He went four times around the world and inspired Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days. He devised the financing scheme for the transcontinental railroad, lobbied Congress to enact it, and made a fortune from it. And at the end, nearly penniless and living in a Greenwich Village single room occupancy hotel, he made a living as a lecturer, the Champion Crank.
Born in Boston in 1829, George Francis Train had been orphaned before his fifth birthday when his parents and siblings died of yellow fever in New Orleans. He sailed back alone, “with a shipping tag pinned to his coat as if he had been a bag of coffee,” and was raised by his grandmother and maiden aunts (who found the sailors had remarkably enriched the boy’s vocabulary). At seventeen, he entered his uncle’s shipping business as a clerk and, proving imaginative and industrious, became a junior partner.
In 1850, Train first met a president of the United States. He walked uninvited into the White House, presented a letter of introduction from Secretary of State Daniel Webster (a former attorney for Train & Co.) and sat down for half an hour with President Zachary Taylor. Train later wrote, “He wore a shirt that was formerly white…spotted and spattered with tobacco juice. Directly behind me, as I was soon made aware, was a cuspidor, toward which the President turned the flow of tobacco juice. I was in mortal terror, but I soon saw there was no danger…he never missed the cuspidor once…”
Later that year, while changing trains in Syracuse, New York, he saw an animated, attractive young woman chatting with her friends. “Look at the girl with the curls,” Train said suddenly. “Why, do you know her?” inquired a traveling companion. “I never saw her before,” Train replied, “but she shall be my wife.”
He immediately changed his plans, jumped aboard her train, sat down in the same car and struck up a conversation with her chaperone. He learned the charming young woman, Miss Wilhelmina Davis, was stopping to see Niagara Falls. Train suddenly needed to see this wonder of nature. Once there, Train somehow took over the duties of escorting Miss Davis to the Falls. He wrote, “our love was mutually discovered and confessed amid the roaring accompaniment of the great cataract,” and they were betrothed.
Train’s bearing was assured and confident; his manner distinguished; and his wardrobe elegant. His conversation was usually brilliantly witty. In combination with his swarthy features, black curly hair, and flashing eyes, he was irresistibly attractive. He married Willie on October 5, 1851.
At the onset of the Australian gold rush, Train and Willie headed for Melbourne. When they arrived after ninety-two days at sea, they found 600 ships in the harbor and a city grown from 10,000 to 40,000 within a year. Train worked as a commercial agent for American shippers while writing feature articles for American and foreign newspapers, often about himself, his speeches, and his adventures.
He met Lola Montez, whose dancing talents were best appreciated in bed; she had been mistress of the King of Bavaria and now lived off her past by appearing in an operetta entitled Lola Montez in Bavaria. She was tough and imaginative as well as sexy: she dealt with a defamatory news article by horsewhipping the editor; when a sheriff arrived at her hotel with a warrant, she tore off her clothes and insisted that if he would arrest her, he must carry her off naked. The sheriff did not execute the warrant. Train won her friendship, probably because he was generous and funny and didn’t hit on her. (After more adventures, she died in Brooklyn, where she is buried under her true name, Eliza Gilbert, in Green-Wood Cemetery).
Train traveled home by making his first round-the-world trip. At every stop, he cabled articles to various papers. When he landed in New York, he received a blizzard of publicity, including sixteen columns in the Herald devoted to him and his tour of the world. He had written much of it himself. Years later, he would give a friendly journalist an article he himself had written reporting on one of his speeches, saying, “You see, I have put in the cheers and applause where they belong.” He wrote a series of articles on European business for the Merchant’s Magazine, later collected in his books Young America Abroad, An American Merchant in Europe, Asia, and Australia and Young America in Wall-Street.
In 1856, he was presented to the man who molded his politics and even his facial hair for decades to come.
Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte was a nephew of the first Napoleon. In December 1852, he had overthrown the Second Republic with little bloodshed and reestablished the Empire by plebiscite. Napoleon III had set male fashion by wearing a waxed mustache and a narrow goatee, a combination called an imperial. Like most of Napoleon III’s admirers, Train was most impressed by his transcendence of special interests as “a man who goes neither left nor right but forward.”
Train was in London in 1861 and, at a time when the British establishment largely favored the South, he became the Union’s fiercest champion. He financed a newspaper, the London American, which presented the Union point of view, particularly by reporting the innumerable speeches of George Francis Train. He also gave Sunday breakfasts in his London townhouse for leading politicians and newspapermen. On one side of his invitations was a rakish photograph of Train, his eyes gleaming from beneath his mop of curly hair, and on the reverse: “Come and meet a dozen live men at my round table breakfast next Sunday at eleven.”
He was attacked by the British press: Punch suggested, “The fittest position of all for him would be that of suspension at some altitude from the ground by a ligature embracing his neck with a running noose, and maintaining him in antagonism to the force of gravitation.” In his own country, however, he was hailed as “the Eloquent Champion of the American Union.” In 1862, as he later wrote, “I…returned to my country the most popular American in public life.”
Although he had never held public office, he spoke of himself as a candidate for president in 1864. The Democratic National Convention expelled him; nonetheless, he campaigned. On Election Day 1864, Lincoln polled 2.2 million; the Democrat, 1.8 million, and if “Train got any votes at all, it is not recorded.”
Even while running for president, he started a new deal: Union Pacific. Congress had enacted legislation to subsidize the construction of a transcontinental railroad and agreed to turn over 6400 acres of public land and financial subsidies of up to $48,000 for each mile of track built. The Union Pacific Railroad Company retained Train as their chief lobbyist. In 1864, he persuaded Congress to double the railroad subsidies for construction.
Then he recalled Napoleon III had financed massive public improvements through a bank, the Credit Mobilier. Train organized the Credit Mobilier of America at the behest of the directors and leading shareholders of the UP. Somehow, the UP awarded cost-plus construction contracts to Credit Mobilier, siphoning government money into its directors’ pockets. The construction costs were wildly extravagant. Credit Mobilier became a byword for corruption. But the railroad was built and finished within five years.
In 1866, he campaigned for women’s suffrage in a Kansas referendum. His oratory was astonishing: the Lawrence State Journal wrote: “He came! He saw! He conquered!” Susan B. Anthony credited most of the 9000 votes cast for women’s suffrage to his hard work and thunderous eloquence.
Then he ran for president again. He decided to go around the world for publicity, using the railroad to cross America, and doing it faster than anyone had ever done. He paid his way by lecturing. When he arrived in France, a delegation from the First International called on him at his hotel in Marseilles. They invited him to speak. “Well,” he boomed, “I cannot keep these good people waiting.” Ten thousand people were at the Alhambra theater. He stood up and sang the “Marseillaise.” He was as eloquent in French as in English, and after rousing the crowd to a frenzy, he marched with them upon City Hall, which was seized in the name of the Commune. Within a few days, Train was arrested and deported—in a private railway car, complete with manservant and chef.
Upon his return to the United States, Train announced he had gone around the world in eighty days. This, of course, did not count his month playing revolutionary. But two years later, Jules Verne published Around the World in Eighty Days. The hero, though English, is eccentric, egotistical, eloquent and ingenious. George Francis Train was Phileas Fogg.
His growing eccentricity ended his business career: even the men who knew him no longer trusted his judgment. His oratory was wilder than ever. One writer described it thus: “He double-shuffles and stamps on the floor ’till the dust obscures him; he beats his breast, clenches his fist, clutches his hair, plays ball with the furniture, outhowls the roaring elements, steams with perspiration, foams at the mouth, paces up and down ’till he looks like a lion in a cage lashing his tail.”
His campaign literature introduced him as “The Coming President. The Man of Destiny. First Campaign Gun. Victory, 1872: Six million votes, Nov. 12, for the Child of Fate! Train and the People against Grant and the Thieves!” Again he ran as an independent. Grant polled 3.6 million votes; his Democratic-Liberal Republican opponent, 2.8 million; the Labor Reform candidate, 30,000; the Prohibitionist, 6000. And again, if Train got any votes, they are not recorded in the tabulations.
Three days before the election, Train learned the radical feminist Victoria Woodhull had been arrested. She had been charged with obscenity: One of her newspaper articles on sex had included a phrase from Deuteronomy, “red trophy of her virginity.” Train then published The Train Ligue, a title alluding to his French revolutionary experiences, consisting of Old Testament verses concerning nudity, murder, incest and adultery. Then, he dared Anthony Comstock, the “Roundsman of the Lord,” to arrest him for printing “disgusting slanders on Lot, Abraham, Solomon, and David.” To Train’s delight, Comstock had him imprisoned without bail for public indecency. At his arraignment, Train was asked whether he pleaded guilty to the indictment. He replied, “I am guilty of publishing an obscene paper composed of Bible quotations.” The judge entered a plea of not guilty.
The case became an embarrassment. The court offered to release Train if he would plead not guilty by reason of insanity, but Train refused. He stated he would rather die in jail than be a hypocrite, and cried, “Back to durance vile!”
Meanwhile, as Meyer Berger observed in The Eight Million, Train continued making speeches, even in the Tombs. The guards wearied of his magniloquence and stuck him in an unheated cell. Train wrapped himself in a traveling rug, roaring, “I’ll raise hell in this Egyptian sepulcher!” Then the guards hustled him to Murderer’s Row, hoping this might frighten him. Instead, he canvassed his fellow inmates and won election to the coveted presidency…of the Murderer’s Club. Finally, the warden moved him into solitary confinement. This was enough and he copped to the plea. Train was discharged without having been tried on the charges in his indictment. Upon his release he complained, “My lawyers did not understand me. They are like all lawyers. They think it better to lie your way to freedom than to suffer for the truth.”
Finding his career in ruins, his fortune lost, and his reputation destroyed, Train gradually began living away from his family. As one biographer wrote, “escapade after escapade, eccentric performance after Quixotic involvement, all in bewildering succession, simply made normal domestic life impossible.”
In 1876, he was adjudicated a bankrupt, listing assets of about $100. At the age of 47, he owned merely a watch and the clothes on his back. Now he made his living through his platform speeches, enhancing his marketability by living up to his reputation as an eccentric. He no longer sought the presidency, but dictatorship. He referred to himself as “Citizen” Train. It, too, bore the flavor of revolutionary France and stressed his independence: he was “not a Democrat, not a Republican, not a Catholic, Protestant, not a man marked with anybody’s brand, but simply a citizen…” He became a vegetarian; he refused to shake hands, arguing such contact drained his vital energies, and when introduced to a new acquaintance, solemnly shook hands with himself. He adopted a new calendar, dated from his own birth, and occasionally conducted services as a minister of the Church of the Laughing Jackass. He remained good copy for the papers, writing articles in his telegraphic, allusive style with a double-colored pencil, blue at one end, red at the other.
He made his last two trips around the world in 1892 and 1896. He still believed he was important: in Japan, he made a speech to a crowd gathered to watch the Emperor travel by a later train, convinced they could have come only to see him.
Upon his return, Train moved into Mills House No. 1, at 160 Bleecker Street in the Village, an impressive Italianate hotel designed by Ernest Flagg to provide “…decent accommodations at low cost for people of small means.” There he dictated his autobiography, My Life in Many States and Foreign Lands. Train presented the 19th century as if it had revolved around him, writing, “It is supreme Dictatorship with me, or nothing. I am plaintiff against the whole world. I have been in fifteen jails for expressing my opinion, but I never robbed even a henroost.”
It would be nothing. In 1903, Citizen George Francis Train (“I am sometimes the only Citizen of these United States! There should be more of them!”) joined Eliza Gilbert in Green-Wood Cemetery.
New York Press, October 19, 1999
January 29, 2009 No Comments