September 26, 2013
“It seems to me that a leading question ought to be: do the American people want a common libertine for their president?” So wrote a preacher from Buffalo, New York, to the editor of the Chicago Tribune on the eve of the 1884 presidential election.
Maine Senator James G. Blaine, the Republican candidate, had been shamed some years earlier when it came to light that he’d been trading congressional favors for cash, something his Democratic rivals brought up at every opportunity. The Democrats, though, had troubles of their own. A scandalous tale about the misdeeds of their candidate, New York Governor Grover Cleveland, was gaining traction, along with a particularly grating chant directed at him: “Ma, ma, where’s my Pa?”
For on July 21, 1884, the Buffalo Evening Telegraph broke a story many in upstate New York had long known to be true—that 10 years earlier, a woman named Maria Halpin had given birth in that city to a son with the surname Cleveland and then been taken to a mental asylum while the child was adopted by another family.
Cleveland’s campaign, knowing there was no refuting the allegations, was almost blasé in admitting that yes, Cleveland and Halpin had been “illicitly acquainted.” At the time, the campaign provided this rationale: Cleveland was a bachelor, and Halpin had been rather free with her affections, including with some of Cleveland’s friends—prominent Buffalo businessmen all. As the only unmarried man of the bunch, Cleveland, though not certain the child was his, claimed paternity and helped Halpin name the boy and place him with a caring family. Really, he’d been looking out for his friends and for a woman in unfortunate circumstances. The scandal was, of course, unfortunate, but the governor’s involvement was far from nefarious, and certainly shouldn’t preclude him from serving as president (especially not when Blaine had already made it clear he was not a man to be trusted).
Nevertheless, newspapers ran with the story, and it was only a matter of time before reporters discovered Halpin’s whereabouts. Her tale differed from Cleveland’s, substantially.
In an October 31, 1884, interview with the Chicago Tribune, she proclaimed, “The circumstances under which my ruin was accomplished are too revolting on the part of Grover Cleveland to be made public.”
Halpin was a 38-year-old widow in 1874, according to the Tribune, which also reported:
Halpin said that Cleveland had pursued her relentlessly, and that she finally consented to join him for a meal at the Ocean Dining Hall & Oyster House. After dinner, Cleveland escorted her back to her boarding house. In an 1874 affidavit, Halpin strongly implied that Cleveland’s entry into her room and the incident that transpired there was not consensual—he was forceful and violent, she alleged, and later promised to ruin her if she went to the authorities.
Halpin said she told Cleveland she never wanted to see him again, but “five or six weeks later” was forced to seek him out because she was in the kind of trouble only Cleveland could help her with.
The trouble, of course, was pregnancy.
Nine months later, Halpin’s son was born and promptly removed from her custody. Halpin was admitted under murky circumstances to a local asylum for the insane. Doctors from that institution, when interviewed by the press during the 1884 campaign, corroborated Halpin’s insistence that she was not, in fact, in need of committing. The Chicago Daily Tribune reported:
Dr. William G. King, an honored citizen of Buffalo, was then attending physician at the Providence Asylum. When visited by a Telegraph reporter last week he said that he remembered Maria Halpin well. He says she was brought to the asylum without warrant or form of law. When he examined her he found that she was not insane, though she had been drinking. The managers of the asylum had no right to detain her, and she left in a few days—that is, as soon as she chose to after her terrible experience.
Upon her release, Halpin’s first order of business was to locate her son, who had been “spirited away” after she was taken to the asylum.
Halpin contacted Milo A. Whitney, a well known Buffalo attorney, and announced her intent to charge Cleveland with assault and abduction:
Whitney says Maria Halpin came to consult him about instituting proceedings against all concerned in the assault and abduction. She said she knew that Grover Cleveland had plotted the abduction and hired the men to carry it out, as he had previously tried less violent means to deprive her of the child and get her out of the way.
Shortly after Halpin’s initial meeting with Whitney, her brother-in-law arrived from New Jersey to offer assistance. Days later, the pair called at Whitney’s office with a document that would seem to resolve the whole business:
They showed the attorney an agreement which stipulated that upon the payment of the sum of $500, Maria Halpin was to surrender her son, Oscar Folsom Cleveland, and make no further demands of any nature whatever upon his father.
Whitney maintained in all subsequent interviews that the document was in Grover Cleveland’s handwriting.
Oscar Folsom Cleveland (given the middle name Folsom after Oscar Folsom, Cleveland’s closest friend) was adopted by the Providence Asylum’s Dr. King and raised in Buffalo separate from his birth mother.
When interviewed in 1884 and asked about Cleveland’s assertion that any number of men could have been Oscar’s father, Halpin was outraged: “There is not and never was a doubt as to the paternity of our child, and the attempt of Grover Cleveland or his friends to couple the name of Oscar Folsom or any one else with that of the boy, for that purpose, is simply infamous and false.”
Halpin was living in New Rochelle, New York, just outside New York City, and breathless accounts of her looks and disposition filled the pages of the New-York World:
Mrs. Halpin is still an attractive woman, and although said to be 45 or 50, does not look more than 35. A wealth of dark hair and dark eyes of great depth and of strange, fascinating power are in strong contrast to a pale, clear complexion while regular features, and rounded chin, and a classically-cut and curved mouth could not fail to make a pleasant impression on those with whom she came in contact. Although robust, her form still preserves its symmetry, and this rotundity of figure rather adds to her matured charms than otherwise.
The story filled major newspapers during the summer and autumn of 1884—had Cleveland really taken part in the “seduction and ruination” of such a goodly woman? Was he indeed too much of a libertine to lead the nation? Or was his campaign telling the truth—that Maria Halpin was a harlot looking to cash in on a distant dalliance with the upstanding lawyer running for office on a clean-government ticket?
Most observers seemed to agree that Cleveland bore some degree of guilt. Writing to the Buffalo Evening Telegraph in the fall of 1884, Pastor Henry W. Crabbe, of that city’s United Presbyterian Church, condemned Cleveland resolutely:
I am very sorry to say that he is a corrupt, licentious man. He has never been married, and is notoriously bad with women. Cleveland is well known here, and it is a reproach to the city that he ever got into the Gubernatorial chair. I most sincerely and earnestly pray that he will not be our next President. His public life is revealing his true character. It may be said these stories are put in circulation for political effect, but the trouble is they cannot be refuted.
Still, Cleveland was not without defenders—including the famed reformer Henry Ward Beecher, who stood by the candidate in the pages of the Sunday Mercury, a Democratic-leaning newspaper:
Indeed, many of Cleveland’s supporters wrote the affair off as a young man’s folly—even though the man was nearly 40 years old when he became acquainted with Halpin.
In the end, Cleveland’s personal life proved more palatable to voters than Blaine’s political indiscretions: The Democrat won the election, carried by a New York state victory with a margin of barely 2,000 votes. The chant of “Ma, ma, where’s my Pa?” was answered by Democrats: “Gone to the White House, ha ha ha!”
The scandal was soon replaced on the front pages by breathless coverage of Cleveland’s new bride. Frances Folsom, daughter of the president’s best friend, became the first woman to be married in the White House and, at 21 (27 years younger than her husband), the nation’s youngest-ever first lady.
Oscar Folsom Cleveland faded from public record and seems to have come of age in privacy; some people believe he changed his name and became James E. King Jr., a Buffalo gynecologist who died childless in 1947.
Maria Halpin remarried and lived in relative obscurity until her death in 1902, and she seemed to take solace in her privacy to the last. According to her obituary, her last wish was that her funeral should not be public, “for she dreaded having strangers look curiously upon her dead face.”
THE DEFENSE.: A Man of 40 Lusty Summers “Sowing His Wild Oats”, Chicago Daily Tribune, 13 August 1884; THE CLEVELAND SCANDAL: A Fresh Scrutiny of the Charges Affecting the New York Governor, Chicago Tribune, 31 October 1884; THE CLEVELAND SCANDAL.: WHAT THREE BUFFALO CLERGYMEN SAY OF GROVER CLEVELAND–WILL ANY CLERGYMAN TESTIFY ON THE OTHER SIDE?, Chicago Daily Tribune, 11 August 1884; THE CHARGES SWEPT AWAY, New-York Times, 12 August, 1884; CORROBORATION.: A PHYSICIAN’S STATEMENT. SEEKING REDRESS. MR. WHITNEY’ Chicago Daily Tribune, 19 September 1884; CLEVELAND.: History of Wicked Maria Halpin; Chicago Daily Tribune, 13 August 1884; PASSING OF MARIA HALPIN; The Atlanta Constitution, 8 February 1902; Lachman, Charles, A Secret Life: The Sex, Lies, and Scandals of President Grover Cleveland, Skyhorse Publishing, 2011; Presidential Election of 1884 Resource Guide, Library of Congress; Nevins, Allan, Grover Cleveland: A Study in Courage, Dodd/Mead, 1934.
September 18, 2013
In 1881, Edward Charles Pickering, director of the Harvard Observatory, had a problem: the volume of data coming into his observatory was exceeding his staff’s ability to analyze it. He also had doubts about his staff’s competence–especially that of his assistant, who Pickering dubbed inefficient at cataloging. So he did what any scientist of the latter 19th century would have done: he fired his male assistant and replaced him with his maid, Williamina Fleming. Fleming proved so adept at computing and copying that she would work at Harvard for 34 years–eventually managing a large staff of assistants.
So began an era in Harvard Observatory history where women—more than 80 during Pickering’s tenure, from 1877 to his death in 1919— worked for the director, computing and cataloging data. Some of these women would produce significant work on their own; some would even earn a certain level of fame among followers of female scientists. But the majority are remembered not individually but collectively, by the moniker Pickering’s Harem.
The less-than-enlightened nickname reflects the status of women at a time when they were–with rare exception–expected to devote their energies to breeding and homemaking or to bettering their odds of attracting a husband. Education for its own sake was uncommon and work outside the home almost unheard of. Contemporary science actually warned against women and education, in the belief that women were too frail to handle the stress. As doctor and Harvard professor Edward Clarke wrote in his 1873 book Sex in Education, “A woman’s body could only handle a limited number of developmental tasks at one time—that girls who spent to much energy developing their minds during puberty would end up with undeveloped or diseased reproductive systems.”
Traditional expectations of women slowly changed; six of the “Seven Sisters” colleges began admitting students between 1865 and 1889 (Mount Holyoke opened its doors in 1837). Upper-class families encouraged their daughters to participate in the sciences, but even though women’s colleges invested more in scientific instruction, they still lagged far behind men’s colleges in access to equipment and funding for research. In a feeble attempt to remedy this inequality, progressive male educators sometimes partnered with women’s institutions.
Edward Pickering was one such progressive thinker–at least when it came to opening up educational opportunities. A native New Englander, he graduated from Harvard in 1865 and taught physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he revolutionized the method of scientific pedagogy by encouraging students to participate in experiments. He also invited Sarah Frances Whiting, an aspiring young female scientist, to attend his lectures and to observe his experiments. Whiting used these experiences as the basis for her own teaching at Wellesley College, just 13 miles from Pickering’s classroom at MIT.
Pickering’s approach toward astronomic techniques was also progressive; instead of relying solely on notes from observations made by telescope, he emphasized examining photographs–a type of observation known today as astrophotography, which uses a camera attached to a telescope to take photos. The human eye, he reasoned, tires with prolonged observation through a telescope, and a photograph can provide a clearer view of the night sky. Moreover, photographs last much longer than bare-eye observations and notes.
Early astrophotography used the technology of the daguerreotype to transfer images from a telescope to a photographic plate. The process was involved and required long exposure time for celestial objects to appear, which frustrated astronomers. Looking for a more efficient method, Richard Maddox revolutionized photography by creating a dry plate method, which unlike the wet plates of earlier techniques, did not have to be used immediately–saving astronomers time by allowing them to use dry plates that had been prepared before the night of observing. Dry plates also allowed for longer exposure times than wet plates (which ran the risk of drying out), providing for greater light accumulation in the photographs. Though the dry plates made the prep work more efficient, their sensitivity to light still lagged behind what astronomers desired. Then, in 1878, Charles Bennett discovered a way to increase the sensitivity to light, by developing them at 32 degrees Celsius. Bennet’s discovery revolutionized astrophotography, making the photographs taken by the telescopes nearly as clear and useful as observations seen with the naked eye.
When Pickering became director of the Harvard Observatory in 1877, he lobbied for the expansion of the observatory’s astrophotography technology, but it wasn’t until the 1880s, when the technology greatly improved, that these changes were truly implemented. The prevalence of photography at the observatory rose markedly, creating a new problem: there was more data than anyone had time to interpret. The work was tedious, duties thought to lend themselves to a cheaper and less-educated workforce thought to be capable of classifying stars rather than observing them: women. By employing his female staff to engage in this work, Pickering certainly made waves in the historically patriarchal realm of academia.
But it’s hard to tout Pickering as a wholly progressive man: by limiting the assistants’ work to largely clerical duties, he reinforced the era’s common assumption that women were cut out for little more than secretarial tasks. These women, referred to as “computers,” were the only way that Pickering could achieve his goal of photographing and cataloging the entire night sky.
All told, more than 80 women worked for Pickering during his tenure at the Harvard Observatory (which extended to 1918), putting in six-day weeks poring over photographs, and earning 25 to 50 cents an hour (half what a man would have been paid). The daily work was largely clerical: some women would reduce the photographs, taking into account things like atmospheric refraction, in order to render the image as clear and unadulterated as possible. Others would classify the stars through comparing the photographs to known catalogs. Others cataloged the photographs themselves, making careful notes of each image’s date of exposure and the region of the sky. The notes were then meticulously copied into tables, which included the star’s location in the sky and its magnitude. It was a grind. As Fleming noted in her diary:
In the Astrophotographic building of the Observatory, 12 women, including myself, are engaged in the care of the photographs…. From day to day my duties at the Observatory are so nearly alike that there will be little to describe outside ordinary routine work of measurement, examination of photographs, and of work involved in the reduction of these observations.
But regardless of the unequal pay and distribution of duties, this work was incredibly important; the data provided the empirical foundations for larger astronomical theory. Pickering allowed some women to make telescopic observations, but this was the exception rather than the rule. Mostly, women were barred from producing real theoretical work and were instead relegated to analyzing and reducing the photographs. These reductions, however, served as the statistical basis for the theoretical work done by others. Chances for great advancement were extremely limited. Often the most a woman could hope for within the Harvard Observatory would be a chance to oversee less-experienced computers. That’s what Williamina Fleming was doing when, after almost 20 years at the observatory, she was appointed Curator of Astronomical Photos.
One of Pickering’s computers, however, would stand out for her contribution to astronomy: Annie Jump Cannon, who devised a system for classifying stars that is still used today. But as an article written in The Woman Citizen‘s June 1924 issue reported: “The traffic policeman on Harvard Square does not recognize her name. The brass and parades are missing. She steps into no polished limousine at the end of the day’s session to be driven by a liveried chauffeur to a marble mansion.”
Cannon was born in Dover, Delaware, on December 11, 1863. Her father, a shipbuilder, had some knowledge of the stars, but it was her mother who passed on her own childhood interest in astronomy. Both parents nourished her love of learning, and in 1880, when she enrolled at Wellesley College, she became one of the first young women from Delaware to go away to college. At Wellesley, she took classes under Whiting, and while doing graduate work there she helped Whiting conduct experiments on x-rays. But when the Harvard Observatory began to gain fame for its photographic research, Cannon transferred to Radcliffe College in order to work with Pickering, beginning in 1896. Pickering and Fleming had been working on a system for classifying stars based on their temperatures; Cannon, adding to work done by fellow computer Antonia Maury, greatly simplified that system, and in 1922, the International Astronomical Union adopted it as the official classification system for stars.
In 1938, two years before Cannon retired and three years before she died, Harvard finally acknowledged her by appointing her the William C. Bond Astronomer. During Pickering’s 42-year tenure at the Harvard Observatory, which ended only a year before he died, in 1919, he received many awards, including the Bruce Medal, the Astronomical Society of the Pacific’s highest honor. Craters on the moon and on Mars are named after him.
And Annie Jump Cannon’s enduring achievement was dubbed the Harvard—not the Cannon—system of spectral classification.
Sources: “Annals of the Astronomical Observatory of Harvard College, Volume XXIV,” on Take Note, An Exploration of Note-Taking in Harvard University Collections, 2012. Accessed September 3, 2013; “Annie Cannon (1863-1914)” on She Is An Astronomer, 2013. Accessed September 9, 2013; “Annie Jump Cannon” on Notable Name Database, 2013. Accessed September 9, 2013; “Brief History of Astrophotography” on McCormick Museum, 2009. Accessed September 18, 213; “The ‘Harvard Computers’” on WAMC, 2013. Accessed September 3, 2013; “The History of Women and Education” on the National Women’s History Museum, 207. Accessed August 19, 2013; Kate M. Tucker. “Friend to the Stars” in The Woman Citizen, June 14, 1924; Keith Lafortune. “Women at the Harvard College Observatory, 1877-1919: ‘Women’s Work,’ The ‘New’ Sociality of Astronomy, and Scientific Labor,” University of Notre Dame, December 2001. Accessed August 19, 2013; Margaret Walton Mayhall. “The Candelabrum” in The Sky. January, 1941; Moira Davison Reynolds. American Women Scientists: 23 Inspiring Biographies, 1900-2000. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 1999; “Williamina Paton Stevens Fleming (1857–1911)” on the Harvard University Library Open Collections Program, 2013. Accessed September 3, 2013.
September 4, 2013
The 1915 marriage of Louis Merillat and Ethel Wynne was straight out of a fairy tale. She was a Chicago beauty from a wealthy family, and he was a two-time All-American West Point cadet, handsome and destined for success.
But a thorn appeared in the form of Helen Van Ness, a Wooster, Ohio, stenographer who claimed that Merillat had committed himself to marry her after a series of visits in the fall of 1913. Merillat, Van Ness claimed, was in breach of contract.
Seeking a “heart balm,” or salve for her wounded pride, Van Ness served Merillat with a lawsuit. No wedding plans had been made, she acknowledged, but the emotional distress caused by her love’s marriage to Ethel Wynne was worth, in the estimation of her lawyers, $20,000.
According to Van Ness, her romance with Merillat had been both passionate and devoted. They met when Merillat was visiting an Ohio aunt whose property was near Van Ness’ home; introduced by a mutual friend, she said, he was instantly smitten with her, and visited regularly through the summer of 1913. Upon his return to West Point, she said, they began to exchange letters, and by Christmas, he had returned to Ohio and proposed.
Her evidence? She told a local paper:
“And here I have a ring,” the girl said. “Here it is. His West Point ring. It’s just about the same as a college fraternity pin. It has the same significance as an engagement ring. It has my birthstone for a setting.”
Van Ness arranged for her engagement to be announced in a Wooster paper, but as winter turned to spring, her connection with Merillat grew weaker.
We were happy and wrote each other many letters. Then something happened and he quit writing. I have always supposed it was parental objection. I always thought things would come out all right, though, until I learned in August that Louis had married a girl in Chicago.
A broken engagement (let alone one broken in such a seemingly cruel fashion) seemed out of character for Merillat. “To meet Louie is to like him,” proclaimed a 1915 West Point yearbook. “His ability to always see the bright side of things, his laugh that is simply contagious, and his enthusiasm which is undeniable—there is no branch of cadet activity that has failed to feel his influence, and a boodle fight without his beaming countenance would be a fiasco.”
“Merry,” as he was known, was lavished with praise in the American Journal of Veterinary Medicine, a publication often featuring Merillat’s father, a prominent Chicago veterinarian:
One could go on writing about Merillat all day and yet not describe his achievements while a cadet at West Point. He has been a corporal and sergeant in the battalion; is a sharpshooter, is captain of the army baseball team, and “All-American” end in football for two years; member of the basketball squad, a wearer of the “A,” and has been prominent in outdoor and indoor athletic meets ever since coming here.
It was Merillat’s football prowess that earned him the most recognition. The breakout star of West Point’s Army teams of 1913 and 1914—teams that included future generals Dwight Eisenhower and Omar Bradley— Merillat was named a first-team All-American each year. In 1913 (the year he became acquainted with Van Ness), Merillat scored 18 points as Army beat a Navy team that had allowed only seven points all season.
He was a hero again in 1914, leading Army to a 9-0 record and once more scoring against Navy in the season’s final game, which the West Point boys won, 20-0.
It was after this season and before his entry into the United States Army that Merillat wed Ethel Wynne—and Helen Van Ness filed suit in Cook County, Illinois.
Lawsuits over the breach of promise to marry were becoming increasingly rare by the 1910s, but they had served an important purpose in the history of American courtship. Initially designed to provide pecuniary compensation to women whose intendeds had stolen their virtue (meaning virginity), so-called heart balm statutes also helped jilted brides hold men accountable for their promises of marriage and helped their families recoup lost investments in wedding planning (and, in some cases, in their future sons-in-law).
Van Ness told a Wooster paper:
“Louis and I were very good friends, and he requested me to wed him. I accepted, read the story of his exploits on the football field with great interest and was very, very happy. I want to see him punished for he certainly didn’t treat me fair.”
Merillat’s account of their relationship differed. He had visited Van Ness only a handful of times, he said, and told her after their Christmas 1914 meeting that they would likely never see each other again. The ring Van Ness said marked their engagement was, according to Merillat, worth $15 and certainly not intended for her. Reported the Oswego Daily Palladium:
On one of his trips to the girl’s home he wore a ring which he purchased as a present for his aunt. He spoke of it to Miss Van Ness, and, according to the statement of the lieutenant today, she “abducted” it, having wished to see it and then kept it. He says he endeavored to get it back, but it was of no use, he said.
Merillat’s friends, the Palladium continued, had warned him about Van Ness and the ring—she might “make use of it,” they suggested, but Merillat brushed the incident off and returned to West Point. He exchanged letters with Van Ness a few times, telling the press they were “of the usual sort.” An oblique reference to Merillat’s epistolary relationships appears in his West Point yearbook profile: “He has exhibited not a hint of predilection for the opposite sex, but a certain daily epistle belies the rumor that he is a woman-hater.”
If the letters referred to in the yearbook were from Van Ness, they made no major impact on Merillat. The correspondence soon slowed and eventually halted by the spring of 1914; he had almost certainly forgotten it by the time he married Wynne.
He was shocked, then, when Van Ness made her accusations public, and even more so when she announced her intent to sue. Merillat and his father hired Clarence Darrow, who would go on to become one of the most formidable attorneys in United States history, and they refused to negotiate with her.
Van Ness’ story made front-page headlines for a week or so—but her claim was eventually dismissed.
Merillat seems to have moved on with his reputation and marriage intact. (His wife’s feelings on the matter are, by modern standards, curiously absent from the record, but they remained married.) He went on to serve in World War I, reaching the rank of captain, and returned to the States in 1918 after being wounded in battle at Avocourt, in northeastern France. In 1925, he played one season for the Canton Bulldogs, an early National Football League team, and invested in sports, later organizing a professional basketball team for the Canton area. He also became a soldier of fortune, eventually supervising the training of French Foreign Legion troops and supervising U.S. soldiers based in Miami during World War II.
Helen Van Ness faded from view, and heart-balm lawsuits became increasingly rare. Legislation designed to eliminate them was proposed in Ohio and Indiana in the late 1920s, with the support of female politicians and activists. Women, they argued, could and should take care of themselves, and breach-of-promise suits perpetuated stereotypes of women as infantile and dependent. Roberta West Smith, an Indiana legislator, told her colleagues that women “do not demand rights, they earn them, and such privileges as these which are abolished in this bill.”
In 1947, Illinois, the state in which Helen Van Ness had sought vindication some 30 years earlier, made its position of heart-balm suits clear:
(740 ILCS 15/3) (from Ch. 40, par. 1803)
Sec. 3. No punitive, exemplary, vindictive or aggravated damages shall be allowed in any action for breach of promise or agreement to marry.>
Some states allow jilted lovers to sue for the costs of canceled weddings, but broken hearts? They’re priceless.
American Journal of Veterinary Medicine, Vol. 10, 1915; “Jilted Stenographer Seeks Redress,” Salt Lake Tribune, Nov. 29, 1911; Lettmaier, Saskia, Broken Engagements: The Action for Breach of Promise of Marriage and the Feminine Ideal, 1800-1940, Oxford University Press, 2010; “Do You Remember Merrillat of Army? He Was a Good One; He Caught Prichard’s Passes and He Was Soldier of Fortune,” Syracuse Herald Journal, Jul. 6, 1948; “SHE SUES ARMY ATHLETE: Girl Claims Lieut. Merillat Jilted Her and Asks $20,000; Miss Van Ness, of Ohio, Says Officer Wed Another,” Washington Post, Nov. 11, 1915; “Chicago Football Star West Point Graduate,” Chicago Daily Tribune, May 31, 1915; “NEVER PROMISED TO WED GIRL,” Oswego Daily Palladium, Nov. 24, 1915.
August 28, 2013
Early in the afternoon of July 7, 1865, Mary Surratt entered the courtyard of the Old Arsenal Prison in Washington, D.C. Behind her filed three other who had plotted to kill President Abraham Lincoln. A sweltering sun beat down on four freshly dug graves and four pine coffins. Only the day before, Surratt had learned that she would be the first woman to be executed by the United States government.
Veiled and dressed in black, she swooned after a few steps. Two soldiers and two priests helped her to the gallows. The hangman bound her arms and legs. She complained that the ropes chafed. They would not hurt long, he replied.
As the 42-year-old widow listened to her jailer read her death sentence, her younger son, the Confederate spy John Surratt, was hiding at a Catholic priest’s residence in a village northeast of Montreal. The federal government had offered $25,000 for his capture.
Mary and John Surratt were America’s most famous mother-son criminal partnership until Ma Barker’s boys shot up the Midwest some 60 years later. Many denounced her as the temptress who, in President Andrew Johnson’s words, “kept the nest that hatched the egg” of assassination. Others insisted she was the innocent victim of the national hysteria that followed Lincoln’s death. And some despised John as a coward who left his mother to die for his crimes.
Both were guilty of plotting against the president.
She was born Mary Jenkins in the early 1823 and spent most of her life in Prince George’s County, Maryland, a tobacco-growing region east and south of Washington that had a long tradition of slavery. During several years in a Catholic boarding school, she converted to that faith. As a teenager, she married a Prince George’s man named John Surratt, who was ten years her senior.
After failing at farming, the Surratts built a crossroads tavern, then added carriage and blacksmith shops and accumulated a half-dozen slaves. John became the postmaster—an employee of the federal government—and gave his name to Surrattsville. Mary increasingly managed the business as he drank more and more. When he died, in 1862, she became the proprietor in name as well.
As the Civil War raged, she and her family remained proudly loyal to the South. Her older son, Isaac, joined the Confederate Army in Texas. Her younger son, John Jr., only 18, joined the Confederate secret service and succeeded his father as postmaster. Her daughter, Anna, helped with the tavern, which became a key communications link for Confederate spies after John—like other postmasters in Southern Maryland—began inserting northbound messages from Richmond spymasters into the U.S. mail.
Special messages and cash required hand delivery, and John was adept at clandestine work. “I devised various ways to carry the messages,” he recalled after the war, “sometimes in the heel of my boots, sometimes between the planks of the buggy.” He dismissed the federals he evaded as a “stupid set of detectives” with “no idea whatever how to search a man.”
John loved the game. “It was a fascinating life to me,” he said. “It seemed as if I could not do too much nor run too great a risk.” Federal forces detained him in November 1863, for undocumented reasons, but only for a few days. John’s adventures were no secret to his mother, whose tavern served Confederate agents and couriers every day.
In the fall of 1864, John Wilkes Booth, handsome scion of America’s leading theater family, began connecting with Confederate agents in Southern Maryland. Soon he met with John Surratt and confided a daring plan to kidnap Lincoln and exchange the president for Confederate prisoners of war. Perhaps, he implied, Lincoln might even be bartered for an honorable peace between North and South.
At the same time, Mary leased her tavern to a neighbor and opened a boarding house in Washington. She may have had economic reasons for the move, but her new home was well located to aid secret activities. Like her tavern, her boarding house became a way station for Confederate agents.
John Surratt and Booth enlisted six men to help them. Most notable was David Herold, who could help with escape routes; George Atzerodt, who could manage the inevitable crossing of the Potomac River, and Lewis Powell, who went by the name Lewis Paine, was a Confederate Army veteran with a taste for violence. He was taken on to subdue the towering and still-strong president.
Through the first three months of 1865, Mary came to know the conspirators as guests in her home. Her favorite was Booth, who came by most frequently, sometimes just to see her. They made an odd pair—the dashing young actor and the middle-aged landlady, often described as stout, who attended daily Mass—but they shared a fiery commitment to the Southern cause in the face of repeated battlefield defeats.
On March 17, Booth, John Surratt and their men armed themselves and set out to kidnap Lincoln as he traveled to a performance for wounded soldiers at a hospital on the outskirts of Washington. When Lincoln’s schedule changed and put him elsewhere, they retreated to Mary’s house, boiling with frustration.
They gathered for a second try in early April—except this time, Booth dropped any pretense of kidnapping. The goal was to murder the president and at least three other Northern leaders: Vice President Andrew Johnson, Secretary of State William Seward and General Ulysses Grant.
Booth enacted his part in the plot on the night of April 14, when he shot Lincoln during a performance at Ford’s Theater. He and Herold fled to Southern Maryland, with Booth aching with a broken leg he suffered when he leapt from the president’s box to the Ford’s stage. At Seward’s house in Washington, Paine attacked the secretary of state, his two sons and an army nurse, leaving all four grievously injured before he made his escape. Atzerodt, assigned to kill Johnson, lost his nerve while drinking at the vice president’s hotel and slunk into the night. Grant’s unexpected departure from Washington that afternoon foiled any attempt on his life.
Some two weeks before the assassination, John Surratt had left Washington on a mission to Richmond. From there, he carried Confederate messages to Montreal, moving on to Elmira, New York, where he investigated the prospects for an uprising at a large prison camp. He would always claim that on the evening of April 14, he was far away from Washington.
Within five hours of the attacks on Lincoln and Seward, federal investigators followed a tip to Mary Surratt’s boarding house. Under questioning, she revealed nothing. When agents returned two days later, her vague responses confounded them again—until a bedraggled Lewis Paine stumbled to her door. Both he and she were arrested. They would never know freedom again. Atzerodt was captured on April 20 in northwest Maryland; Herold surrendered on April 26, when Union troops surrounded the barn in Virginia where he and Booth had sought refuge. Booth took a bullet in the neck and died of the wound.
By then the federal authorities had four others behind bars: Samuel Arnold and Michael O’Laughlen, accused of being part of the kidnapping scheme; a Ford’s stagehand named Edman Spangler, accused of aiding Booth’s flight, and Samuel Mudd, the doctor who treated Booth’s broken leg as the assassin made his way through Southern Maryland to Virginia. Barely three weeks after the first arrests, all eight of the conspirators went on trial. Four of them—the more fortunate four—would go to prison.
With a Confederate army still under arms in Texas, the government insisted that a state of war justified trial before a commission of nine Union Army officers. Public attention focused on the four who were accused of taking part in the assassination—most intensely on Mary Surratt, the lone woman among them.
Prosecutors highlighted her close ties to Booth and her actions on April 14. On that day, she met Booth at her boarding house and then rode to Surrattsville, where she told the tavern manager to expect visitors that night and to give them whiskey and rifles that had been hidden for the kidnapping attempt a few weeks before. When she returned home, she met with Booth again a scant hour before the assassination. That night, Booth and Herold rode to Surrattsville and collected the guns and whiskey. By aiding their getaway, the prosecution contended, Mary Surratt showed foreknowledge of the crime.
The nine commissioners found her guilty of abetting, concealing and assisting the conspirators, but differed over her sentence. They recommended to President Johnson that she be executed, but five of the nine urged him to grant clemency because of her sex and age.
With a black veil concealing her face throughout the trial, Mary became a blank screen on which the public could project its attitudes. Was she an innocent woman of piety suffering for her son’s crimes, or was she a scheming, vengeful harpy? Johnson entertained no doubts. He ignored last-minute appeals to spare her life, and sent her to the gallows with Herold, Paine and Atzerodt.
John Surratt stayed in Canada while his mother stood trial. That September he assumed the name of John McCarty, dyed his hair and put on some face makeup (tricks he might have learned from Booth) and boarded a mail ship for Britain. In Liverpool, he hid at another Catholic church, then moved through France to Italy. In early December, he enlisted as John Watson in the Papal Zouaves in Rome. The zouaves’ mission was to resist Giuseppe Garibaldi’s crusade to create an Italian republic.
But in Rome, John Surratt’s luck ran dry. In April 1866, a fellow zouave from Baltimore, who may well have followed him in pursuit of the reward money, told American officials of Surratt’s real identity. American and papal bureaucracies took seven months to work out the diplomacy niceties, but he was finally arrested in early November—when he managed a last escape, this time to Naples, whence he made his way to Egypt under the name Walters.
On November 23, 1866, John stepped off the steamship Tripoli in Alexandria and into the harbor’s quarantine hall. Four days later, American officials arrested him. A U.S. warship carried him to Washington in chains. He arrived on February 18, 1867, still wearing his zouave uniform.
His trial, in the summer of 1867, was as sensational as his mother’s and involved much of the same evidence. But one crucial factor had changed: With the war over, he faced a civil jury, not a military commission. Some jurors hailed from the South or were Southern sympathizers.
The defense could not deny John’s deep involvement with Booth but insisted that he was not in Washington on the day of the assassination. Several tailors from Elmira testified that they saw the defendant in Elmira on April 14, wearing a distinctive jacket. Thirteen prosecution witnesses countered that they saw him in Washington that day, and prosecutors brandished railroad timetables showing John could have traveled from Elmira to Washington to join the plot, then fled to Canada.
Two months of trial produced a hung jury: eight votes for acquittal and four for conviction. When prosecution blunders prevented a retrial, John walked free.
Surefooted in wartime, John struggled in the postwar world. He made a six-month journey to South America. He taught school. He tried public lecturing, boasting of wartime exploits but denying a role in the Lincoln assassination, but gave that up, too. In the 1870s, he joined the Baltimore Steam Packet Company, a Chesapeake Bay shipping line. More than forty years later, he retired as its general freight agent and auditor.
When John Surratt died, at age 72, in April 1916, a new war engulfed the world because an assassin had murdered Austrian Archduke Ferdinand two years before. Fifty-one years after Lincoln’s murder, few noted the passing of the last surviving member of America’s family of conspirators.
Editor’s Note, August 29, 2013: Thank you to commenter Jenn for clarifying that John Surratt was found not guilty of plotting to assassinate Lincoln. We’ve changed the headline to reflect that.
David O. Stewart has written many historical books and articles. His first novel, The Lincoln Deception, about unraveling the John Wilkes Booth conspiracy, was released today and is now available for purchase.
Andrew C.A. Jampoler, The Last Lincoln Conspirator: John Surratt’s Flight from the Gallows, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Md., 2008; Michael W. Kaufman, American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies, Random House, New York, 2005; Kate Clifford Larson, The Assassin’s Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Lincoln Basic Books, New York, 2008; Edward Steers, Jr., Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln;University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, 2001; William A. Tidwell, James O. Hall and David Winfred Gaddy, Come Retribution: The Confederate Secret Service and the Assassination of Lincoln, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 1988.
August 13, 2013
Consuelo Vanderbilt’s wedding day had finally arrived, and all of New York (and then some) was aflutter. Crowds lined Fifth Avenue, hoping to catch a glimpse of the bride on her way to St. Thomas Episcopal Church. She was quite possibly the most celebrated of all the young heiresses who captured the attention of Gilded Age Americans, and her wedding was the peak of a trend that had, in recent decades, taken the world by storm: American girls, born to the richest men in the country, marrying British gentlemen with titles and centuries of noble lineage behind them.
Consuelo’s catch was considered one of the finest—Charles Spencer-Churchill, the future Ninth Duke of Marlborough, who stood to become lord of Blenheim, an estate second only to Buckingham Palace. The bride, already considered American royalty, would become a duchess, bestowing upon her family the highest social standing (for which her mother, Alva, who was often snubbed by “old New York”, and who viewed her husband’s money as gauche, was desperate).
And yet on November 6, 1895, the bride was less than thrilled:
I spent the morning of my wedding day in tears and alone; no one came near me. A footman had been posted at the door of my apartment and not even my governess was admitted. Like an automaton I donned the lovely lingerie with its real lace and the white silk stockings and shoes…. I felt cold and numb as I went down to meet my father and the bridesmaids who were waiting for me.
Conseulo Vanderbilt loved another—a rich other, but an American without a title or an English country estate. But her marriage to Marlborough was non-negotiable.
Beginning in the 1870s, American girls with money had been flocking to Britain in droves, ready to exchange railroad cash and mining stocks for the right to call themselves “Lady.” (“Downton Abbey” fans will surely recognize Cora Crawley as one of their ilk.) The appeal was clear. The heiresses, unlikely to be admitted to the highest ranks of New York society, would gain entry to an elite social world, and who needed Mrs. Astor’s drawing room when she could keep company with HRH the Prince of Wales?
And Britain’s upper crust would get a much-needed infusion of cash. For a British gentleman to work for money was unthinkable. But by the end of the 19th century it cost more to run a country estate than the estate could make for itself, and the great houses slid dangerously close to disrepair. By marrying a Vanderbilt or a Whitney, a future duke could ensure not just the survival of his family’s land and name, but also a life enhanced by easy access to money, something he certainly wouldn’t get if he married a peer.
By 1895 (a year in which America sent nine daughters to the peerage), the formula had coalesced into a relatively simple process. Mothers and their daughters would visit London for the social season, relying upon friends and relatives who had already made British matches to make introductions to eligible young men. Depending on the fortunes of the girl in question, several offers would be fielded, and her parents, weighing social and financial investments and returns, would make a selection. So such marriages were basically transactional alliances. Even in 1874, the union of Jennie Jerome and Lord Randolph Churchill—which would give the Western world both Winston Churchill and a great deal to talk about—would reflect the beginnings of the trend.
Born in Brooklyn in 1854, dark-haired Jennie captivated Lord Randolph, son of the seventh Duke of Marlborough, with startling suddenness. Within three days of their initial meeting, Jennie and Randolph announced their plans to marry.
Neither the Jeromes nor the Randolphs were thrilled. Jennie’s parents thought Lord Randolph, in proposing to their daughter before consulting with them, was in serious breach of etiquette. Not to mention that, as a second son, he wouldn’t inherit his father’s title.
The Randolphs were aghast at their son’s choice of an American bride from a family no one knew anything about, and the more they learned about the Jeromes, the more they disliked the match. Leonard Jerome, Jennie’s father, was a flamboyant speculator in stocks and a noted chaser of comely opera singers; her mother, Clara, was occasionally accused of having Iroquois ancestry. Despite owning property in the right part of town (the Jerome Mansion stood at the corner of 26th Street and Madison Avenue), the Jeromes were not considered worthy of the upper echelons of New York society.
Jerome, the duke wrote to his lovestruck son, “drives about six and eight horses in New York (one may take this as an indication of what the man is).” Despite his daughter’s charms, he was a person “no man in his sense could think respectable.”
The Jeromes, though, had two advantages that could not be overlooked. The first was a personal endorsement of the match by Edward, Prince of Wales, who had met Jennie in social settings and liked her. The second was pecuniary.
Randolph had no money of his own, and the measly allowance his father provided would not have been enough for the couple to live on. The Jeromes would be aligning themselves with one of Britain’s most noble families, and for that they were expected to pay handsomely. Leonard Jerome came up with 50,000 pounds plus a 1,000-pound yearly allowance for Jennie (something unheard-of in British families), and the deal was done. In April 1874, Jennie and Randolph were married.
Seven months after the wedding, Lady Randolph gave birth to Winston. (She claimed a fall had induced premature labor, but the baby appeared full-term.) A second followed in 1880, though motherhood did not seem to have slowed Jennie’s quest for excitement. She and Randolph both had extramarital affairs (she, it was rumored, with the Prince of Wales, even as she remained close with Princess Alexandra, his wife), though they remained married until his death, in 1895. (The jury is still out on whether he died of syphilis contracted during extracurricular activities.)
Jennie came to have great influence over the political careers of her husband and son, and remained a force on the London social scene into the 20th century. She also came to represent what the British saw as the most vital kind of American girl—bright, intelligent and a bit headstrong. When Jennie’s essay “American Women in Europe” was published in the Pall Mall Magazine in 1903, she asserted, “the old prejudices against them, which mostly arose out of ignorance, have been removed, and American women are now appreciated as they deserve.” They were beautiful (Jennie Chamberlain, an heiress from Cleveland, so charmed the Prince of Wales he followed her from house party to house party during one mid-1880s social season), well-dressed (they could afford it) and worldly in a way their English counterparts were not. As Jennie Churchill wrote:
They are better read, and have generally traveled before they make their appearance in the world. Whereas a whole family of English girls are educated by a more or less incompetent governess, the American girl in the same condition of life will begin from her earliest age with the best professors…by the time she is eighteen she is able to assert her views on most things and her independence in all.
Despite their joie de vivre, not all American brides were as adaptable as Lady Randolph, and their marriages not as successful. The Marlborough-Vanderbilt match, for one, was significantly less harmonious.
Alva Vanderbilt determined early on that only a noble husband would be worthy of her daughter. She and a team of governesses managed Consuelo’s upbringing in New York and Newport, Rhode Island, where the heiress studied French, music and other disciplines a lady might need as a European hostess. Consuelo was meek, deferring to her mother on most matters. Before the wedding she was described by the Chicago Tribune as having “ all the naive frankness of a child,” an affectation that may have endeared her to the American public, but would be no match for the heir to Blenheim. After they met at the home of Minnie Paget (nee Stevens), a minor American heiress who acted as a sort of matchmaker, Alva went to work ensuring the union would take place. It was settled that the groom would receive $2.5 million in shares of stock owned by Consuelo’s father, who would also agree to guarantee the yearly sum of $100,000 to each half of the couple.
“Sunny,” as the future duke was known, made little effort to hide his reasons for favoring an American bride; Blenheim Palace needed repairs his family couldn’t afford. After the wedding (it is rumored that in the carriage ride after the ceremony, Sunny coldly informed Consuelo of the lover waiting for him in England) he went about spending her dowry restoring the family seat to glory.
Consuelo, for her part, was less than pleased with her new home:
Our own rooms, which faced east, were being redecorated, so we spent the first three months in a cold and cheerless apartment looking north. They were ugly, depressing rooms, devoid of the beauty and comforts my own home had provided.
Unlike her previous American residences, Blenheim lacked indoor plumbing, and many of the rooms were drafty. Once installed there, some 65 miles from London, Consuelo would travel little until the next social season (she was lucky, though; some American brides wound up on estates in the North of England, where getting to the capital more than once a year was unthinkable), and in the drawing room she was forced to answer questions nightly about whether she was yet in the family way. If Consuelo failed to produce an heir, the dukedom would pass to Winston Churchill (Lady Randolph’s son), something the current duchess of Marlborough was loath to see happen.
Consuelo and Sunny’s relationship deteriorated. He returned to the womanizing he’d done before their marriage, and she looked elsewhere for comfort, engaging for a time in a relationship with her husband’s cousin, the Hon. Reginald Fellowes. These dalliances were not enough to keep the Marlboroughs happy, and in 1906, barely ten years after their wedding, they separated, divorcing in 1921.
If the Vanderbilt-Marlborough marriage was the high point of the American ascent to the noble realm, it was also the beginning of a backlash. Sunny’s courtship of Consuelo was seen as almost mercenary, and the men who followed him in the hunt for an heiress looked even worse. When Alice Thaw, daughter of a Pittsburgh railroad magnate, agreed to marry the earl of Yarmouth in 1903, she hardly could have guessed that on the morning of her wedding the groom would be arrested for failure to pay outstanding debts and that she would have to wait at the church while her intended and her father renegotiated her dowry.
American fathers, too, began to doubt the necessity of having a duchess in the family. Frank Work, whose daughter Frances’ marriage to James Burke Roche, Baron Fermoy, would end with Frances accusing her husband of desertion, went on record as strongly opposing the practice of trading hard-earned money for louche husbands with impressive names. His 1911 obituary, printed in the New-York Tribune, quoted from an earlier interview:
It’s time this international marrying came to a stop for our American girls are ruining our own country by it. As fast as our honorable, hard working men can earn this money their daughters take it and toss it across the ocean. And for what? For the the purpose of a title and the privilege of paying the debts of so-called noblemen! If I had anything to say about it, I’d make an international marriage a hanging offense.
Ideal marriages, wealthy fathers thought, were like the 1896 match between Gertrude Vanderbilt and Henry Payne Whitney, wherein American money stayed put and even had the chance to multiply.
Much of the Gilded Age matchmaking that united the two nations occurred under the reign of Edward VII, who as Prince of Wales encouraged social merriment equal to that of his mother Queen Victoria’s sobriety. When Edward died, in 1910, the throne passed to his son George V, who, along with his British-bred wife, Mary, curtailed the excess that had characterized his father’s leadership of Britain’s leisure class. Nightly private parties throughout a social season began to seem vulgar as Europe moved closer to war. In New York, Newport and Chicago, the likes of Caroline Astor began to cede social power to the nouveaux riche they had once snubbed, and as the American economy became the domain of men like J.P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie, their daughters had little reason to spend their inheritances restoring 17th-century castles when they could stay home and be treated as royalty by the press and the public.
Though American girls quit looking for husbands across the pond, the influence of the ones who did become duchesses and baronesses left an indelible mark on the British landscape. American women financed the repair and restoration of once-shabby estates like Blenheim and Wrotham Park, backed political ambitions (Mary Leiter, a department-store heiress from Chicago, used her father’s money to help her husband, George Curzon, become the viceroy of India), and, in the case of Jennie Jerome, gave birth to children who would lead Britain squarely into the 20th century.
The women, too, were changed. Jennie Jerome, after her husband’s death, married two more Englishmen (one of them younger than her son Winston), and other American girls who divorced or outlived their first husbands stayed on in their adoptive country, occasionally marrying other peers and tending to the political and marital careers of their children.
After she divorced Sunny, Consuelo Vanderbilt married Lt. Jacques Balsan, a French balloonist and airplane pilot, and the two would remain together until his death in 1956, living primarily in a château 50 miles from Paris and, later, a massive Palm Beach estate Consuelo called Casa Alva, in honor of her mother.
Consuelo’s autobiography, The Glitter and the Gold, appeared in 1953 and detailed just how miserable she’d been as the Duchess of Marlborough. But perhaps, during her time as a peer of the realm, something about that life took hold of Consuelo and never quite let go. She died on Long Island in 1964, having asked her family to secure her a final resting place at Blenheim.
Balsan, Consuelo, The Glitter and the Gold, 1953; Lady Randolph Churchill, “American Women in Europe,” Nash’s Pall Mall Magazine, 1903; DePew, Chauncey, Titled Americans 1890: A List of American Ladies Who Have Married Foreigners of Rank; MacColl, Gail, and Wallace, Carol McD., To Marry an English Lord, Workman Publishing, 1989; Sebba, Anne, American Jennie: The Remarkable Life of Lady Randolph Churchill, W.W. Norton & Company, 2007; Cannadine, David, The Rise and Fall of the British Aristocracy, Vintage, 1999; Lovell, Mary S., The Churchills, Little Brown, 2011; Stuart, Amanda Mackenzie, Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt: The Story of a Daughter and Mother in the Gilded Age, Harper Perennial, 2005; “Frank Work Dead at 92”, New-York Tribune, 17 March 1911; “The Marriage of Marlborough and Vanderbilt,” Chicago Daily Tribune, 27 October 1895; “She is Now a Duchess,” New York Times, 7 November 1895.