the multiplication of the elephant, and steam on land, as well as on water, has been our best and most efficient agent of transportation in internal commerce.”
From what I can tell, the portrayal of Mongkut in the stage show and the film was inaccurate in broader ways. While Yul Brynner, who created the role in both cases, represented the king as ignorant and in some ways boorish, Mongkut — a Buddhist monk and eventually an abbott — seems to have been well informed. He studied English, Latin, and astronomy and was an admirer of Jesus of Nazareth if not of Christian theological dogma.
April 16, 2011
Maybe I’ve read too much about the plot against Abraham Lincoln; that may be why I can’t get up any enthusiasm about Robert Redford’s film “The Conspirator.” For more than 50 years, I’ve been wading through so many accounts either exonerating or condemning Mary Surratt for complicity in the crime, that I’m practically schizophrenic on the subject. I first took interest in the assassination when my dad subscribed to the Reader’s Digest condensed book series. The first book we got included a truncated version of Jim Bishop’s 1955 history The Day Lincoln Was Shot. Being a sucker for a sob story, my first inclination was to sympathize with Mrs. Surratt as an innocent victim of Edwin Stanton’s over-the-top response to the death of the president — which occurred, incidentally, 146 years ago this very day. I was about 14 when I read that book, and I think the idea of a woman being hanged superseded any calm analysis of the evidence.
I’m probably more suspicious of Mary Surratt now than I was then, although I think the way the defendants were tried in that case was outrageous. Meanwhile, the most interesting figure in that case — well, the most entertaining, anyway — was Mary Surratt’s son John, whose story — as far as I know — has yet to be put on film. John Surratt was 20 years old at the time of the murder, and he had been active as a messenger and a spy for the Confederacy.
Surratt was involved with John Wilkes Booth in a conspiracy to kidnap Lincoln, take him to the Confederate capital in Richmond, and try to exchange him for southern war prisoners. That plot was unwittingly derailed by Lincoln, who changed the travel plans that the conspirators were relying on. It’s well established that Surratt wasn’t among the little circle of characters Booth enlisted after ramping his plan up to murder. But Surratt beat it out of the country as soon as the foul deed was done, leaving his mother behind to face the wrath of a seething Union. He may have been in upstate New York on a spying mission when Lincoln was killed. At any rate, he turned up in Canada and, after his mother had been hanged, he went to England, then to Paris, then to Rome. The unification of Italy hadn’t been completed yet, and John Surratt was able to enlist in the papal army and engage in combat with the forces of Giuseppe Garibaldi. According to Surratt, he wrote to an influential person in the United States to ask if it would be safe for him to return — by which he meant, would he be tried in a civil court or by an illegal court-martial like the one that had convicted his mother.
Although his correspondent advised him to stay away for three more years, Surratt decided to take his chances and go home. Before he could do so, however, someone in the Vatican recognized him, and Pope Pius IX ordered him arrested. Surratt was confined to a monastery on a mountain somewhere between Rome and Naples. Meanwhile the Vatican secretary of state informed the United States Secretary of State William Seward, and a man-of-war was dispatched from the Indian Ocean to fetch Surratt. When he was removed from his cell to be transferred to Rome, he broke away from his captors and dove over a wall onto a rock ledge about thirty five feet below. He was momentarily unconscious, but came to himself and scrambled down the mountainside to the village below. As he continued his flight, he fell in with a company of Garibaldi’s troops and told them he was an American deserter from the pope’s forces. They protected him until he departed for Alexandria, Egypt. There, he decided again that he should return to the United States, and he stopped disguising his identity. He was tracked down and arrested and sent home via Marseilles on the U.S. Navy sloop Swatara.
At home, Surratt got his wish, as it were, when he was tried for murder by a civil court in a proceeding that lasted from June 10 to August 10, 1867. The jury was divided — eight voting to acquit and four to convict — and Surratt was a free man. He lectured on his involvement in the Lincoln case without much success. He later became a teacher and eventually worked in the offices of a steamship company. He married, and he and his wife had seven children. He died in 1916.
John Surratt is one of those captivating figures who flit around the outskirts of historical events which we sometimes think about only in terms of the major players. Judging by his previous relationship with Booth, this story probably would have been very different if Surratt hadn’t been out of town on April 14, 1865. As it is, he comes across as a scamp who makes good copy and probably would make an even better movie.
The text of one of Surratt’s lectures is at THIS LINK.
April 11, 2011
In the Capitoline Museum in Rome there is a bronze statue of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. This is the only complete bronze statue of a Roman emperor that still exists. It was erected while the old stoic was in office – 176 AD. The reason that there are no other bronze statues from that era is that it was routine in the fourth and fifth centuries to melt them down so that the metal could be used for other statues or for coins. Sic semper gloria, as the saying goes. Statues of the emperors were destroyed also because Christians — apparently with no regard for the historical curiosity of future generations — regarded them as offensive remnants of paganism. In fact, it is said that the statue of Marcus Aurelius survived because it was erroneously thought to be an effigy of the sort-of Christian emperor Constantine.
It has not been unusual for statues of great, or at least dominant, figures to be desecrated by unappreciative come-latelies. Just the other day, some Syrians who are impatient with the fact that they lack basic political and economic rights did insulting things to an image of their former president, Hafez al-Assad, affectionately known as the “butcher of Hama” because of an unpleasant incident in which he caused the deaths of from 17,000 to 40,000 people.
There was some unpleasantness of a different sort about 8 years ago concerning a statue erected in Richmond representing Abraham Lincoln and his son Tad. The statue reflects on Lincoln’s visit to the ruined city in April 1865 at the end of the Civil War. There were bitter protests by people who objected to the statue, apparently still not able to concede Lincoln’s conciliatory attitude toward the southerners whose treason brought on the war in the first place.
Meanwhile, there has been some statuary-related turmoil in England. The trouble isn’t about figures of Neville Chamberlain or Guy Fawkes or Edward VIII. No, the man at the center of the maelstrom is Michael Jackson. There are two new statues of Jackson in place in the UK, and both of them are getting the raspberry from some of Jackson’s fans.
One scuffle is about a statue of Jackson dangling his baby son out of a hotel window. The life-sized image — which the artist calls “Madonna and Child” — recalls the incident in which Jackson held his son Prince Michael II out of a window in Berlin in 2002 while hundreds of fans were gathered below.
The sculpture is by a Swedish-born artist named Maria von Kohler; it’s displayed in the window of a music studio in East London. Jackson’s fans — who apparently haven’t been lured away by any of Simon Cowles’ instant sensations — find the sculpture revolting. They see it as an part of a persistent campaign of slander against Jackson, who set the bar for slander rather high. Viv Broughton, chief executive of the music studio, has a different view. He called the sculpture a “thought-provoking statement about fame and fan worship.”
The other skirmish has been prompted by a statue of Jackson erected outside Craven Cottage Stadium in London. The stadium is the home of the Fulham Football Club, a soccer team. Mohamed al-Fayed — whose son Dodi died in the auto accident that killed Princess Diana — owns the football club. The elder Fayed was a friend of Jackson.
Art critics have had a field day with the statue and some of Jackson’s disciples have criticized it, too.
Fayed responded to the criticism with a certain delicacy: “If some stupid fans don’t understand and appreciate such a gift, they can go to hell.”
I’ve often thought, when I pass the statue of Vice President Garret Hobart in front of City Hall in Paterson, how melancholy he must be as hundreds of people pass him each day without a glimmer of recognition. On the other hand, he has nobody attacking him except the pigeons.
August 27, 2010
For my own amusement, I keep a file of presidential trivia, but there is one fragment of information about the 36th president that I have chosen to omit: Lyndon Johnson was the only president who conducted staff meetings in his bathroom while he was moving his bowels. The fact that he bullied his staff into participating in this bizarre behavior speaks to one of the worst characteristics of the president. And, I suppose — to the extent that they didn’t have enough personal pride to tell him to go take a whaddyacallit — it speaks to the self image of Johnson’s toadies. He was a coarse, loud-mouthed bully, and that went along nicely with his appetites for alcohol and women.
Johnson, in a few words, was no damned good. That is, he would have been if he hadn’t conducted the most successful domestic policy of any president except Franklin Roosevelt; if he hadn’t used his political brawn and skill to enact such measures as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Voting Rights Act, and if he hadn’t sponsored such programs as Medicare. These contrasting realities about LBJ are described in “Lyndon B. Johnson” by Charles Peters, one of a series of short presidential biographies by Times Books.
Maybe it has been true of every president including George Washington and Abraham Lincoln that the nation has had to accept the bad with the good sides of a man, but that lesson has hardly been more boldly drawn than it was in the case of Lyndon Johnson.
Peters, who was a member of the administrations of John F. Kennedy and Johnson, gives plenty of examples of Johnson’s petulance, pettiness, and cruelty, including his weakness for publicly humiliating the people around him. Peters reports instances in which Johnson obfuscated or simply lied, including to the American public, in order to get his way — although LBJ hardly originated that tactic. In fact, Peters describes the scenario in which LBJ, then vice president, was left out of the loop when Robert Kennedy secretly agreed to the withdrawal of American missiles from Turkey as a quid pro quo for the withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuba. LBJ succeeded to the presidency and pursued what turned out to be a very aggressive policy against North Vietnam and the Viet Cong without knowing how the missile crisis had been resolved.
Johnson was an extraordinarily ambitious man, and he never made decisions without weighing the political consequences for himself. For instance, he abhorred the idea that he would be cast as a weakling if he publicly vacillated from a determination to prevent the fall of South Vietnam — even while he seriously doubted that the war could be won and made several efforts to achieve a negotiated peace.
The war — or, at least, the way the war was perceived by much of the American public by 1968 — was Johnson’s undoing. People may forget about Johnson showing off his surgical scar, using an aide’s lap as a footrest, lifting his hound by its ears, or even pursuing one sexual affair after another. However, as Peters notes, the bloodshed and the divisiveness and LBJ’s unprecedented decision to decline to run for reelection will always be associated with his memory.
Still, this unlikeable man took a courageous stand during a time of great uncertainty in the country and doggedly promoted his programs to help the poor, to assure medical care for the elderly, to assist students, and to finally bring true political equality to black Americans. Historians can spend eternity speculating whether all of that could have been achieved in the America of the 1960s without an SOB of Shakespearean proportions in the White House.