Category Archives: General History

Portrait of a Mother: Eliza Clerc Makes Her Deafness Visible, 1822

Clerc Boardman Marriage Announcement

Their wedding in 1819 was perhaps the first of its kind in the United States: the union of deaf man and a deaf woman.

When Laurent Clerc agreed to travel to America in 1817 to help Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet learn sign language and establish a school for the deaf, he made it clear he would be returning to France in 1820. That changed when he met 23-year old Eliza Boardman, one of his first students at the Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons in Hartford. By 1818, they were betrothed.

Eliza and Elizabeth Clerc Portrait by Charles Wilson Peale, 1822

Eliza and Elizabeth Clerc, 1822. (From a photo by the author, Wadsworth Atheneum, 2014.)

The news of their engagement was not met with universal joy. Gallaudet himself opposed the match. Conventional wisdom held that the deaf should not intermarry. Eliza nor Laurent were not congenitally deaf, but most people of the era assumed that deaf parents would inevitably produce deaf children. There was also a question of logistics: how could a deaf mother ever tend to the needs of her children?

Quite well, as it turned out. Eliza and Laurent had six children, all born with normal hearing. The two were married for fifty years – just a normal, pleasant couple who happened to communicate through sign language.

In 1822, they both sat for their portraits with the great Charles Wilson Peale. Eliza could have easily chosen to let her deafness be invisible. Instead, she decided to immortalize her role as a deaf mother, her daughter Elizabeth on her lap, her right hand signing their shared initial.

Waiting To Become A Widow: Mary Brown and the Execution of John Brown

On the morning of December 2, 1859, Mary Day Brown and her companions Hector Tyndale and James and Sarah McKim left the Wager House Hotel in Harpers Ferry, Virginia for a walk at the start of what promised to be another long and trying day.

They had barely started out when a gunshot cut the air; Tyndale felt a bullet brush by his head.

Whether this was a serious attack or a prank by some over-excited local was not something worth contemplating. They turned around and returned to the hotel, where they spent the rest of the morning in seclusion, hands clasped “eyes streaming, hearts uplifted in prayer, waiting for the hour to strike.”

John Brown Farm, North Elba, New York.

John Brown Farm, North Elba, New York.

Mary Brown’s ordeal had weeks before when news reached their home in North Elba, New York that her husband’s attempt to seize the Federal armory in Harpers Ferry and spark a slave revolution had gone fatally wrong. Confirmation came in the form of a New York Times dispatch, read aloud by one of her children, after a long and sleepless night in late October.

“There was very little weeping or wailing or loud demonstration on the part of our broken household,” daughter Annie Brown later recalled. “We were most of us struck dumb, horror stricken with a greif too deep and hard to find expression in words or even tears.” Brown had always spoken of the potential that he might fall in service to the antislavery cause, said another daughter “but I did not think failure possible.”

Not only was her husband wounded and sure to face death for his efforts, her sons Watson and Oliver had died by his side. A stepson, Owen, had escaped, his whereabouts unknown. Also dead were William and Dauphin Thompson, the brothers-in-law of two of her surviving children.

Mary had given her husband 13 children since their marriage in 1833. Disease and accident had taken seven of them while young. After October 18, 1859, only four remained.

Within a few days of the news, Mary was convinced to travel south by the Reverend Thomas W. Higginson, a noted abolitionist and one of John Brown’s greatest champions. Along with several other prominent Northern men, Higginson believed Brown might still be rescued from the gallows, and he convinced Mary that her presence might convince the prisoner to fight on. She left North Elba on November 2, her path eased by abolitionist supporters eager to help Brown’s cause.

In Charlestown, Brown panicked. Mary’s health was often fragile, and even with assistance the trip could cost money the family did not have. “Mr Brown says ‘for God’s sake don’t let Mrs. Brown come,” his lawyer wired to Boston, too late to stop her. “If my Wife were to come here just now,” he wrote to Higginson on November 4, “it would only tend to distract her mind, Ten fold; & would only add to my affliction; & cannot possibly do me any good…I beg of her to be calm, & submissive; & not go wild on my account.”

“In regard to your coming here; If you feel sure that you can endure the trials and the shock, which will be unavoidable (if you come), I should be most glad to see you once more; but when I think of your being insulted on the road, and perhaps while here, and of only seeing your wretchedness made complete, I shrink from it. Your composure and fortitude of mind may be quite equal to it all; but I am in dreadful doubt of it,” he wrote her on November 16, as she waited in Philadelphia.

One he knew she was in Virginia, though, he was happy for her presence, saying “if you now feel that you are equal to the undertaking do exactly as you FEEL disposed to do about coming to see me before I suffer. I am entirely willing.”

His fears of her being “insulted,” were well-founded. When she was finally allowed to visit him at his jail in Charles Town the day before the execution, she had to pass through joyous crowds playing martial music in anticipation of the hanging. At the jail, she was strip-searched by the warden’s wife for fear she was carrying weapons or poison.

Husband and wife were allowed several hours together – not alone, but at least together. They talked about the family’s scant finances, about how Mary should raise their three surviving daughters, about the brutal deaths of Watson and Oliver. Watson’s body had been defiled by students from the local medical college and Oliver’s tossed in a mass grave with others killed in the raid. His request they and the Thompson boys be exhumed and cremated so she might take them all home had been denied, but he urged her to keep trying.

In the end, they were resigned. While Mary didn’t play an active role in her husband’s activities, she was no less an abolitionist, and just as sure he that he was about to die for a just cause. “God bless you and the children,” he said as the warden allowed them a final embrace. “God have mercy on you,” she replied. Crying, she was led to a carriage and taken back to Harpers Ferry. She would not be allowed in Charles Town during the hanging. She never saw his face again.

For Further Reading: Freedom’s Dawn: The Last Days of John Brown In Virginia by Louis DeCaro Jr

A Line Through the Desert

Readers of the New-York Tribune learned on December 1, 1866 that “Matrimonial advices from Utah state that Mr. Brigham Young has just taken a forty-fifth wide: the actual number of his family not being increased, as No. 23 died the other day.”

The story was incorrect. He had married Amelia Folsom in January 1863 and wouldn’t again until he took Mary Van Cott as a wife in January 1868. Many historians sorting through the muddle of Young’s matrimonial history count them as his 50th and 51st spouses. His 45th marriage, to Elizabeth Burgess, had taken place in October 1852. The death of his 23rd recorded wife, Olive Andrews, is unclear.

Utah’s isolation made these erroneous stories about her inhabitants all too easy to spread. But as New Yorkers read about “No. Forty-Five” in the Tribune that lazy Saturday, the territory was taking a leap forward into the mainstream of American life. December 1, 1866 was the first day of operation for the Deseret Telegraph Company, the nation’s first co-operatively owned telegraph line in the United States.

Brigham Young was something of an evangelist for telegraphs, having eagerly joined the push for a transcontinental line in the 1850s and early 1860s. Utah was a major link in the chain, with Salt Lake City serving the juncture of the eastbound and westbound lines. Young himself had been given the honor of sending the first telegraph from Salt Lake City to California in October 1861, concluding “Join your wires with the Russian Empire, and we will converse with Europe.”

In his mind, the next step was a territorial line, linking the Mormon settlements across Utah to Salt Lake and Salt Lake to the transcontinental line. In November 1865, Young sent a circular to the Bishops and Elders of wards across the territory saying “the proper time has arrived for us to take the necessary steps” to build a the line, arguing “we should bring into requisition every improvement with our age affords, to facilitate our intercourse and to render our intercommunication more easily.”

Each ward was instructed: “From settlement to settlement let the men of judgment select and mark the route for the Line to run, so has to have it as straight as possible and yet convenient to the road,” with 22-foot tall poles buried 4 feet deep, every 70 yards. Wire would be provided. Virtually the entire project was funded and managed by the Latter-Day Saints, with each community along the line pitching in the labor and material to get it done.

“Not a man on this line every worked a telegraph line before,” the project director later said, “the line was strung and put into operation in the middle of winter, it about five hundred miles in length; taking all into consideration, please permit me as an old operator to say that I think the working of the same almost a miracle.”

On December 1, 1866, Brigham Young sent the first telegraph to President Lorin Farr and Bishop Chancey West in Ogden, dedicating the line to the Lord God of Israel and “praying that this and all other improvements may contribute to our benefit, and the Glory of our God…” For the next 35 years, the slim Deseret line was the force that knit the Mormon world together and connected it to the world of the Gentiles.

Restored Deseret Telegraph Company office, Cove Fort, Utah. (Source: Wikipedia)

Restored Deseret Telegraph Company office, Cove Fort, Utah. (Source: Wikipedia)

The Day The First World War Came to London’s Pubs

We are fighting Germany, Austria and Drink; and, as far as I can see, the greatest of these three deadly foes is drink" David Lloyd George March 1915One cold, foggy morning, the working men of London walked into their favorite pubs for their traditional early-morning nip. They were disappointed.

At midnight on November 30, 1915, the public houses of London were put under new rules: Alcoholic beverages could only be sold between noon-2:30 and 6:30 to 9:30 on weekdays, 1 to 3 and 6 to 9 on Sundays. This was a major change in a city where some pubs opened at 5:30 in the morning and stayed open well past midnight, but the inducement for compliance was strong. Violators could be fined hundreds of pounds and imprisoned for up to six months.

The First World War invigorated England’s teetotalers. They had spent decades arguing on the deleterious impact of excessive drinking on the national character. Now, they could argue that it was a matter of national survival: If the country’s shipyard and munitions workers were sick with drink, they weren’t making ships or guns. A 1917 government study showed that worker absenteeism in key war industries was driven primarily by exhaustion caused by long shifts with limited breaks, but the argument fell on deaf ears by those looking to blame the demon drink or to keep the war machine humming.

Unwilling to destabilize the economy by nationalizing the nation’s brewers and distillers or establishing a full prohibition, the Government settled on less dramatic reforms. In May 1915, the Central Control Board began announcing restricted hours for drinking establishments in cities and towns across the country, starting in the industrial north. By the fall, London was in the crosshairs.

“For the most part they turned with a shudder from chilly mineral waters, some compromising on ginger wine, a non-alcoholic English made decoction possessing considerable warming qualities, but the majority tried soup and liked it,” said a reporter for the New York World in that first day. “There was a good deal of banter among the disappointed ones, but no anger, although the rows of bottles containing the forbidden beverages mocked them from the shelves.”

While many focused on the impact on working men, it was actually the high-end wine bars that suffered the most. Much of the business of the city was done over leisurely late afternoon port or champagne in these tony establishments. They were now officially closed during their golden hours. Prime Minister David Lloyd George, a long-time temperance advocate, eventually convinced King George V to abstain from alcohol for the duration of the War, but teetotalling never caught on among the British upper classes.

Noon came at last, and “many business men had pressing engagements at that mystic hour. Many men with whom it had been a habit of years to go out at 11 “to eat an apple,” postponed their fruitarian refreshment until just on noon, when they hurriedly left to “shake the apple tree.”” Order was restored. At least until 3pm.

Could the Lincoln Bedroom Become the Ultimate Airbnb Rental?

Call it the ultimate Airbnb crash pad.

In a recent interview on Bloomberg TV, Brian Chesky, CEO of the online room-letting empire, says he asked President Obama if he could get the Lincoln Bedroom listed for rent.

President Obama told him “I need to check with Michelle,” but said it was probably a long shot.

Chesky allowed that the President was probably just “humoring me.”

That said, it’s a lot more guest-ready than many of Airbnb’s offerings. A big comfy bed, great views of the Washington Monument and other DC landmarks, a modern flat-screen TV media center hidden in a repurposed walnut wardrobe, and (presumably) super-fast wi-fi. The vintage 1950s bathroom features a lovely domed ceiling, pale-green glass tiling, and a big tub etched with the presidential eagle seal. The White House even provides fluffy white towels and complimentary Aveda hair products.

Wait…a vintage 1950s bathroom?

The strange reality of the Lincoln Bedroom is that it isn’t Abraham Lincoln’s bedroom. He never slept there. He never walked those floors.

In the 1860s, the space now called the “Lincoln Bedroom” was a suite used as the president’s office and Cabinet meeting room. It had been since around 1830 and would be until the West Wing was built in 1902. Lincoln’s actual bedroom was down the hall, past a reception room, the family library, and Mary Lincoln’s bedroom.

The Lincoln Bedroom in the 1960s

The Lincoln Bedroom in the 1960s

Between 1949 and 1952, the White House interior was completely gutted and rebuilt. After decades of neglect, the building was in such poor condition that engineers feared it could collapse. The end result was a modernized living and work space, stabilized with new load-bearing steel beams. The trade-off was that the historic interior details were demolished.

The public rooms on the main floor were rebuilt on their old lines, but the upstairs living quarters were modified. The old presidential office suite was rebuilt as a modern bedroom suite, with a bathroom, bedroom and sitting room. President Truman christened it the Lincoln Bedroom as a place to display Lincoln-era furnishings and artifacts.

The Lincoln Bedroom after Bush Administration redecoration.

The Lincoln Bedroom after Bush Administration redecoration.

The room itself has been redecorated multiple times over the last fifty years. During the George W Bush era, the White House Historical Association paid $500,000 to give it a more authentic and vibrant Victorian feel. Many of the furnishing pre-date the Lincoln era, but were likely used by the family during their residence. The great rosewood bed that serves as the room’s centerpiece was purchased by Mary Lincoln in 1861, probably for a guest room. Other presidents slept in it, but Lincoln himself did not.

So it’s a complicated piece of historical memory: a bedroom that is a bedroom but wasn’t a bedroom; a “hallowed space” that was actually an office space; a “haunted” space whose original walls and floors are laying in a Virginia landfill. Abraham Lincoln, brought back from the beyond, would not recognize this space, or even the view from the windows.

At the moment, a decent Airbnb room a few blocks from the White House is renting for $327 a night. No rosewood bed. No reproduction Scalamandré drapes. They do provide shampoo, but it might not be Aveda. A secure building, but not snipers-on-the-roof secure. So – location, location, location – the Lincoln Bedroom could go for an easy $400 a night. That’s a cool $146,000 a year. The next president could support the sharing economy AND reduce the national debt at the same time.

Go on and list it! Lincoln would approve.

And you thought your last home renovation was intense? The view from the Lincoln Bedroom during the Truman-era rebuliding.

And you thought your last home renovation was a nightmare? The view from the Lincoln Bedroom during the Truman-era rebuilding.

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