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.