A small firestorm erupted last year when President Obama called his old friend Kamala Harris the “best-looking attorney general in the country.” And it wasn’t sparked by the 49 other attorneys general who may have felt slighted by the President’s off-hand compliment to their California colleague. Media commenters on all sides of the political spectrum either decried Obama for setting a “disgraceful example” or defended him for giving a harmless compliment. Even Liza Minnelli weighed in on the controversy.
A few days after the President issued the inevitable apology to Harris, his detractors’ concerns were validated by a survey released by the nonpartisan media watchdog, Name It. Change It. According to the survey, female candidates pay a price at the polls when media coverage focuses on their appearance, even in a positive or neutral manner. Survey respondents indicated they were less likely to support a female candidate described as “fit and attractive and looks even younger than her age” or as wearing “modest pumps with a short heel.”
I know that times have changed, but I have to wonder how potential voters might have reacted in 1879 to the real-life descriptions of Indiana state legislators as “very handsome,” “a model specimen of manly beauty,” or “one of the noblest specimens of perfect manhood on the Legislature hall.”
If the drily named “Biographical Sketches of Members of the Indiana State Government, State and Judicial Officers, and Members of the 51st Legislative Assembly” is to be believed, the men of the Statehouse in 1879 were a hunky bunch indeed.
Some years ago, I managed to acquire two copies of this reference book, which tends to describe the all-male 1879 General Assembly in terms more closely associated with a bodice-ripping romance novel. For example, Rep. John C. Briggs, the afore-mentioned “model specimen of manly beauty,” had a “profusion of blonde curling hair” and a “commanding stature.” Rep. Maurice Thompson was “slenderly built, but sinewy,” with an “eye that is dark and piercing” and “hair straight and black, worn after the fashion of poets.” And the dashing Rep. William B. Carter was a “fine looking gentleman, full of courage, and as daring in his legislative purposes as if he had hold of the wheel of a steamer.”
But based on the following description, the most delectable piece of eye-candy among the men of 1879 appears to be Rep. Ed Robeson, who was “very handsome“– in fact, so much so that “[s]everal Indianapolis fair belles ‘honed’ after him until the secret became known that he was a married man.”
When I first read the 1879 book (and yes, I did read it, because I am a self-described “legislative geek” with “no ascertainable life“), I was struck by the lurid descriptions. If the election were held today, I wondered, how would these men of the 19th century stack up in the looks department when compared to present-day legislators?
As luck would have it, my questions were answered earlier this month when I stumbled upon a large composite photograph of the 1879 House of Representatives at a yard sale. The seller had purchased it for $5 at an auction some years ago as a gift for her husband, who served in the Indiana House in the late 1960s. She sold it to me for $3.
My lucky find gave me a reason to dig out the 1879 book “for research purposes” and closely compare the photographs of the legislators with their descriptions. I was puzzled by how some biographies included lengthy descriptions of the legislator’s physical attributes while others were suspiciously silent. Did a singular focus on the legislator’s achievements instead of his appearance mean that he had been “hit with an ugly stick” or “had a face only a mother could love”? That did not appear to be the case, as some of the men who appeared quite fetching from their photographs were simply described as “Democrats.”
The mystery was solved when I looked more closely at the 1879 book and saw that the biographical sketches were written by two different people – the Rev. W.W. Hibben, a regular contributor to the Indianapolis Daily Sentinel, and Mrs. Emily Thornton Charles, a Sentinel reporter who also wrote poetry under the nom de plume of Emily Hawthorne.
Although the individual biographical sketches are not specifically attributed to either writer, I like to think that Emily T. Charles penned the words that not only pointed out the pulchritude in the Statehouse but also described Lt. Governor Isaac Gray’s looks as “rather above the medium” and noted that Sen. Levin J. Woollen appeared to be wearing a “heavy suit of dark brown hair.” Emily Charles was, by all accounts, a woman ahead of her time — an entrepreneur, suffragette, and single woman making it in a man’s world. Was it possible that her pithy observations were tongue-in-cheek descriptions aimed at objectifying men in the same manner that women have been objectified?
While it may be tempting to think so, it’s more likely that Emily Charles was just using her considerable talent with words to paint a picture of her subjects in a day when few would see their photographs. Widowed at age 24 with two small children, she started writing for Indianapolis newspapers in 1874. Two years later, she published her first book of poetry, “Hawthorn Blossoms” to critical acclaim.
In 1881, she moved her family to Washington, D.C. when she accepted a job as editor-in-chief of Washington World. Subsequently, she started her own newspaper, “The National Veteran” (later renamed “The World and the Soldier“), and started a small publishing house that focused on Civil War stories. Having lost both her father and her brother to the Civil War battlefields, Charles was drawn to veterans’ causes and was a frequent speaker at Grand Army of the Republic gatherings and other veterans’ events.
In 1880, she gained national attention when she was invited to read her poem “Unknown” at the Decoration Day ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery. Upon hearing it, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote “No wonder it touched the hearts of its hearers.”
When construction officially began on the current Statehouse on September 28, 1880, a poem that Emily Charles had written about the demolition of the old capitol building was placed in the cornerstone. Titled “The Old Statehouse,” the lengthy verse is peppered with so many cynical observations on the nature of legislative politics that it seems an odd choice for inclusion in the foundations of the Statehouse.
“This bill, one knew, expressed the people’s will; Another thought the opposite was true,” she wrote. “And thus they builded up cross-purposes, ‘Neath which the general good was overlooked. Throughout the world each party faction seeks but to complete but its own aggrandizement. ”
The ode to the old Statehouse was included in a collection of Emily Thornton Charles’ poetry published in 1886. The book is available online.
Emily Thornton Charles was only 50 years old when she died of tuberculosis in 1895 at her home in Washington, D.C. Although she seems to have been forgotten in Indianapolis, her remarkable life and accomplishments were chronicled earlier this year by The American Literary Blog. Click here to read the post.