CHARLOTTE, North Carolina, September 21, 2016 – On September 20, 1881, one day after President James A. Garfield finally succumbed to a gunshot wound, Chester A. Arthur was sworn in as the 21st president of the United States. Today’s trivia entry is a tribute to this little known president who still claims title as having the best facial hair of any man who ever occupied the White House.
1 – Financing the White House furnishings: There is no telling what clever means a president might use today to pay for refurnishing the White House. But in 1881, President Arthur used good old American ingenuity to gather new decorative elements for the Executive Mansion.
President Arthur was known to be a man with a taste for the finer things in life, so he hired Louis Comfort Tiffany as his decorator. With Tiffany at the helm, Arthur was determined to live his brief presidential life in the style to which he was accustomed.
The Clintons used coffee klatches and overnight stays in the Lincoln bedroom as fund raisers, but Arthur went one better by holding a White House yard sale.
Actually, they called it a “public auction.” But when did politicians ever let mere words interfere with a good idea? Among the items up for sale was furniture dating as far back as the John Adams presidency and a pair of pants worn by Abraham Lincoln.
2 – A matter of principal: Before becoming the nation’s Chief Executive, President Arthur was Principal of North Pownal Academy in Vermont for a brief period of time. The truth is that North Pownal Academy was a rather small institution, holding classes in the basement of Arthur’s father’s church.
Oddly enough, despite its size, the school did attract the interest of another future president. Believe it or not, the man Arthur succeeded as president, James A. Garfield, taught penmanship at North Pownal Academy.
Of course, nobody even attempts to teach penmanship these days. But transposed into modern times, this gig would most certainly have been portrayed in the modern media as a 19th century LOL moment.
3 – The absentee first lady: Ellen Arthur, President Arthur’s wife, never lived to see her husband become president. In fact, she died of pneumonia before he became vice president in 1880.
It seems the Ferryman of Styx was rather busy with the Arthur family. Ellen’s father passed away in the same year the couple became engaged. The Arthur’s also had a son who died as a toddler.
In Ellen’s absence, Arthur’s sister, Mary Arthur McElroy, took over duties as White House hostess during her brother’s presidency. Despite those family details, Ellen Arthur was posthumously awarded the title of first lady though she never actually served a day in that post.
To honor his wife, President Arthur had fresh flowers placed in front of Ellen’s White House portrait every day he was in residence there.
4 – Move over Rosa Parks: No matter how good or famous a story may be, it seems there is always another one waiting in the wings that is even better. Everyone knows the story of Rosa Parks, the black woman who refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery, Alabama bus in 1955.
That courageous act of defiance became the symbol of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, and Parks became known as “the mother of the freedom movement.”
But have you ever heard of Elizabeth Jennings Graham who hastily hailed a streetcar in New York when she was running late for church one Sunday morning? Without realizing it, Graham attempted to board a trolley designated for whites only.
Graham and her female companion were allowed to get on the streetcar, but the conductor quickly told them to get off when he realized they were black.
But when the conductor ordered the two women to leave, they refused. At this point, the conductor attempted to forcibly remove Graham but she clung to the window frame, holding on with all her might. Eventually a New York policeman entered the trolley and physically threw Graham out on the street.
Not content to let this incident pass, Graham spread the word of her outrageous treatment to anyone who would listen, even hiring a lawyer to represent her. The man Graham hired was a young, up-and-coming attorney named Chester A. Arthur. Not only did Arthur win the case for his client. This incident marked the beginning of desegregation on New York City streetcars.
So from “teacher’s pet” to “streetcars with desire” to a “breakfasts at Tiffany’s” White House, Chester A. Arthur was, in his own way, “a man for all seasons.”
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Bob Taylor has been traveling the world for more than 30 years as a writer and award winning television producer focusing on international events, people and cultures around the globe.
Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
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Ole Peter Hansen Balling’s 1881 portrait of Chester A. ArthurClick here for reuse options!
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