“There was a cabinet meeting that afternoon. General Grant, who had just returned, gave a very interesting account of the state of the South, and the good feeling manifested by the officers of the Confederate army, who all said that they were ready to lay down their arms and go home to work. Something was said about hunting up ‘Jeff Davis,’ and Mr. Lincoln said he hoped ‘he would be like Paddy’s flea, when they got their fingers on him he would not be there.’”
So wrote Susan Man McCulloch in her diary for 14 April 1865, later transforming it into a memoir in 1895. How did she know of this previously unrecorded quip by President Lincoln, in his last day of life?
Susan Man was born near Plattsburgh, New York, in 1818 to a well-off family of settler-farmers. In 1838 she married Hugh McCulloch of Maine, after they had each migrated to Ft. Wayne, Indiana. McCulloch became an important banker in that state, then a Treasury official in 1863, shepherding much of the wartime ‘greenback’ policy into life. In March 1865 he was confirmed by the Senate as Lincoln’s 3rd Secretary of the Treasury.
McCulloch holds the rare distinction of having served 3 presidents in that same capacity: Lincoln briefly, Andrew Johnson for almost 4 years; and Chester Arthur briefly. His main post-Civil War speeches, and his 1888 memoir, are valuable for his Johnson years. Yet he did comment fairly on the president whom he knew first:
” … the more I saw of him the higher became my admiration of his ability and his character. Before I went to Washington, and for a short period after, I doubted both his nerve and his statesmanship; but a closer observation relieved me of these doubts, and before his death I had come to the conclusion that he as a man of will, of energy, of well-balanced mind, and wonderful sagacity. His practice of story-telling when the Government seemed to be in imminent peril, and the sublimest events were transpiring, surprised, if it did not sometimes disgust, those who did not know him well …” (p. 6 of Our National and Financial Future: Address of Hon. Hugh McCulloch, Secretary of the Treasury, at Fort Wayne, Indiana, October 11, 1865).
McCulloch did not see fit to mention the Irish quip in 1865, or in his full 1888 memoir either, or any other publication I can find. He simply went home on April 14th and repeated it to his wife, who recorded it in her diary. Lincoln’s first Cabinet had had 3 diarists (Bates, Chase, Welles), but only Welles remained in 1865, and he did not consign the quip to posterity, perhaps because he often played ‘catch-up’ on the diary in days after. Yet by 11:00 p.m. on April 14, the city knew that Lincoln had been shot, Seward possibly murdered too, and everyone’s thoughts moved to a darker plane.
Lincoln’s first recorded jibe about a poor Irishman comes from a 20 June 1848 speech in Congress, when he described the plight of a man with new boots: “I shall niver git ‘em on,” says Patrick, “till I wear ‘em a day or two, and strech ‘em a little.” He was a little harsher than this, in private, against the Hibernian race during the 1850s, when he and most other Whigs and Republicans knew that some Irish voters were bribed and / or brought over state lines to vote for Democrats, including Stephen A. Douglas.
But the jests of 1848 and his last day are not very racist or harsh. Both show some sympathy with the poor man’s plight, abusing him mildly for his poverty and his traditions. In that day, nearly everyone, but especially poor immigrants, understood the problems of fleas and ill-fitting footwear.
The point of the ‘Paddy’s flea’ anecdote is similar to another comment Lincoln made that week. Schuyler Colfax, Speaker of the House, asked him how the rebel leaders ought to be punished. “I do not want their blood,” Lincoln said; “scare them out of the country … if they leave, no attempt will be made to hinder them.” Lincoln never sought show trials or commissions of the type known after wars of the 20th century. He wanted reconciliation. He used jokes to soften a message of mercy, or to conceal a willful blindness to past wrongs.
The consonance of Susan McCulloch’s private record with Colfax’s recollection of the victorious week gives us strong support for believing that she did not invent her piece. It seems that she made an honest record of a memorable exchange with her husband.
How comes it that no one has publicized her remark before? Logic’s cousin: chance. Two of her descendants had a copy of her 1895 memoir. One of them let it be published in 1981 in a magazine devoted to the history of Ft. Wayne, Indiana. Yet parts of the memoir were silently omitted there. Now, the other descendant has provided the full 1895 transcript to the ALPLM, and there is the April 14 tale on page 30. A deep Celtic bow of thanks to the Williams family of Virginia for preserving a historic document and sharing it.
The 65-page typescript of Susan McCulloch’s memoir may be read at the ALPLM.