What ever became of Grace Bedell, the 11-year-old girl who proposed to Lincoln that whiskers would improve his chances for election?
Grace Greenwood Bedell was born 162 years ago this week, in Albion, NY, on November 4, 1848, to Norman and Amanda (Smiley) Bedell. Norman was a carriage- and stove-maker. Conflicting records state that Grace was part of a family of six, seven, or ten children. In her famous letter to Lincoln, she notes four older brothers and a baby sister. Other than for two years in Westfield, NY, in which town Grace’s famous story takes place, the Bedells lived in Albion during her childhood.
Norman was a staunch supporter of the young Republican Party, favoring Lincoln in his 1860 bid for the White House. Bedell’s four oldest boys had attained their majority, and two were avid Democrats, thus politically splitting the household. The younger children naturally reflected the political views of their parents, if only mimicking the discussions that they heard at home but likely did not entirely understand.
Young Grace, however, was getting old enough to understand some of the political arguments of the day. She learned about slavery and abolition, and decided to hitch her wagon to Lincoln’s campaign star, as much as a pre-adolescent girl could.
About a month before the election, Grace’s father attended one of the popular campaign fairs that were commonly held throughout the countryside during an election year. He brought home to Grace a campaign poster picturing Lincoln and his running mate Hannibal Hamlin. Grace was dismayed to see how homely her favorite was. She mused about his “high forehead over those sadly pathetic eyes, the angular lower face with the deep-cut lines about the mouth.” How could one so homely possibly win the favor of the voters? Not one to be deterred, however, Grace set out to rectify the situation. She sat down immediately and wrote a letter on October 15, 1860, with the bold directness of naiveté. Thus follows her words to the clean-shaven candidate Lincoln.
Westfield Chatauqua Co
Oct 15 1860
Hon A B Lincoln…
My father has just home from the fair and brought home your picture and Mr. Hamlin’s. I am a little girl only 11 years old, but want you should be President of the United States very much so I hope you wont think me very bold to write to such a great man as you are. Have you any little girls about as large as I am if so give them my love and tell her to write to me if you cannot answer this letter. I have got 4 brother’s and part of them will vote for you any way and if you let your whiskers grow I will try and get the rest of them to vote for you you would look a great deal better for your face is so thin. All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husband’s to vote for you and then you would be President. My father is going to vote for you and if I was a man I would vote for you to but I will try to get every one to vote for you that I can I think that rail fence around your picture makes it look very pretty I have got a little baby sister she is nine weeks old and is just as cunning as can be. When you direct your letter direct to Grace Bedell Westfield Chatauque County New York
I must not write any more answer this letter right off Good bye
Lincoln answered her letter immediately, his own letter dated only four days after hers. Undoubtedly some amusement colored his response, but he was kindly and accommodating.
Springfield, Ill Oct 19, 1860
Miss Grace Bedell
My dear little Miss
Your very agreeable letter of the 15th is received –
I regret the necessity of saying I have no daughters – I have three sons – one seventeen, one nine, and one seven years of age – They, with their mother, constitute my whole family –
As to the whiskers, having never worn any, do you not think people would call it a piece of silly affection if I were to begin it now?
Your very sincere well wisher
Despite his protestation of the vanity of a beard, shortly after the election, Lincoln allowed the makings of a chin-curtain to adorn his face. By the time he left Springfield in late February 1861 for his inauguration, his new beard was well launched, although not yet full, and not yet the icon it would become.
Well-known is the account of Lincoln’s whistle-stop in Westfield, New York, on his way to Washington. He surveyed the crowd that had gathered at the train station to greet him, and called out, asking if Grace Bedell was in the audience. She was, and she approached. Lincoln got off the train, bent down to greet her, and kissed her cheek, to the delight of the spectators. He spoke with her for several minutes before boarding the train again and continuing on his way.
(Lincoln was our first president to wear a beard. During and after the Civil War, facial hair became something of an art form, and other than Andrew Johnson and William McKinley, ten of the next twelve presidents sported a beard, a moustache, or both. Since Taft’s impressive handlebar moustache, our presidents from Wilson on have again been clean-shaven.)
Grace wrote again to Lincoln a little more than three years later. Her family was struggling financially, and her father had lost much of his property and other assets. Grace, only fifteen years old, believed that she could help to bring money into the household, and she learned that the Treasury Department in Washington had steady work and decent wages. Not only that, women were preferred as Treasury employees because of their tactile superiority in discerning counterfeit currency.
Albion, Orleans Co. N.Y.
Jan. 14th /64
Jan. 14th /64
After a great deal of forethought on the subject I have concluded to address you, asking your aid in obtaining a situation, Do you remember before your election recieving a letter from a little girl residing at Westfield in Chautauque Co. advising the wearing of whiskers as an improvement to your face. I am that little girl grown to the size of a woman. I believe in your answer to that letter you signed yourself. “Your true friend and well-wisher.” will you not show yourself my friend now. My Father during the last few years lost nearly all his property, and although we have never known want, I feel that I ought and could do something for myself. If I only knew what that “something” was. I have heard that a large number of girls are employed constantly and with good wages at Washington cutting Treasury notes and other things pertaining to that Department. Could I not obtain a situation ther? I know I could if you would exert your unbounded influences a word from you would secure me a good paying situation which would at least enable me to support myself if not to help my parents, this, at present – is my highest ambition. My parents are ignorant of this application to you for assistance. If you require proof of my family’s respectability. I can name persons here whose names may not be unknown to you. We have always resided here excepting the two years we were at Westfield. I have addressed one letter to you before, pertaining to this subject, but receiving no answer I chose rather to think you had failed to recieve it, not believing that your natural kindness of heart of which I have heard so much would prompt you to pass it by unanswered. Direct to this place.
Grace G. Bedell
This second letter was discovered in the Treasury records in the National Archives in 2007 by Karen Needles, Director of the Lincolnarchives Digital Project ( http://www.lincolnarchives.us ). Some historians speculate that Lincoln never received Grace’s letters, either this one or the earlier one she references on this subject.
Grace married George Newton Billings on December 3, 1867. She was nineteen. Three years her elder, George had served in the Civil War in the 10th New York Infantry and as a sergeant in the 8th New York Heavy Artillery. He had begun his career as a teacher, served in the war, and then for over a decade he both farmed and worked as a wagon train captain, guiding pioneers into the West. In 1870, George and Grace settled in Delphos, Kansas, about 40 miles north of Salina. They lived in a house northwest of town until 1880, when they built a house in town at 602 Custer Street.
Life in Kansas in the late 1800s was rough and challenging, but the Billings family prevailed against invasions of lizards, plagues of grasshoppers, floods, tornadoes, prairie fires, Indian attacks, drought, and disease. Grace rode a horse and learned how to shoot a gun, as well as other skills required for survival on the frontier. They brushed shoulders with more famous figures, befriending “Wild” Bill Hickok who was then serving as marshal in Abilene before he wandered further afield to his doom in South Dakota in 1876. Hickok was a frequent visitor for supper at the Billings table in the early 1870s.
In 1880, George began work as a cashier at the State Bank of Delphos. (Some records state that he co-founded the bank.)
Grace and George had one child, Harlow Drake Billings, born in 1872, and Harlow became president of the bank where his father had worked. He married Ellarene Bishop and had a son named George, whose son Duane lives today in Salina.
Grace said, later in life when news reporters interviewed her, that she disliked “making a fuss.” She never capitalized on her moment of fame; her neighbors and community have kept her name alive through the decades.
George passed away in 1930, after having worked at the bank nearly 50 years. Grace Greenwood Bedell Billings followed George to the grave six years later, on November 2, 1936, (74 years ago this week) missing her 88th birthday by only two days. They are buried in Delphos. Delphos, KS, and Westfield, NY, both have memorials to Grace so that her contribution to American history is not forgotten.
Delphos is currently raising funds for the restoration of the Billings house for use as a museum. http://www.gracebedellfoundation.org/
Several children’s books about Grace’s famous letter have been written, including:
Mr. Lincoln’s Whiskers by Karen B. Winnick
Lincoln’s Little Girl: A True Story by Fred Trump
Grace’s Letter to Lincoln by Peter and Connie Roop
Also, a 20-minute documentary short-film was made about Grace’s moment in the limelight. “Grace Bedell: The Little Girl Who Changed the Face of a Nation,” starring Lana Esslinger and directed by Eric Burdett, debuted at the Buffalo/Niagara International Film Festival in April 2010.