Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Portraits: James A. Garfield's inaugural ball, March 1881

Here’s a snapshot I took recently of a rarely seen two-page spread from the Leslie’s Illustrated of March 19, 1881. It took a team of artists to sketch and then carve it by hand onto wooden block for printing. It shows the grand inaugural ball for PresidentJames A. Garfield, held in the Smithsonian Building that year. Garfield, a popular and moderate Ohio Republican, was doomed to serve only four months in office before a psychopathic hanger-on named Charles Guiteau shot him in the back as Garfield was entering the Washington, D.C. train station on a Saturday morning that July. Garfield would die from infection (yes, the doctors killed him by failing to wash their hands) a few months later on September 19, 1881. His assassination would shock the nation and make Garfield widely popular for a generation. There is hardly a town or city in America with a Garfield Street or two.
Click on the photo to blow it up and marvel at the detail. So accurate is the sketch that you can make out literally dozens of prominent faces in the crowd: Garfield, his wife Lucretia, Senators Roscoe Conkling, John Sherman, and Carl Schurz, plus incoming Vice President Chester Alan Arthur, incoming Secretary of State James G. Blaine, and a bevy of foreign diplomats. Look at the women’s gowns, the bunting on the walls, the guarded conversations. The band that night played tunes from the latest Gilbert and Sullivan operetta H.M.S. Pinafore — Garfield’s favorite. — that had premiered in London just two years earlier.
It’s a group portrait of a vanishing generation of politicians taken at a moment of graceful indulgence. Could any photograph or video have captured the moment so well?

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