Sunday, January 30, 2011

We’re All In The Same Boat - er, Sleigh?

Deep snow of January 2011
This is a poor substitute for the blog posting that I didn’t write last week. Most of you around the country know why. It’s the same reason you didn’t read it. We’ve all been outside, shoveling snow.

How about you? Have you dug out enough to come in from the cold and read a few blogs through eyes bleary with exhaustion?

See the picture (above) for the amount of snow that we have received so far this winter. Can you see me shoveling? You can’t? Neither can I.

It’s not even February yet, the traditional snow month.

And what about these storm patterns? Can NOAA answer the question why, in any given winter, you can set your clock by the regularity of the snow storms? Several winters ago, it was always Sundays and Tuesdays. This year, it's mostly Wednesdays. No matter the year, the storm is always on the night before trash and recycling pick-up, so we can't put it out. Does the Earth's rotation generate some kind of weird meteorological circadian cycle? Is it sun spots or solar flares? Or is there a Divine Hand at work here, imbued with a quirky sense of humor?

I don’t really mind shoveling snow that much - it's great exercise if you don't whale at it - but this is becoming old hat. Of course, the looming issue with every storm is: where am I going to put it? Six-foot-high fences and a house enclose our yard, which is only about ten feet wide all around. I have already filled the neighbor’s yard (Thank you, Eric!) (throwing it over the fence - I've told him I'm stockpiling the snow for his children to make forts - I only throw the clean stuff over there), and one side of the front steps still remains unshoveled from the latest storm, because there’s no place to put it. It takes longer every time to shovel, because each shovelful has to be carried up and down the street, looking for an embankment low enough to make a deposit. The actual shoveling is minimal, relative to the transportation - I spend five times longer lugging the stuff around then hiking back to the mine face than I do applying the shovel. Talk about aerobics!

Then, of course, comes the subsequent application of ice-melt and sand. The tracked-in sand makes the entry to our house resemble beach-front property. Maybe I’ll put the entry on the market in the spring. Just the entry - we're keeping the staircase.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Death of 10th President John Tyler

JOHN TYLER (March 29, 1790 - January 18, 1862)

During this week in history, John Tyler, 10th President of the United States, died on January 18, 1862.  In his day, his opponents dubbed him “His Accidency” or “The Accidental President” because he was the first president to sit in the office without having been elected to the position.  President William Harrison died thirty days after his inauguration.  On March 4, 1841, Harrison had given a near-two-hour inaugural speech in the freezing rain.  What had been a cold developed into pneumonia, killing the president and launching Tyler, Harrison’s Vice President, into the White House on April 4, 1841.

Tyler was a prominent Virginian and statesman.  Besides the presidency (1841-1845) and his legal profession, he served two terms as governor, served in both Houses of the U. S. Congress, was a state senator, and was a member of the Virginia House of Delegates.  He was Chancellor of his alma mater, the College of William and Mary.  Although he opposed secession during the turbulent prelude to the Civil War, once Virginia seceded, he supported her decision, and was elected to the Confederate Congress. 

As active as he was in state and national politics, Tyler had enemies in both the Democrat Party and his own party, the Whigs.  In placing Tyler on the 1840 presidential ticket, the Whigs had used him as a political pawn to garner Southern votes, but most of them disagreed with his stand on the issues.  Tyler supported states’ rights, which alienated the Whigs, and believed in a strict interpretation of the Constitution, which alienated the Democrats.  He became a man without a party.  Without allegiance to either side, he took the seat of the President under his own wing and pushed his own agenda.

Tyler accomplished much during his tenure in the White House. He reorganized the Navy, and in so doing, established the nucleus of the present Naval Observatory, which subsequently included the center of the Weather Bureau. He promoted a national telegraph system. He ended the Seminole Indian wars, and ended Dorr’s Rebellion in Rhode Island. He negotiated an open-port treaty with China, and oversaw the Webster-Ashburton Treaty which set the boundary between Maine and Canada. On his last day in office, he annexed Texas to the United States.

The Tyler family is prolific, and only a few generations span the American centuries.  John Tyler was born in 1790, and had fifteen children by two wives.  His first wife, Letitia Christian, bore eight children between 1815 and 1830.  She died in the White House in 1842, and two years later, Tyler married Julia Gardiner, who bore him seven children between 1846 and 1860. Tyler holds the record of the president with the most children. He was also the first president to wed while in office.

During his presidency, John Tyler bought a James River plantation which became the Tyler family home. It was called Walnut Grove. It is located in Charles City County, Virginia, about 18 miles west of Williamsburg. Tyler soon renamed it when political opponents publicly likened him to Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest. Tyler, ever displaying a broad sense of humor, turned the insult on its ear by chortling over the joke and adopting the name for his new home. Sherwood Forest has remained in the Tyler family since that time, sometimes open to the public as a museum, sometimes not.  It is still a residence; the Tylers struggle with issues of trying to live in a house regularly crowded with strangers.  

Currently living in the house is John Tyler’s grandson (yes, grandson) Harrison Ruffin Tyler, youngest son of Lyon Gardiner Tyler, John’s thirteenth child, who was born in 1853.  Lyon duplicated his father’s marital pattern, marrying twice and having (not quite so many) children into the early 20th Century.  Harrison was born in 1928 and is still hale and hearty in his early eighties.  He and his family manage the plantation, raising horses and running a tree farm, among other things.  In 1996, he purchased an abutting parcel to manage as a tree farm, but also was interested in the remnants of a Civil War fort on the parcel. This was Fort Pocahontas, an earthen fort built at Wilson’s Wharf on the James River by the United States Colored Troops in 1864.

Tyler has taken an active interest in the restoration of Fort Pocahontas, and has helped to finance the reconstruction of officers’ barracks and appropriate clearing of trees and brush from the site, although it remains somewhat wooded, as the original fort site was never entirely cleared.

About ten years ago, when my husband and I were living in Virginia, we were invited to participate in a Civil War reenactment at Fort Pocahontas.  The event was intended to raise public awareness of the fort’s existence, and it gave the Tylers an opportunity to meet reenactors who would have a direct interest in the site. The Tylers’ hospitality lived up to the standards for which the South is famous, and we had a rare opportunity to meet Harrison Tyler and his wife Frances (as well as her devoted little dog Toodles whom she had rescued off the streets of Chicago). The Tylers were fascinated with the reenactors, and the reenactors were equally fascinated with the Tylers.  How often do you get to meet people of presidential stock?

To think that one can speak today, in the 21st Century, with a man who is only two generations from a man born in the 18th Century. What is that they say about degrees of separation?

The Civil War event continues to be held annually in May at Fort Pocahontas. If you are in the area, it’s a good take. The Tylers have probably done more work on the fort since we were there. And if the house is open for public tours, be sure to check that out, too. Aside from the Tyler connection, it has a unique architectural history of its own.


Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Lincoln appoints William Seward as Secretary of State - Jan. 10, 1861

(May 16,1801 - Oct. 10, 1872)

On January 10, 1861, 150 years ago this week, William Henry Seward of Auburn, New York, was named Secretary of State in president-elect Lincoln’s Cabinet.  Seward is best known for his service under Presidents Lincoln and Johnson and for his management of the purchase of Alaska from the Russians (derisively known as “Seward’s Folly” and “Seward’s Icebox” by those who had not yet taken the time to discover the vast resources of this seeming frozen wasteland).

Born in Florida, NY, he studied law at Union College in Schenectady, and was admitted to the NY State Bar Association in 1821.  That same year he met Frances Adeline Miller, whom he married in 1824; he went into a law partnership with his father-in-law, Judge Elijah Miller.  He and Frances had five biological children, of whom four reached adulthood.  After Frances’ death in 1865, Seward legally adopted Olive Risley, a young woman with no family who had come to serve his household needs.

He spent nearly forty of his 71 years active in the American political foreground - as a state senator, a U. S. senator, governor of New York State, and Secretary of State under Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson.  He was outspoken in favor of abolition, public education, and prison reform.

At the time of the 1860 Republican National Convention, Seward was the acknowledged leader of the six-year-old Republican Party, and he was initially expected to be a shoo-in for president.  He lost to Lincoln, however, because Lincoln’s anti-slavery stand was far more moderate than Seward’s.  Among the delegates, the idea apread that Lincoln would aggravate the South less than Seward.  Although the South’s reaction to Lincoln was highly vitriolic, especially after his election, it would probably have been far worse had Seward been in place.

Despite Seward’s disappointment, he recognized the value and power of a position in the Cabinet.  Once Lincoln had made it clear to Seward that he was the one in charge of the presidency, the two men began their work together to keep the Union in one piece.  They became an effective team, with mutual deep respect and friendship that grew steadily throughout the Civil War.  Seward was an invaluable asset to Lincoln.

Seward was a fascinating man in his own right.  His home in Auburn, New York, about 35 miles west-southwest of Syracuse, has been restored and is open to the public as a museum.  The entire Seward family exhibited a curious instinct of the value of everyday details in terms of their place in history, a quality which made the restoration of the house and its preparation as a museum far easier than historic sites usually experience.  No one ever threw anything away.  For example, a receipt for the chandelier in the foyer is in the records of the house, with the purchase price and notes about where it was originally installed.  Original architectural drawings are still in the house.  Of the 30+ rooms, six or seven of them are still chock full of such memorabilia.

Seward had a passion for photography, a new technology in his lifetime.  He had no aspirations to be a photographer, but collected images of famous people.  Original framed photographs, many quite large, completely cover the walls of the main stairway, each with a number for identification.  Here, amid royalty and statesmen from the world over, King Mongkut of Siam poses with one of his children, the same King who offered Lincoln a gift of elephants for the war effort, the same King whom modern American audiences remember from the 1944 book Anna and the King of Siam and the 1951 musical “The King and I.”

Seward loved to travel, too.  In August 1870, he set out on the second and last of his voyages around the world, and came home laden with gifts and souvenirs collected during the 14-month tour.  These works of art, historical relics, and rare objects added to the already burdened house.  According to a newspaper story printed in 1915, among these articles are found:

a fragment from ancient Carthage in mosaic bearing the classic line “Delenda est Carthage,” a bronze Cupid from the tomb of Xenophon, a suit of armor worn by one of the Crusaders, a medallion blessed by Pope Pius IX and presented by him to Seward, sets of rare Sevres ware given to him by Prince Napoleon, Cloissone and porcelains of the finest workmanship, a mahogany and ebony table from China, ancient buddhas, tapestries and relics from the Far East.

One of these Eastern treasures is a small wooden stool, rather plain, an Abyssinian throne from ancient times.  The docents relate its story during a tour of the house:  When Seward visited Abyssinia in 1871, he had an audience with the King, who welcomed him warmly and cordially.  At the conclusion of their conversation, the King asked Seward if there was anything Seward wanted in his power to give.  Seward, with a twinkle in his eye, replied, “I would have your throne.”  The King of Abyssinia, with a twinkle in his eye to match, stood up, reached down and picked up the humble stool on which he had been sitting, and handed it to Seward.  “It is yours.”  This throne is on display at the house.

Should you find yourself in upstate New York, be sure not to miss this wonderful historic site.  The Seward House Museum is a worthy destination on its own.  While you are there, be sure to visit the Harriett Tubman Home a few blocks away.  Seward was a friend and benefactor of Tubman, and they are buried not far from each other in Fort Hill Cemetery situated between the two residences.

Taylor, John M.  William Henry Seward New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991.
“The Seward Home,” The Auburn Citizen, October 21, 1915, p. 18.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

General Tom Thumb (Jan. 4, 1838 - July 15, 1883)

This week, I share my birthday (January 4) with Louis Braille (1809) who developed a system of reading for the blind, actress Jane Wyman (1914), Sir Isaac Newton (1643), and General Tom Thumb, born Charles Sherwood Stratton (1838). 

P. T. Barnum & General Tom Thumb
Charles Sherwood Stratton's parents lived in Bridgeport, CT. His father was a carpenter, his mother worked at a local inn. He had three siblings. Of the four children, Charlie was the only midget. He was born full-sized, but as a toddler, he just stopped gaining height. At age 4, when Phineas Taylor Barnum met him, he weighed 15 lbs. and stood only 25 inches tall. In his late teens, Stratton gained some height, eventually attaining a stature of 40 inches.

P. T. Barnum immediately recognized the potential of the boy. Although reluctant, his parents agreed to let Barnum work with the diminutive boy. By the time Mrs. Stratton and young Charlie arrived at Barnum’s museum, Barnum had already written a publicity biography, billing the boy as “General Tom Thumb,” an 11-year-old Lilliputian from London.

Barnum started Charlie at $3 per week, and picked up the tab for the Strattons’ living expenses. He soon increased this to $7 per week, and within a few months, to $25 per week, a staggering sum. In the 1840s, this wage was about eight times that of an average laborer.

Today, such child labor is considered exploitation, but Barnum was an honest and forthright businessman. He was not one to take advantage. He trained Charlie himself and saw to his education, and found the child a natural for the stage. Barnum wrote that Charlie Stratton was “an apt student with a great deal of native talent and a keen sense of the ludicrous.”

In his acts, General Tom Thumb appeared in various costumes, sang songs, and danced. He mimicked and parodied famous characters, including Napoleon and Cupid. Barnum would play the straight man while Tom Thumb cracked jokes.

In January 1844, Barnum and The General set sail for a three-year European tour. Thanks to a letter of introduction from Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune to Edward Everett, America’s ambassador in Great Britain (and who would give the other Gettysburg Address twenty years later), Barnum and General Tom Thumb received an invitation to perform for Queen Victoria.  The Queen and her entourage were immediately delighted by the boy. He advanced with dignity and bowed gracefully. The Queen took his hand, led him about the gallery, and plied him with innumerable questions; his answers kept the gathering in stitches.

The General then performed his act. When he withdrew, the Queen’s poodle attacked the 6-year-old boy, who fought off the animal with his walking stick, with a ferocity that drew more amusement from the nobles.

His reception by the Queen made General Tom Thumb a publicity phenomenon. He was a continued celebrity in all of the other European capitals which he toured.

He was such a success that when some of Barnum’s investments failed in 1856, forcing him into bankruptcy, the tiny teenager toured Europe again with Barnum to raise money for Barnum to get back on his feet.  The professional relationship between Barnum and Stratton, begun when Stratton was barely more than a toddler, grew into a deep friendship which lasted for 40 years until Stratton’s death. They became business partners in some ventures.

Charles & Lavinia on their wedding day
Late in 1862, Barnum met General Tom Thumb’s female match: Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump of Middleborough, Massachusetts. At 32 inches tall, she weighed only 29 pounds. With an able intellect and nimble physique, she had taught school since age 16, and had also toured on a Mississippi showboat as a miniature dancing chanteuse. Barnum hired her and shortened her name to something more marketable: Lavinia Warren. When Miss Warren and Charlie Stratton met, Charlie no longer played Cupid - he was smitten.  His aggressive courtship ousted Commodore Nutt (George Washington Morrison Nutt), another dwarf in Barnum’s employ, from Lavinia’s favor. There wasn’t much of a fight - Lavinia was equally smitten with Charlie.  (Age might have been a factor - Charlie was only three years older; Nutt was 27 years older.) Barnum publicized the rivalry, the courtship, the nuptials, and the honeymoon, paid for the wedding (February 10, 1863), and generated tremendous revenue.

The honeymoon included a reception at the White House. President and Mrs. Lincoln and their youngest son Tad were enchanted by the newlyweds. Their oldest son Robert, however, viewed the reception with embarrassment. He felt that his parents diminished the dignity of the presidency by making a spectacle of themselves with sideshow freaks. He refused his mother’s wish for him to attend the reception. Curiosity must have won out, however, for he was spied in remote corners of the ballroom.

In the late 1860s, The Thumbs embarked on another 3-year world tour, which included appearances in Australia. Their popularity around the world continued to soar. General Tom Thumb made his final international appearance in England in 1878.

General Tom Thumb as an adult
The Thumbs lived for some time in New York City. They owned a yacht, considerable real estate, and fine horses. Charlie became a 32-degree Freemason. They also owned a house in Bridgeport, CT.

They continued to travel.  In January of 1883, the Milwaukee hotel in which they were staying caught fire.  Their manager rescued them, but 71 other guests perished. The event, declared one of the worst hotel disasters in American history, was highly traumatic, and some speculate that it contributed to the stroke that Charlie Stratton suffered six months later. His sudden death in Middleborough, MA, shocked the nation. Lavinia was not with him at the time; she was on tour.  He was only 45 years old.

Charles Sherwood Stratton is buried in Bridgeport, not far from the grave of his friend P. T. Barnum. Ten thousand people attended the funeral. The monument on his grave is topped with a life-size statue of him as General Tom Thumb. Lavinia lived until 1919, marrying once again and continuing performances on stage and in silent films. As she wished, she is buried with her beloved Charlie.

Besides Wikipedia, more information for this article was obtained from the following sources:
Struggles and Triumphs; or, Sixty Years' Recollections of P. T. Barnum (1889).