“The Vanishing First Lady”-or Am I?

First Lady Lucretia Garfield lived for 36 years after her husband, President James A. Garfield, was assassinated in 1881 by Charles Guiteau.  During that time, she became a beloved figure in America, though she shunned publicity.  She created the first Presidential Memorial Library and became the matriarch of a large, close-knit and affectionate family.  Debbie Weinkamer, who portrays Lucretia, is a Garfield researcher, first-person living historian, and the Lead Volunteer at James A. Garfield National Historic Site in Mentor, Ohio.  Here she presents how Lucretia would speak for herself in answering the critics if she had the chance.  Not always self-assured, except in the company of friends and family, nevertheless, Lucretia had always met adversity head on, facing her responsibilities. 

I appreciate this opportunity to write to you in order to clear up some misconceptions about me.  Many of you have not heard much about me since my husband’s assassination and death in 1881.  Even the newspapers have called me the “Vanishing First Lady” and “Discreet Crete.”  I must admit: I have ducked all publicity, for I feel that in no way am I personally famous.  The name I bear is honored and honorable, but I am just an ordinary woman devoted to her husband and children.

lucretia-1881

Mrs. Lucretia Garfield, ca. 1881.  (Library of Congress)

I did enjoy my husband’s rise to prominence in politics, contrary to many historians’ opinions of me.  At the beginning of his political career, I wrote to him that, “I feel so much anxiety for you that your public career be never marked by the blight of a misdirected step.  I want you to be great and good.”  I was one of his most-trusted confidants and advisors.  I didn’t expect him to be nominated for President in the political climate of 1876-1880, but thought that his time would eventually come.  However, after he received the “dark horse” nomination at the 1880 Republican Convention in Chicago, I wanted him to win the election – even though I knew that it would bring political difficulties to my husband and a terrible responsibility to our entire family.

My quiet, shy nature made me very reluctant to take over the social duties of First Lady, even though I had been a Congressman’s wife for 17 years and had lived in Washington with my husband and family during sessions of Congress since 1869.  However, I was very fortunate to receive the good advice and assistance of my friend Harriet Blaine, wife of my husband’s Secretary of State and “an experienced Washington grande dame.”  I came to rely on her fine judgment regarding many etiquette matters, including how to establish my calling hours at the Executive Mansion, and effective ways to handle newspaper correspondents and petty criticisms.

Engagement pic cropped

A young James Garfield and Lucretia Rudolph around the time of their engagement.  They married on November 11, 1858.  (Western Reserve Historical Society)

(Here, I must pause to reveal some interesting correspondence regarding the Blaines…In April 1875, I received a letter from my husband concerning a rumor that when James Blaine was getting married to Harriet, the couple’s “warm blood led them to anticipate the nuptial ceremony,” and their first child was born about six months after their marriage.  My husband asked, would this fact “have weight with the people in the Presidential Campaign?” [Mr. Blaine was being considered by some for the presidency.]  

I replied, “It was a queer piece of gossip you gave me of Mr. Blaine.  I scarcely believe it.  But if it is true, it ought not to affect the voters very much unless it would have been considered more honorable by the majority to have abandoned the woman—seduced.  My opinion of Mr. Blaine would be rather heightened than otherwise by the truth of such a story: for it would show him not entirely selfish and heartless.”)

During his brief presidency, my husband paid me the best compliments a political wife can receive: that I was discreet and wise, that my “role as his partner in the presidential enterprise was essential to him,” and that I “rose up to every occasion.”

I have led a quiet, yet social, life since that terrible tragedy in 1881.  I created a “country estate” from my farm property in Mentor, Ohio and embarked on several building projects.  A “Memorial Library” addition was built onto the back of the farmhouse, complete with a fire-proof vault to hold my husband’s papers from his public career (and more than 1,200 letters shared between us).  I’ve been told that it may inspire others to create presidential libraries one day!

lucretia-portrait

Lucretia Rudolph Garfield in her later years, in a portrait by John Folinsbee.  This portrait hangs in the Garfield home at James A. Garfield National Historic Site in Mentor, Ohio.  (National Park Service)

My children have completed college, married, and now have children of their own.  I am so pleased to say that they have grown up to be distinguished citizens in their own right.  We all gather at the Mentor farm every summer, and I can be found wintering in South Pasadena, California.  I love to travel to New York City for the opera season and to visit my 16 grandchildren at least once a year.

I try to keep well-informed of science, cultural, and political events, both at home and abroad.  I have co-founded a ladies’ literary group (based on one that my husband and I attended in Washington) called the Miscellany Club, where monthly meetings are held in members’ homes and we take turns speaking on subjects related to a year-long topic, like “American History.” I often correspond with my oldest sons about political matters, which can get quite interesting since one is aligned with Woodrow Wilson and the other with Theodore Roosevelt!

lucretiagroup-1

Mrs. Lucretia Garfield (center, seated) surrounded by grandchildren on her Mentor, Ohio property.  (Lake County Historical Society)

My five children have been a continual joy and inspiration to me.  And with the memory of my dear Husband and our little ones who didn’t stay with us very long…I have had a remarkable life.  For does not life grow richer as the years go by?  Even our losses lead us into wider fields and nobler thoughts.

Very respectfully,

Lucretia R. Garfield

 

-Debbie Weinkamer, Lead Volunteer

(This article originally appeared at http://kennethackerman.com/guest-blogger-debbie-weinkamer-on-lucretia-garfield-the-vanishing-first-lady-or-am-i/ on March 30, 2012.)

 

 

Advertisements

Mourning President Garfield

“The waves of emotion that swept over the country, moreover, were fed not only by the fact that America’s president had been attacked…but that that president had been Garfield.”
-Candice Millard, Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President
President James A. Garfield was only in office just four short months before Charles Guiteau’s attempted assassination. While his time as President was brief, his effect on the nation was not. Out of the many things that stand out about James A. Garfield, his effect on the nation is one that must not be over looked. His death has been compared that of John F. Kennedy. Both were bright, articulate, hopeful presidents who had set out to unite America.
On July 2, 1881, President Garfield became the second president to be shot. Walking through Washington, D.C.’s Baltimore & Potomac train station, heading toward his New England-bound train, President Garfield was shot twice by Charles Guiteau, a man who until recently had hoped to work for the President.

Charles Guiteau shot President James A. Garfield on July 2, 1881.  Secretary of State James G. Blaine was standing next to the President when Guiteau attacked.  Secretary of War Robert T. Lincoln was about 40 feet away and walking toward Blaine and Garfield.  (

Charles Guiteau shot President James A. Garfield on July 2, 1881. Secretary of State James G. Blaine was standing next to the President when Guiteau attacked. Secretary of War Robert T. Lincoln was about 40 feet away and walking toward Blaine and Garfield. (Library of Congress)

In 1881, Presidents did not have guards surrounding them or security escorts when traveling. Americans believed the President should be accessible to everyone. The only guard between the President and the people when he was at the White House was his secretary, Joseph Stanley- Brown. Even President Garfield, desperate to cling to any remaining freedoms after taking office, argued that he needed no more protection than the average American.
This mindset, the ability to relate with the general public, was one of the things the nation loved about Garfield. He was human to them, someone with whom nearly everyone could identify. He had grown up in extreme poverty in northern Ohio. His father had died young, and that left only his mother to raise him and his older siblings. He attended school, much of which he paid for by working before and after his classes. Entering the army during the Civil War, he rose up the ranks to become a Major General, only leaving to take a seat in Congress to which his fellow Ohioans had elected him while he fought. However, he remained a farmer and a family man, constantly challenging his children both physically and intellectually. These facts made him different than many of the presidents before him. His life story made him relatable to the average citizen. He welcomed all to his farm in Mentor, Ohio. During his campaign he spoke to all with the same tone of respect, regardless of their place in society.

1880 view of the Garfield home and property, which became the focal point of Garfield's 1880 presidential campaign. (Wash drawing by delineator L.C. Corwine, Library of Congress)

1880 view of the Garfield home and property, which became the focal point of Garfield’s 1880 presidential campaign. (Wash drawing by delineator L.C. Corwine, Library of Congress)

It was Garfield as a person, not a president, that made his death heartbreaking to many Americans. With his death, Americans united with a common feeling of loss, and a common sense of patriotism that had not been seen since before the Civil War, if ever before that.
For many, President Garfield represented not just who America was, but also what it hoped to become. With his death, Americans lost the figurehead they had made Garfield, and that loss was felt by all, regardless of race, gender, or statehood. He was someone who would not tolerate discrimination but also managed to make many in the South feel as though the government was their government, too. This was something they had not felt in years. His background allowed him to connect to the pioneers heading west, while also relating to the immigrants arriving from the east. James A. Garfield was someone that many Americans not only trusted, but loved almost as family.
For 80 days, from the shooting on July 2 to his death on September 19, the public read every newspaper and waited for each bulletin from the President’s doctors hoping for news of Garfield’s recovery. With the announcement of his death, the entire nation mourned, and many traveled to the Washington, D.C. Over 100,000 people went to the nation’s capital to view the President’s body. Everyone from poor farmers to wealthy women and African American laborers came to pay their respects. Mollie Garfield, the president’s daughter wrote in her diary about how the whole city was covered in black. From the White House to the poorest homes, the city was in full mourning. Many who could not afford anything more tore up black clothing and hung it in their windows.

The White House with mourning decorations in September 1881, after the death of President James A. Garfield.  (Library of Congress)

The White House with mourning decorations in September 1881, after the death of President James A. Garfield. (Library of Congress)

Americans were not inactive in their mourning. Over $300,000 was raised to help Lucretia and her children. Hundreds of people wrote letters sending their condolences to Lucretia, many of which she kept in the Memorial Library she created after her husband’s death. Large amounts of memorabilia for the late president were also made, and could be seen in many homes across the country. His monument at Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland, Ohio was one of the biggest and most elaborate mausoleums of its time. People wanted a lasting memorial to Garfield, much like his wife wanted when she created the Memorial Library at their home in Mentor.

Lucretia Garfield had the Memorial Library constructed in 1885-86 to preserve her husband's book collection and memory for herself and their children.  She added the

Lucretia Garfield had the Memorial Library constructed in 1885-86 to preserve her husband’s book collection and memory for herself and their children. She added the “Memory Room” to store the papers of his public career, thus creating the nation’s first presidential library. (NPS photo)

Garfield was the last president to be born in a log cabin. He was the last of many things, but the first of many more. More important than any of Garfield’s achievements during his brief presidency was the impact he had on the American people. His death truly united citizens as Americans. A man who in life had made everyone feel welcome in the United States in death made them feel as though they truly were the United States.

-Rachel Gluvna, Volunteer

James A. Garfield and the Lincoln Assassination

One hundred and fifty years ago, on April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth committed what many consider the last tragic and violent act of the American Civil War.  That evening, he snuck into the presidential box at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C., where President and Mrs. Abraham Lincoln were enjoying the third act of the comedy Our American Cousin.  Booth was a well-known actor from a family of well-known actors, and he had little trouble gaining access to the box.  He drew a small Derringer pistol, pointed it at the back of Lincoln’s head, and pulled the trigger.

As the theater erupted into noise and chaos, Booth leapt from the box onto the stage, supposedly screaming “sic semper tyrannis” (thus always to tyrants) as he jumped.  Despite breaking his leg when he landed, Booth escaped.  He was tracked down and killed by federal troops in Virginia almost two weeks later.  The mortally wounded President Abraham Lincoln was carried across the street to the Petersen House, where he died about nine hours after being shot.  His hopes and plans for a lenient, easy Reconstruction of the South died with him.  Radical Republicans in Congress quickly wrested control of Reconstruction from President Andrew Johnson and inflicted a harsh, punitive program on the South that led to more than a century of hard feelings and distrust.

John Wilkes Booth murdered President Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865.  Booth hailed from Maryland and was a Confederate sympathizer.  His plan to avenge the South by killing Lincoln failed since Lincoln intended to offer the South a lenient Reconstruction policy.  Lincoln's death allowed Radical Republicans in Congress to impose a harsh, punitive Reconstruction instead.  (Wikipedia Commons)

John Wilkes Booth murdered President Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865. Booth hailed from Maryland and was a Confederate sympathizer. His plan to avenge the South by killing Lincoln failed since Lincoln intended to offer the South a lenient Reconstruction policy. Lincoln’s death allowed Radical Republicans in Congress to impose a harsh, punitive Reconstruction instead. (Wikipedia Commons)

James A. Garfield was a 33-year old freshman congressman when Lincoln was murdered.  A former Union general, Garfield had been nominated by Ohio Republicans and won election to the House of Representatives while still in the field with the army.  He left the military at the end of 1863 to take his seat in the House.  On April 14, 1865, Garfield was on a trip to New York City.  He learned of Lincoln’s death the next morning and wrote to his wife, Lucretia: “I am sick at heart, and feel it to be almost like sacrilege to talk of money or business now.”  Though Garfield had disagreed with President Lincoln on several issues, he was clearly distressed by the violent death of the man whose leadership had seen the United States through its darkest days.

Over the years, a story emerged about Garfield’s actions in New York after learning of Lincoln’s death.  Like so many other places across the North, New York City was in chaos after the news of the President’s murder began to spread.  Anger, sadness, and fear gripped many of the city’s residents as suspicions of a conspiracy and the expectation of more killings ran rampant.  Supposedly, a mob of some 50,000 people filled Wall Street and screamed for the heads of southern sympathizers.  As the story goes, the crowd had just resolved to destroy the offices of The World, a Democratic newspaper, when a single figure appeared above them on a balcony and began to speak:  “Fellow citizens!  Clouds and darkness are round about Him!  His pavilion is dark waters and thick clouds of the skies!  Justice and judgment are the establishment of His throne!  Mercy and truth shall go before His face!  Fellow citizens!  God reigns, and the Government at Washington still lives!”

These are the words supposedly spoken that day by Congressman James A. Garfield.  A supposed eyewitness to this event reported “The effect was tremendous,” and that Garfield’s words brought calm to the crowd (and saved The World’s office from destruction, one assumes).  This witness then turned to someone close to ask who the speaker was, and was told, “It is General Garfield of Ohio!”

James A. Garfield entered the Union army as a Lieutenant Colonel in 1861.  In December 1863, Major General Garfield left the army to enter the U.S. House of Representatives.  He wore his general's uniform when he first arrived in Congress.  In April 1865, Garfield was in New York City when he learned of Lincoln's assassination.  (Dickinson College)

James A. Garfield entered the Union army as a Lieutenant Colonel in 1861. In December 1863, Major General Garfield left the army to enter the U.S. House of Representatives. He wore his general’s uniform when he first arrived in Congress. In April 1865, Garfield was in New York City when he learned of Lincoln’s assassination. (Dickinson College)

This story became famous and, as historian Allan Peskin relates, “an enduring aspect of the Garfield mythology.”  Regularly re-told by newspapers under the heading “Garfield Stills the Mob,” it was widely circulated in Garfield’s later political campaigns, including his 1880 run for the presidency.  Sadly and ironically, it was also regularly mentioned in memorial pieces after Garfield was, like Lincoln, murdered by an assassin.  However, like so many great stories, there is little reliable evidence to suggest that it happened as reported.

Several things about the story make it unlikely to be completely true.  First and foremost, despite being a lifelong diarist and letter writer, James A. Garfield himself never mentioned it.  Surely some version of it would have made it into a letter or diary entry at some point.  There was also no spoken or written tradition within the Garfield family that lent any authority to this event.  (Garfield himself may have elected not to discount the story after he saw how valuable it was during campaigns.)  Secondly, the same story with nearly the same quotes from Garfield later gained traction as having taken place during the Gold Panic of 1869.  James A. Garfield was nowhere near New York City during that event, but eyewitnesses still claimed to have watched him speak from a balcony and calm thousands of panicked stockbrokers.  Finally, Garfield’s eldest son, Harry A. Garfield, tried unsuccessfully to authenticate the story by searching the archives of New York newspapers.  Allan Peskin writes: “Both the Tribune and the Herald covered the Wall Street meeting and gave what purported to be verbatim accounts of a speech delivered by Garfield.  Although both versions contain echoes of the famous speech, neither version matches the eloquence or brevity of the speech of the legend, nor is there any indication that Garfield’s words pacified an angry mob although, according to the Herald, a lynch mob was calmed shortly before the meeting by Moses Grinnell.”

New Yorkers reading the New York Herald were greeted by this Saturday, April 15, 1865 front page announcing the murder of President Abraham Lincoln.  Supposedly, James A. Garfield "stilled the mob" later that day with a speech that, in all likelihood, he did not actually deliver but that has grown over time  to be part of the Garfield legend.  (historicpages.com)

New Yorkers reading the New York Herald were greeted by this Saturday, April 15, 1865 front page announcing the murder of President Abraham Lincoln. Supposedly, James A. Garfield “stilled the mob” later that day with a speech that, in all likelihood, he did not actually deliver but that has grown over time to be part of the Garfield legend. (historicpages.com)

So what are we to make of this story?  In all likelihood, it is just that: a story.  Garfield may very well have offered a few words to the New York crowd that day, but the image of him calming an angry mob with religious allegories and assurances that the federal government would survive the calamity of Lincoln’s death is very likely a myth.  Like so many events in history, the story took on a life of its own, especially when Garfield became both a presidential candidate and then a martyred leader.  While the story makes Garfield a more appealing and attractive historical figure, it ultimately does him a disservice by making us appreciate him for something that never happened.  There is plenty to admire about James Garfield; we don’t need apocryphal stories to make him more appealing.

-Todd Arrington, Chief of Interpretation & Education

Garfield Resources are All Around Us

Unlike many of our modern-day Presidents who have a Presidential Library constructed to serve as the repository for all things related to their administration, there is no central repository for everything related to the public service career and life of President James A. Garfield.

The First Lady (Lucretia Garfield) had the foresight to preserve the papers and documents of her husband’s Presidency and congressional career, and did so by creating the fireproof vault off of the Memorial Library, known as the “Memory Room.” It is, or was, the main holding place of President Garfield’s records until the President’s papers were transferred to the Library of Congress (www.loc.gov). The Garfield children, to their great credit, recognized they could not properly store and maintain the official records of their father’s career, and that the Library of Congress could. This was a donation of great value to the chronicling of a period of our nation’s history.

Lucretia Garfield had the Memorial Library constructed in 1885-86 to preserve her husband's book collection and memory for herself and their children.  She added the "Memory Room" to store the papers of his public career, thus creating the nation's first presidential library.  (NPS photo)

Lucretia Garfield had the Memorial Library constructed in 1885-86 to preserve her husband’s book collection and memory for herself and their children. She added the “Memory Room” (not visible here) to store the papers of his public career, thus creating the nation’s first presidential library. (NPS photo)

However, as I have found while conducting my own research for some of my presentations here at James A. Garfield National Historic Site, there is no single place where I could find all I needed. For example, this spring I gave a presentation about the State Senate career of James A. Garfield, and while I used the authoritative biography of the twentieth President, Garfield, by Dr. Allan Peskin, I also received assistance from the Ohio Legislative Service Commission (www.lsc.state.oh.us), and one of their amazing staff members, who provided to me information about the bills introduced and supported by then-Ohio State Senator James A. Garfield. Additionally, I was able to find information on the website of the Ohio Senate (www.ohiosenate.gov), and some additional information through the Ohio Historical Society (www.ohiohistory.org). Special thanks to Adam Warren, Administrative Aide to State Senator Nina Turner, who provided me with some photos of the Garfield Room in the Ohio Statehouse. I also found out that records related to the State Senate tenure of James A. Garfield can be found at the University of Akron (www.uakron.edu). This makes great sense, as Garfield represented Summit and Portage Counties in the Ohio Senate.

Seeking assistance from multiple places makes historical research even more like the assembly of a jigsaw puzzle.

Beginning with President Herbert Hoover, the National Archives and Records Administration (www.nara.gov), began to assemble the documents and artifacts of Presidential administrations into Presidential Libraries and Museums. Just last week, on May 1, the thirteenth (13th) Presidential Library opened to the public on the campus of Southern Methodist University. Located in Dallas, Texas, the George W. Bush Presidential Library is the largest of the 13 NARA Presidential Libraries. It is the central repository for the papers, artifacts, and other notable events of the tenure of our 43rd President.

The George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, located in Dallas, is the newest and largest presidential library.  It was dedicated May 1, 2013.  (www.architecture.about.com)

The George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, located in Dallas, is the newest and largest presidential library. It was dedicated May 1, 2013. (www.architecture.about.com)

Those Commanders-in-Chief who preceeded President Hoover, often, as in the case of President Garfield, have multiple sites, administered, often times, by multiple agencies or organizations. For example, the birth site cabin is managed by the Moreland Hills Historical Society (http://morelandhills.com); the Garfield home is a National Historic Site (www.nps.gov/jaga); and the Garfield Monument is part of Lake View Cemetery (www.lakeviewcemetery.com). Additionally, there are Garfield artifacts and papers in places such as the Hiram College Library (www.hiram.edu), the Western Reserve Historical Society (www.wrhs.org), and the Bedford Historical Society (www.bedfordohiohistory.org). Finally, one of the places near and dear to my heart, the Cleveland Public Library (www.cpl.org), also has a fairly extensive collection of Garfield-related books, speeches, and other items.

I would be remiss if I did not mention three great places to find information about President Garfield in the Washington, DC, area: the U.S. Capitol Historical Society (www.uschs.org), the White House Historical Association (www.whitehousehistory.org), and, of course, the White House (www.whitehouse.gov).

Should you come across any great sites or artifacts, we would love to hear about them. I wish you happy hunting in your quest to learn more about President Garfield, or any of our nation’s other leaders. If we can be of any further assistance to you, or if you are interested in becoming a National Park Service Volunteer, please do not hesitate to contact us through our website at www.nps.gov/jaga or by calling James A. Garfield National Historic Site at 440-255-8722.

Though he was President just a short time, James A. Garfield's life and career are integral to the history of northeast Ohio.  Visitors to James A. Garfield National Historic Site learn more about the man and his family and his career and legacy.  Visitors who tour the Garfield home are taken into the two rooms that constitute the nation's first presidential library.  (Library of Congress)

Though he was President just a short time, James A. Garfield’s life and career are integral to the history of northeast Ohio and the United States. Visitors to James A. Garfield National Historic Site learn more about the man and his family and his career and legacy. Those who tour the Garfield home are taken into the two rooms that constitute the nation’s first presidential library. (Library of Congress)

(Did you know that prior to the mid-1990’s renovation of the Ohio Statehouse, the names of the Presidents from Ohio, including Garfield, encircled the top of the rotunda inside the Statehouse? Also, during the 1990s renovation of the Statehouse, a skylight bearing the State Seal of Ohio commonly used from the 1840s to roughly the mid-1860s , was found in the top of the rotunda? I mention this because this version of the Seal can be found in the Memorial Screen in Eliza Ballou Garfield’s bedroom in the top white shield-shaped panel.)

-Andrew Mizsak, Volunteer