Millard Fillmore, Zachary Taylor, and American Conspiracies

By Kaleena Fraga

Thanks to Twitter and the Internet, conspiracy theories abound in today’s politics. But conspiracy theories have always had a place in American political history. On this day in 1850 Millard Fillmore was inaugurated as president, stepping into the role from the vice presidency after Zachary Taylor died in office. Taylor’s death was seen as suspicious by some, to the point that his body was exhumed 141 years after his death.

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Millard Fillmore (and Alec Baldwin doppelgänger)

Taylor, after partaking in 4th of July activities on a hot summer day in Washington D.C. is reported to have downed large quantities of iced milk and cherries, which gave him a terrible stomach ache. The doctors who tried to cure him made things worse, and Taylor, a Whig, died a few days later. His vice president Fillmore was also a Whig, but had dabbled in perhaps the first (but not the last) political party born of a conspiracy theory, the Anti-Masons, who believed that Freemasons were murdering whistleblowers. They counted John Quincy Adams as one of their members. Fillmore would also later join the anti-immigrant Know-Nothing party.

Taylor’s illness at the time was attributed to “cholera morbus” caused by what he ate, but suspicions abounded. Although Taylor had no known enemies–Professor Elbert B. Smith, of the University of Maryland called him the “Eisenhower of his time”–he did live in an era ripe with political tension. In the build-up to the Civil War, which would start ten years later, states continued to argue about rules pertaining to slavery, leading one Senator to draw a pistol on another on the Senate floor in the months before Taylor’s death.

Taylor was from the South and had even owned slaves, but his actions as president made many Southerners nervous. He had climbed the political rungs through his career as a soldier, and sought to damper any talks of secession among the states. Fillmore was from the North, but sympathetic to Southern interests. Once president, he helped to arrange the Compromise of 1850 which Taylor had opposed. Although the Compromise allowed California into the Union as a free state, it also hardened the Fugitive Slave Act, requiring citizens to help recover slaves who had fled their owners, and denying slaves who fled their right to a trial by jury.

Taylor’s body was exhumed in 1991, after lobbying by author Clara Rising, who claimed that Taylor, not Lincoln, could be the first American president to be assassinated. She theorized that Taylor’s death could have come from arsenic poisoning, and that he had died suddenly and strangely for someone so healthy. “Right after his death, everything [Taylor] had worked against came forward and was passed by both houses of Congress,” said Rising.

The results of the tests done on Taylor’s exhumed body put the conspiracy theory to rest: although his corpse contained trace amounts of arsenic, it would not have been enough to kill him. It’s likely that the milk and cherries that Taylor ate did not kill the president, but perhaps exacerbated another condition–and the doctors’ attempts to save him likely made things worse.

Although Taylor didn’t live long enough to leave much of a mark on the presidency or the nation, his untimely death easily leads to speculation of what could have happened if he lived. If Taylor had served out his full term, instead of Fillmore, would it have been possible to avoid the Civil War? We’ll never know.

The Ambassador Hotel: June 5th, 1968

By Kaleena Fraga

“What I think is quite clear is that we can work together in the last analysis and that what has been going on in the United States over the last three years, the divisions, the violence, the disenchantment with our society, the divisions whether it’s between blacks and whites, between the poor and the more affluent, or between age groups or on the war in Vietnam, that we can start to work together.

“We are a great country, an unselfish country, a compassionate country. And I intend to make that my basis for running. So, my thanks to all of you, and now it’s on to Chicago and let’s win there.”

These were the last words Robert F. Kennedy spoke to a crowd of jubilant supporters after he won the California primary during his run for president in 1968. He and his team disappeared into the kitchens of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles–minutes later, Kennedy was shot.

President Johnson, no fan of Bobby Kennedy, spoke to the nation following Kennedy’s death. Johnson said that Kennedy, “affirmed this country–affirmed the essential decency of its people, their longing for peace, their desire to improve conditions of life for all…Our public life is diminished by his loss.”

Today history is rife with what-if questions surrounding Bobby Kennedy. What if he had lived, and became president instead of Richard Nixon in 1968? Friends and family of Kennedy have recently thrown the resolution of his assassination into doubt. Although perhaps not as widely disputed as his brother Jack’s death, Bobby Kennedy’s son and his close friend and campaign aide, Paul Schrade, have both pointed to flaws in the case.

Kennedy’s assassination marked another bloody event in a year that had already seen student protests, climbing casualties in Vietnam, and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Speaking to the American people, Johnson noted: “in a climate of extremism, of disrespect for law, of contempt for the lives of others, violence may bring down the very best among us. A nation that tolerates violence in any form cannot expect to contain it to minor outbursts.”

A Momentous Day, a Crowded Stage: The Dedication of the Lincoln Memorial

By Kaleena Fraga

Ninety-six years ago today a crowd gathered in Washington D.C. to witness the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial. Present were former president William Howard Taft, presiding as Chief Justice, current president Warren G. Harding, and Abraham Lincoln’s son, Robert Todd Lincoln. And, of course, Abraham Lincoln himself, immortalized in stone and looming almost 100 feet over the three men.

Between the three of them, the men comprised over fifty years of presidential history, and a resume nearly as tall as the memorial itself. Robert Lincoln had been twenty-two when his father was assassinated. Although he didn’t follow in his footsteps to the presidency, Robert Lincoln had served as U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain, as the Secretary of War under two presidents, and as the chairman and president of the Pullman Railroad Company. He held the dubious honor of being present for two other presidential assassinations–those of Presidents Garfield and McKinley–which made him acknowledge “a certain fatality about the presidential function when I am present.” Still, no one at the dedication that day seemed nervous about his presence.

moton at memorialDr. Robert Moton, a civil rights activist, gave the keynote address. Although he spoke to a largely segregated audience, Moton pushed for equality for all races. The previous year, Moton had written President Harding a letter with suggestions on how to improve race-relations. His crusade to hire an all-black staff at the Tuskegee Veterans Administration Hospital for African-American WWI veterans had provoked death threats from white supremacists, although Harding endorsed the idea. Moton’s presence on stage, then, seemed to be both an explicit realization of Lincoln’s promise, and an implicit nod of support from the current administration. Yet he also represented the work to be done–despite giving the keynote, Moton was not allowed to sit on the speaker’s platform.

(As for Taft and Harding, curious readers can learn more about them here and here).

The architect Henry Bacon designed the memorial, which he modeled after the Pantheon. Bacon felt that the man who had saved democracy deserved a memorial reminiscent of the birthplace of democracy. It featured 36 pillars to represent the 36 states that Lincoln had reunited; texts of the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln’s second Inaugural Address; and, of course, the looming figure of Lincoln, designed by David Chester French.

Harding, the child of abolitionists, accepted the dedication from Taft. He closed the ceremony by saying:

“This Memorial is less for Abraham Lincoln than those of us today, and for those who follow after.”

They were prescient words–the Lincoln Memorial would go on to be a gathering place for people seeking equality and justice.

Happy Birthday Mr. President: The John F. Kennedy Edition

By Kaleena Fraga

Today would have been John F. Kennedy’s 101st birthday. There’s plenty to remember about JFK–his primary battles during the election of 1960, which changed how Americans judge presidential candidates, his inaugural address, in which he encouraged Americans to ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country, the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion, his work on civil rights, and, of course, his tragic assassination in Dallas in 1963.

JFK continues to permeate American political life. It’s second-nature to most Americans to refer to a young, charismatic candidate as “JFK-like” and JFK has even become a political football in the #MeToo era, as his legacy as a womanizer is reexamined by some and defended by others.

But JFK’s influence was felt far beyond the borders of the United States. Today, the breadth of his legacy can be found on a quiet street in the city of Berlin, in a museum that takes up a single floor of an unobtrusive building.

“The Museum THE KENNEDYS offers intimate insights into the story of the Kennedy family, which, as Irish-Catholic immigrants with high aspirations, epitomized and exemplified the »American Dream.« The museum also focuses on John F. Kennedy’s campaign and President Kennedy’s visit to Germany at the height of the Cold War, as well as the myth surrounding John F. Kennedy.”

The museum plays JFK’s famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech on loop–a speech given two years after the construction of the wall between East and West Berlin–, and features artifacts and anecdotes from JFK’s Berlin visit.

After the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, THE KENNEDYs is the largest JFK museum in the world. It contains more than 1,000 documents, 2,000 photographs, and several hundred assorted artifacts. The museum’s focus is on JFK’s visit to Berlin, but it also devotes space to JFK’s brother, Robert F. Kennedy, to the entire Kennedy family, and to a rotating special exhibition space which has featured works on American civil rights, and Obama photographer Pete Souza.

The museum purposely avoids the subject of JFK’s death. “We do not want to put his death into focus, but his life,” said Alexander Golya, a spokesman for the museum.

THE KENNEDYS certainly accomplishes this goal. And it accomplishes the depth of influence that an American president can have, even in cities thousands of miles away. In a nod to this the museum quotes Jackie Kennedy, who wrote in a letter:

“How strange it is. Sometimes I think that the words of my husband that will be remembered most were words he did not even say in his own language.”

 

William McKinley & the Red Carnation

By Kaleena Fraga

William McKinley believed in luck. Specifically, he believed in luck derived from red carnations.

The nation’s 25th president had been given a red carnation by a friend and a political opponent as they ran against each other for the seat of Ohio’s 18th congressional district. McKinley’s opponent, L.L. Lamborn, was the first to grow carnations out West.

After he won the contest, McKinley became convinced of the carnation’s good luck. He wore it on his lapel, and, once elected president, he kept bouquets of red carnations on his desk in the Oval Office.

McKinley was known to give out carnations while he greeted supporters. On a hot day in September, he greeted supporters in Buffalo, New York, outside Buffalo’s Pan-American Exposition. His team was nervous about the exercise, and his personal secretary had tried to cancel the reception twice. As McKinley greeted a little girl, she asked if she could have the carnation from his lapel. Although he was not in the habit of unpinning the carnation, McKinley granted her wish. A few handshakes down the line, McKinley found himself face to face with Leon Czolgosz, who shot him in the abdomen.

McKinley died eight days later. His vice president, Theodore Roosevelt, became the youngest executive in history at the age of 42.

All in all, presidents don’t seem to be an overly superstitious group. Aside from FDR’s fear of the number thirteen, and Harry Truman’s belief in the power of horse shoes, there don’t seem to be many examples of presidents relying on charms as McKinley did with his carnations. And, given how his presidency turned out, perhaps that’s for the best.

The Final Voyage: Abraham Lincoln’s Funeral Train

By Kaleena Fraga

Between April 21st and May 4th, 1865, the train carrying Abraham Lincoln’s body journeyed from Washington D.C. to Springfield, Illinois, where the president would be buried. It also carried his son, Willie, who had died at the White House in 1862 of typhoid fever.

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Secretary of War Edwin Stanton

The train would travel 1600 miles and visit 180 cities across seven states. The journey was a mammoth effort coordinated by Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton. In order to force the railroad companies to cooperate, Stanton declared all railroads as military domains. Although Mary Lincoln had pushed for the train to take the most efficient route possible, Stanton insisted that the train take a path that would allow the most people to see it. Mary Lincoln, however, had the last word for the president and her son’s final resting place–Oak Ridge Cemetery, outside of Springfield, Illinois (accepting and then rejecting a request to have the president buried in downtown Springfield, near a train line. Mary Lincoln wanted her husband to rest “in some quiet place.”)

The train, called The United States, had been built with the purpose of presidential travel, the same role that Air Force One plays for presidents today. It was built by the U.S. Military Railroad starting in 1863–this department imagined that once the Civil War ended Lincoln would need to travel great distances to meet with Americans and mend the country. Lincoln had an appointment to see the train for the first time on April 15th, 1865–the day after he was shot at Ford’s Theater.

The train itself was bought by Union Pacific before its completed its voyage to Springfield. It was made into a regular passenger train, and then purchased by a private citizen, Thomas Lowry. Lowry called the train “the most sacred relic in the United States.” He had planned to restore and permanently display the funeral car, but he died in 1909 of tuberculosis. In 1911, a fire destroyed the train.

The train’s scheduled stops were published in local newspapers, giving people plenty of notice for when they could come and pay their respects. Anyone in the country who loved Barbara Bush could have tuned into her funeral on April 21st, 2018, but in April 1865 mass media didn’t exist. Lincoln’s funeral train would allow seven million people across the country to share in the mourning of the president–about a third of the country’s population in 1865.

TR and Lincoln
TR can be seen looking out the second story window, on the left side of the photograph

At each scheduled stop, the coffin was taken off the train and placed in a public place so that the people could say goodbye. People waited for hours for this chance, some watching from windows or from the street as the funeral procession went by, and thousands more gathering into places like Independence Hall in Philadelphia to mourn Lincoln. A young Theodore Roosevelt was one such mourner–he and his brother Elliot watched the funeral procession from their grandfather’s Union Square mansion in New York City. Others stood along the track to watch the train as it went by–chugging along at 20 miles per hour, with a portrait of Lincoln at the front of the train.

After a long journey, the train stopped in Springfield, Illinois. Here the president and Willie were taken off the train and laid to rest. Ten thousand people followed the procession from the Springfield Capitol to the cemetery. Major Grenville Dodge later recalled that the procession was:

“the saddest sight of my life…the streets were lined with thousands and thousands of people, evidently in great distress and sorrow…There was hardly a person who was not in tears, and when I looked around my troops I saw many of them in tears.”

Mary Lincoln, still inconsolable over her husband’s death, had remained in Washington D.C. with her young son Tad. The Lincoln’s other son, twenty-two year old Robert Lincoln, represented the family at the funeral.

Only one other president’s body would be taken by train to its grave–Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Roosevelt, who died in Warm Springs, Georgia, travelled 1100 miles from Georgia to Washington D.C. Five hundred thousand people gathered at Union Station to witness the body’s arrival back in Washington. The president was brought to the East Room of the White House, where he lay in state for about five hours. From there, Roosevelt went to his final resting place–Hyde Park, in New York state.

April 14th, 1865: On the Sidelines of Lincoln’s Assassination

By Kaleena Fraga

On April 14th, 1865 Abraham Lincoln was shot in the head by John Wilkes Booth. This much is well known. But the plot to kill the president was larger than two men, and it struck Washington with such force that it left more than one casualty.

William Henry Seward: Along with Lincoln, the conspirators of the assassination sought to kill both the secretary of state, Seward, and the vice president.  While Booth went to Ford’s Theatre, Lewis Powell headed for Seward’s residence, where the secretary had sewardbeen bedridden for nine days following a carriage accident that had almost killed him.

The president and his secretary of state, once political rivals, enjoyed a close relationship and partnership. Indeed, when Lincoln visited Seward after his carriage accident, he lay down in bed beside him, and recounted his recent journey to Richmond until Seward fell asleep.

On the night of April 14th, Lewis Powell, a friend of John Wilkes Booth, was dispatched to the Seward residence. Powell claimed he had been sent by a doctor with medicine for Seward and that he must deliver it in person. Seward’s son, Fred, refused to let him by and at this point Powell pulled a pistol. It misfired, but Powell used it to clobber Fred, leaving him unconscious.

Powell stormed Seward’s chamber, slashing Seward’s guard in the face. Seward’s daughter, Fanny, ran into the room and begged Powell not to kill her father. According to Doris Kearns Goodwin, the word kill is what revived the secretary–who awoke just as Powell stabbed him in in the neck and face. Seward’s other son, Gus, ran into the room, and he and Seward’s injured guard managed to pull Powell away. Powell fled, stabbing a stabbing-seward-national-police-gazette-4-22-1865young State Department messenger on his way out of the house.

Seward had been saved in part by the carriage accident that almost took his life. Goodwin writes that, “the knife had been deflected by the metal contraption holding Seward’s broken jaw in place.”

How Seward learned of the president’s death is disputed. His biographer Walter Stahr wrote that Seward was informed by his wife, who told him “very gently” “Henry, the president is gone.” Goodwin writes, however, that news of the president’s death was kept from Seward because of his fragile condition. According to her biography Team of Rivals, Seward noticed the flag at half- mast at the War Department from his window, and announced:

“The president is dead. If he had been alive he would have been the first to call on me. But he has not been here, nor has he sent to know how I am, and there’s the flag at halfmast.”

Mary Surratt: A name largely forgotten by history, Surratt was the first women ever to be executed by the U.S. government. Surratt grew up in a family that owned slaves and during the war she and her husband used their home as a safe house for Confederate soldiers. Her son Isaac fought for the Confederacy. Heavily in debt after the death of her husband, Surratt moved to Washington D.C. and opened a boarding house. Her son John came too, and befriended a frequent visitor to the boarding house, John Wilkes Booth.Mary Elizabeth Jenkins Surratt (1820 or May 1823 – July 7, 1865) Dated 1865

On the night of the assassination the police came to the boarding house looking for both Booth and John Surratt, whom they suspected had participated in the failed assassination of William Henry Seward. Neither were there, but as the police were questioning Surratt, Lewis Powell showed up. One of Seward’s servants identified him. Both Powell and Surratt were taken into custody–her son, John, fled and escaped to Canada.

Surratt claimed innocence–however, a tavern keeper named John Lloyd disputed this, testifying that she had told him to keep guns at the ready on the night of Lincoln’s assassination–the same guns that were later used to shoot the president. After he heard of Lincoln’s death Lloyd is reported to have cried, “Mrs. Surratt, that vile woman, she has ruined me!”

Up until her execution, Surratt maintained her innocence. Powell also insisted that she had nothing to do with the conspiracy. Despite this, she was tried and convicted. On July 7th, 1865 she was hanged.

Henry Rathbone & Clara Harris: Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancee Clara Harris accompanied the Lincolns to Ford’s Theatre on April 14th. Clara was a friend of Mary Todd Lincoln, and the two often went to the theater together. The Lincolns had originally invited Ulysses S. Grant and his wife, Julia, but Julia, not a fan of the First Lady, insisted they go to New Jersey instead. With the war over, Clara later recalled that the Lincolns were “in the gayest of spirits.” At one point Lincoln took his wife’s hand and Mary Lincoln chided him, saying, “What will Miss Harris think of my hanging on to you so?” Lincoln, speaking his last words before his death, is reported to have replied, “She won’t think anything about it.”

henry-and-claraWhen Booth shot Lincoln, Rathbone leapt up and tried to disarm him. Booth stabbed Rathbone and then escaped, as Clara, now covered with her fiancé’s blood, cried, “The president is shot!”

Rathbone was never the same. In the years following the assassination he was diagnosed with “attacks of neuralgia (intense pain) of the head and face and in the region of the heart attended by palpitations and at times difficulty breathing.”

On Christmas Eve 1883, while living in Germany, Rathbone murdered Clara–attacking her with a pistol and a dagger, and then slashing himself in an eerie reproduction of the night in Ford’s Theatre. He barely survived, and later insisted that he was injured trying to intervene in an attack by someone else.

Rathbone was declared insane and sent to the Provincial Insane Asylum in Hildesheim, Germany. He stayed there until the day in died in 1911, refusing ever again to speak either of the assassination or of the murder of his wife.

George Atzerodt & Andrew Johnson: The original plot to kill the president included the Secretary of State Seward as well as the Vice President, Andrew Johnson. But while Lewis Powell and John Wilkes Booth went through with their plot, the man assigned to kill Johnson, George Atzerodt, lost his nerve.

Atzerodt had rented a room in the same hotel, the Kirkwood House, where the vice andrew johnsonpresident was staying (lacking foresight, Atzerodt made the reservation in his own name). Anxious about his assignment, Atzerodt tried to steel his resolve by drinking. He was armed with gun and a knife and the vice president, alone and unguarded, would have been an easy target. But Atzerodt couldn’t bring himself to knock on the door. Instead he got drunk, and wandered around Washington D.C. until around two in the morning, when he checked into another hotel.

He was arrested on April 20th, about a week after the assassination. Investigators had found a gun and a knife in his room at the Kirkwood House, and evidence linking him to John Wilkes Booth. Atzerodt confessed to everything–including the role the others had played. Despite his cooperation, he was hanged with the rest of them. Andrew Johnson became president.