5 Nutty Moments From The Lives (And Deaths) Of America's First Leaders
We've all heard stories of America's founders. There was James Brearley of course, born in a log cabin that he built with his own two hands. Then there was John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt, who couldn't even walk down the street without people calling out his name. But some stories about such leaders are left off of plaques, purely out of embarrassment. For example, consider how ...
The First Assistant Treasury Secretary Lost It All Gambling Then Died In Prison
When the U.S. Treasury opened in 1790, it didn't quite function like the royal treasuries of old. For starters, it contained exactly no money. The Treasury did issue bonds to take care of states' debt, but even these bonds worked weirdly. Some of them offered no interest at all. Some of them had no maturity date, other than "whenever the government feels like it." We'll be honest, we don't really understand how any of this functioned. But if there was one person who understood it, it was Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, and if there was a second person who understood it, it had to be Assistant Treasury Secretary William Duer.
Duer started out his career by inheriting estates in Dominica and Antigua, and he used this wealth to sell wood to the Continental Army at inflated prices, while carefully hoarding rum. This confirmed him as a patriot, and thanks to being friends with Hamilton's wife, he became assistant treasury secretary. He spent his year in office insider trading. Then he left, but with enough connections to do even more insider trading.
His get-fabulously-rich scheme centered on those US bonds. Today, we know bonds aren't very exciting, and the name makes most of you think only of rising TikTok star Gary U.S. Bonds, but Duer thought he knew how to make them work. He'd buy bonds called 6s that he knew would rise in value. They'd rise because the Treasury was going to sell shares in the new central bank, and to buy the shares, other people would have to buy 6s.
He bought all the 6s he could. He got more money for this by starting a company to buy stock in the Bank of New York, and then privately selling that same stock to the company he'd founded, screwing his partner over. He borrowed to buy even more 6s. Then when no legit lenders would lend him any more, he borrowed from just about everyone else. This wasn't risky at all because the value of 6s was sure to shoot up, and then it would be party time.
Instead, the Treasury turned some of its dials, and the value of 6s plummeted. Duer defaulted on his debts, which led other people to sell what they had and sparked America's first financial panic. Creditors chased Duer down. Literally: A mob formed and pursued him down the streets of New York, probably about to tear him apart when they discovered he didn't carry all the money he owed them in his pockets. Then the sheriff arrived to save Duer from the mob ... by arresting him, because he owed money to the government too.
Duer's new home was Manhattan's New Gaol, a prison for debtors. He died there seven years later. Even his prison sentence didn't put an end to the mobs, who'd still show up at the jail's walls while he was in there and try to get in. One creditor did manage to get paid. A man named Pierre de Poyster showed up to the jail with pistols and demanded that Duer pay him or the two would duel to the death. The debt was settled, fiscally not ballistically, because "the Duer duel" was too much of a tongue twister for anyone to deal with.
Meanwhile, everyone else realized this kind of wild speculation could spell even more disaster in the future. Right after the panic of 1792, men of finance met to form a new organization that would control trading and so prevent the most dangerous kind of speculation from ever happening. They named it the New York Stock Exchange.
The First Chief Justice Was Injured In A Graverobber Riot
Hamilton took care of that Panic of 1792 using his inner circle that also featured founders Thomas Jefferson and John Jay. Jay was at this time the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and had earlier been Secretary of State. We don't want to talk about any of that right now. We want to talk about the time he got tangled up in a cadaver dissection riot.
In the 1780s, medical research mostly consisted of finding bodies, cutting them open, and admiring the insides. The first part was the hardest because no one wanted to donate their bodies to science. Let's put it this way: You know dueling, which we were just talking about? The law soon committed all dueling victims' bodies to science, not for the sake of getting more bodies but to discourage dueling. That's how much people didn't want science getting their organs—death didn't discourage dueling, but dissection did.
The doctors in New York's Columbia University would often source their bodies from a series of plots just outside the city, land today known as the African Burial Ground. They had no permission for taking these bodies. Generally, the process involved heading to the burial ground at night with a shovel (conveniently for the doctors, each grave contained several bodies, to conserve space). Relatives of the deceased, a mixture of freedmen and slaves, petitioned the city to do something about this. They didn't ask that the graverobbing end, just that the doctors handle it more respectfully. The city ignored this petition.
Then in April 1788, some boys peeked into the window of New York Hospital. A doctor stood in there dissecting a woman, and he waved her severed arm at the boys, figuring this would amuse them, boys being boys and all. A few different stories describe exactly how this incident played out, but the most shocking (and possibly untrue) of them said that woman being dissected happened to be the mother of one of the boys. He ran home and told his father, who became incensed at the thought of another man holding his wife's hand and so led a mob of masons to storm the hospital. They armed themselves with picks and shovels, which are like torches and pitchforks except even better at splitting heads open.
They broke into the hospital and found a bunch of bodies there, one boiling in a pot—probably to ease dissection, but this must have looked like cannibalism or some kind of ritual. They also saw "certain parts of the two sexes hanging up in a most brutal position," which might have been again just normal scientific inquiry but looked deeply perverted. They gathered up all the bodies, took them outside and burned them. The doctor on duty only survived by hiding in the chimney.
In the days that followed, the mob grew into a riot thousands of people strong. They moved from the hospital to Columbia University to doctors' homes, and then to a jail where the police had moved the doctors for their own protection. "Bring out your doctors!" they chanted, starting to rip the place apart. The guards resisted firing on the crowd. But John Jay was on the scene with a bunch of militiamen, and someone threw a rock, smashing his head. Jay "got his scull almost crackd."
Now the men did fire, killing several rioters. Maybe as many as 20 died—people weren't so great at keeping track of the dead back then, as we've already established. The riot now ended, but it did lead to some lasting changes. We got some new laws forbidding body snatching, and violators could be whipped or jailed.
The law also formally now sentenced executed criminals to be dissected by doctors. A few years later, when a musician was released from debtors' prison, killed a cop, and was hanged, doctors were supposed to get the body. But everyone sympathized with the guy so much that John Jay had to marshal the troops again to prevent another riot. They had to publicly bury the body and then let doctors dig it up in secret after all. People later discovered the chopped up remains in a sack in a river, leading Jay to quell yet another riot.
Riots may have left John Jay almost broken in the head, but his successor was one step further down that path …
The Next Chief, Who Loved Slavery, Drowned Himself, But Two Slaves Saved Him
The first Supreme Court, the one Jay led, also had John Rutledge on the bench. Before becoming a judge, Rutledge had held such roles as "governor of South Carolina" and "delegate from South Carolina." For two years, he was also the president of South Carolina, a title that you may not have known ever existed outside of Southern gothic vampire fiction.
John Rutledge supported slavery. Not all the founders did. John Adams opposed slavery. Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Paine opposed slavery. Even a bunch of founders like Washington and Jefferson who owned slaves at least declared that slavery was bad and that someone should get around to addressing the matter sooner or later. Rutledge, though, argued for slavery. During the Constitutional Convention of 1787, some people thought about writing in a ban on importing any new slaves, but Rutledge said nuh-uh, if they tried writing anything like that, his folk in the Carolinas and Georgia would just say no to this whole constitution idea.
A couple years later, George Washington nominated Rutledge to the Supreme Court. If you're wondering what sort of cases the Supreme Court heard in the momentous year of 1790, we have a fascinating answer for you: none. The court first assembled in February, but they didn't hear a single case that year and didn't release a single opinion until August 1791.
By that point, Rutledge had resigned so he could take the far more busy job of judging back in South Carolina. Then in 1795, when John Jay resigned as chief to become governor of New York (having only heard four court cases total), Washington nominated Rutledge to come back, now as chief. The Senate was on vacation, so Rutledge became chief justice automatically, no vote needed. Later in the year, though, the Senate returned, and they rejected the nomination after all. Their issue? Rutledge was mad.
He suffered from "mad frolics," said his critics, while one South Carolina senator said Rutledge was "frequently so much deranged as to be in a great measure deprived of his senses." Their rejection meant that out of all chief justices, he's the one with the shortest tenure and is also the only justice nominated during a Senate recess to be rejected once the Senate returned. Depressed by this failure, or maybe just caught up in one of his mad frolics, Rutledge threw himself into Charleston Harbor to die.
He did not drown. Before he could, two passing slaves saw him and fished him out. He lived another five years after that, so we might imagine he grew thankful to have been saved. Also, by the end of his life, he reduced his slave holdings till he owned just one single slave. Though, this wasn't because he'd revised his views on slavery. It was because, at the end of his life, he was much poorer than he'd been before.
The Army's First Surgeon General Spied For The British, Got Banished, Then Vanished At Sea
We might be tempted to group Benjamin Church with the other men in this article. Though not a founder, Church was one of the Sons of Liberty. He treated the wounded at the Boston Massacre. He spoke on Massachusetts' behalf to the Continental Congress, and he became the first surgeon general of the Army. But the man was actually a traitor, and we know that thanks to a whole lot of relevant people boning each other.
In 1775, Church wanted to send a message to a British officer, Major Cane, whom he had no direct way of reaching, and so he handed a letter to one of his (Church's) mistresses, whose name has been kept private from history. The mistress figured the best way to take care of this was to give it to one of her other lovers, a baker named Godfrey Wenwood. This guy, by the way, had divorced his wife the previous year, for not having enough sex with him and also for cheating on him, and after she took her clothes from their house when leaving, he announced a reward for her capture, calling her "a very lusty Woman much pitted with the Small-Pox."
Wenwood accepted the letter and then promptly forgot about it. Then the mistress reminded him, and he grew suspicious. Perhaps she and Cane were sleeping together. So he opened the envelope, and this was what he saw:
This was no innocent letter, and probably was not even a love letter. Rather than get in touch with Major Cane, Wenwood sent the message to George Washington, who assembled a team to decode it. They managed this easily, as it was simple substitution cipher—in fact, we'll wait a few minutes and give you a chance to solve it yourself.
As you have all no doubt figured out, the letter contained information on American troop strength, ammunition supplies, and morale. "I was just passing this information along to scare the British," claimed Church, and he had in fact exaggerated the Americans' power in some respects, but no one was buying this story. They imprisoned him for the next few years and then banished him.
Church set sail for the Caribbean. And after that? He was never seen again. The ship never reached its destination, though we also never got news of a wreck. Probably, he did die at sea, but no one had any way of knowing. That's just what life was like back then; sometimes, treason boats disappeared.
And speaking of people undone by boning …
The Author Of The Constitution Died After Sticking Some Whalebone In His Penis
When we were listing founding fathers before who disapproved of slavery, we could have also mentioned Gouverneur Morris. This delegate from Pennsylvania, and later senator from New York, gave one of the more passionate speeches against slavery at the 1787 constitutional convention, calling it "the curse of heaven on the States where it prevailed."
He especially criticized how slaves were used to boost the representation of slave owners: "The inhabitant of Georgia and S.C. who goes to the coast of Africa, and in defiance of the most sacred laws of humanity tears away his fellow creatures from their dearest connections and damns them to the most cruel bondages, shall have more votes in a government instituted for protection of the rights of mankind than the citizen of Pennsylvania or New Jersey who views with a laudable horror so nefarious a practice."
A lot of people cared about exactly what the Constitution would go on to say about slavery, and say about other matters, but Morris cared extra, because he was kind of the guy who'd write the actual document. He was the "penman of the Constitution," and the famous preamble was all his work.
That would be a fine legacy for anyone to leave behind. We have a bit more to say about Gouverneur Morris, though, because Gouverneur Morris was also famous for having a whole lot of sex.
Historians have listed his many lovers, from an Italian noblewoman to a German banker's wife to mistresses of the royalty of France and Prussia. One time, escaping a jealous husband, he got into an accident and lost a leg, either because a carriage hit him or because he'd jumped from a second-floor window right out of the wife's bed. Though he was now one-legged, his fornication continued unabated, leading John Jay to say, "I am almost tempted to wish he had lost something else."
Thirty years later, Jay got his wish. Morris' extracurricular activities left him with a series of urethral obstructions. The final of these grew so serious and so painful that he had to clear his pipes by any means necessary. He needed something that could slide into the urethra, something sort of stiff but sort of flexible. He broke a piece of whalebone off his wife's corset (meaning baleen, those thin bendy bits, not a whale rib—his penis wasn't that big). He inserted it into his penis as carefully as he could.
He wasn't careful enough. Morris tore open his penis from this inside. Infection set in, and the man died.
Our source for this final adventure of Morris' is a friend's letter, which is why the fine folks at Snopes classify this story as "unproven." But historians usually consider this sufficient documentation for a cause of death, and no conflicting evidence exists. Morris' actions aren't so unlikely as they may seem—fellow founding father and sex machine Benjamin Franklin developed a flexible catheter of his own for urological issues; Morris was just not as talented an inventor. Clearly, any skepticism here comes not because of the nature of the sourcing but because a man penetrating his own penis sounds like a story someone might make up. As though whalebone penile insertion is somehow a laughing matter.
We choose to give Gouverneur Morris and his penis all the respect they deserve. Other people, when they hear "Gouverneur Morris," probably think of Zach Morris becoming governor of California in the Saved By The Bell revival. But not us. Not us.
Top image: Kim Traynor