James A. Garfield

Digital Collections Highlight: Check Signed by President Garfield and Albert Hawkins

Hawkins check frontThe G. Edward Elwell, Jr., Autograph Collection contains around one hundred documents collected by G. Edward Elwell, Jr., 33°, a member of Caldwell Consistory (Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania), a professional printer and Scottish Rite Mason. In 1898, the 12-year-old Elwell wrote a letter to Admiral George Dewey (1837–1917), a hero of the Spanish-American War. Dewey’s reply became the first signed document in Elwell's collection. The items in the collection span nearly 500 years of history (1489-1960), and each contains the signature of a well-known figure from American and European history.

One of the items that has always caught my eye is this check, dated June 30, 1881. President James A. Garfield (1831-1881) signed this check, which was issued to Albert Hawkins, the White House's coachman, two days before the President was shot. The sixty-dollar check was Hawkins' monthly salary. After the death of President Garfield, his widow, Lucretia Garfield, gave the check to the historian Edward Everett Hale, who notes the history of the check on the reverse.

Hawkins check backThere is little doubt that Elwell collected this item because of its association with President Garfield, but today, we can see that it helps tell a more complete story, that of Albert Hawkins, a Black man who served as the White House's coachman under six U.S. presidents. The White House Historical Association, in writing about Hawkins, states that “Albert Hawkins was a coachman who began his service under Ulysses S. Grant. By the 1880s, he was among the most celebrated of Washington’s African American community…”

You can see a high-res image of this check at our Digital Collections website.

Caption:
Check issued to Albert Hawkins, 1881 June 30. Gift of Caldwell Consistory, Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, A74/002/043.


New Acquisition Sheds Light on President Garfield as a Knight Templar

Garfield 2 (2)As I was flipping through a new acquisition, a minute book from the Hudson River Commandery No.35, I found a touching full-page tribute to President and Sir Knight James Abram Garfield (1831-1881).  His 1881 memorial is prominently displayed in the minute book (left) of this commandery from Newburgh, New York.  The page is written by hand in beautiful calligraphy.  

On the date of September 27, at Newburgh,the minute book reads, "A communication, under date of Sept. 23rd, 1881 was read from the Grand Commander of the State of New York, announcing the death of the late President of the United States:--Sir James A. Garfield, and ordering appropriate draping of asylum and other proper notice of the sad event..."  After considering the communication from the Grand Commander, the Eminent Commander of the Hudson River Commandery No. 35 made a motion that a separate page be written and put in with the records in memory of Garfield.  It is a fitting tribute for a former President and Sir Knight.  The "draping of asylum" referred to the meeting place of a Commandery and means retreat or place of safety. The recommendations to place mourning drapery at the asylum were observed.  Such tributes were recorded all over the United States in Knights Templar, Royal Arch, and other Masonic Proceedings.

On September 23, 1881, Knights Templar groups were part of Garfield's funeral procession and ceremony, along with soldiers, statesmen, and other dignitaries.  Among the Knights Templar groups were members of Columbia Commandery No. 2 of Washington.

In addition to participating in Garfield's funeral, the Knights Templar of Columbia Commandery No. 2 had also accompanied Garfield during his presidential inaugural procession on March 4,1881.  Garfield gave a short inaugural address and lasted in office only a matter of months--from March until July 2, 1881 when he was shot by an assassin at a railroad station.  He died on September 19, 1881 from infection of the wound.

Being a Knight Templar, Garfield had many other Masonic affiliations.  Garfield was made a Master Mason in 1864 at Columbus Lodge No. 30 in Columbus, Ohio and lived nearby in Cuyahoga County.  He attended Williams College, taught classics at Hiram College, became a brigadier general during the Civil War, and then was elected by Ohioans to Congress in 1862.  During the time he was in Washington as a congressman, he was affiliated with Pentalpha Lodge No. 23, as a charter member in 1869.  He became a Knight Templar in 1866 at Columbia Commandery No.2 in Washington and received degrees 4 through 14° in the Scottish Rite in 1872 from Albert Pike(1809-1891) of the Southern Jurisdiction. 

 

Image Caption:

Minute Book, Hudson River Commandery No. 35, Newburg, New York, 1865-1893.  Collection of the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library, A2014/19/1.

 

For Further Reading:

Baldwin, Charles E.  History of Columbia Commandery no. 2, Knights Templar, 1863-1938.  Washington, 1938.    

Brown, E. E.  The Life and Public Services of James A. Garfield. Boston:  Lothrop, 1881.

Conwell, Russell H.  The Life, Speeches, and Public Services of James A. Garfield.  Boston:  B. B. Russell, 1881.

Doyle, Burton T and Homer H. Swaney.  Lives of James A. Garfield and Chester A. Arthur:  With a Brief Sketch of the Assassin. Washington:  R. H. Darby, 1881.