Monday, November 7, 2016


Did the Defeat of an American Indian Leader Bring About an American Curse?

On November 7, 1811, American forces led by Indiana Territory Governor William Henry Harrison defeated the great Indian confederacy led by Tecumseh in the Battle of Tippecanoe. Today, we know little about this story but oddly, Tecumseh was one of the most enigmatic figures in American history and one who may have predicted one of the most destructive events to ever occur in the Midwest.

Strange things began to happen in the Missouri Territory in 1811. Residents along the Mississippi River, near the settlement of New Madrid, began reporting all manner of weird happenings. First, it was the animals. Livestock began to act nervous and excited. Dogs began to bark and howl and even the most domesticated of animals turned vicious. Wild animals began to act tame. Deer wandered out of the woods and up to the doors of cabins. Flocks of ducks and geese landed near people. It was unlike anything the local residents had ever seen before. Soon, stories spread of eerie lights that were seen in the woods and in the hills. Strange, bluish white flashes and balls of light were seen floating in the trees and cresting the nearby ridges.

Perhaps strangest of all, especially to the more superstitious among the settlers, was the comet that had been seen in the sky for months. In the fall of 1811, it was at its brightest and in September of that year, this anomaly in the sky was joined by a solar eclipse that led some to believe that a dire event was coming soon. And they were right.

During the winter of 1811-1812, a series of devastating earthquakes shook the nation. They are known today as the New Madrid earthquakes due to their horrible effects on the small town of New Madrid, Missouri. They caused destruction like never seen, before or since, and gave rise to incredible accounts of bizarre events, including the fact that the Mississippi River actually ran backward for a time.

The New Madrid earthquakes had a major effect not only on the Mississippi Valley but on American history. They were also connected to an intriguing supernatural prediction allegedly made by the Shawnee Indian leader, Tecumseh.

Tecumseh, whose name mean "Shooting Star" or "Panther Across the Sky"

Tecumseh (whose name meant “Shooting Star” or “Panther Across the Sky”) was born in March 1768, just north of present-day Xenia, Ohio. It was a time of a growing America and as white settlers spread westward, violence and bloodshed began to occur as the Americans encroached on Indian territory. Violence continued after the American Revolution. The Wabash Confederacy formed and included all of the major tribes of the Ohio and Illinois country. They joined together in an attempt to keep American settlers out of the region. As the war between the confederacy and the Americans intensified, Tecumseh took an active role, fighting alongside his older brother, Cheeseekua. Tecumseh took part in several battles, including the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794, which ended the war in favor of the Americans.

Tecumseh settled in what is now Greenville, Ohio, the home of his younger brother, Lowawluwaysica ("One With Open Mouth") who would later take the new name of Tenskwatawa ("The Open Door") and achieve widespread fame as "The Shawnee Prophet." Tenskwatawa began a religious revival among the Shawnee in 1805 when he rooted out the “cause” of a smallpox outbreak by hunting down a witch. His beliefs were based on the teachings of early tribal prophets, who had predicted a coming apocalypse that would destroy the European settlers. A revival of the prophecies became very popular at a time when it seemed the flood of white settlers was going to engulf the Indian lands. Tenskwatawa urged his people to reject the ways of the Europeans, give up firearms, liquor and European- style clothing. He called on them to only pay traders half the value of their debts, and to refrain from giving over any more land to the United States. These teachings created great tension between the settlers and Tenskwatawa’s followers and were openly opposed by Shawnee leader Black Hoof, who was trying to maintain peace with the Americans.

The first record of Tecumseh’s peacetime interactions with Americans was in 1807, when Indian agent William Wells met with Blue Jacket and other Shawnee leaders to determine their intentions after the murder of a settler. Wells was highly respected by the Indians on the frontier Tecumseh was among those who spoke with Wells and assured him that his band of Shawnee intended to remain at peace. He explained to Wells that his people intended to follow the will of the Great Spirit and the teachings of his prophet, Tenskwatawa. They planned to move to a new village, deeper in the frontier and farther away from the newly arriving settlers.

But Tenskwatawa and Tecumseh did not leave the region. In fact, Tenskwatawa continued to attract new followers. By 1808, tensions between the settlers and the Shawnee escalated to the point that Black Hoof demanded that Tenskwatawa and his people leave the area. Tecumseh was among the leaders of the group and he helped to decide to move them farther northwest and establish the village of Prophets Town near the confluence of the Wabash and Tippecanoe rivers. The site was in territory that belonged to the Miami Indians and Chief Little Turtle of that tribe warned them not to settle there. Despite the threat, they moved into the region. The Miami did not take action against them and it is believed that Tecumseh may have already been holding council with them to build a large tribal confederacy to counter the American expansion into Indian lands.

Within a short time, Tenskwatawa’s religious teachings became more widely known, as did his predictions of coming doom for the Americans. He attracted numerous members of other tribes to Prophets Town and this formed the basis for the confederacy of southwestern Great Lakes tribes that Tecumseh envisioned. He eventually emerged as the leader of this confederation, although it was largely built on the religious appeal of his younger brother.

In September 1809, William Henry Harrison, at that time governor of the newly formed Indiana Territory, negotiated the Treaty of Fort Wayne in which a delegation of Indians ceded three million acres of Native American lands to the United States. The treaty is largely regarded as a farce. It was not authorized by President Thomas Jefferson and the Indians were not only bribed with large subsidies but were given liberal doses of alcohol before the negotiations began.

Tecumseh’s strong opposition to the treaty marked his emergence as a prominent leader. Although Tecumseh and the Shawnee did not lay claim to any of the land that was sold, he was shocked by the sale since many of the followers at Prophets Town, including the Piankeshaw, Kickapoo, and Wea, were the primary inhabitants of the lands in question. Tecumseh reminded the Native Americans of an idea first advanced by the Shawnee leader Blue Jacket years before: that Indian land was owned in common by all tribes and could not be sold without agreement by all.

Tecumseh was not ready to confront the United States directly, so he instead spoke out against the Indian leaders who had signed the treaty. He began to travel widely, making impassioned speeches in which he urged warriors to abandon the chiefs who had betrayed them and join him in a resistance to the treaty. It was illegal, he insisted, and asked Governor Harrison to nullify it. He warned him that whites should not attempt to settle on the lands that were stolen by the treaty.

In August of 1810, Tecumseh led 400 warriors from Prophets Town to confront Harrison at his home in Vincennes. Their appearance terrified the townspeople and the situation turned heated when Harrison rejected Tecumseh’s demand. The governor argued that individual tribes could have relations with the United States and added that Tecumseh’s interference had angered the tribes who had sold the land.

Tecumseh’s anger boiled over and he ordered his men to kill Harrison on the spot. The governor bravely drew his sword, determined to go down fighting. The small garrison that defended the town quickly moved to protect Harrison. Before fighting began, Pottawatomi chief Winnemac stepped forward and urged the warriors to leave in peace. He explained to Tecumseh that violence was not the way to handle the situation and Tecumseh reluctantly agreed. Before he left, however, he told Harrison that unless he rescinded the treaty, he would seek an alliance with the British, who were already at work on the frontier trying to incite the Indians to rise up against the American settlers. As early as 1810, British agents had sought to secure an alliance with the Native Americans tribes to assist in the defense of Canada should war with the United States break out. The Indians had been reluctant to accept, fearing there was no benefit to the alliance. Following the confrontation with Harrison, Tecumseh secretly accepted the offer of alliance and the British began to supply his confederacy with firearms and ammunition.

Tecumseh had already attracted a great following but he and his brother, Tenskwatawa, were soon able to rally even more. It was said that Tecumseh claimed that the Great Spirit would send a “sign” to the Native Americans to show that he had been chosen to lead them and in March 1811, a great comet began to appear in the night sky. Tecumseh, whose name meant “Shooting Star,” told his people that the comet signaled his rise to power. The confederacy accepted it as the sign they had been waiting for.

A short time later, Tecumseh again met with William Henry Harrison after being summoned following the murder of settlers on the frontier. Tecumseh told Harrison that the Shawnee and their Native American brothers wanted to remain at peace with the United States but the differences between them had to be resolved. The meeting was likely a ploy to buy time while he built a stronger confederacy. Harrison was not fooled by Tecumseh’s claim of wanting peace. He was more convinced than ever that hostilities were imminent.

After the meeting with Harrison, Tecumseh traveled south on a mission to recruit allies among the Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw and Seminole. Most of the southern nations rejected his appeals, but a faction of the Creeks, who became known as the Red Sticks, answered his call to arms against the white men, leading to the Creek War. They were eventually defeated by General Andrew Jackson in 1814.

While Tecumseh was away in the south, another “miraculous” event occurred that convinced his followers that a war with the Americans was the right course of action. On September 17, 1811, a solar eclipse occurred – a “Black Sun” that was allegedly predicted by the prophet Tenskwatawa. A “Black Sun” was said to predict a future war and Tenskwatawa was believed to have prophesied the coming of the eclipse many weeks before. It is widely believed today that he consulted with an astronomer about the eclipse, but no one knew this at the time. The prediction seemed to be a supernatural one – but it was nothing compared to the one that Tecumseh would make a short time later.

Harrison left the territory for business in Kentucky shortly after the meeting with Tecumseh, leaving John Gibson as acting-governor. Gibson, who had lived among the Miami tribe for many years, was given word about Tecumseh’s plans for war. He immediately called out the militia and sent an emergency letter to Harrison, asking him to return. The militia soon formed and Harrison returned with a small force of army regulars. He had received word from Washington, which authorized him to march up the Wabash River from Vincennes on a preemptive expedition to intimidate Tenskwatawa and his followers and force them to make peace. Tecumseh was still in the south, lobbying tribes to join his confederation.

Harrison gathered the militia companies near a settlement north of Vincennes and was joined by a 60-man company from Croydon, Indiana, called the Yellow Jackets, so named for their bright yellow coats, and two companies of Indiana Rangers. His entire force of about 1,000 set out toward Prophets Town. The army reached the site of present-day Terre Haute on October 3. They camped and built Fort Harrison while they waited for supplies to be delivered. On October 10, Indians ambushed a scouting party of Yellow Jackets and prevented the soldiers from hunting in the nearby woods. Supplies began to run low and on October 19, rations were cut. Finally, nine days later, a shipment of food and ammunition arrived and an encampment was set up near the confluence of the Wabash and Tippecanoe rivers.

During the early morning hours of November 7, the Native Americans attacked.
Many years later, Tenskwatawa denied that he ordered his warriors to attack Harrison. He blamed the Winnebagos in his camp for launching the attack, or at least encouraging it. Without Tecumseh’s military leadership, his brother was unable to control his followers. The people of Prophets Town were worried by the nearby army and feared being overwhelmed by the white soldiers. They had begun to fortify the town, but the defenses had not been completed. During the evening, Tenskwatawa consulted with the spirits and decided that sending a party to murder Harrison in his tent was the best way to avoid a battle. He assured the warriors that he would cast spells that would prevent them from being harmed and confuse the Americans so they would not resist. The warriors began looking for a way to sneak into the camp but the attack on Harrison failed.

Around 4:30 a.m., Harrison’s sentinels were shocked to find warriors advancing on them from the early morning fog. Soldiers awoke to scattered gunshots and discovered themselves almost encircled by Tenskwatawa's forces. First contact was made on the north side of the camp, but this was likely a diversion since fierce fighting broke out moments later as Indians charged the southern corner of the line. The attack took the army by surprise as the warriors shouted and rushed at the defenders. Yellow Jacket commander Captain Speir Spencer was among the first to be killed. 
Lieutenants McMahan and Berry, the other two Yellow Jacket commanding officers, were also soon wounded and killed. Without leadership, the Yellow Jackets began to fall back from the main line, retreating with scores of militia soldiers. The warriors rushed after them and entered the camp. The soldiers regrouped under the command of Ensign John Tipton, a future U.S. Senator, and with the help of two reserve companies under the command of Captain Rodd, repulsed the warriors and sealed the breach in the line.

The second charge by the Native Americans hit both the north and south ends of the camp, with the southern end being attacked the hardest. The regulars were able to reinforce the line and hold their position as the assaults continued. On the northern end of the camp, Major Joseph Daviess led his men in a counter charge that punched through the Indian lines before being repulsed. Most of the men made it back to Harrison’s line but Daviess was killed. Throughout the next hour, the troops fought off several more brutal charges. When the Indians began to run low on ammunition and the sun rose, revealing the small size of Tenskwatawa's army, they finally began to withdraw. A rallying charge by the regulars forced the remaining Native Americans to flee. The Battle of Tippecanoe had lasted just over two hours.

The Indians retreated to Prophets Town where, according to one chief's account, the warriors confronted Tenskwatawa and accused him of deceit because of the many deaths, which his spells were supposed to have prevented. He blamed his wife for desecrating his magic medicine and offered to cast a new spell. He insisted that the warriors launch a second attack, but they refused.

Fearing that Tecumseh was on his way with reinforcements, Harrison ordered his men to fortify the camp with earthworks. As the sentries moved back into position, they discovered – and scalped – the bodies of 36 warriors. The following day, November 8, Harrison sent men to inspect the town and found that it was deserted, except for one elderly woman who was too sick to leave. The rest of the defeated Indian forces had left during the night. Harrison ordered the troops to spare the old woman but to burn down Prophets Town and to destroy the Indians’ cooking implements, which would make it hard for the confederacy to survive the winter. Everything of value was taken, including 5,000 bushels of corn and beans. Some of the soldiers dug up bodies from the burial grounds and scalped them. Harrison’s troops buried their own dead on the site of their camp and then built large fires over the mass grave in an attempt to conceal it. However, after Harrison’s troops had departed, the Indians dug up the corpses and scattered the remains in retaliation.

After the battle, the wounded soldiers were loaded into wagons and taken to Fort Harrison to recuperate. Most of the militia was released from duty and returned home. In his initial report to Washington, Harrison told of the battle at Tippecanoe and stated that he feared reprisals from the Indians. The first dispatch did not make it clear who had won the engagement and Secretary of War William Eustis at first interpreted it as a defeat. The next dispatch made the American victory clear and spoke of the defeat of Tecumseh’s confederation since no second attack materialized. Eustis replied with a lengthy note demanding to know why Harrison had not taken adequate precautions in fortifying his camp. Harrison responded that he considered the position strong enough to not require fortification. The dispute was the start of a disagreement between Harrison and the Department of War that later caused him to resign from the army in 1814. But the battle certainly did not damage his reputation. When he ran for President of the United States during the election of 1840, he used the slogan "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too" to remind people of his heroism during the battle.

Accounts vary as to the immediate effect the loss had on Tenskwatawa. Some reports claimed that he lost much of his prestige after the battle because his claims that the warriors could not be hurt proved to be untrue. During meetings with Harrison after the battle, several tribal leaders claimed that his influence was destroyed. However, some historians believe that this was likely an attempt to mislead Harrison and calm the situation and that Tenskwatawa actually continued to play an important role in the confederacy.

Massacres of settlers became commonplace in the aftermath of the battle. Numerous homes and settlements in the Indiana and Illinois territories were attacked, leading to the deaths of many residents. Prophets Town was partially rebuilt over the next year, but was again destroyed in another campaign against the Indians in 1812. The Battle of Tippecanoe was a serious blow to Tecumseh's dream of a confederacy. When he returned from his travels, Tecumseh was angry with his brother, whom he had instructed to keep peace.

Tecumseh continued to play a major role in military operations on the frontier, however, and by 1812 the confederacy and Tecumseh had regained some of their former strength. Many believe that this resurgence in power was in large part thanks to the events that occurred along the Mississippi River in the winter of 1811-1812.
In the spring and summer of 1811, Tecumseh began traveling to villages in the Midwest and the South, urging the tribes to join his confederacy. Many warriors joined him, although others ignored his pleas, doubting that he would succeed. One Alabama tribe, whose camp along the Mississippi River Tecumseh visited in November, even treated him with contempt. This angered Tecumseh so much that he told them that when he returned to his home, he would stomp on the ground and cause their village to fall down. They laughed at him – but it seemed that Tecumseh’s threat was fulfilled a few weeks later.

On December 16, the devastating New Madrid Earthquake shook the South and the Midwest. Some of the Alabama tribe believed that Tecumseh’s supernatural power actually caused the earth to shake while others believed he prophesied that the event would occur. While the interpretation of this event varied from tribe to tribe, one consensus was universally accepted: the powerful earthquake had to have meant something. For many tribes it meant that Tecumseh was a powerful leader and must be supported.

When the earthquakes began, Tecumseh was at the Shawnee and Delaware Indian villages near Cape Girardeau, Missouri, fifty miles north of the epicenter at New Madrid. The earthquakes continued as he traveled back to Prophets Town. He arrived there in February 1812 and by that time, word of his mysterious prediction had spread and more allies had flocked to his cause. Despite the setback of the battle, Tecumseh began to rebuild the confederacy.

He soon led his forces to join the British army as they invaded northwest from Canada. Tecumseh joined British Major-General Sir Isaac Brock in the siege of Detroit and forced its surrender in August 1812. This victory was reversed a little over a year later, as Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry's victory on Lake Erie, late in the summer of 1813, cut British supply lines and forced them to withdraw. The British burned all public buildings in Detroit and retreated into Upper Canada along the Thames Valley. Tecumseh and his men followed fighting rearguard actions to slow the American advance.

A second British commander, Major-General Henry Proctor, did not fare as well with Tecumseh as his predecessor did and the two disagreed over tactics. Proctor favored withdrawing into Canada when the Americans faced a harsh winter. Tecumseh, however, was eager to launch an offensive that would ravage the American army and allow his warriors to return home to the northwest regions. Proctor failed to appear at Chatham, Ontario, though he promised Tecumseh that he would attack the Americans there. Tecumseh moved his men to meet Proctor and told him that he would withdraw no further. If the British continued to want his help, then fighting needed to be carried out. William Henry Harrison crossed into upper Canada on October 5, 1813 and won a victory against the British and their Native American allies at the Battle of Thames. Tecumseh was killed, and shortly after the battle the tribes of his confederacy surrendered to Harrison at Detroit.

Tecumseh remains an enigmatic figure today. He is seen as a hero to many, refusing to give in to the overwhelming wave of white settlement. But in his time, he was greatly feared as a killer of innocents and a hindrance to the development of the country. What he actually was remains in the eye of the beholder.

But one question still baffles us: did Tecumseh predict the New Madrid Earthquake or did he cause it? Or was it merely a coincidence that he threatened to “shake the earth” and it actually happened a short time later? Or was the story of his eerie prophecy invented after the fact to add credence to his claim that the Great Spirit wanted him to lead the Native American confederacy in its fight against white expansion?

We may never really know.


Election Day 1860

On November 6, 1860, former Illinois congressman Abraham Lincoln defeated three other candidates for the American presidency: John Breckenridge, John Bell and Stephen Douglas and became the most beloved -- and most hated -- president in American history. And later that night, experienced an eerie vision that he believed was a premonition of the future.

In November 1860, Lincoln was home in Springfield, Illinois. The city had a carnival-like atmosphere and Election Day dawned with rousing cannon blasts, with music and contagious excitement. Lincoln spent the day and evening with friends at the telegraph office. By midnight, it was clear that he had been elected President of the United States. A late night dinner was held in his honor and then he returned to the office for more news. Guns fired in celebration throughout the night.

Lincoln finally managed to return home in the early morning hours although news of victory and telegrams of congratulations were still being wired to his office. He went into his bedroom for some much needed rest and collapsed onto a settee. Near the couch was a large bureau with a mirror on it and Lincoln stared for a moment at his reflection in the glass. His face appeared angular, thin and tired. Several of his friends suggested that he grow a beard, which would hide the narrowness of his face and give him a more “presidential” appearance. Lincoln pondered this for a moment and then experienced what many would term a “vision” --- an odd vision that Lincoln would later believe had prophetic meaning.

He saw in the mirror, that his face appeared to have two separate, yet distinct, images. The tip of one nose was about three inches away from the tip of the other one. The vision vanished but appeared again a few moments later. It was clearer this time and Lincoln realized that one of the faces was actually much paler than the other, almost with the coloring of death. The vision disappeared again and Lincoln dismissed the whole thing to the excitement of the hour and his lack of sleep.

The next morning, he told Mary of the strange vision and attempted to conjure it up again in the days that followed. The faces always returned to him and while Mary never saw them, she believed her husband when he said that he did. She also believed she knew the significance of the vision. The healthy face was her husband’s “real” face and indicated that he would serve his first term as president. The pale, ghostly image of the second face however was a sign that he would be elected to a second term --- but would not live to see its conclusion.

Lincoln dismissed the whole thing as a hallucination, or an imperfection in the glass, or so he said publicly. Later, that strange vision would come back to haunt him during the turbulent days of the war. It was not Lincoln’s only brush with prophecy either. One day, shortly before the election, he spoke to some friends as they were discussing the possibilities of Civil War. “Gentlemen,” he said to them, “you may be surprised and think it strange, but when the doctor here was describing a war, I distinctly saw myself, in second sight, bearing an important part in that strife.”

Friday, November 4, 2016


A Story of Sadness, Spiritualism and Sorrow

On November 4, 1842, future president Abraham Lincoln married Mary Todd in Springfield, Illinois. It was a complicated and often turbulent marriage, but Mary remained devoted to Abraham throughout his entire life – and even after his death.

A young Mary Todd, who Lincoln fell in love with in Springfield and married in 1842

The two met at a Christmas party in Springfield in 1839. They were attracted to each other from the start. Mary’s sister soon noted with disapproval that when Lincoln would call, he would sit in rapt attention to everything Mary said. She believed the young man, who the wealthy family considered to be unsuitable, was paying far too much attention to Mary. Mary seemed to be returning his attentions for a time, but the following year found her still being courted by other men (including Lincoln’s rival, Stephen Douglas) and Lincoln still pining away after her. At the close of the year, he made his decision, he would marry her. Whether or not Lincoln formally proposed to her or not, Mary promised to become his wife. For some reason, though, on New Year’s Day 1841, Lincoln decided to break off the engagement.

Some have speculated that Lincoln was intrigued by the idea of marriage, but afraid of it also. He feared his loss of freedom but was unsure that he wanted to live without Mary. His friend and law partner, William Herndon, noted that Lincoln was acting as “crazy as a loon”. He didn’t eat, he didn’t sleep, he let his work slide and refused to meet and dine with friends. Another friend, Dr. Anson Henry, suggested that Lincoln take a trip out of town and try to ease his state of mind.

A short time before, one of Lincoln’s closest friends, Joshua Speed, had moved to Louisville, Kentucky and so Lincoln decided to travel there and stay with him for a little while. Unfortunately, things were no better for him in Louisville. Speed was also in the midst of a turbulent relationship with a local woman named Fanny Henning. After a short visit, Speed returned to Springfield with Lincoln and wrapped up his business affairs to move to Kentucky permanently. He would soon be marrying Fanny, but he left his good friend with one piece of advice: either give up Mary for good or marry her and be done with it.

In the summer of 1842, Lincoln again turned his attentions to Mary Todd. A friend cleverly arranged a surprise dinner so the two of them would meet again and it worked. By November, marriage was on Lincoln’s mind again. In fact, it was so much on his mind that on the morning of November 4, he and Mary announced they were going to be married --- that same evening.

Their friends were in great haste to make the preparations, surprised by the announcement. There was no time for Joshua Speed to travel from Kentucky, so Lincoln asked another friend, James Matheny, to stand in as best man. Matheny would later write that during the ceremony, Lincoln “looked and acted like a lamb being led to the slaughter.” While he was getting dressed, his landlord’s son asked him where he was going and Lincoln answered, “To Hell, I suppose.”

Despite the haste in making arrangements and Lincoln’s obvious foreboding, the ceremony proceeded without a hitch and Lincoln was now a husband.

The Lincolns had their honeymoon at the Globe Tavern, where they lived during the first years of their marriage. There was every indication that their marriage was a happy one, despite Mary losing track of her socialite friends and her sister’s warnings that her husband was unsuitable. It was not long before they were expecting their first child and Robert was born just three days short of nine months after the wedding.

During the Civil War and the Lincoln’s years in the White House, their son Willie died, a loss from which Mary never recovered. It was during this time that she turned to Spiritualism and séances began to be held at the White House. Mary seemed to feel great relief from her contact with the dead but later, after Lincoln was assassinated and Spiritualism fell out of popular favor (it would revive again in the early 1900s), Spiritualism would become her undoing.

For months after Lincoln’s death, Mary spoke of nothing but the assassination until her friends began to drift away, their sympathy at a breaking point. She began to accuse her husband’s friends and his Cabinet members of complicity in the murder, from his bodyguards to Andrew Johnson.

Mary lay in her bed for 40 days after the assassination and in the years that followed, she deteriorated mentally and physically into a bitter old woman who wore nothing but black mourning clothing for the rest of her life. Her attachment to Spiritualism turned into a dangerous obsession, reaching a point where she could not function without aid from her “spirit guides.”

Mary had a great fear of poverty. She often begged her friends to help her with money. Unlike the widows of generals and governors, for whom money was easily raised, Mary’s handful of supporters found it impossible to raise funds on her behalf because she was just too unpopular. In fact, she was despised across America. Newspapers wrote unflattering stories about her and she was ridiculed by members of Washington society.

In 1868, she abandoned America and took her son Tad to live in Germany. They lived there in hiding for three years before coming home. In July 1870, Congress approved a lifetime pension for Mrs. Lincoln of $3,000 per year. This pension awaited her when she returned to America, as did an inheritance from Lincoln’s estate. She was finally wealthy woman. This fear was over, but heartbreak soon followed.

Travel and an ocean crossing had dire circumstances for Tad. He developed tuberculosis and his health began to fail. He lingered for many weeks and then died in July 1871. Tad’s death, which followed the death of two other children and her husband, further aggravated Mary’s grief, which was enhanced by her previous history of mental instability.

Mary turned to the only thing that she believed that she had left – Spiritualism. For a time, she moved into a commune, where she began to develop her psychic “gifts,” which enabled her to see “spirit faces” and “communicate beyond the veil.” She claimed to have daily conversations with her late husband. Many took advantage of her, tricking her out of money and using her name to promote their own “abilities.” One of these was so-called “spirit photographer” William Mumler, who produced thousands of blatantly fake photographs of ghosts during his infamous career. Although he claimed not to recognize Mary when she called at his studio, he “miraculously” managed to produce a photo of her and her late husband by deft manipulation of the photographic plates.

The infamous photograph taken by William Mumler, which Mary believed showed the phantom image of her late husband. Although Mumler claimed that he had no idea who the veiled woman was who visited his studio that day -- until the moment she removed the veil, that is -- Mumler was a notorious fraud, who produced thousands of blatantly fake "spirit" photographs.

Mary’s sole surviving son, Robert, a rising young Chicago lawyer, was alarmed as his mother's behavior became increasingly erratic. In March 1875, during a visit to Jacksonville, Florida, Mary became absolutely convinced that Robert was deathly ill. She traveled to Chicago to find him in fine health. On her arrival, she told her son that someone had tried to poison her on the train and that a “wandering Jew” had taken her pocketbook but would return it later.

While staying with Robert in Chicago, Mary spent money lavishly on useless items, such as draperies that she never hung and elaborate dresses that she never wore, due to the fact that she only wore black after her husband's assassination. She often walked around the city with $56,000 in government bonds sewn into her petticoats. She was afraid of banks and still feared losing all her money. After Mary had an “episode” during which it was feared she would jump out of the window to escape a non-existent fire, the family began to feel that she was going insane.

Fearing that his mother was a danger to herself, Robert was left with no choice but to have Mary committed to a psychiatric hospital in Batavia, Illinois in 1875. After the court proceedings had ended, Mary was so enraged that she attempted suicide. She went to the hotel pharmacist and ordered enough laudanum to kill herself. However, the pharmacist caught on to her plans and substituted the drug with a harmless liquid.

On May 20, 1875, she arrived at Bellevue Place, a private, upscale sanitarium in the Fox River Valley. With his mother in the hospital, Robert Lincoln was left with control of Mary Lincoln's finances. By this time, Robert was wealthy in his own right and had no plans for his mother’s money, which Mary refused to understand. She was sure that he planned to steal everything from her.

Three months after being installed in Bellevue Place, Mary Lincoln engineered her escape. She smuggled letters to her lawyer and his wife, who was not only her friend but also a feminist lawyer and fellow Spiritualist. She also wrote to the editor of the Chicago Times, known for its sensational journalism. Soon, the public embarrassments Robert had hoped to avoid were looming, and his character and motives were in question. The director of Bellevue, who at Mary’s trial had assured the jury she would benefit from treatment at his facility, now in the face of potentially damaging publicity declared her well enough to go to Springfield to live with her sister as she desired.

Mary was released into the custody of her sister, Mrs. Elizabeth Edwards, in Springfield and in 1876 was once again declared competent to manage her own affairs. The committal proceedings led to Mary severing all ties with Robert. She called him a “wicked monster” and despised him for the rest of her life. Before she died, she wrote spiteful letters to him, cursing him and telling him that his father had never really loved him.

Mary went into exile again and moved into a small hotel in France. Her eyes were weakened by cataracts and her body was wracked with pain from severe arthritis. She refused to travel back to the United States until several bad falls left her nearly unable to walk. Her sister pleaded with her to come home and finally she returned to Springfield, moving into the Edwards house, the same house where she and Lincoln had been married years before.

Mary lived the last years of her life in a single room, wearing a money belt to protect her fortune. She kept all of the shades in her room drawn and spent her days packing and unpacking her 64 crates of clothing. She died in July 1882 at the age of 63 – a faded shell of the exuberant young socialite that she had once been and a sad victim of the Lincoln assassination who found herself cursed to live for 17 years after the death of her beloved husband.

Thursday, November 3, 2016


Harry Truman and the Haunted White House

Just three days after the 1948 election, President-Elect Harry S. Truman stepped off a train in St. Louis and, with a large grin on his face, held up a copy of the November 3 edition of the Chicago Tribune for reporters and photographers to see. The bold headline on the front page read DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN – the newspaper had most definitely gotten the story wrong. The headline became known as the most infamous blunder in American newspaper history.

The Tribune, which had once referred to Truman as a “nincompoop,” was a notoriously Republican-leaning paper but, to be fair, the erroneous headline had nothing to do with national politics. For almost a year before the 1948 election, the printers who operated the linotype machines at newspapers all over Chicago had been on strike. Around the same time, the Tribune had switched to a method in which copy for the paper was composed on typewriters, photographed, and then engraved onto printing plates. This process required the paper to go to press several hours earlier than usual.

On election night, the earlier press deadline required the first post-election issue of the Tribune to go to press before even the states on the East Coast had reported all the results from polling places. The paper relied on its veteran Washington correspondent and political analyst Arthur Sears Henning for a prediction of the winner. Henning had correctly picked the winner in four out of fine presidential contests over the past 20 years. The scuttlebutt in Washington, based on the polls, was that a win by Thomas Dewey was “inevitable.” The New York Governor, almost everyone believed, would easily win the election. The first edition of the Tribune for November 3 therefore went to press with the banner headline DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN.

 The story that accompanied it, written by Henning, reported that Dewey “won a sweeping victory in the presidential election yesterday.” He also noted that Republicans would now control both the Senate and the House of Representatives and that Dewey “won the presidency by an overwhelming majority of the electoral vote.”

As returns began to indicate a close race later in the evening, Henning continued to stick to his prediction. It was simply too late to turn back now – thousands of papers were rolling off the presses with the headline that predicted Dewey’s victory. Even after the paper’s lead story was rewritten to emphasize local races and to indicate the narrowness of Dewey’s lead in the national race, the same banner headline was left on the front page. Only late in the evening, after press dispatches began to cast doubt on Dewey’s victory, did the Tribune change the headline to DEMOCRATS MAKE SWEEP OF STATE OFFICES for the later edition. Some 150,000 copies of the paper had already been printed before the mistake was corrected.

As it turned out, Truman won the electoral vote by a 303 – 189 – 39 majority over Dewey and third candidate Strom Thurmond. Instead of a Republican sweep of the White House and retention of both houses of Congress, the Democrats not only won the Presidency, but also took control of the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Harry Truman was on his way back to the White House – a place that he already knew was infested with ghosts.

According to a number of former presidents, their families, and their staffs, there are many ghosts to be found in the White House. Most notable among the resident spirits are former chief executives Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln. Of course, these phantoms do not walk the halls alone, but Lincoln is especially active in a place where he suffered not only the psychological trauma of the country tearing itself apart during the Civil War, but where he lost his beloved son, Willie, to an unknown ailment. Perhaps for this reason, he has become the most frequently encountered spirit at the White House. Theodore Roosevelt admitted to friends that he had encountered Lincoln’s ghost. Grace Coolidge once insisted that she had seen Lincoln’s ghost walking through a doorway on the second floor. President Herbert Hoover described to friends “fantastic” strange noises that he heard coming from the other side of the door to the Lincoln bedroom. Lady Bird Johnson and Jackie Kennedy both encountered the mournful spirit, as did Eleanor Roosevelt and several members of her staff. Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, who stayed at the White House during World War II, surprised President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and several cocktail party guests, one evening when she told them of seeing Lincoln in her bedroom. Prime Minister Winston Churchill never discussed Lincoln’s ghost, but always stayed in the Lincoln Bedroom when visiting the White House. One morning, though, he was discovered sleeping in a room across the hall. He had moved in the middle of the night. He refused to tell anyone what had frightened him out of his usual quarters.

Of all the presidents who encountered the spirits of the White House, however, the best-known was Harry Truman. His daughter, Margaret, also saw Lincoln’s ghost walking down a second-floor corridor, just as many others had in years past. Truman made no bones about the fact that he believed the White House to be haunted. He once recalled an incident that took place in the early morning hours, about one year after he took office. He was awakened that night by knocking on his bedroom door. He got out of bed, went to the door and opened it, but found that no one was in the hallway. Suddenly, the air around him felt icy cold but the chill quickly faded as President Truman heard footsteps moving away from him down the corridor.

He later wrote to his wife, Bess, who often stayed at their family home in Missouri because she didn’t like Washington, and stated that, “I sit in this old house, all the while listening to the ghosts walk up and down the hallway. At four o’clock, I was awakened by three distinct knocks on my bedroom door. No one was there. Damned place is haunted, sure as shootin’!”

Wednesday, November 2, 2016


Weird White House Days with Florence Harding

Stories of ghosts, hauntings, and séances have long swirled about the White House. The spirits of several former presidents are rumored to walk the halls of this stately building. Many of those presidents expressed an interest in Spiritualism and the occult, including Franklin Pierce and Abraham Lincoln, during their lifetimes, and others claimed to witness the spirits of their predecessors while in office. A few of the First Ladies who accompanied their husbands into office also had connections to the supernatural. Mary Lincoln was famous for the séances that she attended after the death of her son, Willie, and her devout in Spiritualism after the death of her husband.

But there is no First lady who was more expert on the occult, or believed more thoroughly in the supernatural, than Florence Harding, wife of scandal-battered President Warren G. Harding.

First Lady Florence Harding

During his time in office, Harding was a popular president, but his reputation was tarnished after his death when Americans learned of the corruption that occurred during his administration. Even though Harding himself was never accused of criminal wrongdoing, it was during this time that the Teapot Dome Scandal came to light. The incident involved Secretary of State Albert Fall, who rented public lands to oil companies in exchange for bribes and gifts. He was later convicted and served less than a year in prison. Other government officials took payoffs and embezzled funds. Harding himself allegedly had extramarital affairs and drank alcohol in the White House in violation of the Prohibition laws. Harding died in a San Francisco hotel in 1923 under strange circumstances. The White House initially said he died from food poisoning, another physician stated that it was due to a cerebral hemorrhage, and still another claimed that it was a heart attack.

Still others claimed that Mrs. Harding herself may have had a hand in her husband’s death. She refused to allow an autopsy on her husband. Since Harding died in California, a state without a mandatory autopsy law, even the president could not be examined without his wife’s consent. Several conspiracy theorists began to wonder what she was hiding. One rumor stated that the president, depressed and fearing impeachment once the scandals in his administration came to light, committed suicide. Another claimed that Mrs. Harding had poisoned him, either to prevent the humiliation of scandal from the wrong-doers who worked for him, or out of revenge for his many marital indiscretions, including a long-time affair with a woman named Nan Britton, who bore a child with Harding out of wedlock. Still others dismissed such stories and said that Harding merely died from a stroke.

The true cause of Harding’s death remains a mystery, but at least one person tried to discover what happened to him in the days that followed his demise. That person was his wife, Florence Harding, who tried very hard to hold a conversation with his spirit while his body was still lying in state in the White House.

President Warren G. Harding

Warren Harding had been born in Ohio on November 2, 1865. After college, he got into the newspaper business in Marion, Ohio, and quickly converted the editorial platform to support the Republican party. He enjoyed some success until he began to clash with local political leaders, especially real estate magnate Amos Hall Kling. He attracted a lot of unwanted attention, but refused to give up the fight, eventually making his paper the largest in the region. On July 8, 1891, Harding married Florence Mable Kling DeWolfe, a tall, mannish-looking divorcee – and daughter of political enemy, Amos Hall Kling. When he heard the news, he disowned his daughter and even prevented his wife from attending their wedding. He spent the next eight years in opposition of the marriage, refusing to speak to his daughter or son-in-law.

Florence quickly took control of the Harding marriage. It became her business sense that made Harding a financial, and then political, success. She ran the newspaper with crisp efficiency and plotted Harding’s rather unlikely political ascent. She pushed him into state politics in the late 1890s, serving in the Ohio Senate for four years before winning election as the Lieutenant Governor. His time in office was undistinguished and he returned to private life in 1905. But Florence did not let him stay there for long. In 1912, she wrangled him the chance to give the nominating speech for incumbent President William Taft at the Republican convention. In 1914, with the help of political boss Harry Daughtery, Harding was elected to the U.S. Senate. During his time in the Senate, Harding missed over two-thirds of the roll calls and votes, compiling one of the worst records in history. He introduced only 134 bills, none of them significant. But Harding was an affable man and was always well-liked by his colleagues. He was a loyal party man and worked to keep harmony. This turned out to be a great help to him in 1920, when a dead-locked Republican convention turned to Harding as a compromise candidate for the presidency. After a particularly nasty campaign (the first to ever shine light on the candidate’s sex life), Harding won the election by a wide margin.

His administration soon became riddled by scandal and corruption. Florence may have pushed her husband into the White House, but she had no idea what awaited him there. In that way, at least, her belief in spirits and signs didn’t help her.

Florence had always believed in spirits, omens, and curses. Some believe that she came by those beliefs from the German immigrant families who rented farms owned by her father in Ohio, or perhaps it came from her visits to Spiritualist camps in Indiana in the late 1800s. She read tarot cards and believed in bad luck. In the White House, she became agitated if a maid placed a pair of shoes on a bed, believing that it brought bad luck. A niece later told a story of Florence gazing up into the night sky, identifying the constellations and explaining that the only aspect of life that could truly be relied upon was what messages were given to us by the formations of the stars.

It's no surprise that Florence turned to the supernatural for guidance. Her life was one of abuse – by her first husband, her father, and even by her husband, who carried on with other women right under her nose. She also suffered from a chronic kidney ailment that made her life painful and her lifespan unknown.

Florence and Warren Harding at the White House

When Florence arrived at the White House, she threw herself into the job of First Lady. She opened the mansion and the grounds to the public again – both had been closed during President Wilson’s illness – and began organizing social events for veterans, women’s groups, and various dignitaries. Among those with open invitations to the White House were Spiritualists, mediums, and psychics. Spiritualism had become a popular movement again after World War I, and séances were widely attended across the country. Critics of the Harding administration openly complained about the parade of psychics that were meeting with the First Lady. Harry Houdini, who appeared before a congressional committee to ask for laws against fortune-tellers and fraudulent mediums, even said that he’d heard “on rather good authority that they held séances in the White House.”

Ironically, though, neither Warren or Florence Harding were ashamed of the fact that Florence believed in spirits or astrology. For his part, Harding never criticized his wife’s beliefs nor attempted to prevent her seeking guidance from them, even when her beliefs were exposed during the 1920 presidential election.

Among the many mediums and astrologers that Florence consulted, the one who played the biggest role in her life was a woman named Marcia Chaumprey, who used the professional name of “Madame Marcia.” After Florence became First lady, Chaumprey would often go into clairvoyant trances so that she could warn about administration officials who she sensed were involved in malfeasance or plotted against the president. Her primary service to Florence, though, was to interpret the zodiac for her.

A 1938 Liberty magazine illustration showing Madame Marcia working on the Harding zodiac chart.

During the 1920 presidential primary, Florence was introduced to “Madame Marcia” by her closest friend, Evalyn Walsh McLean, owner of the infamous Hope Diamond. Chaumprey also met with the wives of three U.S. Senators, veiled for anonymity, and was presented with each of their husband’s birth place, time and dates, seeking to determine which of them would be most likely to win the election. Chaumprey determined that Harding would be nominated and win the general election, but at the cost of his life. This prediction – although not the sole reason – did influence Harding’s decision to run for president.

It was Florence who tipped off the press corps about having consulted an astrologer. She announced at the 1920 Republican National Convention that, “If my husband is elected, I can see but one word hanging over his head – Tragedy! Tragedy!”

Once Florence was in the White House, she would send her Secret Service agent, Harry Barker, to bring Madame Marcia from her home. Hoping to spare her husband any embarrassment, she always had her brought in by the West Wing entrance, where the visitor’s book was not always signed. This was, as it turned out, not Marcia’s first time in the White House. The previous First Lady had also consulted her. Edith Galt met Madame Marcia in 1914 and the medium told her that she would someday become a member of the presidential family and live in the White House. Mrs. Galt told her that if the prediction turned out to be true, Marcia would be invited to the White House for further consultations. After the widow met and married President Woodrow Wilson, she was true to her word.

As was allegedly predicted, President Harding did die during his presidency. Florence endured the long train ride from San Francisco to Washington with her husband’s body and on the first night that the flag-draped casket was resting in the East Room, Florence asked her friend, Evalyn McLean, to descend the grand staircase with her so that she could “speak” with her dead husband. The flag was removed by White House staff members and the casket was opened, so that husband and wife could converse face-to-face.

Whether Harding ever apologized to Florence for his many transgressions from beyond the grave is unknown.

After Harding’s funeral, his body was returned to Marion, Ohio, where he was laid to rest. Florence followed him to the grave, dying on November 21, 1924, surviving her husband by little more than a year of illness, sorrow, and pain. 

Thursday, October 27, 2016


The Ghostly Story of the First Woman to Run for President

In 1872, American history changed forever when a woman named Victoria Woodhull became the first woman to try and become President of the United States. She had an uphill battle ahead of her. As a woman, she wasn’t even allowed to vote. If elected, she would have been too young at the age of 34 to serve, but it didn’t matter because she only received a handful of votes. Even her running mate, Frederick Douglass, voted for President Ulysses S. Grant. On Election Day, she was in jail for slandering the most famous minister in the country.

Victoria Woodhull, the first American woman nominated for the presidency -- and practicing Spiritualist medium

When Hillary Clinton was nominated as the Democratic Party’s choice for the presidency in 2016, Victoria Woodhull, a largely forgotten novelty in the historical record, was suddenly in the spotlight for the first time in more than a century and a half. She began to be lauded for her trailblazing advocacy of woman’s rights – including the movement for “free love” and divorce – and her work in the suffrage movement of the day. But what most people neglect to mention is that Victoria Woodhull didn’t achieve her greatest notoriety as a presidential nominee, but rather as a Spiritualist medium who started the first female brokerage firm on Wall Street by charging some of the nation’s wealthiest men to contact the dead.

When someone once asked shipping magnate, financier, and railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt for financial advice, he replied, “Do as I do, consult the spirits!” His conduit between this world and the next was Victoria Woodhull.

Born Victoria Clafflin in Homer, Ohio, in September 1838, her childhood was a nightmare. Her mother was an eccentric who had “memorized the Bible backward and forward.” Her father was a con artist who abused his family and was one described by a neighbor as a “one-eyed, one-man crime spree.” He fled town after allegedly burning down his own mill for the insurance money and stealing petty cash from the post office. Locals took up a collection so that his family could follow after him. Victoria was the seventh of ten children, four of whom did not live to adulthood. She had only a few years of formal education before being put to work in her father’s traveling medicine show. She and her younger sister, Tennessee, gave séances, performed as fortune tellers, and sold fake elixirs to the gullible. 

At age 15, she was married for the first time to a drunken, philandering physician named Canning Woodhull. They had two children together, but divorced in 1864. She later married two more times. 

In 1868, Victoria and Tennessee moved to New York City, where business and industry were growing rapidly in the years after the Civil War. Millionaires were being made in the shipping, construction, and railroad businesses, and through a series of fortunate coincidences that put the sisters in the right place at the right time, they met tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt. He was the richest man in America, had an eye for beautiful women, and was obsessed with contacting his late mother. Victoria soon became his personal spirit medium. 

Cornelius Vanderbilt, Victoria's wealthy benefactor

Within two years, using the stock advice that was gleaned from the “spirits” during her séances with Vanderbilt, Victoria and Tennessee became known as the “lady brokers.” Vanderbilt helped them to establish a stock brokerage office, the first of its kind for women of that era. The sisters did very well financially and realized a sizable profit. 

With some of their earnings, they established a weekly newspaper that was designed to cast attention on topics that were of interest to feminists of the time, such as equal rights and suffrage. In 1871, Victoria and her political positions had become so well-known that she appeared before the House Judiciary Committee to speak on behalf of women’s rights. In doing so, she became the first women to ever testify before a congressional committee. 

But her stance on women’s rights was not what earned her the nickname of “Mrs. Satan.” That came about because of her support of another controversial topic of the time: free love. She believed in the right of a woman “to love who I want for as long as I want,” then to divorce. Under the law, she said, marriage for women was slavery. By the age of 31, she was a millionaire, but when she walked into Delmonico’s restaurant without a male escort, she was refused a seat. She tried to vote in 1871, claiming that the 14th Amendment guaranteed women that right. As she had told the congressional committee, “we don’t need the right to vote, we have it.”

Newspapers and religious leaders insulted Victoria with vile nicknames, editorials and cartoons, including this one, which dubbed her "Mrs. Satan." 
But it was in 1872, when Victoria Woodhull truly earned her place in American history when she ran for president. It was a daring move that caught the attention of the press, politicians, and the public. It was the first time that a woman – and a Spiritualist – sought the highest office in the land. She won the nomination of the Equal Rights Party. The former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass was named as her running mate, but if he knew it, he never acknowledged the nomination and campaigned for President Grant. 

Even though Victoria could have never been elected, none of that mattered. Her goal was to call attention to women’s rights issues – and to herself. Few regarded Victoria’s candidacy seriously; but the press was more than happy to write about her efforts because it sold newspapers. During her run, she did gain support from a few women’s rights groups and from some Spiritualists, but her radical position toward free love alienated most of those who would have helped her. Conservative newspapers and religious organizations began accusing every one of America’s four million (or more) Spiritualists of supporting free love and while it was a false charge, it inflamed passions. 

One of Victoria's campaign posters
Things turned ugly during her campaign. Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, brother of Uncle Tom’s Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe, had attacked Victoria’s notion of free love from his Brooklyn pulpit. Shortly before the election, Victoria’s newspaper printed a story that revealed that Beecher was having an adulterous affair with a parishioner, Mrs. Elizabeth Tilton. The result of the allegations was a full-blown scandal and an embarrassing trial for Beecher on adultery charges. 

The newspaper story may have been accurate, but under a federal law against mailing “obscene” material, Victoria was arrested and jailed, where she spent Election Day. By the way, the winner of the 1872 election was Ulysses S. Grant, who went on to a second term in office.

In the wake of the scandal, her arrest, and the election, Victoria was called a “vile jailbird” by Harriet Beecher Stowe and an “impudent witch.” Others called her much worse. She was later cleared at trial but the events ruined her health, her finances, and her reputation. In 1877, she moved to England, where she married a banker, still supported liberal causes, and lived comfortably until her death in 1927.

She seemed destined for historical oblivion. The Spiritualists wanted nothing to do with her because they believed that she had used the movement to simply further her radical women’s rights agenda. Following the Civil War, when so many people were seeking mediums to contact their loved ones, Victoria Woodhull had soured the movement’s reputation. The bereaved were more concerned with speaking with their loved ones than with listening to speeches about social injustice.

Victoria’s radical position on free love had caused rifts within the women’s rights movement, as well. Even bold feminist leaders like Susan B. Anthony, who had once welcomed Victoria, later distanced herself. When Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote a six-volume history of the suffrage movement, Victoria’s contributions were reduced to one brief mention. 

She would have likely have been forgotten altogether if not for another, far different woman who made history in 2016. 

Friday, September 9, 2016


The Long Fall of Fatty Arbuckle

On September 9, 1921, the death of a young movie actress named Virginia Rappe would make newspaper headlines around the world. The scandal that followed her death had nothing to do with the fame, or lack of it, of the pretty actress – it was her link to the man who was known as “America’s Funnyman,” Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Virginia’s death destroyed the career of the man who was then America’s best-known comedic actor and created one of Hollywood’s first lingering ghosts.

Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle

Fatty Arbuckle was among the first celebrities to be swallowed by the bright lights of Hollywood. There are few actors who have crashed and burned in the way that Arbuckle did. The rotund comedian, nicknamed “Fatty” by his fans because of his 300-pound girth, achieved his original success in the 1910s. He was more popular than even Charlie Chaplin and at the time of his downfall in 1921, he was earning over $1 million a year. But it all came to a crashing halt because of a scandal. Arbuckle had it worse than most. It was bad enough to fall from grace because of one’s mistakes and the scandal that might follow, but it was another thing entirely to be used by an ambitious district attorney for his own political gains, and to be savaged by the Hearst newspapers, which sensationalized Fatty’s plight and made a bundle in circulation sales. Making things even worse, Arbuckle’s own studio led the behind-the-scenes intrigue that sabotaged his career, some say as revenge against a star who had become too big to control.

Roscoe Arbuckle was born (weighing in at a whopping 16 pounds) on a small farm in Smith Center, Kansas, on March 24, 1887. The following year, his family relocated to Santa Ana, California, and opened a small hotel. In the summer of 1895, Roscoe made his stage debut with a traveling theater troupe. The shy and overweight youngster immediately felt at home on the spotlight. Four years later, his mother died and the boy was sent to live with his father, who was then residing in Watsonville, California. When his father vanished a short time later, a local hotel owner took Roscoe in. When not working at odd jobs, he was tutored by a teacher who lived in the hotel. However, he preferred appearing on amateur night at the town’s vaudeville theater to reading and writing. In 1902, he was reunited with his remarried father in Santa Clara and helped out the family by waiting tables in his father’s restaurant.

Roscoe got into show business a few years later, working in vaudeville and burlesque shows in California and the Pacific Northwest. During a 1908 summer stock engagement in Long Beach, California, he met a singer and dancer named Armanta “Minta” Durfee. The two of them were married and toured the Southern California vaudeville circuit. At some point, Arbuckle decided to try his luck in the fledgling movie industry.  

Legend had it that Arbuckle was an overweight plumber when Mack Sennett discovered him. The story goes that he had come to unclog the film producer’s drain, but Sennett had other plans for him. He took one look at Roscoe’s hefty frame and offered him a job. It never happened this way – but it made a great story. Arbuckle’s large frame and bouncing agility made him the perfect target for Sennett’s brand of film comedy, which included mayhem, pratfalls, and pies in the face. He became a member of Mack Sennett’s Keystone Film Company in April 1913. He was soon making dozens of two-reelers as a film buffoon and audiences loved him. He made one film after another, all of them wildly successful, and managed to earn a fortune.

In the summer of 1916, Arbuckle joined the East Coast-based Comique Film Corporation as a star and director with an annual income of more than $1 million. The following March, he attended a banquet in Boston hosted by his studio for regional theater exhibitors and this became Fatty’s first brush with scandal. After the dinner, Arbuckle retired to his hotel room, however, company executives (including founder Adolph Zukor) and others continued partying at Brownie Kennedy’s Roadhouse, a tavern and brothel in nearby Woburn, Massachsetts. Almost immediately, news circulated in Boston about the orgy, and the gossip claimed that Arbuckle had been present. In fact, some stories had him dancing on tables with prostitutes in the roadhouse’s backroom. Because of the publicity, the city’s mayor raided the brothel. After paying a fine, the madam was released. However, the stories about what went on that night were too racy to simply fade away. Zukor was informed that unless money changed hands, the bawdy activities were sure to make national news. Zukor paid $100,00 to keep the matter quiet and in the process, did nothing to clarify that Arbuckle had not been present that night.

By October 1917, Arbuckle (along with most of the rest of the movie industry) was back in Hollywood. By now, his marriage to Minta had fallen apart and she remained in New York to pursue her acting career. Although separated, their divorce was not finalized until 1925.
With 1920’s “The Round Up,” Arbuckle began making full-length movies. In January 1921, he signed a lucrative new contract with Paramount Pictures, which led to Adolph Zukor pushing him into an exhausting schedule that ended with him filming three movies at the same time in the summer of 1921. By Labor Day weekend, Fatty was worn out and planned to go to San Francisco to relax over the holiday. Zukor asked him to remain in town to take part in an exhibitors’ convention that weekend and when Roscoe refused, Zukor was enraged. Arbuckle didn’t let this bother him and he went on the trip anyway.

Fatty was joined on his trip up the coast by actor friend Lowell Sherman. Then, director Fred Fischbach, whom Arbuckle had known for years, invited himself along. The three men set out on early Saturday morning, September 3, and arrived in San Francisco later that evening. Fatty was driving his flashy new Pierce-Arrow automobile and took his friends to the luxurious St. Francis Hotel. Fatty took three adjoining suites on the 12th floor.

On Sunday, the trio did some sightseeing and visited friends and on Monday, Labor Day, the party got under way. Fischbach got in touch with a bootlegger connection and soon, the guests and the liquor began to arrive. Among the guests was Fred’s friend, film talent manager Al Semnacher, who was in San Francisco for the weekend, trying to concoct evidence for his pending divorce. He had brought along Bambina Maude Delmont, a woman with an extensive police record involving blackmail, prostitution, and swindling, to help him out. A friend of Bambina’s also came along -- a little-known actress named Virginia Rappe.

Virginia Rappe

Virginia came to Hollywood in 1919. She was a lovely brunette whose unfortunate reputation preceded her. It was no secret in Hollywood that she was a girl with “loose morals,” which was saying a lot for the film colony in those days. Rumor had it that she had already had several abortions by the time that she was 16, before giving birth to a child that that she had given away. She caught the eye of Mack Sennett and wrangled some movie roles on the Keystone lot, where she met Arbuckle. It was also rumored that Virginia had worked her way through the cast and crew of the company and at one point, she passed around a rather sensitive infestation of body lice that was so severe that Sennett had to close the studio and have it fumigated. In spite of her drunken escapades and reports of unprovoked nudity, she did earn some film roles, including “Fantasy,” “Paradise Garden,” and “Joey Loses a Sweetheart,” in which she appeared with Arbuckle. Virginia was noticed by William Fox, shortly after winning an award for the “Best-Dressed Girl in Pictures,” and he took her under contract. There was talk of her starring in a new Fox feature and Virginia certainly seemed to be on her way up.

In 1920, Virginia began dating director Jack White. When he left Hollywood for New York, she was left with an unwanted pregnancy to deal with. Her manager, Al Semnacher, suggested that she have an abortion in San Francisco, where there was less chance of the Hollywood gossips finding out about it. Since she was going up north and Semnacher had plans with Bambina Delmont that weekend, he arranged for her to drive there with him on September 3.

Salesman Ira Fortlois arrived at Roscoe’s suite at noon on Monday to find the party already in full swing. Arbuckle was reportedly not happy to discover that Fred Fischbach had invited Semnacher, Delmont, and Rappe to the party, thanks to their questionable reputations, but he was enjoying himself too much to press the issue. At one point during the party, Fischbach suddenly left, claiming that he had business elsewhere. The crowd grew to a couple of dozen people. The young women were downing gin-laced Orange Blossoms, some of the guests had shed their tops to do the "shimmy," guests were vanishing into the back bedrooms for sweaty love sessions, and the empty bottles of booze were piling up.

Meanwhile, Delmont, who was well-liquored, disappeared into Lowell Sherman’s suite with him and locked the door. Virginia, roaring drunk, began tearing off her clothes and screaming hysterically. Because Delmont and Sherman were locked in room 1221, and room 1220 had no bathroom, Virginia was rushed into room 1219, Fatty’s suite, to use the facilities there. Soon, unaware of what was happening, Roscoe tried to enter his bathroom, only to find Virginia vomiting into the toilet. He helped her up and convinced her to lie down and rest on his bed. Next, he went in search of some ice. He hoped that the ice would quiet the woman down as well as determine, by holding a piece of ice against her thigh to see if she reacted to the chill, whether she was suffering from hysterics.

By now, Fischbach had returned. As Roscoe applied the ice to the wailing woman’s leg, Maude Delmont walked into the room. Rappe yelled that she was dying – words heard by several other female party guests. Next, the bathtub in room 1219 was filled with cold water to cool off the distraught young woman. But Virginia suddenly awoke and began screaming at Arbuckle. “Stay away from me!” she cried and then turned to Delmont, “What did he do to me, Maudie?” Virginia was bodily placed in the cold water tub and she seemed to settle down. A short time later, she was taken to another room down the hall where Delmont could take care of her. The hotel doctor was summoned to the room a little while later, but he determined that Virginia was merely drunk.

The party continued, with Arbuckle leaving the hotel for a time to arrange to have his car shipped back to Los Angeles. He planned to return by boat. By the time Fatty returned, another doctor was administering morphine to Virginia. When the physician asked Delmont what had transpired, she calculatedly created a fabricated tale that she later told the police – but never swore to in court.

According to her version of events, Fatty, wearing only pajamas and a bathrobe, had steered a drunken Virginia into his suite at around 3:00 p.m. on Monday afternoon. Delmont stated that the festivities in the adjoining suites came to a halt when screams were heard in the bedroom. She also said that weird moans were heard from behind the door. A short time later, Fatty emerged with ripped pajamas and he told the girls, "Go in and get her dressed. She makes too much noise." When Virginia continued to scream, he yelled for her to shut up, or "I’ll throw you out the window." Delmont and another showgirl, Alice Blake, found Virginia nearly nude and lying on the unmade bed. She was moaning and told them that she was dying. Bambina later reported that they tried to dress her, but found that all of her clothing, including her stockings and undergarments were so ripped and torn, "that one could hardly recognize what garments they were."

Arbuckle knew nothing of the story that Delmont was spreading and on Tuesday, September 6, he checked out of the St. Francis, generously covering everyone’s expenses. By now, Virginia, at Delmont’s direction, was being treated by another doctor, this one associated with the private Wakefield Sanitarium. Having been assured that Virginia was in no danger, Arbuckle and his friends returned by ferry to Los Angeles.

On September 8, the still-stricken Virginia was transferred from the hotel to the Wakefield Sanitarium, where she died the next afternoon. An illegal postmortem exam was conducted on her body and her ruptured bladder and other organs were placed in specimen jars, which would prevent a proper autopsy by the legal authorities. Convinced that she could turn the entire incident into something she could profit from, Delmont swore out a complaint against Arbuckle with the police. Back in Hollywood, Roscoe’s new film, “Gasoline Gus,” had just opened successfully and at the same time, he learned of Virginia’s death. Shocked, he volunteered to return to San Francisco. Paramount, meanwhile, panicked at the possible repercussions of the weekend, hired attorneys to represent their high-priced star.

From the start, the newspapers were filled with lurid headlines (“Fatty Arbuckle Sought in Orgy Death”) and graphic, false details supplied by Delmont. Newspapers around the country were revealing shocking “truths” about the alleged events in the death of the virtuous Virginia Rappe at the hands of the lust-crazed Fatty Arbuckle. Everything from Arbuckle’s past was raked up, including the false story that he had been party of the 1917 orgy in Massachusetts and new stories claimed that he had killed Virginia because she had rebuffed his advances. They also claimed that he had killed her because his immense weight pressed down on her too hard during sex. And it was no longer just sex, the newspapers told a nation of stunned fans, but "strange and unnatural sex." According to reports, Arbuckle became enraged over the fact that his drunkenness had led to impotence, so he ravaged Virginia with everything from a Coca-Cola Bottle, to a champagne bottle, to an over-sized piece of ice. Other stories claimed that Fatty was so well-endowed that he had injured the girl, while others stated that the injury had come when Fatty had landed on the slight actress during a sexual frolic.

Soon, churches and women’s groups were crusading against the “lustful” Arbuckle. In Hartford, Connecticut., a group of angry women ripped down a screen in a theater showing an Arbuckle comedy, while in Wyoming, a group of men opened fire in a movie house where another Arbuckle short was being shown. Thanks to the newspapers, Arbuckle had been found guilty in the public’s eyes before charges have ever been filed against him. Angry, and increasingly boisterous, voices were calling for Hollywood to clean up its act. Finally, Arbuckle’s films were pulled from general release. Arbuckle had been placed on suspension by Paramount, invoking the morals clause in his contract.
San Francisco District Attorney Matthew Brady hoped the Arbuckle case would be his ticket to the governor’s office. The coroner’s inquest met on September 12 with Brady demanding that Arbuckle be charged with murder. By then, he knew that most of what had been printed in the newspapers were lies but since his vow to prosecute the movie star to the fullest extent of the law had already been featured in the press, he proceeded with the case. Over the next few days, with Arbuckle jailed without bail, a special grand jury voted to indict the actor on a manslaughter charge. It was their belief, based on the evidence, that Arbuckle had used “some force” that led to Virginia’s death. On September 28, a judge ruled that the defendant could be charged with manslaughter, but the rape charge was dismissed. Arbuckle was released on his own recognizance and returned to Los Angeles. He was accompanied by his estranged wife, Minta, who had arrived to offer moral support.

The trial began on November 14, 1921, with Roscoe taking the stand and denying any wrongdoing. The defense introduced evidence of Virginia’s past medical problems (including chronic cystitis) and her recurrent bouts of abdominal pain that often led to her yanking off her clothing. The key witness, Maude Delmont, never took the stand to continue her fanciful claims against Arbuckle – something that the defense pointed out several times to the jury. After much conflicting testimony, the jury remained deadlocked after 43 hours of deliberation. One juror was adamant that Fatty was guilty “until hell freezes over.” The judge declared a mistrial.

Unwilling to give up, D.A. Brady pushed for another trial. One of the tactical errors this time around was made by the defense. Overly confident that Arbuckle would be acquitted, they did not have him testify again and simply read his prior testimony into the record. This made Arbuckle look cold and uncaring about the young woman’s death and made the wrong impression on the jury. In addition, his attorney, assured of victory, never bothered to make a closing statement. After many more hours of deliberating, the jury was deadlocked again, although this time they had almost voted in favor of conviction. Fatty had not been convicted, but he was paying for his “crime.” He had been forced to sell his home in Los Angeles, along with his luxury automobiles, to pay lawyer’s fees that the studio was no longer footing the bill for.

Unbelievably, Brady took Arbuckle to trial a third time. This time, Fatty took the stand and patiently answered questions about the fateful party for three hours. The defense introduced evidence about Virginia’s questionable past, the prosecution’s intimidation of witnesses, as well as the fact that the prosecution still had never produced Maude Delmont to testify. This time, the jury adjourned for only five minutes and returned with a vote of acquittal and a written apology:

"Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle. We feel a grave injustice has been done him and there was not the slightest proof to connect him in any way with the commission of any crime. We wish him success, and hope that the American people will take the judgment of fourteen men and women that Roscoe Arbuckle is entirely innocent and free of all blame.”

Fatty may have been free, and cleared by a well-meaning jury, but he was hardly forgiven by Hollywood. Paramount canceled his $3 million contract and his unreleased films were scrapped, costing the studio over $1 million. Fatty’s career was finished after he was banned from the movies by Will Hays and his Hollywood Production Code. Hays wanted to show that he meant business when it came to cleaning up the movies and decided to make Arbuckle an example. Strangely, Hays acted at the urging of Adolph Zukor and Paramount Pictures. Years later, it was also discovered that Zukor had made a mysterious payment to D.A. Matthew Brady on November 14, 1921. It was assumed to be a possible bribe to control the case’s outcome – although not in Arbuckle’s favor. Some have also theorized that Zukor, eager to regain control over Arbuckle, had masterminded the St. Francis Hotel party through Fred Fischbach (who mysteriously vanished for a time), but that the situation, which was simply to make Arbuckle look bad, got wildly out of control.

By Christmas, Hays had rescinded his ban on Arbuckle in Hollywood productions, but civic groups and the press remained opposed to his return to film. Because of this, the studios just couldn’t afford to have his name connected to their pictures. Only a few friends, like Buster Keaton, remained by his side. In fact, it was Keaton who suggested that Arbuckle change his name to "Will B. Good." Actually, Arbuckle did adopt the name William Goodrich in later years and he was able to gain employment as a gag man and as a comedy director. Friends helped him as best they could, but the next few years were difficult ones. He tried stage and vaudeville work and opened a club and a hotel, which closed down during the Depression. He married and divorced a second time, and then found happiness with his third wife, actress Addie McPhail. In 1931, Roscoe appeared in a fan magazine article, begging to be allowed to return to the screen. Hal Roach offered him a contract, but pressure from several women’s groups caused the deal to fall through.

After again turning to vaudeville, Arbuckle was given a contract by New York’s Vitaphone Studios head, Sam Sax, to star in a 1932 film short. The “comeback” Vitaphone two-reeler was so successful that Sax gave Fatty a contract to make five more, in preparation for a feature film with Warner Brothers. Unfortunately, Arbuckle died on the night following the completion of his last Vitaphone short “Tomalio” on June 29, 1934.

Even in death, Fatty Arbuckle could not find peace. The slanderous stories about him still exist today and despite evidence presented to the contrary, he continues to be perceived as the “lustful rapist” portrayed in newspapers of the day.

At the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, a lonely stone marks the grave of Virginia Rappe and the site is said to be home to her ghost. Little explanation needs to be offered as to why Virginia’s spirit might be a restless one. She lost not only her life over the course of the Labor Day Weekend of 1921, but she lost a promising career and her tattered reputation, as well. Was it a fate that she brought on herself? Perhaps, but the press was nearly as savage to the sickly and misguided young actress as it was to Fatty Arbuckle. 

While most newspapers painted Virginia as an “innocent” victim of Arbuckle’s lust-crazed advances, the Hearst newspapers were especially cruel to the actress and managed to turn the affair into a national scandal. While Heart’s papers were always known for their yellow journalism and lurid headlines, the Arbuckle case received even more coverage than normal. As it happened, Heart’s affair with a starlet named Marion Davies became big news at the same time that details began to emerge about Fatty Arbuckle and Virginia Rappe. Marion Davies’ career began to suffer and rumor had it that Hearst gave the go-ahead to his papers to exploit every Hollywood scandal of the time, including Fatty’s, to take the focus off of himself and Davies. This made the unlucky Virginia Rappe an easy target.

For this reason, it’s not surprising to hear reports that her spirit still lingers behind. Visitors who come to Hollywood Forever Cemetery have reported hearing a ghostly voice that weeps and cries out near Virginia’s simple grave. It is believed by many to be her ghost, still attached to this world, and still in anguish over her promising career, which was, like her life, cut short before it could really begin.