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Presidents: Chester Alan Arthur

Birthplace: Fairfield, Vermont

Visited in 2009.

In the time before paper trails, the Internet and talk radio, politics was a different beast. In the 19th century, you could actually -- get this -- accuse someone of not being born in America! What a silly, preposterous time!

There's a granite marker in Fairfield, Vermont, proudly declaring the exact site as the birthplace of Chester Alan Arthur. So sayeth the state of Vermont. Would that carving things in granite made them so, for I would record my personal finances with a chisel. The truth is that no one knows exactly where Arthur was born. The Fairfield region seems the best bet, but there are about 4 or 5 different locations in town where it might have happened. Did it happen at the old root cellar? At the farm up the hill? At the alley behind Fairfield's 7-11?

A New York lawyer by the name of Arthur Hinman insisted that none these locations could be the Arthur birthplace. He believed that Arthur was born in Canada or Ireland -- he didn't care which one, as long as Chet was ineligible to run for vice president on the Republican ticket in 1880. The Democratic National Committee graciously bankrolled Hinman's investigation.

There was some circumstantial evidence that might have raised eyebrows. Arthur's father, a Baptist preacher, was off-the-boat Irish. His mother's parents lived in Canada. The Arthurs moved frequently when Chester was young (to keep up with his father's extravagant preaching lifestyle) and the records of their relocations are spotty. Adding to the confusion was the fact that Chester might have lied about his age. He insisted he was born in 1830, though the family Bible and a few other pieces of evidence say 1829. And if you think Chester Arthur wasn't the type to lie about his age, I say to you, have you seen his sideburns?

However, Hinman's efforts didn't produce evidence solid enough to have Chester declared a foreigner. He was elected vice president in 1880, and late in 1881 the death of James Garfield transformed Arthur into our greatest sideburned president.

If you're ever in the neighborhood of Fairfield (evading the authorities, planning a drug buy, etc.) you should stop in. The Arthur birthplace site is just 12 miles off I-89 through beautiful farmland. It's the kind of scenery that makes you want to roll down your car window -- before you realize that farm air smells like a petting zoo on the grounds of a sewage treatment facility. The town is a one-stop-light affair with some quaint buildings, including a town meeting room with a life-sized cutout of Chester Arthur. Seriously.

Six miles uphill from Fairfield, you can visit the aforementioned slab of granite, plus a reconstruction of the simple parsonage the Arthurs moved into around 1830. If you're lucky, it'll actually be open, and you can look at the nice little displays they have about Arthur's life.

Even if it isn't open, don't despair! You can still press your face against the many windows and read or photograph all the different displays. If you circle the building you can get them all. Don't worry about looking stupid! Speaking from personal experience, I'm 95 percent sure that no one else will be there. You might have to take a look within, and realize that you are a grown man in the middle of nowhere pressing his face against the windows of a reconstructed home of a president no one really cares about. But don't worry -- you'll have a very long car ride back home to think about these things. And at the very least, you can always say that you drove two hours to see a spot that is probably within 10 miles or so of where Chester Alan Arthur was born.

Some things to note: the parsonage was two-tone because paint was expensive. You only put the fancy, high-priced yellow stuff on the side that would face the road, while the cheap red paint would go on the back side. (You can see the same pattern at Franklin Pierce's birthplace.) You would think a Baptist parsonage wouldn't be beholden to such posturing, but you'd be wrong!

Also, be sure to marvel at the spacious parking lot. The state of Vermont has slightly overestimated the site's parking needs. This might actually be the most remote presidential site. One news story I found online estimated that it gets about 400 visitors a year.

This is a great hobby.

Inauguration Site / Deathplace: 123 Lexington Ave., New York City

Visited in 2010.

Chester A. Arthur, werewolf and possible Canadian, became our fearless leader above an Indian grocery store in Manhattan. Sort of.

Kalustyan's grocery store has been around only since 1944, so it's not like Chet was popping downstairs every few days to pick up curry powder. However, he had an apartment in the building when he was vice president, in 1881. Back then the vice president did almost nothing. If he wanted to hang out in Manhattan in his free time -- and most of his time was free -- no one cared. Arthur was hanging out there when he received the news that James Garfield had finally perished, months after being shot in a Washington D.C. train station.

A plaque behind a plexiglass shield near the door tells the rest of the story: "Here on Sept. 20, 1881, Chester A. Arthur took his oath of office as 21st president of the United States upon the death of President James A. Garfield, killed by a disgruntled office seeker." And so Chester Arthur became the second president inaugurated in New York City, putting him on the same level as George Washington.

As it turns out, Chester also died at 123 Lexington Ave., about two years after leaving the White House in 1885. Arthur had severe kidney problems, which he mostly hid from the public. He had one of the shortest presidential retirements. If you exclude guys who died in office, only Polk had a shorter retirement. And the guy right behind Chester on that list is ... drum roll ... George Washington.

123 Lexington Ave. is a fine reminder of how New York usually works: So much history is plowed under as the city renews itself, generation after generation. For all its significance, no one thought to preserve Arthur's apartment, and now it's just an afterthought on a block dotted with Indian carryout places. You can't get into his former apartment, since someone lives there. It's nice to imagine that the current residents throw awesome Chester Arthur-themed parties every month where the guests dress fancy and wear fake sideburns. But they probably don't.

Regardless, stop by if you're in the neighborhood! There's no tour or museum. There's just the one tiny plaque. But sometimes it's nice to wade into history, buy an imported jar of honey for $3.99, then contemplate leadership until the Indian lady at the register starts to wonder what the hell your problem is and asks you to leave.

Grave: Albany Rural Cemetery, New York

Visited in 2008 and 2017.

Chester Arthur is best known as "The Father of Civil Service," and that pretty much gives you the baseline for the excitement level of his presidency. It's dull.

It started with a bang, though! Specifically, when Charles Guiteau shot James Garfield in a Washington, D.C., train station, and then announced, "I am a Stalwart of the Stalwarts! Arthur is president now!" Guiteau's hope was that Vice President Arthur, a Stalwart Republican with a reputation for liking the patronage system, would be so grateful for his promotion that he'd pardon Guiteau -- and then give him a job. This would have made for some really awkward office conversation.

SUPERVISOR: Charles, could you please file this paperwork?

CHARLES GUITEAU: I'm sorry, I didn't hear that. Could you speak into this gun?

SUPERVISOR: We've been over this. Do you need to talk to HR again?

CHARLES GUITEAU: How about I talk with Assistant Supervisor Johnson instead?

As you may have surmised, Guiteau was insane. But this was pretty much a PR disaster for Arthur, who up to that point HAD been a leading practitioner of "patronage" politics and was widely viewed as a puppet of the Stalwart Republican bosses. To his credit, Arthur did an about-face. Soon after becoming the president, he announced his support for civil-service reform. The rest is boring, boring history. Although he regarding through much of his public life as a toady, Arthur did well enough in office to leave the White House with a reputation for integrity and competence. Today, he even has a swank grave in Albany Rural Cemetery.

I believe that Arthur's grave marker is the most distinctive of all the presidential grave markers. And its most distinctive feature is a statue of an angel, that appears to be dusting a sarcophagus. When the heavenly hosts are keeping your resting place dust-free, that's saying something. Arthur's is not the biggest presidential grave, nor is it in the sexiest location (though Albany Rural Cemetery is very pretty). But it's memorable as hell. Kudos, Chester.

Arthur is kickin' it (post kicking it) in Albany because his professional life was spent in New York. Before he was vice president, Arthur was a lawyer and party politician. He was named head of the New York Customs House by President Grant. Working under the direction of his "boss," Roscoe Conkling, he did use that position to give many Stalwart Republican hacks some cushy jobs. (Conkling is one of those people who was insanely important and powerful and now no one knows who he is, serving as a reminder that it's OK if you accomplish nothing with YOUR life.) The Stalwarts were brazen enough in this practice that it started to irritate other Republican factions. After a protracted investigation, Arthur was removed from his job by President Rutherford B. Hayes. It was considered a great disgrace.

However, Arthur was still well-connected, and two years after getting fired he became the Republican vice presidential nominee. James A. Garfield, a moderate Republican, didn't really like Arthur. But GOP leaders wanted a ticket that "balanced" its two factions -- and among all the prominent Stalwarts, Arthur seemed to be the only one interested in the job of vice president. He was Conkling's man, but everyone held their nose and nominated him.

One assassination later, Arthur had gone from utter disgrace to leader of the United States in three short years. Keep reaching for that rainbow, kids.

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