December 9, 2013
One day last March, Bridget Flynn, a school librarian who lives in Philadelphia, was searching for an old family drawing to print on the invitations to her daughter Rebecca’s bridal shower. As she and Rebecca rummaged through the several generations of family artifacts—letters, photographs, an envelope of hair cuttings—she keeps in plastic bins in her basement, they found a stack of small envelopes tied together with a black shoelace.
“Oh, honey, these are love letters,” Flynn said.
Rebecca untied them and began reading the first one:
“Mr Ros, be not uneasy, you son charley bruster be all writ we is got him and no powers on earth can deliver out of our hand.”
“Mom, these are ransom letters,” Rebecca said.
Flynn went through the rest of the stack with her husband, David Meketon, a research consultant at the University of Pennsylvania. They counted a total of 22 letters, all of them addressed to Christian Ross. Kidnappers had taken his 4-year-old son, whose full name was Charles Brewster Ross, and demanded $20,000 for his return.
Meketon googled “Christian Ross” and found that in 1876, Ross published a memoir about the kidnapping. The memoir, available online, includes facsimiles of several of the letters. As he compared the handwriting in the images to the documents that lay before him, Meketon realized he held America’s first known ransom kidnapping notes.
The letters represented a direct link to a disappearance that had remained unsolved for 139 years. The question was how they had ended up in his basement—and where they might lead.
* * *
On July 1, 1874, two Ross sons were taken from their family’s front lawn in Germantown, a northwest Philadelphia neighborhood. The kidnappers released Walter, age 5, for reasons unclear. When Charley failed to return home by nightfall, Christian Ross, a dry-goods merchant, feared the worst. But he struggled to get police help—Philadelphia’s force, only about 30 years old, had no precedent for investigating a kidnapping. At central police headquarters, inside Independence Hall, officers told Ross that drunks probably had taken Charley and would return him once they had sobered up. Three days later, the first ransom letter arrived at Ross’ store in downtown Philadelphia.
Somebody had written the message—ridden with errors in spelling, capitalization and punctuation—in black ink and an unsteady hand. “You wil have to pay us before you git him from us, and pay us a big cent to,” the note read. “if you put the cops hunting for him you is only defeeting yu own end.”
The second came five days later, stating the ransom amount: “This is the lever that moved the rock that hides him from yu $20,000. Not one doler les—impossible—impossible—you cannot get him without it.” (The sum of $20,000 in 1874 was the equivalent of about $400,000 today.)
With this demand, the letter writers recorded the first ransom kidnapping in U.S. history. They told Christian Ross to correspond with them through the personal advertisements of the Philadelphia Public Ledger.
Ross showed the letters to the police, who then rushed to make up for lost time. They advised him to refuse payment, for fear it would inspire copycat crimes, and they posted handbills from Philadelphia to Trenton to alert the public to Charley’s disappearance. The press soon learned about the letters, and concerned parents—wanting to know if their children were in similar danger—demanded they be released. The authorities refused to publish them, but on July 24, the mayor’s office announced a $20,000 reward for information leading to the kidnappers. Telegraphs spread word of the reward throughout the country—and unleashed chaos.
As the country struggled through Reconstruction, Americans united in a national manhunt for a common enemy. But the search also brought out con artists, do-gooders and conspiracy theorists who jumped at the chance to say they had information about Charley Ross. Private detectives competed with police, spiritualists offered their services and parents dressed up their children—boys and girls of every age—in the hope that they could pass as Charley and capture the reward money. In early August, the chief of the Philadelphia police led a search of every building in the city.
By then, the New York police had received a lead. Gil Mosher, a seasoned criminal greedy for the reward, told Superintendent George Walling that his brother William and a friend named Joseph Douglas fit the kidnappers’ descriptions as reported by Walter Ross and witnesses who had seen the men near the boys. Walling also learned that William Mosher’s brother-in-law was a former NYPD officer named William Westervelt, who had been fired for graft. Walling offered to restore Westervelt’s job if he could contact and spy on his brother-in-law. Westervelt agreed. But after contacting the kidnappers through his sister, he began acting as a double agent, informing the kidnappers of police activities.
The New York and Philadelphia police departments searched together for William Mosher and Douglas but did not release their names for fear of public interference. The search lasted five months, during which the kidnappers wrote 23 letters. (Christian Ross’s memoir contains the text of every letter except for one: number 5. He does not mention why, and this letter is also missing from Bridget Flynn’s discovery). In December 1874, the two suspects died of gunshot wounds after a failed robbery attempt on Long Island. As he lay wounded in front of witnesses, Douglas confessed that he and Mosher had kidnapped Charley Ross—and then died before saying anything more. After two months of tracking down leads, police turned their attention to William Westervelt. In the fall of 1875, a Philadelphia jury convicted him of complicity in Charley Ross’s kidnapping. He maintained his innocence even as he served seven years in Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary.
Charley Ross never returned home. During Westervelt’s trial, Christian Ross estimated that more than half a million people had assisted in the search for Charley. He told reporters that those helping him had distributed more than 700,000 fliers and investigated the stories of more than 600 children who resembled his son. Well into the 20th century, men came forward claiming to be Charley Ross, but the Ross family did not accept any of their assertions. Christian and his wife, Sarah, spent the rest of their lives and money looking for their son. They both died of heart failure, Christian died in 1897, at age 73, and Sarah in 1912, at age 79. The five remaining Ross children did not welcome inquiries into Charley’s fate.
* * *
After Bridget Flynn found the ransom letters, her husband contacted Alex Bartlett, an archivist at Historic Germantown, the local historical society. Bartlett compared the handwriting in the letters to that in the published facsimiles and said the letters looked authentic. But he wondered about their provenance.
Flynn’s family has lived in northwest Philadelphia since the late 18th century; her house is within walking distance of where her ancestors grew up in Germantown. Flynn knew that her grandmother, “a born storyteller,” was a careful collector who had left behind many family papers. Flynn took custody of them about a decade ago.
The bins sat unexamined in her basement until last March. Along with the letters, Flynn found an original letterpress “Lost” poster imprinted with Charley’s image. Because of this pairing, she wonders if one of her forebears bought the Ross items together as an auction lot. But she still doesn’t know for sure.
Charley’s grandnephew Chris Ross, a nine-term Pennsylvania state representative, says his parents’ generation “didn’t talk about [Charley] much” because the disappearance was “a forbidden subject.” The family, he says, had no knowledge that any family papers dating back to Christian Ross existed.
James Butler, a professor emeritus of English at La Salle University in Philadelphia and a longtime local historian, has always thought “how very odd” it was that the ransom letters hadn’t surfaced. Their re-emergence now, he says, only “adds to the mystery” surrounding the Ross case. Why, one wonders, would the family ever part ways with their only lifeline to their child?
David Bloom is a vice president and head of the rare-books, maps and manuscript department at Freeman’s Auctioneers and Appraisers, Philadelphia’s oldest auction house. Throughout his 30-year career with Freeman’s, Bloom has seen various pieces of Charley Ross Americana come through its doors: first editions of Christian Ross’ memoir, period reward posters and missing-person flyers. But until David Meketon approached him last spring, he had never heard that the ransom letters might still exist.
Bloom said he listened to Meketon’s description with skepticism but agreed to examine the find because “it seemed promising enough.” When he did so, the paper looked and felt right, as did a quick comparison of the four published facsimiles to their physical counterparts. The handwriting matched, the smudges matched and Bloom found it especially interesting that each letter had a light pencil mark at the top: Someone had numbered them.
Bloom gave the ransom letters an estimate of $3,000 to $5,000 and advised Flynn and Meketon to offer them for sale in November, when Freeman’s put on its annual Pennsylvania Sale.
Historic Germantown received word that a collector was interested in obtaining the letters at auction and lending them to the society. Chris Ross visited the letters at Freeman’s, but “didn’t want to own them” because of a “sadness for all the harm and trouble [they] caused in my family.” Both Ross and the team at Historic Germantown wondered whether bidders would scramble to own a piece of an American first: The letters resulted in not only America’s first recorded ransom kidnapping but also a new state law. In 1875, Pennsylvania became the first state to change the crime of kidnapping from a misdemeanor to a felony.
Freeman’s held its Pennsylvania Sale on November 14. The Books, Maps & Manuscripts section started at noon and featured the Ross letters, Lot 632, near the end of the sale. The audience had winnowed to about three dozen people.
An online buyer bid first, starting the sale at $1,500. Two bidders then started a war that ended at $16,000. After paying an additional 25 percent premium fee, the winner claimed the letters for $20,000—the same sum (though hardly the same value) that the kidnappers had demanded.
The buyer, who asked to have his name withheld, is the collector with interests in Historic Germantown. “My main goal [in buying the letters] was for them to remain in northwest Philadelphia,” he said. Historic Germantown will scan the letters for its digital archive before exhibiting and then storing them in acid-free folders and boxes. Curator Laura Keim says the originals will be accessible to researchers.
James Butler notes that the Charley Ross story illustrates the “indeterminacy of history.” He acknowledges that there must be a logical explanation for how the kidnappers’ letters ended up in a Mount Airy basement. “Something did happen and there is a solution,” he says. “But damned if we are ever going to know what it is.”
Editors’ Note: The transcription of the letter originally contained an error, substituting the incorrect “defeegin” for the more accurate “defeeting.” It has since been changed.
* * *
Carrie Hagen is the author of We Is Got Him: The Kidnapping That Changed America, a 2011 book on the Charley Ross kidnapping.
December 4, 2013
In 1981, an unknown epidemic was spreading across America. In June of that year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s newsletter mentioned five cases of a strange pneumonia in Los Angeles. By July, 40 cases of a rare skin cancer were reported by doctors working in the gay communities of New York and San Francisco. By August, the Associated Press reported that two rare diseases, the skin cancer Kaposi’s sarcoma and pneumocystis, a form of pneumonia caused by a parasitic organism, had infected over 100 gay men in America, killing over half of them. At the end of 1981, 121 men had died from the strange disease; in 1982, the disease was given a name; by 1984, two different scientists had isolated the virus causing it; in 1986, that virus was named HIV. By the end of the decade, in 1989, 27,408 people died from AIDS.
In the years following the AIDS epidemic, medical research has given us a better understanding of HIV and AIDS, as well as made some remarkable breakthroughs unimagined in the 1980s: today, people living with HIV aren’t condemned to a death sentence, but rather have treatment options available. Still, to think of the AIDS epidemic in medical terms misses half of the story–the social aspect, which affected America’s perception of HIV and AIDS just as much, if not more than medical research.
The two sides of the story are told through a collection of articles, pictures, posters and pamphlets in Surviving and Thriving: AIDS, Politics and Culture, a traveling exhibit and online adaptation curated by the National Library of Medicine that explores the rise of AIDS in the early 1980s, as well as the medical and social responses to the disease since. The human reaction to the AIDS epidemic often takes a back seat to the medical narrative, but the curators of Surviving and Thriving were careful to make sure that this did not happen–through a series of digital panels, as well as a digital gallery, readers can explore how the government and other community groups talked about the disease.
At the beginning of the epidemic, response was largely limited to the communities which were most affected, especially the gay male community. “People with AIDS are really a driving force in responding to the epidemic and seeing how change is made,” says Jennifer Brier, a historian of politics and sexuality who curated the exhibit.
In 1982, Michael Callen and Richard Berkowitz, two gay men living with AIDS in New York City, published How to Have Sex in an Epidemic, which helped spread the idea that safe sex could be used as protection against spreading the epidemic–an idea that hadn’t yet become prevalent in the medical community. The pamphlet was one of the first places that proposed that men should use condoms when having sex with other men as a protection against AIDS.
Condoms as protection against AIDS became a major theme for poster campaigns. The above poster, paid for by the Baltimore-based non-profit Health Education Resource Organization, shows how visuals attempted to appeal, at least at first, to the gay community. Due to widespread misinformation, however, many people believed that AIDS was a disease that affected only white gay communities. As a response to this, black gay and lesbian communities created posters like the one below, to show that AIDS didn’t discriminate based on race.
Many posters and education campaigns harnessed sexual imagery to convey the importance of safe sex in an attempt to make safety sexy (like the Safe Sex is Hot Sex campaign), but it wasn’t a campaign tactic supported by governmental bodies–in fact, in 1987, Congress explicitly banned the use of federal funds for AIDS prevention and education campaigns that “[promoted] or [encouraged], directly or indirectly, homosexual activities” (the legislation was spearheaded by conservative senator Jesse Helms and signed into law by President Reagan).
Instead, federally-funded campaigns sought to address a large number of people from all backgrounds–male, female, homosexual or heterosexual. The America Responds to AIDS campaign, created by the CDC, ran from 1987 to 1996 and became a central part of the “everyone is at risk” message of AIDS prevention.
The campaign was met with mixed feelings by AIDS workers. “The posters really do help ameliorate the fear of hatred of people with AIDS,” Brier explains. “There’s a notion that everyone is at risk, and that’s important to talk about, but there’s also the reality that not everyone is at risk to the same extent.” Some AIDS organizations, especially those providing service to communities at the highest risk for contracting HIV, saw the campaign as diverting money and attention away from the communities that needed it the most–leaving gay and minority communities to compete with one another for the little money that remained. As New York Times reporter Jayson Blair wrote in 2001 (, “Much of the government’s $600 million AIDS-prevention budget was used…to combat the disease among college students, heterosexual women and others who faced a relatively low risk of contracting the disease.”
(This linked column by Blair was later found to be plagiarized from reporting by the Wall Street Journal, but the point still holds.)
Beyond campaigns that tried to generalize the AIDS epidemic, a different side used the fear of AIDS to try and affect change. These posters, contained under the section “Fear Mongering” in the exhibit’s digital gallery, show ominous images of graves or caskets behind proclamations of danger.
“It was like this sort of scared straight model, like if you get scared enough, you really will do what is right,” Brier says of the posters. “There were posters that focused on pleasure, or health, or positive things to get people to affect change in their behavior, but there were consistently posters that used the idea that fear could produce behavior change.”
The above poster exemplifies the tactic of fear mongering: a large, visible slogan to affect fear (and shame sexual behavior), while information on how to prevent the spread of AIDS is buried in small print at the bottom of the poster. A lack of information was typical of fear-mongering posters, which relied on catchy, scary headlines rather than information about safe sex, clean needles or the disease itself.
“The posters fed on people’s inability to understand how AIDS actually spread. It didn’t really ever mention ways to prevent the spread of HIV,” Brier says. “Fear-mongering posters don’t talk about condoms, they don’t talk about clean needles, they don’t talk about ways to be healthy. They don’t have the solutions in them, they just have the fear.”
Through exploring the exhibit, users get a sense of the different approaches public organizations took to spread information about AIDS. “It’s a fundamental question of public health,” says Brier. “Do you spread information by scaring people, do you do it by trying to tap into pleasure or do you do it by recognizing that people’s behavior isn’t just about their individual will but a whole different set of circumstances?”
November 21, 2013
“Doctor Who,” the classic British sci-fi television show, celebrates its 50th anniversary this weekend. For those who’ve never seen the program, which in the United States has aired mostly on PBS stations and, more recently, BBCAmerica, here’s a short rundown: The main character is a man called the Doctor. He’s an alien from a race called the Time Lords. He travels through time and space in a blue police box that’s really a disguise for his bigger-on-the-inside ship called the TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension in Space). In each episode, the Doctor and a companion (or two or three) explore the universe while fighting monsters and other enemies along the way. And every so often, the doctor “regenerates,” taking on a new body and face, letting a new actor take over the lead role.
The formula has changed little since “Doctor Who” first premiered on BBC on November 23, 1963. The show has survived poor production values, the Doctor getting stranded on Earth for years, declining public interest in the show, cancellation in the late 1980s, as well as a failed attempt to reboot the series in 1996 only to come back in 2005, gaining new fans and new respect.
“Doctor Who” has been distinct from other members of the science fiction genre, such as “Star Trek,” which focused solely on the future, by taking advantage of the ability to travel through time and periodically visiting the past. This focus on history has waxed and waned over the years, reflecting the interests and wants of the show’s producers and viewers, but it produced some unique storylines centered on pivotal moments in human history. Nearly all of these episodes are available on DVD or Netflix, although two of the episodes from the Crusades are preserved only as audio.
Adventures in the first season of “Doctor Who” took viewers into historical events such as Marco Polo’s 1289 expedition to Central Asia and the Reign of Terror in late 18th-century France. Though the show’s most iconic monsters, the pepperpot-shaped Daleks, had already been introduced by this time, these history stories got their drama from human events. In “The Aztecs,” the Doctor (William Hartnell) and his companions become trapped in 15th-century Mexico. One of the companions, history teacher Barbara, is briefly hailed as a divine reincarnation of a high priest and tries to put an end to the Aztec practice of human sacrifice. Her efforts fail, and history moves on.
“Doctor Who” has frequently celebrated and explored iconic periods in British history while putting a bit of twist on them. In “The Crusade,” the Doctor (again played by William Hartnell) and his companions find themselves in 12th-century Palestine, caught in the middle of the conflict between the European crusaders, led by King Richard the Lionheart, who have conquered the land and the Saracens, led by Saladin, who are trying to kick them out. The story highlights the political machinations of the real-life leaders and the bloodthirsty nature of the Crusades themselves. The Doctor tries not to get caught up in court politics, as Richard attempts to broker a peace agreement by marrying off his sister to Saladin’s brother. But of course the Doctor fails, barely escaping a death sentence.
The Doctor may be known for traveling through time and space, but his third incarnation (played by Jon Pertwee) was banished by his fellow Time Lords to present-day Earth. Time travel stories returned, however, with the Fourth Doctor (portrayed by Tom Baker). In 1975, he and his frequent companion, journalist Sarah Jane Smith, found themselves in England in 1911 in the home of a professor who had gone missing while excavating a pyramid in Egypt. The professor had accidently released an alien named Sutekh—which fans of Egyptian history will recognize as another name for the chaos god Set—who had been locked in that pyramid by his brother Horus and their fellow Osirians. The Doctor and Sarah Jane must battle robotic mummies roaming the grounds before taking down Sutekh and saving the human race.
One of the Doctor’s greatest enemies was another Time Lord, the Master. In The King’s Demons, the Doctor (now played by Peter Davison) encounters his arch-nemesis at a medieval joust in the time of King John. In one of the Master’s smaller evil machinations—in later years, for example, the Master turns every human on Earth into a copy of himself—he tries to thwart the course of human history by provoking a rebellion that will depose King John and prevent the creation of the Magna Carta, the foundation of constitutional government in the English-speaking world. The Doctor intervenes, setting history back on course.
The Master is messing with earthlings again, this time paired with another renegade Time Lord, the Rani, in the English town of Killingworth. This is the time of the Luddites, a group of English textile workers who were protesting changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution in the early 1800s. Key to the Doctor Who story is real-life engineer and inventor of the steam locomotive engine George Stephenson, who saves the Doctor (portrayed by Colin Baker) from a group of Luddites who pushed him down a mineshaft.
History episodes became more frequent with the 2005 reboot of the “Doctor Who” franchise. The show’s producers, in their efforts to reintroduce the Doctor (played by Christopher Eccleston) to a new generation, set the entire first season on Earth. In a memorable pair of episodes, the Doctor and companion Rose find themselves in London during World War II, pursued by a creepy gas-mask-wearing child with a deadly touch. While later WWII-themed episodes feature notable historical figures from that era, including Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler, these episodes instead center on the sad story of homeless, orphaned children who had been cast adrift amidst the chaos of the London Blitz.
The Girl in the Fireplace is a masterful marriage of futuristic science fiction with a real person from the past. The Doctor (portrayed by David Tennant) and his companions find themselves on an abandoned spaceship in the 51st century. The crew is missing, but throughout the ship are portals into 18th-century France, points in time along the life of a Frenchwoman named Reinette. The young girl grows up to become Madame de Pompadour, mistress of King Louis XV, pursued her whole life by the clockwork men of the spaceship who believe that only her brain can fix their ship.
A classic “Doctor Who” trope is to take an event in history and provide another explanation for what happened. In this case, it’s “volcano day” in the city of Pompeii. Shortly after his arrival, the Doctor (again, David Tennant) is temporarily stranded when a merchant sells his TARDIS to a local businessman, Lucius Caecilius, who thinks the blue box is a piece of avant-garde art. Caecilius was based on a real person, Lucius Caecilius Iucundus, a banker whose villa was found in excavations of the Italian town that was buried under volcanic ash in 79 A.D. In the Doctor Who version of Iucundus’ story, the explosion that likely killed him was caused not by a volcano but by the Doctor. He and his companion Donna initiate the explosion to save the world from a race of aliens, the Pyrovillians, who were living in Vesuvius and planning to take over the Earth.
The renewal of “Doctor Who” brought a new type of history episode based on literary figures. The first explained how Charles Dickens got inspired to write about ghosts at Christmas. A later story showed what happened to William Shakespeare’s missing play Love’s Labour’s Won. The third of this genre, The Unicorn and the Wasp, cleared up a mystery regarding the world’s greatest mystery writer, Agatha Christie—what happened to her during the 11 days in 1926 that she simply disappeared? In the Doctor Who story, set at a house party during the 1920s, Christie was helping the Doctor (David Tennant) solve a Christie-inspired murder mystery and then did a little traveling in the TARDIS.
While at a Van Gogh exhibit at the Musee d’Orsay in modern-day Paris, the Doctor (played by Matt Smith) notices a curious monster peeking out a window in Van Gogh’s The Church at Auvers and decides to investigate, quickly jumping back in time to visit the great painter in 1890. Scenes directly reference paintings such as Café Terrace at Night and Bedroom in Arles, while the story revolves around Van Gogh’s periods of exhaustion and depression, as well as his eventual suicide. The Doctor’s companion Amy Pond tries to avert Van Gogh’s tragic end by taking him to the exhibition where the episode began, where he can hear his work praised. But Amy is saddened to discover that her efforts had no effect, and Van Gogh eventually killed himself, as history remembers. As with all Doctor Who’s history stories, this one reminds the viewer that although the Doctor can’t change the past’s biggest events, he can bring a bit of joy and happiness to some of our saddest moments.
November 19, 2013
Click on the pins within the document to learn about some of the doctors’ findings.
In the last century, there are few events that have been studied with greater scrutiny than the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. But, that is the problem, according to author and History Channel personality Brad Meltzer.
“Put together all of the official investigations, commissions, reports, official reinvestigations, independent reviews of the evidence, journalistic inquiries, reenactments, documentaries, movies, literally thousands of books (fiction and nonfiction), not to mention countless off-the-wall and over-the-top websites, and you’ve got a situation that’s a perfect breeding ground for confusion, differing interpretations, allegations and refutations,” he writes in his latest book, History Decoded: The 10 Greatest Conspiracies of All Time.
There have been those who believe that Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone, that there were two shooters on that fateful day in Dallas, November 22, 1963. Others have tried to pin the blame on the Soviets, the CIA and the mafia.
One natural place to look for answers is the president’s autopsy. Medical professionals at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, examined Kennedy’s body just hours after he was pronounced dead, drawing what conclusions they could from his wounds about the cause of death and location of the assassin. In Dallas, the president’s staff had hurriedly loaded his casket onto Air Force One, while city officials squabbled over a state law that required the autopsy to be performed in Texas. Just nine minutes after Lyndon Johnson took the oath of office on the plane it was wheels up.
President Lyndon Johnson gathered the Warren Commission, a group of Congressman and other prominent officials, a week later to investigate Kennedy’s assassination. The investigators, out of respect to the president’s legacy, saw neither the photographs nor the x-rays from the autopsy, though the decision to keep such medical evidence private has often been questioned. (In 1966, the Kennedy family donated these official images to the National Archives, where they remain sealed from the public.) One of the only visuals left for the group’s consideration was this descriptive autopsy sheet, or “face sheet,” which the pathologists filled out in the autopsy room, marking the figure with the two bullets’ entry and exits points. The doctors referred to these notes when writing the more detailed autopsy report.
(Photo by Apic/Getty Images)
November 18, 2013
Late last week, the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, newspaper, now called the Patriot-News, issued a tongue-in-cheek retraction of its 150-year-old snub of President Abraham Lincoln’s heralded Gettysburg Address. The editorial page informed its readers:
Seven score and ten years ago, the forefathers of this media institution brought forth to its audience a judgment so flawed, so tainted by hubris, so lacking in the perspective history would bring, that it cannot remain unaddressed in our archives.
The editors mused that their predecessors had likely been “under the influence of partisanship, or of strong drink.” Waiving the statute of limitations, the newspaper ended its announcement in time-honored fashion: “The Patriot-News regrets the error.” The news was picked up by a wide swath of publications, but none were more surprising than the appearance of a “Jebidiah Atkinson” on “Saturday Night Live:”
But of course there was no “Jebidiah Atkinson.” The author of the thumbs-down review was Oramel Barrett, editor of what was then called the Daily Patriot and Union. He was my great-great-grandfather.
The “few appropriate remarks” President Abraham Lincoln was invited to deliver at the dedication of a national cemetery in Gettysburg are remembered today as a masterpiece of political oratory. But that’s not how Oramel viewed them back in 1863.
“We pass over the silly remarks of the President,” he wrote in his newspaper. “For the credit of the nation, we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them and that they shall no more be repeated or thought of.”
My ancestor’s misadventure in literary criticism has long been a source of amusement at family gatherings (and now one for the entire nation.) How could the owner-editor of a daily in a major state capital have been so utterly tone deaf about something this momentous?
Oddly enough, Oramel’s put-down of the Gettysburg Address—though a minority view in the Union at the time—didn’t stand out as especially outrageous at the time. Reaction to the speech was either worshipful or scornful, depending on one’s party affiliation. The Republicans were the party of Lincoln, while the Democrats were the more or less loyal opposition (though their loyalty was often questioned).
Here’s the Chicago Times, a leading Democratic paper: “The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly flat dishwatery utterances of a man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States.”
It wasn’t just the Democrats. Here’s the Times of London: “The ceremony [at Gettysburg] was rendered ludicrous by some of the sallies of that poor President Lincoln.”
In the South, naturally, Lincoln was vilified as a bloodthirsty tyrant. But his opponents in the North could be almost as harsh. For years, much of the Democratic press had portrayed him as an inept, awkward, nearly illiterate bumpkin who surrounded himself with sycophants and responded to crises with pointless, long-winded jokes. My ancestor’s newspaper routinely referred to Lincoln as “the jester.”
Like Oramel Barrett, those who loathed Lincoln the most belonged to the radical wing of the Democratic Party. Its stronghold was Pennsylvania and the Midwest. The radical Democrats were not necessarily sympathetic to the Confederacy, nor did they typically oppose the war—most viewed secession as an act of treason, after all. Horrified by the war’s gruesome slaughter, however, they urged conciliation with the South, the sooner the better.
To the Lincoln-bashers, the president was using Gettysburg to kick off his re-election campaign—and showing the poor taste to do so at a memorial service. According to my bilious great-great-grandfather, he was performing “in a panorama that was gotten up more for the benefit of his party than for the glory of the Nation and the honor of the dead.”
Worse, for Lincoln’s opponents, was a blatant flaw in the speech itself. In just 10 sentences, it advanced a new justification for the war. Indeed, its first six words—”Four score and seven years ago”—were enough to arouse the fury of Democratic critics.
A little subtraction shows that Lincoln was referring not to 1787, when the Constitution, with its careful outlining of federal rights and obligations (and tacit acceptance of slavery), was drawn up, but to 1776, when the signers of the Declaration of Independence had proclaimed that “all men are created equal.”
The Union war effort had always been aimed at defeating Southern states that had rebelled against the United States government. If white Southerners wanted to own black slaves, many in the North felt, that was not an issue for white Northern boys to die for.
Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation at the start of 1863. Now, at Gettysburg, he was following through, declaring the war a mighty test of whether a nation dedicated to the idea of personal liberty “shall have a new birth of freedom.” This, he declared, was the cause for which the thousands of Union soldiers slain here in July “gave the last full measure of devotion.” He was suggesting, in other words, that the troops had died to ensure that the slaves were freed.
To radical Northern Democratics, Dishonest Abe was pulling a bait-and-switch. His speech was “an insult” to the memories of the dead, the Chicago Times fumed: “In its misstatement of the cause for which they died, it was a perversion of history so flagrant that the most extended charity cannot regard it as otherwise than willful.” Worse, invoking the Founding Fathers in his cause was nothing short of libelous. “They were men possessing too much self-respect,” the Times assured its readers, “to declare that negroes were their equals.”
Histories have generally played down the prevalence of white racism north of the Mason-Dixon Line. The reality was that Northerners, even Union soldiers battling the Confederacy, had mixed feelings about blacks and slavery. Many, especially in the Midwest, abhorred abolitionism, which they associated with sanctimonious New Englanders. Northern newspaper editors warned that truly freeing the South’s slaves and, worse, arming them would lead to an all-out race war.
That didn’t happen, of course. It took another year and a half of horrific fighting, but the South surrendered on the North’s terms—and by the time Lee met Grant at Appomattox in April 1865, both houses of Congress had passed the 13th Amendment, banning slavery. With Lincoln’s assassination just six days later, the criticism ceased. For us today, Lincoln is the face on Mount Rushmore, and the Gettysburg Address one of the greatest speeches ever delivered.
Doug Stewart also wrote about his cantankerous great-great-grandfather, Oramel Barrett, in the November 2013 issue of America’s Civil War.