Let's face it: not all presidents were created equal. Like Hollywood or the NFL, the American executive lineage is a mixed bag of heralded superstars, shunned failures, and neglected bit players.
Just look at our currency for proof. Is it fair that Lincoln is on both the penny and the five? Maybe Ulysses S. Grant would like a little more face time outside the fifty. Sorry, Grant, but giving African-Americans protected voting rights via the Fifteenth Amendment isn't as epic as ending slavery, so it's just the one bill for you.
And don't get me started on all the stuff named after Washington in this country. The first guy to do anything always gets the lion's share of love. Meanwhile, Rutherford B. Hayes gets jack. The argument that Hayes did not have the same panache as Washington is almost acceptable until you gaze upon the absolutely scrumptious beard the former kept during his reign as president. 'Twas a follicle forest that continues to shame any growth spotted in today's hipster enclaves.
Disparity of popularity between the presidents is also evident in their respective grave sites. The Capital Region boasts a shining example in the grave of Chester A. Arthur, which is tucked deep into the Albany Rural Cemetery in Menands.
A Vermont native raised in this area, Arthur served as Vice President to James A. Garfield and assumed the nation's highest office when Garfield died two months after being shot by deranged assassin Charles Guiteau.
Chester was not regarded very highly when he assumed the presidency -- years earlier as New York's chief import tax collector Arthur routinely clashed with aforementioned Rutherford Hayes and developed a reputation as a difficult fussbudget -- but our boy manned up as Commander in Chief, effectively silencing all the haters with his fraud-busting civil service reforms. Chet also succeeded in pumping up our Navy and allotted government funds for Native American education. No less than Mark Twain was impressed by Arthur's presidential turn, writing that "it would be hard indeed to better President Arthur's administration."
Alas, Chester A. Arthur lacked the bombast to match either of the Roosevelts or the smoldering intensity to put him up against a Harry Truman. He's not a "name" president. He doesn't have "big ticket draw." Thus, there is no wrought iron gate firmly protecting Arthur's grave from the teeming masses, and there is no adjoining monument or spire meant to draw Chet's soul up to the heavens. There isn't even any clear signage when you enter Albany Rural Cemetery directing you to Arthur's tomb. The only item that denotes his grave's location to all passersby is a medium-sized American flag flapping from its pole as if to say, "Hey, don't know if you care, but someone cool might be buried right here."
Yet, once you're upon the final resting place of Chester A, it is quickly surmised that there is a certain amount of great respect as his tomb is possibly the cemetery's cleanest and most ornate -- on the edge of an embankment where two roads meet, a small flight of steps lead up from the pavement to the glossy black casket which itself is protected by a somber angel made of
stone bronze. Stamped near her feet is the presidential seal.
"Chester Alan Arthur, Twenty-first president of the United States," a marker to the right of the seal reads in a font perhaps too stylized for a figure of his stature. Who knows, maybe he wanted it that way.
Behind Chet is the Arthur family plot, which marks the last stop for the president's wife Ellen Lewis Herndon (who died a year before he stumbled into the Oval Office) and the couple's Ivy League playboy son Chester Arthur Jr. This stone marker, far dirtier than Chester the First's tomb, also denotes space allotted for Chester Arthur's grandson. Chester Arthur III was born in 1901 and died in 1972; he is, however, not interred in Menands. In fact, Chet 3's burial spot is unknown, a secret to the general public. This grandson, who eventually grew into the burly spitting image of his famous grandpappy, changed his name to Gavin, moved from his native Colorado Springs to San Francisco, became heavily involved in astrology, and in 1966 authored gender identification deconstruction tome The Circle of Sex. Gavin tore apart various mores in the text concerning hetero- and homosexuality, ultimately concluded humanity will not be truly sexually liberated until the constraints of marriage are thrown away. (It's slightly more interesting stuff than Naval reform). Gavin Arthur died in April of '72; his obituary also made sure to note the time he spent teaching in San Quentin prison and his involvement in an attempted Utopian society.
One can assume either his own or someone else's will kept Gavin out of Albany Rural. With that knowledge, the experience of visiting the Chester Arthur Family Fun Grave-a-Go-Go feels expectedly incomplete (sorry Mario, but your astrological presidential grandson of liberated sexual mores is in another castle). Yet it's certainly still worth a drive out to Menands to bask in the almost defiant glow of the original Chester Arthur's tomb as it rests on that embankment, proudly marking the end of a Chief Executive who, though lacking currency appeal, commanded and should command respect for openly defying the oppressive beard of Rutherford B. Hayes, rooting out fraud, and signing into the law the Edmunds Act. That document in 1882 effectively made a federal crime of polygamy, which I think we can all agree is at the very least creepy and weird.
For all that, Chetty A's earned his right to be on our underused half dollar (which he never will be because Jack Kennedy had one goddamn great head of hair).
Chester A. Arthur portrait: Charles Milton Bell from the Library of Congress, via Wikipedia
We'd really like you to take part in the conversation here at All Over Albany. But we do have a few rules here. Don't worry, they're easy. The first: be kind. The second: treat everyone else with the same respect you'd like to see in return. Cool? Great, post away. Comments are moderated so it might take a little while for your comment to show up. Thanks for being patient.