George Washington & The Disinformation Troll: A President’s Week Story

During President’s Day—and week—we hear many a story about the glory of George Washington. Today, historians are taking a holistic approach to viewing historical figures—observing all aspects of their life, in as much as the available record allows.

One such interesting aspect was that the first President was the victim of an aggressive media troll. Propelled almost single-handedly by an individual acting as the tool of others, the attacks on the first President actually encouraged readers to go to the presidential mansion in Philadelphia to shout epithets and threats.

The troll was Benjamin Franklin Bache, grandson and apprentice of the more famous Ben Franklin. Bache published the Philadelphia Aurora newspaper and used it to print accusations largely based on information sent to him by those who opposed Washington’s policies.

Portrait of Benjamin Franklin Bache

Back then, before the brief heyday of objective journalism some centuries later, there was nothing to stop Bache from excerpting material—or even lying—to create the story he wanted to tell. Without independent editorial oversight, his paper functioned very much like that of some modern-day “news” outlets: unchecked, heavy on opinion and bombast.*

Yet Washington kept his own counsel—confidant that Bache’s unfounded fury would eventually fade in the light of the truth. Although, for more than a year after Washington retired, Bache continued his libelous attacks until his own death of Yellow Fever in 1798 at age 29.**

Benjamin Franklin Bache

Why was Bache so against George Washington? In part, because of Bache’s own self-importance—Bache was enraged that Washington refused to grant him (and others like him) fame and position in deference to the achievements of their famous forebears. But Washington was staunchly opposed to patronage—believing that just because things usually went someone’s way didn’t mean they always had to.

Another reason for Bache’s pseudo-journalistic assaults was that he considered Washington an “outsider.” He did not believe Washington, a Virginian, to be “one of them”. To Bache, Washington was an interloper who was not a “real” Philadelphian. To Bache’s mind, Washington’s work on behalf of the republic paled because the first president simply didn’t “know his place.”

Today, the “us” vs. “them” of that era is portrayed clearly: “us” equals patriots and “them” equal the British. Yet, truthfully, only one-third of the nation supported Revolution, while another third opposed it and the remaining didn’t care either way.

For Washington whose father’s untimely death cost him opportunities in status and education, “them” specifically comprised people whom he believed had more chances than he did and, later, his political rivals. In larger American society, “them” equaled native people, enslaved Africans, other people of color and women.

Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation

For Bache, “us” equaled those other supercilious persons who, like him, believed in their own exalted significance. “Them” were all who failed to be cowed by the malevolent bludgeon of his publication. Bache’s 18th century the language of othering people into “us” and “them” took the same predictable forms as today: “not one of us”; “not really from here” and “who does that person think they are?” All were used by Bache in some form.

First page of the Jay Treaty

Ultimately, Benjamin Franklin Bache was most skillful at tapping into his readers’ fear of change, couching personal attacks on Washington within social questions guaranteed to trigger outrage. When Washington decided America should remain neutral during the French Revolution, Bache accused him of disloyalty to a trusted ally. It was an observation that didn’t explore the other side: America’s potential reputational damage supporting a frenzied, blood-thirsty revolt.

And again, in 1795, Washington felt he had no choice but to sign the Jay Treaty to avert another war with Britain, Bache obtained a copy of the Treaty and pre-published it to tap residual anti-British sentiment—ignoring the legitimate financial reasons that necessitated agreement. Later, Bache went so far as to publish forged documents implying Washington’s motives in the Revolutionary War were entirely self-serving.

Yet, the truth was that Washington was making hard, unpopular, decisions to protect the infant United States from chaos and financial ruin. In so doing, it’s easy to imagine he was following an admonition he wrote to himself as a teenager in a small diary he entitled Rules of Civility–and continued to follow in his life as a military commander, politician and Free Mason:

labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience

Join us to learn more interesting and unusual facts about President Washington at our Ale to the Chief Washington Beer Bash on his birthday, this Saturday, February 22.


* Kohn, George C. The New Encyclopedia of American Scandal, Benjamin Franklin Bache: Vengeance Through Journalism p20 Facts on File, 2000.

** Benjamin Franklin Bache, mountvernon.org

Are Things Always As They Appear?

In 1992, the Museum (then Westport Historical Society) received the gift of an invitation date December 13th 1798 from President George Washington to a Mr. Sprague. Precious as it was, this gift was carefully locked away in the Museum vault and only its facsimile made public appearances.

It was, arguably, the most important holding in the Museum’s collection.

And it was also a fake.

George Washington engraving

The original intake paperwork for the gift clearly indicated that the invitation was authentic but that the signature was most likely not Washington’s. Still, lore among volunteers, staff and visitors nonetheless quickly spread that the Museum owned an authentic Washington autograph.

George Washington engraving c. 1876, Courtesy Library of Congress

The truth wasn’t discovered until almost 30 years later when a Museum staff member with an expertise in Washingtonia quickly recognized that the signature did not belong to the first president. After being taken out of its frame, the deception would prove to go even further. The signature was on the back of an invitation to a presidential dinner dated December 13th, 1798—almost two years after Washington left office.

Portrait of John Adams

Even though the fake was obvious, we nonetheless sent it to our colleagues at Mount Vernon for authentication. In the museum world–as in other fields such as journalism and the law–multiple sources to prove or disprove the appearance of fact are considered best practice. However, as expected, Mount Vernon quickly confirmed what we already knew (that the signature was a fraud) and what we suspected (that the invite itself wasn’t even real.)

Portrait of John Adams, Courtesy of Library of Congress

Ultimately, it turned out that the printed invitation was one often used by the Adams administration—as confirmed by the John Adams Papers Project experts at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

So, who was the invited guest—this Mr. Sprague? There was a Representative called Peleg Sprague serving his last year in Congress at the time of this invite. The dinner in question was held on a Thursday—which was in fact the customary day of the week for official Congress dinners first held by Washington and later, Adams.

Presidential dining table fully set

More intriguing, Washington was in Philadelphia (then the nation’s capital) as was President John Adams December 13th 1798. Washington was there to raise an army for what the government believed might be an impending invasion by France. Washington’s diaries indicate, however, that he dined alone in his rooms on the day in question.

Presidential dining as depicted in the A. Alfred Taubman Gallery of the Donald W. Reynolds Museum, Courtesy mountvernon.org

Grains of truth (the date; that it was a real invite of the Adams era; the presence of all parties in the capital city on that date) lent veracity to what was, essentially, a false representation of facts. No doubt Peleg Sprague was invited to official dinners on Thursdays by President Adams but he certainly wasn’t invited to one on this day by George Washington.

Coincidentally, another Sprague– William B.– was a known autograph collector and the first person to gather the signatures of all the signers of the Declaration Of Independence. At the time of his death, he had amassed over 10,000 signatures including those written upon an impressive array of presidential pamphlets, papers and invitations.

But in 1798, the date of our invitation, William B. Sprague was only 3 years old.

Is it possible that our document was a humorous conceit on the part of the later autograph aficionado Sprague? Or was it something more nefarious—someone’s carefully, curated document presenting a limited perspective because there was little fear that it would be picked apart and the fraud discovered?

Indeed, the trickery might not ever have been made plain had someone not come along to question what was presented and taken for fact.

Now, the value of our “Washington signature” centers not on its veracity but in the success of its deception. It is proof of how a lie, well told, can become the truth—at least in the minds (and sadly pocketbooks) of some.

Despite the corroboration of experts, there are still those who hold dearly to the idea that the signature we own is an authentic Washington. We can understand why—it’s hard to relinquish carefully held ideas built around our own fervent beliefs but, in the end, facts will out.

In honor of President’s Day visitors can see for themselves this and other scams at our next Tuesday Treasures—Counterfeit History: Fun With Fakes & Phonies, Tuesday, February 4th at 6:30pm.

The Price of Preservation

In the evening hours of January 24th, one day before the Lunar (Chinese) New Year, a five-alarm fire ripped through the building housing the archives of the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA NYC) on Mulberry Street in Manhattan’s Chinatown. It took eleven hours for firefighters to control the flames. Thankfully, no lives were lost. While the fire did not reach the precious artifacts housed at the site, the water from the fire hoses did. The damage to the collection which features items from Chinese-American history not found elsewhere is catastrophic. Estimates put the number of lost artifacts, spanning 160 years of history, at 85,000.

As the flames consumed the building and the water came pouring down our hearts were flooded with sorrow for our colleagues at MOCA NYC. After all, a museum’s collection is the museum. Archives such as the ones housed at MOCA—and to a large extent at Westport Museum (WM)—are remarkable for the glimpse they offer into overlooked people whose everyday lives are the real foundation of our collective national story.

New York Fire Department putting out a fire

When terrible disasters like these strike it’s human nature to take stock of our own affairs. That is true for individuals and for organizations: You ask yourself whether you are doing all you can to prevent the unthinkable.

MOCA NYC thought it had done just that. Following best practices, the museum’s archives and collections were housed on secured, upper floors. On the contrary, Westport Museums’s own archival vault was placed below grade when it was installed decades ago.

Photograph Courtesy New York City Fire Department

This has caused persistent concerns about temperature and humidity control. While 70 Mulberry is a 120 year old building, renovation presumably made it stable enough to withstand the weight of such a large trove of objects and papers. Conversely, WM’s costumes collection weighing many tons was housed in a second floor bedroom of Wheeler house—a 155 year old residential site adapted from a 1795 structure. It was not built to withstand that kind of weight. Worse, the collection sat on top of a load bearing beam that had been flagged as unstable decades previously.

Most agonizing, perhaps, for the MOCA curators and archivists was the fact that their extensive holdings had been professionally, painstakingly cataloged and maintained over years. Sadly, small organizations (ours included) are often handled by dedicated, untrained volunteers who don’t always know or follow best practices of museum collections management.

Today, three years after the Westport Museum’s Board of Directors’ adoption of a strategic plan created as part of the Standards of Excellence Program for History Organization (StEPs) developed by the American Association for State & Local History (AASLH) we are on a steady path to professional management of our holdings.

StEPs “helps history museums, historical societies, historic house museums and libraries with archival collections build professionalism and ensure their programs and collections remain vibrant community resources.”

We’re taking the mandates we learned from StEPs very seriously. But what does that include?

For example, archival storage is a very specific science that includes specialized storage containers, temperature and humidity controls, and precise cataloging for the purpose of research. We are ensuring all of our collections items are housed in the proper boxes, files, cases and cloth.

In the past, our vault was misused as generalized storage (including gift shop inventory) and there was no way to know what was there. There was only a sparse index and few Finding Aids which are necessary and standard in research institutions. Because there was a long list of folks with access to the vault and the building, there were no controls in place to protect our holdings—some of which are priceless (at least to us) in the pursuit of historical research. This may not seem so bad (many people think we should be more “easy going” as a small community institution), but our nonprofit status requires we follow certain protocols to protect collections. To neglect, destroy, improperly dispose or allow mishandling of them is considered an abdication of responsibility and is specifically against the law. Since 2018 access to the vault is no longer unregulated.

Bill of Sale at the Westport Museum

Our HVAC and humidity systems have been repaired and upgraded and we are going through an extensive cataloging and digitization process using volunteers and grant funds. Conservative estimates indicate that this will take close to $250,000 to complete. Our goal is to hire professionals to help get things in order–including digitizing our material, with correct finding aids, so that many of them will be available to researchers online free of charge through a program with the Connecticut State Library.

Bill of Sale, 1757, One of the collections held in WM’s vault

When digitization is done we will have to charge image reproduction fees on a sliding scale based on usage (commercial, private, nonprofit.) In the past, WHS copyrights were not always respected but we are trying to remedy this with the fee structure. This is common for institutions like ours. For example: We have been quoted research and usage fees from fellow nonprofits for work on our own behalf anywhere from $150 to $2000 depending on how extensive our request is. When we can afford to make use of these institutions and pay their fees we do so without complaint—because we know the money is going right back into the management of their important collections.

In our vault we have documents dating back 300 years. The work we are doing today is meant to, hopefully, preserve them for 300 more. It’s a long process with as many steps backwards as forwards—the structural failure in our building attests to that. Like other nonprofits, lack of funding exacerbates these challenges but we will persevere with dedication and professionalism.

Even so, no organization is disaster proof. The MOCA NYC’s story proves that. We can only hope to mitigate catastrophe if it strikes with an updated disaster management plan that takes the limitations of our physical space and previous construction into account.

Thankfully, our friends at MOCA NYC have mobilized quickly and are in the process of recovering whatever they can from their damaged collections. We believe it’s our responsibility to stand by our museum colleagues and help whenever we can. Some of our staff have personally donated to MOCA NYC’s fire recovery fund. We are asking our member community to find it in your hearts to perhaps do the same here.

Dragon Lady: The Life of Sigrid Schultz

On New Year’s Day in 1935, American reporter Sigrid Schultz witnessed raucous celebrations in Germany’s Black Forest. Shooting rifles into the air, the members of the fast-rising National Socialist party celebrated their leader’s rising hegemony over the German political landscape. Their leader was Adolf Hitler and they were Nazis.

Schultz recorded all she saw and sent it via telegram to her editor at The Chicago Tribune:

“…year two of Hitler’s Fuehrer Germany finds Germany comparable to a mass of cooling lava after a volcano eruption with some people getting burned and nobody certain where the lava will finally settle…”

Schultz had been the Chicago Tribune’s Central Europe Bureau chief for nearly ten years by that time—the first woman to hold the post in a major news organization. Her reputation for fair and fact-based reporting had gained her the trust of Hermann Göring, the man who would be Hitler’s second in command. It helped that she was a trained chef and gracious hostess who held dinner parties that lured her subjects and gained their trust. From this position of access, the journalist was to get inside information in order to report—and forewarn—of the Third Reich’s insatiable hunger for power and unquenchable thirst for violence that led, ultimately, to the Holocaust.

It was nothing short of remarkable that an American woman was allowed entry into the inner sanctum of the Nazi party. Sigrid Schultz had been born in Chicago and emigrated to Paris with her family at eight years old because her father, a Norwegian immigrant and an artist, had secured several commissions there. Her parents separated within a year and Schultz later wrote in an affidavit explaining her foreign residence that she only saw her father three more times. Her mother continued to live with her in Germany.

Portrait of Sigrid Schultz as a teenager

Demonstrating a natural aptitude for language, Schultz spoke English, French and German, her mother’s native language. She secured positions as a language teacher in Berlin during the First World War when, according to some sources, her mother fell ill and they could not return to America. When the Chicago Tribune was seeking multilingual in-country reporters, Schultz secured the job, rising to bureau chief by 1926.

Schultz at the age of 17, Courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society

But with the growing power of Hitler’s Nazi party, Schultz’ job became more dangerous. While she saw clear evidence of Hitler’s evil intentions for war and Jewish extermination she had to remain impersonal in order to maintain her position of access—especially after other Allied journalists had been expelled from Germany. Taking extreme risks, Schultz filed her most explosive and revealing reports under a pseudonym while traveling outside of Germany.

Göring came to suspect Schultz and was enraged by her intrepid reporting, calling her “that dragon from Chicago.” He had several attempts made on her life yet she outsmarted him every time. Realizing the escalating danger of her position, she sent her mother back to the United States to live in their Westport home in 1938. Eventually the reporter was forced to leave Germany after being injured in an Allied air raid. She recuperated in Spain but came to back to Westport recover further. Schultz attempted to re-enter Germany and resume her reporting but her visa was denied.

Sigrid Schultz lived in Westport for another forty years. From her home at 35 Elm Street, she continued to write tirelessly about antisemitism and the dangers of national extremism. A treasured neighbor and friend, Schultz was well known throughout the town and was a woman of many talents—including as the writer of a number of international cookbooks .

Today a group of Westporters who remember Sigrid Schultz are working to place a commemorative plaque at the site of Schultz’ former downtown home, which was bulldozed, along with others, to create a public parking lot.

The life of Sigrid Schultz as a fearless reporter, prescient observer of human nature and Westporter is celebrated in Westport Museum’s Women’s History exhibit DRAGON LADY: The Life of Sigrid Schultz now through November 14th, 2020