Tag Archives: Presidents

Martin Van Buren’s National Road Tumble

Martin Van Buren. Photograph by Matthew Brady. Metropolitan Museum of Art/Wikipedia.

Presidents throughout American history have inadvertently embarrassed themselves from time to time. Gerald Ford’s unplanned trip down the wet, rainy steps of Air Force One. George W. Bush’s bicycle mishap on his Texas ranch. His dad, George H. W. Bush, accidentally vomited on the Japanese prime minister after a questionable helping of sushi. While most of these modern incidents routinely receive recognition by presidential history buffs and comedic television sketches, one incident along a stretch of the National Road brought presidential accidents to Indiana.

Wabash Courier, June 18, 1842. Hoosier State Chronicles.

 

Martin Van Buren, eighth President of the United States (1837-1841) and successor to political powerhouse Andrew Jackson, traveled through Indiana in June of 1842. Nearly a year out from his one term in the White House, Van Buren hoped that traveling across the US might increase his future political prospects. During his trip to Indiana, he visited Terre Haute, Putnamville, Indianapolis, and Richmond. However, Van Buren’s future presidential aspirations went into the mud—literally.

 

Brookville Indiana American, June 24, 1842. Hoosier State Chronicles.

A short article from the June 24, 1842 issue of the Brookville, Indiana American noted that Van Buren’s horse carriage, traveling on the National Road, took a tumble (and so did the former commander-in-chief). As the American described:

Martin Van Buren, it is known, always opposed appropriations to the National Road. On his journey west last week he was compelled to travel that road, when it was in its worst situation; and when 10 miles west of Indianapolis the stage upset, and very much injured the Dutchman’s shoulder. We are disposed to believe he will hereafter acknowledge the necessity, if not the justice, of appropriations to that road.

Now, if you noticed the sarcasm in this short article, you’re right on the money. The story goes that a Plainfield citizen, unhappy with Van Buren’s lack of enthusiasm for the National Road, purposefully “tipped over” the former President’s stagecoach as a “protest [of] Van Buren’s veto of a federal road improvements bill.”

Indiana State Sentinel, June 21, 1842. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Over the years, Van Buren’s fall evolved into a local legend for the Plainfield community, so much so that a memorial plaque was placed on a boulder near a tree. As with many local stories, the tree has taken on a level of significance. A story by NPR elaborated on the tree’s importance:

Panel Boot Victoria carriage, circa 1840s. Ellwood House Visitor Center, DeKalb, Illinois. Wikimedia Foundation/Pinterest. While this is not the exact carriage the Van Buren used, it is indicative of a type of carriage that he might have used.

The report is of the carriage coming down that hill and gaining speed and gaining speed and then hitting the tree roots here and tipping over. . . .

At the base of the tree was a large mud hole where pigs wallowed. There were two routes to get around it, but the carriage driver deliberately took the rough route knowing the elm’s roots would overturn the carriage and send Van Buren flying into the mud. The plan was executed perfectly. The carriage tipped over, and Van Buren went into the muck, soiling his starched white clothes and filling his boots with thick mud.

Richmond Palladium, June 18, 1842. Hoosier State Chronicles (Forthcoming).

These details were difficult to directly corroborate with contemporary newspapers in Hoosier State Chronicles, but a short article from the Morrisson-Reeves Library of Wayne County cited a 1842 piece from the Richmond Palladium:

That night a mysterious chap partially sawed the underside of the doubletree crossbar of the stage that Van Buren and his party were to travel west in so that it would snap on the first hard pull… When Mr. Van Buren left on Friday morning for Indianapolis, before the stage had gone two miles it was swamped in a mud hole and he had to take it on foot.

Despite the apocryphal nature of the story’s details, the tree’s legendary status nonetheless encouraged the community to install a marker nearby.

Van Buren Elm Marker, Plainfield, Indiana. Sara Wittmeyer; NPR.

Martin Van Buren’s fall on the National Road, 175 years on, still receives historical note on the town of Plainfield’s website, a short article from the aforementioned Morrisson-Reeves Library, and on the NPR airwaves. As such, presidential embarrassments live on in the pages of historic newspapers as well as in the quirky ways that the public remembers it decades after the fact. Who would have thought a fall could solicit this much attention?

Notable Hoosier Obit: Charles W. Fairbanks

On this day in 1918, former Vice President Charles W. Fairbanks died. He served as vice president under Theodore Roosevelt from 1905-1909. He also ran as Charles Evans Hughes’s running mate in the 1916 election (they were defeated by Woodrow Wilson and another Hoosier running mate, Thomas Marshall).

Lake County Times, June 5, 1918. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Born in Ohio in 1852, he settled in Indianapolis with his wife in 1874. It was in Indiana that he used his considerable wealth from practicing law and his political acumen to lead the Republican party to victories in numerous elections. In the 1896 election, he served as a key campaign adviser for William McKinley’s presidential run, helping lead it to victory. His success as party leader also ensured a Republican-majority in the Indiana General Assembly, which in turn elected him to the US Senate (State legislatures chose U.S. Senators before the ratification of the 17th Amendment in 1913), a position he held until he was sworn in as vice president on March 3, 1905. Due to personal and ideological differences, Fairbanks found himself isolated in Roosevelt’s administration.

South Bend News-Times, June 5 1918. Hoosier State Chronicles.

While a serious contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 1908, his prospects ended when the party chose Roosevelt’s hand-picked successor, then Secretary of War William Howard Taft. In 1909, he retired to Indiana and again pursued his law practice, only throwing his hat in the ring one last time in the aforementioned 1916 election.

Richmond Palladium, June 4, 1918. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Known for his stoic and intense persona, Fairbanks’s political peers dubbed him the “Indiana Icicle.” An article in Collier’s magazine echoed this description, describing Fairbanks as “calm, cool, deliberate, [an] educated statesman, wise in counsel, efficient in action.”

Indianapolis News, June 5. 1918. Hoosier State Chronicles.

He died on June 4, 1918 from a stroke, a likely side-effect of a chronic kidney ailment. A colleague said of Fairbanks in a June 5, 1918 tribute in the Indianapolis News:

His love of his native state was noteworthy. When he left the office of Vice-President his first thought was of doing something that would be of permanent value to Indiana, and at the same time would be an example for the nation. His active and greatly beneficial efforts for forestry development was the result.

He was a real man of high and noble Ideals. His statecraft made him a country-wide figure In public affairs, and his distinguished presence, hie fine courtesy and his safe counsel will be missed by his friends, his party and his country.

To learn more about Fairbanks, visit these biographies by the Miller Center and the US Senate.

To read the Collier’s article, click here.

The Secret Surgery of President Grover Cleveland: Indiana State Sentinel, July 5, 1893

President Grover Cleveland. Wiki Commons.

In the midst of the fight for repeal of Free Silver coinage in 1893, Cleveland sought the advice of the White House doctor, Dr. O’Reilly, about soreness on the roof of his mouth and a crater-like edge ulcer with a granulated surface on the left side of Cleveland’s hard palate. Samples of the tumor were sent anonymously to the army medical museum. The diagnosis was not a malignant cancer, but instead an epithelioma.

Indiana State Sentinel – July 5 1893 – Hoosier State Chronicles

Cleveland decided to have surgery secretly, to avoid further panic that might worsen the financial depression. The surgery occurred on July 1, to give Cleveland time to make a full recovery in time for the upcoming Congressional session. Under the guise of a vacation cruise, Cleveland and his surgeon, Dr. Joseph Bryant, left for New York. The surgeons operated aboard the Oneida, a yacht owned by Cleveland’s friend E. C. Benedict, as it sailed off Long Island. The surgery was conducted through the president’s mouth, to avoid any scars or other signs of surgery. The team, sedating Cleveland with nitrous oxide and ether, successfully removed parts of his upper left jaw and hard palate. The size of the tumor and the extent of the operation left Cleveland’s mouth disfigured. During another surgery, Cleveland was fitted with a hard rubber dental prosthesis that corrected his speech and restored his appearance. A cover story about the removal of two bad teeth kept the suspicious press placated. Even when a newspaper story appeared giving details of the actual operation, the participating surgeons discounted the severity of what transpired during Cleveland’s vacation. In 1917, one of the surgeons present on the Oneida, Dr. William W. Keen, wrote an article detailing the operation.

Cleveland enjoyed many years of life after the tumor was removed, and there was some debate as to whether it was actually malignant. Several doctors, including Dr. Keen, stated after Cleveland’s death that the tumor was a carcinoma. Other suggestions included ameloblastoma or a benign salivary mixed tumor (also known as a pleomorphic adenoma). In the 1980s, analysis of the specimen finally confirmed the tumor to be verrucous carcinoma, a low-grade epithelial cancer with a low potential for metastasis.

President Lincoln and Religion: The Evening Journal, September 6,1872

President Abraham Lincoln. Nathan Greene Studio.

“Mr. Lincoln’s Religious Views
The testimony of Mrs. Rebecca R. Pomeroy of Newton, Mass.”

(Page one, third column, seventh title down.)

 

Indianapolis Journal, September 6, 1872. Hoosier State Chronicles.