Day 178: Four People Who Are Dead

originally published June 26, 2012

Today’s article is about death. It’s not that I’m feeling especially morbid today, I just find it interesting that the people who died in the 1800s stand a better chance of having an article-worthy death (or sometimes life) story than people who have died since.

Take James Holt Clanton, for example.

Clanton was a lawyer, a soldier, even a brigadier general for the Confederacy during the Civil War. He was shot, captured, and eventually pardoned by the US Government once the war had abated.

He moseyed into Knoxville, Tennessee in 1871 to represent the State of Alabama in a court case against a railroad. Clanton was convinced that because of the anti-Confederacy sentiment in eastern Tennessee, the railroad company would have him assassinated. Still, he accepted the offer of a tour of the city by opposing lawyer Tomlinson Fort, because Fort was a friend and there was probably the promise of liquor and possibly prostitutes involved.

Along the way they ran into David Nelson, another lawyer. Dave was hammered, and it didn’t take long for him to offend Clanton. Clanton, being of southern-gentlemanly disposition, challenged Dave to a duel. Fort tried to intervene, pointing out to his friend that Dave was wasted and dueling wasn’t necessary. Dave ran and grabbed a shotgun, and squeezed off two shots, while Clanton fired one. Clanton was hit, Dave was not.

What a way to go. Forty-four years on the planet, works his way up to general, gets a law degree, then picks a fight with the wrong drunk. The 19th century was bad-ass.

There are 744 Wiki-article-worthy people listed as having died in 1871. Clanton’s is not the only interesting story.

Thomas Garrett’s death story is unremarkable. But his life story should have been turned into at least three movies-of-the-week and maybe a mini-series by now.

A dedicated abolitionist, Garrett once tracked down one of his servants after she’d been kidnapped to be sold into slavery. I’d like to think he uttered some pre-ass-kickery line (“It’s just been revoked!”), then butchered the kidnappers with a rusty blade and a testosterone-soaked instinct for being awesome.

Garrett moved to Wilmington, where he operated the final station on the Underground Railroad in the state of Delaware. He supplied money and new shoes to Harriet Tubman when she’d frequently pass through, transporting slaves away from the South. It’s estimated he helped 2700 slaves find their way to freedom before the Civil War got around to making his task thankfully obsolete. Another historical figure to make me feel inadequate. I haven’t freed half that many people.

After the 15th Amendment was passed, allowing blacks the right to vote, Garrett was carried throughout Wilmington by a group of proud former slaves, along with a banner that read, “Our Moses.” Not bad.

Little Tad was unlucky enough to have been born a Lincoln. Honest Abe’s kids didn’t have a lot of luck; Edward died of tuberculosis at a young age, Willie died while Abe was in office. Only Robert Lincoln survived into adulthood, which is why the weakened family ancestry line died out in 1985 when Robert’s last grandchild passed away.

Tad was a rambunctious kid. He was just shy of eight when his father was sworn in as president, and he made the White House his playground. For whatever reason, Abe and Mary didn’t see it necessary to send Tad to school. He was known for bursting in on his dad’s presidential meetings, giggling loudly during his dad’s presidential suppers, and yelling through the door to interrupt his dad’s presidential poops.

Tad’s instructors in the White House often quit in frustration. He was the Presidential Dennis the Menace. After his father’s assassination, Tad moved to Chicago with his family. He made it until July 15, 1871, when tuberculosis grabbed him at age eighteen.

Charles Heidsieck, whose real nickname was in fact Champagne Charlie, is the guy you can thank in six months when you’re stocking up on bubbly for New Year’s Eve. Charlie was born in France; his father notoriously rode a white stallion into Moscow ahead of Napoleon’s army, ready with a case of champagne to celebrate with whomever was the winner of the battle.

Charlie sailed over to the USA in 1852, and discovered it to be a vast untapped market for his fizzy beverage. He was right – champagne was a hit, and when Charlie returned five years later, he was the toast of New York’s high society. It was a wave of fame and fast-flowing fortune that would last right up to the start of the Civil War.

Once the war began, collecting payments for his American orders became increasingly difficult. Charlie trucked down south, trying to stay off the radar of both the Union and Confederate armies. Unfortunately, almost everyone who owed Charlie money was flat broke when he came to town. Giving up, Charlie tried to charter a boat to Cuba in order to gain passage back to Europe; heading back through state after state of bloody battlefields didn’t seem like the most welcoming route.

The French consul in Mobile, Alabama, offered to help Charlie out, in exchange for Charlie delivering some documents to the consul in New Orleans. Charlie obliged, but arrived in the Big Easy to discover it had been taken by Union forces. When they searched Charlie, they found that the documents contained details from French textile manufacturers about their plans to supply the Confederate Army with uniforms. Needless to say, the Union Army didn’t see the humor in the situation.

Charlie was locked up. It became an international incident, and by the time he was released in November, 1862, Charlie was in poor health and completely bankrupt. Luckily, you can’t keep a good Frenchman down, especially if that Frenchman has access to copious amounts of quality hooch.

His state-side agent, who had been of no use when Charlie was trying to collect his debts, and even less use when Charlie was locked up, made good. Actually, the agent’s brother made good. He felt rotten about the way Charlie was treated, and offered him some land in Colorado as compensation. That land just happened to be roughly a third of a village known as Denver.

Charlie returned to good health, returned to good fortune, and returned to the life of a champagne magnate. The only down-side is that when it came time to cast him in a TV movie based on his life, he was played by Hugh Grant.

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