Spot the facts in this article, if you can

May 06, 2007|By Theo Lippman Jr. | Theo Lippman Jr.,Special to The Sun

In the preface to his new book, The Remarkable Millard Fillmore, George Pendle recalls his first visit to the Biographers Club in Washington 30 years ago. He was approached by Carl Sandburg, who, when informed that Pendle was planning a Fillmore biography, loudly berated him, saying Fillmore wasn't worth a biography. Stunned, Pendle was "about to retreat when Arthur Schlesinger Jr. crept up behind me and, grabbing the top of my underpants, hoisted them halfway up my back."

And off we go for a huge "factual" nonsense.

Here are just a few of the high points: On the day that water first roared down the Erie Canal, Fillmore rescued a young man waiting in the dry canal to be drowned. It was Edgar Allan Poe, who was to become Fillmore's ward, then friend. Fillmore took him home, where he continued his suicidal effort. Millard's future wife, Abigail, suggested that Poe cheer up by writing poetry.

Filllmore proposed he write a poem about "a bird: the humble chickadee or tuneful hermit thrush, the plump pigeon or colorful oriole. ... Later that night he heard a sudden scream `the raven' followed by a burst of high-pitched laughter from Poe`s room."

Fillmore was at the Alamo in 1836 when William B. Travis drew that famous line in the sand. Fillmore thought it was some form of hopscotch and began to dance over the line and back.

He wore a woman's dress to keep from being treated as a prisoner of war when the Alamo fell. Asked by Mexican soldiers what he was doing there, he said he was planning to raise badgers. To which a Mexican soldier said, "Badgers? We don't need no stinking badgers."

Fillmore and Pope Pius IX swapped identities in 1856, and Fillmore feared that if the pope didn't come back he would, as apparent pope, have problems as presidential nominee of the anti-Catholic Know-Nothing or American Party.

He had been president from 1850 to 1853, having been elevated from vice president when Zachary Taylor died. His first step as president was to form a new Cabinet, "the former Cabinet having been buried alive with President Taylor in accordance with his last wishes."

Among Fillmore's shining moments, none outshone his handing back to John Wilkes Booth his gun in Ford's Theater when Booth dropped it out of his reach.

As for Baltimore's and Maryland's place in all this, let me add two absolutely true facts.

One, it is one of a very few cities to have had an active Society To Promote Respect and Recognition of Millard Fillmore. It was founded in 1985 by Rae Rossen of Randallstown, who ran it for 11 years.

Two, in 1856, Fillmore did stay on the top of the Know-Nothing ticket (Pope Pius had come back to the Vatican) and carried only one state - Maryland!

Theo Lippman Jr. is a retired editorial writer for The Sun.

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