- Historic Sites
1886 One Hundred Years Ago
June/July 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 4
On June 2 the first and last presidential wedding took place in the White House: President Grover Cleveland, a rotund forty-nine-year-old bachelor, married the statuesque Frances Folsom, twenty-three. Cleveland had known Frances since her infancy, when he had helped her parents purchase her baby carriage. She was the daughter of Cleveland’s former law partner, and upon her father’s death, when she was twelve, Cleveland effectively became her guardian. He called her “Frank” and she called him “Uncle Cleve.” Frances and her mother accompanied Cleveland to numerous functions through the years, and if anyone suspected he had anything but an avuncular interest in the Folsoms, it was assumed he had his eye on the elder of the two.
But when Frances entered Wells College and bloomed into womanhood, Cleveland took to sending her flowers and, with her mother’s permission, began exchanging letters with her. After Frances graduated in June 1885, she became engaged to the President, but no public announcement was made for nearly a year. Up until a month before the wedding, in fact, columnists wondered whether the anticipated bride would be Mrs. or Miss Folsom. “I don’t see why the papers keep marrying me to old ladies,” President Cleveland complained.
The wedding itself was small and simple, for the bride’s grandfather had died shortly before. There were no attendants, and only twenty-eight guests. The couple exchanged vows in the Blue Room, where they were surrounded by mounds of roses and pansies, as well as by guests and reporters who were delighted with the President’s beautiful bride.
One society writer seemed smitten with Frances merely for the manner in which she maneuvered her fifteen-foot train: it was “marvelous how she handled it in a small well-filled room, for it was nearly as long as the room itself and would have reached easily, during the ceremony, from the spot where the vows were pledged into the corridor through which the bridal party had come, but for the bride’s deft management, whereby it lay in a glistening coil at her feet.”
Historians testify that theirs was a happy marriage, despite rumors spread in the next presidential race by Cleveland’s opponent. Those whispered stories characterized Cleveland as a brutal drunkard who once drove poor Frances from the White House into a raging storm.
In the years following the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883, the great arching span and its spreading web of cables inspired most New Yorkers with awe, some with gratitude, and a few with greed. Steve Brodie fell into the last category. A twenty-three-year-old unemployed Irishman with a wife and three kids, Brodie got it into his head that jumping from the Eighth Wonder of the World would set him up for life. Since the fatal leap of a Washington, D.C., swimming instructor in May 1885, Brodie had often bragged that he would one day make the jump himself. And then, on July 23, 1886, Brodie returned dripping from the East River and proclaimed the feat accomplished.
It had, however, been preceded by an uncharacteristic lack of fanfare, and close friends were the only witnesses Brodie could produce. A barge captain did sign an affidavit stating that he had hauled Brodie from the river, but skeptics alleged that Brodie’s friends had dropped a dummy from the bridge, and that all Brodie had risked was a swim from shore to barge.
Brodie’s claim, false or not, nevertheless earned him the fame and wealth he sought. He opened a saloon on the Bowery with himself as the main attraction, and business boomed. He also starred in On the Bowery , which opened in 1894; what was undoubtedly Brodie’s favorite scene came when he leaped from the set’s Brooklyn Bridge to rescue his sweetheart, who had been shoved off by the villain.
The play was a hit in New York and went on to tour the country, yet for all the times Brodie reenacted his feat onstage, he refused to silence his skeptics by jumping once more from the great bridge itself. “I done it oncet,” he insisted. “I done it oncet.”
•July 3: The first page of newsprint—the New York Tribune ’s front page—is produced by Ottmar Mergenthaler’s Linotype machine, which sets and justifies type automatically. Until now all newspaper type has been set by hand.