July 28, 1866 The President’s Sculptor

Every year, millions of visitors to the Rotunda of the Capitol stop to admire the work. Few possess so much as the foggiest notion that the artist, was an 18-year-old girl.

She was about 5-feet tall when her parents moved to Washington, a mere wraith of a girl of 14 summers, as yet unable to tip the scales at 90 pounds.    Her father Robert was a surveyor, come to the capital for a job in the cartography office.

Her brother Robert headed south to Arkansas, to join with Woodruff’s Battery in service to the Confederate Army.  The year was 1861.  The District of Columbia was the capital in name only, of a nation at war with itself.

The elder Robert took ill and times got tough for the Ream family.  Despite her diminutive stature, Lavinia Ellen, “Vinnie“ to friends and family, took a job to help with family finances.  She was working in the dead letter office at the post office, one of the first women ever hired by the federal government.

Missouri Congressman James Rollins introduced Vinnie to sculptor Clark Mills in 1863, the artist who produced that statue of President Andrew Jackson, the one we’ve heard so much about recently, there in Lafayette square.

Washington, DC - June 02, 2018: Andrew Jackson's statue in Lafay
Washington, DC – June 02, 2018: Andrew Jackson’s statue in Lafayette Square and the White House.

The artist was amused when the young girl remarked “I can do that myself” and handed her a pail of clay with an invitation to try.  He was delighted when she returned a month later, this time with a surprisingly good likeness of an Indian Chieftain.  It wasn’t long before she became Mills’ apprentice.

Stories spread concerning the remarkable abilities of this young artist.  Vinnie’s talents blossomed and she left the post office to pursue her art, full time.  Senators and Members of Congress were her subjects.  Her faithful likeness of the glowering visage of that fierce opponent of slavery Thaddeus Stevens, the Pennsylvania Republican Congressman who would one day lead the impeachment effort against President Andrew Johnson, earned her an important and powerful ally.

It must have been an exciting time for a young girl in Washington DC, the horse-drawn ambulances, the ever-present blue-clad soldiers and more than anything, the raw-boned figure of the President of the United States, his carriage invariably accompanied by a squadron of brightly caparisoned, mounted Army officers.  Vinnie was interested in the figure of Abraham Lincoln.  The desire to sculpt the man’s likeness blossomed to an obsession as the titanic weight of office and crushing grief following the death of Lincoln’s 12-year-old son Willy, seemingly etched themselves across the President’s face.

Raised as she was on the western prairies of Wisconsin, Kansas, and Missouri, Vinnie was unacquainted with the “way things were done” in the nation’s capital.   Petite, quick with a smile and not a little ambitious, she could often get to “yes” where others hadn’t so much as a chance.

So it was in 1864, Vinnie was granted permission which would have been denied, to an older artist.  She herself explained “Lincoln had been painted and modeled before, and when friends of mine first asked him to sit for me he dismissed them wearily until he was told that I was but an ambitious girl, poor and obscure. … Had I been the greatest sculptor in the world I am sure that I would have been refused.”

Every day for five months, Vinnie Ream had a private half-hour with the President of the United States, the two speaking but infrequently as she set her hands about the work.  She was performing the final touches on the bust you see below, the morning of April 14, 1865.  General Robert. E. Lee had surrendered to General Ulysses Grant only five days earlier.  The most catastrophic war in American history was winding to a close.  That night, the President planned a welcome break from the cares of office, at a place called Ford’s theater.

Vinnie_Ream_with_her_bust_of_Abraham_Lincoln

A nation was stunned following the Lincoln assassination.  Vinnie herself, prostrate at the death of her friend and hero.

There arose a movement in Congress, to honor the Great Man with a full-length statue, to be placed in the Rotunda of the Capitol.  A competition would be held, to determine the artist.  Washington was then as it is now, but Vinnie had learned a political lesson or two since those naive days of five years earlier.  The petition attesting to her talents and worthiness for the project was signed by Andrew Johnson, Ulysses Grant, 31 Senators and 110 members of the House of Representatives.

SAAM-1917.11.1_1Then as now, Washington was a “Swamp” and a cesspit for the venal and self-interested. Now grown to an attractive young woman, Vinnie Ream was not without critics.  Kansas Senator Edmund Gibson Ross boarded with the Ream family during Johnson’s impeachment trial and cast the one vote absolving the President of “High Crimes and Misdemeanors”.

Imagine how THAT must’ve sounded.

There were sleazy insinuations that she was a “lobbyist” or even a “Public Woman” (prostitute).

Newspaper columnist Mrs. Jane Grey Swisshelm sniffed about how Vinnie “carries the day” with members of Congress: “Miss .… Ream … is a young girl of about twenty who has been studying her art for a few months, never made a statue, has some plaster busts on exhibition, including her own, minus clothing to the waist, has a pretty face, long dark curls and plenty of them. … [She] sees members at their lodgings or in the reception room at the Capitol, urges her claims fluently and confidently, sits in the galleries in a conspicuous position and in her most bewitching dress, while those claims are being discussed on the floor, and nods and smiles as a member rises…

e05a173b8e8f1c1360a5e523c3ec3604One editor had the last word, however, printing Swisshelm’s column under the headline “A Homely Woman’s Opinion of a Pretty One.”

Ouch.

On this day in 1866, Vinnie Ream was awarded by vote of Congress, the commission to create a full-size statue of Abraham Lincoln. She was 18 years old, the first woman to receive a such a commission as an artist and the youngest of either sex, to create a statue for the United States government.

Even then, Vinnie was not without detractors.  Michigan Senator Jacob Merritt Howard remarked, “Having in view the youth and inexperience of Miss Ream, and I will go further, and say, having in view her sex, I shall expect a complete failure in the execution of this work.”

Miss Lavinia Ream survived an effort to have her removed from her own studio by a vindictive House of Representatives, to enjoy the last word.  Her depiction of the Great Emancipator sculpted from a flawless block of Carrara marble stands in the Rotunda of the Capitol where it is seen by millions of visitors, from that day to this.

Ream-Lincoln

 

 

March 14, 1964 Skyline Lounge

Five musicians were shocked to realize the shooter was the man they had worked for in those earlier months at that burned out dive bar.  The Skyline Lounge.

Jacob Leon Rubenstein was a problem child, growing up on the west side of Chicago. Marked a juvenile delinquent in his adolescence, Rubenstein was arrested for truancy at age 11, eventually skipping enough school to spend time at the Institute of Juvenile Research.

As with Peanuts cartoonist Charles M Shulz, those who knew Jacob Rubenstein called him “Sparky”. Some say the nickname came from a resemblance to “Sparkplug”, the old nag with the patchwork blanket from the Snuffy Smith cartoon strip.4924951094_21a71fd652_bRubenstein hated the nickname and was quick to fight anyone who called him that. It may have been that hot temper, that made the name stick.

Rubinstein spent the early 1940s at racetracks in Chicago and California, until being drafted into the Army Air Forces, in 1943. Honorably discharged in 1946, he returned to Chicago before moving to Dallas, the following year.

Rubenstein managed a seedy collection of Dallas nightclubs and strip joints, featuring such fine ladies as “Candy Barr” and “Chris Colt and her ’45’s”.  Somewhere along the line, Rubinstein shortened his name to “Ruby”.g2011m11_26Ruby was a low-rent gangster, involved in typical underworld activities like gambling, narcotics and prostitution. There were rumored associations with Mafia boss Santo Trafficante.

Not-so-honest members of the Dallas police force knew that Ruby was always good for free booze, free prostitutes, and other favors.

This was not a good guy.7fdd7be055bca87dc57f10f527755c4eToday, you may know Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson and Robbie Robertson as musicians who played with Bob Dylan in 1965, later going on the road as “The Band” and performing such rock & roll standards as “The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down”, “Up on Cripple Creek” and “The Weight”.

In the early days, these guys were playing with a Canadian/American rocker named Ronnie Hawkins.  The joints these guys played were so rough they performed with blackjacks, hidden in special pockets sewn into their coats.   Robertson writes in a new memoir:  “We bought small derringer pistols, switchblades, black-jacks, brass knuckles, even tear-gas pens – whatever could be easily concealed and quickly accessed”.

In 1963, the group played a week in one “burnt out, blown up” dump in Fort Worth.  It was an enormous venue with no one there that first night, save for two couples, a pair of drunk waiters and a one-armed go-go dancer.  The band had yet to finish the first set when a fight broke out.  Some sort of weapon came out and a man was tear-gassed at point blank range.   Coughing and choking the band played on for no one, with teargas wafting across the stage and faces wet with tears.r1274_fea_robbie_b-6159b441-955d-4f3a-bcef-1a4d8f090b35Part of the roof had blown off this joint.  Either that or it burned off, depending on which version you believed.  Jack, the club owner, tore off the rest of it and kept the insurance money, calling this fine establishment, the “Skyline Lounge”.

Jack felt no need to pay for security, not even with the roof gone.  Jaws grinding from a seemingly endless appetite for “uppers”, Jack said “Boys, this building ain’t exactly secure enough for you to leave your musical equipment unattended.” Band members were told they’d best stay overnight, with guns, lest anyone come over the wall to steal their equipment.

Problem solved.

That November, John Fitzgerald Kennedy came to Dallas.  The Presidential motorcade departing Love Field the morning of November 22.  The open car  with the President in the back with First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy.  Texas Governor and First Lady John and Idanell “Nellie” Connally, in the jump seats.   At 12:29, the Presidential limousine executed a right turn from Main Street onto Houston Street and entered Dealey Plaza. Kennedy Assassination: Kennedy in CarA minute later, shots rang out.

The President of the United States was shot, the first bullet striking the upper back and exiting his throat.  With mouth open in anguish and clenched fists rising to his face and neck, the stricken man turned to his wife as his head exploded, the second shot tearing into the right side of his skull.  The First Lady, splattered with the blood and brains of her husband and now screaming, crawled onto the trunk as Secret Service Agent Clint Hill scrambled on board the car, now speeding away.  Somewhere along the line, Governor Connally was also shot.  A spectator was wounded by flying debris.

The nation was stunned.  It was the first Presidential assassination in over a half-century. I was 5 at the time and remember that day, like it was just last week.

Abraham Zapruder Film, European/French Copy, HD, stabilized and slow Motioned

An hour after the shooting, a former marine and a rare defector to the Soviet Union named Lee Harvey Oswald killed Dallas police officer J.D. Tippit, who had stopped him for questioning. Thirty minutes later, Oswald was arrested in a movie theater.

By Sunday, November 24, Oswald was formally charged with the murders of President John F. Kennedy and Dallas police officer J. D. Tippit.  He was taken to the basement of Dallas police headquarters, where an armored car waited to transport the prisoner to a more secure county jail. The scene was crowded with press and police.

Half the country watched on live television as a figure came out of the crowd, firing a single bullet from a .38 revolver into the belly of Lee Harvey Oswald. Lee-Harvey-Oswald-Is-Shot-By-Jack-Ruby-November-24-1963Five musicians were shocked to realize the shooter was the man they had worked for in those earlier months at that burned out dive bar.  The Skyline Lounge.

Lee Harvey Oswald was taken unconscious to Parkland Memorial Hospital.  The same hospital in which the president had died, two days earlier.  Within two hours he too, was dead.

On March 14, 1964, Jack Ruby was sentenced to death in the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned Ruby’s conviction in October 1966, on the grounds that the trial should have taken place in a different county than that in which his high profile crime, had taken place.  Ruby died of lung cancer the following January, while awaiting retrial.ea92d9a35a5e2889c5114510117ed161The Warren Commission found no evidence linking Jack Ruby’s murder of Lee Harvey Oswald, to any broader conspiracy to assassinate the President.  What became of Jacob Leon “Sparky” Rubenstein’s Skyline Lounge, is unknown to this writer.

May 2, 1958 The Boy who Made the Stars

The Lancaster Ohio High School junior’s project got a “B Minus”.  He was offended.  A buddy had taped five leaves to a white sheet of paper. His project received an “A”.

The first distinctly American flag featured the Red Ensign of the United Kingdom of Great Britain, emblazoned with the words “Liberty and Union”, a solemn declaration that the colonies would stick together, and colonist’s rights as British citizens, would not be abridged. First raised above the town square of Taunton Massachusetts on October 19, 1774, the Taunton Flag flies above the “Silver City”, to this day.

The first national flag of the fledgling nation was designed by Philadelphia milliner Margaret Manny, featuring the Union Jack and alternating red and white stripes, symbolizing the thirteen original colonies.  The “Continental Colors” were first raised on December 3, 1775 above the United States Navy’s first flagship USS Alfred along with the “Don’t Tread on Me” of the Gadsden flag, the personal ensign of the Navy’s first Commodore, Esek Hopkins.

Boston loyalists had just received copies of a conciliatory speech delivered by King George III when Manny’s “Grand Union” was raised above the siege of Boston on January 2, 1776.  British observers took the display to be a sign of surrender, leading many to think of a more uniquely American banner.

Grand Union Flag

History fades into mythology during the confusion of early 1776, when the Continental Congress authorized the Commander-in-Chief $50,000 to acquire “sundry articles for use in the continental army,” including “colours.” According to legend, Washington traveled with English born merchant and founding father Robert Morris to the Philadelphia upholstery shop of George and Elizabeth Ross, with a design for thirteen red and white stripes and as many six-pointed stars, on a field of blue.

“Betsy” Ross showed the group how, by folding in a certain way, a five-point star could be fashioned with a single cut of her shears.  The first “Star Spangled banner”, was born.

RossBetsy

Surprisingly, there exists no “official” symbolism behind the Red, White and Blue.  In 1782, the Congress of the Confederation chose those same colors for the Great Seal of the United States describing the meaning of each, as follows:

  • Red: signifying Valor and hardiness,
  • White: Purity and innocence
  • Blue: Vigilance, perseverance, and justice.

According to legend, Washington himself interpreted the stars as coming from the sky, the red from the British colors with the white stripes signifying secession from the home country.

Since that day in 1776, flag makers have simply added stars, with every new state. Or so it would seem, but it’s not that simple. Each new flag is its own careful design, the arrangement of each star, precise and symmetrical.

Since 1818, the admission of new states were followed by the adoption of a new star, on the following Fourth of July.  Five stars were added in 1890, following the admission of as many states, in a single year. The exact pattern for the stars were not specified until 1912.  The exact colors remained unspecified until 1934.

800px-US_historical_flags-United_States_of_America

The sun that rose on this day in 1958, shone down on a flag containing 48 stars. Alaska and Hawaii would not be admitted, until the following year.

Robert G. Heft was a high school junior at that time, and a Boy Scout with Troop 113 in Lancaster, Ohio. Alaska and Hawaii were in the news at that time.  Heft thought it was just a matter of time, and they would become #49 and 50. When the History teacher assigned a school project, the boy knew what he wanted to do. “I had never sewn in my life,” Heft told StoryCorps in 2009. “I watched my mom sew, but I had never sewn. And since making the flag of our country, I’ve never sewn again.” He went home and he found a pair of scissors. It could not have thrilled his parents to find him in the kitchen, cutting up their flag.

“The teacher said, ‘What’s this thing on my desk?’” Heft later explained, “And so I got up and I approached the desk and my knees were knocking.  He said, ‘Why you got too many stars? You don’t even know how many states we have.’”

Heft was bent out of shape.  His project had gotten a “B Minus”.   A buddy had labeled and taped five leaves to a white sheet of paper. His project received an “A”.

“If you don’t like the grade, get it accepted in Washington,” the teacher said “Then come back and see me. I might consider changing the grade.”

Two years came and went, along with twenty-one letters to the White House, and eighteen phone calls.

And then came the phone call, at work. The operator. The President of the United States wants to talk to you.

Robert-Heft-American-flag

The voice that came over  the line, was that of Dwight David Eisenhower.

“Is this Robert G. Heft?”  
“Yes, sir, but you can just call me Bob.”
“I want to know the possibility of you coming to Washington, D.C., on July Fourth for the official adoption of the new flag.”

Heft put the President of the United States on hold and worried to his boss. “Dwight” wants me to come to Washington.  I don’t have any time off.

a2ac2ec0ad0d2a88ab8dd4f6d79e3d68--american-flag-history-us-flags

Needless to say, the Boss figured a way.  Heft’s design had been chosen, over 1,500 others.  So it is that a Boy Scout and a High School Junior, designed the flag we all know, as the Star spangled banner.   Bob Heft passed away in 2009.  It is his flag we salute, to this day.

Oh.  And the teacher?  He proved a man of his word.  He did what he said and changed the grade, to an “A”.

Robert-Heft-memorial
Hat tip, ScoutingMagazine.org

 

A Trivial Matter
35-year-old lawyer and amateur poet Francis Scott Key wrote the words for the “Star-Spangled Banner”on September 14, 1814, on the back on an envelope. The words were later set to the music of an 18th century English drinking song called “To Anacreon in Heaven.”

March 22, 1790 Jefferson

“Ladies and gentlemen, I want to tell you how welcome you are to the White House. I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone”. President John F Kennedy, addressing a White House Dinner honoring Nobel Prize recipients, 1962.

In April 1962, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy addressed a White House Dinner, to a group of Nobel prize winners.  Some of the greatest intellects of the era were assembled in that room.  The President began:

Ladies and gentlemen“, he said, “I want to tell you how welcome you are to the White House. I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone“.

800px-Thomas_Jefferson's_Grave_Site

Jefferson himself knew how he wished to be remembered.  He left specific instructions.  Three accomplishments the founding father himself saw as his own legacy, inscribed on the stone which marks his grave:

Here was buried
Thomas Jefferson
Author of the Declaration of American Independence
of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom
& Father of the University of Virginia

Thomas Jefferson served two terms as President of the United States, but didn’t put it among his top three accomplishments.  That’s how much he couldn’t stand politics.

The public life of Thomas Jefferson reads like a timeline for the founding of this nation.

220px-Official_Presidential_portrait_of_Thomas_Jefferson_(by_Rembrandt_Peale,_1800)(cropped)In a time when colonists considered themselves to be Englishmen, Jefferson sought to disestablish the Anglican communion of the Church of England, seeking from the earliest days of his public career to establish a freedom from state-sponsored religion.

The preamble to the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom written in the man’s own hand, states “that our civil rights have no dependance on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry“.

Jefferson expanded on the principle decades later, in a letter to the Baptist church of Danbury, Connecticut.  Referring to the United States Constitution, Jefferson writes:

I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State“.

Jefferson drafted no fewer than 126 bills in three years as Virginia state legislator and later governor, introducing measures for public education and religious freedom. Alarmed at the growing power of the landed aristocracy, Jefferson took aim at laws of entail and primogeniture, that permanent, hereditary and near-feudal system of increasingly large plantations worked by white tenant farmers and African slaves.

Assigned to a committee of five to write the Declaration of Independence, it is Jefferson’s hand we see on our national birth certificate.

Jefferson fled when the Patriot turned traitor Benedict Arnold burned the city of Richmond at the head of a British Army, and narrowly escaped a cavalry force under “Bloody Banastre Tarleton”, sent for his capture.

Martha Jefferson
A 1965 oil portrait of Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson by artist George Geygan, based on contemporary descriptions of her physical attributes and executed 183 years after her death. H/T Firstladies.org

Martha Skelton, née Wayles, became Mrs. Jefferson in 1772, following the death of her first husband.   The marriage lasted ten years until her death in 1782 and produced six children, two of whom lived, to adulthood.

Jefferson was inconsolable on the death of his wife and withdrew for weeks, from the public eye.  He later burned their correspondence, leading some commentators to describe the relationship as “enigmatic’.

I don’t think so.  On his death some forty years later, Thomas Jefferson still wore a locket about his neck, containing a lock of Martha’s brown hair.

Jefferson was minister to France in the early days of the French Revolution, and witnessed the storming of the Bastille.  He was a regular companion of the Marquis de Lafayette and contributor to Lafayette’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.  It’s here in 1787, that Jefferson is believed to have begun a sexual relationship with one of his slaves, sixteen-year-old Sally Hemings.  Modern DNA analysis has demonstrated a connection along the male Jefferson line, with at least one of Hemings’ children.

Thomas Jefferson became the nation’s 1st Secretary of State on this day in 1790, serving the first administration of  President George Washington.

Jefferson_Portrait_West_Point_by_Thomas_Sully
Thomas Jefferson at 78

As President of the United States, Jefferson personally tutored Corps of Discovery Meriweather Lewis of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, in the sciences of mapping, botany, natural history, mineralogy, and astronomy and navigation, and gave the man unlimited access to his library at Monticello, at that time the largest collection of geography and natural history books in the world.

In 1819, the 76-year-old Jefferson founded the University of Virginia, personally organizing its state charter and planning for the course curriculum, while designing the architecture for ten Roman and Greek pavilions forming a quadrangle connected by colonnades and surrounded by serpentine walls.

As if that wasn’t enough, the man cut 791 verses from the King James bible with a razor, and rearranged them into the 46-page volume The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, commonly known as the Jefferson Bible.  He then translated the thing into French, Greek, Latin and back to English.  It interested him to do so.

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The University of Virginia, Jefferson’s “Academical Village” H/T Wikipedia

On the subject of slavery, the man remains an enigma.  Jefferson referred to the “execrable commerce …this assemblage of horrors” while he himself owned slaves.  As many as 600, over the course of his life.

In an ending no fiction writer would dare to contemplate, Jefferson and fellow founder John Adams died on July 4, 1826, fifty years to the day from the birth of the Republic they had helped create.

It is fashionable today, to judge the past by the standards of our day.  As if the present were somehow exempt from the just scorn of future generations.

The founder’s ideal of freedom Of religion has somehow morphed into an imagined freedom From religion.  Candidates argue for abolishing the Electoral College, transforming this self-governing Republic to a Democracy.  Somehow the image of five wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch, comes to mind.

A week ago, a member of the United States House of Representatives criticized the third President, for believing African slaves to be 3/5ths of a person.

I would not condone the odious practice of one human being “owning” another, any more than I’d endorse those places where the practice continues, to this day.  I don’t know anyone who does.  It’s worth mentioning though, Spanish and Portuguese settlers brought the first African slaves to the new world, 275 years before the “Shot Heard ’round the World“.   Every New World economy from Canada to Argentina was engaged in slavery.  The first English colony to legally adopt the practice was Massachusetts, with the ironically named “Massachusetts Body of Liberties,” of 1641.

The 3/5ths compromise of the United States Constitution was a political concession.  The young nation was broke in the wake of the late Revolution, in need of new forms of taxation.  Southern states argued that slaves should be counted as persons for purposes of apportionment.  More seats meant more votes in Congress, more electors in the Electoral College.

6-three-fifthsThe more industrialized states to the north saw such a measure as placing a disproportionate burden of taxation, on themselves.  The 3/5ths compromise kicked the can down the road, passing the Gordian knot to be settled by another generation, in rivers of blood.

The connection between Jefferson and the 3/5ths compromise stems from the election of 1800.  Jefferson defeated Aaron Burr through disproportionate electoral support from the southern states, though it took 36 ballots, to do so.  The Congressman’s claim seems a bit of a stretch:  the third President was away in France while the Constitution was being written.

In a perfect world, our self-appointed ruling class would have cracked a book.  Candidates for political office would better understand our shared history.   The real thing is so much more interesting than the pop culture and political varieties.

 

A Trivial Matter
While a brilliant writer, Thomas Jefferson received no such gift when it came to public speaking. It’s not that his speeches were’t well written and meaningful, he was just a lousy speaker. His voice was halting and often inaudible, barely better than a mumble. John Adams once said, “During the whole time I sat with him in Congress, I never heard him utter three sentences together.” Unlike his predecessor, President Jefferson delivered the State-of-the-Union address in writing, beginning a practice which would continue until Woodrow Wilson’s first term, in 1913.

March 18, 1837 Big Steve

The Presidential election of 1884 was as close as any in history and Republicans made hay with the Halpin scandal.  “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa”?

Born this day in 1837, Stephen G. “Big Steve” Cleveland was 33 the day he left his practice of law to become Sheriff of Erie County, in western New York.

As Sheriff, Cleveland was responsible for carrying out the sentence of death, either with his own hands, or by that of a deputy. For this, the hangman was paid a fee of ten dollars.

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Stephen G. Cleveland in an undated photograph

Sheriff Cleveland took care of this job himself, personally releasing the trap door on September 6, 1872 and hanging one Patrick Morrissey, who’d been convicted of stabbing his mother to death in a drunken rage. He executed another convicted murderer six months later, hanging John Gaffeny on February 14, 1873.

The fees for these and other services were surprisingly lucrative, amounting to $40,000 over a two year term, equivalent to $836,556, today.

A lifelong Democrat, Cleveland had a reputation for ‘shooting straight” at a time of rampant political corruption, by both parties.

Elected Mayor of Buffalo in 1871, Cleveland was called upon to approve a street cleaning contract awarded to the highest bidder. The difference between high and low bids came to the considerable sum of $100,000, a pot of money which could be expected to find its way back to the politicians who’d approved it.

This sort of graft had long been a feature of political life in New York, but not now. Mayor Cleveland vetoed the measure, describing the scheme “as the culmination of a most bare-faced, impudent, and shameless scheme to betray the interests of the people, and to worse than squander the public money“.

This reputation for honesty propelled Big Steve’s political career from the Mayoralty of Buffalo to the Governor’s mansion, in New York.

Maria Halpin
Maria Halpin

Talk about corruption. Five years earlier, one New York city alderman’s committee estimated that Boss Tweed’s Tammany Hall machine fleeced New York taxpayers to the tune of $25 to $45 million. Later estimates ranged as high as an astonishing $200 million, equivalent to a jaw-dropping $2.8 Billion, today. As Governor, Cleveland earned the ire of the city’s Tammany Hall machine, with eight vetoes in his first two months in office.

In 1884, the “Buffalo Hangman” found himself Democratic nominee for President of the United States. Boston Globe columnist and political commentator Jeff Jacoby notes that “Not since George Washington had a candidate for President been so renowned for his rectitude.”

Despite all that rectitude, the candidate was not without skeletons in his closet. One was a relationship with one Maria Crofts Halpin which produced a son, named Oscar Folsom Cleveland.

Halpin insisted to the end of her days, that she’d been raped. Big Steve claimed she was crazy and overly generous with her affections, accepting paternity only as a way of doing right by an old girlfriend. Cleveland did manage to get the woman involuntarily committed, for a time, and the boy taken away to be raised in anonymity, by his adoptive family.

Ma, Ma, Where's my Pa
1884 political cartoon asks “Ma, Ma, Where’s my Pa”

The Presidential election of 1884 was as close as any in history and Republicans made hay with the Halpin scandal.  “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa“?

Despite all of it, Stephen Grover Cleveland won the popular vote by one quarter of one per cent, and an electoral college victory of 219-192, leading to the rejoinder “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?  Gone to the White House, ha ha ha“.

Fun fact:  The only former executioner ever elected President of the United States, Grover Cleveland is best remembered for being the only President to ever serve two non-consecutive terms.  The 22nd and 24th President of the United States was also, something of a medical miracle.

President Grover Cleveland was inaugurated for the second time in the midst of a disastrous recession known as the Panic of 1893.  The nation suffered vast unemployment, with hundreds of businesses closing down.  The railroad industry was devastated.  With Americans struggling everywhere, many looked to the new President to provide hope and a new direction.

Early in his second term, the President noticed a bumpy and rapidly growing patch, on the roof of his mouth.   White House physician Dr. Robert Maitland O’Reilly took one look and pronounced:  “It’s a bad looking tenant, and I would have it evicted immediately”.

The health of the famously rotund, cigar chomping President was already a matter of public concern. Cleveland feared a cancer diagnosis would set off a panic.  The tumor would have to be removed and the whole procedure, kept secret.

121015_HistoryofMedicine_PresidentCleveland

The only answer to the prying eyes of the press was to do it on the move, and there could be no scar.  President Cleveland  announced a four-day vacation aboard a friend’s yacht, a cruise through Long Island Sound to Buzzard’s Bay and on to the President’s summer home, on Cape Cod.

A surgical team of six boarded the yacht in disguise.  On July 1, 1893, the President was strapped into a chair and anesthetized, with ether.  The tumor was removed in a ninety minute procedure, along with the entire left side of the upper jaw, and five teeth.  For all that, there was no external incision.  The President’s life was saved, the trademark mustache undisturbed.

The operation remained secret until 1917, nine years after the death of the former President.  A medical miracle for the time, the President’s surgery is studied, to this day.

 

A Trivial Matter
Theodore Roosevelt was the first president to call the official residence, the “White House.” Prior to that, the building was called the Executive Mansion or the President’s House.

March 10, 1864  General Grant’s Tomb

Though his life is remembered for other things, the final chapter of Ulysses S Grant’s story is one of the finest tributes to the common Family Man, in American history.

Hiram Grant was born in Point Pleasant, Ohio on April 27, 1822. His family called him by his middle name Ulysses, or sometimes just “Lyss”, for short.

A clerical error changed the name of the future Commander-in-Chief during his first days at the United States Military Academy at West Point. He didn’t seem to mind though, probably thinking that “US Grant” was preferable to “H.U.G.”, embroidered on his clothes. Predictably, Grant became known as “Uncle Sam” or simply “Sam.”  It was as good a name as any though, as with future President Harry S. Truman, the “S” doesn’t actually stand for anything.

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The 1862 Civil War Battle of Fort Donelson secured the name, when then-Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant received a request for terms from the fort’s commanding officer, Confederate Brigadier General Simon Bolivar Buckner. Grant’s reply was that “no terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately, upon your works.” The legend of “Unconditional Surrender” Grant, was born.

70675-004-F36BC7D1Grant was a light smoker before Donelson, generally preferring a pipe, if anything. A reporter spotted him holding an unlit cigar during the battle, a gift from Admiral Foote.  Soon, ten thousand cigars were sent to him in camp. The general gave away as many as he could, but the episode started a cigar habit which became one of his trademarks, and probably led to his death of throat cancer, in 1885.

On this day in 1864, President Abraham Lincoln signed a document promoting Ulysses S. Grant to the rank of Lieutenant General of the United States Army, officially putting then-Major General Grant in charge of all Union armies.  Lincoln preferred Henry Wagner Halleck for the promotion, at the time fearing  Grant would challenge him for the 1864 Republican Presidential nomination.  Lincoln submitted to the will of Congress only after Grant publicly dismissed the idea of running for office.

46-year-old U.S. Grant was elected the 18th President of the United States four years later, going on to serve two terms after becoming, at that time, the youngest man ever so elected.

Memoirs-of-GrantGrant bought a house in New York City in 1881 and invested his considerable fortune with the investment firm of Grant and Ward in which his son Ulysses, Jr., was a partner. The firm collapsed in 1884, investors fleeced and left penniless, by Ferdinand Ward.

Broke, humiliated and already suffering the pain destined to be diagnosed as throat cancer, Grant took pen to paper, and began his memoir.

The penning of that autobiography is a story in itself.  Gravely ill and financially destitute, Grant soon understood with certainty, he was dying of throat cancer.  The proceeds from his unwritten memoirs were his only means of supporting his family after his death.

The former President suffered constant and unbearable pain during his last year, as the cancer literally throttled the life from his body. Grant wrote at a furious pace despite his suffering, often finishing 25 to 50 pages in a day.  No re-writes, no edits. There was no time for that. Grant wrote every word with his own hand, every word of the two-volume memoir a literal race with death.

Many of his wartime contemporaries felt they received too little credit in Grant’s retelling of events.  That may be understood under the circumstances.

In June 1885, the cancer spread throughout his body, the Grant family moved to Mount MacGregor, New York to make him more comfortable. Propped up on chairs and too weak to walk, Grant worked to finish the book as friends, admirers and even former Confederate adversaries, made their way to Mount MacGregor to pay their respects.

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US Grant in 1885

Ulysses S Grant Grant was a gifted writer.  He finished the manuscript on July 18, 1885.  Five days later, he was gone. On release, the book received universal critical praise. Mark Twain, who published the memoir, compared the work to the Commentaries of Julius Caesar. Gertrude Stein admired the book, saying she could not think of Grant, without weeping. Ulysses Grant’s memoirs quickly became a best seller, his family receiving 75% of the net royalties after expenses.  The book earned $450,000, over $10 million in today’s dollars, comfortably re-establishing the Grant family fortune.

Grant’s wife Julia died on December 14, 1902, and was buried with her husband in Grant’s monumental tomb overlooking the Hudson River, in New York City.

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So, next time someone asks you who’s buried in Grant’s tomb, you can tell them.  It’s Hiram Ulysses Grant.  If you really want to show off, don’t forget to include his wife, Julia.

A Trivial Matter

In 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant was arrested for speeding. In a horse-drawn carriage.

November 26, 1783 Franksgiving

In 1941, a Commerce Department survey demonstrated little difference in Christmas sales between those states observing Franksgiving, and those observing the more traditional date. To this day, the years 1939, ’40 and ’41 remain the only outliers, outside the fourth-Thursday tradition.

The first Autumn feast of Thanksgiving dates well before the European settlement of North America.

OldCrowafriendlyHistorian Michael Gannon writes that the “real first Thanksgiving” in America took place in 1565, when Pedro Menéndez de Avilés landed in modern-day Florida, and “had the Indians fed and then dined himself.” Likely, it was salt-pork stew with garbanzo beans. Yum.

According to the Library of Congress, the English colony of Popham in present-day Maine held a “harvest feast and prayer meeting” with the Abenaki people in 1607, twenty-four years before that “first Thanksgiving” at Plymouth.

George Washington proclaimed the first Presidential National day of Thanksgiving on November 26, 1783, “to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness“.

So much for separation of Church and state.

President Abraham Lincoln followed suit in 1863, declaring a general day of Thanksgiving to be observed on the last Thursday of November.  The date seemed to work out OK and the tradition stuck, until 1939.

Roughly two in every seven Novembers, contain an extra Thursday.  November 1939, was one of them.

franksgiving2In those days, it was considered poor form for retailers to put up Christmas displays or run Christmas sales, before Thanksgiving.  Lew Hahn, General Manager of the Retail Dry Goods Association, was afraid that extra week was going to cut into Christmas sales.

Ten years into the Great Depression with no end in sight, the Federal government was afraid of the same thing. By late August, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt decided to deviate from the customary last Thursday, and declared the fourth Thursday, November 23, to be a national day of prayer and thanksgiving.

Opposition to the plan was quick in forming.  Alf Landon, Roosevelt’s Republican challenger in the earlier election, complained of Roosevelt’s impulsiveness, and resulting confusion.  “More time should have been taken working it out” Landon said, “instead of springing it upon an unprepared country with the omnipotence of a Hitler.”

252_84_738_450In Plymouth Massachusetts, self-described home of the “first Thanksgiving”, Chairman of the Board of Selectmen James Frasier, “heartily disapproved”.

The short-notice change in schedule disrupted vacation plans for millions of Americans, to say nothing of traditional Thanksgiving day football rivalries between high school and college teams, across the nation.

Unsurprisingly, support for Roosevelt’s plan split across ideological lines.  A late 1939 Gallup poll reported Democrats favoring the move by a 52% to 48% majority, with Republicans opposing it by 79% to 21%.

Such proclamations represent little more than the “’moral authority” of the Presidency, and states are free to do as they please.  Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia observed Thanksgiving day on the non-traditional date, and twenty-two kept Thanksgiving on the 30th.  Colorado, Mississippi and Texas, did both.

The next two years, thirty-two states and the District of Columbia celebrated what came to be called “Franksgiving” on the third Thursday of the month, while the remainder observed a more traditional “Republican Thanksgiving” on the last.

Franksgiving calendar

In 1941, a Commerce Department survey demonstrated little difference in Christmas sales between those states observing Franksgiving, and those observing the more traditional date.  A joint resolution of Congress declared the fourth Thursday beginning the following year to be a national day of Thanksgiving.  President Roosevelt signed the measure into law on November 26.

Interestingly, the phrase “Thanksgiving Day” had appeared only once in the 20th century prior to the 1941 resolution, that in President Calvin Coolidge’s first of six such proclamations.

Most state legislatures followed suit with the Federal fourth-Thursday approach, but not all.  In 1945, the next year with five November Thursdays, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Nebraska, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia reverted to the last Thursday.  Texas held out the longest, celebrating its fifth-Thursday Thanksgiving for the last time in 1956.

To this day, the years 1939, ’40 and ’41 remain the only outliers, outside the fourth-Thursday tradition.

Popular comedians of the day got a lot of laughs out of it, including Burns & Allen and Jack Benny.  One 1940 Warner Brothers cartoon shows two Thanksgivings, one “for Democrats” and one a week later “for Republicans.”

The Three Stooges short film of the same year has Moe questioning Curly, why he put the fourth of July in October.  “You never can tell”, he replies.  “Look what they did to Thanksgiving!”

Joe Toye, the “Easy Company” character in the 2001 HBO miniseries “A Band of Brothers”, may have had the last word on Franksgiving.  Explaining his plan to get the war over quickly, the paratrooper quips “Hitler gets one of these [knives] right across the windpipe, Roosevelt changes Thanksgiving to Joe Toye Day, [and] pays me ten grand a year for the rest of my f*****g life.

Sounds like a plan.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

November 25, 1963 Sparky

Four musicians were shocked to realize the shooter was the man they had worked for in those earlier months, at that burned out dive bar.

Jacob Leon Rubenstein was a troubled child, growing up on the west side of Chicago, in and out of the juvenile justice system and marked delinquent, since adolescence.  Rubenstein was first arrested for truancy at age 11, and eventually skipped enough school to spend time at the Institute of Juvenile Research.

As with “Peanuts” cartoonist Charles M Shulz, those who knew Jacob Rubenstein called him “Sparky”. Some say the nickname was due to a resemblance to “Sparkplug”, the old nag with the patchwork blanket, from the Snuffy Smith cartoon strip. Unlike Shulz, Rubenstein hated the nickname and was quick to fight anyone who called him that. It may have been that quick temper, that made the name stick.

rubyandgalRubinstein spent the early ’40s at racetracks in Chicago and California, until being drafted into the Army Air Forces, in 1943. Honorably discharged in 1946, Rubenstein returned to Chicago, before moving to Dallas the following year.

Rubenstein managed a series of Dallas nightclubs and strip joints, featuring such high class ladies as “Candy Barr” and “Chris Colt and her ’45’s”. Somewhere along the line, he shortened his name to “Ruby”.

Ruby was involved in typical underworld activities, such as gambling, narcotics and prostitution. There were rumored associations with Mafia boss Santo Trafficante. The shadier side of the Dallas police force knew that Ruby was always good for free booze, prostitutes, and other favors. This was one unsavory guy.

Today, you may know Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson and Robbie Robertson as musicians who went on the road with Bob Dylan in 1965 and later morphed into “The Band”, performing such rock & roll standards as “The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down”, “Up on Cripple Creek”, and “The Weight”.

Jack Ruby with dogs
Jack Ruby and his dogs, whom he always described as his “children”

In earlier days, the joints these guys played were so rough, that they performed with blackjacks, hidden in special pockets sewn into their coats. In 1963, they played a week in a Fort Worth nightclub. It was a huge venue, but no one was there that first night, save for two couples, a couple of drunk waiters and a one-armed go-go dancer. The band wasn’t through with their first set before a fight broke out, and someone was tear-gassed. The band played on, coughing and choking with teargas wafting across the stage, their faces wet with tears.

Part of the roof had either blown off this joint, or burned off, depending on which version you read. Jack, the owner, tore off the rest of it and kept the insurance money, calling it the “Skyline Lounge”. There was no need to pay for security, even without the roof. Jack said “Boys, this building ain’t exactly secure enough for you to leave your musical equipment unattended.” Band members were told they’d best stay overnight, with guns, lest anyone come over the wall to steal their equipment. Problem solved.

jack-ruby-and-his-strippers1Months later, the nation was stunned at the first Presidential assassination in over a half-century. I was 5½ at the time, I remember it to this day. An hour after the shooting, former marine and American Marxist Lee Harvey Oswald killed Dallas police officer J.D. Tippit, who had stopped him for questioning. Thirty minutes later, Oswald was arrested in a movie theater.

By Sunday, November 24, Oswald was formally charged with the murders of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Dallas police officer, J. D. Tippit. He was taken to the basement of Dallas police headquarters, where an armored car waited to transport the prisoner to a more secure county jail. The scene was crowded with press and police.

Millions watched on live television as a man came out of the crowd and fired a single bullet from his .38 into the belly of Lee Harvey Oswald. Four musicians were shocked to realize the shooter was the man they had worked for in those earlier months, at that burned out dive bar. Jack Ruby.

Oswald was taken unconscious to Parkland Memorial Hospital, the same hospital where John F. Kennedy died, two days earlier. He was dead within two hours.

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Jack Ruby was sentenced to death in the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald, on March 14, 1964. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned Ruby’s conviction in October 1966, on the grounds that the trial should have taken place in a different county than that in which his high profile crime had taken place. Ruby died of lung cancer the following January, while awaiting retrial.

The body of the 35th President of the United States was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery on November 25, 1963 and moved to its present location on March 14, 1967.  The Warren Commission found no evidence linking Jack Ruby’s murder of Lee Harvey Oswald, to any broader conspiracy to assassinate the President. What became of Jacob Leon “Sparky” Rubenstein’s fine establishment, is unknown to this writer.

John-F.-Kennedy-Original-Grave

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

October 27, 1871 Tammany Hall

The Tweed ring at its height was an engineering marvel, strong and solid, strategically deployed to control key power points: the courts, the legislature, the treasury and the ballot box. Its frauds had a grandeur of scale and an elegance of structure: money-laundering, profit sharing and organization

Before the first Europeans arrived in the “new world”, descendants of the Nanticoke inhabited a region from Delaware north through New Jersey and southern New York, and eastern Pennsylvania. The Europeans called them “Delaware”.  These indigenous Americans called themselves “Lenni-Lenape” which literally means “Men of Men”, but is translated to mean “Original People.” (Hat tip, http://www.nanticoke-lenape.info).

In the early 1680s, Chief Tammamend (“The Affable”) of the Lenni-Lenape nation took part in a meeting with the English colonists, where he is supposed to have said that his people and the newcomers would “live in peace as long as the waters run in the rivers and creeks and as long as the stars and moon endure.”

Treaty_of_Penn_with_Indians_by_Benjamin_West
Treaty of Penn with Indians, by Benjamin West

“Tammany” to the settlers, Chief Tammamend became a living symbol of peace and friendship, between the two peoples. He died in 1701, but his legend lived on. In the next one-hundred years Tammany societies were established from Georgia to Rhode Island.

8-22-TamanendTammany Societies adopted a number of native terms, with leaders calling themselves Grand Sachem, and meeting in halls called “Wigwams”. The most famous of these was incorporated in New York on May 12, 1789.

Within ten years, what had begun as a social club had morphed into a political machine. Tammany helped Aaron Burr counter Alexander Hamilton’s Society of the Cincinnati, and Burr went on to win New York’s two electoral votes in 1800. Without help from “Tammany Hall”, many historians believe that John Adams would have been re-elected to a second term.

Tammany Hall expanded its connections within New York Democrat party politics. After Andrew Jackson’s victory in 1828, the Tammany machine all but owned the government in New York city and state, alike.

Fun fact: On December 20, 1860, the Secession convention of South Carolina unanimously asserted an end to Union, proclaiming that “We…have solemnly declared that the union heretofore existing between this State and the other States of North America, is dissolved, and that the State of South Carolina has resumed her position among the nations of the world, as a separate and independent State…” In the following days, the world waited to see who would follow. The next governing entity to actually do so was the state of Mississippi, but the first to discuss the idea (after South Carolina) was New York, in the person of Tammany Hall’s own mayor, Fernando Wood.

The 19th century was a time of massive immigration, providing an ever-expanding base of political and financial support for urban politicians. Political machines helped new arrivals with jobs, housing and citizenship, providing a patina of “constituent service” and hiding a dark under-belly of graft and corruption.

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Boss Tweed

In the 1860s, Tammany Hall politician William Magear Tweed established a new standard in public self-dealing. Biographer Kenneth Ackerman wrote: “The Tweed ring at its height was an engineering marvel, strong and solid, strategically deployed to control key power points: the courts, the legislature, the treasury and the ballot box. Its frauds had a grandeur of scale and an elegance of structure: money-laundering, profit sharing and organization“.

New York contractors were instructed to multiply invoices. Checks were cashed through a go-between, settling with the contractor and dividing the rest between “Boss” Tweed and his cronies. This system of corruption inflated the cost of the New York County Courthouse to nearly $13 million, more than the Alaska purchase. One carpenter billed $360,751 (equivalent to $4.9 million today), for one month’s work. A plasterer got $133,187 for two days.

New York Corruption - New York Under Tweed's ThumbSome among the self-styled “Uppertens”, the top 10,000 amid New York’s socioeconomic strata, fell in with the self-dealing and corruption of the Tammany Hall machine. Others counted on an endless supply of cheap immigrant labor.

The system worked while Tweed’s Machine kept “his people” in line, until the “Orange Riots” of 1870-71 broke out between Irish Catholics and Protestants, killing 70.

Harper’s Weekly editorial cartoonist Thomas Nast, creator of the modern American Santa Claus and the Republican Elephant, was the scourge of Tammany Hall. Following the Orange riots, the New York Times added its voice to that of the cartoonist.

Boss Tweed, the third-largest landowner in New York City, Director of the Erie Railroad, the Tenth National Bank, and the New York Printing Company, Proprietor of the Metropolitan Hotel, former State Senator and former Member of the United States Congress, was arrested on October 27, 1871, and tried on charges of public corruption. An 1877 aldermen’s committee estimated that Boss Tweed’s graft cost New York taxpayers between $25 and $45 million. Later estimates ranged as high as $200 million, equivalent to an astonishing $2.8 Billion, today.

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Cartoonist Thomas Nast denounced the Tammany machine as a ferocious tiger, devouring democracy.

The Tammany Hall political machine, moved on. By the end of the 19th century, ward Boss Richard Croker ran a system of graft and corruption the likes of which Boss Tweed could have only dreamed.

In the end, three things killed the Tammany Hall system. Early Irish arrivals had been primary beneficiaries and major supporters of Tammany’s patronage system, but there are only so many favors to go around. Continued immigration diluted Tammany’s base, and later arriving Irish, Italian and eastern European immigrants found themselves frozen out.

y9AfutFuWoQMH-GAzYj6wjl72eJkfbmt4t8yenImKBVvK0kTmF0xjctABnaLJIm9Next is the spoils system, itself. To this day, too many think it’s government’s job to “Bring home the Bacon”, not seeming to realize that they are themselves, the hogs. The Roosevelt administrations’ efforts to fix the Great Depression resulted in a blizzard of bacon from an increasingly Nationalized federal government, separating the local machines from their proximate base of support.

Last came “reformers” such as New York governor and future President of the United States Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who occasionally built enough steam to hurt the Tammany machine. Manhattan District Attorney Thomas E. Dewey, he of the famous “Dewey Wins!” photograph, managed to put several Tammany Hall leaders in jail, along with such unsavory supporters as “Lucky Luciano”.

Republican Fiorello La Guardia served three terms as New York mayor between 1934-’45, the first anti-Tammany mayor ever, to be re-elected. A brief resurgence of Tammany power in the 1950s met with Democratic party resistance led by the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, and party politician Herbert Lehrman. By the mid-1960s, the Tammany Hall system, was dead.

Tammany Hall was a local manifestation of a disease afflicting the entire country. Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Kansas City, Philadelphia, St. Louis and others:  all suffered their own local outbreak.

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Tammany Hall, Union_Square

The Ward Boss still lives in places like Chicago but, like the Jeffersons, the corruption has “moved on up”. Today, rent seekers and foreign powers pay tens of millions in “speaking fees” and other “pay-for-play” schemes.

A hundred years ago, Ambrose Bierce (my favorite curmudgeon) described politics as “A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage“.  Boss Tweed could tell you.   It’s as true now, as it was in his time.

Featured image, top of page:  Harper’s Weekly cartoonist Thomas Nast’s depiction of the Tammany ring:  Who stole the people’s money? T’was him!

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

September 30, 1918 Gold Star Mother’s Day

They are so few, who pick up this heaviest of tabs on behalf of the rest of us.

Today, Sunday, September 30, 2018, is Gold Star Mother’s Day.  I wish to dedicate this “Today in History”, to those women who have made the greatest sacrifice a mother can make, in service to the nation.  The rest of us owe them a debt which can never be repaid.

Suppose you were to stop 100 randomly selected individuals on the street, and ask them:  “Of all the conflicts in American military history, which single battle accounts for the greatest loss of life“.  I suppose you’d get a few Gettysburgs in there, and maybe an Antietam or two.  The Battle of the Bulge would come up, for sure, and there’s bound to be a Tarawa or an Iwo Jima.  Maybe a Normandy.  I wonder how many would answer, Meuse-Argonne.

80th-Div-No3

The United States was a relative late-comer to the Great War, entering the conflict in April 1917, when President Woodrow Wilson asked permission of the Congress, for a “War to end all wars”.  American troop levels “over there” remained small throughout the rest of 1917, as the formerly neutral nation of  fifty million ramped up to a war footing.

US_Marines_during_the_Meuse-Argonne_Campaign
US Marines during Meuse-Argonne offensive of 1918

The trickle turned to a flood in 1918, as French ports were expanded to handle their numbers.  The American Merchant Marine was insufficient to handle the influx, and received help from French and British vessels.  By August, every one of what was then forty-eight states had sent armed forces, amounting to nearly 1½ million American troops in France.

After four years of unrelenting war, French and British manpower was staggered and the two economies, nearing collapse.  Tens of thousands of German troops were freed up and moving to the western front, following the chaos of the Russian Revolution.  The American Expeditionary Force was arriving none too soon.

Gun crew , 1918
“Gun crew from Regimental Headquarters Company, 23rd Infantry, firing 37mm gun during an advance against German entrenched positions. , 1918”, H/T Wikipedia

Following successful allied offensives at Amiens and Albert, Allied Supreme Commander Ferdinand Foch ordered General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing to take overall command of the offensive, with the objective of cutting off the German 2nd Army. Some 400,000 troops were moved into the Verdun sector of northeastern France.  This was to be the largest operation of the AEF, of World War I.With a half-hour to go before midnight September 25, 2,700 guns opened up in a six hour bombardment, against German positions in the Argonne Forest, along the Meuse River.

Montfaucon American Monument, World War I, France
Butte de Montfaucon, today

Some 10,000 German troops were killed or incapacitated by mustard and phosgene gas attacks, and another 30,000 plus, taken prisoner.  The Allied offensive advanced six miles into enemy territory, but bogged down in the wild woodlands and stony mountainsides of the Argonne Forest.

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Meuse-Argonne American cemetery near Romagne, in France

The Allied drive broke down on German strong points like the hilltop monastery at Montfaucon and others, and fortified positions of the German “defense in depth”.

Pershing called off the Meuse-Argonne offensive on September 30, as supplies and reinforcements backed up in what can only be termed the Mother of All Traffic Jams.

MeuseArgonneTraffic

Fighting was renewed four days later resulting in some of the most famous episodes of WW1, including the “Lost Battalion” of Major Charles White Whittlesey, and the single-handed capture of 132 prisoners, by Corporal (and later Sergeant) Alvin York.

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Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery, outside of Romagne, France

The Meuse-Argonne offensive would last forty-seven days, resulting in 26,277 American women gaining that most exclusive and unwanted of distinctions, that of being a Gold Star Mother.  More than any other battle, in American military history.  95,786 others would see their boys come home, mangled.

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Gold Star Mother’s Monument At The Putnam County (NY) Veteran Memorial Park, photograph by James Connor

In May of that year, President Woodrow Wilson approved a suggestion from the Women’s Committee of the Council of National Defenses, that American women were asked to wear black bands on the left arm, with a gilt star for every family member who had given his life for the nation.

GoldStar1

Today, Title 36 § 111 of the United States Code provides that the last Sunday in September be observed as Gold Star Mother’s Day, in honor of those women who have made the ultimate sacrifice. (April 5 is set aside, as Gold Star Spouse’s Day).  Recently, both President Barack Obama and Donald Trump have signed proclamations, setting this day aside as Gold Star Mother’s and Family’s Day.

Gold-Star-Mothers-Day-Last-Sunday-in-September

At first a distinction reserved only for those mothers who had lost sons and daughters in WW1, that now includes a long list of conflicts, fought over the last 100 years.  At this time the US Army website reports  “The Army is dedicated to providing ongoing support to over 78,000 surviving Family members of fallen Soldiers”.

Seventy-eight thousand, out of a nation of some 320 million.  They are so few, who pick up this heaviest of tabs on behalf of the rest of us.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.