21. Chester Alan Arthur

123 Lexington Ave. (March 23, 2010)

Chester A. Arthur, werewolf and possible Canadian, became our fearless leader above Indian grocery in Mahattan.

Sort of. Kalustyan's is old -- around since 1944 -- but it's not like Chet was popping downstairs every few days to pick up curry powder. He lived in the building back in 1881, and it's where he was hanging out when the word came about James Garfield's death. Today Joe Biden probably clocks a significant number of hours at an undisclosed location (obviously not a barber shop), but back then the vice president really did almost nothing. If he wanted to hang out in Mahattan in his free time -- and it was mostly free time -- no one cared. If not for his bad kidneys, he probably could have hit the bars in Chelsea without anyone buying him shots.

So when Garfield kicked the bucket at the Jersey Shore, Chester was chilling at home in NYC. You can't get into his former apartment, since someone lives there. They probably throw awesome Chester Arthur-themed parties every month where the guests dress fancy and wear fake sideburns -- who wouldn't? But you'll have to make do with a tiny plaque behind a plexiglass shield near the door: "Here on Sept. 20, 1881, Chester A. Arthur took his oath of office as 21st president of the United States upon the death of President James A. Garfield, killed by a disgruntled office seeker." It's a notch a above "We don't swim in your toilet, so don't pee in our pool" on the grandeur scale, but it's something -- if nothing else, the whole setup is a reminder of how history just keeps plowing ahead. Only two presidents were inaugurated in New York City. Washington's ascent is still pretty well preseved down by Wall Street, because he's George F'n Washington. Chester's home, on the other hand, is an afterthought on a block dotted with Indian carryout places. There's only so much space in the national memory, so a plaque is as good as it's getting.

As it turns out, Chester also died at 123 Lexington Ave., about two years after leaving D.C. He kept his health problems secret from the public during his presidency, which was also a cool thing to do right up through 1963, but he never got to enjoy much of a retirement. He died way before Coyote Ugly even opened.

But stop by if you're in the neighborhood! There's no tour, or museum, or people who could pick Chester Arthur out of a police lineup. But sometimes it's nice just to wade into history, buy an imported jar of honey for $3.99, and then contemplate leadership until the Indian lady at the register starts to wonder what the hell your problem is and asks you to leave.

Our Canadian President (August 30, 2009)

In the time before paper trails, the Internet and talk radio, politics was a different beast. In the 19th century, you could actually -- get this -- accuse someone of not being born in America! What a silly, preposterous time! Hee hee!

There's a granite marker in Fairfield, Vermont, proudly declaring the exact site as the birthplace of Chester Alan Arthur. So sayeth the state of Vermont. Would that carving things in granite made them so, for I would record my personal finances with a chisel. The truth is that no one living knows exactly where Arthur was born. Fairfield seems the best bet, but there are about 4 or 5 different locations in town, all anecdotal, with a claim on that great honor. The old root cellar? The farm up the hill? The alley behind the 7-11? If the town was big enough for a 7-11, which it isn't?

A New York lawyer by the name of Arthur Hinman cast his vote for Canada or Ireland, whichever one would have kept Chet out of the vice presidential slot in 1880. He was bankrolled by the DNC, so all this birther stuff is clearly a Republican revenge plot. Hinman did have some doubt to play with: Arthur's Baptist preacher dad was off-the-boat Irish, his mom's parents lived in Canada, and the Arthurs moved alot to keep up with William's extravagant preaching lifestyle. Adding to the confusion was the fact that Chester might have lied about his age -- he insisted he was born in 1830, though the family Bible and a few other pieces of evidence say 1829. Damn you, vanity! But there wasn't any information solid enough to make Chester a foreigner, as so he went on to become our greatest sideburned president.

If you happen to be in the neighborhood of Fairfield (evading the authorities, planning a drug buy) you should stop on by. The Arthur site is just 12 miles off if I-89 through beautiful farmland, the kind of scenery that makes you want to roll down your car window, only to realize that farm air smells like a petting zoo collided with a sewage treatment facility. About halfway in you can stop at the town, a one stop-light affair with some quaint buildings, including a town meeting room with a life-sized cutout of Chester Arthur. Seriously. If you head six miles up the hill, what you'll be visiting is that slab of granite, plus a reconstruction of the simple parsonage the Arthurs moved into around 1830. If you're lucky, it'll actually be open, and you can look at the nice little displays they have about Arthur's life.

Even if it isn't open, don't despair! You can actually press your face against the many windows and read or photograph all the different displays. If you circle the building you can get them all. Don't worry about looking stupid! Speaking from personal experience, I'm about 95 percent sure that no one else will be there. You might have to take a look within, and realize that you are a 32-year-old man in the middle of nowhere pressing his face against the windows of a reconstructed home of a president no one really cares about, but don't worry -- you'll have a very long car ride back home to think about these things. And at the very least, you can always say that you drove two hours to see a spot that is probably within 10 miles or so of where Chester Alan Arthur was born. Although you could probably say that without making the trip. I doubt anyone would check.

Here are pictures! Some things to note: the house is two-tone because paint was expensive. You only put the fancy, high-priced yellow stuff on the side that would face the road; the cheap red paint would go on the back side (you can see the same pattern at Franklin Pierce's birthplace). You would think a Baptist parsonage wouldn't be beholden to such posturing, but you'd be wrong! The shot of my car is an attempt to illustrate the state of Vermont's slight overestimation of the site's parking needs. This might actually be in the running for remotest presidential site; I saw one news story with an estimate of 400 visitors a year. This is a great hobby.




Arthurian Legend (August 3, 2008)

Chester Arthur is best known as "The Father of Civil Service," and that pretty much gives you the baseline for the excitement level of his presidency. It's dull.

It started with a bang, though! Specifically, when Charles Guiteau shot James Garfield in a Washington, D.C., train station, and then announced, "I am a Stalwart of the Stalwarts! Arthur is president now!" He also did the cabbage patch.

The thinking was that Vice President Arthur, a Stalwart Republican with a reputation for liking the patronage system, would be so grateful for his promotion that he'd pardon Guiteau and then give him the hook-up. This would have made for some really awkward office conversation.

SUPERVISOR: Charles, could you please file this paperwork?

CHARLES GUITEAU: I'm sorry, I didn't hear that. Could you speak into this gun?

SUPERVISOR: We've been over this. Do you need to talk to HR again?

CHARLES GUITEAU: How about I talk with Assistant Supervisor Johnson instead?

From a marketing perspective, that's not the best way to kick off your time at the top, so Arthur changed his tune and helped pass civil-service reform. And the rest is boring, boring history. The guy did well enough in office to leave the White House with a reputation for integrity and competence, and now he even has a pretty swank grave in Albany Rural Cemetery. Check it:

Yes, that's an angel dusting his sarcophagus. When the heavenly hosts are keeping your resting place dust-free, that's saying something. Not the biggest presidential grave, and not the sexiest location (though Albany Rural Cemetery is very pretty, and probably a nightmare for whoever has to mow the lawn), but Arthur's marker is the most distinctive one I've seen so far. Kudos, Chester.

Arthur is kickin' it (post kicking it) in Albany because his professional life was spent in New York; he was a lawyer who was named head of the New York Customs House by President Grant. Although he was supposedly a scrupulous man, he did know that the Stalwart Republican machine was buttering his bread, and he played the game by giving party hacks some cushy jobs. That's what got him fired by President Rutherford B. Hayes.

Two years later he was the vice president, even though Garfield hated his guts, because Republicans figured the Stalwart faction should have SOMEONE on the ticket and he was the only guy who seemed interested. One assassination later, and blammo! From utter disgrace to leader of the United States in three short years. So don't worry if you're stuck behind the counter at a Wendy's. Good things can happen if you keep your head down and keep plugging.

FUN ARTHUR FACTS!

  • Arthur commissioned Louis Comfort Tiffany to redecorate the White House in all the latest styles, although Congress blocked all attempts to make it non-white after Labor Day.
  • Known as Elegant Arthur for his refined taste, fastidious dress, and great gams.
  • Changed pants several times a day, not because he was a clothes horse, but because he had kidney problems. Cough.
  • Diagnosed with a fatal kidney ailment before becoming president, although as an Irishman kidney damage was probably in his future no matter what.
  • Fired everyone in Garfield's cabinet, except for "lucky charm" War Secretary Robert Todd Lincoln, who was present when Garfield was shot.
  • "Arthur" is considered the most inaccurate biopic ever made.



One man's quest to be the humblest person alive
Copyright 2013, Chris White