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Benjamin Harrison and the White House's First Christmas Tree

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getty images/istock

Most Americans don’t know much about our 23rd commander-in-chief. Furthermore—adding insult to injury—many of the things for which Benjamin Harrison is remembered have little or nothing to do with his actual achievements. He famously interrupted Grover Cleveland’s non-consecutive terms. His opponents called him “Little Ben” due to his 5’ 6” stature. And his grandfather, William Henry Harrison, was also president...albeit one who kicked the bucket after just 31 days in office. Yet Benjamin Harrison broke lots of new ground and, thanks to some holiday décor, helped establish a festive White House tradition.

December 1889 was a tragic month for the first family. After a lengthy struggle in the hospital, Elizabeth Lord, sister of First Lady Caroline Harrison, passed away on the 10th. Three days later, her husband’s 25-year-old nephew, William Sheets Harrison, also met an untimely demise. Needless to say, it was a trying period for the newly-elected president, who found little solace on Pennsylvania Avenue. Harrison glumly bemoaned, “This big house—about which I wander without any sense of its being a home.”

However, “Little Ben” wasn’t about to let heartache spoil the most wonderful time of the year. After all, his grandkids were spending their holiday at the White House and, as he later said, “I am an ardent believer in the duty we owe ourselves at Christmas to make merry for children at Christmas time”. As Harrison readied the seasonal trappings, he installed something the presidential mansion had never seen before: an indoor Christmas tree.

Lovingly placed on the second floor, it was a majestic specimen which one witness described as “the most beautiful and perfect tree that could be found in all the country.”

“From the topmost point to the floor,” reported executive clerk William H. Crook, “it was laden with decorations, with toys innumerable for the children and gifts for the older ones.”

But not every present was reserved for youngsters: on Christmas morning, every single member of Harrison’s domestic staff was summoned to receive some token of appreciation—married men got turkeys and their bachelor co-workers were given choice dining gloves (presumably to be worn while eating out). Harrison also took full advantage of his generous beard by grabbing a red and white costume and prancing about as Kris Kringle himself before an adoring audience.

“If my influence goes for aught in this busy world,” the satisfied president said of their celebration, “let me hope that my example be followed in every family in the land.”

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This Just In
Lincoln’s Famous Letter of Condolence to a Grieving Mother Was Likely Penned by His Secretary
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Brown University Library, Wikipedia/Public Domain

Despite his lack of formal schooling, Abraham Lincoln was a famously eloquent writer. One of his most renowned compositions is the so-called “Bixby letter,” a short yet poignant missive the president sent a widow in Boston who was believed to have lost five sons during the Civil War. But as Newsweek reports, new research published in the journal Digital Scholarship in the Humanities [PDF] suggests that Lincoln’s private secretary and assistant, John Hay, actually composed the dispatch.

The letter to Lydia Bixby was written in November 1864 at the request of William Shouler, the adjutant general of Massachusetts, and state governor John Albion Andrew. “I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming,” it read. “But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.”

Unknown to Lincoln, Bixby had actually only lost two sons in battle; the others had deserted the army, were honorably discharged, or died a prisoner of war. Nevertheless, word of the compassionate presidential gesture spread when the Boston Evening Transcript reprinted a copy of the 139-word letter for all to read.

Nobody quite knows what happened to Bixby’s original letter—some say she was a Confederate sympathizer and immediately burnt it—but for years, scholars debated whether Hay was its true author.

During Hay’s lifetime, the former secretary-turned-statesman had reportedly told several people in confidence that he—not Lincoln—had written the renowned composition, TIME reports. The rumor spread after Hay's death, but some experts interpreted the admission to mean that Hay had transcribed the letter, or had copied it from a draft.

To answer the question once and for all, a team of forensic linguists in England used a text analysis technique called n-gram tracing, which identifies the frequency of linguistic sequences in a short piece of writing to determine its true author. They tested 500 texts by Hay and 500 by Lincoln before analyzing the Bixby letter, the researchers explained in a statement quoted by Newsweek.

“Nearly 90 percent of the time, the method identified Hay as the author of the letter, with the analysis being inconclusive in the rest of the cases,” the linguists concluded.

According to Atlas Obscura, the team plans to present its findings at the International Corpus Linguistics Conference, which will take place at England’s University of Birmingham from Monday, July 24 to Friday, July 28.

[h/t Newsweek]

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Inside the Quest to Save 42 Giant Presidential Statues
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Gary Knapp // Getty Images

In 2004, Presidents Park opened in Williamsburg, Virginia. It was a huge open-air museum containing 42 two-story-high busts of the presidents to date at the time. Visitors could perambulate among the presidents, reading plaques about them. (Note: There are only 42 busts in total because of Grover Cleveland's two nonconsecutive terms.)

In 2013, local builder Howard Hankins was hired to remove and destroy the busts, after the attraction itself went bust. Hankins had another idea. He carefully transported all the busts to his family farm. This cleared the way for an Enterprise Rent-a-Car facility now located on the former grounds of Presidents Park. It also left him with 43 giant statues, many of them slightly damaged, to deal with.

Over the ensuing years, Hankins has walked among the busts, weeding the grounds and struggling to figure out what to do with these "giants of men." He loosely envisions a similar attraction, this time called The Presidential Experience. Ideally it would have a better location to attract tourists. But Hankins lacks the funding to make it a reality. Since the original haul, he has managed to secure a tiny template for an Obama bust, but couldn't afford to purchase the full-size version. No word yet on a Trump bust.

In the short film All the Presidents' Heads directed by Adam Roffman, we meet Hankins, see the busts, and learn about the possible second coming of a presidential roadside attraction. Enjoy:

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