75 Years of Symbiosis: Mead Botanical Garden and Rollins College

The Rollins College Archives is pleased to share this post by guest blogger and Archives volunteer, Anna Ton. Anna holds a B.S. in Health Science from the University of Miami and an MLS in Library and Information Services from the University of Maryland, College Park. Thank you, Anna!


MeadGardenVisitFloridaFlickrMead Botanical Garden (Photo:  Visit Florida via Creative Commons,  https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/)

Mead Botanical Garden celebrates its 75th Anniversary this year! With a mission to “enrich the community through the discovery, enjoyment and celebration of nature and the cultural arts,” it is no surprise that Mead Garden and Rollins College have remained close community partners for over seven decades. Indeed, with its picturesque natural landscape and signature architecture, Rollins was named Most Beautiful Campus according to this year’s Princeton Review.

Of course, beauty is not the only connection between these pioneering Winter Park institutions, as is evident by the planned joint celebration in October to commemorate the Garden’s anniversary and honor Rollins’ President Emeritus, Thaddeus Seymour. Read on to find out more about their ongoing history as partners in beautification, community building, and learning!


TheodoreMead&Flower                     Theodore Mead holding an allamanda (Photo:  Rollins College Archives)

Theodore L. Mead was a horticulturalist known for his work in growing and hybridizing plants such as the orchid—a challenging feat at the time. He settled in Oviedo, Florida, in 1886, working on his garden experiments and orange grove. Although his friendship with Edwin Grover, the “Professor of Books,” is Mead’s best-known connection with Rollins, his relationship with the College began as early as 1896 (before meeting Grover) when he was Special Lecturer in botany.1, 2

As a Scoutmaster in 1922, Mead met John Connery, a Boy Scout and future Rollins Tar. Connery soon became his “young disciple” both in the garden and in life. They spent years working together, and later following Mead’s death from a stroke in 1936, Connery came into possession of Mead’s bulb and plant collection.Their bond remained unbreakable even after Mead was gone. As a testament to this bond, Grover and Connery would soon set out to build a memorial garden to house Mead’s beloved plants and keep his legacy alive.

Page39This orchid photo was donated by Mead to the Rollins College Archives

The anticipated garden was not Mead’s only legacy. He cemented his connection to Rollins when he willed the contents of his scientific library, his personal papers, and letters to the College. Mead’s self-recorded contributions to various scientific fields serve as inspiration for generations of scientists to come! His dedication to learning and community was further underscored when he donated his carefully sectioned literary library to two public libraries and his multitude of beloved plants to a local park.4   (The park owners graciously waived their rights to the collection, and plans for the Garden proceeded.)


After proposing the idea of a memorial garden, Grover and Connery quickly settled on a swamp and its adjacent land in sunny Winter Park for the site. Whether it was a result of good luck or intensive research done by Connery, the land included many natural landscape features that perfectly suited a garden, including a brook, lake, and rookery. Much of it was also unused city and county land. They quickly appealed to various property owners to donate their land—and (amazingly) succeeded!5

breakinggroundmead                    Groundbreaking Ceremony at Mead Botanical Garden.                                      Fifth from the left is Edwin Grover, and John Connery is third from the right.          (Photo:  Rollins College Archives)

Clearing the swamp and preparing the land began in 1937, and the official groundbreaking ceremony marked the start of planting on January 9, 1938. Among the supporters of Mead Botanical Garden was Rollins’ President, Hamilton Holt, as well as many city, county, and state officials. They hoped the garden would become a “source of study” and represent Winter Park as a “place of culture and art.”6

MeadinHisGarden_OviedoMead in his garden in Oviedo (Photo:  Rollins College Archives)

The Garden officially opened on January 14, 1940. Like the groundbreaking ceremony, opening day was just as well attended, with many speeches made. After all his hard work in honoring his late mentor, Connery reflected in his short speech, “This is a great occasion for all of us.”7 The mayor of Orlando reiterated this feeling, stating, “[This Garden] is a memorial to Dr. Theodore Mead . . . and a tribute to the loyalty and tenacity of [John] and Mrs. Connery.” President Holt also acknowledged Grover and Connery, “who carried out Dr. Grover’s ideas” with special care.


In February of 1950, Mead Garden hosted “Fashions in the Garden,” where Grover gave a tour of the gardens, followed by Rollins students modelling in a pageant-style fashion show and ending with a “Fashion Show tea” for both the models and the crowd.8 In the following years, this became an annual event showcasing clothing and styles from local Winter Park businesses.

FashionsintheGardenThe women who participated in “Fashions in the Garden” included Rollins students                                           (from The Rollins Sandspur, 2/18/1950)


GroverEdwin88thBirthdayatMillsMemorialLibrary1958-06-04Edwin Grover’s 88th birthday party at Rollins College (Photo:  Rollins College Archives)

The year 1963 marked Grover’s 93rd birthday. That year he told the Winter Park Star that his wish was to see a renewed interest in Mead Garden. He spoke of his many physical and financial contributions to Mead Garden (even up until his 80th year of life), and how he wanted to see more continued support for the Garden in future years.9 Grover’s commitment to Mead’s memory and the community was a testament to both men’s enduring legacy in Winter Park.


 In the following years, the City of Winter Park took ownership of Mead Garden and in 1967, a plan was drawn to further develop the Garden. From the outside, it would “retain its natural woods-like appearance,” but inside it would benefit from a variety of new plants, landscaping, and greenhouses. By 1971, it was clear that the plan had been put on hold indefinitely due to lack of funding and some protests against moving away from the Garden’s more “natural state.” At the time, minor construction work was still being done to improve small areas.10

zarnaseejunglelilypoolUndated photo of the Zarnasee Jungle, lily pool, and island in Mead Garden           (Photo:  Rollins College Archives)

However, the Garden’s condition had declined by 1977, with its Director stating that he heard complaints about it “all the time.” By that point, only one person maintained all 55 acres that comprised the Garden. And while the Winter Park Mayor “denied that the [Garden was] neglected,” he also admitted that there were not enough funds to hire more personnel for the monumental tasks required for upkeep. The Garden also reportedly fell victim to thieves and vandals at this time. The one bright spot in this era of Mead Garden’s history was that in the summertime, Rollins and other local students and interns helped to spruce up the grounds.11


Following this darker period in the Garden’s history, Rollins actively contributed to efforts that helped to restore the Garden to its original glory. The late ‘80s and early ‘90s marked community events where students and other members of the community got down and dirty to clean up and beautify the Garden. It may have been a huge undertaking, but Rollins students were committed to serving the community for the greater good!12, 13, 14

MeadGardenandRollinsClippings_Page_1Poster advertising a beautification event in 1987 (from the Rollins College Archives)

 This partnership continued in 1992 and 1993, when Winter Park officials asked the students to map out a “Braille trail for sight impaired visitors,” as well as, “identif[y] 16 sites for educational stations” on the trail. Officials were so impressed with the students’ work that they were asked to contribute to more city projects! This included planting test sites with drought-resistant plants to instruct homeowners about how to keep their yards pretty with minimal water usage. Another project called for designing a plan for a paved path between Winter Park’s Showalter Field and Orlando Fashion Square Mall.16


BotanyClass2015Prof. Eric Engstrom giving his students directions for their biology exam in Mead Garden                                                          (Photo by Scott Cook)

In the present day, Rollins alumni, students, faculty, and staff have not forgotten that the Garden is ripe with opportunities for study and creativity. In October of last year, a general education art class visited the garden for “a source of inspiration and imagination.”15 Furthermore, earlier this year, a biology class had their practical exam at Mead Garden, allowing students to study the plants and animals there firsthand.16 It would certainly not be a surprise to run into someone from Rollins while strolling through the Garden!

 Past, Present, and Future

Mead Botanical Garden and Rollins College have enjoyed a symbiotic relationship for nearly eight decades. Although there were some hard times, Theodore Mead’s legacy, which Edwin Grover and John Connery sought to immortalize in the Garden, is still going strong in Winter Park. And the Garden’s connection with Rollins has blossomed over the years as the two institutions have partnered to provide opportunities to the community for learning and culture. It is our hope that this relationship will be nurtured for many more years to come. In the blink of an eye, the Garden will turn 100 years old, and Rollins will be there to celebrate with the rest of the Winter Park community!

The final words of Mead’s autobiography perfectly encapsulate Grover and Connery’s vision for Rollins’ enduring relationship with Mead Garden, “Loving labor is never quite lost . . . but I feel that warm friends . . . are ever ready to carry on.”17

~ by Anna Ton, Archival Volunteer

Special Thanks to D. Moore & R. WaltonI couldn’t have done this without you guys! You’re amazing!

1 Eduard Gfeller, “Paul Butler talks about Mead and Grover,” Video, Youtube.com, April 26, 2014.

2 “Mead, Theodore Luqueer” (Catalogue Card, Rollins College Archives).

3 Edwin Osgood Grover, “The Making of a Botanical Garden,” Parks & Recreation (1948): 451-457.

4 “The Last Will and Testament of Theodore L. Mead” (Print, Rollins College Archives, 1933).

5 “75 years of Mead Botanical Garden,” date accessed September 3, 2015, http://meadgarden.org/who.

6 “Ground Broken for Mead Park,” The Sunday Sentinel-Star, January 9, 1938.

7 Elaine Klepper, “Hundreds Stroll Thru Mead Gardens on Opening Day,” Orlando Morning Sentinel, January 15, 1940.

8 Skook Bailey, “Rollins Beauties Model at Gardens,” The Rollins Sandspur, February 17, 1950.

9 Nick White, “Mead Garden Founder is 93,” Winter Park Star, June 5, 1963.

10 Don Mead, “Mead Gardens Expand Plans Gather Dust,” Winter Park Sentinel, May 16, 1971.

11 Sherry Andrews, “Mead Gardens,” the little sentinel, May 11, 1977.

12 “Clean and Seed for the Love of Mead” (Poster, Rollins College Archives, 1987).

13 Bill Morse, “Mead Gardens needs you!” The Rollins Sandspur, February 28, 1990.

14 Karen Pankowski, “Mead Garden trail will give senses a workout,” The Orlando Sentinel, February 28, 1993.

15 “Rollins Art Classroom Extends to Mead Garden,” October 2014, Mead Botanical Garden, http://www.meadgarden.org/news-rollinsart-oct2014.

16 Meredith V. Wellmeier, “Photos: An Exam on the Flora of Florida,” Rollins360, March 11, 2015, http://360.rollins.edu/academics-and-research/photos-an-exam-on-the-flora-of-florida.

17 Theodore L. Mead, Naturalist, Entomologist and Plantsman: An Autobiography (1935), 14.

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Where to Find the Freshest Memories

Jana Matthews, Ph.D and her RCC class look through Rollins Archive photos in search of early unidentified pictures for ghost story inspiration. Photo:Scott CookStudents examining records in the Archives (photo by Scott Cook)

Last week, The New York Times featured an article about the survivors of the bombing of Hiroshima and their efforts to preserve and share their memories with others (“Hiroshima Atomic Bomb Survivors Pass Their Stories to a New Generation”). I was surprised to read that some survivors have entrusted their memories of this event to “denshosha”:  younger people who are designated to speak on their behalf and tell their stories.

Hiromi Hasai, who was 14 years old at the time of the bombing, is one such survivor.  According to the Times, he would like denshosha to also relate the stories of witnesses who are no longer alive, but whose accounts of the bombing, collected soon after the war, are preserved in the archives of Hiroshima’s Peace Museum. “There are all kinds of records, but how many people actually seek them out?” Mr. Hasai says, adding, “The freshest memories are stuck in an archive.”

This statement strikes a particular chord with me.  As an Archival Specialist, one of the first lessons I learned from our Archivist is that our role is to preserve and provide access to the archival records, then let them speak for themselves. And I have found that they do:  a photo, a letter, or a news story from long ago–to an archivist, these are “primary sources”:  items from eyewitnesses or participants in history, offering a firsthand account of events. But such a technical term fails to convey the powerful impact these records can have on those who encounter them in the Archives.

A photo of a relative, seen for the first time; a letter in a family member’s handwriting; or a story published long ago in our student newspaper, The Sandspur, can be profoundly moving to our visitors. The term “archive” may sound a bit dull and lifeless, but actually, it’s a place alive with voices and memories, where an event or a person from the past often seems to spring vividly back to life for a moment.

ReminiscencesFiles_002The “Rollins Reminiscences” files (left)

Some of our earliest students and faculty have left behind written reminiscences or letters describing their days at Rollins. I have shared some of these memories in our blog posts over the years, such as those of William Webster Lloyd, who taught class on the very first day the College opened. He later recorded his reaction to his first sight of the new, unfinished campus:  “The non-existence of the college buildings shown on the prospectus of Winter Park was a chilling shock.”

I also sympathized with the story of Henry “Hank” Mowbray, class of 1897, who waged a tough campaign to have the College colors changed to blue and gold, in the hope of winning the heart of his classmate, Marie. More than 50 years later, he wrote, “It still brings tears to my eyes, and today I hope to your eyes, that after all this labor of mine, for her, the ungrateful Miss Marie transferred her affections from me to my rival, Ernest Missildine. How bitter life is!”

We are lucky to have some of these early voices preserved on reel-to-reel audiorecordings, and that we have a machine in working order to listen to them. It was exciting to play one of these last year and clearly hear the voice of Ida May Missildine (one of the two members of the first graduating class of 1890) reminiscing about her student days, when Rollins had just been founded. And I find it moving to hear the voice of Pres. Hamilton Holt delivering his last speech at Rollins, as he left the presidency after 24 years.

There are many more Rollins memories saved in this format that we have yet to hear.  (Today such interviews are saved in our Oral History Archive, which is much more accessible.)

ReeltoReelTapesSome of the reel-to-reel recordings in the Archives

The work of an archivist, is, of course, a human undertaking and therefore imperfect. Not everything makes it into the record; some stories will be lost. Sometimes sources contradict one another. But this human aspect of the Archives is also the source of its emotional power:  whether amusing, inspiring, or heartbreaking, each photograph, document, or recording has its own story to tell. Give them your attention, and they will speak to you.

~ by D. Moore, Archival Specialist

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Arriving in the Literary World: Letters from Rex Beach

Beachc1894-95Cropped2Reduced             Rex Beach ’97 ’27H, circa 1894-1895.  Rex Beach Hall is named in his honor.

The Archives is happy to have recently received several letters written by our alumnus, Rex Beach, at the start of his writing career. After leaving Rollins in 1896, he studied law briefly in Chicago before joining the Klondike Gold Rush in Alaska. His experiences there led to his career as a prolific writer of adventure stories. As The New York Times described it, “He found gold in the Yukon, but practically all of it was literary” (The New York Times, 12/8/1949).

Our letters are all addressed to John D. “Jack” Leedy, a miner Mr. Beach had known in Alaska. By the time they were written, Beach had experienced his first taste of success, and both its highs and lows are reflected in these letters to the man he called “the only real pardner I ever had or ever expect to have” (Letter to John D. Leedy, September 6, 1907).

LeedyJohnfromGoogleBooksResized2        John D. Leedy (Photo: Harrison, E. S.  Nome and Seward Peninsula.  Seattle, WA: Рипол Классик, n.d.  Via Google Books)

In the first letter, written from Chicago in January 1906 (but dated 1905), Beach catches his friend up on recent events in his life, saying, “Let me see, Well, I guess I have ‘arrived’ in the literary world, from what the papers and magazines say about me.” Not only had “scurrilous stories” appeared, but “critics have begun to rail at my style and call me a cheap skate, newspapers have printed dreams regarding the size of my bank roll, and all of my friends have begun to borrow money, by which unfailing signs I am growing to see that I have done something, or what is just as good, made them think I have done something.”

RexBeachResized                  Rex Beach in an undated photo (from the Rollins College Archives)

He often wrote of financial matters to his friend, and in this letter he reports that as a result of “taking a bundle of mss. under my arm and floating to New York to sting the publishers,” he had come out “about Ten Thou to the good” (equivalent to over $261,000 in today’s currency).  This he called “the best cleanup any dark horse ever made in Gotham.”

A further mark of his success came in an invitation to “the great dinner given to Mark Twain” to celebrate his 70th birthday, “the biggest affair of the kind ever pulled off and all the literary guys were right there at the ring side with their chins on the canvas.”  The dinner, held at New York’s famous restaurant, Delmonico’s, was the subject of a special souvenir edition of Harper’s Weekly.  Mr. Beach was one of the speakers that evening, and though he was “a bit leary [sic]” and “felt that I was fighting out of my class,” “I stuck till the bell and got the decision. . . They say I was the only one to make old Mark laugh, and gave me second place. He took first money with the greatest speech I ever heard. . .”

MarkTwains70thBirthday1905ResizedRex Beach, third from the right, at Mark Twain’s 70th birthday dinner, December 5, 1905 (Photo: “Mark Twain’s Seventieth Birthday.”  Harper’s Weekly 23 Dec. 1905: 1907. Via Google Books )

His first Broadway production came soon afterwards.  In a letter written from New York’s Hotel Algonquin in March 1907, he asks, “Do you remember riding up Broadway with me one night in a car, when I said to Nellie [Mrs. Leedy], ‘Gee!  I’d like to have a play on B’way, and see my electric sign gleaming’?  Well!  It came sooner than I dreamed.” The play was The Spoilers, adapted from his best-selling novel. Beach reported that “the papers were about half for and half against the piece,” and a search of The New York Times historical database reveals that the paper was not very complimentary. A review printed on March 12, 1907, describes the play as a gun-filled drama that proved to be full of “slow fingers at the trigger. . . Persons who stick their fingers in their ears as soon as they see a shooting iron on the stage need have no hesitancy about going to the New York [Theatre] to see ‘The Spoilers.’ As soon as a gun appears in one man’s hands another man takes it away from him.”  Though Beach noted the mixed reviews, he wrote Leedy that he believed the production would “make a lot of money yet, and meanwhile I’m getting at other things.”

TheTheatreApril1907CroppedA scene from The Spoilers (Photo: “The Current Plays.” The Theater Magazine  Apr. 1907: 93.  Via Google Books )

The “other things” included writing a new play for producer Charles Frohman and another novel due by September.  “My plans are many and fearful for the summer,” he wrote. In addition to his literary projects, there were “a few mining interests in Nevada” and “that lawsuit” involving his holdings in Alaska.  A profile of Beach in The New York Times that same month describes him as someone “who makes you feel that he will do great things,” (3/9/1907) and the letters definitely give the impression that he was determined not to overlook any opportunities.

In November 1908, he wrote that he would soon be moving into a new house, “the most beautiful, inside, that I have ever seen, for the first two stories have parquet floors, the wood work is immense and the walls are in tapestry and brocaded satin. There is a silver electric light fixture in the dining room which cost $1400 and other things to match.” The house cost Beach $50,000 (the equivalent of more than $1.3 million today).  Recalling his childhood in Florida,”when I used to wade through the sand burrs to our squatter’s shack on the ‘Garrison’ at Tampa, in time to feed the chickens and ‘slop’ the hogs,” he wrote of an old dream of heading North, where he planned to “live in big cities and spend money–lots of money, maybe two thousand dollars worth, and have a house made of stone.” He continued, “I used to dream and dream until the fleas recalled me to the fact that I was bare-footed and a long ways away from the ‘North.'”

“Well, dreams sometimes come true.  What I want to make it perfect, is to have you and the Mrs. visit me in my own place where I can take you around in the automobile and where there are good things to drink and big long cigars to smoke and big sleepy chairs to sit and tell stories in” (Letter to John D. Leedy, Nov. 24, 1908).

We don’t know whether the two friends ever had a chance to do this, though this passage does bring to mind another one of Beach’s commercial ventures:

BeachRexCigarBoxLabelResized                            Rex Beach cigar box label (from the Rollins College Archives)

Mr. Beach’s letters to John Leedy are held in the Rex Beach Collection in the College Archives.  The collection is available to researchers upon request.

~ by D. Moore, Archival Specialist




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Words from Rollins Veterans, 1945

RollofHonorwithHolt    Pres. Hamilton Holt (center) at the Rollins College Roll of Honor, erected in 1943, listing the names of all Rollins men and women serving in the Armed Forces                                           (please click on the images to enlarge them).

In October 1945, The Sandspur announced a writing contest: “Ever since veterans first began to come back to Rollins last year we have wondered time and time again, just how college life seemed after months or years of day-to-day living, living under combat conditions, where the most vital concern of each individual was to obey orders and somehow stay alive. Those of us who have not experienced this, no matter how much we read or hear on the subject, will never be able to fully grasp what this means, what it does to a man’s thinking, how it affects his views and his philosophy of life. Neither can we see college life and class room discussions from the same perspective. For this reason, we of the Sandspur believe that it would be of interest to everyone at Rollins to know how a veteran sees Rollins. . .”  Two or three of the best entries would be published in The Sandspur, and the one judged best would win a prize of five dollars.

Veterans were very much a part of campus life at this time.  One hundred twenty-two of the 534 students enrolled in 1945-1946 were ex-servicemen, making them almost 25 percent of the student population.

AlumniRecordMarch1946Cropped               Some of the 122 ex-servicemen studying at Rollins in 1945-1946,                                       as they appeared on the cover of the March 1946 issue of The Rollins Alumni Record.

The three selected entries, presented here as they originally appeared in The Sandspur, discuss many aspects of veterans’ College experiences.  The first addresses some of the differences between ex-servicemen and other students.

VeteransEssay1945-11-07                                                                   November 7, 1945

The second essay is a very personal story of a veteran’s experience of war and its aftermath.

VeteransEssay1945-11-14_01                                                       VeteransEssay1945-11-14_002                                                                 November 14, 1945

The third editorial offers a perspective on what veterans need from others as they resume their postwar lives and pursue their goals.

VeteransEssay1945-11-21                                                          November 21, 1945

The Rollins Roll of Honor is no longer on our campus, but we do have a Veterans Memorial (pictured below).  It was given to the College by Rollins veteran William F. Koch, Jr. ’49 and his wife, Mary Lou Sommer Koch ’48, in honor of all those at Rollins who have served.


~ by D. M. Moore, Archival Specialist






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Enough Hair to Carpet Versailles?

Napoleons HairArtifact labeled “One Lock of Hair From The Emperor Napoleon” in the Rollins Archives

For many years, the Archives has preserved a relic labeled “One Lock of Hair From The Emperor Napoleon,” accompanied by a testimonial vouching for its authenticity. This document, written by Capt. Frederick Lahrbush in 1861, is also signed by Rev. John Cotton Smith, rector of the Church of the Ascension in New York, who vouched for “the venerable Capt. Lahrbush,” someone “I believe to be worthy of entire confidence.” But was he?

Who was Capt. Lahrbush, and what was his connection to Napoleon? According to his testimonial, he had been a member of the H.B.M. 60th Rifles Regiment and served for three months in St. Helena, “together with other corps as a guard over the Exiled Emperor and his faithful followers.” During that time, he “became acquainted with a Mr. Geo. Balcombe,” a government employee who “had in charge the supplying of provisions, etc. to the French Exiles.” Several years later, the two men met again in Sydney, Australia, where their “former acquaintance soon ripened into an intimacy.” As Lahrbush tells the story, Mr. Balcombe became ill, and on his deathbed, “lifted himself up a little and after searching for a little while under his pillow, he brought out from there a parcel and handed it to [the] Deponent saying; here my Friend, I leave them to you a few hair [sic] from the Emperor Napoleon given to my daughter by Monsieur Marchant [sic] first valet des Chambres to the Emperor at St. Helena who himself did cut them from of [sic] said Emperors [sic] Head, Keep them in remembrance of me.” This is the story Lahrbush wrote down for Rev. Smith, his “Real Friend and Pastor.”

LahrbushLetterExcerpt200dpiReduced2                                         An excerpt from Mr. Lahrbush’s letter

Can this account be verified?  It turns out that our relics are not unique:  in 1980, Kathleen Roussac purchased a lock of hair and a testimonial letter–also written by Frederick Lahrbush–at an auction in Vermont. In 2002 she co-authored an article with Dr. David Andrew Roberts for The Gazette, the journal of the Napoleonic Alliance. The article notes that “there are very few authentic samples of Napoleon’s hair in existence,” “many more samples in circulation whose authenticity is suspect,” and “many that are clearly fake.” The authors also cite Napoleon’s former aide, Comte Flahaut, who, noting the proliferation of these mementos, “once famously remarked” that “he’d seen enough hair since Napoleon’s death to carpet the floors of Versailles.”


Left:  Charles de Flahaut, perhaps best known “for his exploits in gallantry” and his “elegant manners,” according to the 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. (Image:  Wikimedia Commons)


The complete Gazette article, “Authenticating a Lock of Napoleon’s Hair:  The Bizarre and Dubious Career of Frederick Lahrbush,” is available online at http://bit.ly/1uDkT1J . As the subtitle suggests, Capt. Lahrbush’s true claim to fame may have been as “one of the greatest story tellers” in nineteenth-century New York. Military records show that his regiment was never stationed on St. Helena, and furthermore, that he was “court-martialled on two charges of fraud” in 1818. He did actually go to Australia, but made the trip on board a convict transport. While serving his sentence there, “he succumbed inevitably to what was either an habitual proclivity to dishonesty or an unfortunate susceptibility to misfortune when he was convicted in the local petty sessions in 1834 for stealing government property” (though the authors point out that, in this case, someone else may have been the actual culprit).

He came to New York circa 1848, where he lived until his death in 1877, “making his mark as an unusually old and eccentric war hero,” who claimed to have been born in 1766. Some had their doubts, however:  a few years before Lahrbush’s death, a librarian in the House of Lords, suspicious of the Captain’s alleged age and “the even more extraordinary aspects of his life,” looked into his background. He later announced “that he had exposed the most barefaced case of pretended centenarianism which has ever come under my notice.” Luckily for Lahrbush, his fraud convictions had not been discovered; unluckily, the revelation that he was not even an Englishman meant that an offer from the Prince of Wales “to have Lahrbush returned to England with a pension” was most likely revoked.


Left: Librarian  and author William J. Thoms. “His iconoclastic treatise on ‘Human Longevity, its Facts and its Fictions’ . . . raised a storm of dismayed protest by its forcible contention that the authentic cases in which human life had been prolonged to a hundred years and upwards were extremely rare.” (From The Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900. Image from Wikimedia Commons)


Despite the evidence, Mr. Thoms found himself “rebuked by anonymous correspondents assuring him that in New York Captain Lahrbush’s wonderful adventures, and yet more wonderful longevity, are universally accepted for truth by the very best people,” according to Roussac and Roberts. Contemporary accounts in The New York Times and other publications reveal that Lahrbush’s amazing stories still found an audience. In 1877, for example, a Brooklyn doctor wrote to a medical journal, recapping Lahrbush’s career (elevating him to “Governor of a convict station in Australia” when he was actually an inmate) and claiming that Lahrbush’s age was “well authenticated.” The doctor’s “professional interest” stemmed from the story that “Capt. L. has been an opium habituate for seventy years!  A statement so extraordinary may seem incredible, but it is well attested.” (His letter may be read at http://bit.ly/1s4WE9Z .)

Napoleon’s hair remains newsworthy, making headlines even today. In 2008, The New York Times reported that a team of scientists analyzed several samples and concluded that the high levels of arsenic they contained were not unusual for his time. This would seem to rule out arsenic poisoning as the cause of the Emperor’s death, though the circumstances are still in dispute (http://nyti.ms/1wkVHOG ).

As for Lahrbush, Roussac and Roberts write that “we are left with the unavoidable conclusion that the sample of Napoleon’s hair bequeathed by Frederick Lahrbush is a fake. That he was an exceptional character who saw and lived more than most is beyond dispute.”

A photo of Frederick Lahrbush may be seen at http://bit.ly/1m6kfKB .

~ by D. Moore, Archival Specialist

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