Book Review: The Lincoln Conspiracy

Abraham Lincoln was marked for death from the minute he was elected.  Apparently, even he understood his grave fate.

But what I didn’t know was that there were several assassination attempts on his life before his death on April 14,1865 at the hands of John Wilkes Booth.  I recently read The Lincoln Conspiracy by bestselling authors, Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch which details the very first, purported attempt on his life prior to his inauguration on March 4,1861.

To buy the book on Amazon, click here.

Meltzer and Mensch did an excellent job researching this book and included many wonderful details about Lincoln and his life including information about his temperament, inner circle and habits, which helped me gain a better understanding of who he was as a person. 

They also did an excellent job of detailing the mood in the United States at the time of Lincoln’s election.  They read newspaper articles from the time as well as the journals and letters of the people who surrounded Lincoln and his rivals. And for me, the balance of detail and cultural context in relation to the broader story they are telling was spot on.

I particularly loved the quote they included from the famous Black abolitionist, reformer and writer, Frederick Douglass, when he said, “The hour and the man of our redemption had somehow met in the person of Abraham Lincoln.” 

Now about the conspiracy part of The Lincoln Conspiracy. According to the book summary: “The conspirators were part of a white supremacist secret society that didn’t want an abolitionist [Lincoln] in the White House. They planned an elaborate scheme to assassinate the President-elect in Baltimore as Lincoln’s inauguration train passed through, en route to the nation’s capital.”

The retelling of Lincoln’s inaugural train ride into Washington, which included many stops and appearances along the way, was an incredibly well told part of the story.  I felt like I was almost experiencing the journey alongside Lincoln. The writers also provide the underlying story to Lincoln’s long-term dealings with famous American detective, Allen Pinkerton, who investigated the conspiracy, and for the women’s history lovers, the book shares interesting information about the first American female detective, Kate Warne.

The book moves quickly and is told in such a way that it is easily digestible to modern readers.  I highly recommend it for all history lovers out there. Happy Reading!

To buy the book on Amazon, click here.

Happy Birthday to America’s First Female Lawyer

May 23rd marks the birth of the woman who was to become the first female lawyer in the US, Belle Aurelia “Arabella” Babb Mansfield.  Born in 1846 in the Benton Township of Des Moines County in Iowa, Arabella was influenced by her parents who valued education and her older brother, Washington Babb, who was also a lawyer.

Arabella Mansfield
Arabella Mansfield, Source: Wikimedia Commons

The interesting part of her story is that she never actually went to law school. After graduating valedictorian of her class at Iowa Wesleyan College, she taught school for a year and married her college sweetheart, John Mansfield.  She then went on to “read the law” in her older brother’s law practice where she worked as an apprentice.

She took the bar exam and passed on June 15,1869 despite the fact that women were legally prohibited. In Iowa, at the time only “white, male citizens” were eligible for admittance to the bar. 

Mansfield argued that women should be allowed to practice law to the Iowa Bar Association and was admitted.  Apparently, she impressed the committee as they wrote:

Your committee takes unusual pleasure in recommending the admission of Mrs. Mansfield, not only because she is the first lady who has applied for this authority in the state, but because in her examination she has given the very best rebuke possible to the imputation that ladies cannot qualify for the practice of law.

Iowa Bar Association

Although admitted to the bar, Mansfield earned a living teaching first at Iowa Wesleyan College and later at DePauw University where she served as the Dean of the school of Art and then later as the Dean of the school of Music.

She was also, notably, active in the suffragette movement and knew famous activist, Susan B. Anthony as they worked to pass the Nineteenth Amendment giving women the right to vote.

To learn more about Arabella Mansfied, visit these sources:

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April History Hits: When FDR Seized Montgomery Ward

In fairness to Franklin D. Roosevelt, he didn’t want to do it.  But, Sewell Avery, the CEO of Montgomery Ward, was refusing to work with labor unions, and the US was a country at war.

Montgomery Ward & Co.S Building, Chicago Source: Wikimedia Commons

At the time, Chicago-based Montgomery Ward was equivalent to Amazon today. According to Matthew Waxman, a law professor at Columbia University, “By 1943, Montgomery Ward served 30 million customers not only through mail-order deliveries but also via 600 stores and 78,000 employees in 47 states. Two-fifths of U.S. mail-order business went through Montgomery Ward, as did one-fifth of all manufactured products purchased by American farmers.”

Avery had capitulated to Roosevelt once in 1942, but by the beginning months of 1944, he was not having it.  Roosevelt’s fear was that a labor strike would interfere with the war effort, and according to the War Labor Disputes Act of 1943, the National War Labor Board could get in the middle of anything that might lead to a “substantial interference with the war effort.”

According to Waxman, Montgomery Ward’s attorneys maintained that Roosevelt was overstepping in the matter.  On April 25, 1944, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9438, where he proclaimed “that there are existing and threatened interruptions of the operations of the plants and facilities of Montgomery Ward and Company, located in Chicago, Illinois, as a result of labor disturbances arising from the failure of Montgomery Ward and Company to comply with directive orders of the National War Labor Board.”

Roosevelt ordered his then Secretary of Commerce, Jesse H. Jones, who hailed from my hometown of Houston, Texas, to seize control of Montgomery Ward’s headquarters, retail store, mail order house and warehouse in Chicago and to operate them for the “successful prosecution of the war.”

When a federal dispatch consisting of US Marshalls, deputies and soldiers visited Avery at the headquarters they were not only met with verbal resistance, but Avery refused to leave his office chair leading to the amusing photo that headlined throughout the country at time showing him being literally carried out of his office.  

Sewell Avery being forced from his office
Source: Iconic Photos

Waxman, who made the extraordinary effort to read and summarize for us the very best part of Attorney General Francis Biddle’s memories on the incident who noted that Secretary of War Henry Stimson had pleaded unsuccessfully with Roosevelt that “[E]very man was needed in the war effort; it is a great army, Mr. President, it must not be sent to act as clerks to sell women’s panties over the counter of a store.”

As a woman, I take exception to the fact that Stimson found our under-clothing the furthest possible thing from a successful prosecution of the war, but I get his point, rude as it may be.

Avery fired back in several ways including a statement released to the Associated Press on May 10, 1944 and reprinted in the New York Times where he called the seizure illegal and demanded that the matter be resolved in court.  “Ward’s has been deprived of its property by force and bayonets,” he wrote.

According to Waxman, due to public disapproval, the government released Montgomery Ward back to Avery two weeks later, but then seized the company again, and this time they seized control in nine cities including Chicago after a labor strike broke out at the end of 1944.  Litigation ensued and it looked like the government would win, but the end of the war brought an end to the matter.

To learn more about the Montgomery Ward Seizures, visit these resources:

Forgotten Heroes: Texas Airman Dies in 1961 Diverting Falling Plane from Suburban Neighborhood

It’s hard to even fathom what thoughts go through a person’s head in the final moments of a crisis where they must choose between their own life or the lives of others.  

Such a crisis came to Captain Gary L. Herod on Wednesday, March 15, 1961.  A pilot for the Texas Air National Guard, Herod was barely in the air over Houston, Texas when his plane began to falter.  With the plane’s engine failing, he tried first to return to Ellington Field Airport, and radioed the control tower that he planned to eject himself from the plane.

Captain Gary L. Herod, Source: Texas Air National Guard

Somewhere in those seconds, though, he realized that doing so would leave the plane to crash into a suburban neighborhood filled with young families in a popular Houston suburb known as Meyerland.  

This excruciating choice included the fact that Herod had a wife and two children of his own.  As the tower asked for confirmation of his intent to eject, Herod’s last words were “not yet.”  

He went down with his plane into a vacant field on the north bank of Brays Bayou, the lone casualty of this tragedy.  Maybe he hoped that he might be able to safely land the plane, or maybe he fully knew the sacrifice he was making.

A couple of months later, a “Hero” tree was planted with a plaque commemorating his sacrifice at the site of the popular Meyerland Plaza Shopping Center, and in 1965, a local elementary school was named for him.  Nearly 57 years later, with the tree failing in health, his plaque and memorial were moved to the nearby elementary school bearing his name.  Herod was also posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross from the United States Air Force.

In April of 1961, a month after the accident, a memorial fund dispersed $2,600 in donations to Herod’s wife.  She wrote a thank you letter, which was published in the Bellaire Texan, a local newspaper.  

Source: Texas Digital Newspaper Program: The Bellaire Texan

“I cannot help but consider, in wonder,” she wrote, “the circumstance which could make it possible for my husband to gain for himself in a few short tragic minutes, more friends than many men gain in a lifetime.”

She went on to say that she planned to dedicate these funds to her childrens’ education. “I feel this is fitting, for I am conscious of the fact that these funds represent to a large degree the gratitude of parents for the well being of their own children and concern for our children who must face life without their father.”

She signed the letter, “Mrs. Gary L. Herod.” 

To learn more about Gary L. Herod, visit these resources:

I Survived the Great Texas Freeze Out of 2021

Just wanted to let you all know that I was offline last week, because I was participating (against my will) in living history. I live in Texas and as you may have heard, we had a few difficulties last week with an historic snow storm.

My family and I are fine (now), but we spent a little under 48 hours in the freezing cold with no electricity as well as some time without water. I was underprepared, to say the least, for the winter camping skills that would be required of me.

Here is what I learned:

  1. Gas stoves are wonderful (I already knew that from hurricane season).
  2. All of the flashlights in my house are either missing batteries or no longer work.
  3. I am grateful to all of the people who have given me scented candles over the years, they came in clutch.
  4. Hoarding bottled water in between natural disasters is a good idea.
  5. Hoarding toilet paper in between natural disasters is a good idea.
  6. Get your fireplace flue checked out before each winter season, even when you live on the face of the sun.
  7. Even if you have decided that you are too old to ever ski again, keep your ski clothes.
  8. Don’t feel bad if you are the type of person who neglects to clean out your pantry, you will gratefully eat those weird remnants one day.

I look forward to getting back to enjoying history together, but wanted to let you know what I have been up to!

All the best,

Jenn

February 1974: “Jaws” the Novel is Published

Before “Jaws” the movie was released in June of 1975 and subsequently traumatized an entire generation away from going into the ocean past their waist (this author included); there was “Jaws” the novel published by Peter Benchley in February of 1974.

Novel cover, 1974

The novel was an instant success, and we all remember why– the fear created by the story sinks deliciously into your soul and really never leaves you.  New York Times literature editor, Andrew C.J. Bergman wrote on February 3, 1974, “The shark’s shredding provides the novel’s supports; the story is strung between them.”

Book publisher, Doubleday, originally commissioned the novel in 1971 with a $7,500 advance to Benchley, who was a journalist and former speech writer for Lyndon B. Johnson, and the hardcover version spent 44 weeks on the bestseller list.

Of course Stephen Spielberg then procured the movie rights to the novel and in the summer of 1974, sent a draft of a script to Carl Gottlieb, a writer and story editor for the popular TV show, “The Odd Couple.”

My favorite line from the “Jaws” movie is “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” Apparently, this line was not in the book or the original script– it was added in by Gottlieb, who had several different characters try to say it before Martin Brody, uttered it after seeing the size and scope of “Jaws” for the first time. And it was perfect and went on to become one of the top quoted movie lines of all time.  

Sheriff Martin Brody played by Roy Scheider

New York Times editor, Bergman summed up the back half of the “Jaws” novel cleverly when he wrote, “In desperation, Brody turns to a forbidding fisherman named Quint…Then the hunt is on; the horror is finally expunged; and, buckets of chum later, Brody is alone returned to tell them.”

The story originated from Benchley’s interest in sharks and a 1964 newspaper article about a fisherman catching a great white shark off the waters of Montauk, New York that weighed in at over 4,500 pounds.  According to Wikipedia, he was also partly inspired by the Jersey Shore Shark Attacks of 1916 where five people had been attacked in July. Four of the victims died and one was severely injured.

The book had tremendous popular appeal, which only increased after the release of the movie, and received mixed reviews from literary critics.  According to Wikipedia, some reviewers felt the shark was the only really interesting character in the book.  But Benchley didn’t have Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss to help bring those amazing characters to life yet.

Many have panned both the novel and the movie since their respective releases for instilling fear and dread into so many towards sharks.  It’s a fair complaint and intellectually I understand that sharks are likely not out to get me, but even still, I will never be able to swim freely in the ocean without hearing the music and fearing for my life and Peter Benchley and Steven Spielberg are pretty much to blame.

To learn more about this topic, see the resources below:

January 1915: The Creation of the Modern Coast Guard

It might seem perfectly perfunctory that the United States Coast Guard was formed on January 28, 1915 from the merger of the United States Revenue Cutter Services and the United States Lifesaving Service by then US President Woodrow Wilson’s signature on US Bill S2337 of the 63rd Congress, but if you dig a little deeper, you will find that this was necessary to keep some kind of coastal defense and life saving service afloat (pun intended).

United States Coast Guard Logo

In a very interesting and long article in the New York Times, dated January 31, 1915, we find that the Lifesaving Service was struggling to pay and maintain its officers and enlisted men, and the subsequent merger offered not only streamlined leadership, but also key services including longevity pay for re-enlistments, a pension, a clothing allowance (for uniforms, rubber boots and oilskins) and health services.  It also provided dependent pay for Coast Guard members killed in the line of duty and created a naval reserve.

In a letter, shared with the New York Times by the wife of former US Representative, Martin W. Littlefield (he represented New York in the House from 1911 to 1913), the wife of a life saver Captain from Maine, complains that they are seeking “ready money” on a claim for what looks like an injury.  “It seems hard,” she writes, “after the Captain has given his health and strength to the service for 30 years, that he should now be turned away like an old horse.”

Apparently, according to the article, previous to the creation of the modern Coast Guard, the life savers were only paid $65 dollars a month and were not paid at all when the stations were closed. Just so you know, the Internet is amazing, and I was able to find out that in today’s dollars, $65 per month would be worth just $1,670.33 per month.  (To see where I did my calculations, click here.)  That is not a livable wage for skilled work, then or now.

The bill creating the Coast Guard, which was apparently originally championed by Mrs. Littlefield, designated the Coast Guard as a part of the “military forces.”  The Coast Guard would operate under the auspices of the US Treasury Department in times of peace and could be co-opted into the US Navy during times of war when directed so by the President.

The newly merged organization brought together approximately 255 officers, 3,900 warrant officers and enlisted men, 17 regional commands, four depots, one academy, 25 cruising cutters, 20 harbor cutters and 280 lifeboat stations, according to Wikepedia.

Into the Jaws of Death taken by Coast Guard Chief Photographer’s Mate Robert F. Sargent and manned by Coast Guard crew, National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain

Of course the Coast Guard did join the Navy very shortly thereafter to assist with World War I.  The Coast Guard also assisted in every major conflict to come including World War II, and has performed critical life saving missions for countless domestic emergencies including the 1927 Mississippi River Flood, the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill clean up, the Great of Flood of ‘93 (1993 that is) and Hurricane Katrina to name a few. 

The Coast Guard embodies a very rich history of nautical expertise, critical life saving services and national defense.  Hat’s off to Mrs. Littlefield and all of the others who worked together to create an enduring and important institution.  I could probably write 500 more blogs on the Coast Guard and all of the roles it has played in history, and maybe one day, I will.

To learn more about the creation of the United States Coast Guard, visit these resources:

How California Got Expensive: Remembering the Gold Rush

While it took some time for the news of gold in California to make it all the way back to the President and Congress, the precious metal was actually discovered at Sutters Mill in Coloma, California on January 24, 1848.

California Gold Miners, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

US President, James K. Polk then announced the discovery in an address to Congress on December 4, 1848, nearly a year later and set off the greatest gold rush in history.  According to Wikipedia, nearly 300,000 people “rushed” to California to search for gold and were dubbed the forty-niners because they didn’t start coming en masse until 1849.

In his address to Congress, Polk says: “It was known that mines of the precious metals existed to a considerable extent in California at the time of its acquisition. Recent discoveries render it probable that these mines are more extensive and valuable than was anticipated. The accounts of the abundance of gold in that territory are of such an extraordinary character as would scarcely command belief were they not corroborated by the authentic reports of officers in the public service who have visited the mineral district and derived the facts which they detail from personal observation.”

On December 11, 1848, a few days after Polk’s announcement, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that “Already people have become California mad.” The article goes on to talk about all of the boats set to leave from New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore in search of “El Dorado.”

The Gold Rush helped San Francisco evolve from a tiny settlement of a couple hundred people to a city of about 36,000 in roughly three years.  The toll of the Gold Rush on indigenous peoples was, of course, terrible, many Native Americans were pushed from their homes to make way for the miners. 

Levi Stauss, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Additionally, while many miners made some profit, very few became enormously rich and many were just lucky if they came into contact with gold residue let alone big chunks of gold.  One study mentioned by Wikipedia suggested that the merchants providing services to the miners become more rich than the miners themselves. Levi Strauss, the inventor of blue jeans and founder of famous clothing company, Levi Strauss & Co., became incredibly wealthy from selling his tough work pants to the local miners and other workers in San Francisco.

The Gold Rush also gave California a nickname which stuck, the “golden state,” and also inspired the term the “California Dream,” which for many supplanted the idea of the “American Dream.”

It also kicked the area into high gear in terms of development, becoming a proper state and creating infrastructure for its newly growing population.

Polk told Congress that, “This abundance of gold and the all-engrossing pursuit of it have already caused in California an unprecedented rise in the price of all the necessaries of life.”

So basically, California got expensive and stayed that way.

Want to know about the California Gold Rush?  Here are some great resources to get you started: