Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

A Brief History of Presidential Libraries

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The modern presidential library is more than a roadside attraction. It’s a multifaceted venue where interested parties can thumb through the archives and gaze upon the personal effects of former commanders-in-chief. Many have put some bewilderingly fascinating items on display, from the coconut shell that saved JFK’s life to a pair of “I Like Ike” pantyhose. Cited as “living memorials,” presidential libraries are now designed by world-class architects and tend to come with steep price tags—the two newest ones, for example, cost over $160 million apiece.

By comparison, the earliest presidential libraries were rather modest. The history of these places began over a century ago, when Rutherford B. Hayes’s family struck a trend-setting deal with their home state: In 1873, a pre-presidency Hayes moved into a secluded estate known as "Spiegel Grove" in Fremont, Ohio. And it was to this quiet abode that he returned after his one-term presidency ended on March 4, 1881. When Hayes passed away 12 years later, he was buried on the grounds.

In 1912, the former president's son, Colonel Webb C. Hayes, deeded the property to the Buckeye State. Then he handed over thousands of important documents from his father’s political and military career to the Ohio Historical Society. The Colonel’s gifts came with two key stipulations: First, he insisted that his family be allowed to continue living on the premises at Spiegel Grove. Additionally, he wanted the state of Ohio to put together a library and museum that would be dedicated to the memory of his late father.

The state happily complied. On May 30, 1916—Memorial Day—a new facility called the Hayes Memorial opened up just a stone’s throw away from Spiegel Grove. A combination museum/library, it was designed to house the president’s archives and a selection of his belongings, including Hayes's 12,000-volume personal library. Altogether, these items took up so much space that the building had to be extended just a few years later. Hayes’s descendants finally moved out of Spiegel Grove in 1965, at which point the historic home opened its doors to the public.

It was decided that the private documents of President Hayes ought to be made accessible to anyone and everyone who might wish to look through them. That choice has been an absolute boon to U.S. history buffs. Visit Spiegel Grove today, and you can freely examine every book and letter in the library’s collection (although some of the more fragile items must be retrieved from a closed stacks section by a member of the staff). Back in the early 20th century, this was a radical notion. At the time, the archives of an outgoing commander-in-chief were regarded as his personal property. Over time, many a presidential paper trail was either divided up between multiple parties or, in a few cases, destroyed. The Zachary Taylor collection literally went up in smoke when Union soldiers occupied his son’s home in 1862. And then there’s the case of Chester A. Arthur who, on the day before his death in 1886, personally burned numerous private documents.

Spiegel Grove // Image courtesy of Kean Collection/Getty Images

Webb Hayes and Ohio’s government deserve a great deal of credit for seeing America’s first presidential library through. However, the concept didn’t begin to spread until it was embraced by Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

An avid history buff, the 32nd president recognized that the growing mountains of personal papers, correspondences, and pamphlets he’d accumulated over the course of his political life would be invaluable to future historians. Inspired by Hayes and Spiegel Grove, Roosevelt began making plans for a presidential library of his own [PDF].

On December 10, 1938, FDR announced that such a place was in the works and that it would soon be built on his family’s land in Hyde Park, New York. At a press conference, the then-president spoke at great length about what he called “probably the largest collection of original source material of almost anybody over the last quarter of a century.... I do not wish to break [these papers] up ... It is my desire that they be kept as a whole and intact in their original condition, available to scholars of the future in one definite locality.” The building that Roosevelt had in mind would also have some personal knickknacks on display, including his beloved miniature ship collection.

Even before the official announcement, FDR gleefully micro-managed almost every aspect of the library's creation. Early in 1937, he sketched a plan that bore a very close resemblance to the finished product. Roosevelt also helped his Hyde Park staff organize the papers and memorabilia he was constantly dropping off. Although it was being funded privately, Roosevelt decided very early on that the federal government would operate his library after its completion.

FDR’s critics denounced the library as an exercise in narcissism. Newspaperman John T. Flynn called it a “Yankee pyramid,” while one congressman protested that “Only an egocentric maniac would have the nerve to ask for such a measure.” Despite these charges, Congress passed new chartering legislation for the library in July 1939. That November, construction began.

On June 30, 1941, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum held its dedication ceremony. Addressing a small crowd, the president said, “The dedication of a library is in itself an act of faith. To bring together the records of the past and to house them in buildings where they will be preserved for the use of men and women in the future, a nation must believe in three things. It must believe in the past. It must believe in the future. It must, above all, believe in the capacity of its own people so to learn from the past that they can gain in judgment in creating their own future.”

Roosevelt’s successor chose to follow in his footsteps. In May 1955, ground was broken on Harry S. Truman’s privately funded presidential library. Three months later, Congress passed the Presidential Libraries Act of 1955. This piece of legislation specifically authorized the General Services Administration (GSA) to accept any “papers, documents, or other historical materials ” that an ex-president might offer to be used for a future “Presidential archival repository.” The Act spawned a whole system of libraries. Like Roosevelt’s, these were built with (mostly) private funds, then turned over to the federal government, which covers their operating costs.

Modern presidential libraries basically fall into one of two categories: 13 of them—namely, those that commemorate every president from Herbert Hoover to George W. Bush—are overseen by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), in accordance with that 1955 Act. (Hoover opened his in 1962.)

Pete Souza via Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

However, there are also several outliers that have no association with the NARA and, accordingly, don’t receive any federal funds. This category includes the presidential libraries of Hayes, Abraham Lincoln, and Woodrow Wilson—all of which rely on foundations, private citizens, and state and local governments for financial support.

The Watergate scandal had a major impact on the contents of presidential libraries. Incensed by Nixon’s role in a break-in at the DNC headquarters, Congress passed the Presidential Records Act (PRA) in 1978, which decreed that the paperwork of an outgoing commander-in-chief elected after 1980 must be made public through Freedom of Information Act requests five years after he or she leaves office. However, the PRA does allow a president to withhold certain sensitive documents from the public eye for “up to 12 years.”

It’s hard to say what the future holds for presidential libraries, but at the very least, we do know that a brand new one is well on its way. Jackson Park, on Chicago’s South Side, was recently chosen as the future home of The Obama Presidential Center, which is scheduled to be completed by the year 2021.

Also, construction on a Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum is currently underway in Dickinson, North Dakota. Because the Bull Moose’s paper trail has been scattered far and wide over the past century, the museum will feature an archive that mainly consists of digitized documents. “It’s very difficult to create a traditional presidential library for TR, because all the materials will never be gathered physically in one place,” Sharon Kilzer, the Dickinson State University alum who’s overseeing the project, said. “This [digital archives approach] could be a model through which the legacies of … other presidents are also preserved and made accessible to the public.”

(c) Field Museum, CSZ5974c, photographer Carl Akeley, used with permission.
The Time Carl Akeley Killed a Leopard With His Bare Hands
(c) Field Museum, CSZ5974c, photographer Carl Akeley, used with permission.
(c) Field Museum, CSZ5974c, photographer Carl Akeley, used with permission.

Carl Akeley had plenty of close encounters with animals in his long career as a naturalist and taxidermist. There was the time a bull elephant had charged him on Mount Kenya, nearly crushing him; the time he was unarmed and charged by three rhinos who missed him, he said later, only because the animals had such poor vision; and the time the tumbling body of a silverback gorilla he'd just shot almost knocked him off a cliff. This dangerous tradition began on his very first trip to Africa, where, on an otherwise routine hunting trip, the naturalist became the prey.

It was 1896. Following stints at Ward’s Natural Science Establishment and the Milwaukee Public Museum, Akeley, 32, had just been appointed chief taxidermist for Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, and he was tasked with gathering new specimens to bolster the 3-year-old museum's fledgling collections. After more than four months of travel and numerous delays, the expedition had reached the plains of Ogaden, a region of Ethiopia, where Akeley hunted for specimens for days without success.

Then, one morning, Akeley managed to shoot a hyena shortly after he left camp. Unfortunately, “one look at his dead carcass was enough to satisfy me that he was not as desirable as I had thought, for his skin was badly diseased,” he later wrote in his autobiography, In Brightest Africa. He shot a warthog, a fine specimen, but what he really wanted was an ostrich—so he left the carcass behind, climbed a termite hill to look for the birds, then took off after a pair he saw in the tall grass.

But the ostriches eluded him at every turn, so he returned to camp and grabbed the necessary tools to cut off the head of his warthog. However, when he and a “pony boy” got to the spot where he’d left the carcass, all that remained was a bloodstain. “A crash in the bushes at one side led me in a hurry in that direction and a little later I saw my pig's head in the mouth of a hyena travelling up the slope of a ridge out of range,” Akeley wrote. “That meant that my warthog specimen was lost, and, having got no ostriches, I felt it was a pretty poor day.”

As the sun began to set, Akeley and the boy turned back to camp. “As we came near to the place where I had shot the diseased hyena in the morning, it occurred to me that perhaps there might be another hyena about the carcass, and feeling a bit ‘sore’ at the tribe for stealing my warthog, I thought I might pay off the score by getting a good specimen of a hyena for the collections,” he wrote. But that carcass was gone, too, with a drag trail in the sand leading into the bush.

Akeley heard a sound, and, irritated, “did a very foolish thing,” firing into the bush without seeing what he was shooting at. He knew, almost immediately, that he'd made a mistake: The answering snarl told him that what he’d fired at was not a hyena at all, but a leopard.

The taxidermist began thinking of all the things he knew about the big cats. A leopard, he wrote,

“... has all the qualities that gave rise to the ‘nine lives’ legend: To kill him you have got to kill him clear to the tip of his tail. Added to that, a leopard, unlike a lion, is vindictive. A wounded leopard will fight to a finish practically every time, no matter how many chances it has to escape. Once aroused, its determination is fixed on fight, and if a leopard ever gets hold, it claws and bites until its victim is in shreds. All this was in my mind, and I began looking about for the best way out of it, for I had no desire to try conclusions with a possibly wounded leopard when it was so late in the day that I could not see the sights of my rifle.”

Akeley beat a hasty retreat. He’d return the next morning, he figured, when he could see better; if he’d wounded the leopard, he could find it again then. But the leopard had other ideas. It pursued him, and Akeley fired again, even though he couldn’t see enough to aim. “I could see where the bullets struck as the sand spurted up beyond the leopard. The first two shots went above her, but the third scored. The leopard stopped and I thought she was killed.”

The leopard had not been killed. Instead, she charged—and Akeley’s magazine was empty. He reloaded the rifle, but as he spun to face the leopard, she leapt on him, knocking it out of his hands. The 80-pound cat landed on him. “Her intention was to sink her teeth into my throat and with this grip and her forepaws hang to me while with her hind claws she dug out my stomach, for this pleasant practice is the way of leopards,” Akeley wrote. “However, happily for me, she missed her aim.” The wounded cat had landed to one side; instead of Akeley’s throat in her mouth, she had his upper right arm, which had the fortuitous effect of keeping her hind legs off his stomach.

It was good luck, but the fight of Akeley’s life had just begun.

Using his left hand, he attempted to loosen the leopard’s hold. “I couldn't do it except little by little,” he wrote. “When I got grip enough on her throat to loosen her hold just a little she would catch my arm again an inch or two lower down. In this way I drew the full length of the arm through her mouth inch by inch.”

He felt no pain, he wrote, “only of the sound of the crushing of tense muscles and the choking, snarling grunts of the beast.” When his arm was nearly free, Akeley fell on the leopard. His right hand was still in her mouth, but his left hand was still on her throat. His knees were on her chest and his elbows in her armpits, “spreading her front legs apart so that the frantic clawing did nothing more than tear my shirt.”

It was a scramble. The leopard tried to twist around and gain the advantage, but couldn’t get purchase on the sand. “For the first time,” Akeley wrote, “I began to think and hope I had a chance to win this curious fight.”

He called for the boy, hoping he’d bring a knife, but received no response. So he held on to the animal and “continued to shove the hand down her throat so hard she could not close her mouth and with the other I gripped her throat in a stranglehold.” He bore down with his full weight on her chest, and felt a rib crack. He did it again—another crack. “I felt her relax, a sort of letting go, although she was still struggling. At the same time I felt myself weakening similarly, and then it became a question as to which would give up first.”

Slowly, her struggle ceased. Akeley had won. He lay there for a long time, keeping the leopard in his death grip. “After what seemed an interminable passage of time I let go and tried to stand, calling to the pony boy that it was finished.” The leopard, he later told Popular Science Monthly, had then shown signs of life; Akeley used the boy’s knife to make sure it was really, truly dead.

Akeley’s arm was shredded, and he was weak—so weak that he couldn’t carry the leopard back to camp. “And then a thought struck me that made me waste no time,” he told Popular Science. “That leopard has been eating the horrible diseased hyena I had killed. Any leopard bite is liable to give one blood poison, but this particular leopard’s mouth must have been exceptionally foul.”

He and the boy must have been quite the sight when they finally made it back to camp. His companions had heard the shots, and figured Akeley had either faced off with a lion or the natives; whatever the scenario, they figured Akeley would prevail or be defeated before they could get to him, so they kept on eating dinner. But when Akeley appeared, with “my clothes ... all ripped, my arm ... chewed into an unpleasant sight, [with] blood and dirt all over me,” he wrote in In Brightest Africa, “my appearance was quite sufficient to arrest attention.”

He demanded all the antiseptics the camp had to offer. After he'd been washed with cold water, “the antiseptic was pumped into every one of the innumerable tooth wounds until my arm was so full of the liquid that an injection in one drove it out of another,” he wrote. “During the process I nearly regretted that the leopard had not won.”

When that was done, Akeley was taken to his tent, and the dead leopard was brought in and laid out next to his cot. Her right hind leg was wounded—which, he surmised, had come from his first shot into the brush, and was what had thrown off her pounce—and she had a flesh wound in the back of her neck where his last shot had hit her, “from the shock of which she had instantly recovered.”

Not long after his close encounter with the leopard, the African expedition was cut short when its leader contracted malaria, and Akeley returned to Chicago. The whole experience, he wrote to a friend later, transported him back to a particular moment at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, which he’d visited after creating taxidermy mounts for the event. “As I struggled to wrest my arm from the mouth of the leopard I recalled vividly a bronze at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, depicting the struggle between a man and bear, the man’s arm in the mouth of the bear,” he wrote. “I had stood in front of this bronze one afternoon with a doctor friend and we discussed the probable sensations of a man in this predicament, wondering whether or not the man would be sensible to the pain of the chewing and the rending of his flesh by the bear. I was thinking as the leopard tore at me that now I knew exactly what the sensations were, but that unfortunately I would not live to tell my doctor friend.”

In the moment, though, there had been no pain, “just the joy of a good fight,” Akeley wrote, “and I did live to tell my [doctor] friend all about it.”

Additional source: Kingdom Under Glass: A Tale of Obsession, Adventure, and One Man's Quest to Preserve the World's Great Animals

Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons // Nigel Parry, USA Network
Meghan Markle Is Related to H.H. Holmes, America’s First Serial Killer, According to New Documentary
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons // Nigel Parry, USA Network
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons // Nigel Parry, USA Network

Between staging paparazzi photos and writing open letters to Prince Harry advising him to call off his wedding, Meghan Markle’s family has been keeping the media pretty busy lately. But it turns out that her bloodline's talent for grabbing headlines dates back much further than the announcement that Markle and Prince Harry were getting hitched—and for much more sinister reasons. According to Meet the Markles, a new television documentary produced for England’s Channel Four, the former Suits star has a distant relation to H.H. Holmes, America’s first serial killer.

The claim comes from Holmes’s great-great-grandson, American lawyer Jeff Mudgett, who recently discovered that he and Markle are eighth cousins. If that connection is correct, then it would mean that Markle, too, is related to Holmes.

While finding out that you’re related—however distantly—to a man believed to have murdered 27 people isn’t something you’d probably want to share with Queen Elizabeth II when asking her to pass the Yorkshire pudding over Christmas dinner, what makes the story even more interesting is that Mudgett believes that his great-great-grandpa was also Jack the Ripper!

Mudgett came to this conclusion based on Holmes’s personal diaries, which he inherited. In 2017, American Ripper—an eight-part History Channel series—investigated Mudgett’s belief that Holmes and Jack were indeed one in the same.

When asked about his connection to Markle, and their shared connection to Holmes—and, possibly, Jack the Ripper—Mudgett replied:

“We did a study with the FBI and CIA and Scotland Yard regarding handwriting analysis. It turns out [H. H. Holmes] was Jack the Ripper. This means Meghan is related to Jack the Ripper. I don’t think the Queen knows. I am not proud he is my ancestor. Meghan won’t be either.”

Shortly thereafter he clarified his comments via his personal Facebook page:

In the 130 years since Jack the Ripper terrorized London’s Whitechapel neighborhood, hundreds of names have been put forth as possible suspects, but authorities have never been able to definitively conclude who committed the infamous murders. So if Alice's Adventures in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll could have done it, why not the distant relative of the royal family's newest member?

[h/t: ID CrimeFeed]


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