January 23, 2013

Benjamin Harrison and the Case of the Body Snatchers

BH was always fairly close with his father. John Scott Harrison - uniquely the son of a president and the father of a president - was himself an Ohio Congressman. He wrote little Ben a lot of letters full of good political advice.

By the time he died, Ben was already a well-known trial attorney and frequently in the running for Indiana's Governorship or Senate seat (although at the time of his father's death I don't think he had yet claimed his eventual Senate win).

When John Scott died, all the surviving Harrison boys gathered in North Bend, Ohio for the funeral. At the burial, they noticed that a neighboring grave, that of their recently deceased relative August Devin, was disturbed. Suspecting a grave robbery, Ben's brother John Jr. vowed to investigate on behalf of the Devin family.

Body snatching was a common practice at the time, as corpses were needed for medical education, but demand outweighed supply. In fact, many families would hire someone to guard the grave of their deceased loved one for the first month after their death, which was prime body snatching time.

John Jr. visited the Ohio Medical College, where it was known that stolen corpses arrived at night through a chute. They got a janitor to show them around, and eventually found a rope hanging in an elevator shaft, with what looked like a body suspended at the end of it. When they pulled up the rope, John Jr. discovered the body - not of Augustus Devins - but of his own father.


I cannot imagine the horror of that moment. Clearly the Harrisons were furious, and the Ohio Medical College should have been mortified that they had just pissed off one of the best trial lawyers in the west. Bizarrely, they were not. Their spokesman emerged as a cavalier jerk who was brashly unapologetic. His basic response was, you guys don't get it, we really need bodies, this is how we teach doctors. The college claimed ignorance of who the body snatchers were and who at the college was responsible for receiving them (although a night janitor was the obvious suspect.)

Despite how insane these claims were, the College did in fact avoid all culpability in the inevitable Harrison-led trial, letting a few staff members take the fall. Harrison himself seemed to want to move on from this fiasco as quickly as possible. After re-burying his father, he was rarely heard to mention him for the rest of his life.

January 18, 2013

Benjamin Harrison: General Thoughts

I am ready to resume my writing about Presidents with Benjamin Harrison, the 23rd President, and the only from our home state of Indiana.  Most of our Hoosier readers will do a double--or even spit-take at the information that there has been just the one President from Indiana.  We tend to be uncommonly proud of our granfalloon.  But rather than write about the dearth of Indiana denizens in the White House, I'll instead devote this post to Harrison's more meaningful label: the ex-General President.

We are now accustomed to Commanders-In-Chief who did not attain a high military rank.  Indeed, a generation of Americans (those aged 21 and younger) have never had a President who served active duty at all.  But time was that a generalship was the surest step toward the presidency.  Of the first 23 Presidents, Harrison inclusive, 11 had served as generals.  Six(!) of these Generals served in the Civil War alone.  After Harrison, the country waited 60 years for Eisenhower to be elected, and has been waiting 52 years since then, and counting.

This biography is unusual in our series because it focuses only on Harrison's pre-Presidential years.  The middle of a three-part series, this volume covers Harrison's time between the Civil War and the Presidency.  At times interesting, this close-up of a young man's transition to middle age allows us to study his attendant transition between military and civilian service.  This topic certainly interested Harrison and his fellow Hoosiers.  Harrison received a hero's reception at his welcome home parade in Indianapolis, but sensed "the hidden fears of some who anticipated riot and bloodshed from the returning veterans."  He assured the crowd that the returning soldiers would expect no preferential treatment, but promised that "you will have to brighten your wits and quicken your pace," because "we mean to be felt in politics as well as business."

The first third of the book is devoted to Harrison making good on his promise in the business arena.  He  quickly established himself as the best trial lawyer in Indiana and found a niche collecting and analyzing Supreme Court argument and decisions (big business today).  Thus far it would seem that his General tendencies translated to business life in his demands for obedience and perfection: "He hated stupidity, expecting of subordinates the same high level of workmanship of which he himself was capable.  Small talk and unnecessary intrusions annoyed him most."

His prickliness extended to the homefront.  When his daughter wished to take dance lessons, Harrison's wife Carrie had to conspire with other mothers to work around the General's objections.  "I don't know what to do," she despaired, "Ben would never allow an ungodly fiddle in the house."

I set the book down just as Harrison began to be felt in the public arena, and I'll be curious to see how his rigid personality plays in personal politics.

January 15, 2013

Grover Cleveland also happened

One of my New Year's resolutions in 2012 was to hit the halfway mark of At Times Dull, which, by finishing An Honest President on December 30, I accomplished. Hurray for me!

In order to do this, you may have noticed that I steamrolled through the 1870s and 80s in the month of December. As such, Cleveland was the 4th president I read about in roughly 6 weeks, and he failed to stand out.

Or rather, the things that stand out about him are the trivial things. He was the first president to use the terms "executive privilege" and "welfare state." He was the second president in a row to be the son of a preacher, and the second president in a row to be fat. He got a woman pregnant when he was a young buck, and that came back to bite him in the campaign (though obviously not that much). He stayed single until after he became president. His wife was 21, the daughter of his late business partner. His was the first wedding in the White House, and his daughter Ruth was the first birth in the White House. The candy bar Baby Ruth was named after her, not the baseball player. He was the second president in a row to have a secret medical condition - a tumor on the roof of his mouth. In the guise of a vacation cruise, his surgeon removed the tumor and part of his jaw while they were on board a yacht. And, of course, he remains the only president ever to have served two non-consecutive terms. He is both the 22nd and 24th president.

(Remember: Because of this, "How many men have been President of the United States?" is always a trick question. Although Barack Obama is the 44th president, he is only the 43rd man to be president.)

He was not a genius, but he was very confident and logical. He climbed the ranks of New York politics because of how unreserved he was in standing up to corruption. As mayor of Buffalo and then Governor of New York, he was known for vetoing anything he knew to be a result of corruption. He believed strongly in the accountability of politicians to their constituents.

In 1880, there hadn't been a Democratic president since James Buchanan, since he and his party were largely blamed for the Civil War. However, in 20 years of power, the Republicans had become more and more open about their corruption and their infighting, so a plain-speaking veto governor was just the image makeover the Democrats needed.

His first term had mostly to do with silver coinage and the tariff, which was gripping reading. He lost re-election to Benjamin Harrison for reasons which Jeffers never made totally clear. The nation was enthralled with him, especially when he married a 21-year-old and had a cute baby, but perhaps found his stubbornness uninspiring.

Harrison's one term as president, however, was a disaster. Residing over the "billion dollar Congress," Harrison and the Republicans managed to spend the gigantic surplus that presidents had been sitting on since the Civil War (wartime tariffs had not been lowered after the war was over).

So then American was like, Cleveland wasn't so bad, and elected him to the term after Harrison's. This one was more eventful, because labor exploded. Namely, the Pullman Strike happened on Cleveland's second term watch, which he shut down with federal troops because mail wasn't being delivered. So that part was pretty interesting.

Other than that, honestly, Cleveland kind of came and went for me. Tariffs, reconstruction, Indians, Central America - these are all plots that continue to move slowly forward, without any one president making a huge impact on their course. Cleveland was a refreshing guy after all the bluff and bluster of the New York Republicans, and I think that was a valuable palliative to Gilded Age politics, but he was no political marvel.

But oh, readers, At Times Dull is getting exciting. The 20th century is on the horizon, and the germs of its themes are starting to show up. Teddy Roosevelt was ubiquitous in this bio, as was Mark Twain. It's nice to be back in recognizable times.

January 01, 2013

presidential fact #23

Chet Arthur was the subject of the first birther controversy. He was born in Vermont, only miles from the Canadian border. His maternal grandparents lived in Canada, and some claimed that he was born while his mother was at their house rather than her own.