Assignment: Harry & Mollie Garfield’s Wedding Day

A Double Wedding, The Garfield Weddings, Married at Mentor. The headlines were deceptively simple for the grandest event in Mentor, Ohio since James A. Garfield’s successful 1880 front porch presidential campaign. But for an assassin’s bullet, it could have been a very different affair, with two of the twentieth President’s children being wed in the White House as the President reached the end of his second term. Instead, the young couples exchanged vows in the impressive new Memorial Library that Mrs. Garfield had added to the comfortable farm home the President had known.  The wedding provided an opportunity for newspapermen, and through them the nation, to revisit the people and places of the presidential campaign.

We have three newspaper articles describing the double wedding of Harry A. Garfield, President and Mrs. Garfield’s oldest son, to Belle Mason and the Garfield’s daughter Mary (always called Mollie) to Joseph Stanley-Brown. Joe Brown had been James Garfield’s private secretary during the campaign and in the White House.  The articles were carefully clipped from newspapers, right to the edge of the column, and pasted in scrapbooks. Only one has a dateline, and none includes a header to tell us the name of the paper. None has a by-line, and each has a very different take on the same event.

The Garfield Weddings is the most straightforward, just the facts, accounting of the weddings, with a lot of very specific details. It reads like a news wire service account, although none is named.  It includes detailed descriptions of the flowers and decorations, and plenty of column inches devoted to the brides’ and bridesmaids’ dresses. This information, virtually verbatim, was included in the other two, longer accounts. To give you a flavor of the coverage, here is part of one paragraph about the decorations.

“The house was beautifully decorated with palms, potted plants and cut flowers, and the atmosphere was fragrant with the perfume of roses, syringa [sic] and white carnations. Festoons and pendants of intertwined daisies hug like a curtain of green, white and gold in the wide doorway between the two large reception rooms on the first floor. . .and the large bay window in the library where the wedding parties were to stand during the ceremony, was canopied with roses and smilax and lined with palms and semi-tropical plants so as to form an alcove of soft greenery.”

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The guests, the music, the menu, the lists of attendants, the weather, the special train that brought most of the guest from Cleveland, and the honeymoon plans were all carefully reported. For the hundreds of newspapers across the country that wanted a “where are they now” report about the family they had known during Garfield’s brief presidency, this story would surely fit their needs.

Of course, the weddings were a more important story in Cleveland, where the Mason family was very prominent, and where Mrs. Garfield lived much of the year from 1882 to 1886. Cleveland reporters had sources.

A Double Wedding appeared in the Cleveland Leader on June 16. The newspaper is identified in the body of the story, and the date is written below the headline, presumably by the scrapbooker. The unnamed reported must have been in Mentor early in the day since his article begins with a wonderfully descriptive account of the arrivals of flowers, caterers and folding chairs. “The train was met at the depot by Mr. James R. Garfield, who was the master-of-ceremonies and under whose direction everything in connection with the reception and comfort of guests was prepared.”

The Leader also gives us a hint as to the source of information for all three articles. “The Western Associated Press was informed that all the family desired to have published would be given them by Mr. James R. Garfield, and that nothing else would be made public. . . But,” says our intrepid reporter without divulging sources, “the desired news was obtained.” He describes finding James R. Garfield on the porch; young Mr. Garfield was courteous but firm in declining to answer any questions. “Guests upon the streets were accosted in vain and even the neighboring farmers were reticent.”

In the end, the Leader article added to the story with brief biographies of the brides and grooms, a longer list of invited guests, and fulsome reporting on the arrival and departure of the special train that carried guests from Cleveland. Its description of the atmosphere around the home and the town provide a generous picture of a happy Garfield family.

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Married at Mentor is from the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Its begins, “Had a state secret to be preserved, the family and friends in attendance at the double wedding at the Garfield residence in Mentor yesterday could not have taken stricter precautions to prevent any knowledge of the event reaching the general public. . . Mrs. Garfield has always disliked newspapers and those employed by them and this sentiment was very plainly and emphatically evident yesterday.” [!]

This is the only article that contains illustrations—simple drawings of Hal, Belle, Mollie and Joe. It also includes all the required words about decorations, dresses and dinner. But scattered throughout are complaints about the way reporters were treated while covering the event.

This writer was offended that, “At the Union depot reporters were denied seats on the special train, and at Mentor the inhabitants were rather inclined to think that it was a cold day for reporters.”  The accommodations for the guests who took the special train were described as “bad, and the conveyances worse. The train arrived in the midst of a downpour of rain, and the hundred passengers were huddled into the two small waiting rooms until those eminent henchmen of the Garfield family, Joe Rudolph and Marshal Henry, could run them, in squads, to the Garfield house by means of open wagons and a buss [sic].”  Later in the paragraph the reporter says, “Joe Rudolph [Mrs. Garfield’s brother, Mollie and Harry’s uncle], usually so talkative, had had his lips sealed.” He complained again a bit later that some of the conversation among guest returning to Cleveland on the special train was about how successful they had been in freezing reporters out.

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The oddest part of this article is the focus on Mollie’s groom, Joseph Stanley-Brown. The biography of President Garfield’s son was dispatched in one, two-sentence paragraph. Mr. Brown, on the other hand, merited about half a column of newsprint, including this amazing bit of commentary:

“When the first rumors of his engagement to Miss Garfield were made public, friends of the family indignantly denied that there was any truth to them. Indeed at one time it was said that Brown’s attentions were distasteful to the family and that Mrs. Garfield went to Europe last fall to escape them. [Mrs. Garfield travelled to Europe with Hal and Mollie.] Certain it is, however, that the young couple were not engaged at that time, but the engagement must have been made by letter for immediately upon the return of the family to this country a few months ago, the final announcement was made that Brown and Miss Garfield were to be married. Friends of the parties say that this is a genuine love match and although Mrs. Garfield was in a measure opposed to it at first, she at last yielded to the wishes of her daughter.  One unpleasant rumor, which has been given considerable publicity, was to the effect that Brown had in his possession certain important political and state secrets involving Blaine and others and that the marriage was the price of his silence.”

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Mollie Garfield (left) and Belle Mason (right) at the double wedding ceremony in the Garfield home’s Memorial Library on June 14, 1888.  (Western Reserve Historical Society)

The Plain Dealer was well known as a Democratic newspaper, and James Garfield was a Republican president. James G. Blaine served as his Secretary of State and ran for President in 1884. But eight years after Garfield’s election, and on the joyous occasion of the marriage of two of his children, this is a remarkable piece of gossip to include in a story about a wedding. You have to wonder if this reporter is the one who gave the rumor its “considerable publicity.”

Readers are always cautioned to remember the source when judging journalism. Historians warn that we should think about the times. I will tell you that the brides and grooms were very happy. “To me it was ideal,” Belle Mason Garfield wrote to her new mother-in-law about the wedding.  And in the end, that is what matters.

 

-Joan Kapsch, Park Guide

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