Discover more from Understandably by Bill Murphy Jr.
Disappoint our fears! Force the nation to have faith in you! One of my favorite stories, as we launch "low power mode" (aka vacation).
What shall posterity say?
Friends, “low power mode” starts today. By the time you read this, my family and I will be on vacation. Or at least, traveling on the way to vacation. Or maybe more accurately, panicking and last-minute packing so that we can get started on the way to vacation.
It’s all part of the fun, right?
(By the way, I’m leaving a house-sitter, two angry rottweilers, a Ring camera, an alarm, a neighbor who owes me a favor, and half the tricks from “Home Alone” back at my house, so don’t anybody get any ideas.)
It’s the date in 1882 on which U.S. President Chester Arthur, our only president who was also a member of the lonely hearts club (his wife, Nell, died about 18 months before he became president), dropped in completely unannounced on one Julia Sand, 31, of 46 East 74th Street in New York.
Who was she? Why did he show up out of the blue? The story begins a year before, when Arthur was still vice-president, and President James Garfield was struck by an assassin’s bullet.
Garfield clung to life for two months before his doctors basically killed him by constantly probing his wounds with unsanitized hands and instruments.
Meanwhile, the national mood was basically: Really? This guy, Chester Arthur? He’s really about to become president of the United States?
Enter Sand: eccentric, fairly wealthy, unmarried, often sickly, confined to her home, with no connection at all to Arthur—they’d never met—except that they were both Americans and New Yorkers.
And yet, she started writing letters to him: 23 in total, between August 1881 and August 1882. Things like:
Disappoint our fears. Force the nation to have faith in you. Show from the first that you have none but the purest of aims.
A hundred years hence, school boys will recite your name in the list of presidents & tell of your administration.
And what shall posterity say? It is for you to choose…
For whatever reason—and oh, does my mind conjure up the reasons—Arthur reacted to the letters. We’re sure that he wrote back, although we only have her side of the correspondence.
Eventually, she started saying: Come to my house. Meet me. But, make sure you come during the morning, when nobody else will be here.
Indeed, on that fateful day in 1882, Arthur did in fact come to meet her—again, completely unannounced.
Only, he came during the evening, when the whole family was there, and Julia Sand completely freaked out. Her brother and sisters dominated the conversation. At one point, she hid behind a curtain.
Who knows if there could have been something between them otherwise? I wound up feeling bad for them at this point in the story. It was like a date that seemed so promising but fell flat all around.
“My brother said I was like the man in ‘Arabian Nights,’ who got the Big Genie out of the vase, and then was so frightened he wanted to put it back again,” she wrote to Arthur the next day.
She asked him to meet again—but, c’mon, that wasn’t going to happen a second time.
Oh, what might have been! Honestly, I’m writing this 120 years later and I’m kind of heartsick for them both, in part because I know they both went on to live tragic lives.
Arthur, heartsick and unwell, barely bothered to campaign for reelection in 1884, and died two years later. Sand was committed to a mental institution in 1886 —and died there 47 years later, unnoticed, in 1933.
(I’m not sure she was confined the whole 47 years; it seems more likely she was in and out. )
The whole thing is so sad, except for one point: Looking through Sand’s letters and Arthur’s otherwise unexplained positions, some historians think she made a difference.
Sand was reform-minded and good government-heavy. Arthur, by nature, was not. These historians say her chatty letters might well have pushed him to act differently than he might have otherwise.
Anyway, it’s a Friday comment thread, even if the commenter-in-chief, yours truly, is on the road. So the question I’d like to ask is an adaptation of a cliched one:
What person, living or dead, would you be most interested to have drop by your house unannounced? And, do you think you’d freak out like Julia Sand did?
Let us know in the comments! I’ll probably weigh in myself, because—well, because I know myself.
(By the way, since I originally learned about and began exploring this story, HBO very helpfully commissioned and aired a series called The Gilded Age, which takes place in the same area of New York City, beginning almost exactly when Arthur secretly showed up at Sand’s house.)
(Reminder, while we’re running on “low power mode,” we’ll be skipping the “7 other things” we normally run. But I invite you to share links to things you think your fellow readers would appreciate or enjoy in the comments.)