Pandemonium inside the White House

John Stegeman, Sports Editor

May 10, 2013

Chip Horr

Contributing Columnist

Unlike today, the White House in 1860 was indeed the “People’s House.” As recorded by the Lincoln Institute “in the four years between March 1861 and 1865, many politicians, generals, journalists, job seekers and relatives of Mrs. Lincoln passed through the doors of the White House. Although the commotion was seldom as great as following President Lincoln’s inaugurations, these visitors took a great toll on the building and its principal resident. There was seldom any respite from the demands of those seeking a promotion, a policy change, or a pardon. On those rare occasions where it turned out that the visitor was seeking nothing, Mr. Lincoln reacted with relief and pleasure.”

The new elegance of the White House after Mrs. Lincoln’s extravagant spending spree of more than $27,000 was undermined by heavy traffic from citizens interested in visiting the Lincolns or just taking home a piece of their house. The Civil War brought thousands of Americans to Washington on military and other official business. A French reporter wrote that “at all hours of the day, you will find curious or idle people milling about in the great reception room where the President holds his popular audiences. It is said that some visitors — country bumpkins, no doubt — cut pieces from the silk curtains to take home as souvenirs of their pilgrimage. You may think that a policeman or at least a guard has been posted. Not at all! There is only a notice asking visitors to respect the furnishings, which belong to the government. Wear and tear was clearly increased by this lack of security at the White House.

Journalist Noah Brooks wrote in early 1864, “People who visit the White House usually have a free range over the East Room and one or two of the adjoining parlors; accordingly relic-hunters have acquired the practice of cutting out and carrying off bits of rich carpet, damask hangings, and even large pieces of fringe, cords, tassels, gilt scroll-work and the covering of damask sofas. A few weeks ago an officer was caught, in company with two ladies, who had his penknife and were cutting out a square of red brocade from one of the East Room chairs, while he stood guard. The ladies were let off and the officer was sent to the Old Capitol [Prison].”

Historian Margaret Leech noted that the situation worsened by the fall of 1864: “In the absence of ushers to protect the costly public property, the craze for mementos had led to wanton vandalism, and it seemed natural and desirable that special officers should be assigned to the Executive Mansion. Late in November, the press began to report arrests. The “National Republican” stated that it had been requested to give notice that (U.S.) Marshall Ward Lamon had detailed officers to the White House under orders to apprehend all persons detected in larcenies. Four members of the Metropolitan Police had, in fact, been assigned to duty there. However, their primary function was not to arrest memento seekers, but to protect the person of the President.”

The damages to the Executive Mansion worsened after the President’s death in April 1865 when both servants and visitors took advantage of lax security to remove everything from crystal to furnishings. According to White House historian William Seale, “With no supervision, tourists who were so inclined looted the state rooms for souvenirs. No one could keep order, or did not have the good judgment to do so. The public pressed in when the doors opened in the morning and left only when forced out by the afternoon closing.”