‘Lincoln’ prompts recollections of Capital Region connections
I finally got to view the latest Steven Spielberg film “Lincoln” but Jean and I had to leave the county to do so. For some unfathomable reason, Bow Tie Movieland has yet to show the movie that has been deservedly nominated for so many awards. I e-mailed Bow Tie Cinema’s headquarters in Connecticut to ask why, but have yet to receive an explanation.
When the film’s credits are rolled to say that the movie is based “in part” on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Team of Rivals,” “part” is the understatement of last year. The central plot of the movie is Lincoln’s early 1865 effort to persuade Congress to endorse a 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (to abolish slavery) and forward it to the states for ratification. The story of that successful effort is 90 percent of the movie but only a little more than 1.3 percent of the book, 10 pages of a total of 750 of narrative.
Lincoln’s motivation in proposing the amendment was his concern that the Supreme Court might claim that he had had no constitutional power to issue his Emancipation Proclamation of Jan. 1, 1863. Furthermore, it applied only to the states that had seceded, not to the slave-holding states that had not. New York farms, in particular, were home to more slaves than those of any other state north of Maryland, including our Mabee Farm. (Click here for the cover story by Niskayuna High School senior Hannah Hamilton.)
Stops in New York
“Team of Rivals,” but not “Lincoln,” starts in 1860, and hence covers the election of our first Republican president and his circuitous 1,700-mile railroad trip from Springfield, Ill., to Washington, D.C. in time for his first inauguration on March 4, 1861.
As the train traveled east across New York state, passing through Amsterdam, Schenectady and Niskayuna before turning south, it then passed Troy and stopped in Albany on Feb. 18, 1861.
While there, Lincoln went to the Albany Gaiety Theater with his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, U.S. Sen. Ira Harris and his wife, and Maj. Henry Rathbone. Both Harris and Rathbone were Union College graduates from Albany. Harris’s wife was the former widow Pauline Rathbone, mother of Henry, whose father Jared Rathbone had been elected mayor of Albany in 1839.
It was that night at the Gaiety Theater that Lincoln first saw John Wilkes Booth, who was performing as Romeo in “Romeo and Juliet.” Sen. Harris had just been appointed to succeed Sen. William Henry Seward, yet another Union College graduate, whom Lincoln had appointed secretary of state. Seward was one of the three “rivals” who had contended with Lincoln for the 1860 Republican nomination for president, the others being Salmon P. Chase, secretary of the treasury, and Edward Bates, attorney general.
In “Lincoln” the movie, David Strathairn plays Seward, a very strong role, just as was true in the actual Lincoln saga. Strathairn has also played in several movies made by Schenectadian John Sayles. Seward served as our 12th governor and two terms as a U.S. senator.
Of the many sad parts of the movie, the most poignant is when Mary enters the room where Lincoln is working to tell him that son Willie has died (at age 11 in 1862). Of the Lincolns’ four sons, three died at age 18 or younger, Edward Baker “Eddie” Lincoln had died in 1850 at just short of 4 and Thomas “Tad” Lincoln at 18 in 1871. Only first-born Robert Todd Lincoln lived to adulthood, and after serving as secretary of war for Presidents James Garfield and Union College graduate Chester A. Arthur, died in 1926 at age 83.
The Ellsworth story
Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth, a friend and associate of Lincoln, was born in Malta on April 11, 1837. He grew up in Mechanicville and lived in New York City until 1854, when he moved to Rockford, Ill., where he worked for a patent agency. In 1860, Ellsworth went to Springfield, Ill., to work with Lincoln. He studied law in Lincoln’s office, campaigned with him in 1860, and went to Washington with him in 1861.
On May 24, 1861, the day after Virginia’s secession, President Lincoln looked out from the White House across the Potomac River, and saw a large Confederate flag displayed over the town of Alexandria, Va. Volunteering to retrieve the offending flag, found to be flying above the Marshall House Inn, Ellsworth went upstairs and cut it down. As he came downstairs with the flag, the owner, James W. Jackson, killed him with a shotgun. Cpl. Francis E. Brownell of Troy then killed Jackson, and was later awarded a Medal of Honor for his actions. After lying in state in the East Room of the White House, Ellsworth was buried in his home town of Mechanicville.
The Ellsworth story is related in “Team of Rivals,” not in “Lincoln.” Nor does either work tell of the demise of John Wilkes Booth, another story with a local connection. After he assassinated President Lincoln, Booth escaped from Ford’s Theater and made his way up into Maryland. After a few days, authorities traced him to a barn in Virginia and, on April 26, 1865, surrounded it, and set it afire. Orders from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton were that Booth be taken alive.
But an English-born and allegedly “mad” (from mercury poisoning) hatter from Troy, Thomas P. “Boston” Corbett, fired his pistol through a crack in the barn and killed Booth, his bullet striking him in the head within an inch of the same point that Booth’s had entered Lincoln’s. Corbett, at the time a member of the 16th New York Cavalry Regiment, was initially arrested for his disobedience but was later released, praised for what he did, and given a share of the reward money.
Five days earlier, April 21, 1865, Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train left Washington. It would essentially follow the same 1,700-mile route Lincoln had traveled as president-elect in 1861, but counterclockwise this time. On board also was the coffin of Willie Lincoln, the son who had died at age 11 in the White House three years earlier.
As the train proceeded north from Washington through Albany and Troy and then west through Niskayuna and Schenectady, the train engineer was Alonzo John Wemple, who was born in Schenectady in 1833 and lived for a time in Albany, later in Illinois, and last in Texas, where he died in 1929 at age 96.
Alonzo’s earliest American ancestor, Jan Barentse Wemple, was, along with Arendt Van Curler, one of the 15 founders of Schenectady. After immigration from Holland, the Wemples were prolific and many aspired to and were elected to public office. Among the more recent ones were Assemblyman Clark Wemple of Niskayuna and Archibald Wemple, Schenectady mayor from 1952 to 1955 and later a longtime county judge.
Police Sgt. Ray Wemple retired from the Schenectady police force in 1988 after 33 years of service and then worked as the coordinator of our countywide radio district, the capacity in which I knew him best. Ray, who now lives in Rotterdam, is a history buff who has researched the use of observation balloons in the Civil War after their demonstration to President Lincoln on the White House lawn. (See Ray’s interesting interview by Paul Post in the online Saratogian of Oct. 9, 2010.)
Some Wemples use the surname “Wemp,” which is the middle name of my friend Richard W. Arthur of Charlton. His father was Richard S. Arthur, our longtime chairman of the Niskayuna Zoning Board of Appeals, who died at age 98 in 2001. His mother was the former Ruth Wemple.
There is a saying in politics that it is not good practice to run against people who have streets named after them. There is a Wemple Lane in Niskayuna, a Wemple Road in Rotterdam, and a Wemple Street in Schenectady. No wonder that so many Wemples ran unopposed.
Edwin D. Reilly Jr., a trustee of the Schenectady County Historical Society, lives in Niskayuna and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.