On a Funeral Procession

The assassination of John Kennedy, as traumatic and as paradigm shifting as it was, almost pales in comparison to the national outpouring of grief when Abraham Lincoln died at the hands of assassin John Wilkes Booth. Even in parts of the former Confederacy, true patriots knew that Lincoln was the best hope for not only national reunification but also for the rebuilding of southern society after such a devastating war.

When Lincoln died, it was decided that his body should go around the country by train, with stops in several important cities. The cities would then hold parades to allow as many people as possible to show tribute to the fallen leader. One of the largest parades took place in New York City.

Lincoln had not been always popular in New York. There were several draft riots during the war which caused tens of thousands of dollars worth of damage to the city. Being a democratic stronghold, many in the city viewed Lincoln as a tyrant. But, after his death, they also, mourned his passing because they knew he had steered the ship of state through rough waters into a safe harbor (to paraphrase the New York poet Walt Whitman).

So the city turned out in large numbers to say goodbye to Abraham Lincoln. The funeral procession included huge rows of New York volunteer and draftee troops, freshly home from the Civil War. Family members and well wishers turned out to see them as well as mourners to see the extensive parade. Children who were old enough to witness the event and remember what they had seen spoke about the events of that late April day well into the 20th century.

Look at the photograph above. Years later, someone noticed that the house in the left center of the photograph belonged to one of New York’s wealthiest and most prominent families. They noticed two small figures in the second story window who were keenly watching the passing of the Presidential catafalque.

A relative of the family, in later years, said that she knew exactly who the two figures were. They were two young boys, cousins, in fact, of hers. One of them was named Elliot. This woman was certain of her identification because she ended up marrying the other one—the one whom she called Teedie.          

You know him as Teddy Roosevelt.

On a Good Wife

History is filled with stories of women who “kept the home fires burning” while the men went off to war in the early days of our republic. However, we seldom hear the actual names of the women who managed the affairs back home while the men served in government positions. Abigail Adams comes to mind certainly. Another such home manager who ran the household while the husband worked in Washington was Julia, the wife of Richard Mentor Johnson. Johnson was a member of the House of Representatives, later he was a Senator from Kentucky, and he made his reputation as a hero of the War of 1812.

Julia and Richard grew up together. In fact, they lived on the same farm owned by Richard’s father, in Scott County, Kentucky. We aren’t sure when the pair got together, but we know that they were a couple by 1811. At that time, Kentucky was the frontier, and the Johnsons worked hard to carve out a large homestead that would eventually become a large plantation—and many African slaves were procured who worked that farm. When Richard’s father passed away, he inherited both the place and the people who lived and worked there.

Richard and Julia had their first child in 1812. Adaline C. Johnson brought great joy to her parents when she arrived in the world, and soon she was followed a few years later by Imogene C. Johnson. Richard insured that both daughters were educated at the best local academy in Scott County. Richard’s duty and success in the War of 1812 made him a national celebrity for reportedly having killed the native leader, Tecumseh. Even before the war, Johnson found himself holding elective office first in Kentucky and then in Washington, D.C.

While Richard was off serving his nation, Julia was left to run the place. And run it she did. And not simply the household only—Julia also ran all of Johnson’s businesses while he was away, and that included managing the slaves he owned. Most men of the day would have hired a male caretaker or manager, but Richard trusted Julia explicitly. Such was the trust he had in her. She even ran the tavern the couple owned on their land and the flour mill that was powered by a local stream. In all the time Johnson was gone from home, Julia never as much as lost a dime to mismanagement or poor choices. She proved to be an able, efficient manager, and that made Richard so proud of her.

What is more, Julia also found time to manage the academy where their daughters went to school. The couple opened education there to native tribes, and the school had over 200 students at one time, many of them from the Creek, Chickasaw, and other tribes of the area. In 1833, a Cholera outbreak attacked the school, and Julia worked tirelessly to treat the sick children and their families. Sadly, she herself caught the illness, and she died that year.

Richard M. Johnson never stopped grieving over the loss of his Julia. In 1836, when he was elected Vice-President of the United States, one of his great sorrows was that Julia was not around to see it.

There were others who were not so sad to see that Julia had passed. In fact, most of the Jacksonian Democrats in Johnson’s party were publicly thrilled that Julia was dead. And it wasn’t that she was a bad woman or inept or socially awkward or corrupt in any way.

You see, the reason so many in Johnson’s party disliked Julia Chenn, Richard Johnson’s common law wife, was because she was Johnson’s slave.

On a Prisoner’s Tall Tales

You can travel anywhere in the world, and you can have any adventure you wish—all within your mind.

In jail or prison, time passes differently than it does on the outside. Prisoners of war often feel this as well. One such situation in Italy during the war found two POWs who passed the time swapping stories. Their tall tales seemed to be competing to see which tale could top the other. And Rusty could not get enough of Mark’s stories. “Tell me again,” he would say, trying to engage the older man, “tell about the time the king made you a governor.”

“Well, you know it,” Mark said. “The king said he could trust me with his whole empire, so he gave me an unlimited treasury and the power to match it and said I should govern,” Mark grinned. Rusty roared with laughter. “Ohhh, sure. Sure. I’m sure he did. But that doesn’t top my story about the princess who wanted to run off with me and leave her position and money behind only because I was such a wonderful lover, though, does it?”

And so on.

For the last three years of the war, the two men would swap these tales. Try as he might, Rusty’s concocted tales of romance with fair maidens could never seem to top Mark’s tales of a faraway land of wonderful wealth and sights never before witnessed, a mystical land where he was trusted by a great king and made a ruler by him.

As wars do, this one ended. The men were released at war’s end. The two men parted ways with a brotherly embrace. “Thank you, Mark,” Rusty said in the older man’s ear. “Your stories made this bearable.” “My pleasure, Rusty,” Mark answered, pulling away to look at his friend at arm’s length. “Your stories were good, too. I am in your debt.”

The two men parted, each turning and heading towards his home. Rusty stopped a few feet and turned back towards Mark.

“Hey!” he yelled. “Your stories. Any of that true?”

“Every word,” Mark said without turning around.

Rusty bit his lip in thought. “Wow. All true. Hmm.”

When he reached home, Rusty—Rustichello da Pisa—wrote down all the stories his roommate of three years had told him. He published the book, and it instantly became a bestseller.

You know it as the Travels of Marco Polo.

On a Patient in Therapy

Bertha, like most girls of her family’s tax bracket, received an above-average education. She was born in the late ‘50s to parents who had inherited their wealth. In school, Bertie studied languages, took piano lessons, became a proficient horsewoman, and was, according to all who met her, a lively and bright young person.

Yet, despite her life advantages, Bertie felt suffocated and confined in her life. She struggled with depression and a host of other mental issues. By the ‘80s, as a young woman, she felt she could not cope with life any longer. Adding to the stress was the fact that her beloved father had been diagnosed with a fatal illness.

Bertie began to hallucinate, experience physical pain, and would even display violent behavior that she would later not be able to remember. Not surprisingly, the family suggested that she see a therapist. The doctor she saw became her lifeline of a sort. She began to see him every day in lengthy sessions where she would tell of her “private theater” of life. The sessions helped her somewhat, but her emotional state was further disturbed when her father died. Bertie refused to eat much at all, and her physical health began to deteriorate.

Her doctor called in another specialist for a second opinion on how they could help Bertie. At that time, smoking in office and public was still a “thing” and this new doctor lit a cigarette in front of Bertie. She exploded in anger. It was decided that she should be institutionalized. There, Bertie received drugs designed to keep her calm. Again, as you can probably guess, she developed a dependency on these drugs.

Then, a breakthrough. Bertie began to discuss the roots of what troubled her. She spoke in sessions with the doctors about issues of her childhood, which, while not unpleasant, had caused her to harbor resentment and fear for all those years. After several months of intensive give and take with her doctors, Bertie had worked through her issues. Many of her physical symptoms were gone as were most of the hallucinations. Her appetite returned. And, exactly one year after she was admitted, she was released from the hospital. She was transferred to an outpatient home for wealthy patrons, a cushy, relatively independent care facility that included such things as equestrian activities—which Bertie loved, of course.

The dependence on her meds continued, and there were lapses in her condition, of course, but overall she continued to improve. Finally, in the late ‘80s, Bertie left the facility and began life again on the outside of both treatment and hospitals. She and a friend collaborated on a series of children’s stories based on her hallucinations, even. She became a charitable matron of many social causes as rich people often do. She became a champion for the feminist movement and translated several books written by pioneers in women’s rights. Bertha Pappenheim completed the transition from being a severely disturbed person and addict into a writer, publisher, activist, and a leader of a political movement.

While this success story of analysis and treatment is surely wonderful (and not without controversy), that is not the only thing interesting about Bertie’s story. You see, her doctors called her Anna O. in their notes and publications. Anna O. is often called the first patient of the psychological treatment known as psychoanalysis. Her treatment by Dr. Josef Breuer not only influenced one of Breuer’s protégés but it also caused the protégé to create an entire psycho-sexual theory around Bertha’s treatment.

You know that protégé as Dr. Sigmund Freud.

On a Boy During Wartime

As an American child during World War 2, George was fascinated by the way society had been turned upside down by the conflict. Children seem to have such capacity for seeing and seeking adventure in stressful moments, and George saw the war years as a time of amazing stories and daring escapades. Because of the war, George and his family moved to Arkansas as part of a government program, so the new environment there only added to his sense of adventure.

His heart would swell with pride as he and the other kids in school said the Pledge of Allegiance daily. He would later say that he thought of the brave American soldiers fighting in Europe and the Pacific for Truth, Justice, and the American Way.

Two years later, the family moved again because of the war. This time, the family moved to California. George was really happy about that part. His family was from there, and his dad had even owned a business there before the war. So, in some ways, it was a homecoming of sorts.

But something changed for George there. One night, the police came to the area where George and his family lived. They raided a building and took several young men away, and no one ever heard from them again. George couldn’t understand what was happening. The young men who were taken were said to be not supporting America’s war against fascism. Words, new words to George, words like “spies” and “saboteurs” were used to describe these young men—young men George knew and liked. He felt in his heart of hearts that these guys were guilty of nothing other than…what? Being un-American?

Suddenly, George’s view of America changed. He began to question, even at his young age, why things were the way they were. What were we fighting for? Do people in a free society have a right to not support a war that they may feel is unwarranted, unjustified, or that is being fought for reasons other than those stated by the government?

What actions could be justified in the name of national security?

What makes an American an American?

Other arrests followed in George’s neighborhood. Again, whispers and rumors abounded. Charges were never filed. No trials were ever held. No one was ever formally accused of being un-patriotic or behaving in a traitorous manner.

No, the only thing George could see that these arrestees had in common was their race. You see, all those arrested were of Japanese ancestry. They were arrested simply because they were not “like” other Americans physically during a time when America was fighting Japan.

George noticed this particularly because he, too, was of Japanese descent. Where he and his family lived in both Arkansas and California was in an internment camp, where tens of thousands of others like him were “kept” for the duration of the war. Where his family was sent to after the United States government took away his father’s business in California. Where the lives of all those Americans—most of them citizens—were destroyed forever by fear and racism.

You know him as George Takei.

On a Member of the Staff

We forget that, once upon a time, going trans-Atlantic meant going by boat. Even when air travel began on an intercontinental scale, ship lines crisscrossed the ocean between Europe and the Americas as an alternate form of getting from there to there—or vice versa. Today, other than cargo shipping, about the only way to cross the Atlantic is on a repositioning cruise by one of the Carnival-Norwegian-Princess type cruise lines.

Here’s a story about an Atlantic crossing back in the day when going by ship was the norm. In those days, the journey was about the destination and not the vacation trip we think of today. The staff onboard this particular ship consisted of not only the crew operating the vessel but also wait staff and servants for those who paid for the voyage.

One such servant was a young Englishman named William Trevore. In the grand tradition of that ocean-going nation, William, like other young men of his generation, had experience on other ships, but his time on the sea as part of the service crew had been limited to European waters. This was his first trans-Atlantic crossing. He had been hired on one ship first and then transferred to a new ship owned by the same company for the trip across the ocean. William made his goodbyes to his family and spoke about how much he looked forward to working for the passengers onboard.

According to those upon whom he waited, William performed his duties at sea with great enthusiasm. The company who hired him, the ship’s owners, were pleased with his work and attitude. He often entertained the passengers with tall tales of life at sea, of his numerous voyages in European trips over the years, and of distant, mystical islands that he hinted he had visited years before.

But in the mid-Atlantic, the sea grew rough. The waves were such that passengers were confined to their cramped rooms to keep the storms from potentially washing them over deck. “The voyage was difficult even for seasoned sailors, much more for those who had never been on a ship before,” one commentator noted.

Through it all, William continued to be his usually cheerful self and performed his duties as if nothing were amiss. Even as many of the passengers on which he waited grew seasick, William continued to try to make them smile. Most of those onboard were unused to life at sea, and the heaving and tossing was simply too much. Soon, the smell of the vomit permeated all areas in the passenger spaces. Through it all, William simply smiled and cleaned and served.

Such was William’s commitment to ensuring the passengers were clean and as supplied as they could be under such dire circumstances that his work drew praise in the ship’s log—an unusual thing for a lowly crew member of the wait staff on a trans-Atlantic voyage.

William’s contract with the company was only for one year, and, when his time was up, he eventually went back to England. He rose through the ranks of the English commercial fleet and eventually captained a ship of his own on which he made several trips back and forth from Europe to America.

Yet, for all his later experience on the seas, William Trevore forever spoke with greatest pride about his two month’s work aboard the Mayflower.

On a Moment’s Hesitancy

Sometimes, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

A rider pulled up in front of Captain Benteen with a communique from the commander. “Come on,” the note read. “Be quick.” Benteen could hear the sound of gunfire and a battle taking place somewhere before him, and he knew that the men out there needed ammunition and supplies. But the pack mules carrying the provisions had only then arrived at the watering hole, and the Captain wanted to give them a chance to slake their thirst before riding on ahead.

Benteen had seen plenty of action during the American Civil War and was thus no neophyte. From Missouri, Frederick Benteen had gone against the wishes of his secessionist father and joined the Union Army early in the war. He had distinguished himself in several battles, rising to the rank of brevet Lt. Colonel for his bravery and leadership at such battles as Pea Ridge, Vicksburg, and Westport among others. After the war, he even led a regiment of African American infantry until they were mustered out.

In the late 1860s, on orders from new President U.S. Grant, the army appointed Benteen to be part of General Phil Sheridan’s attempts to pacify the native tribes on the plains of the mid-west. In this capacity, Benteen found himself under the command of another Civil War general, and it was his note that Benteen read on that hot summer day in 1876. He felt he had hesitated enough and needed to press forward even if the animals had not gotten their fill of water on that hot day.

But something was amiss. The battle sounds seemed to be moving towards him and his men and the pack animals rather than away from them. That could mean only one thing: The enemy was winning. Benteen ordered his men to take defensive positions. He rode out with a scouting party and was met with not only retreating American soldiers but also some advancing natives. He ordered his men back to the original defensive position near the watering hole. Soon, they were joined by some stragglers from another part of the command right when the enemy attacked.

The attack lasted for more than half a day, and it even ran sporadically through the night. During this time, Benteen later said that he thought of those other fellows who had been fighting earlier and of his commander who had told him to hurry up with the supplies. He wondered what had happened to them.

By 5pm the next day, and with his supplies of ammunition almost out, the enemy retreated. And then, through the haze of smoke and heat, some more stragglers came in to the American lines. “Where is the General?” Benteen asked them. The men shrugged. They pointed towards a ridge about four miles away and said they assumed he was there, that he and his entire command lay dead.

It would not be until the next day that Benteen and the others made their way towards the ridge where, indeed, they found the bodies of their comrades killed in the battle. In later months, a court of inquiry convened to determine what, exactly, happened and why.

Many questioned Captain Benteen’s decision to not immediately ride into battle with the pack animals. “Coward!” some called him. “Murderer!” others charged. Benteen was eventually found to be innocent of any charges, but his reputation had been tarnished already.

Still others pointed out that to have immediately rode forward into the battle would have assuredly meant that he and all his men—and not only General George Armstrong Custer’s troops—would have died in the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

On a Possessive Uncle

Maria adored her father. As a little girl, the pair were inseparable. She was definitely a daddy‘s girl. Sadly, Maria‘s dad died when she was very young, and her mother, who been a housewife, had to find work outside the home to support the two of them.

As often happens with close families, Maria‘s uncle agreed to have his sister and his niece come live with him and the sister act as a sort of housekeeper because he was a bachelor. By that time, Maria was a teenager, and the uncle agreed to help her get into a good school in the town where he lived.

Everything seem to be good for all involved—but only for a short time. Soon, Maria‘s uncle began to take an unusual interest in her activities. He began to closely scrutinize her friends, questioning where she was going, and becoming unusually overprotective. As Maria got older, she went behind her uncle’s back and dated one of the employees who worked for her uncle. The uncle fired the young man and forbade Maria from ever seeing the young man again. Maria was heartbroken.

By the time she was in her early 20s, Maria was practically a prisoner in her uncle’s house. The gossip was that he was secretly in love with her, obsessed with her every move, and forcing her only interactions to be with her mother or with him.

Well, it’s fairly obvious what the end result of the situation would be. When she was 23, Maria took her uncle’s pistol and shot herself. Later family gossip said that the uncle himself killed her or that Maria was pregnant by him and preferred to end her life rather than live and bear his child. We will never know for sure. The uncle was powerful enough to have the whole situation swept under the rug and a very private police investigation ruled it a suicide beyond a shadow of a doubt. Interestingly, the uncle didn’t even show up to attend Maria’s small funeral.

In later life, Adolf Hitler would confess to close friends that his niece Maria “Geli” Raubal was the only woman he ever truly loved.

On a Servant

Given the relative size of the United Kingdom today, it’s easy to forget that Great Britain was a superpower 150 years ago. The saying that the sun did not set on the British Empire was certainly true during the Victorian age. Anything and everything the British public desired and that the world had to offer England imported to its shores during the late 1800s. India became a large and important jewel in Britain’s imperial crown.

One commodity that became fashionable among certain moneyed families of the period was foreign domestic help. Britain’s India colony held a great fascination at the time, and the subcontinent’s wealth of spices, jewels, and fabrics became all the rage in London. Thus, importing Indian labor became rather the thing to do as well.

This story is about one particular upper class British family who followed the trend and brought Indian servants to England. The family was not only well to do, but it was also well respected. The patriarch of the clan had died some years before, but it was the grandmother, the widow, who actually ruled the roost. And she became particularly taken with one of the Indian servants the family procured.

Her adult children at first were mildly amused at the attention the older woman showed the much younger—and differently colored—man. Soon, their amusement turned to concern and then to almost outrage as the relationship between the old woman and the young man seemed to be turning into one that resembled the relationship between a mother and son. The old woman would write letters to the servant, giving him gentle instruction and matronly advice in a kind, adoring tone. She asked the young man to teach her some of his native language, also. She affectionately gave him the title of “my teacher,” and she elevated him to somewhat of a personal private secretary. Such a thing was unheard of in polite society of the day.

The family became apoplectic. “This simply must not stand!” they would say to each other out of her earshot. “What will everyone say?” they wondered. “It’s an outrage!” her oldest son remarked on more than one occasion (and with some bitterness, too, it was noted). Such was the level of racism at that time that the family feared their good name would be besmirched if the young man would be seen by friends and relatives to have an exalted position in the family. And so, the old woman’s family began plotting how they could arrange to have the servant dismissed without incurring the wrath of the matriarch who had come to dote on the young man so.

But such was the special bond between the pair that the young man lived to see his benefactress die in the early 1900s. Even at the old woman’s death, the special bond between the pair was on display for all to witness. And, again, the family was outraged.

For, you see, it was neither her family—her 9 children—nor her 42 grandchildren—who saw her mortal remains as the lid to her coffin closed. No, that particular honor fell to one Abdul Karim, a Muslim Indian man.

It was he who last laid eyes on the body of Victoria, Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

On a Jocular Dentist

It’s not as funny as he thinks it is when your jocular dentist smilingly sighs and says, “I think I need to build you a bridge, Mr. Wood. Wood. Bridge. A wooden bridge!“

Cedar Rapids, Iowa is about as American as you can get. Corn country this is. The home of hard-working, no nonsense, straight forward American stock. Dr. Byron McKeeby had a dental practice there about 100 years ago. The good doctor grew up in the hawkeye state. He was proud of the fact that he was in the first graduating class of the University of Iowa‘s dental school back in the late 1800s. 

By all accounts, Dr McKeeby had a good sense of humor and counted many of his patients among his friends. Known for his sartorial refinement as well as his jokes, Dr. McKeeby also made it a point to be on the front lines of new technology. In his almost 50 year practice in Cedar Rapids, Dr. McKeeby took a quiet pride in bringing the first dental x-ray machine to the city. 

From his reclined position in the dental chair, Mr. Wood said, “I’ve been thinking, doc. I have a little project I’d like you to help me with.“ And as the dental procedures continued, Mr. Wood outlined to Dr. McKeeby exactly what he had in mind and how the dentist could help him.

“I don’t know,“ the dentist replied, suddenly becoming serious. He packed Mr. Wood’s mouth in the space where the bridge would go. “I’ve never done anything like that before.“ 

“I promith ya, doc,“ Mr. Wood said through the gauze, “no one will ever know that it wath you.“

We now know that Mr. Wood could not have been more wrong. The world knows exactly who Dr. McKeeby is, and the reason we know is precisely because of the project with which he eventually and reluctantly agreed to assist Mr. Wood.

You see, Mr. Wood was an artist. He wanted Dr. McKeeby to be a model the painting he was working on. The other person in the work was to be Mr. Wood‘s sister, a woman who was also a patient of Dr. McKeeby’s. The two of them were to stand in front of a house, a simple Iowa farmhouse. For years, Dr. McKeeby denied he was part of the work, but, no, there is no mistake about it. His face has become for many the prototypical Iowan and American visage. In fact, it is so important symbolically that we might even refer to it as an icon.

And so, Dr. McKeeby, convinced to stand with Mr. Wood’s sister and hold a pitchfork, and to wear, uncharacteristically, a pair of overalls and an equally uncharacteristic dour expression, is forever immortalized in a paining that you have seen your whole life.

Grant Wood’s American Gothic.