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Thursday, February 28, 2019

John Tyler, Julia Gardiner, and the "Awful Explosion" on the Princeton

One of the most complicated legacies in presidential history is that of John Tyler, our tenth president. Elected to the vice presidency in 1840, he became president in April 1841, when President William Henry Harrison died a mere month into his term.

While the 12th Amendment had modified the Constitution so that presidents and vice presidents would run together on one ticket, the document had never fully laid out the duties of the vice president or the rules of succession.

(Amazingly, those rules would not be codified until the 25th Amendment was ratified in 1967.)

So, when Harrison died, Tyler assumed the presidency -- against the wishes of just about everyone in Washington, including his own party, the Whigs, who kicked him out. He was pejoratively known as "His Accidency" instead of "His Excellency" and most politically minded Americans probably thought he'd serve as lame duck throughout his entire term.

Tyler, meanwhile, was dealing with personal tragedy. In September 1842, his wife Letitia died in the White House of a stroke, and his daughter-in-law, actress Priscilla Cooper Tyler, took on the role of White House hostess and de facto First Lady.

Tyler, then age 52, soon began wooing Julia Gardiner -- age 22 -- the daughter of David Gardiner, a wealthy New York attorney and scion of the famous Gardiner family of Long Island.

As we write in Inside the Apple, Julia was
a rebellious and bored young woman. In 1840, she appeared in a handbill advertisement for Bogert & Mecamley, a dry goods store. Julia stands clutching a handbag that is actually a sign:

I’ll purchase at Bogert & Mecamley’s, number 86 Ninth Avenue. Their goods are beautiful and astonishingly cheap. 

Julia’s family was horrified. Not only was she shilling for a middle-class department store while wearing a gaudy frock, she was doing it on the arm of a man who was not a male relative. Of all the social faux pas in Victorian New York, the unchaperoned female was high on the list. 
Julia was immediately sent to Europe to learn her social graces. Soon upon her return, she met President Tyler—who was less than five months a widower—and the two began an oblique romance. Within a few weeks, he had proposed to her. Julia demurred [ed: or, more likely, her parents did], but Tyler was not easily dissuaded. In February 1844, Tyler invited Julia and her father, David, to see the first demonstration of the U.S. Navy’s new twelve-inch gun, the “Peacemaker.”
The "Peacemaker" and the ship that bore it, the Princeton, were the brainchild of John Ericsson, the inventor of the screw propeller who would also go on to also design the ironclad warship. The "Peacemaker" was designed to give the US Navy an edge against older, bigger, and better trained fleets. Tyler invited a host of dignitaries for the Princeton's inaugural run up the Potomac, including David Gardiner and Julia. Perhaps Tyler thought that including the Gardiners in what was supposed to be the biggest triumph of his presidency would bring Julia's father around.

But what started as a joyful and patriotic day ended, in the words of one participant in "scenes of death, and disaster, of lamentation and unutterable woe" when the "Peacemaker"exploded in the breech.

Tyler was on his way topside from having been with Julia below deck when the accident happened. Secretary of State Abel Upshur and Navy Secretary Thomas W. Gilmer were killed instantly, as was David Gardiner. It was, by all accounts, a gruesome scene.

Four months later,
Julia and the President were married at a secret ceremony at the Church of the Ascension, near the Gardiners’ New York City residence on Lafayette Place. Tyler was loath to tell his children about the wedding. His eldest daughter, Mary, was five years older than Julia, who was 24—and the President was himself only nine years older than Julia’s mother. 
However, word soon spread of the nuptials—not least because Julia took Washington by storm, spending her nine months as First Lady in a whirl of social engagements and state functions. She established new, more rigid protocols (including the tradition that “Hail to the Chief” be played every time the President made an appearance) and catapulted herself into a lifetime career as Former First Lady Julia Tyler.
Julia and John Tyler left the White House in 1845, and she bore him numerous children. Amazingly their son Lyon Gardiner Tyler (born 1853) still has two living sons -- which means that President John Tyler, who was born in 1790, George Washington's first full year in office, has grandchildren that are still alive.


and don't forget our first book with the story of John and Julia Tyler

Thursday, February 14, 2019

James K. Polk and Early Presidential Portraits

On February 14, 1849 -- 170 years ago today -- President James K. Polk sat down in the photography studio of Mathew Brady in New York City to have his portrait taken. This photo is the earliest surviving photograph of a president taken while he was in office. Though there's a rumor that a daguerreotype of William Henry Harrison was shot during his one month in office in 1841, that photo has never been found.

Brady's studio at the time was at the corner of Broadway and Fulton streets in the Financial District and is now gone, as is Brady's famous uptown studio, where he took the photo of Abraham Lincoln (below). The only Brady studio building still standing is in Tribeca at 359 Broadway.

While Polk may have been the first president to be photographed while in office, he was not the first to sit for his portrait. That honor goes to John Quincy Adams, a daguerreotype of whom was shot in March 1843. At the time, Adams was serving in Congress; he was actually a representative from Massachusetts for nearly seventeen years after he left the presidency, overlapping briefly with Lincoln during that future president's one term in Congress.

* * *

Read more about Mathew Brady and Abraham Lincoln in New York
Footprints in New York: Tracing the Lives of Four Centuries of New Yorkers


and don't forget our first book

Thursday, February 7, 2019


On February 7, 1964 -- fifty-five years ago today -- four lads from Liverpool landed at JFK airport and took America by storm.

Coming just ten weeks after President Kennedy's assassination (and two months after Idlewild Airport's renaming in honor of the slain president), the Beatles arrival that day served for many as a tonic to the ills of the world.

The group's first British albums, Please Please Me and With the Beatles had been released in rapid succession in 1963, keeping the group at the top of the British charts for a remarkable 51 straight weeks. In America, it had taken a few months for Beatlemania to catch fire, but once it did in early 1964, the group became an unstoppable force. When they landed at JFK on February 7, 1964, "I Want to Hold Your Hand" had just reached the top of the Billboard charts and a crowd of 3,000 screaming fans greeted them. (The fact that 3,000 was considered a crowd seems almost quaint.)

Two days later, on February 9, the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan. Like Elvis's appearance before them, it was a crucial moment in introducing the band to a larger audience and a record 73 million people tuned in to watch them perform "All My Loving," "Till There Was You," "She Loves You," "I Saw Her Standing There," and "I Want to Hold Your Hand."

73 million people equaled about 40% of the TV audience that night. What were the others watching instead? Up against Ed Sullivan that night were The Wonderful World of Disney, The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters (starring a 12-year-old Kurt Russell), Imogene Coca in Grindl, and Arrest and Trial, the forerunner to Law and Order.

Three Beatles -- George Harrison was nursing a sore throat -- commandeer a carriage in Central Park for a publicity shoot

On February 11, the band played its first U.S. concert at the Coliseum in Washington, D.C., then returned to New York for two shows at Carnegie Hall. (The shows ran a mere 35 minutes each!) The group appeared for a second time on Ed Sullivan on February 16, playing live via satellite from a hotel in Miami where they had retreated for a vacation Though they were only in the States for less three weeks, the trip had a lasting impact, unleashing the "British Invasion" and forever changing the face of pop music.


and don't forget our first book

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