American History & Jewish History Blog

Ida Tarbell, Library of Congress
September 6, 2023

Ida Tarbell and Her Little-Known Yet Major Influence on Lincoln’s Legacy

In downtown Cincinnati, an 11-foot bronze statue of Abraham Lincoln has been hovering near its busy thoroughfares for over a hundred years. Devoid of his signature beard and framed by rumpled hair instead of his stately hat, Lincoln’s face looks wrinkled and tired. It is a version of Lincoln cast from a time before he became president, from when his humble beginnings and failures would seem to have nearly consumed him whole. When sculptor George Gray Barnard’s statue was unveiled in 1917 by former President William H. Taft, the pushback was immediate: this was not the version of Lincoln that the nation sought to canonize; the statue was pilloried in many newspapers and magazines as a “melancholy mistake in bronze, and as “something the cat brought in on a wet night.”[1] Robert Todd Lincoln referred to the statue as “grotesque.”[2] Yet Theodore Roosevelt called it “the greatest statue of our time.”[3] When a copy of the statue was offered to London as a commemoration of the peace between the United States and the United Kingdom, what would have been a domestic debate surrounding the image of the nation’s sixteenth president rapidly became an international one, as cries of uproar and support could be heard on both sides of the Atlantic. 

Amongst the people who came to the defense of this depiction of Lincoln was one of the most famous women in America at the time, renowned journalist and Lincoln biographer Ida Tarbell. Though the sculpture is now firmly ensconced as a great work of art, and Lincoln’s earlier years are now widely perceived to be the foundation of his great character, none of this was a given in 1917. Tarbell had endured a similar journey over two decades before in undertaking a biography of the country’s most beloved leader. The modern audience most likely doesn’t think twice about the depiction of Lincoln as a Kentucky laborer, and that is a testament to the success of Tarbell’s work. 

Ida Tarbell (1857-1944) is a contradiction in terms. She is essentially the mother of investigative journalism whose name is barely remembered, and a trailblazing woman who opposed suffrage for women.[4] When she is recalled, however, it’s for her takedown of John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil. Her life actually began at this critical juncture of what defined her career. Ida Tarbell was born in Pennsylvania to a farming family who decided to seek their fortunes in the new oil boom months after Ida was born. Unfortunately, like many other small oilmen, Ida’s father’s business fell victim to the Cleveland Massacre in 1872. Essentially, John D. Rockefeller negotiated deals with railways to give rebates and discounts to his company, Standard Oil. This allowed him to drop the price significantly and put all the smaller refineries out of business, thus consolidating Rockefeller’s hold on the oil industry. The misfortune that befell the Tarbells was certainly a defining moment in Ida’s life but she was also determined to succeed and contribute to society.

Ida finished high school at the top of her class in 1876. She went on to earn a BA in biology in 1880 and an MA in 1883. She then pursued journalism while cultivating an attraction to French history. 1891, she moved to Paris to work on her first biography about Madame Roland. In 1892, she was hired by Sam McClure to write for his eponymously named magazine. There, she interviewed leading luminaries such as Louis Pasteur, Emile Zola, and Alexandre Dumas.[5] McClure was impressed with Tarbell’s writing and research and eventually commissioned a Napoleon biography to be released as a serial in 1894. This brought Tarbell, now back in the U.S. and living in Pennsylvania, to Washington, DC, to the estate of Gardiner Hubbard who had an extensive Napoleon collection. Hubbard was also supporting his son-in-law, Alexander Graham Bell, and his work on the telephone. Thus, Tarbell often dined with the Bells in addition to the director of the Smithsonian and prominent politicians.

Tarbell’s writing on Napoleon saw sales at McClure’s surge.  She was becoming highly regarded for her well-researched pieces accompanied by clear prose and lyrical language. Tarbell’s next assignment was to write about Lincoln. Five years earlier, in 1890, John Hay and John Nicolay’s Abraham Lincoln: A History had been published. Tarbell, like many people, felt that a ten-volume biography on Lincoln authored by the president’s personal secretaries would sate the public’s desire for Lincoln material. McClure disagreed and directed the bewildered Tarbell to begin her research immediately. Ida first called on Nicolay (she was in a literary society with Nicolay’s daughter), who unwittingly put Tarbell’s work on Lincoln on the path to greatness. He refused to allow her access to any of the Lincoln papers in his possession and told her that her assignment was “hopeless” and that he and Hay had already told “all that was worth telling of Lincoln’s life.”[6] So Tarbell turned her focus towards Lincoln’s early life beginning in Kentucky, following young Lincoln to Indiana, New Orleans, Illinois, and finally, to the White House. Over the course of her journey, she studied the people and places that had been overlooked in understanding Lincoln.

Perhaps the reason Tarbell was so adamant in her defense of Barnard’s work two decades later was that Barnard’s focus echoed her own: the earlier, rougher period of Lincoln’s life. And indeed, Tarbell faced so many of the barriers that Barnard had. Rival magazines sneered that “McClure’s had gotten a girl to try and write a life of Lincoln.”[7] In addition to debunking many myths purveyed by biographers who emphasized the later period of Lincoln’s life, Tarbell’s work actually aimed to show that Lincoln’s early life on the frontier had a positive impact on his character as well as his presidency. 

After Tarbell began to publish the first installments of her Lincoln biography, it was Nicolay who came to her. His attitude hadn’t changed. “You are invading my field,” he exclaimed. “You write a popular Life of Lincoln, and you do just so much to decrease the value of my property.”[8] Robert Todd Lincoln, on the other hand, was a solid ally. He gave her a never-before-seen portrait of Lincoln (which she used as the frontispiece to her book), made himself accessible to her, and when the work was done, considered it “an indispensable adjunct to the work of Nicolay and Hay.”[9] Robert Todd Lincoln’s praise for a book that focused on the “humble and unknown” aspects of his father’s life seems at odds with the debate around the Cincinnati statue that would be unveiled less than twenty years later, with he and Tarbell falling on opposite sides of the debate. The controversy over the Lincoln statue divided Americans over not only Lincoln’s legacy, but the character of the United States. 

Tarbell never stopped writing about Lincoln, and she continued to write profile after profile for McClure’s. She seemed to be connected to the major luminaries of her time and to be omnipresent at historical events. In 1898, Tarbell had been at the military HQ when the USS Maine exploded in Havana Harbour. She firsthand witnessed the US response to the news, observing Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt bursting into the room like “a boy on roller-skates.” It was Mark Twain who put her in touch with the vice president of Standard Oil for her takedown of the company, and it was this work that led Theodore Roosevelt, now President Roosevelt, to refer to Tarbell and her ilk as “muckrakers” (Tarbell was not thrilled with the moniker and responded in print).

Tarbell’s work on Lincoln and Napoleon laid the groundwork for her exposé of the corruption of Standard Oil. In gaining access to internal documents, which she studied, interviewing company employees, and consulting professionals about her findings, she essentially created what we call investigative journalism. Her book, The History of the Standard Oil Company remains the gold standard of investigative journalism.[10] Perhaps ironically, Rockefeller’s biographer makes a stronger case for Tarbell’s work: “Only three times in the American past have writers produced works that transcended their literary qualities and became in themselves powerful enough to shape history. The first was Thomas Paine’s Common Sense; the second, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin; third, Ida M. Tarbell’s History of the Standard Oil Company.”[11]


  1. See “A Calamity in Bronze! Mr. Barnard’s ‘Lincoln’ Once More.” The Art World, vol. 3, no. 2, 1917, pp. 99–103. JSTOR, Accessed 29 Aug. 2023.
  2. Robert Todd Lincoln, writing to  William Howard Taft on March 22,  1917, referred to the statue as a “monstrous figure, grotesque as a likeness of President Lincoln and defamatory as an effigy.” Cited by Judith Rice in  Rice, Judith A. Abraham Lincoln and Progressive Reform, 1890-1920. 1993. University of Illinois, Doctoral Dissertation. Proquest. p. 6 
  3. Williams, Dan. “George Grey Barnard.” The North American Review, vol. 243, no. 2, 1937, pp. 276–86. JSTOR, Accessed 30 Aug. 2023.
  4. The obvious tension between being a renowned journalist and editor at a time when this was an aberration for women and being anti women’s suffrage is addressed by virtually every scholar who writes about Tarbell. For a chronological discussion of Tarbell’s writings on the subject, as well as a nuanced exploration of Tarbell’s background and relationships, see Stinson, Robert. “Ida M. Tarbell and the Ambiguities of Feminism.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 101, no. 2, 1977, pp. 217–39. JSTOR, Accessed 14 Aug. 2023.
  5.  Son of the author of The Count of Monte Cristo
  6. Tarbell, Ida M. All in the Day’s Work. New York, Ny, The Macmillan Co, 1939, p. 163
  7. McCully, E. A. (2014). Ida M. Tarbell: The Woman who Challenged Big Business– and Won! Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p. 95
  8.   Tarbell, p. 163
  9. Ibid, p. 169
  10. Weinberg, Steve. Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller. New York, Norton, 2009, p. 24
  11. “Hawke, David Freeman. John D.: The Founding Father of the Rockefellers. Harper & Row, 1980.” p. 213
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Bonaparte Before the Sphinx, Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1886
May 31, 2023

Napoleon: The Original Fake News

It’s widely acknowledged that Napoleon was the first modern leader to make substantial and systemic use of propaganda that is recognizable to a modern audience. The massive portraits depicting Napoleon as emperor, ancient warrior, and Christ-like healer remain timeless testaments to Napoleon’s authorship of his own image. It comes as no surprise that Napoleon also controlled the press and censored the performing arts and literary publications in order to maintain the narrative that he wished his citizens-subjects to retain. Of all of Napoleon’s disinformation campaigns, the most brazen continues to dazzle today: his Egyptian campaign.  

Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign lasted just over three years (1798-1801) and took place before he crowned himself emperor in 1804. And yet, the patently false claims he made about it prove that not only was he a manipulator well before seizing power, but that he was so masterful at it that most people associate Napoleon’s Egypt expedition with the Rosetta Stone and the establishment of the Institut d’Égypte – the research facility in which the 160 savants who accompanied Napoleon studied and disseminated their findings on Egypt. 

Acre was the location in which Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign unraveled in May of 1799. Napoleon attacked the Ottoman city twelve times, only to ultimately lift the siege, but not without first losing 2,300 men, with another 2,200 ill and wounded. And yet, he spun the retreat to the remaining men in a ludicrously baldfaced manner in a bulletin, for all to see. He began with bombastic praise and appraisal of the triumphs of the Grand Armée: “Soldiers: You have traversed the desert which separates Asia from Africa, with the rapidity of an Arab force. The army, which was on its march to invade Egypt, is destroyed. You have taken its general, its field-artillery, camels, and baggage. You have captured all the fortified posts, which secure the wells of the desert. You have dispersed, at Mount Tabor, those swarms of brigands, collected from all parts of Asia, hoping to share the plunder of Egypt. The thirty ships, which twelve days since you saw enter the port of Acre, were destined for an attack upon Alexandria. But you compelled them to hasten to the relief of Acre.”

Napoleon tries to convince his remaining men that their comrades fell, and they sacrificed so much not for the pointless failure at Acre, but rather in order to keep Alexandria secure. Napoleon used words and hope in order to combat the futility, rotting corpses, and thirst that his men were facing. He continues to assure his men about their key role in maintaining French occupation of Egypt, and recounts the successes of the campaign: “Several of their standards will contribute to adorn your triumphal entry into Egypt. After having maintained the war with a handful of men, during three months, in the heart of Syria, taken forty pieces of cannon, fifty stands of colors, six thousand prisoners, and captured or destroyed the fortifications of Gaza, Jaffa, and Acre, we prepare to return to Egypt, where, by a threatened invasion, our presence is imperiously demanded. A few days longer might give you the hope of taking the Pacha in his palace.”

Napoleon doesn’t concede to his own men that they are in retreat. He depicts the battle at Acre as either a triumph in the category of the battles at Jaffa and Gaza, or as a battle that’s within their reach but for the fact that they are needed back in Egypt. Plus, it’s too hot and they are needed elsewhere: “But at this season the palace of Acre is not worth the loss of three days, nor the loss of those brave soldiers who would consequently fall, and who are necessary for more essential services. Soldiers, we have yet a toilsome and a perilous task to perform. After having by this campaign secured ourselves from attacks from the eastward, it will perhaps be necessary to repel the efforts which may be made from the west.” [1] Yet, Napoleon’s downplaying of his losses at Acre was not readily accepted by everyone. 

Hannah Cowley (1743-1809), a preeminent British playwright (and less successful poet) summed up what everyone, even Napoleon’s men, knew, in her introduction to an epic poem she wrote celebrating the victory of Sir Sidney Smith and the British over Napoleon’s forces at Acre: “This Poem celebrates one of the most important Events of the French Expedition under General Bonaparte to Egypt and Asia-the effectual stop put to their progress, through British aid, at Acre.”[2]

Of course, Napoleon’s men were used to being lied to. The phrase “to lie like a bulletin,” was pretty common in French slang at the time, as it was so ingrained how untruthful Napoleon’s bulletins were. The unfortunate man who Napoleon left in charge of the army in Egypt when he fled to France, was General Jean-Baptiste Kléber. For years, Kléber put up with Napoleon’s idiosyncrasies, but when Napoleon asked his deputy to meet him at the Rosetta Stone only to stand him up and flee to France, Kléber was livid: “That bugger has deserted us with his breeches full of shit. When we get back to Europe we’ll rub his face in it.”[3]

Kléber was referring to the debacle of a campaign of which he was now at the helm. Depending on which unofficial estimate you believe, of the 38,000 soldiers and 10,000 sailors who went with Napoleon to Egypt, less than half would survive the campaign, Kléber included. But the public knew very little of the reality. Acre, Napoleon’s first Waterloo, for lack of a better idiom, was trumpeted as a success to the unsuspecting French public.  Of course, it helped that Napoleon forbade any mention of Sidney Smith in French newspapers, and that he timed his return to follow the bulletin reporting on his (actual) victory at Aboukir.[4]

Following Napoleon’s return to France, the Coup of 18 Brumaire brought Napoleon to power in November of 1799. His troops would still languish in Egypt for another two years. Acre, where it all fell apart, and which Napoleon claimed to have  “bombarded the city in such a manner that not one stone remains in its place,” actually prospered for another three decades. When Napoleon and his men had departed Toulon for Egypt only a year and a half earlier, he had promised each man who returned six acres of land presumably in whatever part of Europe they would conquer next. But by then, half were dead, and the other, withering in the desert amidst hostile enemies, probably never wanted to hear the word “acre” again. But that hardly mattered. France was now in the throes of Egyptmania, entranced by its conquering hero, and soon-to-be Emperor, as he airbrushed his defeat at Acre aside and turned to plunging Europe into chaos for the next decade and a half.


  2.  From the preface to The Siege of Acre: A Poem in Four Books, by Hannah Cowley, G. Wilkie and J. Robinson, London, 1810 
  3. Roberts, Andrew. Napoleon: A Life. Penguin Books, 2015, p.201. Andrews continues “That pleasure was denied him, for in June 1800 a twenty-four-year-old student named Soliman stabbed him to death (Soliman was executed with a pike driven into his rectum up to his breast.).” 
  4. Holtman, Robert, Napoleonic Propaganda, Louisiana State University Press,1950 See pages 54 and 187 
  5.  General Correspondence of Napoleon vol. V, 428
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Josephine in Arizona Territory in 1880
March 15, 2022

Wyatt Earp & Josephine Marcus

Wyatt Earp remains one of the most famous figures in the history of the American West. A lawman and a gambler, his life was immortalized in legend, with fact and fiction inextricably woven together. Earp had two famous clashes with other Western legends. The first was Johnny Behan, the sheriff of Tombstone, Arizona, who would later pursue Earp after the latter’s infamous Vendetta Ride against the participants of the shootout at the OK Corral. The second – and most famous – was Doc Holliday,  the renowned gambler, gunfighter, frontier dentist, and friend, with whom Earp split. 

Yet the connecting thread between Earp and the two men from whom he later parted ways has not been discussed much in scholarship on Earp: a Jewish woman from New York named Josephine Marcus. Like Wyatt Earp, fact and fiction are difficult to separate when it comes to understanding the life of the woman who would become his wife. On both counts, this largely is due to Josephine’s attempts to guard the Earps’ legacy. What follows is a brief sketch of her life based on verifiable facts.

Josephine Marcus was born in a Brooklyn tenement in 1861 to Jews who had immigrated from an area of Prussia that is today Poland. When she was 7, her family moved to San Francisco in search of opportunity. San Francisco, though up and coming and booming, was also, like New York, crowded, and full of immigrants. Josephine’s father, a baker, experienced ups and downs financially; at times able to fund things like dance lessons for his daughters, at other times, the family was forced to move in with Josephine’s older sister and brother-in-law.  The stratification of San Francisco’s Jews – Germans at the top, and Poles at the bottom – was a source of struggle for Josephine. Knowing that she would never break into the right society, she decided to leave the Jewish community behind completely. 

Josephine’s interest in theatre was what ultimately put her on the path to Tombstone. In 1879, she and a friend joined a theatre troupe, and ran away to the Arizona territory, where she first became acquainted with Johnny Behan. Josephine’s family retrieved her that year, but Johnny followed her back to San Francisco, where he convinced her parents that his intentions with their daughter were honorable. In 1880, she was back in Tombstone with him, and though she went by Mrs. Behan, they were never legally married.

Wyatt Earp, on the other hand, was married, and had just arrived in Tombstone from Dodge City, Kansas in time for the town’s silver boom. Despite having a common-law wife, he was interested in Josephine, and she in him. By early 1881, Josephine caught Johnny cheating on her and kicked him out. In July of that year, the most famous gunfight in American history would erupt in Tombstone, between the Clanton brothers, part of an outlaw group known as “The Cowboys,” and the Earp Brothers, who were generally regarded as the lawmen. 

By the time of the shootout, Josephine and Wyatt were together. The gunfight itself would pit Behan against the Earps and their ally Doc Holliday. Behan would side with the Earps’ rivals, the Clantons. Though the circumstances surrounding the shootout remain hazy, the Earps’ acquittal of murdering the outlaws in cold blood at the OK Corral so enraged the Clantons, that they sought revenge, ultimately killing Wyatt’s brother Morgan, and injuring his other brother Virgil. In response, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday went on what would later be known as the Vendetta Ride, avenging Earp’s brother, and killing between four and fourteen men they suspected were complicit in killing Morgan Earp.

This officially made Wyatt Earp an outlaw, and also pitted him against Johnny Behan. Even before Josephine and Wyatt got together, tensions had been brewing between Behan and Earp over some political appointments in Tombstone. It’s hard to ignore the possibility that Behan might have had particular animosity towards Earp months after his wife left him for Earp. Behan never caught up with Josephine and Wyatt, who spent much of the next 47 years together roaming from one boomtown to another, dabbling in different investments such as mining and oil, and preparing Earp’s life story for film and print. 

Doc Holliday, who accompanied Wyatt on the Vendetta Ride, fell out with Wyatt in a less glamorous manner shortly thereafter, when they had both arrived in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Wyatt Earp was a guest at the home of Jewish businessman Harry Jaffa, the first mayor of the city. Apparently  over lunch in an Albuquerque restaurant, Holliday asked Wyatt if he was becoming a “damn Jew-boy.” Wyatt left the restaurant, and with it, his friendship with Holliday. Allegedly, Wyatt Earp was known to kiss the mezuzah before entering Jewish homes as a sign of respect to his Jewish wife, and it’s been speculated that this was the reason for Holliday’s jab at Earp.

Josephine Earp Date Of Death

Earp died in Los Angeles in 1929, and Josephine in 1944. It might come as a surprise that one of the deadliest gunslingers of the Wild West is interred in a Jewish cemetery in the San Francisco Bay area. What is unsurprising, however, is that the man (and woman) and the myth are inextricable. 

Enjoyed learning about Joesphine Earp? Discover other great blogs from Shapell, including Primary Sources: Meaning, Reliability & Where To Find Them, Libbie Custer, and more!

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Chester Arthur, Ole Peter Hanson, National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.
December 15, 2021

The Dude President: Chester Arthur, Civil Rights, and Civil Service Reform

American presidential nicknames have been a phenomenon since the beginning of the republic. Honest Abe and Old Hickory are amongst the more famous presidential monikers. “The Dude,” however, is probably the most contemporary-sounding presidential nickname, yet it belonged to one of the more obscure presidents: Chester Arthur. In 19th century parlance, a dude was essentially a dandy, which is exactly what Arthur was. His love of the finer things in life was no secret, and he made headlines when he purchased numerous fine trousers from England, as well as accumulating an extensive collection of silk top hats and shoes. Though it was the Gilded Age, where conspicuous consumption and luxury abounded in close proximity to poverty, Arthur’s detractors were most likely taking a dig at Arthur’s past, in which he was seen as a champion of the spoils system. But Arthur’s story is one of redemption, both in the sense that he righted wrongs in which he had been complicit, and in the sense that he rose to the occasion when President James Garfield was assassinated in 1881. And yet, if Chester Arthur is remembered at all today (and that is a big “if”), it’s more for his outlandish facial hair than his achievements as a president and as a person. In examining Arthur’s path to the presidency, it will become apparent that Arthur’s legacy deserves another look.

Chester Arthur was born in Vermont in 1829 to an American-born mother and a father who had immigrated from Ireland. His father, a fiery abolitionist preacher, was not very popular, and the Arthurs moved often, crossing back and forth from Canada to the United States so frequently, in fact, that Arthur’s presidency was beset upon by detractors insisting that Arthur was born in Canada, and as a result, ineligible for the presidency. Chester Arthur spent most of his youth impoverished in New York, and very quickly decided that he would be a Manhattan lawyer, and enjoy the finer things in life.

Arthur was admitted to the bar in 1854. A year later, he won a landmark case: a century before Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her seat to a white passenger and to go to the section of the bus designated for blacks in Alabama, Elizabeth Jennings Graham took a stand against racist policies in New York City. Unlike Parks, who was an activist who wished to be arrested to further Civil Rights, Jennings-Graham was merely late for church. She hopped onto a street car, and the conductor ordered her off. She refused to budge, and was eventually forcibly removed from the streetcar by a police officer. Arthur, a junior partner and all of 24, won the case for Jennings-Graham, which led to the eventual desegregation of public transportation in New York City. Arthur continued practicing law in New York. With the outbreak of the Civil War, he became a Quartermaster, where his abilities in administration and logistics became obvious. By 1863, Arthur finished his military service, and that is where his stellar record becomes a bit murky, as it was the year he became friendly with Roscoe Conkling, the notorious big boss of the Republican New York political machine.

Conkling’s name has gone down in history as a byword for corruption, and in his day, it wasn’t much different. As state senator for New York, the New York Customs House fell under Conkling’s jurisdiction. One of the most important political and financial institutions in the United States, the New York Customs House accounted for one third of the country’s revenue. Conkling, who also led the Stalwart faction of the Republican party, filled the Customs House with his underlings, and the profits made by working there compounded his power. [1] In 1871, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Arthur the Customs Collector of the Port of New York. Though Arthur as far as we know never took kickbacks, he was complicit in the patronage system, retaining party members in unnecessary jobs at the taxpayer’s expense. 

In 1877, Rutherfod B. Hayes ascended to the presidency and was determined to clean up the Civil Service. One of his first moves was to eject Rosco Conklin’s man from the position of Customs Collector of the Port of New York. By 1878, Hayes had succeeded in ousting Arthur. In 1880, the Republican Party found itself fractured. In order to maintain party unity, Arthur, a Stalwart, was proposed for the position of Vice President, to run with James Garfield, himself a surprise candidate at the 1880 convention. Following their victory, Arthur openly broke with Garfield on several key issues.

When Garfield was assassinated in  September 1881, four months after taking office, Arthur and Garfield had  all but been estranged. In fact, at the time of the assasination, Arthur had been in Albany with Conkling, who was seeking reelection. To make matters worse, when Charles Guiteau shot Garfield, he announced “I am a Stalwart! Now Arthur will be President!” Guiteau, who was a delusional and disillusioned office seeker brought more attention to the burning issue in American politics – the patronage system. His insane but accurate declaration did not reflect well on Arthur, who inherited the majority of Garfield’s term, to the general horror of the American people.

Arthur surprised everyone. In an America torn by Garfield’s assassination and party politics, he immediately set to work proving he was above partisan squabbles. He signed the Pendleton Act of 1883 – this put into motion the Civil Service Reform for which Hayes had tried to press, and ended the patronage system which had essentially built Arthur’s own career. The year before, Arthur had vetoed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which would have denied American citizenship to Chinese residents of the United States, in addition to banning immigrants from China for twenty years. This was a particularly sordid bill, as the Chinese immigrants had been crucial to building the Transcontinental Railroad. In trying to stand with what was morally right both in regards to political corruption and to the rights of the Chinese, one catches a glimpse of the young lawyer Chester Arthur, who took on segregation.

Mark Twain, who never seemed to hesitate to throw shade at politicians and presidents commended Arthur’s presidency. “I am but one in 55,000,000; still, in the opinion of this one-fifty-five millionth of the country’s population, it would be hard to better President Arthur’s Administration.” [2] Indeed, Alexander McClure, a writer, politician, and biographer of Lincoln said of Arthur “No man ever entered the Presidency so profoundly and widely distrusted as Chester Alan Arthur, and no one ever retired […] more generally respected, alike by political friend and foe.” [3] Chester Arthur’s presidency, though not remarkable in its own sense, is one of history’s great examples of a person rising to the occasion when he was needed the most by his country.



  1. The Stalwarts were a faction of the Republican party who were most associated with the patronage system and their bid to have Grant re-elected for a third time. They existed from the 1870s until Arthur became president in 1881, at which point Conkling was no longer a force, and Arthur had reformed the Civil Service.
  2.  Critics have long contended that Twain’s Puddin’ Head Wilson is based on Arthur’s reforming of the Civil Service. Kaschig, Merit. “‘Vice Breeds Crime’ The ‘Germs’ of Mark Twain’s Puddn’ Head Wilson.” American Periodicals, vol. 12, Ohio State University Press, 2002, pp. 49–74,
  3. McClure, Alexander 1828–1909. Colonel Alexander K. McClure’s Recollections of Half a Century, Ulan Press, 2012. P. 115



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Mark Twain, 1907. A.F. Bradley. Library of Congress.
November 18, 2021

Mark Twain’s Publishing Firm: Chapter 13

Mark Twain lives on in the popular imagination as a brilliant satirist, a master storyteller, and an American icon. However, there was another side to Twain that was less….masterful. He was as incompetent a businessman as he was a great writer. He lost money left and right on various newfangled inventions in an era saturated with emerging technologies. In hindsight, some of Twain’s investments seem obviously imprudent, but at the time, it was more difficult to see that the Paige typesetter was a terrible investment (he lost the equivalent of four million dollars in today’s money), and that turning down an offer to buy the Bell Telephone Company was a massive mistake. Of course, Twain’s timeless error was gambling more than he could afford to lose. But  perhaps the most painfully bad investment of Twain’s was in his own company, a publishing house eponymously named for his nephew whom he appointed to run the company, Charles L. Webster.

The concept behind the idea to launch his own publishing company was a simple one: Twain was frustrated with his publishers receiving the lion’s share of the royalties that Twain’s writing generated. If he became his own publisher, he would increase his income, and in publishing other people’s works, he would profit, as well. And so, in 1885, the Charles L. Webster Co. published its first two books. Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and General Grant’s autobiography Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant

The latter was an astonishing success. Grant, like Twain, had also made some unsavvy investments, and was not only bankrupt, but dying of cancer. In order to ensure that his family had some means of survival, he accepted Mark Twain’s handsome offer to publish his memoirs. Though suffering greatly, Grant threw himself into the task of recording his memoirs. He died just five days after he completed the project.

Twain had ten thousand Civil War veterans don their uniforms and go house to house selling the book throughout the northern regions of the United States, in a canvassing campaign that was innovative, even in the era of traveling salesmen and subscription-based books. Grant had feverishly written the book like his wife’s life depended on it. [1] And to a degree, that was true. Grant’s posthumously published memoirs turned his family’s fortunes around, elevating them from indigent to affluent. When Twain presented Grant’s widow Julia with her royalties check, it was the largest in publishing history heretofore (approximately eleven million dollars in our money). In nearly 140 years, Grant’s memoirs have not ceased to be in print, making it not only the longest running memoir of an American president, but it is considered one of the best such memoirs.

Twain’s success as a publisher, however, was short-lived. In fact, his publishing company never again matched the success that the Grant memoir generated.  By 1888, just three years after Grant’s memoirs made publishing history, the company was floundering, and Twain had to pump his own money into the publishing house to keep it afloat. Twain generally had no sense of how to run a business, let alone a publishing company. Moreover, he and Webster bet on promising works that didn’t pan out, such as a biography about Pope Leo XIII. Charles Webster was pushed out. Perhaps this was unjust. Webster had been cleaning up Twain’s investment messes since 1881, when he relocated his family to manage Twain’s ill-fated Kaolatype enterprise (like the Paige typesetting machine, this engraving technology was also a costly failure). 

Twain had also literally been working Webster to death. Though having (and cultivating) a reputation as humorous and jovial, Twain was actually quite the taskmaster, and subjected Webster to gruelling hours and high demands. According to an interview that Webster granted the Kansas City Star in 1887, the initial success of the publishing company was actually due to Webster, who was the one who persuaded Grant to write his memoirs in the first place. Webster’s chronic illness, coupled with Twain’s high demands, led to his early death at age thirty-nine in 1891. Twain had used Webster’s ill-health to justify relieving Webster of his duties. 

The details of the relationship between Twain and Webster and its impact on their publishing firm remains murky. Twain may have been incompetent in business, but it didn’t help matters that Charles was often high on his pain medication at the office. In 1984, it was revealed that Webster had in fact committed suicide by overdosing on the drugs used to treat his trigeminal neuralgia. The chronic pain was too much to bear. Twain had publicly blamed Webster for many of his own failings to the degree that Webster’s son, Samuel Charles Webster, felt the need to write a nearly 500-page book about Twain’s lack of business acumen in order to clear his late father’s name, which he first published in 1944. Wherever the truth lies regarding the relationship between Webster and Twain, one thing was clear: the publishing firm was quickly going under. [2]

After Webster’s departure, the publishing house tried to stay afloat by releasing some interesting books. Twain and Henry James convinced their friend Libbie Custer to write about her life with General Custer, Tenting on the Plains, but it didn’t bring in the expected revenue. They put out a fair amount of Civil War content, but by and large, the publishing house went downhill after Webster’s departure, going bankrupt in 1894, a scant decade after it began. 

The sad story of Twain’s publishing house is not an aberration, but part of a series of business failures. One senses that Twain, when discussing speculation, was speaking to himself: “There are two times in a man’s life when he should not speculate: when he can’t afford it, and when he can.”


  1. Grant’s memoirs appear in two volumes. As Grant’s health declined, he became unable to write, and dictated what would be the second volume of his memoirs.
  2.  For more on the relationship between Webster and Twain, as well as Webster’s suicide, see Donnell, Kevin Mac. “Who Killed Charlie Webster?” Mark Twain Journal, vol. 51, no. 1/2, Alan Gribben, 2013, pp. 9–37,


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Etching of Max Nordau, 1899, Shapell Manuscript Collection
October 22, 2021

Max Nordau: A Man of Vision and Obscure Legacy

Every city in Israel has a Nordau Street, and it’s usually a main one. If you Google Max Nordau, you’re likely to find something about “Muscular Judaism,” or the degeneration of art. But Max Nordau was also one of the prominent pioneers of modern Zionism – he co-founded the Zionist Organization with Theodor Herzl and his prestige as an author and psychiatrist gave the fledgling Zionist movement some gravitas. While Herzl was and remains a Zionist icon, Nordau has largely been relegated to the past. Why is this?

Max Nordau’s path to Zionism was winding and complex.  He was born Simon Maximillian Südfeld in 1849 in Pest (Budapest, Hungary), like Herzl, who was born there eleven years later. [1] Unlike Herzl, who came from an assimilated Jewish family, Simon, or Simha, as Nordau was then known, was the only son in an observant family; his father was a rabbi, and young Max was given a religious Jewish education. When Max was fifteen, he abandoned Jewish practice, and when his father died, he changed his name from Südfeld (southern field) to Nordau (northern meadow). As a first-generation assimilationist,  Nordau’s name change reflected his desire to move away from his Jewish heritage to a more Germanic or “northern” culture.  [2] His later marriage to a Danish Protestant woman, Anna Dons-Kaufmann, furthered his assimilation.

In 1872, Nordau completed his medical degree from the University of Pest, travelled around Europe for a few years, and settled in Paris in 1880, where he worked as a correspondent for Die Neue Freie Presse, a Viennese newspaper. Nordau’s breakthrough work, The Conventional Lies of Our Civilization, was published in 1883. His critique of religion, as well as of the aristocracy, made him a household name. The book was translated to over fifteen languages, ran through at least seven editions, was banned in Austria and Germany, and was denounced by Pope Leo XIII.

Shortly thereafter, Nordau published Paradoxes, in which he explored optimism, pessimism, prejudice, passion, and other powerful undercurrents of society. This 1885 work eerily presaged the two Word Wars: “It is not probable that the Twentieth Century will pass away without having witnessed the conclusion of this grand historical drama. Until then a large part of Europe will see much distress and blood-shed, many crimes and deeds of violence; peoples will rage against each other, and whole races will be pitilessly crushed out of existence.” [3] Though this and many other observations Nordau shared in Paradoxes were prescient, this work is overshadowed by his most famous work, Degeneration.

In 1892, Nordau published Degeneration, a scathing denunciation of the excesses of modern art, explicitly mentioning such artists and writers as Richard Wagner, Friedrich Nietzsche, Emile Zola, and Oscar Wilde. Degeneration was such a popular work and concept that it has been immortalized in both Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Oscar Wilde’s plea for clemency after being convicted for “indecency” (sodomy). [4] Ironically, in its cataloguing of contemporary art’s failures, Degeneration essentially functions as an anthology of modernist art. 

The same year that Degeneration was published, Nordau met Theodor Herzl, another event that changed his life and legacy. Nordau had been working for Die Neue Freie Presse  since the 1870s, and Herzl had become the paper’s Paris correspondent in 1891. The two remained colleagues until 1895, when Herzl was referred to Nordau in the capacity of a psychiatrist. Herzl’s obsession with anti-Semitism and his proposed solutions of Jewish self-determination and autonomy, was considered so outlandish that Herzl felt compelled to seek professional psychological help. 

Nordau, who had detached from his Jewish identity but who had experienced a horrifying rise of personal and general anti-Semitism, was eventually swayed by Herzl’s position. Both men had covered the Dreyfus trial and were quite shaken by the blatant anti-Semitism in the French Republic. Nordau reportedly embraced Herzl after the latter had pitched his ideas about a Jewish State, and exclaimed “If you are insane, we are insane together! Count on me!” Within two years, Herzl and Nordau had established the Zionist Organization, and the first Zionist Congress took place that year.

Returning to the question of the two men’s very different legacies, perhaps the reason for Herzl’s fame and Nordau’s obscurity is the issue of nuance. Herzl was a Political Zionist, as opposed to a Cultural Zionist. Political Zionism sought to solve the problem of Jewish persecution, whereas Cultural Zionists were not necessarily concerned with Jewish autonomy but rather with the rebirth of Jewish culture. The East Africa Scheme (in which Britain was to establish a Jewish homeland in present day Kenya) illustrates the difference between these movements: Political Zionists accepted it as a practical and useful solution to getting the Jews out of Europe and away from persecution (albeit as a rest stop before inhabiting the land of Israel), and cultural Zionists rejected it outright, as Africa was not the ancient homeland of the Jewish people. 

But this is more than an example. Nordau nearly paid for this with his life. Though Nordau himself was not in favor of a Jewish colony in East Africa, as a member of the establishment Zionist Organization and a close friend of Herzl, he defended the scheme, as a temporary solution to the rising anti-Semitism and violent pogroms plaguing Eastern Europe. At a Hanukkah party in Paris in 1903, a mentally ill Jewish student attempted to assassinate Nordau, firing two shots at point blank range, screaming “Death to Nordau, the East African!” Nordau emerged unscathed, and a bystander was shot in the leg. Charges were not pressed against the Russian student, and the East Africa scheme was abandoned within two years. 

Nordau had been one of the most public intellectuals of his time, and his conversion to Zionism was a watershed moment not only for him, but for the rest of the Jewish assimilationists. To say people were surprised was an understatement; many people did not even realize that Nordau was Jewish. But perhaps the real answer to why Nordau’s popularity has diminished whilst Herzl’s continues to rise (a new biography on Herzl was released in 2020) is because the bulk of Nordau’s work was pseudoscience, and makes for uncomfortable reading in the twenty-first century.

Nordau’s interest in racial theories and racial Zionism, though de rigueur and part of turn-of-the-century Europe, would be considered racist by the mores of our time, especially in light of the Nazi’s popularization and adherence to racial theories. In that sense, much of Nordau’s work has been rejected and debunked. As for Nordau’s critique of modern art, the “cultural diagnosis” of a Jewish “psychiatrist who wrote about degenerate art forty years before Hitler” is not a good look. [5]

However, when Nordau addressed the tenth Zionist Congress in 1911, his words were tragically prescient. In criticizing Europe for emancipating Jews essentially only on paper, he conveyed an urgency to get Jews out of Europe that when read after the Holocaust, is chilling:

“The virtuous Governments, which work with such noble zeal for the spread of eternal peace acquiesce in the downfall of six million creatures–acquiesce, and no-one, except the victims raises a voice against it…The administration of hero funds and the distribution of the interest is laid in the hands of the authorities who favor the massacre of the Jews even if they themselves do not directly instigate them.”

Between the Balfour Declaration of 1917 and the 1919 pogroms at Kishinev, Nordau agitated for Jewish autonomy in Palestine, advocating for the immediate transfer of thousands of Jews out of Europe and into their ancestral homeland in Palestine. In 1921, Nordau retired from public Zionist activities, dying two years later. In 1926, he was reinterred in Tel Aviv. Nordau, who was prophetic on a number of occasions and issues, faded away from the cultural and Zionist consciousness. Perhaps his legacy deserves another look.

  1.  Baldwin, P. M. “Liberalism, Nationalism, and Degeneration: The Case of Max Nordau.” Central European History, vol. 13, no. 2, Cambridge University Press, Central European History Society, 1980, pp. 99–120,, p. 101
  2.  Golomb, Jacob. Nietzsche and Zion. Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2004, p. 49
  3.   Max Simon Nordau. Paradoxes. From the German of Max Nordau. Chicago, L. Schick, 1886, p. 365
  5.  van der Laarse, Robert. “Masking the Other: Max Nordau’s Representation of Hidden Jewishness.” Historical Reflections / Réflexions Historiques, vol. 25, no. 1, Berghahn Books, 1999, pp. 1–31,, p. 1
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William Howard Taft as Chief Justice, 1921, Harris & Ewing, Library of Congress
August 30, 2021

Chief Justice William Howard Taft: A Dream Deferred

“I was engaged in the respectable business of trying to administer justice [but] I have fallen from that state now and am engaged in running for the presidency.” [1]

-William Howard Taft

There are six American presidents who failed to win reelection. Most recently, Donald Trump lost his bid for reelection in 2020. Before him, George Bush, Sr., Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, Herbert Hoover, and William Howard Taft all failed to win a second term. William Howard Taft is the only former president who made a public career comeback to serve on the Supreme Court. He remains today the only person who has served as both the President of the United States and Chief Justice. When Taft was appointed Chief Justice in 1921, he succeeded Edward Douglass White, whom Taft himself had elevated to Chief Justice when he was President in 1910. [2] Not many people can say they settled on the presidency after their first choice career didn’t pan out, but that is essentially what happened in Taft’s case. When he promoted White, Taft confided in George W. Wickersham, his Attorney General, that “There is nothing I would have loved more than to be Chief Justice of the United States. I cannot help seeing the irony in the fact that I, who desired that office so much, should now be  signing the commission  of another man.” [3]   Let’s step back for a moment and trace Taft’s trajectory to where he happily ended his career as a public servant: that of Chief Justice of the United States of America.

William Howard Taft was born in Cincinnati in 1857, the scion of the Taft family, who traced their origins to Ireland, but more recently, to Uxbridge, Massachusetts. Taft’s great grandfather, Samuel Taft, served in the Revolutionary War under George Washington and stayed at Samuel’s tavern at Uxbridge. A letter from the newly-elected Washington thanking Taft for his hospitality survives. When Taft was born, his father, Alphonso, started a law firm with William M. Dickson, who was one of the founders of the Republican party. Alphonso himself had written the platform of the Republican party the year before William’s birth, emphasizing, amongst other things, its commitment to the Constitution. William H. Taft studied at Yale from 1874-1878, where he was a member of the elite Skull and Bones society, which his father had co-founded. During the younger Taft’s time at Yale, his father served as a judge on the Superior Court of Cincinnati, lost a bid for the Ohio governorship to Rutherford B. Hayes, and was appointed by President Ulysses S. Grant as Secretary of War. Shortly thereafter, Alphonso became Attorney General. The confluence of law and politics ran deeply in the Taft family, to put it mildly, and both his father’s example and his counsel that it was greater to be Chief Justice than President were to impact William’s career path. 

In 1878, Taft finished Yale and moved back to Ohio to study law in Cincinnati, passing the bar in 1880, and entering his father’s firm. The following year, Taft was appointed Hamilton County’s Assistant Prosecuting Attorney [4] which he resigned the following year, in 1882, when he was appointed by President Arthur as Collector of Internal Revenue. All of these achievements and opportunities were attained by the time Taft was twenty-five.  [5] 

In 1886, Taft married fellow Cincinnatian Helen Herron, with whom they would eventually have four children. Helen’s father had also been active in the Republican party and had been legal partners with Rutherford B. Hayes. Helen’s political pedigree further fueled her aspirations for her husband to seek public office, ultimately becoming the driving force behind Taft’s political career. In the meantime, Taft continued working up the ranks of the legal profession, and in 1887, at age 29, he followed in his father’s footsteps and was appointed Judge of the Superior Court of Cincinnati. Two years later, Taft was tapped to join the Supreme Court, but was instead appointed by President Benjamin Harrison the following year as Solicitor General, and in short succession, Taft found himself a circuit judge, and dean of his alma mater, the Cincinnati School of Law. In 1900, President William McKinley appointed Taft the first head of the  civilian governor of the Philippines. Though this delighted his wife, who made no secret of her White House ambitions for him, Taft would have preferred to devote himself to the law. [6]

In 1902, Taft was informed by President Theodore Roosevelt that he wished to put Taft on the Supreme Court bench. He confided in then-Secretary of War Elihu Root “I long for a judicial career, but if it must turn on my present decision then I am willing to lose it.” [7] Taft was essentially bowing to his wife’s political aspirations for him.  Roosevelt didn’t give up, but Taft’s sense of duty to finish his work in the Philippines, combined with Helen’s urging that Taft’s career not be shelved on the Supreme Court bench, ultimately won out.

In 1904, Taft followed in his father’s footsteps yet again when President Roosevelt appointed him Secretary of War, bringing the Tafts to Washington. While there, Roosevelt tried his luck again to convince his old friend to join the Supreme Court. By now, though, there was a growing consensus that Taft would make an excellent president. Taft confided in his diary that Helen was “Bitterly opposed to my accepting the [court] position and that she telephoned me this morning to tell me that if I did, I would make the biggest mistake of my life.” [8] After a private half-hour meeting with Helen Taft, President Roosevelt became the most vocal proponent of Taft’s bid for the presidency.

In 1908, with Roosevelt’s help, Taft won the election. Though viewed as Roosevelt’s successor, Taft was different in temperament nearly across the board. Whereas Roosevelt stretched the limits of the constitution, Taft felt duty-bound to be constrained by them. In other words, his judicial temperament made him less suited for the expectations of a president. Taft was relieved to lose his bid for re-election in 1912 to Woodrow Wilson, ending a somewhat unpopular term in office. 

The former president still needed a source of income, and was delighted to begin teaching law at Yale. Finally, in 1921, Taft’s dream became a reality when President Harding appointed him Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Taft served in his position until 1930, retiring shortly before his death. In the words of Jeffrey Rosen, Taft’s most recent biographer, “Taft’s constitutional restraint helped solidify his legacy as our most judicial president and most presidential chief justice.” [9]

  1. Caroli, Betty Boyd. The First Ladies “From Martha Washington to Michelle Obama” Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 131
  2. Grover Cleveland had appointed White as Associate Justice in 1894, and Taft’s elevation of White to Chief Justice was surprising, given that Taft was a Republican.
  3. Rehnquist, William H. “Remarks of the Chief Justice: My Life in the Law Series.” Duke Law Journal, vol. 52, no. 4, 2003, pp. 787–805. JSTOR,, p. 797. Accessed 19 Aug. 2021. 
  4.  The county seat of Hamilton is Cincinnati 
  5. Warren, Earl. “Chief Justice William Howard Taft.” The Yale Law Journal, vol. 67, no. 3, 1958, pp. 353–362, p. 355. JSTOR, Accessed 16 Aug. 2021.
  6. Ever since Helen Herron Taft visited the Hayes’s White House as a small girl, she was determined to return as First Lady, and passionately pursued her ambitions vicariously through her husband
  7. Warren, p. 356
  8. Caroli, p. 130
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Elizabeth Bacon Custer, circa 1860-5, by Mathew Brady, Library of Congress
August 9, 2021

Libbie Custer: Shaping a Legacy

General George Armstrong Custer is a figure who was controversial in death, as in life. Known alternately as a hero who made the last stand at the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876, or as the ill-equipped General who marched his men into a massacre, Custer’s legacy is still not completely settled. Libbie Custer, his widow, is often given the credit-or the scorn-for rehabilitating her late husband’s image. President Ulysses S. Grant put the blame of the death of 268 soldiers at Custer’s feet; in response, Custer’s 34-year-old widow would launch a speaking tour and eventually publish three books (at the encouragement of her friends Mark Twain and Henry James) defending her late husband’s honor. An examination of Libbie’s role in the shaping of that legacy provides a glimpse into the business of legacy-making and power and rhetoric in the 19th century. Before we delve into Libbie’s role in shaping her late husband’s legacy, some background on the Custers may be in order.

Elizabeth Bacon was born and raised in Monroe, Michigan in 1842. Before she reached the age of thirteen, her three siblings and mother had died. Her father was a local judge and senator who was eager for his daughter to marry a suitable husband. In 1862, the dashing Custer, a young captain on leave from the Civil War, met Libbie Bacon. He was definitely not what her father had in mind. Libbie, a young woman from a well-to-do family, had just finished seminary as valedictorian. Custer, on the other hand, came from poverty, and had graduated West Point at the bottom of his class the year before. An army wife was not the future that Daniel Bacon envisioned for his only remaining daughter. 

Two years later, in 1864, Custer, now the 23-year-old“Boy General,” had enthralled the nation with his exploits on the battlefield, leading Daniel Bacon to finally relent to the young couple’s marriage. The Custers were generally inseparable, with Libbie joining “Autie” (as he was generally known) at camp and even having a special ladies uniform made for herself. When Custer was killed in battle, Libbie was not only made a widow, but destitute. To compound matters, Custer’s reputation was in tatters.

Libbie’s fight for her husband’s reputation cannot be seen in a vacuum. In the midst of her grief, months after Custer’s death, Libbie discreetly lobbied for relief for the widows of the Little Big Horn. That is to say that she wasn’t solely focused on her husband’s legacy but also on the wellbeing of her husband’s men’s families. Moreover, Libbie was not the only person who reshaped Custer’s “defeat into an epic.” No less than “America’s Poet,” Walt Whitman penned “A Death Sonnet for Custer” a day after hearing the news of Custer’s death, and it was subsequently published on July 10, 1876, just fifteen days after the tragedy occurred. John Mulvany, the Irish-American painter created a visual representation of the Custer myth, with his famous 11×21 foot painting of “Custer’s Last Rally,” which was completed in 1881, and was exhibited in numerous states.

But Whitman, Mulvany, and Libbie herself, it can be argued, were all following in Custer’s footsteps. The foppish “Boy General” with his Goldilocks haircut had long been self-aggrandizing, since at least the Civil War. Indeed, he had distinguished himself in battle at Gettysburg and the Shenandoah Campaign. And though actions are generally thought to speak louder than words, Custer made sure to add words to his actions: “He wrote glowingly of his own exploits, was photographed frequently for the public and kept his favorite portraits on the walls of his home.” To literally distinguish himself, “Custer had crafted his own blue velveteen sailor suits with lavish gold lace and red neckerchiefs.” Taking Custer’s own mythologizing of himself into context perhaps serves to explain at least part of Libbie’s motivations. Libbie was completing what her husband had started: in transforming Custer’s failure into an icon of the American  West, the glory Autie had been chasing for much of his life was finally achieved by Libbie.

  1.  Adams, Michael C.C. “Poet Whitman and General Custer.” Studies in Popular Culture, Vol. 18, No. 2, 1996, pp. 1–17. JSTOR, Accessed 4 Aug. 2021, p.4.
  2. Adams, p.5
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Charles Warren, photographed by Elliot and Fry, London, Wikimedia Commons
June 24, 2021

Sir Charles Warren: Jerusalem, Jack the Ripper, And the Boer War

Though not exactly a household name in our time, anyone reading the newspapers in the latter half of the 19th century would have been familiar with Charles Warren. He gained fame for such disparate events as surveying Gibraltar to excavating Jerusalem, finding the killers of a prominent archaeologist and bringing them to justice, to the humiliation of being the police commissioner on whose watch Jack the Ripper terrorized the people of London and eluded arrest. Warren was also the scapegoat of one of Britain’s worst military disasters – the Battle of Spion Kop– and helped found a global organization: The Boy Scouts. If anyone remembers Warren today, it is for vastly divergent things. Let’s delve into the highs and lows of Warren’s career.

Charles Warren was born in Wales in 1840. At age 17 Warren was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Royal Engineers. He gained praise and promotion for his work surveying Gibraltar from 1861-1865. This laid the foundation for the next phase of his career, which would bring Warren considerable fame.

In 1870, the newly-founded Palestine Exploration Fund recruited Lieutenant Warren to survey the Ottoman-controlled Holy Land for archaeological purposes. Warren was the first person to conduct a major excavation of the Temple Mount and became the preeminent explorer of Jerusalem. Warren also “settled several vexed questions of site, and amongst them that of the position of the Temple.”[1] Though his discoveries in Jerusalem were what gained Warren acclaim, he also led expeditions in Gaza, Ashkelon, and Jericho. Remarkably, Warren only spent three years in Palestine before returning to England as a result of ill health.

He was next dispatched to South Africa, another flashpoint of British imperialism at the time, in 1876. After his work surveying there, as well as gallantry in battle, he was made a companion of the Order of St Michael and St George, promoted to brevet lieutenant colonel, and had a town (Warrenton) named after him. In 1880, he returned to England to assume the role of Chief Military Engineering Instructor, but in 1882, he was dispatched on a special assignment. Edward Henry Palmer’s archaeological expedition had gone missing, and Warren was charged with determining their fate. He successfully found the company’s remains (they had been ambushed and murdered) in the Sinai and brought the killers to justice, earning him several knighthoods. In all likelihood, this may have led to his unlikely and unfitting appointment as Chief Commissioner of London’s Metropolitan Police in 1886. 

Although Warren set about reorganizing and expanding London’s Metropolitan police force, his appointment seemed doomed from the beginning. In 1887, he was roundly criticized for his heavy handling of “Bloody Sunday,” in which many protestors in Trafalgar Square clashed with the police and military, resulting in numerous injuries on both sides. His bad luck continued, when in April 1888, Jack the Ripper claimed his first victim. In September of 1888, the Ripper committed a double murder. What is now known as the Goulston Street Graffito was found at the scene of the crime. The text according to Warren’s report was:

The Jewes are

The men that

Will not

be Blamed

for nothing

Warren, generally punctilious about detail and army discipline, made a decision that was highly irregular: he ordered the graffiti washed off the wall before the police photographer could arrive at the scene. In his report, Warren explains that the graffiti was incendiary in light of the strong anti-Semitic sentiment in London at the time and it needed to be removed immediately – a necessity that trumped retaining the evidence in the murders. In doing so, Warren very likely prevented a pogrom.[2]

Two days after submitting his report about the Goulston Street Graffito, Warren tendered his resignation from the Metropolitan Police on November 8, 1888, and within hours, the serial killer struck again. Though the press relentlessly crucified Warren for his inability to bring in Jack the Ripper, the resignation was more about internal politics and power struggles that had existed prior to the Ripper’s killing spree. Warren returned to the military and was promoted to general. 

Warren’s career would hit a nadir, even after the Ripper affair, with the disaster of Spion Kop, where the British were massacred in the bloodiest battle of the Second Boer War in South Africa in 1900. The 59-year-old Warren had been charged with relieving British soldiers besieged by the Boers at Spion Kop. Effectively sitting ducks being picked off by the Boers, a young lieutenant in the South African Light Horse regiment of the British Army named Winston Churchill described the carnage: “The scenes on Spion Kop were among the strangest and most terrible I have ever witnessed.” [3] Churchill, a war correspondent, acted as a courier during this battle, directly urging Warren to send more reinforcements and explaining that their soldiers were trapped on the mountain. The agitated Warren ordered Churchill’s arrest and did not send reinforcements. Had he done so, the British would have won the battle. At dawn, the Natal Ambulance Corps, led by their leader, Mohandas (known later as Mahatma) Gandhi, marched 25 miles bearing stretchers to remove the wounded and dying from the summit. Warren, who managed to blunder a battle in which 20,000 British soldiers faced off against 8,000 Boers, was held responsible for what went down in history as one of Britain’s worst military disasters.

Warren’s initial brilliance as an archaeologist is a chapter of his life that he never quite closed. Warren “retained his interest in Palestine to the last. He strongly supported the renewed excavation of the Hill of Ophel, which was carried out by the Fund in the years 1924 and 1925. At the end of the latter year, when the report on these excavations was being published, he assisted materially in the preparation of the map of the excavations…”[4] Warren died two years later, in 1927. Periodically, the world’s attention is on Jerusalem; Warren’s name will always be associated with the city.

Read more about presidents and other political figures, plus discover other great posts from Shapell, including George Washington: Farming & Agriculture, Theodore Roosevelt’s Family Life, Harry Truman Post Presidency, and more!



  1. F. C. “Obituary: General Sir Charles Warren, G. C. M. G., K. C. B., F. R. S.” The Geographical Journal, vol. 69, no. 4, 1927, pp. 382–383. JSTOR, Accessed 2 June 2021.
  2. “I do not hesitate myself to say that if that writing had been left there would have been an onslaught upon the Jews, property would have been wrecked, and lives would probably have been lost.” Warren also notes in his report that the Chief Rabbi thanked him for his handling of the volatile situation. Ref. HO 144/221/A49301C, ff. 173–81, Evans and Skinner, The Ultimate Jack the Ripper Sourcebook, pp. 183–184
  3.  Millard, Candice. Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill. Doubleday, 2016
  4.  From Warren’s obituary in The Geographical Journal
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General Order No. 11 Historic Marker, Mississippi.
March 31, 2021

Ulysses Grant’s General Order No. 11 Historic Marker In Mississippi

On March 18th, 2021, a new historical marker was installed by the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation in Holly Springs, Mississippi, with support from the City and the Marshall County Historical Society Museum.

The marker commemorates General Ulysses S. Grant’s infamous General Orders No. 11, often considered the worst anti-Semitic Government act in American history. The order – -issued on December 17th, 1862, from Holly Springs — expelled all Jews from Grant’s military district, which comprised areas of Tennessee, Mississippi, and Kentucky. 

President Abraham Lincoln countermanded the General Order on January 4, 1863.

Learn more here of how Grant later tried to lose the anti-Semite label engendered to him by the order.

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Albert Einstein, 1920, Deutsches Bundesarchiv, 1930
March 14, 2021

Albert Einstein the Activist

Today, March 14th, marks the birthday of the most renowned physicist of the modern era: Albert Einstein, who was born in 1879. Einstein is probably one of the most instantly recognizable people, and his name is synonymous with genius. E = mc2, though perhaps not well-understood, is widely-known. A lesser-known thing about Einstein is that he was one of the founders of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. But most people don’t realize that Einstein, himself persecuted by the Nazis from very early on in their regime, also worked feverishly before and during World War II to get hundreds of fellow Jews out of Europe. Here is a collection of Einstein’s private letters discussing anti-Semitism as well as his efforts to help Jewish people flee Europe.

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Edith Bolling Galt in the first electric automobile driven by a woman in Washington, D.C., 1904, Library of Congress
March 9, 2021

Edith Wilson, First Woman President?

Has The US Ever Had A Female President?


The story of Edith Bolling Wilson, the only woman in American history thus far to have been thought of as a de-facto president is a complicated one. A widow herself when she met the widowed President Woodrow Wilson, Edith Bolling laid claim to descent from both Pocahontas (ninth-generation on her father’s side) as well as Thomas Jefferson (her great grandmother was Jefferson’s sister). Edith had been born in 1872 to a once-prominent Virginian family, whose ancestors included John  Rolfe, the first Englishman to settle in Virginia and export tobacco. With the Civil War and Reconstruction, Edith’s formerly slave-owning family could no longer maintain their plantation seat, and Edith’s father became a circuit court judge in order to support the family. Edith was the seventh of eleven children, nine of whom survived to adulthood. As a result of her family’s tightened financial situation and of her sex, she received less of a formal education than her brothers. Despite the persona she wove later in life of an aristocratic existence in Virginia, Edith’s upbringing, though not hardscrabble, was lean.

In 1896, 23-year-old Edith Bolling married Norman Galt, a prestigious Washington jeweler. Edith had met Galt on a visit to one of her married sisters in DC, and Galt, a few years her senior, courted Edith for four years before Edith agreed to marry him. Galt’s shop was an establishment that could count amongst its earlier patrons Mary Todd Lincoln, as well as Edith’s distant relation, Thomas Jefferson. Edith quickly grew accustomed to the upscale lifestyle with her first husband, which helped set the stage for her claims of aristocracy and her preparedness to rub shoulders with royals with her next husband. In 1903, Edith gave birth to a baby boy who died a few days later, and whose birth left her unable to have children. The following year, Edith became the first woman in Washington to purchase and drive around in a car. In 1908, she was suddenly widowed when Norman unexpectedly died at the age of 43, with Edith as his sole heir. 

Edith & Woodrow Wilson

In March of 1915, Edith met President Woodrow Wilson, himself a widow of eight months, and nearing the end of his first term in office. The two instantly fell in love and were married by December of that year, following the one-year mourning period for the President’s first wife, Ellen. In 1916, Wilson secured his second term in office. 

Though President Wilson did everything in his power to keep the United States out of World War I, by 1917, the US had joined the fray. This was when the President began to subject himself to serious overwork and strain by refusing to delegate most tasks having to do with negotiating the Treaty of Versailles. In 1919, President Wilson traveled to Paris for the Peace Conference just in time for the second wave of the 1918 influenza pandemic. There, he caught a bad case of the flu, and was never the same. His mental health deteriorated and he had several strokes. 

Edith refused to let President Wilson step down and she hid his illness from the American public and from members of Wilson’s own cabinet. She believed that retiring or retreating from the presidency and public life would further degrade her husband’s condition and that the only cure for him would be to stay in office. Instead, Edith ran what she called a “stewardship,” and what others – both in her time and in ours – have called a secret presidency. Edith carefully curated which memos and information would reach the president, and she also decided who would have access to him and when, thus alienating his cabinet and maintaining singular influence on the President and the office of the presidency for approximately a year and a half.

Edith’s memoir, published in 1939, was written with the solitary goal of defending her husband’s legacy from detractors who claimed that Edith had overstepped her bounds and acted as president-de-facto. Edith insisted throughout the memoir that she never assumed any presidential power or made any decisions, rather, she just decided what to put in front of the president. 

The truth lies somewhere in the middle. Though Edith was not interested in assuming any power or making important policy decisions, she did impact political outcomes through her curation of information to the president and her crippling of the cabinet’s ability to function. It is also difficult to parse out how much of Wilson’s mental capacity and strokes were to blame for the dysfunction, and how much of the political paralysis was Edith’s doing. It can be more definitively stated that in some cases, Edith compounded the president’s disability by isolating him from his cabinet.

One such example is the failure of Wilson’s League of Nations proposal to pass in Congress. The organization of peacekeeping nations in the aftermath of World War I was a concept that Wilson championed, though the United States did not join the coalition. Some historians have contended that Edith’s isolation of her husband from his most trusted political advisors meant that Wilson did not compromise on the treaty, and therefore, presented as it was, Congress rejected it. 

Wilson finished his second term in March of 1921, and was succeeded by Warren Harding. Wilson died in 1924, and Edith lived until December of 1961. Her last public appearance was at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy. In 1967, nearly 50 years after Edith “stewarded” the presidency for her husband, the Unites States ratified the 25th amendment to the constitution, which stipulates that if the president is deemed unable to do his or her job, that the vice president assumes the responsibilities of the president.

Read more about presidents and other political figures, plus discover other great blogs from Shapell, including Rags To Riches Presidents, Jerry Parr, Harry Truman Post Presidency, and more!

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Herman Melville, circa 1860, Wikimedia Commons.
December 30, 2020

Clarel Disinterred

In the winter of 1856-1857, Herman Melville traveled to Europe and the Levant, and spent approximately nineteen days in the Holy Land. He was one of many luminaries who took the same routes and tours, and stayed at the same hotels; Mark Twain, Ulysses S. Grant, and Theodore Roosevelt followed suit over the next thirty years. Melville, burnt-out at 48 from a string of failed novels and overexertion, embarked on his journey as a form of recuperation. His journals from the five-month trip, which spanned three continents and nine countries,  reveal that it was in the Holy Land that the author reached a turning point, and his journey was every bit as immersive emotionally as it was physically. To be sure, Melville was not entranced by the Holy Land per se, as his travel journal reflects: “No country will more quickly dissipate romantic expectations than Palestine—particularly Jerusalem. To some the disappointment is heart sickening.” But the trip certainly had an impact on him.

Nineteen days of contemplation in the Holy Land would be brought to life nineteen years later, with what Melville considered his most personal work: Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land, published in 1876. Longer than Paradise Lost by nearly double, and arguably less accessible, Clarel remains the longest poem in American literature. The novelist had achieved overnight success in 1846 for Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life, and notoriety for the commercial flop Moby Dick in 1851. Yet he had also enjoyed moderate success for his volume of poems treating the American Civil War that was published in 1866. It was not enough success, however, to support his family. Working as a customs inspector in New York, Melville devoted his evenings to writing Clarel.  In Clarel, Melville tried his hand at iambic tetrameter in creating his own epic poem. Clarel was the eponymously named protagonist of the epic. A seminary student, facing a spiritual crisis, Clarel journeys to the Holy Land to rediscover his faith. And there lies the parallel not just between Melville’s personal spiritual journey, but America’s. In the wake of the Civil War and the scientific breakthroughs of the 1870s (such as Darwin’s), Americans were plunged into a crisis of faith. Naturally, this was met with a great religious revival, producing much discussion, if not clashing, in reconstructed America. Clarel, the naive American,  meets characters of many religions and races, who question and debate faith against the backdrop of Biblical sites. The epic ends with Clarel experiencing a renewal of faith, only to have it dashed when his Jewish fiance dies and is not resurrected at Easter. The narrator then exhorts Clarel to faith despite all he has been through. 

Melville had the two-volume epic printed at his own cost. He anticipated the negative reception by essentially disavowing himself of its content in his author’s note on the first edition: “I here dismiss the book–content beforehand, with whatever future awaits it.” Privately, he described the epic to a correspondent as “eminently adapted for unpopularity.”[1] He was right. It was, indeed, a commercial and critical flop. Of the 350 copies printed in the first run in 1876, 220 were pulped. Nine years later, Melville agreed to disinter a rare copy of the book for another rarity: a fan of Clarel. It’s fair to say that the epic remained interred until its themes of religion and depth psychology re-emerged in the wake of the Second World War, renewing interest in the poem. [2] In the decades that followed, there were a few articles published about Clarel by Melville scholars, as is to be expected. 

More recently, it seems that Clarel is becoming disinterred yet again. In August of 2019, Herschel Parker, who has devoted over half a century to studying and writing about Melville, published his edition of Melville’s complete poems, in celebration of the author’s bicentennial. The star of this hefty volume is, undoubtedly, Clarel.  In May and June of 2020, two articles were published online about the relevance of Clarel to understanding the crisis of American faith both in Melville’s day and in our own. A humanities podcast even dedicated an episode to it around the time those articles came out. Maybe it should not be too surprising, as themes of individual crisis and the tensions between faith and science never do go away or get resolved. Perhaps Clarel deserves another look if not from people of faith (or who study it), then from historians, as Clarel also emerges as a historical document par-excellence. 



  1. Clarel:  A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land, (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1991), ed. By Herschel Parker, pp. 540-542
  2. Parker, p. 507


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Theodor Herzl with a Zionist delegation in Jerusalem, 1898. Wikimedia Commons
December 14, 2020

Theodor Herzl, Chaim Weizmann, and the East Africa Scheme

In August of 1897, after putting together the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Theodor Herzl, resplendent in his white tie and tails, his noble visage self-consciously groomed, rose to speak. He had to wait for a quarter of an hour for the applause to die down. A few days later, the congress ended as it began – with thunderous applause, this time with the younger delegates lifting and carrying  Herzl on their shoulders around the hall. [1]  

Six years later, in 1903, at the Sixth (and Herzl’s last) Zionist Congress, Herzl, who had less than a year to live, strained to breathe as he spoke, and had a rebellion on his hands. Only after declaring in Hebrew “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning” did the aggrieved party, the Russian caucus of the Zionist delegates, agree to come back into the hall.  [2] Herzl had suggested that the Congress consider the British offer to create a Jewish homeland in East Africa (modern-day Kenya), which was such a point of contention that it threatened to split the World Zionist Organisation. Herzl’s dear friend and right-hand man, Max Nordau, was even the target of an attempted assassination shortly thereafter. What happened in these six years to the Zionist Organization? The answer might be found in a closer examination of the relationship between Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, and a young rival, Chaim Weizmann, the future first president of the State of Israel. 

Chaim Weizmann was roughly fifteen years Theodor Herzl’s junior. Unlike Herzl, an assimilated Central European Jew, Weizmann hailed from Russia, and in addition to his doctorate in chemistry, was the beneficiary of a traditional Jewish education and upbringing. Weizmann first laid eyes on Herzl at the Second Zionist Congress in Basel in 1898. [3] The two men maintained a correspondence, and actually found common ground in Weizmann’s goal of establishing a Jewish university in Palestine. 

But by 1901, a growing number of younger Zionists were unhappy with the slow progress of the Zionist movement. These young men, mostly Russian, as was Weizmann, felt that though Herzl had given Zionism a shape, he was off the mark when it came to its substance. Weizmann’s anti-Herzl agitation (“Herzl has no idea of Russian Zionism and of Russian Zionists”) served to make a name for himself, and more critically, led to a meeting with Herzl. Though Weizmann was spoiling for a fight, the elder statesman recognized the need for the younger generation to have their own conference, which took place shortly before the Fifth Zionist Congress in 1902. Though there was some chafing between Herzl and the younger group, which called itself the Democratic Fraction, Herzl tried to work with them and keep the Zionist movement unified. By 1903, shortly before the Sixth Zionist Congress, Weizmann was at the helm of the Fraction, which, for all its animated discussions, hadn’t achieved much. 

The violent pogroms in Kishinev in April of 1903 alarmed Herzl to the point where he very seriously considered accepting the British government’s offer to establish a Jewish homeland in East Africa. Though Weizmann initially heard Herzl out on the idea, he was amongst the many Russian delegates who vociferously opposed the resolution at the Congress in August of that year. Pandemonium broke out, with the Russian delegation splitting off and having their own meeting, passing a resolution refusing to ratify any formal consideration of the East Africa scheme. [4] In this separate meeting, Weizmann denounced Herzl as “not a nationalist, but a promoter of projects.” [5]

In fact, Herzl never denied the centrality of Palestine to the Jewish people. Despite the Fraction’s claims earlier that Herzl didn’t understand Russian Zionists, it was the existential threat to Russian Jews that made Herzl consider the scheme as a temporary measure to ensure their safety. This reassurance, echoed by Nordau at the lectern, incidentally, was enough to placate at least two other Russian delegates: Weizmann’s brother and father. [6]

Though the Congress closed with an agreement to send some delegates to get the lay of the land without any formal commitments, the East Africa scheme caused a major rift and power struggle in the Zionist Organisation. Weizmann, who had been agitating against Herzl’s political Zionism for a few years now, took full advantage of this rift in order to boost his own profile as well as the commitment to the Land of Israel. Immediately after the Congress, he launched an all-out attack on the East Africa scheme, focusing solely where it had support: Western Europe. And as his professional opportunities dried up in Switzerland, Weizmann’s two callings — chemistry and Zionism– intersected, and Weizmann found himself pursuing both in what had been Herzl’s territory: the United Kingdom. 

The African scheme fizzled out by December of 1903, as a result of opposition by British colonists in  East Africa. And yet, it still held the Zionist Organization in a power struggle. By July of 1904, Herzl was dead, and the Zionist Organization was bereft. Nordau, the natural choice for Herzl’s successor, declined. Weizmann, who finally had his ducks in a row, moved to the UK a few months later. En route, he met with Nordau, who mused that some day, the young Weizmann would take up the mantle of Zionist leadership. [7]

Weizmann had already done a lot of campaigning for his cause – that of the Land of Israel for the Jewish homeland – on his pilot trip to London in 1903. If anything, Herzl had achieved a landmark in getting the British Empire to recognize the Zionist cause. Weizmann picked up where Herzl left off. And two years later, in 1906, Weizmann had his first meeting with Lord Balfour. Weizmann’s refusal to contemplate the East Africa scheme had a profound impact on Lord Balfour, though it would be another decade until Weizmann would pull off one of the most remarkable diplomatic achievements of the 20th century: the Balfour Declaration. This  British commitment to a Jewish homeland in the Land of Israel was a long road that was paved by Weizmann, but one blazed by Herzl.


  1. Howard M. Sachar, A History of Israel From the Rise of  Zionism to  Our Time (New  York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993), p. 46
  2. Anita Shapira, Israel: A History, trans. Anthony Berris (London: Weidenfield and Nicolson, 2014), p. 23
  3. Norman  Rose, Chaim Weizmann: A  Biography (New  York: Viking, 1986), p. 49
  4. Derek Penslar,  Theodor  Herzl: The Charismatic  Leader (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2020), p. 192
  5. Rose, p.  73
  6. Rose, p. 72
  7. Rose,  p. 85
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"Bonaparte Visiting the Plague Victims of Jaffa" by Antoine -Jean Gross, 1804, Wikimedia Commons
December 2, 2020

Napoleon in the Holy Land

At the end of the 18th century, the trade route to India was of supreme economic importance to European colonial interests. In an attempt to weaken British control along the route, Napoleon Bonaparte launched an invasion first of Egypt, and then, as a bit of an afterthought, of the Holy Land, in 1799. The attack on the Holy Land, including the infamous siege of Acre, was ultimately devastating both for Napoleon’s forces and for the local inhabitants, whom the French soldiers plundered as they beat back their retreat. Yet Napoleon’s attempted conquest and its accompanying surveys and detailed maps of the Levant stimulated renewed interest in the region. 

Jaffa & Napoleon

In setting his sights on conquering the Holy Land, Napoleon had expected a swift victory and to subsequently march towards Jerusalem; he had already conquered Malta, Alexandria, and Cairo. In order to take the Holy Land, he would first need to conquer Jaffa. On March 3rd, 1799, Napoleon lay siege to Jaffa. By March 7th, it was his.

Less than three weeks later, Napoleon attempted to take Acre. This was where his Egyptian campaign began to unravel. The Ottoman Turkish defenders, aided by the British Navy, managed to repulse the French forces after an initial infantry attack. The British, under the command of Commodore Sidney Smith, actually managed to capture Napoleon’s artillery and hand it over to the Turks. Thus, the Turks largely defeated Napoleon with his own artillery.  After 54 days, Napoleon lifted the siege, in May of 1799. From there, Napoleon beat a hasty retreat to Egypt, from where he deserted his army in the middle of the night. 

The Napoleon Jaffa Painting

One of the most iconic images of Napoleon in the Holy Land is a painting that he commissioned five years after the event, in 1804, commemorating the high point of the campaign there, in Jaffa. In Antoine-Jean’s “Napoleon Bonaparte Visiting the Plague-Stricken in Jaffa,” Napoleon is depicted as touching a leper, in a scene that is meant to invoke Christ. This painting, now hanging in the Louvre, is the first masterpiece of Napoleonic painting. While the painting depicts Napoleon as brave and virtuous in caring for his sick men, it was Napoleon’s carelessness and haste in attempting to conquer Acre with infantry alone that cost the lives of 2,300 men, with another 2,200 ill or wounded, and ultimately, brought the end to his campaign. 

Upon his return to Europe, Napoleon claimed he had besieged and burnt Acre to the ground, and declared his Egypt campaign a success. In France, Napoleon’s claims were believed despite the loss of half of his army and his entire fleet. The English version of events tells a very different story: Horatio Nelson’s missive celebrates “the villain” Napoleon’s retreat from Acre. 

Napoleon did have one success in this campaign, and that was to further the sciences and exploration of that area. But to the victor go the spoils, and this case was no different. With the abandonment of his troops in Egypt, Napoleon’s scientists and scholars preferred to return to England with their findings than return to France without them. One such important finding was, of course, the Rosetta Stone, which spawned Egyptology.

Napoleon’s attempt to take the Holy Land, and the later Egyptian occupation of Palestine (1831-1840), also opened up the floodgates for modern diplomacy and travel to the Holy Land. This tiny outpost of the Ottoman Empire again began to attract the attention of major European powers for both strategic and religious reasons. Ignited anew, as well, was the American imagination and longing for the land of the Bible

Read more about Napoleon and other political figures, plus discover other great blogs from Shapell, including How Did Vaccines First Start, Harry & Bess Truman, Harry Truman Post Presidency and more!

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David Rice Atchison. Photographer: Mathew Brady, U.S. Capitol, 1849. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.
November 22, 2020

David Rice Atchison – (Not) President for a Day

The day of David Rice Atchison’s presumed US Presidency was March 4, 1849. Who was David Rice Atchison and on what basis could he claim to have been the president of the United States, even if for only one day? Read more at the United States Senate Stories:

Enjoyed Learning About David Rice Atchison?

Enjoyed learning about President David Rice Atchison? Then discover other great blogs from Shapell, including The Longest Serving Prime Minister of Israel, The Most Athletic Presidents, George Cortelyou, and more!

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David Ben-Gurion, Israel Defense Archive
November 18, 2020

Ben-Gurion the Archivist

In 1950, the State of Israel was only two years old and David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, was facing monumental, existential challenges. The fledgling state was still imperiled by enemies, a struggling economy, and even food security. Yet Ben-Gurion, widely acknowledged by historians for his prescience as well as his ability to seize historic opportunities, locked in on one particular idea while vacationing in Tiberias: preserving Jewish manuscripts. In Ben-Gurion’s own words,

Our first duty is to save Hebrew literature. There are thousands of Hebrew manuscripts lying idle in various libraries. Many of them have vanished in the darkness of the past or have been destroyed by the wrath of oppressors…It is the duty of the State of Israel to acquire and gather those exiles of the spirit of Israel dispersed in the Diaspora. [1]

Thus began Ben-Gurion’s ambitious project: to establish an Institute of Manuscripts in order to microfilm and catalog every single Hebrew manuscript in existence. The Prime Minister, who had also served as Defense Minister, had already created the military archive two years prior. In this same letter to his Finance Minister, Ben-Gurion requested an allocation of £50,000 for the project, “without delay.” Ben-Gurion, whose own home was crammed with books, and who would set out to write a history of Israel upon his retirement, had made a decision that was rooted in philosophy. In his studies of military history, Ben-Gurion noted, “decisive and constant victory is that of spiritual power.” According to Ben-Gurion, the source of spiritual power for the Jewish people in their new country would be their ancient literature. Once returned home to its roots, these manuscripts would provide the spiritual sustenance needed to overcome the very material challenges the Jewish people now faced, and serve as the nucleus from which to study and preserve the corpus of Hebrew literature.

Ben-Gurion’s project was also the natural continuation of Chaim Weizmann and Albert Einstein’s dream of the founding of a Jewish university in Jerusalem. Indeed, the microfilm project was a partnership between the state and the Hebrew University. In 1925, at the inauguration of the Hebrew University, Weizmann (who would serve as the country’s first President), acknowledged the asymmetry of a country with existential issues establishing a university:

It seems at first sight paradoxical that in a land with so sparse a population, in a land where everything still remains to be done, in a land crying out for such simple things as ploughs, roads and harbors, we should be creating a center of spiritual and intellectual development. But it is no paradox, for those who know the soul of the Jew. It is true that great social and political problems still face us and will demand their solution. We Jews know that when the mind is given fullest play, when we have a center for the development of Jewish consciousness, then coincidentally, we shall attain the fulfillment of our material needs.

Ben-Gurion, who spent many days at the New York Public Library between 1915 and 1917, where he met his wife, Paula, also understood the importance of enabling Jews to access the world’s cultures and literature. “Everything human is not foreign to us–and everything human must be provided for us in our language,” the Prime Minister asserted, as he took the first steps to launch the Hebrew series Masterworks of World Literature. Ben-Gurion, perhaps uncharacteristically, let the series committee decide which works of literature to translate into Hebrew, though he did request that they include a particular passion of his: Indian philosophy. 

Ben-Gurion’s prescience and ideals concerning making far-flung Hebrew manuscripts accessible is today echoed in the near-universal effort of digitizing manuscripts for the public. The result of Ben-Gurion’s vision of making Jewish materials from all over the world available to anyone, anywhere, can be seen in the National Library of Israel’s Ktiv website, where many of the Hebrew manuscripts are on view.


  1. For more on Ben-Gurion’s ideas about the relationship between the Hebrew language and the modern state of Israel, see Anita Shapira, Ben-Gurion, Father of Modern Israel, pp. 182-183


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US Cabinet Secretary George Cortelyou
May 10, 2020

George Cortelyou

In September of 1901, on the grounds of the Pan-American Exhibition in Buffalo, two shots rang out. President William McKinley, mortally wounded, fell into the arms of his private secretary, to whom he spoke the famous words, “My wife, Cortelyou, be careful how you tell her.” This was probably the most dramatic moment in US Cabinet Secretary George Cortelyou’s public service, if not his life. Though he is mostly associated with McKinley’s assassination, there is far more to Cortelyou’s legacy. Having served under three presidents directly, Cortelyou’s roles were precursors of what would become the duties of Chief of Staff and Press Secretary. But Cortelyou managed to be quite more than the sum of even these two monumental roles.

George Cortelyou was born in New York City in 1862. After attending George Washington University and Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., he worked as a school teacher and principal in preparatory schools. He became a stenographer and entered public service in 1889 as a private secretary to various public officials.[1] In 1895, the Assistant Postmaster General was so taken with his private secretary that, when President Grover Cleveland approached him in search of a chief clerk, he immediately recommended Cortelyou.[2]

Within two years, Cortelyou managed to prove himself invaluable to the President. Upon Cleveland’s departure from the White House in 1897,  Cleveland told the incoming McKinley that if he wanted “things to run smoothly around here, my advice is to keep Cortelyou.[3] McKinley took that advice, and Cortelyou soon went from assistant presidential secretary to McKinley’s main Cabinet Secretary. 

Cortelyou and McKinley established a relationship with the press that laid the foundation for future administrations. They met with the press personally and cultivated not only their goodwill but kept them updated by sharing presidential statements and establishing a press office inside the White House.[4]

Cortelyou’s practical approach extended beyond his relationship with the press. He had a well-founded concern for McKinley’s safety, considering that America had lost Presidents Garfield and Lincoln to assassination as recently as 1881 and 1865, respectively. Perhaps more on his mind was the recent assassination of Umeberto I of Italy in July of 1900. Cortelyou urged President McKinley not to attend the very public Pan-American Exposition, going so far as to cancel McKinley’s appearance at the Exposition twice, only to be ignored both times. Following McKinley’s assassination, Cortelyou asked for congressional funds to increase the security for his next boss, Theodore Roosevelt. Though there was an attempt made on Former President Roosevelt’s life as he campaigned for a third term in October of 1912, Cortelyou’s initiative had a lasting impact on the protocol for keeping the most powerful person on earth safe.

Cortelyou worked for Cleveland for two years, and four for McKinley. But it was with Theodore Roosevelt that he enjoyed the most intimate relationship and under whose auspices Cortelyou fulfilled his powerful and numerous potentials, enacting change that would have a lasting impact on the office of the presidency, as well as the nation.

When Roosevelt took over McKinley’s term upon the latter’s assassination, he not only retained Cortelyou, but charged him with reorganizing the Executive Mansion. It was at this time that Roosevelt gave it the official name of “The White House,” and even had the letterhead changed. Roosevelt, the scion of a powerful business family, wanted the White House to run with the same kind of efficiency. Cortelyou obliged and wrote protocols for how White House staff were to conduct themselves and fulfill their responsibilities. He even insisted that at the end of every workday, all desks would be cleared of paper. He also completely overhauled the chaotic travel protocol for the President. 

Cortelyou was far more to Roosevelt than a clerk or private secretary. He became one of Roosevelt’s most trusted advisors. In fact, Roosevelt created a cabinet position for Cortelyou, and appointed him the first United States Secretary of Commerce and Labor in 1903 in order to control the excesses of big businesses. The following year, Cortelyou left his cabinet position to run Roosevelt’s successful reelection campaign. Cortelyou went on to serve as Postmaster General in 1905 and Secretary of the Treasury, where he presided over the Great Panic of 1907.

Not many people manage to occupy as many powerful positions as Cortelyou did in his lifetime. But this is not what made Cortelyou remarkable. Most people are lauded if they impact one aspect of government. George Cortelyou managed to improve the way multiple aspects of the presidency and the United States are run. Cortelyou’s overhaul of White House staffing and presidential correspondence enabled the president to be more efficient. His allocation of congressional funds and the doubling of secret service agents made the office of the presidency safer. Cortelyou’s inclusion of a press office in the White House during the McKinley administration made the president more accessible and the office more transparent and accountable to its citizens. His invention of the press release during the Roosevelt administration allowed the president to get ahead of leaked reports and to influence his image in the media.[5] It was during Cortelyou’s tenure as Secretary of Treasury from 1907 to 1909, that Cortelyou established his most far-reaching legacy where the American people are concerned; Cortelyou began to advocate for a central banking system, which ultimately led to the establishment of the Federal Reserve in 1913.

After his service as Secretary of Treasury, Cortelyou worked for the Consolidated Gas Company until 1935. He passed away in 1940 at the age of 78 leaving behind a wife, two sons, and two daughters. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt attended the wake, as she was best friends with Lilly, Cortelyou’s wife.

Manuscripts from George Cortelyou:

President McKinley’s Secretary Cancels McKinley’s Engagements “Owing to Mrs. McKinley’s Serious Illness”

McKinley’s Last Tour: Cortelyou Thanks the Mayor of San Francisco for His Help

George Cortelyou also remains enshrined in another piece of history. This clip is the first video ever taken of a president. McKinley and Cortelyou are reenacting the moment where Cortelyou informs McKinley of the latter’s Republican nomination for President in September of 1896.

Learn More About George Cortelyou & Other Important Political Figures

Read more about George Cortelyou and other political figures, plus discover other great blogs from Shapell, including Titanic Victims – Archibald Willingham Butt, Anne Frank Family Album at the Anne Frank Fonds and Harry Truman Post Presidency


[1]  “George B. Cortelyou, Financier, 78, Dies.” The New York Times, October 24, 1940, p. 25


[3]  Ibid

[4] For more on the modernisation of the presidency with regard to the press, see Ponder, Stephen. “The President Makes News: William McKinley and the First Presidential Press Corps, 1897-1901.” Presidential Studies Quarterly, vol. 24, no. 4, 1994, pp. 823–836. JSTOR, Accessed 20 Feb. 2020.

[5] For more on Cortelyou’s general innovation and  impact on the press during the McKinley administration, see List of McKinley Firsts

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Detail: Lieutenant Archibald Butt in 1909. Image: Library of Congress.
April 12, 2020

Archibald Willingham Butt: Presidential Aide And Friend, Lost On The Titanic

If the presidential election of 1912 was not the most dramatic in American history, it was certainly one of the most personal. President William Taft, the incumbent Republican, sought reelection against the Democratic Woodrow Wilson, as well as Theodore Roosevelt who freshly formed the Progressive/Bull Moose party. Roosevelt had mentored Taft and chose him as his presidential successor, only to become displeased when Taft began to assert himself. By the middle of Taft’s term in office, the relationship between Roosevelt and Taft was rapidly deteriorating, with both men publicly attacking the other’s character as well as policies. In 1912, Roosevelt put the nail in the coffin of the friendship, and ran against Taft.

Archibald Willingham Butt, known as Archie Butt, a man who served as an aide to both Presidents Roosevelt and Taft, and whom both considered a dear friend, bore the brunt of much of the row between the two men. Both Taft and Roosevelt confided in him about the souring of their friendship. By 1910, Butt was exasperated, and confided to his sister-in-law that the tension between Roosevelt and Taft caused him to throw up his hands. “They are now apart and how they will keep from wrecking the country between them I scarcely see. Possibly, it may land a good Democrat in the White House which may bring back sanity to the people….Damn politics anyhow.”[1] Ultimately, Roosevelt’s party split the Republican vote and handed the White House to Wilson – the first Democrat since Grover Cleveland had won his second non-consecutive term nineteen years earlier, in 1893. In other words, Archie’s prediction had been spot-on. 

Butt had worked his way up from a poor, unprivileged life in Augusta, Georgia, to become one of the most beloved figures in Washington, D.C. Born in 1865, less than half a year after the Civil War ended, Butt had the military in his blood. His grandfather (also Archibald Butt) had served in the Revolutionary War, during which Archie’s great-grandfather also served as a lieutenant. His uncle was Confederate General William R. Boggs. When Archie was fourteen, his father passed away, and Archie had to work to support his family. Butt eventually became a journalist, and in 1895 was appointed as the first Secretary to the US Ambassador to Mexico, where he continued to write for several American newspapers. At the height of his journalistic career, the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898. Feeling duty-bound and proud of his military pedigree, Butt enlisted in the US Volunteers and was commissioned as a lieutenant. Butt was a quartermaster and established himself as a capable logistician, eventually joining the US Army and serving in the Philippines, Washington, D.C., and Cuba.

President Theodore Roosevelt had also served in the Spanish-American War, and his exploits as head of the Rough Riders had practically catapulted him into the presidency. Roosevelt had read several of Butt’s military reports concerning the husbandry of animals in the tropics and had been so impressed that he asked Butt to become his military aide in 1908.[2]

Butt managed to keep up with Roosevelt’s rigorous physical activities, and became not only a valued adviser, but a cherished friend. The following year, Taft succeeded Roosevelt, and Archie was asked to stay on as an aide to the President. In 1911, Butt was promoted to Major in the Quartermaster Corps.

Seven months before that fateful election, on March 3, 1912, Archie Butt, at the behest of President Taft, traveled to Europe for a few weeks. According to some, Taft was concerned for Butt’s health. According to others, Archie had needed a break to decide between which of his two friends he would support for president in a few short months. Butt’s sense of duty compelled him to cancel the plans, and only at Taft’s insistence that he go, did he depart. Archie, cognizant of the impending elections wrote that he was “hesitating about the wisdom of going,” and that he couldn’t “bear to leave him just now. I can see he hates to see me go and I feel like a quitter in going.” Less than a week after he expressed his hesitations, Archie set off with his companion, the artist Frances Millet, with whom he shared a mansion in DC’s Foggy Bottom neighborhood.

After six weeks in Europe, Butt boarded the Titanic in Southampton and Millet met him aboard in Cherbourg later that day. The pair planned to return to their Washington home, where Butt had political business waiting for him, and Millet, as the Vice Chairman of the American Commission of Fine Arts, was due to help finalize the Lincoln Memorial design phase.  Both Butt and Millet perished on the ship, the only known US officials among the Titanic victims to do so. Butt was probably the single most widely mourned victim on the Titanic, as he was one of the most beloved political figures in the US at the time. The 1997 film Titanic, which received critical acclaim for its painstaking historical accuracy, depicted numerous famous people, such as John Jacob Astor, but Archie Butt is nowhere to be seen. Indeed, some accounts have Astor and Butt last seen together before the ship went down. 

Roosevelt mourned Archie’s death, saying “Major Butt was the highest type of officer and gentleman. He met his end as an officer and gentleman should, giving up his own life that others might be saved. I and my family all loved him sincerely.”[5] President Taft was devastated. He felt Butt’s loss as if he had lost a younger brother. The following month, at Butt’s memorial service in Augusta, Taft nearly broke down twice, cutting his remarks short. 

In October of 1913, a fountain was dedicated to both Butt and Millet – an unusual and progressive monument in the “don’t ask don’t tell” Gilded Age. As neither of Archie’s friends were elected president the year before, the fountain was dedicated without ceremony. 

Two years to the day of the Titanic disaster, in April of 1914, Taft dedicated the Archie Butt Memorial Bridge in Butt’s hometown of Augusta. The bridge was the first memorial for the Titanic disaster, and it remains the only one in the state of Georgia. Taft, who used to golf with Butt regularly, stayed at a golf resort in Augusta ahead of the ceremony. He eulogized Butt as a hero (see image and transcription below.)

Taft’s remarks certainly encapsulated Butt’s gallant side, and the way nineteenth century historical figures tend to be remembered. And indeed, there can be very little remembering of Roosevelt or Taft without remembering their Presidential aide Butt: every definitive biography of either president relies heavily on Archie Butt’s letters.[6] Departing from Taft’s rather formulaic description of Butt, Ross Snellings, founder of the The Butt Memorial Bridge Legal Defense Fund, reminds us how Archie’s friends would have remembered him:  “When they turned on the lights [on the Butt Memorial Bridge] for the first time, they remarked ‘Well, it’s going to be just like old Archie: lit every night.’”


Taft’s Tribute to Butt.

Welcomed Hero’s Death on Titanic, Ex-President Says at Memorial.

Augusta. Ga. April 15. – Simple but impressive exercises attended the dedication here to-day of the Butt Memorial Bridge, erected as a tribute to the memory of the late Archibald Willingham Butt, aid to Presidents Taft and Roosevelt, who perished in the Titanic disaster on April 14, 1912. Ex-President Taft, a delegation of Masons, and member of the Butt Memorial association participated in the services. Mr. Taft, the first speaker said:

“I like to think of him as the best type of the new South. Archie went to his death in a great disaster. We do not know the details, but we know that women and children were rescued and he went down with the ship. When I heard that many were lost I know that Archie would never return. He would have selected no other death has he been given a choice.”

Learn More About Archie Butt

Learn More about Archie Butt and other important historical figures, plus discover other great blogs from Shapell, including Anne Frank Family Album at the Anne Frank Fonds, George Cortelyou, and Harry Truman Post Presidency.


[1] Skipper, John C. Roosevelt’s Revolt: The 1912 Republican Convention and the Launch of the Bull Moose Party. McFarland, 2018, p. 6


[3] Taft and Roosevelt: The Intimate Letters of Archie Butt, Military Aide, Vol. 1, Doubleday Doran and Co., 1930, p. 851


[5] Buffalo Evening News Buffalo, New York 20 Apr 1912, Sat  • Page 8

[6] Wilkes, Jr., Donald E. “On the Titanic: Archie Butt.” The Athens Observer. April 28-May 4, 1994, p. 6. Accessed on 9 March, 2020

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Detail: Mark Twain reading and lounging, circa 1905. Wikimedia Commons.
March 23, 2020

Historical Reads for Self-Isolation | COVID-19

With the outbreak of the Coronavirus, or COVID-19, the world currently finds itself in a pandemic of proportions rarely seen before. Our daily lives have altered to the point where some day, this will be taught as a history lesson. Most of us find ourselves social distancing, if not in self-isolation or quarantine. Amidst the isolation, many are turning to books as a form of comfort, engagement, and growth not offered to us by TV. As these are historic times, perhaps some historic figures from our Collection can offer some guidance on what to read.

Mark Twain struggled to narrow down his favorite authors at the request of a correspondent. For those embarking on the daunting task of homeschooling, Twain recommended the same books for boys and girls (with the exception of substituting Tennyson for Crusoe for girls.) Third on Twain’s list is a book written by a friend of his which Twain himself published a few years earlier, and to this day has never gone out of print: Grant’s memoirs

Upon leaving the White House in 1909, Theodore Roosevelt embarked on an African safari. He could not leave without packing some reading material, and brought no less than 59 books, weighing in at nearly 60 pounds. Roosevelt had the volumes bound in pigskin to protect them from the inevitable “blood, sweat, gun oil, dust, and ashes” to be expected on a hunting expedition in the African wilderness – and which did, indeed, stain Roosevelt’s now-famous portable library. Though Twain didn’t think much of Roosevelt (he called him a bully and a ruffian, to be precise), the feeling was not mutual, and in addition to the predictable classics, the former president made sure to pack some Twain for his journey.

Twain was also Harry Truman’s “patron saint” in literature.” In 1911, when he was twenty-seven years old and running his family farm, Truman used his own money to purchase a twenty-five volume set of Mark Twain’s works for the princely sum of $25 – roughly $680 in 2020. Though Truman was the only 20th century president without a college education, he read (by his estimation) all of the books in his local library, and the Old and New Testaments three times before he was fifteen years old. He even read Cato’s agricultural treatises and implemented the Roman senator’s methods on his 20th century Missouri farm, with much success and even acclaim from neighboring farmers. Truman was particularly drawn to biographies of famous generals (Robert E. Lee and Hannibal were favorites) and world leaders (especially Andrew Jackson.) His preference was prescient, and when he unexpectedly found himself at the helm of the most powerful military in history amidst the biggest war known to man, his reading, he said, prepared him for his “terrible trial.” 

If you would like to read some of the books mentioned here by Twain, Roosevelt, and Truman, the following is a partial list (the entire list of books for Roosevelt’s pigskin library is available here). Luckily, most of these titles are available online:


Historic Reading List

The Bible (Roosevelt, Truman)

John Milton, Paradise Lost (Roosevelt)

Shakespeare (Twain, Roosevelt, Truman)

Samuel McChord Crothers, Gentle Reader (Roosevelt)

Grant’s Memoirs (Twain) 

Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer (Roosevelt, Truman)

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Ralph Waldo Emerson (detail.) Ralph Waldo Emerson / L. Grozelier 1859 ; lith. by L. Grozelier Boston. Library of Congress.
March 1, 2020

National Grammar Day: Mark Twain on Ralph Waldo Emerson: His Grammar is Like Gravel in Bread

What could be more appropriate to read on National Grammar Day (March 4th) than Mark Twain criticizing Ralph Waldo Emerson’s grammar? Though Twain was a little harsh writing about Emerson (who had been dead for four years,) Twain did respect Emerson, and had occasion to visit him a few times. Emerson, for his part, found Twain entertaining, and especially enjoyed The Innocents Abroad.

Excerpted from Twain’s original manuscript:

Dear Mrs. Benjamin :

You are right — it is from Emerson, grammar & all : a selection of my wife’s, who has been an Emersonian devotee all her life.  I do not mean that the grammar is not correct, I merely mean that in one place it all at once arrests the flow of your serenity for a moment, like gravel in the bread.

To read the complete original manuscript: Mark Twain on Ralph Waldo Emerson: His Grammar is Like Gravel in Bread

More on Twain and Emerson’s history: Mark Twain bombs in history’s first roast


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Camille Pissarro. Self-portrait. 1898. Sammlung Vogel Collection, New York. The Yorck Project, Wikimedia Commons.
January 21, 2020

Camille Pissarro and the Dreyfus Affair

The French Impressionists were a tight-knit group of artists centered in Paris in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Though there were other factors which contributed to their parting of ways, the Dreyfus Affair seemed to signal a point of no return for this once-intimate group of painters. Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) was the only Jewish artist in this small circle of Impressionists. Like many assimilated French Jews, Pissarro did not attribute much importance to his Jewish identity; his mother, though, was of a different opinion, and refused to speak to Pissarro’s non-Jewish wife.[1] The Pissarro family was traditional enough that a letter survives from Pissarro’s father asking him to join the family for the meal before the High Holiday of Yom Kippur, and when his father died, Pissarro expressed himself in traditional Jewish mourning liturgy.[2]

It wasn’t just Pissarro’s parents who tried to remind him of his Jewish identity. In an 1882 letter, Pissarro observed that despite the lack of any Biblical themes in his work, critics insisted on comparing him with the deeply Catholic Jean-François Millet, whose work was influenced by the Old Testament: “For the Hebrew that I am, there is very little of that in me; isn’t that funny?”[3]

Long before the Dreyfus Affair – in which a Jewish army captain was framed for treason – fractured French society to the point where even artists and writers were divided amongst themselves, Pissarro’s colleagues and friends exhibited  tinges of anti-Semitism. In 1882, Pierre-Auguste Renoir refused to be part of an exhibition because he didn’t care for the socialist politics of his fellow-exhibitors. He wrote to the organizer saying that he did not want to be a “revolutionary. To stick by the Israelite Pissarro, that’s Revolution.”[4] 

A decade later, and about three years before the Dreyfus Affair rocked France, there was an Impressionist exhibition in 1892, at which Pissarro was on the receiving end of some anti-Semitic bile from none other than Renoir’s younger brother. Pissarro wrote to Monet of the abuse, mentioning the allegations that he was “a prime schemer without talent, a mercenary Jew, playing underhanded tricks.” Though Pissarro assured Monet that he would ignore the absurd comments, and that his main concern was the discord being sown amongst the Impressionists, he clearly cared enough to mention it. He even went so far as to ask Monet, “Is it because I am an intruder in the group?”[5]

A few years after Pissarro’s letter to Monet, in September of 1896, Pissarro wrote a letter of thanks and encouragement to a young literary critic and anarchist named Bernard Lazare, also an assimilated Jew, who had just written a pamphlet on anti-Semitism.[6] Lazare was one of the first to recognize not only the widespread anti-Semitism in French culture, but also that Dreyfus was innocent. By November of 1897, two months before Émile Zola published  J’Accuse, Pissarro was already convinced of Dreyfus’s innocence.[7] 

In January of 1898, Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, who had sold military secrets to the Germans and framed Dreyfus for treason, was found innocent in a closed military court. It was in response to this miscarriage of justice, that Émile Zola dropped the bombshell known simply as “J’Accuse,” published in Georges Clemenceau’s L’Aurore on the 13th of that month. In his full page open letter to the French government, Zola accused the army of framing Dreyfus and of a massive coverup. Zola called for the case to be reopened. Though he was found guilty of criminal libel and forced to flee France to avoid jail time, Zola’s article galvanized the pro-Dreyfus camp (known as the Dreyfusards), mobilizing them as a political force to be reckoned with. Monet, who had been acquainted with Zola for nearly thirty years, immediately signed the “Manifesto of the Intellectuals” petition in support of Dreyfus. Days after Zola’s letter appeared in L’Aurore, Pissarro asked that his name be added to the petition, as well. Two months later, Pissarro agreed to be part of a committee to award Zola with a medal. When Renoir was asked to sign a pro-Dreyfus petition, he promptly refused, and disparaged Zola.

In January of 1898, the same month in which Pissarro requested to join the petition, he had his last encounter with Degas, who had remained cordial, if not distant from Pissarro for much of that decade. By the time Degas stopped speaking to Pissarro, Degas had become wildly anti-Semitic, and that January, famously threw a model out of his studio for expressing doubts as to Dreyfus’s guilt. That year, Degas and Renoir began to refuse to greet Pissarro on the street.[8]

The relationship between the artists never improved. When Pissarro died in 1903 at the age of 73, Degas did not attend the funeral, telling Pissarro’s son that it was due to illness. Privately, he wrote something entirely different to his fellow anti-Dreyfusard friend, the painter Henri Rouart:

So he has died, the poor old wandering Jew. He will walk no more, and if one had been warned, one would certainly have walked a little behind him. What has he been thinking, since the nasty affair, what did he think of the embarrassment one felt, in spite of oneself, in his company? Did he ever say a word to you? What went on inside that old Israelite head of his? Did he think only of going back to the old times when we were pretty nearly unaware of his terrible race?[9]

Here, Degas pinpoints the Dreyfus Affair as the turning point for Pissarro’s colleagues becoming more conscious of Pissarro’s Jewish identity, and in turn the rupture the Affair caused amongst the group. Overall, this was emblematic of most of French society, which was split between Dreyfusards and Anti-Dreyfusards. Sadly, Pissarro died three years before Dreyfus was reinstated to the army in 1906, under George Picquart, the Minister of War. Picquart was notably the anti-Semitic colonel who, nevertheless, bravely uncovered the scandal against Dreyfus and went to prison for following the evidence. Picquart had been appointed by the new prime minister, the publisher of Zola’s “J’Accuse”: Georges Clemenceau. In a sense, Pissarro had just missed his Dreyfusard colleagues’ victory in the battle for justice.

[1] Stephanie Rachum, Camille Pissarro’s Jewish Identity, p.11

[2] Ibid, p. 10

[3] Ibid, p. 12

[4] Nord, Philip. “The New Painting and the Dreyfus Affair.” Historical Reflections / Réflexions Historiques, vol. 24, no. 1, 1998, pp. 115–136. JSTOR, Accessed 21 Jan. 2020, p.126

[5] Rachum, p. 12

[6] Ibid, p. 18

[7] Rachum, p.21

[8 ] Rachum, p.24

[9] Ibid, p.24

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View of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives in 1841. Courtesy of Dahesh Museum of Art.
December 25, 2019

“The Twain Shall Meet” – The New York Jewish Week

“The artistic pursuits of Mark Twain, the great American writer and humorist, and Emma Lazarus, the first important Jewish American poet, are celebrated, respectively, at the New-York Historical Society (NYHS) and the American Jewish Historical Society (AJHS). Both exhibitions creatively bring archival materials to the public.

While I haven’t been able to verify whether Lazarus and Twain actually met in person, it’s clear they moved in similar 19th-century New York social circles, and they shared an interest in Palestine.” – Sandee Brawarsky, The New York Jewish Times

Click here to read the full article.

View the Twain exhibition here.

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General Lew Wallace. Photo taken by Matthew Brady between 1861 and 1865. Library of Congress.
December 5, 2019

The Author of Ben-Hur, the Book that Healed a Nation

General Lew Wallace had a long and storied career, though few people outside the circle of Civil War scholars might have heard his name in our era. He is perhaps best known as the author of Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ; a novel, though seldom read in our time, was the most popular book of the nineteenth century, second only to the Bible. Today, at best, it evokes a vague sense of a 1950s film adaptation and a remake in 2016. 

Born in 1827 to the future Governor of Indiana (his mother would die when he was seven), Wallace led a life that saw him cross paths with Abraham Lincoln, William McKinley, James Garfield, William T. Sherman, Ulysses S. Grant, Benjamin Harrison, Rutherford B. Hayes, Theodore Roosevelt, Billy the Kid, and numerous other luminaries of the nineteenth century. He was at various times a copyist, a lawyer, a senator, a soldier, an artist, a musician, a luthier, an ambassador, and, most famously, a general, and an author. 

Ben-Hur, Wallace’s second book, was the most widely read novel of the nineteenth-century, dethroning Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It has been argued that it acted as a national salve after the Civil War. Whereas Uncle Tom’s Cabin divided the nation, Ben-Hur united it.[1] Ben-Hur helped form a cultural bond in the Reconstruction era between the North and the South, between the modernization of America and its traditional values, and between the ever-widening gap between the sacred and secular in America. Wallace himself, in his journey from disgraced Civil War general to popular novelist, embodied his book’s message of redemption, as well as the American dream of rags to riches.

Grant, who was Wallace’s commanding officer during the Civil War and was responsible for scapegoating Wallace for the heavy casualties at the Battle of Shiloh, devoured the novel in a thirty-hour sitting. Jefferson Davis, the former Confederate president, had his daughter Varina read the Tale of the Christ to him from 10pm until daybreak, both of them so enraptured by the story as to be oblivious to the passage of time.[2]

Like Grant and Davis, President Garfield could not get enough of Wallace’s writing, and woke up at 5:30 one morning to finish it in bed. That same afternoon, Garfield, a former professor of literature and fellow Civil War veteran, wrote a letter to Wallace expressing his appreciation for Ben-Hur, and soon after asked Wallace to be ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. Garfield’s  motivation was literary, rather than political: he wanted Wallace to be able to research a sequel in the Levant when his duties as ambassador weren’t pressing. Wallace served in this capacity from 1881-1885. Garfield’s sequel came in the form of Wallace’s The Prince of India, published in 1893, but sadly, twelve years after Garfield’s assassination.[3]

During his time as Minister to the Ottoman Empire, Wallace did take the opportunity to travel extensively in the Levant and the Holy Land. He was quite pleased with his initial geographic and topographic research on the Holy Land, which he had undertaken in various American libraries; so much so, that he wrote that he didn’t feel he had to change any details in Ben-Hur.[4] During his appointment, Wallace also worked to help Jewish refugees who were fleeing pogroms in Russia and Romania resettle in Syria, which he achieved due to his friendship with Sultan Abdul Hamid II. Grant, who had traveled to Constantinople in 1878, was also struck by the number of refugees, many of them Jews fleeing Bulgaria. Wallace was in turn, a celebrated figure in nineteenth-century Jerusalem, whose Jewish inhabitants compared him to David, and called him “the Nobleman and Prince,” in this “Song of Praise” written to welcome Wallace to the city.

Though Wallace enjoyed much success as a writer, he was still haunted by his unfair legacy at Shiloh until he died in 1905. Wallace’s Ben-Hur continues to have a lasting impact on American culture, in the form of inspiring biblical epics that are perennially produced in Hollywood. The phenomenon of Biblical Blockbusters, ranging from The Prince of Egypt to Noah, to The Passion of the Christ is a quintessentially American phenomenon, and has its roots in Wallace’s Ben-Hur.[5]

[1] MILLER, HOWARD. “The Charioteer and the Christ: Ben-Hur in America from the Gilded Age to the Culture Wars.” Indiana Magazine of History, vol. 104, no. 2, 2008, pp. 153–175. JSTOR, p. 155, Miller also discusses how Ben-Hur

[2] The Passion of Lew Wallace

[3]  The book has nothing to do with India, but it is based on the old anti-Semitic  trope of the Wandering Jew. An odd choice for a man who helped Jewish immigrants.


[5]  Miller, p. 175

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George J. Adams, member of the Latter Day Saint movement's Council of Fifty and founder of the Church of the Messiah. c. 1841. Library of Congress.
November 12, 2019

Mark Twain and the Adams Colony

American colonists followed preacher George J. Adams from New England to Ottoman-ruled Palestine on a messianic mission to prepare the Holy Land for the return of the Jews. “We are going to become practical benefactors of the land and the people,” Adams stated, “to take the lead in developing its great resources.” A year after arriving, some of these impoverished colonists wanted a ticket home. It was at that moment that author Mark Twain came to town while on a five-month pleasure trip through Europe and the Middle East. Read more

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Mark Twain Signed Photo by Abdullah Frères in Constantinople, c. 1867. Shapell Manuscript Collection.
September 15, 2019

Forbes: Mark Twain’s ‘The Innocents Abroad’ Celebrated In New York

“A new exhibition that will celebrate the 150th anniversary of ‘one of the best-selling travelogues of all time’ is set to open at the New-York Historical Society in New York.

“Mark Twain and the Holy Land will highlight American humorist Mark Twain’s 1867 voyage to Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Holy Land, and his subsequent book—The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrims’ Progress.  The show will introduce visitors to a young Twain on the eve of his celebrity and to Palestine in the 19th century, according to the New-York Historical Society, which organized it in partnership with the Shapell Manuscript Foundation.

“Original documents, including manuscripts, journal entries and letters by Twain, will be on view from October 25, 2019 through February 2, 2020.”

Read the full article by Tanya Mohn in Forbes here.

Shapell Manuscript Collection documents, items, and objects from the exhibition will be displayed online with the opening of the exhibition in New York, so check back soon. In the meantime, the Mark Twain Collection can be viewed here.

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Netanyahu holding a cabinet meeting commemorating Ben-Gurion's passing Image: Koby Gideon, Government Press Office.
July 15, 2019

Netanyahu: The Longest-Serving Israeli Prime Minister

Benjamin Netanyahu made history in the past when he became the youngest Israeli prime minister, and the first to be born in the independent State of Israel. This week, on July 20, 2019, Benjamin Netanyahu will make history yet again by becoming Israel’s longest serving Prime Minister. Until the 19th of July, Israel’s first prime minister and founding father, David Ben-Gurion, will have held the record, serving a cumulative total of thirteen years and twenty-seven days. Like Ben-Gurion, Netanyahu was also elected to four terms, three of them consecutive.

In this summer of 1963 letter, written after resigning as prime minister for the second time, Ben-Gurion –  gifting himself an additional two years on top of his thirteen served – shares his insights about the appropriate length for a prime minister to remain in power. 

Enjoyed Learning About The Longest Serving PM of Israel?

Enjoyed learning about the longest-serving Prime Minister of Israel? Then discover other great blogs from Shapell, including David Rice Atchison President For A Day, The Most Athletic Presidents, The First Vaccine, and more!

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Image: Theodor Herzl on the ship-deck as it arrives at the shores of Jaffa at dawn. October 26, 1898. The Herzl Museum, Wikimedia Commons.
April 8, 2019

National Library of Israel Features Theodor Herzl Postcards

In October 1898, Theodor Herzl arrived in Jerusalem, to work toward furthering his initiatives to create a Jewish state. While in Palestine, he met with the German Emperor, Wilhelm II, twice; once near Holon, and a second time in Jerusalem. During his journey, he regularly sent letters and postcards home. The National Library of Israel houses this collection, and highlighted here are the postcards Herzl sent to his daughter, Paulina.

You can view more of Herzl’s postcards and photographs here, and read his letters about creating a Jewish state in our Theodor Herzl Collection.


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Northridge earthquake. United States Geological Survey.
January 17, 2019

25 Years Since the Northridge, California, Earthquake

Natural disasters do not discriminate. These letters about the impact of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake are recalled today on the 25th anniversary of the more recent Northridge earthquake, and following this exceptionally difficult year for Californians.

“We have the dreadful news that an earthquake has almost destroyed San Francisco.  The wires are down, and it is difficult to get accurate information…. It is impossible, however, to hear anything, and we are in the dark.” – William Howard Taft, Secretary of War. April 18, 1906.

Secretary of War William H. Taft Reports That San Francisco is Almost Destroyed in the Earthquake

Mark Twain on the San Francisco Earthquake and a Picture He Cannot Get Out of His Mind

Jack London, Hit Hard By the San Francisco Earthquake

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Image: Alfred Dreyfus. Circa 1894. Aaron Gerschel, Wikimedia Commons.
January 14, 2019

Inspirational Letter from the Wrongly Imprisoned Alfred Dreyfus

This shockingly inspirational letter from Alfred Dreyfus was written shortly after he was wrongly convicted of treason and degradated in a public military ceremony. Writing to his sister and brother-in-law, he tells them of his suffering; not of the conditions he is subjected to, but the suffering and pain in being so powerless to prove his innocence. Despite this weighing heavily on him, he tells them his “pure and clean conscience will give [him] superhuman strength,” and he will clean his name “from the stain that has been inflicted upon it unjustly.” He exhorts them to “not bow your head, but to keep it higher than ever” as he will also do.

Not losing faith, he is sure that “with all of our combined efforts, our wills focused into a single one, we will succeed” in revealing the truth and clearing his name. Read the full transcript of this stirring letter and view the original papers here.

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President Ulysses S. Grant. U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing, Wikimedia Commons.
August 14, 2018

The 150th Anniversary of Ulysses Grant’s 1868 Election Year

It’s hard to keep up these days with who is shouting what. Not gone entirely unnoticed, however, is the disquieting rise of an old contagion thought, in the United States at least, long extinct. Whether chanted in torch-lit marches, argued on college campuses, or broadcast by fringe candidates in local political races, antisemitism is back in the news.  That “It Could Happen Here”, and did, is the subject of this letter about the worst blemish in the life of the Union’s greatest commander. When, in an 1862 order, General Ulysses S. Grant ordered that all Jews living in Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi ,and parts of Southern Illinois, vacate, within 24-hours, their homes and businesses and leave, forever,  the area of his command, he promulgated the most sweeping, and shocking, anti-Jewish regulation in American history. Here, writing six years later – and eagerly pursuing the presidency – Grant sought to explain his notorious “Jew Order” to the man, in fact, who inspired it: his father.

Running for President, Ulysses S. Grant Tries to Lose the Antisemite Label Engendered to Him During the Civil War By His Infamous “Jew Order”

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April 30, 2017

Mary Benjamin – Famous Autograph Authority

Mary Benjamin is known as perhaps the most famous manuscript dealer of the twentieth century. That she’s the only woman on (and at the top of) the list of foremost autograph dealers is dwarfed by her widely respected authority. For decades, Benjamin practically singularly set the market value of autographs of presidents, poets, and prominent figures. Famously, she once snorted with disdain when a supposed autograph of George Washington was announced at an auction. With her photographic memory, she could tell instantly if a signature was real or forged. The auctioneer wasted no time and immediately withdrew the item from the sale. Mary Benjamin, who died in 1998, is certainly a personality worth reading more about for those interested in collecting. For her detailed obituary in the New York Times, click here.

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January 16, 2017

Lincoln and the Jews – Book and Exhibition Reviews

Lincoln and the Jews: A History illustrates how President Abraham Lincoln – perhaps best known for his efforts in abolishing slavery – intended to secure equality and freedom for all Americans, including another growing minority group in Civil War-era America: the Jews. Read the reviews and discover the story at our online exhibition or purchase a copy of the book.


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March 26, 2014

Anne Frank Family Photos at the Anne Frank Fonds

This month marked the anniversary of the death of Anne Frank.  She would have been 84 years old had she lived to today.  Looking for a way to mark this tragic event, I came upon a site where photographs of the Frank family are displayed.  These images of intimate family life brought home for me the terrible tragedy Otto Frank faced, and very much how the mind cannot fathom the atrocities and tragedies that consumed Europe and European Jewry during WWII and the Holocaust. (more…)

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February 25, 2014

Beautiful Historic Photographs from 1862-1924

Be prepared to take some time to stroll through these nostalgia-inducing photos. is a vintage photography blog that digitally enhances photographs acquired from a variety of sources, including the Library of Congress and National Archives.  The clarity of the images is particularly impressive. Most of the photographs on the website date to the early twentieth century.  I highly recommend visiting their site to enjoy the photographs in their full-size glory. (more…)

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