I think we have all seen his photo, but I doubt if many of you have seriously gazed into the chubby self satisfied face of President Chester A. Arthur and wondered what made him such a clothes horse? You ought to. “Elegant Arthur” was a vain, shallow, mutton chopped political hack who owned 80 pairs of trousers, and who rarely wore the same pair twice. “Chet”, as his friends liked to call the 6 foot 2 inch dandy raconteur, spent more on hats annually than most Americans earned in a year. Chester was a product of the spoils system. In six years as the Collector of the Port of New York, with a salary of $6,500 a year, Chester amassed a fortune of $3 million. And yet it was not his sticky fingers which endangers his reputation to this day . It was his massive ego, which inspired him to tell one little white lie . He fibbed about how old he was.
Chester had never held elected office before joining the Republican national ticket in 1880. He was the choice of Senator Roscoe Conkling, boss of the Stalwarts, the renamed Tammany Hall graft machine. In exchange for a promise to get-out-the-vote in New York “Lord Roscoe” had forced James Garfield to accept Chester Arthur as his Vice President. The Republicans needed the help. During the campaign Democrats spread the rumor that Chester had actually been born in Canada, and thus was not eligible to serve as Vice President. Chester refused to even dignify the charge with a response, even tho at least one Republican pol wondered why Chester didn't just “say where he was born, and put an end to all this mystery.”
It might have made a difference. Out of 4 million votes cast that November 8, 1880, Garfield and Chester Arthur received just 1,898 more votes than Civil War hero Winfield Scott Hancock and Indiana banker William English, running for the Democrats. The close defeat was a bitter pill for Democrats to swallow, and they stayed bitter. In mid-December, the New York Times noted that a Democratic operative had arrived in St. Albans, Vermont, investigating Chester's ancestry. The Democrats had tried this tract before, claiming Chester had been born in Ireland. That smear fell apart quickly, but evidently they were were not willing to let it go. If Chester noticed that small item in the paper, and I bet he did, he must have been more than a little nervous.
According to the Times, the operative's name was Arthur P. Hinman. Shortly after the 1880 election members of the Democratic National committee had walked into Hinman's offices at 14 Wall Street, offering to pay his expenses to investigate the persistent rumors that Vice President-elect Chester Arthur was not “a native born citizen” as required by the Constitution. They had picked their man well. Besides being a loyal Democrat, Hinman had written a poem recently published in Harper’s Magazine. It began, "My back is to the wall, My face is to my foes, That surge and gather around me, Like waves that winter blows”. And it was this combative and contentious bull dog who traveled to the town of St. Albans, 15 miles south of the Canadian border, and further, to the little villages beyond, on both sides of the political line.
Interviewed by the Times in the American Hotel at the corner of Main and Lake Streets, in St. Albans, Himman claimed his investigation had uncovered that Chester A. Arthur was actually, “born in Canada....that he was 50 years old in July instead of October...and generally that he is an alien and ineligible to the office of Vice-President.” It was hard to disprove the allegation. Vermont did not begin recording and issuing birth certificates until 1857. Yet, the tiny article, printed under the headline “Material For a Democratic Lie”, caused barely a hiccup back in Washington. After all Chester was just the vice president. He did not matter.
Still, it was just one more reason why, after taking the oath in March of 1881, President Garfield had bared Chester from even entering the White House. Garfield had decided on civil service reform, doing away with the profitable spoils system, and that meant figuratively castrating Senator Conkling and freezing his “Stalwarts”, like Chester, out of the government. Then, on July 2nd , President Garfield was shot in a Washington, D.C. train station. As the deranged assassin was arrested he shouted, "I am a Stalwart, and Arthur will be President!”. In September, 88 days later, Garfield died of blood poisoning, and abruptly, the charming but vapid Chester A. Arthur was President, and the assassin had publicly tied the new POTUS to the murder.
And what happened next did not improve the trouser snake's public image. Chester refused to occupy the executive mansion until Lewis Comfort Tiffany had spent two months and lots of public money redecorating it, with pomegranate plush drapes and a floor to ceiling ornate wood and glass screen (above) jammed into the main entrance hall. To complete the grotesque gilded age transformation of a national monument, 24 wagon loads of historical paintings, furniture and furnishings accumulated by Presidents John Adams through Ulysses Grant were sold at auction. It was just one more reason why a journalist would later write, “No man ever entered the Presidency so profoundly and widely distrusted as Chester Alan Arthur.”
The Democrats saw a quick opening, but Hinman rushed his shot and he missed. His new conspiracy theory presented in the fall and winter of 1881, was a repeat of what he had told the Times, with a few more details. But again the story fell apart. This time there was the testimony of Chester Abell, the doctor who delivered the future President. The boy was even named after him. Dr. Abel insisted Chester had been born in Fairfield, Vermont, about half way between St Albans and the Canadian border. And although the father, William Arthur, had not become a naturalized American citizen until 1843, there was no doubt that he married Chester's mother Malvina in 1821, and she was blatantly American born. Her grandfather had even fought in the American Revolutionary Army, for crying out loud. So when Chester Arthur was born in October of 1830, he was automatically an American citizen, like his mother, no matter what his father's status. And once President Chester Arthur began to crusade for the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, his public image improved and most people forgot the Democratic smear. In fact the public began to notice that Chester was just so likeable. It even began to look as if he might even run for re-election. And that meant that Arthur Hinman would be back.
Lawyer Hineman's third theory still insisted that Chester had indeed been born in Canada. Malvina's parents had lived in Dunham, Quebec for years, just 8 miles north of the border. William and Malvina had met and eloped in Dunham. It would have been natural, in the fall of 1830, for Malvina to seek her mother's help in minding her four older children when it came time to deliver Chester. And as for Dr. Abel's testimony, well, the old man was just confused. See, Chester Alan Arthur had been born in Dunham, Quebec, but in 1828. Then there had been another son, named Chester Abel Arthur, born in 1830 in Fairfield, Vermont. That was the baby Dr. Abel had remembered. But, said Hinman's research, Chester Abel had died before his first birth day. And years later, when applying to Union College in Schenectady New York, Chester Alan Arthur had appropriated his dead brother's birth date and location, making him an American citizen and qualifying him for student aid. It was such a good story that Hinman put it all down in a book, “How A British Subject Became President of the United States”, and in the summer of 1884, with another Presidential election looming, summarized it in an article he wrote for the Brooklyn Eagle Newspaper.
It might have caught on. It might have become a majestic conspiracy, like the rabbit Alice followed. And the Democratic party might have fallen down that rabbit hole in the election of 1884. The American people have always been drawn to conspiracy theories, be it FDR sacrificing Pearl Harbor in 1941, or the Lee Harvey Oswald's claim he was a patsy in November of 1963, or the black helicopters hiding in National Parks in the 1990's, or even President Obama being born in Africa. But reality intervened in 1884 when President Chester Arthur fell ill and decided not to run for re-election. And as quickly as that, Arthur Hinman lost his livelihood. He had become irrelevant, the Donald Trump of his age, leaving behind a brown smudge as his only contribution to the historical record.
Chester Alan Arthur left the White House in March of 1885 a very sick man. On November 16, 1886 he ordered his son to burn all his personal papers, reducing to ashes all the shady deals he had cut while a loyal Stalwart for Senator Conkling. And then on November 18, he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage, and died. Mark Twain, the man who had invented the title “Gilded Age”, offered a powerful obituary; “It would hard indeed to better President Arthur's administration”
After his work as a hatched man dried up, Arthur Hinman suffered the roller coaster life a political flunky, in with one administration, out with the next. His law business fell off and his was forced to move his office to cheaper space at 644 Hancock street in Brooklyn. But then the worm turned again and by 1901 he was back at 375 Fulton Street, just blocks from City Hall in Manhattan. But he never lost his pugnaciousness. In October of 1904, the now aging lawyer got into a fist fight with an undertaker, a Mr. Joseph P. Pouch. Hinman had represented Pouch's wife in their divorce case, and when the judge awarded her custody of their 7 year old child, Arthur Hinman offered to effect the transfer, to avoid a confrontation. With any other lawyer that might have worked. But Hinman was never one to suffer an insult. He belted Joe in the eye, and Joe pounded Himman in the face and head. Poor Joe got arrested for contempt of court, and Mrs. Pouch got her child. And Arthur Hinman got the fight he always relished. It was straight out of the final stanza of his poem, where Arthur recalls his “life of combat”; "I stand, poor speck of dust, Defiant, self reliant, To die – if die I must.”
And the mystery of Chester Alan Arthur's birth would not be finally be answered until 1949 when Chester A. Arthur III donated the family bible to the New York Public Library. And there, recorded in William Arthur's own handwriting are listed in order, the births of all nine of his children. The name of the first male and fifth child is Chester Alan Arthur. But the birth date is October 5, 1829. It was the same year William Arthur was elected to the school board in Fairfield, Vermont. And all the great mystery and drama compounded by politicians over the birth place of President Chester Alan Arthur, boiled down to a vain man's vanity about his age. He want to appear a year younger than he actually was.
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