Thursday, January 29, 2015

Embalming and the Strange Case of President Andrew Johnson

     The practice of embalming only came into its own at the time of the American Civil War.  Thomas Holmes was a doctor in the Union army who had previously experimented with the process of embalming corpses. Early in the war, he embalmed a few Union officers killed in battle so that their remains could be shipped home for burial.  President Lincoln eventually sanctioned the procedure for all fallen soldiers, and during the course of the war Dr. Holmes embalmed some four thousand soldiers.  Military authorities also permitted private embalmers to work in military-controlled areas. 

     The assassination and subsequent funeral of Abraham Lincoln brought the practice of embalming to the attention of a wider public.  President Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865 but his body was not interred in Springfield, Illinois until May 4.  Lincoln’s body was put on a special funeral train and retraced the route Lincoln had traveled as the president-elect on his way to his first inauguration in Washington.  The passage of the body home for burial was made possible by embalming and brought the possibilities of embalming to the attention of a wider public.

     Despite its growing acceptance, by 1875 even some of the most famous in the land were not being embalmed after death.  Andrew Johnson, who succeeded to the presidency after Lincoln’s assassination, who was the first American president to be impeached, and who is widely regarded as one of the country’s worst presidents, was one such individual.  Johnson died on July 31, 1875.  His funeral took place on August 3, in Greenville, Tennessee.  The body decomposed rapidly in the summer heat, so the casket was kept closed.  In a folk story, often retold by funeral directors and florists, the resourceful undertaker piled heaps of flowers on the casket to mask the odor of the body.

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Sunday, January 25, 2015

Martha Washington's Slave Half Sister

Martha Washington

Sexual relations between masters and slave women were common during the eighteenth century and later.  Famed Southern diarist Mary Chestnut would observe in the 19th century, “Like the patriarchs of old our men live all in one house with their wives and their concubines, and the mulattoes one sees in every family exactly resemble the white children--and every lady tells you who is the father of all the mulatto children in everybody's household, but those in her own she seems to think drop from the clouds, or pretends so to think.”

One very prominent Virginian well known to George and Martha Washington was engaged in sexual relations with a slave.  Rumors began to circulate that Thomas Jefferson had sired children by a beautiful young slave at his Monticello plantation named Sally Hemings.  Jefferson’s political opponents made much of the rumors at the time, but over the centuries historians largely dismissed the story which was preserved largely through an oral tradition handed down in the Hemings family.  In 1998, however, the British science journal Nature published the results of a DNA study linking a member of the Jefferson family, not necessarily Thomas Jefferson, to the descendents of Sally Hemings. Subsequently, in January 2000, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, the custodians of Monticello, issued a report concluding that based on all available evidence, Thomas Jefferson was, in all probability, the father of at least one and perhaps all the children of Sally Hemings. 

Author Henry Wiencek, in his 2003 book An Imperfect God: George Washington,His Slaves, and the Creation of America, argues that Martha Washington had a slave half sister, Ann Dandridge Costin, sired by her father John Dandridge.  This supposed half sister was about Martha’s age and lived at Mount Vernon according to Wiencek.  Other historians deny the existence of Martha Washington’s half sister and assert that Wiencek has accepted “lore” as fact.

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The Stolen Election and the Corrupt Bargain

     Viewers of the political thriller House of Cards will probably not be surprised to learn that political intrigue is as old as the Republic.

     The presidential election of 1824 was one of the most hotly contested elections in the nation’s history.  The Federalist Party had dissolved and the United States found itself in the unique position of having only one political party, the Democratic Republicans.  Sadly, this brief period of political unity within the country would be short-lived as members of the Party began to divide into factions.

     What made the election of 1824 so unique was that the four top contenders for the highest office of the land were all favorite son candidates.  Andrew Jackson, the hero of the Battle of New Orleans, was supported by the South, West, and mid -Atlantic.  Henry Clay found some support in the West, but hoped to garner support in the South and East.  William Crawford was supported by the East, while John Quincy Adams was supported by New England. 

     When the final vote in the Electoral College was made, Andrew Jackson had the most votes with ninety-nine.  John Quincy Adams came in second with eighty-four.  William Crawford came in third with forty-one and Henry Clay rounded out the list with thirty-seven.  The presidential election went to the House of Representatives for a decision, in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution.  As it was written in the Constitution, only the top three candidates could have their names submitted to Congress for a vote to determine the next president of the United States.  Since he came in fourth place, Henry Clay was automatically eliminated.

     To the surprise of most, the House of Representatives elected John Quincy Adams president of the United States.  Rumors of a “corrupt bargain” spread over the capital city.

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