Faces From The Past—x

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The idea of becoming a candidate for President of the United States first came to him in a Dublin jail. (“A jail,” he observed philosophically, “is a good place to meditate and to plan in.’ And he should have known: he was incarcerated fifteen times during his life—always in behalf of some cause, for, in his own words, he“never commited a crime, cheated a human being, or told a lie.”) As the election of 1872 approached, the man’s confidence in himself was subline; the record he offered American voters, unique. Describing his qualifications, he said, “I am that wonderful, eccentric, independent, extraordinary genius and political reformer of America, who is sweeping off all the politicians before him like a hurricane, your modest, diffident, unassuming friend, the future President of America—George Francis Train!”

Ophaned at the age of four, he had become a shipping, magnate in Boston while still in his teens, and when he was twenty-four sailed for Australia, where gold had been discovered To that raw, backward land he brought feverish energy and ideas by the score, introducing prefabricated buildings, Concord coaches, canned goods, bowling, Fourth of July celebrations, and free champagne lunches. When his wife became pregnant, he sent her home to give birth in the States; if the child was a boy, he explained, he wanted no technicality to stand in the way of his becoming President of his country. Soon afterward, miners in the gold fields revolt against the Austrian government, tried to set up a republic, and offered Train the presidency. But he had decided to move on.

In America he promoted a railroad on behalf of María Christina, Queen of Spain. In England he introduced cheap public transfortation in the form of horse-drawn streetcars; while laboring to sell street railway systems, Train also served his country as an unofficial ambassador. He made speeches, he wrote pamphlets, he published a newspaper—all to keep Great Britain from entering the Civil War on the side of the South. And while not otherwise engaged, this human dynamo found time to make a few practical suggestions to the backward British: unloading coal wagons by means of a chute; putting rubber erasers on the ends of pensils; perforating sheets of postage stamps to make tearing easy; and adding pouring spouts to the mouths of ink bottles. Back in America, he secured a charter from the U.S. Congress to build what became the Union Pacific Railroad, and organized its financing by means of an ingenious scheme he had heard about in France—the Crédit Mobilier. Fortunately, Train was out of Crédit Mobilier before its collapsed—he had gone on to bigger and better things.

His campaign for the Presidency began in earnest in 1869, when he had just turned forty. He planned to make 1,000 speeches, and he not only made them but successfully charged admission—collecting a total of $90,000 during three years of barnstorming. By the end of 1871 Train calculated that he had spoken directly to two million people. So long as he could reach, them by voice or by shaking hands he could hold them, he thought; “but the moment they got out of my reach they got away from me, and slipped back again to the sway of the political bosses.” Something of the sort must have happened, for when the final returns were in, U. S. Grant had 3,597,132; Horace Greeley, 2,834,125; Charles O’Conor—the first Catholic to run—29,489; prohibitionist James Black had 5,608; Victoria Claflin Woodhull, the free-loving Equal Rights party candidate, received a few popular votes; George Francis Train got none.

One of the more colorful episodes in a kaleidoscopic career occurred toward the end of the campaign. Learning that Victoria Woodhull and her sister Tennessee Claflin had been jailed on an obscenity charge for publicizing the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher’s love life, Train printed three columns of verses from the Bible in his own newspaper, insisting that “every verse I used was worse than anything published by these women.” He was promptly jugged. When the judge refused to hear the obscenity charges and decreed him a lunatic, Train moved the magistrate’s impeachment and made his departure from jail wearing nothing, it was said, but an umbrella.

Earlier, he had interrupted his campaign to make a dramatic—indeed, spectacular—trip around the world. Setting sail from San Francisco in August, 1870, he made Yokohama “in very good time,” went to Tokyo, where he participated enthusiastically in a mixed public bath, and after two months of hurried travel, arrived in Marseilles just in time to join a revolution against the Third Republic. Once he saved himself from a firing squad by wrapping his body in the flags of France and the United States; once he was arrested for revolutionary activity; finally he was kicked out of the country. Train did not count the two-month interruption in France; upon his return, he gleefully told American newsmen that he had gone around the world in eighty days. Not long afterward, a French novelist named Jules Verne read of the trip and had an idea for a book. To his own subsequent delight, George Francis Train became the immortal Phileas Fogg.

Twenty years later, Train made the voyage again—this time in sixty-seven days—and in 1892 “eclipsed all previous records” by making it in sixty days flat. As Train put it, these trips were “typical of my life. I have lived fast. I have ever been an advocate of speed. I was born into a slow world, and I wished to oil the wheels and gear, so that the machine would spin faster and, withal, to better purposes.” Even his autobiography was done injigtime; at the age of seventy-four, a year before he died, he dictated it in thirty-five hours.

—Richard M. Ketchum