Sunday, October 20, 2013

Isaac P. Christiancy and His Child Bride: There's No Fool like an Old Fool Part I

U.S. Senator (Michigan) Isaac Peckham Christiancy

This is a story that has it all:  Sex.  Politics.  More sex.  It begins with a May-December wedding:

The groom—Isaac Peckham Christiancy—was a sixty-four year old Senator, ex-state supreme court justice, widow and father of at least seven children.  

The bride—Lillian Lugenbell—was  a pretty, blonde clerk at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, only twenty years old and reportedly prone to bouts of giddiness alternating with depression—and ultimately lunacy.

They married in a small, private ceremony in the house on Indiana Avenue where she had been boarding—which just happened to be the same place where the old Senator resided.  The wedding was witnessed by Fellow Michigan Senator Thomas Ferry and Lillian's friend, Miss Belle Linthicum and officiated by a Reverend Dr. Sunderland. 

The way Lillie told it, their marriage was going swimmingly—at least for the first few minutes.

Galveston (TX) Daily News, Jan. 31, 1877
Let us start at the beginning:

Issac Peckham Christiancy was born in March, 1812, in Johnstown, NY, the son of a New York pioneer who died when Christiancy was only 13.  From then on, young Isaac had to work and support the family; he did so by teaching and studying law. 

He studied law and moved to Michigan when he was about 24, where he was admitted to the bar.  From 1841 to 1846, he served as a prosecuting attorney for Monroe County, Michigan.  In 1849, Christiancy was elected to the state senate.  From there, he was elected Chief Justice of the Michigan State Supreme Court.   Biographers credit him with being instrumental in forming the state’s Republican party and with being an outspoken abolitionist.

Birds eye view of the city of Lansing, Michigan 1866. Library of Congress
In November of 1839, he married Miss Elizabeth McCloskey, nine years his junior.  The 1870 census shows him to be a 58 year old justice, living a respectable family life in Monroe County.  He and Elizabeth had seven children, with total property worth $40,000.  

Elizabeth died in December of 1874 in Lansing.  A year later, the widower was elected a US Senator for the term ending in 1881.   Mr. Christiancy, now 63 years old, went to Washington.  He took his seat in the Senate on March 4th, 1875.

Lillian M Lugenbeel was born in Alexandria, Virginia on July 30, 1854 to John W. Lugenbeel of Maryland, the son of an immigrant Lugenbühl from Germany, and his wife, Mary Francis (nee) Simpson of Virginia. Lillie was the youngest of four siblings:  a brother, French Cross, born in 1849, a teacher, died Staunton, Va., 1896, buried at Oak Hill Cemetery in Washington, DC; a brother James, born in 1851, and a sister Bettie, in 1853.  In addition, she had a sister M. Emma, born in 1850 and died in 1878 at the age of 28. 

Her father had studied at Columbian College, which would later become George Washington University, and graduated in 1841.  There is no record that John W.  fought in the Civil War, but the census of 1860 shows him to be absent from the household.  His wife Mary, his mother-in-law Ann Simpson and the children are living together in the home of  Richard Cross, a well-to-do Alexandria, Va. shoemaker.

Lillian’s family moved at least twice over the next fifteen years, as her father took a variety of jobs.  By 1864, they are living on E Street, North, and Lillian's father is working at the American telegraph company.  By 1870, the family had moved to lower Howard County, Maryland, near the town of Savage, where John was working as a clerk. 

By the winter of 1876, Lillian was 20 and working at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP), where like so many young women of the age, she hoped to find herself a husband.

"Lady Clerks Leaving the Treasury Department at Washington," by Alfred Rudolph Waud, a sketch which originally appeared in Harpers Weekly, Harper's Weekly, Feb. 18, 1865, p. 100.

Women had been working at have worked at the BEP since it opened in 1862, operating hand-cranked machines that cut and separated bank notes. By Lillian's time, women had assumed more complex tasks, operating seal presses, inspecting currency, or assisting printers.

“A notable feature on the streets of the capital is the female Government employees; especially the Treasury girls. They are generally young and of good families – for it takes some influence to get into a department. There are many black sheep among them, however. They get $600 a year which is little when board is hard to get at $30 per month, and an ordinary room costs $20 per month." William Emile Doster, Lincoln and Episodes of the Civil War, page 240.
Vernon Row, 900 block Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, 1871

During the winter recess of 1876, Senator Isaac Christiancy took a room in a boarding house run by bookseller Warren Choate and his English wife, Susan at 310 Indiana Avenue, NW, adjacent to Judiciary Square.  He brought his youngest son George, then only ten, from Lansing to live with him.  Also boarding there was a pretty young woman named Lillian Lugenbeel.

"'How fond Lillie Lugenbeel is of little George Christiancy!' remarked the ladies of the house. 'It is really touching to watch her kittenish gambols with him, and to watch her sometimes sitting at the Senator's feet!'" - Helena Independent, February 3, 1881

301 Seventh Street, Northwest at Indiana Avenue & C Street, Washington, District of Columbia, DC


The 64-year-old gentleman clearly found her as lovely and charming as did everyone else in the house, and he told Lillian that if he were a younger man, he would “pay her attention.”

Lillian wrote him a letter claiming that she took his compliment to be a marriage proposal. 

Alarmed, perhaps even horrified, Christiancy tried to talk her out of marriage, owing to the discrepancy in their ages. Or so he later claimed.

“I was led into it by her skillfully turning what was intended as a mere compliment to her into a proposition for marriage, which, at the first moment, I suspected that she intended to misconstrue into such a proposition, I promptly apologized for, when she as promptly declared her wish that I should marry her, to which I did not assent until after I had honestly and earnestly, on several different occasions, endeavored to convince her of the unfitness of such a marriage, on account of the difference in our respective ages, but I finally yielded to her solicitations upon her repeated assurances that she loved me better than any other man..." Atchinson Kansas Globe, January 15, 1881.
And so they were married on February 8, 1876, a few weeks after meeting, in a small ceremony in the boarding house where they both resided; Reverend Byron Sunderland officiated.  Fellow Michigan Senator, the much-younger and much more attractive Thomas W.Ferry stood as best man, and one of Lillie’s girlfriends as maid of honor.  The couple set forth for a honeymoon in New York.

Rosine et le Docteur. 1876. Etching. Published in Paris à l'eau-forte

To be continued...
© Cecily Hilleary, 2013


Daniel Myers said...

Very interested in this story, and have been wanting to get a look at the divorce records if they exist, as I think my great great grandmother testified at the trial. Any information you have would be appreciated.

Daniel Myers said...

I am very interested in this story as my great-great grandmother was a domestic int he Christiancy house in the 1870s and later married one of IP's sons (my line is from an earlier marriage - maybe). I think she may have been deposed in the divorce and I am very curious about any information you may have uncovered.

Quondam Washington said...

Daniel, I don't have the divorce papers, but I have all sorts of information gleaned from the newspapers. You've inspired me-it's time to write Part II.

The divorce was quite lurid and sensational for the time. Christiancy filed first; Lillian countersued. Public sympathy was on her side. But I give too much away. I shall get to writing now... and later, I'll send you copies of documents.

Macmel said...

I hope you finish Part II. I was reading the accounts in the New York Times, great stuff. I am working on a paper in regards to Christiancy's home in Lansing.

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