Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Jackson, Harrison, Arthur & Trump

Grant Wood's 1939 painting, Parson Weems' Fable, depicts the myth
of George Washington and the cherry tree.
(Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth) 

I’m not sure whether the story of the United States is still taught as if the presidents are stepping stones through history. That was the approach when we were growing up.

The teachers marched us along through various administrations, inflicting names and dates that kept slipping away. Meanwhile, the presidents peered out from the pages of textbooks: “fools in old-style hats and coats” (to steal a line from Philip Larkin).

We assumed that all presidents were smart, diligent, and honest, starting with George Washington who could not tell a lie after he chopped down the cherry tree.

Thankfully, that assumption has disappeared.

But still, it’s useful to organize our history around the, uh . . . guys.

And there are a few interesting similarities between our president-elect and some of his predecessors. 

Andrew Jackson after he left the presidency

First is Andrew Jackson, to whom historians pointed even before Trump won the election. As candidates, both appealed strongly to the “common man.” White supremacy was a cornerstone of Jacksonian democracy.

Like Trump, Andrew Jackson ignored precedent. As a general, he often acted against orders, behaving punitively toward soldiers. As president, he sent the Cherokees on a death march from Georgia, even though the Supreme Court had ruled they could stay on their land. He repeatedly violated the Constitution.  

Stubborn defiance of laws and formalities was just one of Jackson’s many awful traits.

Four years after Jackson, in 1840, along came William Henry Harrison. He hailed from Vincennes, Indiana, on the Wabash River, where he lived in a mansion called Grouseland.

College-educated and wealthy (his father had been governor of Virginia and signed the Declaration of Independence), Harrison ran for president as a man of the people.

His campaign invoked “log cabin and hard cider” against the aloof incumbent Martin Van Buren. While “Matty Van” tried to be serious, Harrison – a war hero nicknamed “old Tip” – capitalized on slogans and drew thousands of fans to rallies.

William Henry Harrison 

The vicious campaign culminated in Harrison trouncing Van Buren.

By the way, Van Buren was a protégé of the awful President Jackson and unworthy of reelection.

In February of 1841, 68-year old Harrison boarded a train to the capital city – the first time a president-elect arrived in Washington, D. C. not on horseback or in coach or carriage.

Grouseland: Harrison home in Vincennes, Indiana

His delicate wife, Anna, stayed at Grouseland and hoped to join her husband in a few months. In the meantime, her daughter-in-law would serve as White House hostess.

The comparison must stop there, for the new president served a scant month, dying of pneumonia in the White House on April 4, 1841. The conventional wisdom is that he caught his death of cold while delivering a one-hour, 45-minute inaugural speech in a snowstorm.

We can safely bet that Trump will not speak that long.

Skip a few decades to the obscure Gilded Age president, Chester Alan Arthur of New York. Adorned with mutton chops and dressed fastidiously in fancy suits, Arthur became president upon the death of James Garfield, who was assassinated by a frustrated job-seeker.

Chester Alan Arthur
(White House)

A widower, President Arthur entered a White House in need of remodeling, which Garfield had initiated during the six months he served before being shot.

Arthur, who adored opulence, became involved in the plans to redecorate the public rooms. With plenty of time on his hands, he took to pacing the first floor of the mansion, ordering minute modifications to his taste.

Eventually, the project was finished. But Arthur did not like the result. He threw out everything and started over – this time with the designer Louis Comfort Tiffany by his side. Now the gas lit mansion would be reinvented with shimmering color and ornamental ironwork.

The piece de resistance of Tiffany’s White House was a set of vast stained-glass screens in hues of red, white, and blue that greeted visitors in the main entry hall. The panels would cast an eerie iridescent light until Theodore Roosevelt banished them two decades later.

The Republicans chose not to re-nominate President Arthur in 1884. The decision probably was unrelated to his obsession with luxurious décor.
It’s tempting to mention President Warren Harding and his plundering cronies. But we’re not there yet. Stay tuned.

Louis Comfort Tiffany's stained-glass screens;
White House, 1882-1902

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Gone West

The Great War generated its own vocabulary:

“Kick the bucket” because men in the trenches stood on buckets to aim their rifles and often were shot down themselves,

“Lousy” because lice were everywhere,

“Break new ground” because the soldiers constantly dug more trenches,

“Basket case” because gravely wounded soldiers often were carried off the battlefield in baskets, 

and so forth.

The expression “Gone West” – to die – may have originated in ancient Egypt because the uninhabited Western desert across the Nile was thought to be the land of the dead.

But it became very popular during World War I. In 1919, a book called Gone West, by a Soldier Doctor was published. Its authors were two middle-aged ladies in a small town in upstate New York.  

Mattie Mitchell Hunt and Harriet McCrory Grove were old friends. In 1885 their families lived in the same building in Minneapolis. By 1900, Harriet worked as a librarian in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Mattie had married and lived in San Antonio.

Mattie’s maternal ancestors served in the Continental Army, so she made a few appearances in D.A.R. Lineage Books. Her father, Lester, started as a small-town physician and became wealthy as a director of two Midwestern railway corporations and a milling company.   

Somehow Mattie met a financier named William Hill Hunt who hailed from Alabama. She was 26 years old in 1894 when they married and moved to San Antonio. From there, William pursued shady business transactions in Mexico. Their son and daughter were born in Texas.

The tale of William Hunt is full of deception. But he always picked himself up and went right on fooling his investors. *

Around 1900, the Hunt family moved to New York City. William continued his swindling ways and eventually went to prison. Mattie remained loyal until she learned of his serial infidelity. After a protracted divorce suit, she left him in 1912.

At that point, Mattie and her children took off for Hamburg, N.Y. in the far west part of the state near Buffalo.

Main Street, Hamburg, N.Y., 1904;
newly paved with bricks

Her friend Harriet had lived in Hamburg since 1903 when she married a roofing contractor named Frank Grove. It was his hometown.

In 1915, Harriet and Mattie started to collaborate on Gone West, by a Soldier Doctor. The manuscript would be a series of conversations with an older acquaintance who had died fairly recently.

Dozens of books about psychic phenomena had already been published in the U.S.  Spiritualists started captivating Americans during the mid-nineteenth century, and women especially were drawn to their performances. During these years, many hoaxes were exposed as well.   

It’s easy to imagine Mattie and Harriet, sitting in a dark parlor figuring out the plot. 

Or did the soldier / doctor really contact them? He had a lot to report. He told them to write it all down just as he communicated it from beyond. The two women and the doctor went back and forth telepathically. They used a technique called automatic writing, in which the writer acts as a receiver. She puts her pen on the page and starts to write involuntarily. Everything flows.

It’s kind of startling when that happens. Suddenly her pen was seized by an unseen force and the preceding words were written . . . as the doctor spoke loud and clear from across the Great Divide.

He had served in the Civil War and later became a physician. He died on Lincoln’s Birthday, 1915, and now he’s reaching out across the battlefields of World War I.

He describes to the ladies how he passes his days.

The thing that interests me most right now is the law of vibration. It is necessary to understand it to see how our worlds intermingle and still do not collide. The Astral Plane this is called.

He counsels them to prepare for going west themselves: You girls must study thought and ‘thought action’ constantly.

He communicates from a place where he comforts wounded and dying soldiers. When the war is over, the soldier / doctor bids the ladies “au revoir” and the book ends.

Diagram of automatic writing, circa 1900

It surprises me that the book’s preface was written by Frederick W. Kendall, literary editor of the Buffalo Express. In fact, Kendall’s imprimatur made possible the book’s publication. “Mr. Kendall vouches for the good faith and integrity of the writers,” according to reviews.

I can’t help but wonder why Kendall endorsed such a flighty book while being married to a woman who was so seriously occupied in the here and now.

Ada Louise Davenport Kendall met her husband when she became the first woman reporter for the Buffalo Express. Initially angry about the hire, he eventually fell in love with her and they married. She went on to write a Sunday newspaper column, “The Garret Philosopher,” for 16 years.

The Kendalls also lived in Hamburg (with their four children).

In 1910, Ada became active in the National Woman’s Party, led by suffragist Alice Paul.

While protesting outside the White House in 1917, Ada and five other suffragists were arrested and sentenced to 30 days at a prison workhouse in Virginia. Ada spent seven days in solitary confinement. She wrote to her husband, now city editor of the Buffalo Express, who published his wife’s descriptions of the horrendous conditions she endured and observed.

Portrait of Ada Kendall with one of her children

After her release, Ada continued to write and push for the vote. She became a heroine of the movement and was recognized widely for her success in journalism and as a poet. 

I like to imagine the passionate, intellectual Ada, conversing with her pet parrot,

Mattie and Harriet, their pens in hand,

and Frederick Kendall, holding onto his hat as the wind blows off Lake Erie.

*The story of William Hill Hunt appears in the July 20, 2016 post.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Chicago Calling!

 "You can learn a lot about self and my methods by mailing me TWENTY-FOUR cents in stamps for my booklet . . . I WANT TO HELP YOU"
 Advertisement for Leavitt Science, 1921 

There’s Dr. Leavitt and his son with the mesmerizing eyes, hurrying into a building on Washington Street. It’s Chicago, 1915, and they look dapper. They’re doing well. They’re riding a lucrative wave of American maladies.

Up seven flights; unlock the office door. 

The shelves are cluttered with books:

Psychotherapy in the Practice of Medicine and Surgery
The Absent Treatment of Disease with Particular Reference to Telepathy
The Essentials of the Unity of Life
The Psychic Solution to the Problem of Cure. . . Paths to the Heights . . .

and many more, all written by Dr. Sheldon Leavitt.

Then there are books by his son, Dr. C. Franklin Leavitt: Self Mastery Through Understanding,
Mental and Physical Ease and Supremacy, and Leavitt-Science.

What else?

-Special chair for patients who will undergo hypnosis
-Heavy oak desks and a typewriter or two
-A potted palm
-A talking machine

Talking machines – also known as record players, gramophones, and phonographs – became widely available in the United States around 1900 as the technology improved and consumer demand increased. Record sales soared with the spread of popular music.

In 1906, Mrs. J.H. McCorkle of Cody, Wyoming, requested no funeral service at all – just play a recording of “In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree” at her deathbed. That was a shock to friends and family. It even surprised the editors of Talking Machine World.

Back in Chicago, the Doctors Leavitt used talking machines for something completely different. They produced recordings of their voices which they sold along with pamphlets and books to promote what they called “Leavitt-Science.”

Americans have always searched for the one-stop solution.  

The Leavitts capitalized on that wish. Leavitt-Science promised freedom from fear, anxiety, and illness by using “mental methods” to create will-power, confidence, and good health.


urged one of their advertisements.

Father and son practiced in Chicago, where both graduated from the Hahnemann College of Medicine. The German physician Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843) is known as the “father of homeopathy.”  

Both men claimed to have studied in Europe with “the best operators of the Old World,” including a renowned French neurologist, Jean-Martin Charcot. Records show that they traveled abroad in 1890 and 1895.

Upon returning from their last European trip, the Leavitts repudiated the use of drugs and surgery and began treating sick patients with a mix of spiritualism, therapy, and hypnotic suggestion.

He is doing wonderful work on patients in all parts of the country.

Indeed, their patients lived all over the country. This was possible because the men performed “absent treatments” using telepathy. In the case of an absent treatment, the doctor didn’t see – perhaps never had seen – the patient. The treatments usually involved recordings. In 1916, the Illinois Medical Journal reported:

Dr. C. Franklin Leavitt of Chicago, is said to have been remembered in a bequest to the amount of $100,000 by a Mrs. Paul of San Francisco, for “absent treatments.” The bequest is being contested by the heirs, and it may be “absent too.”

No wonder there were skeptics.

This photograph of Dr. Sheldon Leavitt and a patient appeared in
The Absent Treatment of Disease with Particular Reference to Telepathy
by Sheldon Leavitt, M. D. (1906) 

Notwithstanding, on went the Leavitts, making lots of money as indicated by their elegant homes and inclusion in the Chicago Blue Book.

After World War I, the doctors advertised that the U.S. government used their methods to treat cases of “shell-shock, wrecked nerves, fear, and general nervousness” among veterans.

Sheldon died in 1933. C. Franklin died in 1944. His last book, Your Personal Problems and How to Solve Them, appeared in 1941.

Who knows, maybe they did cure a bunch of people.

This story brings back some memories. Of course, the Leavitts never treated me. But I did take a train to then unfamiliar downtown Chicago and found my way to a dim office and sat in an exam room with old wooden furniture and a grimy frosted window looking onto an alley.  

It was 1977 and I was sick with bronchitis. The university I attended had a student clinic. So why on earth did I choose to visit a doctor whose practice was squirreled away in a nineteenth-century building in the Loop, reached by a small creaky elevator?  

It’s been 39 years. I just can’t remember how I found this doctor and decided that he was the one to see. But he prescribed medicine and I got better, no hypnosis necessary.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Dayton 1950

In the house where I grew up, family photo albums were packed into the deep bottom drawer of a desk in my parents’ bedroom. The drawer had to be tugged out slowly before the largest album, leather-bound with black pages, could be retrieved. It was a lot of work for a little girl.

But there is nothing like a child’s fascination with old photographs. 

One in particular intrigued me when I was young, causing considerable puzzlement. Now it is 50 years later and much of my parents’ stuff, including the album, is in my possession. So I asked them about it.

The story is that a newspaper photographer snapped the picture, which accounts for its large size. Of course, that fact would have caused even more confusion if I had known it as a child.

The scene is the District Attorney’s office in the Old Courthouse in Dayton, Ohio. The man in the middle is my father. The woman was a secretary (as we used to say) and the other man, who wears a silly hat and holds a cup of booze, was an attorney. Some sort of celebration, my father remembers, “with alcohol.”  

He and my mother had left New York in 1949 and moved to Dayton when my father landed a job as a reporter for the Dayton Daily News. He had a couple of beats, including the courts which were located two blocks from the newspaper offices.  

They lived in Dayton for two and a half years. At first, they rented a room in a boarding house where the bathroom could be reached only by walking through the kitchen.

That’s where Darlene, a gorgeous redhead whose grandmother owned the house, hung out smoking cigarettes with her boyfriend, a minor league ball player.

The old lady told my mother that when she was a little girl her father planted potatoes in March and now – in 1950 – the farmers would plant them in May.

Today, my mother is an old lady telling me that they would drive 50 minutes to Cincinnati to go to the theater, and saw Death of a Salesman with the original cast.

Back to the courthouse, I see why the picture unsettled me as a child.

At an early age, we learned to smile politely at the camera and these three people have not followed that rule.

Also, the room looks like a library, and we were taught to be quiet in libraries.

Also, the woman standing so close to my father is not my mother.

Then there’s the guy with the drink. What was he saying? Was something stuck to the ceiling?

And what on earth was SO funny?

The photo is a reminder that children will persistently try to reason through things that don’t make sense.

But in the end, it’s probably just a Christmas party in Dayton, 1950.

See post January 17, 2018.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

In the Blue Room

Collage by Claudia Keenan

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

An Education in 1930s Suburbia

University of Michigan School of Education,
Ann Arbor, 1930s

This is what happened. Gordon and his wife, Helen, returned to the U.S. from Lucknow with no means to earn a living. With their children, they moved in with Gordon’s mother. He lectured here and there on international issues while working on the Socialist Norman Thomas’ 1932 presidential campaign.  

The following year, the family moved to Ann Arbor where Gordon studied for an M.A. at the University of Michigan’s School of Education. His thesis about progressive schools somehow drew the attention of the school superintendent of Bronxville, N.Y., who wrote to him in 1934, offering a teaching job at $2,000 per year.

Reflecting on the village years later, Gordon described it as a “company town.” This characterization was incorrect. A company town is controlled largely by one firm on which residents depend for employment, housing, goods, and the like.

In fact the affluent, one-square mile village was dominated by progressive Republicans who made their fortunes in banking, real estate, and retailing. They ran the school board and decided, in the early 1920s, to institute the most modern educational methods and hire the best teachers and administrators.  

Bronxville, N.Y., 1930s

Unfortunately, Gordon arrived in Bronxville just as new worries about Communism emerged nationwide. While Senator Joseph P. McCarthy would instigate the nation’s second Red Scare during the 1950s, the seeds were planted years earlier when the New Deal stirred concern about Communist subversion.

Gordon fell under suspicion almost immediately. If you were to draw up a list of activities that would provoke most parents of 1930s-era students – well, he hit every one:

-field trips to cooperative housing built by the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union in The Bronx,

-visits to slums, organized by an interfaith group which taught young people about the living conditions of the poor,

-a dinner with Father Divine, a black minister who ran the Peace Mission, a non-governmental relief agency in Harlem,

-a play presented by the Works Progress Administration,

-meetings with officials of peace and justice groups,

-“national dinners” hosted by Gordon and Helen, where students ate indigenous food and learned about different cultures.

While local residents grew concerned about these and other activities, the superintendent who had hired Gordon departed and was replaced by a more conservative man. In 1937, at a community rally held in the school auditorium, agitated parents yelled about radicalism in the schools and the revolutionary activities of a teacher who could only be Gordon.  

Since his contract expired in 1938, it made sense for him to move on.

We were in Bronxville living on schoolteacher's pay of $2000 [per]
year - then by helping with the football team - an increase of $200.00.
Wow! We could not afford a telephone!

(excerpt of letter from Helen to me, 2002)

About 60 years later, while living in Bronxville, I wrote a history of the school, one of the first public progressive school districts in the nation. In the course of reading newspaper accounts and interviewing retired teachers, I learned about Gordon. 

Zoom forward to 2002. Gordon still intrigued me. Perhaps there was more to write. And he and Helen were still alive! Hence the trip to Vermont.

However, I soon discovered, sitting around listening and sifting through papers in the attic of their comfortable, disorganized home, that Gordon and Helen had thoroughly documented their lives. Gordon had self-published a book about their years in India and was 88 pages into an autobiographical manuscript. Helen also brought forth an autobiography.

We spent three days together, carrying on nearly nonstop conversation about everything.

With voluminous notes, I returned to Kansas. Over the years, I tried several times to write about him and them, without success. 

But recently, I’ve thought a lot about how Gordon found his way in the world.

He believed that he took a wrong turn at Bronxville, and I had reflexively adopted his view:

-he had a bad time of it with awful people,
-he gained nothing from it,
-the interesting stuff came afterward,
-it was not worth an ounce of reflection.

Looking back, this perspective seems flawed.

Gordon dismissed teaching in Bronxville as his least important, most unpleasant experience. Now I’m inclined to think it was an essential experience.

He had returned from Lucknow in exhilaration, having put forth a bold statement about British imperialism.

But he needed to support his family – and it wouldn’t necessarily be on his terms. That was a jolt. Luckily, he could afford graduate school and found a job quickly.

The Bronxville School 

In Bronxville, Gordon and Helen soon learned that life can be brutal in a small community. Unfortunately, they formed lifelong stereotypes of wealthy suburbanites who surely returned the favor.

Yet Gordon forged ahead despite the discomfort. He formed a student Peace Club in 1935. He screened films depicting life in Asia. He visited Russia in the summer of 1937 and lectured about it that fall.  

Through various activities, Gordon affirmed his liberalism and started to develop a network of people and institutions that supported the kind of work he wanted to pursue. Although he never again worked as a teacher, he grew professionally.

There’s no question that Gordon knew excruciating details about the plight of the Indians who lived under British rule. He had witnessed the destitution of the Great War refugees. Power, politics, oppression – Gordon had a vast understanding of international issues.

But my hunch is that he possessed less insight into the suffering of Americans at the bottom of the Great Depression. He had a lot to learn.

When he visited those New York slums, his eyes must have opened as wide as those of his students.

Ultimately, four years in Bronxville were not a waste. They enabled Gordon to receive an introduction to his own nation in his own time.

"I felt the world I had come to know and the ideas churning
in it must be as remote to these youngsters as the moon."
(excerpt of Gordon's letter to me, 1995)

See post October 26, 2016.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Lives of Christian Socialists

Syracuse University, 1928; Gordon and Helen
(first row, second & third from left)

They met at Syracuse University in 1927. The occasion was a joint meeting of the campus chapters of the YMCA and YWCA.

During the 1920s, many college students embraced the Y’s departure from its traditional emphasis on Bible studies and evangelism. The new movement, often called “Christian Socialism,” promoted universal brotherhood – peace, social welfare, social justice. The Y developed a reputation for liberalism that lasted about 20 years, now largely forgotten.

Gordon H., a third-year Syracuse student, became committed to the tenets of Christian Socialism and never let go.

The blue-blooded descendant of New York State farmers, born in 1905, Gordon planned to be a doctor but sacrificed much of his college coursework to the new agenda, giving speeches and attending conferences.

Gordon, front & center;
president of his high school radio club (1918)

Now back to the 1927 meeting, when he looked across the room and became captivated by Helen H., the unhappy middle child of a Syracuse family whose father was an alcoholic and mother a wounded Victorian matron.

He offered her a ride home in a taxi. When she accepted, he knelt to put on her galoshes. They were married in June 1928, on graduation day, wearing borrowed wedding clothes. That was in line with the Y’s endorsement of simple living.

Gordon and Helen had made plans to travel to the American University of Cairo where he would teach biology and she would work as a librarian. A series of events intervened. Instead, they became affiliated with the Methodist Church and left New York on the USS Pennland to travel to Lucknow, India, where they would spend four years mentoring Indian students at the Lucknow Christian College.

“We were firmly opposed to imperialism and the British Empire,” Gordon recalled later, “and harboring pretty poor feelings about missionaries.” Their thoughts were reinforced when an English missionary on board remarked as the boat crossed the Suez Canal, “Let not your voice speak what is in your heart.”

Pushing off, Helen felt absolute relief to be out of Syracuse, liberated from her grim family situation. Gordon felt himself to be an internationalist at last, on the verge of self-transformation. They were modern people who considered themselves equal partners (and used birth control, acquired at considerable cost, Helen confided).

The cause of Indian independence inspired the couple, who spent four years in Lucknow at the height of Gandhi’s leadership. The city turned out to be a hotbed of nationalism. Helen and Gordon became good friends with Sarojini Naido, India’s foremost national woman leader, and spent time with Jawaharlal Nehru. Their three children were born there.


In 1932, the Raj ordered the family to leave after Gordon wrote and published a manifesto about British imperialism, urging rebellion. 

By the time I met Gordon and Helen at their home in Vermont, they were in their mid-90s and had filled their lives with adventure and hard work. Gordon held 14 different jobs between 1934 and 1965, including community organizer, teacher, educational administrator, fundraiser, and entrepreneur. He always advocated for racial equality and international understanding. Their family included three highly accomplished children and several grandchildren.

So why was I visiting them, anyway?

See post November 2, 2016.

The Little Time Traveler

  Last fall, my adorable grandson, halfway between two and three years, was finally tall enough to look at the family pictures arranged on a...