Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 88

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 88


This is the grave of Roscoe Conkling.

Born in 1829 in Albany, New York, Roscoe Conkling became the prototypical politician of the Gilded Age. He was born into an elite political family. His father was in the House and was a federal judge and his mother was a cousin of British Lord Chief Justice Alexander Cockburn. He knew Martin Van Buren and John Quincy Adams as a child. He skipped college and went straight into the law and also became involved in Whig politics. He worked locally in Utica for the election of Winfield Scott in 1852 and John C. Frémont in 1856, switching easily from the Whigs to the Republicans by that time. He was elected mayor of Utica in 1858 and to Congress that fall. He served two terms, losing in 1862. He then worked for the War Department for two years before regaining his seat in the 1864 elections. In 1867, he was elected to the Senate.

As a senator he became a leading ally of Ulysses S. Grant. He also became a notorious purveyor of patronage politics, with all the corruption that involved. He was pretty good on Reconstruction issues and shepherded the Civil Rights Act of 1875 through the Senate. Grant offered Conkling a position of the Supreme Court, but he refused, believing his powers more important in the Senate. He hated the reform element of the party that led to the Liberal Republican movement of 1872 and their alliance with the Democrats to run Horace Greeley (of all people, what a ridiculous nominee not that any living American knows anything about that) against Grant in 1872. Those Republican reformists were both anti-corruption and wanted the Republican Party to stop caring about black people. Conkling didn’t really like them for the latter reason, but it was his love of patronage that really made him hate them. When the Hayes Administration tried to clean up some of the grotesque corruption of the Gilded Age, Conkling turned on it. When Hayes tried to dump Chester Arthur, a close Conkling ally, from his position as collector of the New York Customs House, a massive source of patronage power, Conkling held up the replacement nominees for 2 years and it wasn’t until 1879 that new people were confirmed, over Conkling’s objections even then.

In 1880, Conkling fought for a third term for Grant and hated the other two possible nominees, James Blaine and John Sherman. When that was impossible, he was unhappy with James Garfield, who was a compromise candidate settled upon by the Blaine and Sherman factions to defeat the Grant faction. His good friend Chester Arthur was named VP, basically at Conkling’s choosing for losing the presidential slot. Garfield then sought to isolate Conkling, naming his enemies to many slots, including the New York patronage positions. Furious at being denied the “right” for senators to control patronage in their own states, he resigned from the Senate in 1882, sure he would be reinstated by the New York Senate. Whoops, didn’t happen. This was all part of a break between Conkling and Arthur over civil service reform, which Arthur supported to Conkling’s outrage. Arthur actually then nominated Conkling to the Supreme Court later that year. He was confirmed by the Senate and then decided he wouldn’t do it. So he went home to New York and practice law.

Conkling also loved him the ladies. He was married to utter scumbag 1868 Democratic presidential nominee Horatio Seymour’s sister but carried on several affairs fairly openly, most notably with the daughter of Salmon Chase, causing her divorce. Supposedly her husband chased Conkling around their Rhode Island estate with a shotgun. He was pretty famous and many relatively famous people of the next generation were named after him. Supposedly, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was one of them but his father hated Conkling and named him that because he didn’t think the child was his and as Conkling was a known philanderer, it was a shot at Fatty’s mother. This sounds too pat a story of a comedian’s birth origins to be true, but who knows.

Unlike most wealthy Gilded Age men, Conkling was very into physical fitness and an aggressive masculinity that would later be picked up on by a new generation of men such as Theodore Roosevelt. This had its downside though. When the Great Blizzard of 1888 struck New York, Conkling was downtown. He tried to take a coach home but it got stuck in the snow. So Conkling, impatient and wanting to prove himself, decided he would walk home in the blizzard. He made it as far as Union Square. He collapsed, got pneumonia, and died a month later.

Roscoe Conkling is buried in Forest Hill Cemetery, Utica, New York.

This post begins Graveapaoolza. In other words, I have such an enormous backlog of these things that I am going to do a grave a day over the next week in order to chip into this before I myself die and have like a thousand grave posts sadly unwritten.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • Linkedin
  • Pinterest
  • Schadenboner

    I sometimes wonder if “anti-corruption” (that is, anti-patronage) was actually a good idea in final perspective. As I’ve banged the drum about before, when the histories are written on the end of the American Republic one of the final identifiable moments of potential arrest will be the end of earmarks.

    Politics is the distribution of power, I don’t even know if I believe such distribution can be made “clean” anymore, much less what that cleanness should/could/can look like.

    • Woodrowfan

      end of earmarks is different from patronage. As a former federal employee I don’t think I’d have even gotten my job since I was a registered Democrat employed in a republican administration. I agree with you on earmarks though….

      • cpinva

        “As a former federal employee I don’t think I’d have even gotten my job since I was a registered Democrat employed in a republican administration.”

        same here. in fact, most of the class I came in with wouldn’t have been. all of us were college educated, mostly middle to upper middle-class, and thought Reagan was an idiot.

    • I thought that was the one good thing that came out of the Tea Party, the death of earmarks. If they had been retained along with the massive modern gerrymandering, there would have been no way to winkle most of the Republican caucus out of their seats, even in a wave election. Maybe there isn’t anyway, but at least that kind of corruption is down. Of course, the corruption has been federalised under Trump, so I guess it’s a wash.

      • Bill Murray

        is that worth the hyper-partisanship that came about? I think it unlikely McConnell would have gone full obstruction if earmarks were still being used

        • LeeEsq

          Politics is the art of the horse trade but that means you need horses to trade.

      • Schadenboner

        One or the other wouldn’t have necessarily been terrible, but reliably Republican districts plus a Republican base rabid against the very idea of compromise means you have a politician who is interested not in rolling the log down to the sawmill (passing the bill and delivering pork to the district) but rather beavering up and damming the river (which is where we were 2010-2016, more-or-less).

        • Schadenboner

          Moreover, it allows the further expansion of the “Government can’t provide stuff goodly” meme that the fuckers push like amphetamines at a Jenny Craig.

          • Woodrowfan

            you win the simile award for the day!

        • Derelict

          Your congressman pushed the pork!
          MY congressman brings home the bacon.

      • David Allan Poe

        I think this has things exactly backwards. Ditching earmarks allowed the far-right to complete its takeover of the Republican party, because very often the only thing keeping some of the more moderate Republicans in office against wingnuts was their ability to keep the money spigot flowing. Plus a center-left Democrat could maintain a seat that otherwise might go Republican because of a long record of bringing in the projects.

        Stripping individual Congresspeople of direct control over some portion of the budget makes it very easy to attack them on purely ideological grounds, reduces the control party leaders have over the wackjobs in their caucus, and empowers the far right, which now has zero need to work with anyone who disagrees with it. It also fosters the notion that government can’t do anything for its citizens.

        Getting rid of earmarks was 100% a victory for the right wing.

    • LeeEsq

      Plunkett of Tammany Hall came up a lot during the election among the political nerd type. Yair Rosenberg noted that when it was taught in a political science class he took it graduate school everybody found the concept of honest graft offensive regardless of where they stood on the political spectrum but couldn’t really vocalize why it was offensive coherently. It seems that a certain amount of corruption is necessary in political systems to make them work.

  • Woodrowfan

    There needs to be a new bio of Conkling. There are basically two, one from the 1930s, the other from the early 70s…

  • Graveapalooza! Awesome. Could also be the title of the eventual coffee table tome.

    Sounds like we’re going to need a bigger coffee table.

    • Thom

      A grave a day keeps happiness away.

      • rea

        “No, ’tis not so deep as a well nor so wide as a church-door, but ’tis enough, ’twill serve. Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man.”

        • Schadenboner

          This line was forever ruined (fake edit: made?) for me by the Third Rock episode where Dick directs Romeo and Juliet.

    • dogboy

      “before I myself die and have like a thousand grave posts sadly unwritten.”

      I pass, like night, from land to land;
      I have strange power of speech;
      That moment that his face I see,
      I know the man that must hear me:
      To him my tale I teach.

  • Pilgrim

    Roscoe Conkling was the lawyer who argue the corporations were people too under the 14th amendment in 1882.


    • The Invisible Hand

      Sniff, and now they can print their own money and deify their CEO’s.

      What a country!

  • N__B

    It may not be the silliest death of a major politician, but it’s got to be in the running.

    • CP

      Yet another moron tries to do the “manly” thing and just gets himself killed.

    • wjts

      William Huskisson is in the running.

      • N__B

        That’s more ironic in the Alanis Morrisette / Pompey the Great mode than it is silly.

        • wjts

          He was run over by a train. Apart from falling off a cliff or having an anvil dropped on your head, that’s maybe the most cartoonish way to die there is.

          • N__B

            Spinach poisoning would, IMO, be the most cartoonish way to die.

            • wjts

              Proton Pill overdose.

          • Jay C

            Not just “a train”, but, IIRC, the first train run on the first commercial railroad built in England (that Huskisson had promoted).

    • Joe_JP

      I was going to toss in William Henry Harrison but Wikipedia had a flag that the “caught cold during inauguration” understanding is off. Then, I saw this article:


      • N__B

        I have not yet clicked on the NYT link. “what-really-killed-william-henry-harrison”…let it be zombies, let it be zombies…

        ETA: If WHH had died of pneumonia that he got at his inauguration, at least he had a good reason to be there. Much less silly than Conkling deciding to slog through the worst (at that time) recorded storm in NYC history.

        • wjts

          But a new look at the evidence through the lens of modern epidemiology makes it far more likely that the real killer lurked elsewhere — in a fetid marsh not far from the White House.

          I haven’t read any further, so I can only assume that recent research has finally vindicated my long-held theory that Harrison was one of the victims of the Washington Marsh Monster.

          • N__B

            Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing just got stranger.

        • Joe_JP

          Erik said Conkling tried to walk in the storm. Unclear why he was out in the first place. The general line is that Harrison gave a long speech while not properly dressed.

      • sigaba

        Patronage also figured into Harrison’s death. After he took ill he was ordered to bed rest, but he found it impossible as day and night the White House was stuffed, standing room only, with Whig operatives, loyalists and hangers-on seeking appointment, often breaking into his bedroom or bribing the household staff to get a minute of his time.

  • rickstersherpa

    I don’t know if you have reached the grave of Kate Chase yet (buried​ Spring Grove Cemetery, Cincinnati), but her life & the frustration of her talents by 19th century patriarchy, & in particular her father’s manipulation of her to advance his political career (exhibit A being the marriage to the horrible William Sprague) would make a good novel, play, movie.

    • rickstersherpa

      I brought Kate Chase up because she was Ol’ Rosco’s paramour whose husband, the aforementioned William Sprague, chased Rosco off with a shotgun.

      • navarro

        let us not forget that sprague took enough of a pause from chasing conkling to grab his wife, kate chase sprague, by the throat and threaten to shove her out the upper floor window.

      • mikeSchilling

        She’s a major character in Gore Vidal’s Lincoln. She was also very beautiful, and Sprague was a good-looking man before the booze caught up with him, so it seemed to be a fairy-tale wedding before the marriage turned into a nightmare.

        • mikeSchilling

          Lincoln is, by the way, an excellent book, as is Burr. If anyone’s interested, I wrote about the series here. (I have to make the link by hand? What happened to the editing buttons?)

    • rea

      Kate Chase yet (buried​ Spring Grove Cemetery, Cincinnati), but her life & the frustration of her talents by 19th century patriarchy, & in particular her father’s manipulation of her to advance his political career (exhibit A being the marriage to the horrible William Sprague) would make a good novel, play, movie.

      Gore Vidal made her a major character in Lincoln

  • ThresherK

    No man ever entered the Presidency so profoundly and widely distrusted as Chester Alan Arthur, and no one ever retired … more generally respected, alike by political friend and foe.

    –Alexander McClure

    I’m waiting for our press corps to rediscover Chester Arthur as a narrative to drape over Trump’s shoulders. Donald will do the least little thing, clears his throat in a centrist manner about something, and his redemption arc will be noticed to have started.

    A dollar says on NPR.

    • Derelict

      Sucker bet.

    • mikeSchilling

      Ending the patronage system is just like bombing Syria once.

  • Joe_JP

    Perhaps, a bit on why Seymour was an “utter scumbag.”

    • rickstersherpa

      He, Seymour,was the leader of the “centrist” faction of the Copperheads in the Civil War Democratic party. Wrote the “peace platform” that promised the South an immediate end to hostilities & implicit promise to reenslave Blacks. Ran against Grant in 1868 on a platform of White supremacy & denying Black suffrage. Grant’s victory was followed by the enactment of 15th amendment. For nothing else Grant belongs in the middling ranks of US presidents. It says something about white supremacy & racism that until the very end of the 20th century Grant was considered the worst president on part due to his Reconstruction policies.

      • mikeSchilling

        And is still considered one of the worst due to the immense corruption associated with his presidency. A great general and a good man in many ways, but a terrible president.

        Though he did recently move up one notch.

        • Joe_JP

          I don’t know how much his Reconstruction policies affected his bad rankings — my understanding is that he got a bad reputation for the corruption (which was likely to come anyway given the times — there was a lot of corruption during the Civil War alone) and faults as an executive as compared to his skills at being a general.

          Some of this bad reputation was earned but there are lots of mediocre presidents. He had some good points too including some attempts to advance racial justice. Part of it is that many of the bad bunch are such nonentities that no one remembers them.

  • notahack

    A+ post Erik. Learned a lot and laughed out loud more than I was expecting.

  • Woodrowfan

    OT: Anyone else going to SHAFR this week???

    • N__B

      SHAFR is the one conference to have when you’re having more than one…

      • Woodrowfan

        nice reference!!!

  • Karen24

    ‘”Roscoe Conkling” is the most 19th Century name ever.

    • wjts

      It certainly the sort of name a boorish American would have in a Dickens novel.

    • N__B

      One of the founding fathers of the american structural terra cotta industry: Balthasar Kreischer.

      • West of the Cascades

        If Trump were to Make the American Structural Terra Cotta Industry Great Again, he might finally deserve praise for being Presidential. #MASTCIGA!

        • N__B

          Sounds good to me.

      • Karen24

        “Structural Terra Cotta” really should be either a band name or a pasta with cream sauce dish.

        • The Invisible Hand

          “Structural Terra Cotta”

          Crumbled Corn tortilla chips instead of Croûtons on salads.

        • N__B

          During demolition, I’ve inadvertently ingested enough of it to spit pink, so I feel I have the background to say: too much roughage.

        • LeeEsq

          “Structural Terra Cotta” sounds like something millennials should protest after Erik teaches a course about it.

    • John Revolta

      At first I thought this was gonna be about Chester Conklin the silent movie comedian. Then I thought it wasn’t. Then I got to the part about Fatty Arbuckle and the chase scene with the shotgun (Salmon “Chase” fer Chrissake) and then I got confused again. I need more coffee, or covfefe, or sumpin’.

    • Thlayli

      Certainly an era of politicians whose names were more impressive than they were: Rutherford Hayes, Grover Cleveland, Hamilton Fish.

  • Bitter Scribe

    I didn’t know that the reform Republicans were willing to throw black people under the bus (or streetcar, whatever). Very disappointing.

    Of course, the regular Republicans were willing to do the same thing to stay in power (i.e., the election of 1876).

    I guess if you were black in those days, your choices were, do you want to be kicked in the crotch with the toe or the ball of the foot?

  • AdamPShort

    My greatest ever bar trivia accomplishment was identifying a photograph of Horace Greeley in a “who is this a photograph of?” round at my local pub (which happens to be located across from the Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death church).

    I am pretty sure I was only able to do this because I am a reader of this blog. Wound up being worth about $15, as I recall. I should probably make a donation.

  • “He was married to utter scumbag 1868 Democratic presidential nominee Horatio Seymour’s sister..”
    The insult looks to be gender-neutral, so the sentence as written leaves it unclear whether Mr. Seymour or his sister is intended. I propose to defend her impugned honour. Pistols at 6 am by the graveside suit you?

  • Joe_JP

    Off topic link of the day:

    Gorsuch’s first opinion was bad both on style and content.


  • Tehanu

    I once owned an autograph letter of William Tecumseh Sherman’s — had to sell it for economic, um, anxiety reasons, but kept a transcript. Dated May 18, 1881 [not 1882], it says (in part):

    “There is absolutely nothing new here, save the … Conkling affair, which is the town’s talk. He has resigned as Senator because the President [insists on] nominating Robertson as [Collector] of New York — he of course expects to be reelected by the New York Legislature, but should he fail in this he will be fatally damaged in his political career.”

    I never spent any time looking up Conkling, but from your post it looks like Sherman’s forecast was accurate. (The square brackets in the transcript, by the way, are because Sherman’s handwriting wasn’t all that easy to read).

    • Even More Pedantic Asshole

      …an autograph letter of William Tecumseh Sherman’s

      So did he sign it twice?

      The closing signature and then across the top, “Hey, thanks for reading!, W`T~Sherman!!“?

  • iliketurtles

    “I love being in New York,” Romney said at the social club. “Everything seems right here. You know, I come back to New York; the graves are the right depth. The headstones are the right color for this time of year, kind of a greenish-gray sort of thing. It just feels right.”

It is main inner container footer text