Sunday, December 15, 2013

An unexpected find: three letters written by William Almon Wheeler, Part One

            After five years of researching and writing my biography of William Almon Wheeler, and another two years working with my publisher’s review teams, copy editors, and production coordinators, news that the book was finally printed, stored in a warehouse in Virginia, and being readied for the retail market, gave me a sense of relief and accomplishment I have never felt before.
            And then Barry Birnbaum, a commercial artist with a yen for historical research and artifacts, emailed an unsettling, but exciting and interesting, message to me. It seems he had come into possession of three letters that had been written by Wheeler to his cousin Sarah Grosvenor in Michigan and Barry wondered if I would like to take a look at them.
            Of course I said yes and while I waited for Barry to email me photographs of the letters, I could not help feeling a little bit uneasy and concerned. Was there something in the letters that might contradict or undermine what had just been printed in my book? After all, it had just been delivered to my publisher’s warehouse.
Joseph Pulitzer. Library of Congress.

            Very few letters written by Wheeler have been located. Some are in the archives of the Hayes Presidential Center in Fremont, Ohio, and others can be found in the New York State Library’s Manuscripts and Special Collections in Albany. Beyond that, letters written by Wheeler are few and far between.
            Barry said the letters had been written in 1884, 1885, and 1886, the last few years of Wheeler’s life. During this time, Sarah’s sister, Fanny, was living in Wheeler’s home in Malone helping him, working as his companion and secretary. The 65-year-old ex-vice president’s health had taken a turn for the worse in 1884 and he had resigned from the Malone school board, midway through the five-year term he had been elected to in 1881. In 1885, his health continued to slide and he began writing his memoirs. He felt better throughout most of 1886 and served on a local committee that was working to convince the state to build a mental health hospital in Malone. However in November, Wheeler’s health once again took a turn for the worse. Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World reported that Wheeler was a physical wreck, lying in bed under heavy doses of opium. Wheeler’s family and friends denied Pulitzer’s report but within the coming year, on June 4, 1887, Wheeler died.
            Would the letters Barry was sending add anything to this story or to anything else in the book? Contradict anything? Confirm anything? I would have to wait until Barry’s photographs of Wheeler’s letters arrived in my inbox.


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