The Men Behind the American Banana War that Spoiled Honduras

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By Ken Zurski

zzz13In Douglas Preston’s new book The Lost City of the Monkey God, the true tale of a modern day exploration to find an ancient city deep in the Honduran rainforest, the author presents a compelling history of the troubled Central American republic right down to its most exotic, and at one time, most corrupt export.


Of course, narcotics and drug smuggling would soon take over as Honduras’ most nefarious trade and it’s why today many foreigners are warned not to travel there. Preston and his team took the risk anyway. There was a mysterious and lost city to find and poisonous snakes, diseased mosquitoes and dangerous drug cartels were all part of the adventure.

Preston’s fast paced and informative book is the reward. It’s a fun read. But as the author points out, there was a precursor to the problems in Honduras which began in the late 19th century and was just as heated, and in retrospect, just as cutthroat as the drug trade today, although not as criminally explosive.

And it starts with two American fruit sellers.

Andrew Preston

In 1885, a man named Andrew Preston (a distant cousin of the author), was a Boston entrepreneur who co-founded the Boston Fruit Company. His plan was simple: revolutionize the banana market by using fast steamships to move the perishable fruit quickly back to the U.S. before they spoiled. Until then bananas were rarely transported to the Eastern seaboard because sailing ships could not move them fast enough. Preston’s speedy steamers did the trick. Bananas soon became one of the most popular delicacies in America.

Preston bought 40 acres of plantation land in Honduras, and the Boston Fruit company became the larger United Fruit Company. “United Fruit and the other fruit companies that soon followed became infamous for their political and tax machinations, engineered crops, bribery and exploitation of workers,” the author Preston writes in his book.

But that’s not all. Another American named Samuel Zemurray would enter the fray. Zemurray was a Russian immigrant who worked as pushcart peddler in Alabama. As a teenager, Zemurray traveled to Boston and watched as Preston’s banana ships arrived. He noticed crews throwing out large batches of bananas that were beginning to ripen. So Zemurray gathered them up at no cost of his own, threw them on a railroad car, and announced to grocers along the line that he had bananas to sell far less than the shipper’s price. He quickly bankrolled over 100,000 dollars, bought five thousand acres of banana groves in Honduras and opened up his own fruit shipping business named the Cuyamel Fruit Company. For a time, everything was going swimmingly for Zemurray in Honduras. Then politics got in the way.

Honduras and its people were struggling economically and the government sought financial help. The British banks loaned the republic millions of dollars that they soon found out could not be paid back. The Brits threatened military action to collect it, but the President of the Untied States at the time, William Howard Taft, would hear none of it. He ordered his Secretary of State, Philander Knox, to recruit financier J.P Morgan and buy up the loan at fifteen cents on the dollar. Morgan struck a deal with the Honduran government to occupy its customs offices and collect all the tax receipts to pay off the debt.

Zemurray was hit hard. The crafty exporter known to locals as “Sam the Banana Man” had worked out a favorable tax-free deal with Honduran officials and Morgan’s “penny a pound” tax would surely put him out of business. But Zemurray would not go without a fight. He went directly to D.C. and straight to Knox’s office to protest. Knox nearly kicked him out the door. Pay up and do what’s right for your country, Knox implied. When an angry Zemurray left, Knox put a secret security tail on him  just in case he tried to do something  foolish.

Zemurray was done dealing with his own government. Instead, he went to the deposed former president of Honduras, Manuel Bonilla, who was flat broke and living in New Orleans. Apparently dodging Knox’s security detail, Zemauury met Bonilla and convinced him to lead a path back to power, led by support from Hondurans who thought Morgan’s tax plan would threaten their sovereignty. It worked. Under pressure from the Honduran people, the current president resigned and Bonilla was reelected president. He immediately awarded Zemurray with a plum 25-year tax free concession, a $500,000 loan and nearly 25,000 prime acres of coastline land. The American got his tax break back and all the credit for the coup. As Preston writes: ” He had outmaneuvered Knox, successfully defied the US government, poked J.P Morgan in the eye, and ended up a much wealthier man.”

According to Preston, this would be that start of a long and contentious relationship involving banana companies in America and the government of Honduras. Soon the country  would earn the nickname “Banana Republic, a term first introduced by writer, O’ Henry in 1904, in his fictional novel Cabbages and Kings, describing an imaginary country, Anchuria, as a “small, maritime banana republic,” meaning a country reliant on one crop, usually in a dominate or corrupt way. Today, the term is cavalierly used and represents countries with more politically shrewd intentions than just selling fruit, but the point is made.

In the book, before author Preston and his team sets out to find the “Lost City of the Monkey God,” (hence the title), he wraps up Andrew Preston and Samuel Zemurray’s story.

“Sam the Banana Man”

Faced with a price war on bananas, Andrew Preston’s United Fruit, eventually bought out Zemurray’s Cuyamel Fruit Company paying him $31 million in U.S. dollars. Trouble followed. Preston died in 1924 and the Great Depression hit. The stock declined and the company went into disarray. Zemuarry saw a chance to get back in. He convinced enough United shareholders to vote by proxy and put him in charge. He fired all of Preston’s board members, gained control of the struggling company and brought it back to respectability. Later, he gave up the business, and using his own fortune funded numerous humanitarian causes in Honduras – all for the better.

But as Preston points out, as colorful as the history of Zemurray and others in this saga was, and long before the drug runners came nearly century later, “the fruit companies left a dark colonist legacy that has hung like a miasma over Honduras ever since.”

And its due in part to America’s insatiable appetite for bananas and the men who sold them.


Before There Was The Famous Movie Version Of ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ There Was A Movie Version Of ‘The Wizard of Oz’

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By Ken Zurski

In 1924, when Judy Garland was only three years old, a movie version of “The Wizard of Oz” was released that was loosely based on a stage play of the same name which in itself was loosely based on L. Frank Baum’s famous book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

There was no singing of “Somewhere over the Rainbow” in this version. In fact, there was no singing at all. “Talkies” as they were known in the movie business, hadn’t been perfected yet. This was a silent movie and compared to the musical film that was released fifteen years later in 1939, this version, as were other early adaptations of Baum’s book, remains somewhat of an enigma.

Here’s why. Baum’s book came out in 1900 and became an instant best seller. Two years later, under Baum’s direction a play based on the book was set to music and opened in Chicago. The title was shortened and the story was altered slightly. The main difference between the book and the stage adaptation, however, was an obvious one. Baum wrote the book specifically for children, while the play was geared for adults. Due to the popularity of the stage version, a 13-minute live action short was released that mostly confused viewers familiar with the book. The first full-length movie version then in 1924 was also based on the play and differed quite a bit from Baum’s original story

In the film, Dorothy and three farmhands arrive in Oz after a tornado sweeps them away. The Wizard proclaims Dorothy is the long lost Princess of Oz, but the Prime Minister, named Kruel, wants nothing to do with her. The prince, however, named Kynd, welcomes the princess’s return and accuses the farmhands of kidnapping her.


To thwart the Prince’s soldiers, the farmhands, who are madly in love with Dorothy, dress up in disguise: one as a scarecrow and one in sheets of tin. The two men are eventually caught but the third farmhand dons a lion’s costume, scares the guards, and helps the others escape. The Tin Man eventually sides with Kruel and the whole tangled mess leads to a showdown in a tower between the Scarecrow and the Tin Man, both of whom lose Dorothy’s affections to the handsome prince. The movie ends as the 1939 version does, when Dorothy wakes up from a dream.

“‘The Wizard of Oz’ goes way beyond even our wildest expectations,” proclaimed  I.E. Chadwick, president of Chadwick pictures, upon its release. “A thing of great beauty and fantasy. Marvelously entertaining. A knockout!” The movie was one of a series of films that Chadwick’s studio produced. “Each production an achievement,” Chadwick proudly announced.

Larry Semon

The movie’s top billing went to a popular comedian named Larry Semon, who played the scarecrow and directed the film, while his real life wife, Dorothy Dwan, played Dorothy. The movie was advertised as a comedy and it did well at first.  ‘It’s a Whiz!” was one excited description. But it didn’t last. By the time the Garland version appeared, the silent film had long since been forgotten.

Yet, the movie may best be remembered for the introduction of the larger-than-life figure who played The Tin Man. “Large” in this instance, referring to his outwardly size. The relative newcomer’s portliness would eventually become his trademark, but for this role, it was more a liability. Even a fellow actor questioned why a man of his girth would – or even could – wear a suit made of tin. “What are you going to do about the costume?” he asked.

Oliver Hardy as it turned out would go on to have greater success as the bigger half, literally, of the comedic duo, Laurel and Hardy.


But the most glaring mistake of the early film may be the absence of many of Baum’s most enduring characters, including two that featured prominently in Garland’s version: the Wicked Witch and Dorothy’s little dog, Toto.

In fact, in the stage version, Toto was replaced by a cow named Imogene.


When Soap Was Taxed, Bathing Was Optional, and Dying Was Too Expensive

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By Ken Zurski

Beginning in 1712 and continuing for nearly 150 years, the British monarchy used soap to raise revenue, specifically by taxing the luxury item. See, at the time, using soap to clean up was considered a vain gesture and available only to the very wealthy. The tax, of course, was on the production of soap and not the participation. But because of the high levy’s imposed, most of the soap makers left the country hoping to find more acceptance and less taxes in the new American colonies.

Cleanliness was not the issue, although it never really was. Soap itself had been around for ages and used for a variety of reasons not necessarily associated with good hygiene. The Gauls, for example, dating back to the 5th Century B.C., made a variation of soap from goat’s tallow and beech ashes. They used it to shiny up their hair, like a pomade.

Even before soap was introduced, rather ingenious ways of cleaning oneself emerged. The Hittites in the 16th century washed their hands with plant ashes dissolved in water. And the Greeks and Romans, who never used soap, would soak in hot baths then beat their bodies with twigs or use an instrument called a strigil, basically a scrapper with a blade, that would scrape away sweat and dirt of the body, similar to what a razor does with hair stubble.

So when actual soap was introduced in the late Middle Ages it had always been considered exclusively for the privileged. Therefore, later when it was mass produced, the British imposed hefty taxes on it as did many other luxury items, like wallpaper, windows and playing cards.

Thank goodness in centuries to follow some common sense emerged.

Or did it.

William Thomas Sedgwick

In 1902, psychologist and chemist, William Thomas Sedgwick released a book titled Principles of Sanitary Science and Public Heath which was a compilation of lectures he gave as a professor of biological sciences at MIT.

In it, Sedgwick extolled the virtues of good personal hygiene to keep infectious diseases away. “The absence of dirt,” he urged with conviction, “is not merely an aesthetic adornment.”

Basically, he was telling everyone to take a bath.

It wasn’t that most people didn’t understand the merits of taking a bath, but it was a chore. Water had to be warmed and transported and would chill quickly. Oftentimes families would use the same water in a pecking order that surely forced the last in line to take a much quicker one than the first. When the baths were over the water had to be lugged outside and dumped.

In the later half of the 19th century, as running water became more widespread, bathtubs became less mobile. Most were still bulky, steel cased and rimmed in cherry or oak. Fancy bronzed iron legs held the tub above the floor.


Ads from the time encouraged consumers to think of the tub as something other than just a cleaning vessel. “Why shouldn’t the bathtub be part of the architecture of the house?” the ads asked.  After all, if there is going to be such a large object in the home, it might as well be aesthetically pleasing.

Getting people to actually use it, however, that was another matter.

Sedgwick had medical reasons to back up his claims. As an epidemiologist, he studied diseases caused by poor drinking water and inferior sanitation practices. Good scientific research,  he implied, should be all the proof needed. But attitudes and decades old habits needed to be amended too. “It follows as a matter of principle,” Sedgwick wrote, “that personal cleanliness is more important than public cleanliness.” He had a point. Largely populated cities were dirty messes, full of billowing black smoke from factories, coal dust, and discarded garbage and waste. Affixing blame for such conditions was more popular than actually doing something about it. Sedgwick focused on self-awareness to make his point.  “A clean body is more important than a clean street,” he stressed.”Sanitation alone cannot hope to effect these changes. They must come from scientific hygiene carefully applied throughout long generations.”

People, it seemed, had to literally be frightened into washing up.

Something Sedgwick understood, but fought to change.

“Cleanness,” he wrote in his book, ”was an acquired taste.”

By this time, soap was being widely used, relatively inexpensive, and no longer taxed in Great Britain. William Ewart Gladstone, the Prime Minister at the time, finally put an end to the soap tax in 1853, nearly a century and a half after it was imposed. In doing so, however, he faced a substantial revenue loss. So to make up for this financial scourge he introduced death duties, basically a tax on the widow of a dead spouse. “This woman by the death of her husband became absolutely penniless,” announced the Common Cause, citing a recurring example.

With that, Gladstone might have argued that using soap might actually help your cause.


(Sources: How Did It Begin? The Origins of Our Curious Customs and Superstitions by Dr. R. & L. Brasch; various internet sites)

The Overtly Sensual Life of ‘The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up’

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By Ken Zurski


In 1906, at the age of 21, Pauline Chase was asked to portray Peter Pan on stage, a play about “the boy who wouldn’t grow up,” and a title role that had been played by only two people before her – both female. Chase continued that trend and in the process became the face of the role too.  Even today based on the number of performances – nearly an estimated 1400 – Chase is arguably the most popular actress ever to play the boy Peter.

And you probably have never heard of her.

But in the early 20th century thanks to her continuing success in the play, Chase became an instant celebrity. Not for the innocence of the character she portrayed, in fact, quite the opposite. Chase was a bit of a jezebel in real life. “She certainly knew what she wanted from a man, and it wasn’t a good heart or worthy talent,” wrote author Gavin Mortimer in his book Chasing Icarus about the early aviators (more on that in moment).

And men, well, they couldn’t resist her desirability either. Their pursuance, however, came with stipulations. “I’ve no time to waste on duffers with no position or money,” Chase once told a reporter, firmly setting down the ground rules. Even her performances were sarcastically criticized by one glaring – more like obvious – diversion. Her strikingly good looks. “Distractingly pretty.” is how the Chicago Tribune put it.

Charles Frohman

Enter Charles Frohman. The world renowned theater producer recognized Chase’s talents early on when she was just a teenager. He promoted his new find and kept a close watch on her like a daughter. It was Frohman who suggested to James M. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan, or The Boy who wouldn’t Grow Up, that Chase take over the title role after another actress Cecelia Loftus got sick. Barrie already knew Chase, who was one of the Lost Boys in the London production. But playing the high-flying main character was a different matter.

“Barrie and I are coming down to see you act,” Frohman wrote Chase before the show,”and if we like you well enough, I will send you back a sheet with a cross mark on it.” After the performance, Chase received a piece of paper. It had a cross mark on it.

Frohman was devoted to Chase, his star in the making, and although rumored, their relationship was never sexual. Soon after his untimely death in 1915 along with more than a thousand other unfortunate souls aboard the ill-fated RMS Lusitania, it was discovered that Frohman had a longtime live-in companion, Charles Dillingham, another theater producer.

Robert Falcon Scott

Robert Falcon Scott, the debonair British naval officer and explorer was another who reportedly had a close friendship with the magnetic Chase. The connection was influenced by Scott’s association with Barrie. “I never could show you how much your friendship meant to me,” Scott wrote to his author friend, “for you had much to give and I nothing.” Perhaps that gift was Chase. Scott reportedly went to see a production of Peter Pan in 1906 the year Chase took over the role. Was it just flirtation or something more? No one knows for sure. Scott’s affections toward Chase apparently ended in 1909 when he married the cosmopolitan and socialite Kathleen Bruce. Barrie reportedly penned a letter to Chase breaking the news. “Capt. Scott wrote to me that he is to be married to Miss Bruce soon. So there!”

In 1912, Scott perished along with his crew in Antarctica.

Claude Grahame-White was another interest of Chase’s. Perhaps the most desired bachelor in all of England at the time, Grahame-White made the ladies swoon over his athletic six-foot frame and naturally good looks. As one of the early aviation pilots, Grahame-White became instantly famous for being handsome, dashing and adventurous. He mixed all of these traits to great advantage.

How Chase and Grahame-White met is unknown, but they were reportedly friendly for many years before becoming lovers. Grahame-White attended multiple performances of Peter Pan and would invite the pretty actress aboard his Farman biplane for joy rides.

Claude Grahame-White

Chase was charmed by her latest admirer. Grahame-White had all the attributes she was looking for: money and status. Their courtship, engagement and eventual marriage in 1910 was the stuff tabloid’s are made of.  But it didn’t last. The next year Chase and Grahame-White drifted apart.  The industrious flyer had spent all his assets on expensive business ventures and earnings from his flying career was waning. Sparked by a sudden fear of dying in a plane crash – something that was happening quite frequently on the show circuit – Grahame-White decided to quit flying altogether and forgo the riches that came with it. Chase was typically frank when she told a reporter, “Mr. Grahame-White could not compensate me from my retirement from the stage.” They separated and divorced.

Chase ended her seven year reign as Peter Pan in 1913 and never appeared on stage again. Her sexual exploits, true or not, continued to make headlines, especially the extensive string of male suitors. In addition to Capt. Scott and Grahame-White, the list also included a nameless American millionaire, an English auto manufacturer, and even James M. Barrie, the author who created the character that changed her life.

Chase eventually married into a wealthy British family, had three children, and died at the age of 76.

“The boy who wouldn’t grow up” was her most famous and final role.

NPG x6002; Pauline Chase as Peter Pan in 'Peter Pan' by Bassano, published by  Davidson Brothers
by Bassano, published by Davidson Brothers, postcard print, circa 1907

(Sources: Chasing Icarus by Gavin Mortimer; various internet sites)

Custer Went Up In A War Balloon And Hated It

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By Ken Zurski

George A. Custer

In 1862, at the age of twenty-two and nearly a decade before he become recognizably famous, the newly appointed Captain George Armstrong Custer went up in a hydrogen-filled balloon over the Virginia Peninsula, not far from Richmond, where the rebel capitol would soon be captured by Union forces. A short and uneventful ride in a balloon is not the stuff of legends and this brief episode in Custer’s life is understandably unremembered. We know it happened only because Custer chose to write about it. And only because he chose to write about it, do we know he didn’t care for the experience as a whole.

So much for balloons in the Federal Army, right?

Not so. Abraham Lincoln certainly recognized the need. By the time Custer went up, tethered balloons were being used – albeit sparingly – for surveillance in the Civil War. A man named Thaddeus Lowe is the reason why. In April of 1861, Lowe flew one of his balloons over Unionville in the newly seceded state of South Carolina. He landed and was subsequently captured as a Union spy. Lowe claimed he was “a man of science” and let go. Despite this rather dubious start, Lincoln invited him to Washington to test the use of a telegraph wire tied to the balloon’s tether. Lowe’s first dispatch was sent directly to a service room in the White House. “This point of observation commands an area nearly fifty feet in diameter,” Lowe messaged. Lincoln immediately directed Lowe to form a Balloon Corps, more formally known as the Military Aeronautics Corps.

Thaddeus Lowe

Lowe was given funds to make more balloons and soon enough there were eight in all with distinctly patriotic names: Union, Intrepid, Constitution, United States, Washington, and the Eagle. The first balloon used for official military purposes, the Union, ascended on September 1861 near Arlington, Virginia. From a vantage point nearly three miles away, Confederate troops were spotted in Falls Church. Instantly, telegraph intelligence improved.

But when the battles slowed, Lowe had little to do and turned to promoting his balloon business instead. He got into the habit of allowing journalists to take rides. Most of them were eager to do so because it made good copy. However, many of the enlisted men and officers, were not so easily influenced. Perhaps this was out of caution- or fear. After all one unfortunate officer named Fitzjohn Porter, a lieutenant-general, almost never made it back alive.

Porter was in a balloon that broke from its tether and flew into rebel territory, near Yorktown. The balloon drifted directly over enemy outworks and sharp shooters aim, but whether Porter was actually fired upon is unknown. Luckily he caught an “air-box,” drifted back into camp and landed onto some Union tents, not far from where he launched.  Porter was fine, but his nerves were shot.

This mishap must have been in Custer’s mind when he agreed to go up in one of Lowe’s balloons. “My desire, if frankly expressed, would not have been to go up at all,”  he wrote, never disclosing why he changed his mind. “If I was to go,” he continued, “company would certainly be desirable.”

Custer’s balloon mate was one of Lowe’s assistants, James Allen. “[Mr. Allen] began jumping up and down testing it’s strength,” Custer related. “My fears were redoubled. I expected to see the bottom of the basket give way, and one or both of us dashed to the earth.”

Custer wasn’t taking any chances. He sat crouched in the basket for most of the trip. “I was urged to stand up,” he wrote, and at some point did. What he witnessed impressed him. “To the right could be seen the York River, following which the eye could rest on Chesapeake Bay. On the left, and about at the same distance, flowed the James River.”

With his field glasses, Custer spotted the enemy camp. “Men in considerable numbers were standing around entrenchments…intently observing [our] balloon, curious, no doubt, to know the character or value of the information it occupants could derive from [our] elevated post of observation.” Still his attitude toward balloons was skeptical at best. “To me it seemed fragile indeed.”

Custer’s balloon ride was in April of 1862. By the end of May, Commanding General George B. McClellan had heard enough.  The balloons were too important a resource to be used for entertainment. He banned all joy rides and required Union officers to have written permission from him personally before going up.

The balloons would be used for surveillance purposes only.

Although he was a bit reckless and already had a reputation for doing things his own way, thanks to one – and only one – balloon ride, Custer gladly accepted the general’s orders.


(Sources: Falling Upwards: How We Took To The Air by Richard Holmes; various internet sites)

For A Long Time U.S. Presidents Had Facial Hair. And Then They Didn’t

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By Ken Zurski

pres1Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, was the first commander-in-chief to have facial hair. Surprised? Actually by being the first to sport a beard, Lincoln started a trend that lasted nearly 50 years. A trend that ended in 1912 with the election of Woodrow Wilson. There hasn’t been a stitch of hair on any U.S president’s face since. That’s 17 president’s in a span of  115 years! And the recent election of the 45th president doesn’t change that fact.

Even vice-president’s are included.

So why?

Many claim the invention of Gillette’s safety razor in the early 1900’s had something to do with the change. Suddenly shaving was easier and facial hair in general went out of style. Plus, the military banned beards too. This was not the case during the Civil War or the Spanish -American War, led in part by a future president, Teddy Roosevelt, who sported a bushy mustache. But this doesn’t explain the recent trend in beards and the on again off again attitudes towards mustaches which reached it’s peak with the popularity of Olympic swimmer Mark Spitz in the 70’s and Tom Selleck in the 80’s. Despite these cultural shifts, the president’s faces have remained unchanged.

Even Lincoln’s beard was an afterthought. Lincoln never had facial hair as an adult and only let his whiskers go after a receiving a letter from an 11-year-old girl named Grace Bedell who suggested the president-elect should grow one. “For your face is so thin,” she wrote. Lincoln reluctantly obliged.

After Lincoln, and in the eleven presidencies that followed, only Andrew Johnson and William McKinley chose to go clean shaven. The rest had either a beard, mustache or both. Chester Arthur was one. The 21st president, had a classic version of sidewhiskers, an extreme variation of the muttonchop, or side hair connected by a mustache.

The last president to have facial hair is William Howard Taft.

r3Woodrow Wilson was next. He shaved everyday and was always impeccably coiffed.

Regardless of why the trend ended with the 28th President, something as trivial as a facial hair has controversy.

Some argue that John Quincy Adams, not Lincoln, should be considered the first president to have hair on his face. If so, that would pull the history of president’s and facial hair back nearly four decades.

But not to be. Adams chops, which extended off his ears and sloped down to his chin was not considered a full beard.

And since he did not have a hair under his nose, the sideburns only look didn’t count.


The Private Swearing-In Ceremony of Rutherford B. Hayes

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By Ken Zurski

On the evening of March 3, 1877, a Saturday, President Ulysses S. Grant, the popular Civil War general turned commander-in-chief, who had served two terms and was only days from leaving office, invited several friends to the White House for a private dinner. On the guest list that night was the man who would succeed Grant as president, Rutherford B. Hayes.

Rutherford B. Hayes

Hayes had just been declared the winner of the contentious 1876 election over Democrat Samuel J.Tilden, a Yale educated lawyer and governor of New York, who some say beat Hayes outright, but lost the bitter debate that followed. On November 9, the day after the general election, tallies showed that Tilden won the popular vote and picked up more electoral votes than Hayes at 184 to 165, with 20 still undecided. In question were the southern states where Republicans accused the Democrats of widespread voter fraud, specifically the suppression of the black vote. No winner was declared and nothing was resolved. By the end of 1876, the Centennial year, a nation was left hanging by an undecided outcome. Grant was convinced that if the blacks in the south had been allowed to vote as law permitted, Hayes would have won easily.

In January 1877, thanks to a measure passed by Congress and approved by Grant, the election was put in the hands of an appointed committee, made up of a combined fifteen lawmakers and Supreme Court justices. Party membership was evenly divided between the ten congressmen. As for the five justices chosen, four were considered partisan – two Republicans and two Democrats – and one independent, presumably the deciding vote. But David Davis, the independent from Illinois, had just been elected to the Senate and would be leaving his associate judgeship post soon. In his stead, another justice Joseph Bradley, who was considered to be most politically neutral of the remaining judges, took his place on the committee.

In a decision known as The Compromise of 1877, Bradley voted in favor of the Republicans and tipped the balance to Hayes awarding him the presidency by one electoral vote. The so called “compromise” was an agreement by Republicans to pull the last federal troops out of southern states and effectively end the Reconstruction era.

So on Saturday, March 3, just days before he was set to relinquish the office, President Grant invited Hayes to the White House along with some other close friends for a welcoming dinner.

It turned out to be significantly more.

Also in attendance that night was Chief Justice Morrison Waite, whom Grant had appointed to the high court in 1874 and was eventually nominated to replace longstanding Chief Justice Salmon Chase, who died the year before. The day of the inauguration was by law scheduled for March 4. That year, the date fell on a Sunday. Hayes refused to be inaugurated on the Sabbath and it was changed to the following day, Monday, March 5, instead.

Samuel  J.Tilden

Grant was worried Tilden, still reeling from the committee’s decision, might stir up an angry base which had hinted at a government coup. Rumors persisted that Tilden, in an unprecedented act of defiance, would take the oath of office in New York on the actual inauguration date, March 4, and in effect protest the legality of Hayes appointment.

So Grant requested Hayes take the oath that night in private. That way if Tilden tried to undermine the process, at least the Republicans could counter that Hayes was already in charge. Hayes agreed and the three men along with a few witnesses quietly exited to the Red Room where Hayes raised his right hand, read the oath, and was sworn in as the 19th President of the United States.

As it turned out, Grant’s fears about Tilden were unwarranted. Two days later, without incident, Hayes repeated the words on the east portico of the Capitol.


The private ceremony was not a secret, although it’s significance was not easily defined. In 1887, Adam Badeau, a close adviser of Grant’s, tried to give it more clarity in his book Grant in PeaceAppomattox to Mount Gregor. It is perhaps the first time the Tilden angle is revealed.  Although he doesn’t state it directly, Badeau was likely in the room that night. “It was a critical moment in the history of the country,” he clearly overstated.

Recent attitudes toward the 1876 elections paint a different picture. The decision to swear in the President-elect a few days early is either downplayed as political ostentation, based on an imminent threat to Hayes’s life, or attributed directly to Grant’s eagerness to leave the presidency.

No doubt, Grant was counting down the days.

Even though the country was still in a free fall from the war and Reconstruction was murky at best, no one was happier to get out of the Oval Office more than the former General, who planned a European tour with his wife Julia after his second term was over, which they satisfied by leaving the United States in May of 1877 and traveling abroad for more than a year. “I was never as happy in my life as the day I left the White House,” Grant wrote a friend. “I felt like a boy getting out of school.”

Hayes kept a promise to serve only one term. In the 1880 presidential election, Republican James Garfield won a close but undisputed contest over Democratic rival Wilfred Scott Hancock.

(Sources: Grant in Peace:  Appomattox to Mount Gregor by Adam Badeau;  Ulysses S. Grant: Soldier & President by Geoffrey Perret; The Man who Saved the Union by H.W. Brands)