Lincoln Turned Down a Chance to Fill the U.S. With Elephants

Getty Images
Getty Images

When a new president takes office, it’s normal to get showered with diplomatic greetings, gifts, and political overtures. But when Abraham Lincoln’s administration moved into the White House, they turned down what could have been the greatest gift of all: the chance to populate the United States with wild elephants.

In 1861, Lincoln received a pile of swag from King Somdetch Phra Paramendr Maha Mongkut of the country then known as Siam. You might know him better for his role in the hit musical The King and I, which fictionalized his relationship with English governess Anna Leonowens. What is true is that Mongkut was eager to “get to know” the West better—during his reign, he managed to open up and begin modernizing Siam.

The gesture wasn’t actually meant for Lincoln: In fact, Mongkut had sent the presents to “whomsoever the people have elected anew as chief ruler in place of President Buchanan.” He sent along a pile of lavish gifts, from a precious handmade sword to photos of himself and his daughter to two gigantic elephant tusks. But much more meaningful was the king’s offer to send along a generous stock of elephants that could be bred on American soil.

It’s no wonder Mongkut offered that gift: Pachyderms were not only native to what is now Thailand, but were also prized as important and valuable creatures. “It has occurred to us that, if on the continent of America there should be several pairs of young male and female elephants turned loose in forests,” wrote the king, “after a while they will increase till there be large herds as there are here on the continent of Asia until the inhabitants of America will be able to catch them and tame and use them as beasts of burden making them of benefit to the country.” Mongkut acknowledged that he hadn’t yet figured out how best to ship over some elephants, but that it sounded like a good idea to him.

In a master stroke of diplomacy, Lincoln’s administration disagreed. In Lincoln’s reply, which was penned by Secretary of State William Seward, he deftly informed Mongkut that his gifts belonged by rights to the American people and would be placed in the National Archives (where they remain to this day). As for the elephants, the administration deftly dodged the issue altogether.

"This Government would not hesitate to avail itself of so generous an offer if the object were one which could be made practically useful in the present condition of the United States,” wrote Lincoln via Seward. “Our political jurisdiction, however, does not reach a latitude so low as to favor the multiplication of the elephant, and steam on land, as well as on water, has been our best and most efficient agent of transportation in internal commerce.”

By refusing the elephants, Lincoln’s government managed to honor the far-away king without taking on a complicated burden. It was a move that acknowledged not only the king’s respectful gesture, but gave him a much-needed nod. Mongkut realized that in order to survive, Siam would need to engage in trade with the West—and that kindness would go much further than the fear displayed by some of his closest neighbors.

There’s no telling what would have happened if the Lincoln administration had said yes to Mongkut’s gift. Perhaps to this day, the United States would be a place where herds of wild elephants roamed free.

11 Patriotic Products to Celebrate the Fourth of July

Amazon
Amazon

Whether you’ll be lounging by the beach or grilling in your backyard this Independence Day, don’t forget to show off your all-American spirit with a little swag. Here are 11 products to help you celebrate Fourth of July—all of which would pair nicely with your collection of presidential bobbleheads.

1. Declaration Of Independence Signatures Mug; $15

Mug decorated with the signatures from the Declaration of Independence.
CafePress, Amazon

The names of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence are on display on this ceramic coffee mug. Studying the signatures each morning might inspire you to perfect your own John Hancock.

Find it: Amazon

2. Stars And Stripes Cufflinks; $55

Cufflinks with images of stars and stripes on them

Cufflinks Inc., Nordstrom

Brighten up your wardrobe with a splash of American pride. One half of this cufflinks set is striped red and white and the other is blue and spangled with stars. Together they make a patriotic accent piece.

Find it: Nordstrom

3. Fireworks Light Show Projector; $41

Portable fireworks light projector.
Uncle Milton, Amazon

If you want a low-hazard Fourth of July that still delivers thrills, consider getting a light show projector. When it’s pointed at a wall, the device displays vibrant fireworks animations accompanied by realistic sound effects. And it works indoors, so you can count on your Independence Day party ending with a light show no matter the weather forecast. (There's also a Disney version available for just $20.)

Find it: Amazon

4. Inflatable Cooler; $14

Inflatable American flag cooler filled with ice and drinks.
Fun Express, Amazon

When preparing for a picnic or barbecue this Fourth of July, don’t bother breaking out your tiny roll-away cooler. This 54-by-28-inch inflatable trough holds enough bottles and cans to keep your party going well past sunset. Once the cooler has been drained and deflated, it folds neatly for easy storage.

Find it: Amazon

5. American Trivia Cards; $15

Even players who paid attention in American history class might find this game challenging. Each box comes with 150 cards of United States trivia. Some questions—like what was the first state to grant women the right to vote—highlight important moments in our nation’s history. Others—like how many columns the Lincoln Memorial features—are a little more random.

Find it: UncommonGoods

6. U.S. Navy Blanket; $200

The U.S. military has been going to Faribault Woolen Mill Co. for its blankets for over 100 years. This one is crafted from 100 percent wool and weighs 3.5 pounds. The design is inspired by the blankets supplied on Navy ships—and if it’s tough enough for the Navy, you can bet it will withstand a Fourth of July picnic. We like the gray version, but it comes in several different styles and colors.

Find it: Faribault Woolen Mill Co.

7. American Flag Cornhole; $90

Two American flag cornhole boards with bean bags.
GoSports, Amazon

Baseball faces some stiff competition from cornhole for the title of No. 1 American pastime. This lawn set includes four blue bean bags, four red bean bags, and two boards decorated to resemble the American flag.

Find it: Amazon

8. U.S. Map Cutting Board; $20

Wooden cutting board in the shape of the U.S. map.
Totally Bamboo, Amazon

This 100 percent bamboo board eschews the traditional rectangle shape in favor of the outline of the American mainland. You can either keep it in the kitchen and use it as a cutting board or bring it out to the party as a serving platter for fruits, cheeses, and other hors d'oeuvres.

Find it: Amazon

9. Boston Tea Party Tea Sampler; $15

Six piles of loose-leaf tea.
Solstice Tea Traders, Amazon

A sip of one of the teas in this sampler will put you in touch with your inner revolutionary. Each of the six loose-leaf varieties—bohea black tea, oolong, congou black tea, souchong, singlo, and hyson—was among those tossed over the sides of British ships during the Boston Party. Whether you drink the tea or chuck it into the nearest harbor is up to you. (If you're looking for something to put on display, UncommonGoods also sells a slightly pricier, more elegant option with five teas.)

Find it: Amazon

10. State Map Prints; $27 and Up

A poster featuring a colorful map of Wisconsin
Bri Buckley, Society6

These unique prints by Bri Buckley highlight the beauty of each U.S. state in vibrant color. Each state map is available in both a modern and a vintage style, and like most Society6 art, the design is also available on tapestries, shirts, pillows, tote bags, and more.

Find it: Society6

11. Bald Eagle Pool Float; $15

A man and a woman ride a bald eagle pool float
Swimline, Amazon

Cool down the patriotic way this Fourth of July. This massive 8-foot-by-6-foot bald eagle pool float can fit up to two people comfortably, and will look great floating around your pool during your backyard barbecue.

Find it: Amazon

A version of this article first ran in 2017. It has been updated for 2019.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

This Is the Brain of the Man Who Shot James A. Garfield

National Museum of Health and Medicine, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
National Museum of Health and Medicine, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

On July 2, 1881, President James A. Garfield was about to board a train at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station in Washington, D.C. when Charles Guiteau stepped behind him. The failed lawyer, newspaperman, and evangelist—enraged that the president’s advisors had refused him an ambassadorship he believed he deserved, and, as he had written the night before, to “unite the Republican Party and save the Republic”—had been stalking Garfield for months, intent on killing him. Now, here, finally, was his chance.

Guiteau raised his pistol, a British Bulldog he’d bought for $10, took aim, and pulled the trigger—not once, but twice. One bullet grazed the president’s arm; the other came to rest behind his pancreas. Guiteau was apprehended, and Garfield was whisked away to an upstairs room. “Doctor,” he told the city health official who was the first doctor on the scene, “I am a dead man.”

He was moved to suffer first in the sweltering White House, where 12 doctors probed his wounds with their unsterilized fingers, and then to Long Beach, New Jersey, where he died on September 19, 1881. Shortly after, Guiteau was charged with murder.

At his trial, which began in November, Guiteau appointed himself co-counsel; among his other lawyers was his brother-in-law, George Scoville, who normally handled land deeds. Scoville claimed that his brother was legally insane, and Guiteau said that yes, while he was legally insane—because God had removed his free will at the time of the assassination—he was not medically insane. Still, for someone who claimed he wasn't actually insane, his behavior during the trial was strange: He frequently interrupted his attorney, sang songs, insulted the jurors, and declared, “The doctors killed Garfield, I just shot him.”

(Guiteau may have had a point. Garfield ultimately died of an infection that may have been caused by doctors using their unwashed hands to look for the bullet. According to PBS, "In late 19th century America, such a grimy search was a common medical practice for treating gunshot wounds. A key principle behind the probing was to remove the bullet, because it was thought that leaving buckshot in a person’s body led to problems ranging from 'morbid poisoning' to nerve and organ damage.")

Though the defense called experts to attest to Guiteau’s insanity, psychiatrists called by the prosecution noted that the defendant knew right from wrong and was not definitely insane. In the early days of January 1882, the jury sentenced him to die by hanging.

On June 30, 1882, Guiteau read a poem he'd penned himself (“I Am Going to the Lordy”) and fell through the trapdoor of the scaffold. An hour and a half after that, his autopsy began, and his brain was removed and examined to get to the bottom of the insanity question once and for all. According to Sam Kean in his book The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons, “Most scientists at the time believed that insanity, true insanity, always betrayed itself by clear brain damage—lesions, hemorrhages, putrid tissue, or something.” Guiteau’s brain weighed 50 ounces and looked, for the most part, normal—at least to the naked eye. But under a microscope was a different story:

"Guiteau’s brain looked awful. The outer rind on the surface, the 'gray matter' that controls higher thinking, had thinned to almost nothing in spots. Neurons had perished in droves, leaving tiny holes, as if someone had carbonated the tissue. Yellow-brown gunk, a remnant of dying blood vessels, was smeared everywhere as well. Overall the pathologists found 'decided chronic disease … pervad[ing] all portions of the brain' … Guiteau was surely insane."

Today, portions of Guiteau’s brain can be found at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, D.C., and at the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia.

[h/t Biomedical Ephemera]

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