GUEST BLOGGER: Debbie Weinkamer on Lucretia Garfield, “The Vanishing First Lady” – or Am I?

Former First Lady Lucretia Garfield (seated center) with thirteen of her sixteen grandchildren in Mentor, Ohio, summer 1906.
Left to right –Standing (back row): Newell Garfield, Lucretia Garfield, James Garfield, Rudolph Hills Garfield (in sailor suit w/teddy bear), John Garfield, Rudolph Stanley-Brown.  Seated (front row): Margaret Stanley-Brown, Stanton Garfield, Edward Garfield, Lucretia Rudolph Garfield (Mrs. James A. Garfield), Mary Louise Garfield, Ruth Stanley-Brown, Mason Garfield, and James A. Garfield.

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 and first-person living historian. 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.

Lucretia as First Lady, 1881.

Before Women’s History Month marches away, I would like to contribute to Mr. Ackerman’s Viral History blog 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.

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.

Lucretia with husband and future president James A. Garfield, circa 1853.

 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.

(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.]

Debbie as Lucretia Garfield, looking at a
picture of her late husband.

 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!

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!

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

Post Script: Lucretia Garfield, wife of 20th U.S. President James A. Garfield, died at her winter home in South Pasadena, CA on March 13, 1918, just a month shy of her 86th birthday. She never remarried and had a full life after her husband’s untimely death. I have the privilege of portraying her and “bringing Lucretia to life” for various groups in Northeast Ohio – and beyond.


Which was the worst presidential campaign in American history, from the viewpoint of the winning candidate?  How about 1880, when the bad blood and infighting got so intense that the new president was shot in the back four months into his term by a follower of a rival faction in his own party — in an argument over patronage jobs?

Today, on the eve of what promises to be a rocky, ugly 2012 political year, we proudly announce the new Viral History Press LLC edition of DARK HORSE: The Surprise Election and Politicial Murder of President James A. Garfield.

For this year, it is exclusively at  

Check out possible savings here.

James Garfield’s 1880 “dark horse” nomination for president after the longest-ever Republican convention (36 ballots), his victory in the closest-ever presidential popular vote, his struggle with feuding factions once elected, and its climax of violence, all produced one of the most dramatic presidential odysseys of the Gilded Age. The era’s decency is seen contrasted against sharp and bitter partisanship, hauntingly familiar to modern America. But in this case, it ended in the pistol shots of assassin Charles Guiteau.

Featured on C-SPAN’s “Booknotes” and NPR’s “All Things Considered” when first released in 2003, DARK HORSE has since become a true underground classic in political circles.

Now we are making it available again. You can read the story yourself and share it with your politico friends.

BOOKS — 1861: Civil War Awakening

Recently the Delmarva Review asked me to write a few words about the new book by Adam Goodheart, that focuses on the opening months of the Civil War.  Here’s what I came up with.  It’s in their new issue, just out this week:  

1861:  The Civil War Awakening
By Adam Goodheart
460 pages
Alfred A. Knopf, New York.

Review by Ken Ackerman

For Civil War buffs, these are salad days.  With the 150th marking of the Great Conflict just begun, we can expect a happy great flood of top-notch books marking every step in the War.  1861: The Civil War Awakening is a good one, a tasty appetizer to the coming feast. 

Adam Goodheart, journalist and New York Times Civil War blogger, gives us not the great battles to come, but an appealing, human scale introduction to the people and country preparing to fight them.   He tells his story through portraits and panoramas, from Fort Sumter with its outnumbered Union defenders, to the first slaves to taste freedom at Virginia’s Fortress Monroe, saved by the clever strategy of its commanding general, lawyer-politician Benjamin Butler, who cuts the legal knot by declaring them enemy “contraband.”   We follow Elmer Ellsworth, creator of the Zouaves regiment, an early version of today’s military Special Forces, and the New York Fireman who volunteer for his.   We meet future president James A. Garfield as a young school teacher bringing a deep idealistic intellect to framing the North’s will to fight.  And many more.

Then there is Abraham Lincoln.  Goodheart gives us a Lincoln still wrestling with unprecedented crises, maligned by all sides until he finally finds his own authentic voice that July.

Adam Goodheart is a fine writer and a pleasure to read.  You will appreciate the future volumes on Gettysburg, Antietam, and the rest much more from having first learned the terrain through the lens of this evocative book.  

On Susan B. Anthony’s trail — Ohio’s South Newbury Union Chapel

The South Newbury Union Chapel in Newbury, Ohio.

Last time, I told you the story of how Susan B. Anthony had one chance to vote for president of the United States in her lifetime, in 1872,  and was thrown in jail as a result. (Click here for the story.)

Here’s a photo sent by Guest Blogger  Jim Robenalt taken from Remarkable Ohio, the fine website of the Ohio Historical Society, showing the South Newbury Union Chapel, where Susan B. Anthony gave many of her subsequent speeches on women’s suffrage.  Note how small the building is, but how big an impact had.  Here’s the description:

           “Called the ‘Cradle of Equal Suffrage’ and ‘Free Speech Chapel,’ Union Chapel was to be ‘…open and free for all denominations, but to be monopolized by no one or to the exclusion of anyone.’

           “Built in 1858 or 1859 on land donated by Anson Ma it tthews, the chapel reputedly exists in response to incident triggered by James A. Garfield, then principal of the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute (now Hiram College) and later president of the United States. He was scheduled to speak at the Congregationists’ ‘Brick Church’ in December 1857. Because of the supposed controversial nature of Garfield’s speech, however, the invitation was withdrawn.  Outraged citizens built Union Chapel in response. 

           “Fulfilling its mission, the chapel welcomed groups crusading for many causes in late 19th century America, including women’s dress reform and temperance. One of the most active groups at the chapel was the Newbury Woman’s Suffrage Political Club, founded in January 1874. The chapel was the club’s meeting place and the site of lectures by Susan B. Anthony and Harriet Taylor Upton, leaders in the woman’s suffrage movement. The chapel also hosted singing schools, plays, and other social, religious, and political gatherings.” 

Next time you’re in Ohio, check it out.  

Portrait: Chester Alan Arthur’s inauguration, 1881

Of all the presidential inauguration scenes of the late 1800s, my personal favorite is this one, a full-page cover from Leslie’s Illustrated showing Chester Alan Arthur taking the oath in the living room of his New York City townhouse. It took place at about 2:15 am on Tuesday morning, September 20, 1881, just hours after word reached Arthur by telegraph that President James A. Garfield had died, making Arthur a thoroughly accidental and reluctant chief executive. Arthur’s aides had to scour the neighborhood to find a judge — John R. Brady of the New York Supreme Court — to administer the oath.

The whole nation had been on a tense death-watch for Garfield ever since early July when Garfield had been shot in the back by a psychopath named Charles Guiteau at the Washington, D.C. train station. Garfield could have survived the gun shot, but his doctors had infected him by probing the wound with dirty fingers. During his struggle for life that summer, Garfield had become beloved in America, while Arthur was distrusted and feared.

Arthur never aspired to be President. His selection as candidate for vice president on Garfield’s 1881 ticket had been a political fluke — the product of a stalemated nominating convention. ”A greater honor than I ever dreamed of attaining,” he called it. Known as Gentleman Boss for his role managing New York’s statewide Republican political machine, Arthur as vice president had openly opposed Garfield in the bitter argument over patronage and intra-party factions that had set the stage for Guiteau’s attack. As Guiteau was being arrested minutes after shooting the president, he announced: “I did it! I am a Stalwart, and Arthur will be President!”

These words by the assassin, coupled with Arthur’s role in the patronage fight, led many Americans to believe Arthur in fact was involved in the shooting. Arthur himself, a mild-mannered, dapper man, was horrified at the thought and dreaded the reaction if he took office. When told of Garfield’s death, Arthur broke down in tears. Look at Arthur’s eyes in the image above, (click to make it full size) and notice how the artist sought to capture the mix of fear, sadness, and determination.
If fact, once sworn in, Chester Alan Arthur became admirably independent. He surprised friends by signing the Pendleton Civil Service Act of 1883, the most important and successful government reform of the era. When old cronies came asking favors, he turned them away — often after bitter arguments. Said one: “He isn’t ‘Chet’ Arthur anymore; he’s the President.” Arthur guarded his privacy, telling one nosy temperance lady hectoring him about alcohol in the White House: “Madam, I may be President of the United States, but my private life is nobody’s dan business!”

Arthur’s admirable record won him no friends. His party refused to nominate him for re-election in 1884. That same year, he was diagnosed with Bright’s disease, a painful, then-uncurable kidney ailment that would kill him in late 1886.
Today, a century later, Chester Alan Arthur is largely forgotten. His name is the punchline to a dozen jokes about obscure dead presidents. I think this is shameful. Arthur, for all his faults, was also one of the most human and compelling presidents we’ve had, a flawed person who found integrity and grace in the most difficult circumstance.

Portraits: James A. Garfield’s inaugural ball, March 1881

Here’s a snapshot I took recently of a rarely seen two-page spread from the Leslie’s Illustrated of March 19, 1881. It took a team of artists to sketch and then carve it by hand onto wooden block for printing. It shows the grand inaugural ball for PresidentJames A. Garfield, held in the Smithsonian Building that year. Garfield, a popular and moderate Ohio Republican, was doomed to serve only four months in office before a psychopathic hanger-on named Charles Guiteau shot him in the back as Garfield was entering the Washington, D.C. train station on a Saturday morning that July. Garfield would die from infection (yes, the doctors killed him by failing to wash their hands) a few months later on September 19, 1881. His assassination would shock the nation and make Garfield widely popular for a generation. There is hardly a town or city in America with a Garfield Street or two.
Click on the photo to blow it up and marvel at the detail. So accurate is the sketch that you can make out literally dozens of prominent faces in the crowd: Garfield, his wife Lucretia, Senators Roscoe Conkling, John Sherman, and Carl Schurz, plus incoming Vice President Chester Alan Arthur, incoming Secretary of State James G. Blaine, and a bevy of foreign diplomats. Look at the women’s gowns, the bunting on the walls, the guarded conversations. The band that night played tunes from the latest Gilbert and Sullivan operetta H.M.S. Pinafore — Garfield’s favorite. — that had premiered in London just two years earlier.
It’s a group portrait of a vanishing generation of politicians taken at a moment of graceful indulgence. Could any photograph or video have captured the moment so well?

Why James Garfield over LBJ and the Adamses?

James A. Garfield accepting surrender of US Grant at the 1880 Republican convention after 36 ballots.  

Since I posted my Presidential rankings for the C-SPAN 2009 Historians Survey a few days ago, I’ve received pointed questions from friends about some of my choices. (See January 18 post below.)

For instance, how could I put Gerald Ford so high on the list, in the top ten, for God’s sake? And what was I thinking in ranking James Garfield, who served only four months before being shot in the back, above LBJ and both the Adamses? And, in putting George W. Bush at the near-bottom (#41 out of 43), wasn’t I just following a liberal fad that will disappear in a few years, much as Harry Truman has gained popularity over time.

Over the next few days, I will tackle each of these. Yes, Gerald Ford deserves his high spot. Yes, James Garfield outranks LBJ, John Adams, and John Quincy. And no, George W. Bush’s bottom status is no passing liberal fancy. Bush is no Harry Truman. He will be considered as much a bottom-feeder a century from now as today.

I’ll start with James Garfield, only because this was the first challenge to come up. Stick with me.

The basics are simple: James Garfield, a Civil War veteran and career Congressman, was elected President in 1880, inaugurated in March 1881, shot by Charles Guiteau four months later, and died about two months after that. He was mourned by hundreds of thousands, respected for confronting political bosses, and credited with the modern Civil Service system adopted after his death.

During his term, he prevailed over Sen. Roscoe Conkling, dictator of the NY Republican machine, in a high-profile brawl over abusive patronage. His Secretary of State, James G. Blaine, started the country on a strong foreign policy that culminated in TR’s “big stick” approach twenty years later.  Here (above) is my favorite cartoon of Garfield, by PUCK artist Joseph Keppler, showing Garfield accepting the surrender of Ulysses Grant at the 1880 Republican Convention after Grant’s 3rd term movement collapsed on the 36th ballot:

It was my friend David Stewart, author of the terrific book THE SUMMER OF 1787: The Men who Invented the US Constitution, who blew the whistle on me. “Whoa, big fella!,” he wrote, knowing of my own book about the Garfield assassintion, (DARK HORSE). ” James Garfield ahead of Lyndon Johnson and both Adamses? We’re dishing out some home-cooking here. Remind us again, what did Garfield do as president?”

Good question. So let’s deal with it squarely.

Ranking presidents means making choices. James Garfield’s presidency had only a small impact because it was so short. Even giving him maximum credit, he stand mid-pack, slightly above center, which is where I ranked him, at #18.

Now let’s look at the competition.

Lyndon Baines Johnson? We can start and end the conversation with one word: Vietnam. I don’t recall James Garfield ever going out and getting the country stuck in a full-scale land war half-way around the world, commiting half-a-million troops to the effort, most unwilling draftees, all based on bad intelligence and bad advice, then misleading the country as tens of thousands died, then allowing the war to spin out of control and destroy his domestic agenda, causing the country then to react by electing an even worse leader in Richard M. Nixon.

This is LBJ’s legacy. Yes, he had a sterling record on Civil Rights and passed a boatload of Great Society legislation. But his own Democratic Party was ready to kick him overboard when he declined to run for re-election in 1968. Without his Civil Rights record, Vietnam easily would have sunk LBJ to the bottom half of the list. As is, I gave him much credit for his domestic agenda, with an overall rank of #19.  I think he owes me a “thank you.”

Then there are the Adamses. Let’s start with John Adams, the second president, serving from 1797 to 1801, the first to be voted out of office. Yes, he came across wonderfully in that terrific HBO miniseries where he was play by the fine actor Paul Giamatti, based on the biography by David McCullough. And yes, John Adams was a sterling patriot and fine man during most of his life.

But his presidency was a sorry mess. Its emblem was the Alien and Seditions Acts. I do not recall James Garfield ever pushing Congress to pass a law allowing him to throw dozens of newspaper editors in jail for the simple act of publicly opposing his foreign policy, as well as locking up large numbers of immigrants on trumped up claims of disloyalty — as did John Adams. The abuse was flagrant.

Adams showed his bad temperament again after losing re-election in 1800 by refusing to act civilly toward Thomas Jefferson, the person who beat him, at Jefferson’s 1801 Inauguration. I rated Adams the best I could given a bad record. He ranked #31 on my list, just above Rutherford Hayes and William Howard Taft. Once again, I am ready to accept a “thank you” note from the Adams family.

Finally, there is John Quincy, whom I rate well above his father at #25, though still mediocre. Another fine man; another disappointing president. From the moment he entered office, his political opponents branded his Administration the product of a “corrupt bargain,” and for four years the albatross stuck, fair or not.

That’s the explanation. I am very comfortable with where I placed James Garfield, notwithstanding LBJ and the Adamses. Tomorrow, I’ll talk about Gerald Ford.

Thanks for listening. –KenA