The Ghostly Love Story That Haunted the Father of U.S. Forest Conservation

General Photographic Agency/Getty Images
General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

Laura Houghteling was terminally ill with tuberculosis when she met Gifford Pinchot, the man who would marry her after she died. The bright and beautiful daughter of a rich Chicago merchant passed away before the age of 30, but Pinchot remained faithful to her for decades, relying on the support of her love from the afterlife as he crusaded for the conservation of America's natural resources.

The only thing Gifford loved as much as Laura was nature itself. Born in 1865, he was the oldest son of wallpaper merchant James Pinchot and Mary Pinchot née Eno, the daughter of Manhattan real estate baron Amos Eno and sister to traffic safety innovator William Phelps Eno. Gifford—6-foot-2 with a robust mustache—was voted the handsomest man in his graduating class at Yale. In 1891, he was hired to manage the forests surrounding the construction of George Vanderbilt's Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, America's largest privately owned home.

Asheville's hot springs and lush scenery were attractive to wealthy families across America, and the Houghteling family bought Strawberry Hill, a property adjacent to the Biltmore, in 1890. Laura was 26 in 1891, the year they moved in—several years past the age when she would have been expected to wed. Her single status wasn't because of her personality, which was, as her Asheville Daily Citizen obituary would put it, "lovely in every trait of character." Her beauty equaled Gifford's; she had long blonde hair and a soft, kind face with large light eyes. She was unwed because of her health.

As members of the upper-class social circuit, the pair had known each other casually for years. Yet their first meeting in North Carolina, at a luncheon, was very formal; they called each other Miss Houghteling and Mister Pinchot. In his diary years later, Gifford remembered blushing when he first called her Laura. The relationship became intense, conducted over picnics, horseback rides along the French Broad River, and a few stolen passionate embraces.

Both remained hopeful that she would recover and thrive, but they also took solace in religion and their shared interpretation of the afterlife. Their faith posited the physical body as a sort of clothing for the spirit, unnecessary to life itself. The couple read metaphysical works together, including the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson (who also wed a woman dying of tuberculosis), Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, and the Spiritualist novels of early feminist author Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Ward. Both believed that to be dead was to be one with God, and that their lover could share in that communion from Earth.

On New Year’s Day 1894, the reluctant families finally gave their blessing for the couple to be married. Laura had just moved from her beloved Strawberry Hill home to Washington, D.C. for new medical care, but the treatments were in vain. She died on February 7, 1894—before the pair could be married in any kind of official way. Gifford accompanied the Houghtelings to her burial in Chicago, and then went straight back to work.

Thirty-eight days after her death, Gifford recorded in his diary: "My lady is very near." Soon his entries were a chronicle of "my darling" and the "presence and peace" she brought him. He came to think of her last dwelling in D.C. as "our house," and took to standing outside of the building, even after it was sold to someone else. He wore black for two years, but sometime in 1896, he stopped wearing mourning clothes and began to consider himself married.

He usually wrote about Laura in his diaries in the present tense. Some days he wrote in code, using the language of weather to describe his visions of love; a "bright" or "clear" day when he felt her with him, a "cloudy" or "blind" day when he did not. Other days he just said, "To our house with my Laura." He talked to Laura, reading books with her, traveling with her—at least, with her spirit. Gifford was not just unloading his problems to her and dreaming of her, but felt he was taking advice from her on his speeches, ideas, and political plans. Occasionally she even rebuked him, as when he read a book "My Lady did not approve of" and he felt filled with regret. When he sensed her presence grow distant, he discreetly consulted a medium.

The convenience of a spirit who was with him always—rather than a woman with actual needs—was something of an asset as Gifford climbed the ladder in his career. When he faced professional challenges, he sometimes relied on Laura's support. Reflecting on an 1896 speech in Philadelphia, he wrote, "I spoke as My Lady's servant." As the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service (and before that, chief of the Department of Agriculture’s Division of Forestry), he shaped the institution into a force to be reckoned with, training the foresters who would eventually be called "Little GPs" after his initials.

Teddy Roosevelt entered Gifford's life in 1899, when the then-governor of New York invited the forester to his house. There, Gifford bested him in a pre-dinner boxing match. The pair shared a number of qualities: a love of the outdoors, a belief in conservation, and a knowledge of tragedy; Roosevelt had lost his wife and his mother on the same day in 1884, a pain he still carried into the new century. Teddy and Gifford fought a hostile Congress and powerful industrialists to preserve and protect hundreds of millions of acres of land from the corporate entities that had already ravaged Eastern forests. Because of Roosevelt and Pinchot, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and the Petrified Forest are preserved for the enjoyment of citizens today.

Pinchot's single status was a hot topic among D.C. social circles, where he was once called the town's "most eligible bachelor." He had stayed in top physical condition and was a regular churchgoer, but it was all for Laura. Self-restraint was key to both of their upbringings, and while you can't prove a negative, he was probably completely celibate until well after Roosevelt left office. And Laura was still with him, in their way. After testifying before a Senate committee as Chief Forester in 1906, he wrote, "I felt today my Lady's help."

After Roosevelt left office, Laura was less and less clear to him, and the ailing Mary Pinchot sensed an opportunity to see her favorite son married to a living woman. After several persistent proposals, he married Cornelia Bryce on August 15, 1914, just nine days before Mary's death. The marriage was a match on many levels: their political values and ambitions (Cornelia was nationally known for her feminism, and Pinchot became the vice-president of a Men for Suffrage organization); their wealthy families; and their status as older newlyweds, Pinchot being 49 and Cornelia being 33. They had one child, Gifford Bryce Pinchot, and the marriage lasted 32 years, during which Pinchot served two terms as governor of Pennsylvania.

Swedenborg wrote that true spouses spend eternity together, but that temporary human marriages are sometimes necessary when one's time on Earth lasts longer than their true spouse's. After his human marriage, Gifford kept all of Laura's letters and his diaries in a blue Tiffany box ordered a month after her death. But he never wrote of her again. His last reference to her was 14 days before his wedding; it was "not a clear day."

Additional Sources: On Strawberry Hill: The Transcendent Love of Gifford Pinchot and Laura Houghteling; The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America; Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism

Why Beatrix Potter Ended Up Self-Publishing The Tale of Peter Rabbit

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Tale of Peter Rabbit was Beatrix Potter’s first book—and is still her best known. But had the beloved author not had the confidence to publish the book on her own terms, we might not have ever known her name (or Peter Rabbit's) today.

The origin of Peter Rabbit dates back in 1893, when Potter wrote the beginnings of what would become her iconic children’s book in a letter she sent to Noel Moore, the ailing five-year-old son of Annie Carter Moore, Potter's friend and former governess. “I don't know what to write to you, so I shall tell you a story about four little rabbits whose names were—Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter,” the story began.

According to The Telegraph, it was Carter Moore who encouraged Potter to turn her story and its illustrations into a book. Initially, she attempted to go the traditional route and sent the book to six publishers, each of whom rejected it because Potter was insistent that the book be small enough for a child to hold while the publishers wanted something bigger (so that they could charge more money for it). It wasn't a compromise that Potter was willing to make, so she took the matter into her own hands.

On December 16, 1901, a 35-year-old Potter used her personal savings to privately print 250 copies of The Tale of Peter Rabbit. The book turned out to be a hit—so much so that, within a year, Frederick Warne and Co. (one of the publishers that had originally rejected the book) signed on to get into the Peter Rabbit business. In October 1902, they published their own version of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, complete with Potter's illustrations, and by Christmastime it had sold 20,000 copies. It has since been translated into nearly 40 different languages and sold more than 45 million copies.

In August 1903, Frederick Warne and Co. published Potter's next book, The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin. A few months later, Warne published The Tailor of Gloucester, which Potter had originally self-published in 1902 for reasons similar to her decision to self-publish The Tale of Peter Rabbit.

"She was very dogmatic about what she wanted it to look like and couldn’t agree with Warne," rare book dealer Christiaan Jonkers told The Guardian about why Potter self-published The Tailor of Gloucester. "Also he wanted cuts, so she published 500 copies privately. By the end of the year Warne had given in, cementing a relationship that would save the publishing house from bankruptcy, and revolutionize the way children's books were marketed and sold."

Mental Floss is partnering with the Paper & Packaging – How Life Unfolds® “15 Pages A Day” reading initiative to make sure that everyone has the opportunity (and time) to take part in The Mental Floss Book Club. It’s easy! Take the pledge at howlifeunfolds.com/15pages.

15 Fascinating Facts About Beatrix Potter

Getty Images
Getty Images

Even today, more than 75 years after her death on December 22, 1943, celebrated children’s author Beatrix Potter's beautifully illustrated tales—featuring animals and landscapes inspired by her beloved home in England’s Lake District—are still hugely popular. Below are 15 fascinating facts about The Tale of Peter Rabbit author.

1. Beatrix wasn't Potter's real first name.

Potter was born in London on July 28, 1866 and was actually christened Helen after her mother, but was known by her more unusual middle name: Beatrix.

2. The Tale of Peter Rabbit was inspired by a letter.

The first edition of The Tale of Peter Rabbit.
Aleph-bet books via Wikimedia // Public Domain

Potter’s most famous book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit , was inspired by an illustrated letter Potter wrote to Noel, the son of her former governess, Annie, in 1893. She later asked to borrow the letter back and copied the pictures and story, which she then adapted to create the much-loved tale.

3. Peter Rabbit and her friends were partly based on Beatrix Potter's own pets.

Peter was modeled on Potter’s own pet rabbit, Peter Piper—a cherished bunny who Potter frequently sketched and took for walks on a leash. Potter's first pet rabbit, Benjamin Bouncer, was the inspiration for Benjamin Bunny, Peter's cousin in her books. Potter loved sketching Benjamin, too. In 1890, after a publisher purchased some of her sketchers of Benjamin, she decided to reward him with some hemp seeds. "The consequence being that when I wanted to draw him next morning he was intoxicated and wholly unmanageable," she later wrote in her diary.

4. Potter’s house was essentially a menagerie.


Riversdale Estate, Flickr // Public Domain

Potter kept a whole host of pets in her schoolroom at home—rabbits, hedgehogs, frogs, and mice. She would capture wild mice and let them run loose. When she needed to recapture them she would shake a handkerchief until the wild mice would emerge to fight the imagined foe and promptly be scooped up and caged. When her brother Bertram went off to boarding school he left a pair of long-eared pet bats behind. The animals proved difficult to care for so Potter set one free, but the other, a rarer specimen, she dispatched with chloroform then set about stuffing for her collection.

5. Peter Rabbit wasn’t an immediate success.

Potter self-published the Tale of Peter Rabbit in 1901, funding the print run of 250 herself after being turned down by several commercial publishers. In 1902 the book was republished by Frederick Warne & Co after Potter agreed to redo her black-and-white illustrations in color. By the end of its first year in print, it was in so much demand it had to be reprinted six times.

6. Beatrix Potter understood the power of merchandising.

In 1903 Potter, recognizing the merchandising opportunities offered by her success, made her own Peter Rabbit doll, which she registered at the Patent Office. A Peter Rabbit board game and wallpaper were also produced in her lifetime.

7. Potter was a naturalist at a time when most women weren’t.

Potter was fascinated by nature and was constantly recording the world around her in her drawings. Potter was especially interested in fungi and became an accomplished scientific illustrator, going on to write a paper , “On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae, ” proposing her own theory for how fungi spores reproduced. The paper was presented on Potter’s behalf by the Assistant Director of Kew Gardens at a meeting of the Linnean Society on April 1, 1897, which Potter was unable to attend because at that time women were not allowed at meetings of the all-male Linnean Society—even if their work was deemed good enough to be presented.

8. Potter sometimes wrote in secret code.

Between 1881 and 1897 Potter kept a journal in which she jotted down her private thoughts in a secret code . This code was so fiendishly difficult it was not cracked and translated until 1958.

9. Potter was reportedly a disappointment to her mom.


Wikimedia // Public Domain

Despite her huge success, Potter was something of a disappointment to her mother, who had wanted a daughter to accompany her on social calls and make an advantageous marriage. In 1905 Potter accepted the marriage proposal of her publisher Norman Warne. However, her parents were very against the match as they did not consider him good enough for their daughter, and refused to allow the engagement to be made public. Unfortunately, Warne died of leukemia just a few weeks after the engagement. Potter did eventually marry, at age 47, to a solicitor and kindred spirit, William Heelis.

10. Potter wrote much more than you. (Probably.)

Potter was a prolific writer , producing between two and three stories every year, ultimately writing 28 books in total, including The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin , The Tale of Mrs Tiggy Winkle , and The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher . Potter’s stories have been translated into 35 different languages and sold over 100 million copies combined.

11. Potter asked that one of her books not be published in England.

In 1926 Potter published a longer work, The Fairy Caravan . It was at first only published in America because Potter felt it was too autobiographical to be published in England during her lifetime. (She also told her English publishers that it wasn’t as good as her other work and felt it wouldn’t be well-received). Nine years after her death in 1943, the book was finally released in the UK.

12. Potter's later books had to be cobbled together from early drawings.

As her eyesight diminished it became harder and harder for Potter to produce the beautiful drawings that characterized her work. As a result many of her later books were pieced together from earlier drawings in her vast collection of sketchbooks. The Tale of Little Pig Robinson was Potter’s last picture book, published in 1930.

13. A lost work of potter's was published in 2016.

A lost Potter story , The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots , was rediscovered in 2013 and published in summer 2016. Publisher Jo Hanks found references to the story in an out-of-print biography of Potter and so went searching through the writer’s archive at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Hanks discovered a sketch of the kitty in question, plus a rough layout of the unedited manuscript. The story will be published with supplementary illustrations by Quentin Blake.

14. Potter was an accomplished sheep farmer.

Potter was an award-winning sheep farmer and in 1943 was the first woman elected President of the Herdwick Sheep Breeders’ Association.

15. You can visit Hill Top, Potter's home.


Strobilomyces, Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0 

When Potter died in 1943 at the age of 77, she left 14 farms and 4000 acres of land in the Lake District to Britain’s National Trust, ensuring the beloved landscape that inspired her work would be preserved. The Trust opened her house, Hill Top, which she bought in 1905, to the public in 1946.

Mental Floss is partnering with the Paper & Packaging – How Life Unfolds® “15 Pages A Day” reading initiative to make sure that everyone has the opportunity (and time) to take part in The Mental Floss Book Club. It’s easy! Take the pledge at howlifeunfolds.com/15pages.

This article has been updated for 2019.

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