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Was Harding’s mistress a spy? The National Archives knows and tells.

Today’s post comes from Miriam Kleiman of the National Archives Public Affairs Staff.

I’ve worked at the National Archives for many years and have always been content with our 13 Presidential libraries (Hoover through Bush 43). Sure, I’ve thought wistfully about a Washington, Adams, or Lincoln Library. But only recently did I long for a Warren G. Harding Library to be part of NARA!

Warren G. Harding. (111-P-1627, National Archives Identifier 530676)

Warren G. Harding. (111-P-1627, National Archives Identifier 530676)

Our neighbors down the road at the Library of Congress recently shared online more than 1,000 pages of love letters from Warren Gamaliel Harding to his longtime paramour, Mrs. Carrie Fulton Phillips.

I’ve read letters between John and Abigail Adams, and between Harry and Bess Truman. And while interesting, those seem G-rated in comparison to the wild, impassioned, heated, salacious letters (the early 20th-century version of sexting) from Warren to Carrie.

Is this news?

Historic Presidential affairs are not news; we’ve long heard of Harding’s carnal appetite. He boasted to a group of reporters: “It’s a good thing I’m not a woman. I would always be pregnant. I can’t say no.” Even during his Presidency, there were reports of mistresses, dalliances with young aides, and even illegitimate children.

But many of the affairs of other past Presidents didn’t leave a paper trail.

What is unique about this affair is the newly available extensive documentation. And the mix of personal and political: Harding vacillates between pillow talk and debate, and his letters reflect passion as well as growing uncertainty and fear of exposure to both the American public and to the German government.

Was the mistress a spy?

The question is not “Did she or didn’t she?” The Library of Congress has that covered. It’s clear that Mrs. Phillips and Mr. Harding had a long and torrid affair. The question is not “Was she pro-German?” It’s clear she supported Germany and opposed U.S. entry into World War I. The question to pursue in National Archives records is “Was she, or wasn’t she, a German spy?”

Harding praised Phillips’s “perfect thighs” and “beautiful form” but found her pro-German sympathies less attractive. National Archives records show that a few U.S. Government agencies found such sympathies of even greater concern, and monitored Phillips at home in Marion, OH, and during her visits to Harding in Washington.

In March 1915, a few months after the start of World War I, Harding wrote “I have never approved of your war attitude, but I have loved you no less.”

In February 1917, Harding recognized her “intense partnership and sympathy for and devotion to Germany” but stated, “I can and will do my duty accordingly to my best conscience and understanding and then take the consequences” if asked to support the war.

Department of Justice memorandum concerning Mrs. Phillips's pro-German sentiments. (Records of the ..., Record Group ..)

Department of Justice memorandum concerning Mrs. Phillips’s pro-German sentiments. (Records of the Military Intelligence Division, Records of the War Department General and Special Staffs, RG 165)

In April 1917, the month the United States entered World War I, Harding criticized Phillips for switching from lovemaking to politics during their last liaison, expressing the “shock” “when out of the very halo of blissful existence . . . you suddenly threatened me with exposure to the Germans.”

This is where the Archives trail gets hot. The War Department’s Military Intelligence Chief wrote then-Senator Harding (referencing Phillips and her daughter), asking “whether you do know them and anything you may know concerning them which would throw light on their loyalty to this country.”

Letter from the Chief of the War Department's Military Intelligence Section to Senator Harding, November 12, 1917. (Records of the ..., Record Group ...)

Letter from the Chief of the War Department’s Military Intelligence Section to Senator Harding, November 12, 1917. (Records of the Military Intelligence Division, Records of the War Department General and Special Staffs, RG 165)

Excerpt from Senator Harding's reply to the Chief of the Military Section, November 23, 1917. (Records of the ... , Record Group ...)

Excerpt from Senator Harding’s reply to the Chief of the Military Intelligence Section, November 23, 1917. (Records of the Military Intelligence Division, Records of the War Department General and Special Staffs, RG 165)

In February 1918, Harding begs Phillips to “be prudent in talking to others” about her pro-German sympathies. In June, he says people are discussing her pro-German sympathies “at home and echoed in 40 directions” and that she has been “reported to the departments here.” Furthermore, the senator writes: “People said you influenced my votes.” He urges her to be cautious.

An intelligence report that month cites accusations that Mrs. Phillips “has made many unpatriotic statements,” “is a traitor to her country,” and is “receiving money from German Government.” Department of Justice records show that officials there were tracking her visits to Senator Harding.

Extract from a Justice Department intelligence report, February 16-18, 1918. (Records of the ..., Record Group ...)

Extract from a Justice Department intelligence report, February 16-18, 1918. (Records of the Military Intelligence Division, Records of the War Department General and Special Staffs, RG 165)

Stay tuned as we explore the National Archives’ paper trial. While not as salacious as the Library of Congress’s trove, these records may yield definitive information about whether Philips’s pro-German activity veered beyond sympathy into active support.

And a shout-out to Florence, Harding’s long-suffering wife (about whom he wrote “there isn’t one iota of affection in my home relationship . . . It is merely existence, necessary for appearance’s sake.”)

Florence supported his political career and once remarked, “I have only one real hobby—my husband.” Tammy Wynette would be proud.

Discovering “Origin Stories” of the National Archives

Today’s post comes from Alan Walker, an archivist in the Textual Processing unit in the National Archives at College Park, MD. In celebration of American Archives Month, Alan gave a talk on interesting finds in the Records of the National Archives. You can view Alan’s talk on the National Archives YouTube Channel

National Archives Employee Identification Cards, 1941. (Records of the National Archives)

National Archives Employee Identification Cards, 1941. (Records of the National Archives)

What’s so great about a bunch of old employee ID cards? You might well wonder.

Since I was a kid, I’ve been drawn to pictures. I would devour illustrated children’s encyclopedia volumes over my morning cereal. Even now, if a nonfiction work has a picture section, I always go to it first. While I read, I constantly flip back to the photos. Images help to give my imagination a framework, a point of reference.

Over the past five years, as I have worked to arrange and describe the office files of the National Archives. I’ve read reams of documents from employees of this agency. I’ve often wished I could see a photo of that person; to make that small connection with someone who helped to make the history of one of our nation’s most important institutions.

Wish granted.

As an archivist in the Textual Processing unit at the National Archives, I am constantly elbow-deep in old, filthy boxes filled with the routine, the bizarre, the touching, and the amazing. To have the privilege of working on my own’ agency’s records is great enough, but to discover such finds as these is really like a small present from the past.

And those presents just keep coming. To see more of such finds as these, view my recent presentation about this amazing project:


On Exhibit: John Wilkes Booth’s Calling Card

Today’s post comes from Emma Rothberg, intern in the National Archives History Office. 

John Wilkes Booth's Calling Card, 04/14/1865. (National Archives Identifier 7873510)

John Wilkes Booth’s Calling Card, 04/14/1865. (National Archives Identifier 7873510)

Tucked in a corner in the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery at the National Archives in Washington, DC, is a rectangular piece of paper faded grey with time. It is unobtrusive and, due to its small size, could easily be missed among the larger and flashier documents and artifacts. But this card is a reminder of one of the most resonant and well known stories of American history—that of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination by the actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth.

Vice President Andrew Johnson, undated. (National Archives Identifier 530496)

Vice President Andrew Johnson, undated. (National Archives Identifier 530496)

On April 14, 1865, Vice President Johnson was staying at the Kirkwood House—a hotel that stood at the corner of 12th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, NW.  Also in the hotel, and in a room directly one floor above the Vice President’s suite, was George Atzerodt. He was a fellow conspirator in Booth’s larger plot to murder President Lincoln, Secretary of State William H. Seward, and Vice President Johnson and thus throwing the recently victorious North into chaos and disarray. Atzerodt—a German carriage painter from Maryland who had spent the Civil War years ferrying Confederates across the Potomac—arrived at the Kirkwood House on the morning of the 14th. His task: to assassinate Vice President Johnson.

Like a character from a bad cop movie, Atzerodt proved to be an inept conspirator—he signed for the room with his own name and spent most of his “surveillance” time in the hotel bar asking suspicious questions about Johnson. Once drunk, Atzerodt armed himself and asked the desk clerk to point him in the direction of the Vice President’s ground-floor room. When told that Johnson had just returned to his room, Atzerodt balked and immediately left the hotel. He spent the next several hours drunkenly wandering around the streets of Washington. Vice President Johnson left shortly afterward for his own meeting with Lincoln at the White House.

John Wilkes Booth, undated. (National Archives Identifier 518136)

John Wilkes Booth, undated. (National Archives Identifier 518136)

Later that afternoon, just hours before he assassinated Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth arrived at the Kirkwood Hotel looking for George Atzerodt.  Upon learning of his co-conspirator’s flight, Booth asked for a blank card, addressed it to Vice President Johnson and wrote, “Don’t wish to disturb you Are you at home? J. Wilkes Booth.”

This card is now on display in “Making Their Mark: Stories Through Signatures,” an exhibit at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC.

We all know the rest of the story. President Lincoln, joined by his wife Mary, Maj. Henry Rathbone and his fiancée, Clara Harris, attended a staging of the popular comedy Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre on 10th Street on the night of April 14. Having acted on its stage, Booth knew the ins and outs of the theatre, and he was also quite familiar with the play. He walked up the back stairs, waited for the line that would garner the most laughs (Mr. Trenchard: “Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, you sockdologizing old man-trap”), and fired into the back of Lincoln’s head.

Private box in Ford's Theater where President Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, on the night of April 14, 1865. (National Archives Identifier 559275)

Private box in Ford’s Theater where President Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, on the night of April 14, 1865. (National Archives Identifier 559275)

The crowd was at first unaware of what had happened, thinking it was a part of the play, until audience members heard Mary’s scream from the Presidential box and saw Booth jumping to the stage. As he jumped, he caught his boot spur on the bunting and broke his left shin bone as he landed. Booth then uttered his famous line, “Sic semper tyrannis”—“Thus always to tyrants,” the Virginia state motto—before hobbling off the stage and making his escape on horseback.

President Abraham Lincoln died the next morning at 7:22 a.m. on April 15, 1865.

Historians continue to debate why Booth would have left this card for Vice President Johnson. The Senate’s biography on Andrew Johnson posits the idea that, upon knowing that Atzerodt was not up to task, Booth devised a plan to implicate the Vice President in the conspiracy. Having to explain a calling card left by the assassin of the President of the United States would certainly create problems for Johnson and further Booth’s ultimate plan of throwing the North into confusion.

Fortunately for Johnson, his secretary William A. Browning picked up the mail (including Booth’s calling card) assuming it was for him. Browning had met Booth once after a theater performance.

Whether or not this is the whole story behind the calling card, the signature gives us pause.

We know what it speaks to, we know the date it was signed, and we recognize the name. We recognize this calling card and this signature—a signature that played a direct role in the assassination of one of the United States’s most beloved Presidents—as small yet important parts in a story that we all know so well.

The exhibit “Making Their Mark: Stories Through Signatures” is free and open to the public in the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery of the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, through January 5, 2015.

The Ike Jacket

Today’s post comes from Timothy Rives, deputy director of the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum. In honor of Veterans Day and those who have worn a uniform while serving their country, here’s the story behind the famous jacket now on display in our exhibit “Making Their Mark: Stories Through Signatures.”

General Dwight D. Eisenhower considered the Army’s World War II military uniform to be restricting and poorly suited for combat. Instead he had a standard issue wool field jacket tailored to be “very short, very comfortable, and very natty looking.” The resulting “Eisenhower jacket” or “Ike jacket,” as it came to be known, was standard issue to American troops after November 1944. This “Ike jacket” was worn by Eisenhower.

One of General Eisenhower's jackets is currently on display in the "Making Their Mark" exhibit at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC.

One of General Eisenhower’s jackets is currently on display in the “Making Their Mark” exhibit at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC.

Ike urged theater-wide adoption of the shorter jacket in a May 5, 1943, letter to General George C. Marshall, the Army Chief of Staff:

I have no doubt that you have been impressed by the virtual impossibility of appearing neat and snappy in our field uniform. Given a uniform which tends to look a bit tough, and the natural proclivities of the American soldier quickly create a general impression of a disorderly mob. From this standpoint alone, the matter is bad enough; but a worse effect is the inevitable result upon the general discipline This matter of discipline is not only the most important of our internal military problems, it is the most difficult. In support of all other applicable methods for the development of satisfactory methods we should have a neater and smarter uniform. I suggest the Quartermaster begin now serious work to design a better woolen uniform for next winter’s wear.

Ike’s argument won the day, and the “Wool Field Jacket, M-1944” debuted in the European Theater of Operations in November 1944. The iconic jacket continued to be issued to American troops until 1956, when a general phase out begin. The Ike jacket was gone from the Army inventory by October 1960, according to the US Army Center of Military History.

Buried in a plain Army casket and adorned in his namesake jacket, Eisenhower rests in peace in the Place of Meditation on the grounds of the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, Kansas.

Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum, National Archives (63-92)

Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum, National Archives (63-92)


The Louisiana Purchase Treaty on display in St. Louis

Today’s post comes from James Zeender, Senior Registrar at the National Archives.

On October 25, “The Louisiana Purchase: Making St. Louis, Remaking America” opened in St. Louis. The Missouri History Museum and the National Archives partnered to organize the exhibition, which features the original Louisiana Purchase Treaty of 1803, on loan from the National Archives.

Other National Archives documents on display include Spain’s agreement with France to transfer the Territory to France, the act authorizing the President to take possession from France, the treaty between the United States and the Sauk and the Fox Indians signed at St. Louis in 1804, and six more related items.

James Zeender and Terry Boone of the NAtional Archives examine the Treaty between U.S. and Sauk and Fox Indians, signed in 1804 at St. Louis. (Photograph courtesy of the Missouri History Museum)

James Zeender and Terry Boone of the National Archives examine the Treaty between U.S. and Sauk and Fox Indians, signed in 1804 at St. Louis. (Photograph courtesy of the Missouri History Museum)

The exhibition explores treaty negotiations, the debate in Congress, the territory’s mixed culture and multilingual society, settler conflict with Native Americans, and the extension of slavery into the West.

Did you know the original Louisiana Purchase Treaty consists of three different documents? Each required a separate set of signatures and the private red wax seals of American envoys Robert Livingston and James Monroe and the French finance minister François de Barbé-Marbois.

The Treaty of Cession transferred 828,000 acres of land west of the Mississippi from France to the United States. In the two financial conventions, the parties agreed the United States would pay 11.25 million dollars to France and forgive 3.75 million dollars of French debts to American citizens.

Just a year earlier in 1802, France’s sale of the entire Louisiana Territory was unthinkable. Spain had just withdrawn the right of deposit at New Orleans from American traders, a right Spain had guaranteed to the United States in the Pinckney Treaty of 1795.

The 1800 Treaty of Ildefonso between France and Spain transferred the Louisiana Territory from Spain to France. At the time, Napoleon Bonaparte hoped to create a colonial empire in North America. President Thomas Jefferson, the leader of the young and militarily weak republic, was troubled by what these actions might mean in the near term and the future. Although his minister to France, Robert Livingston, already had instructions to purchase New Orleans, Jefferson decided to send fellow Virginian and confidant James Monroe as a special envoy to the French court to reinforce Livingston’s actions.

When Monroe arrived in Paris on April 12, 1803, Livingston had learned only the day before that there was a chance to obtain the whole of the Louisiana territory. Bonaparte was short of funds due to almost continuous wars with Great Britain, and his plans for retaking Haiti (lost the previous decade in a slave revolt) had failed miserably. He asked his finance minister, Barbé-Marbois, to see what he could get from the Americans for all of Louisiana.

The three quickly reached a deal and the treaty documents were soon prepared. The text was written out in French first and then translated into English. Although all were dated April 30, 1803, they were not signed until a day or two later. The hard work done, the treaty documents (including Bonaparate’s instrument of ratification) were put on a ship bound for the United States. The ship arrived in New York by mid-June, but the documents did not reach President Jefferson in Washington until July 4.


The Louisiana Purchase Treaty, signed in Paris, April 30, 1803. (National Archives Identifier 7891099)

 The Louisiana Purchase Treaty, signed in Paris, April 30, 1803. (National Archives)

The Louisiana Purchase Treaty, signed in Paris, April 30, 1803. (National Archives Identifier 7891099)

In a letter dated May 12, Monroe and Livingston wrote to Madison:

An acquisition of so great an extent was, we well Know, not contemplated by our appointment; but we are persuaded that the Circumstances and Considerations which induced us to make it, will justify us, in the measure, to our Government and Country.

Jefferson was both surprised and delighted at his country’s good fortune when the news reached him in Washington in early July. Yet he had constitutional qualms about his authority to purchase and obtain foreign land. He consulted with his Secretary of State James Madison and others about whether to pursue a constitutional amendment before ratifying the treaty. An amendment would require a two-thirds vote in both houses of Congress and three-fourths of state legislatures. Although only 15 states existed at the time, getting the needed votes would still have been a dangerously time-consuming task.

Meanwhile, Livingston wrote from Paris that Napoleon was having second thoughts, giving Jefferson the push he needed to submit the treaty to the Senate for its advice and consent, which came on October 20, 1803. Despite strong opposition from the Federalists, Congress quickly passed an act authorizing the President of the United States to take possession of the territory. Jefferson signed it on October 31, 1803. On December 20, a ceremony  at the Cabildo in New Orleans formally transferred the territory from France to the United States.

In his second inaugural address on March 5, 1805, Jefferson was able to look back with more perspective and wrote:

I know that the acquisition of Louisiana has been disapproved by some, from a candid apprehension that the enlargement of our territory would endanger its union. But who can limit the extent to which the federative principle may operate effectively? The larger our association, the less will it be shaken by local passions; and in any view, is it not better that the opposite bank of the Mississippi should be settled by our own brethren and children, than by strangers of another family? With which shall we be most likely to live in harmony and friendly intercourse?

As you can imagine, the people of Louisiana living there at the time of the transfer were confused. Which laws were in effect; which would remain in effect; whose land claims would be honored?

In the new exhibition, curator Adam Kloppe wrote about “Esther,” whose life changed after the United States took over St. Louis:

Around 1784, an enslaved woman named Esther was brought to St. Louis by successful merchant Jacques Clamorgan. Eventually, Esther began a relationship with Clamorgan, becoming his confidant and business partner. By 1793, she was so involved with Clamorgan’s business that he gave Esther her freedom. For Esther, freedom meant she could work and acquire her own wealth. But for Clamorgan, it had been a business decision, and he intended to claim any property in Esther’s name. By 1797, Esther had caught onto his scheme and left him—taking her share of the property with her.

However, American rule changed everything. Clamorgan, taking advantage of new laws that hindered a woman’s ability to own property, challenged Esther’s claims and even forged documents to weaken her case. Soon, Esther was in court, fighting for the property that was rightfully hers. When she died in 1833, much of her property was still in limbo due to the changes wrought by the Louisiana Purchase (Courtesy of Missouri History Museum).

Native Americans would lose even more on a grand scale—sometimes their land and hunting grounds, sometimes their health and even their lives, and sometimes their cultural identity due to forced assimilation under the United States Government.

Terry Boone of the National Archives and Matt Gurley and Amanda Bailey of the Missouri History Museum prepare the Louisiana Purchase Treaty. (Missouri History Museum)

Terry Boone of the National Archives and Adam Kloppe and Amanda Bailey of the Missouri History Museum prepare the Louisiana Purchase Treaty. (Missouri History Museum)

On April 30, 1903, the city of St. Louis hosted the opening of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (or World’s Fair), 100 years after the treaty signing. According the Missouri History Museum, “The Fair boasted extravagant exhibits from fifty foreign countries and forty-three of the then forty-five states. Festival Hall, in the center of the Colonnade of States overlooking the Grand Basin, had a seating capacity of 3,500. Eight principal palaces surrounded Festival Hall.”

Cardinal James Gibbons gave the invocation on April 30, 1903, and was followed by President Theodore Roosevelt and former President Grover Cleveland.

The exposition was widely acclaimed, but it had one flaw in my estimation. As far as I can tell after examining State Department’s records here at the National Archives, the exposition did not have the original Louisiana Purchase Treaty.

Speeding ahead another 110 years, the city’s civic leaders organized a committee, named STL250, to celebrate the city’s 250th birthday. STL250’s plans were less grandiose than their 1903 predecessors, but the committee did aspire to represent the city in all its cultural and social diversity.

The National Archives was part of STL250 in the person of Bryan McGraw, the access coordinator of the National Personnel Records Center, located in St. Louis. A few years ago, Bryan reported there was interest in bringing the original Louisiana Purchase Treaty to St. Louis as part of the 250th celebration. At the time, nothing was concrete.

The Missouri History Museum soon volunteered to organize an exhibition around the treaty, and the project suddenly had wheels. We have made at least three important loans to the museum in the last decade, including over 30 documents for an exhibit on Lewis and Clark. These past partnerships had all proceeded smoothly, so we welcomed another opportunity to work with the museum.

We were soon in touch with Katie Van Allen and her colleagues. With their hard work for over a year and support from our National Archives team, the exhibition came together beautifully.

“The Louisiana Purchase: Making St. Louis, Remaking America” is open through April 19, 2015.

I want to thank all my colleagues at the National Archives and Missouri History Museum who made this exhibition possible.

From the National Archives: Chris Smith, Jim Gardner, Bryan McGraw, Jane Fitzgerald, Martha Grove, Natasha Currie, Terry Boone, Morgan Zinsmeister, Lisa Royse, Alexis Hill, Patrick Kepley, Karen Hibbitt, Michelle Farnsworth, Suzanne Isaacs, Maria Marable, Stephanie Greenhut, Miriam Kleiman, Laura Diachenko, Hilary Parkinson, Chris Isleib, Lee Johnson, and Bill Nenichka.

From the Missouri History Museum: Frances Levine, Katie Van Allen, Jody Sowell, Amanda Bailey, Matt Gurley, Katie Moon, and the rest of the Museum staff.

The National Archives and its Presidential Libraries loan items from their holdings to qualified institutions for exhibition purposes in order to make the nation’s records available to the public across the country and around the world. Loans include items of special interest to local and regional museums and their communities while also helping to foster civic literacy. Read more on the “National Archives on the Road” web page.