Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Strangest Names In American Political History: The Introduction

    So here we are....yet another corner of internet zaniness! The full title of the work this site is based upon is the "Strangest Names In American Political History," which highlights American political figures with humorous, strange, and unusual names. The time frame consists of the colonial era to the present day. This project was started on a whim on December 31, 1999, by myself and my cousin and in the succeeding years has expanded to lengths we couldn't have possibly imagined!
   This project/website highlights only U.S. political figures, and while the exact definition of strange or unusual will consistently fluctuate, the rule regarding U.S political figures will not. Biographies of these once prominent men and women will be added here regularly, and a portrait of the person will almost always accompany the biography, as it's always nice to have a face to place with the name. After a decade of diligent searching and gathering information on these oddly named folks, it struck me that other people might enjoy reading of my findings, and in July 2011 I decided to create this webpage/blog dedicated to profiling some of the curiously named political figures I'd collected information on over the years.
   This site will contain pictures and information related to the following: 

  • Members of the federal government (U.S. Senators, Representatives), the Federal Judiciary (U.S. Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, U.S. District Attorneys, District Court judges), as well as the Cabinet. 
  • Holders of state/territorial offices (Governors, Lieutenant Governors, state cabinet officials, members of the state senate and house of representatives, Assembly, Delegates. Members of the state judiciary (state supreme courts, state appeals courts, district courts, county judges, municipal judges and county attorneys).
  • Mayors, Village Presidents, Township Supervisors, Burgesses, U.S. Postmasters.
  • Members of the Confederate government.
  •  American diplomatic officers (Ambassadors, Ministers, Charge d'Affairs, Consuls, Vice-Consuls, Consular agents.) 
  • Members and delegates to the State Constitutional and National Party Conventions (Republican, Democratic and various third parties) and Presidential Electors.
  • And lastly, the candidates (people who ran for or were nominated for the offices listed above, but weren't elected.)
    I suppose the main goal of this site is to point out many of the interestingly named individuals that have held or ran for public office since the founding of our country. As an amateur historian and genealogist, it's something that I've been fascinated by for the majority of my life! For example, the current United States Congress is made up of 435 members of the House of Representatives and 100 Senators. Exactly two hundred years ago in 1811, the U.S. Congress was home to 36 Senators and 143 representatives. Amongst these 179 persons were men with such names as Harmanus Bleecker (a Representative from N.Y.), Epaphroditus Champion (a Representative from Connecticut), Barzillai Gannett (a Representative from Massachusetts), Outerbridge Horsey (a Senator from Delaware) and Arunah Metcalf (a Representative from New York) amongst others.
   As one can see, I find it fascinating that some of the aforementioned people were elected to public office with names like those. With the biographies that will be featured here, I hope to create yet another corner of internet silliness, albeit with a historical and political bent to it. Most of the political figures that will be profiled here are, to put it mildly, unknown, and some are so obscure that maybe 1 in 1,000,000 people have heard of them. Any prospective readers are welcome to contribute comments or politicians that I might not know about, but as there are over 3000 politicians on the written list already, that may prove to be difficult.  
   The origins of this site stem from the aforementioned "Strangest Names In American Political History List", established by myself (Andrew Osterdahl) and my cousin (Christopher Scherman) in 1999. The list in question came about by happenstance while perusing a book entitled "Facts About the Presidents", authored by Joseph Nathan Kane (1899-2002), who himself lived to be 103 years old. Featured therein were writings on each of the Presidents, including their cabinets, relatives, statistics on their elections, and pertinent information on the U.S. Congress.
  While sorting through this book both of us began to notice many of the persons mentioned that had served in some political capacity had very unusual names. For example, on page 30 we found that James Madison (our 4th President) had a Postmaster General named Return Jonathan Meigs Jr., who is shown below. 

   From there we managed to discover other oddly named politicians throughout the book, including Cave Johnson (James Polk's Postmaster General), Reverdy Johnson (Zachary Taylor's Attorney General), Galusha Aaron Grow (a Speaker of the House during the 1860s) and Absolom Madden West (a Greenback candidate for Vice President in 1884.)
   After an ample amount of time culling through this book finding eye-popping names we decided to start cataloging our findings, and the number one slot was given to Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar (1825-1893), the U.S. Secretary of the Interior and Supreme Court justice. Lamar retained the top spot on the list for over a decade until being usurped by an even more unusually named politician: Auxencico Maria Pena Venezuela Hildreth Dickeson (1842-1879), a member of the New Jersey state assembly. The original list we developed encompassed around sixty or so individuals, and, a decade on, now stands at over 3000 politicians of varying notoriety! The aforementioned list was typed into a digital format (i.e. a very lengthy Microsoft Word document) beginning in 2003 and continues to expand.
   So what exactly constitutes a "strange" name? While all of the folks featured here have names that nowadays would be considered unusual (Aquilla, Zophar or Woodbury being three examples), back in the 18th, 19th and early 20th century, these names may not have raised eyebrows! While the definition of strange or unusual is certainly not absolute, I can guarantee that a good majority of the names listed here will have you pondering "why would anyone give a child that name!"

      All these names...where do they come from?

   While I'm not expecting this site to break a record for number of views,  I can firmly state that most of the readers browsing here will ponder "where were all these people found?" The answer is somewhat lengthy, as a multitude of sources have helped me in my findings. Read on to find out more!

1.) Who Was Who in America: Besides Joseph Nathan Kane's Presidential Fact Book mentioned above, one of the earliest books I used to find some of these names was the Who Was Who In America book series. In my opinion, the most valuable book of the series was the one that yielded the most names for our list, which was the Historical Volume, 1607-1896, which is pictured below.

  Throughout this wonderful book were many oddly named politicians, many of them congressmen (Narsworthy Hunter and Selucius Garfielde are two such examples.) Also featured in this book were individuals who attained other political offices, such as Connecticut Governor Luzon Burritt Morris and Iowa state representative Coker Fifield Clarkson. Words cannot describe how much of a boon this book was in terms of information! Subsequent Who Was Who editions (extending from 1896-1968) proved to be just as useful biography-wise and all remain a great source for biographical information on any number of historical figures, political or otherwise.

2. The Political Graveyard: This wonderful website created by Lawrence Kastenbaum was discovered around the same time as the book series mentioned above (2000-2001 or so), and since that time has been a valuable tool many times over. I can't even begin to think of how many great names (many of them not listed in the Who Was Who series) I've been able to discover through this site. I'd be remiss in mentioning that in 2001 and 2003 this website came in handy when I was looking for the graves of congressmen Orange Ferriss and Ner Middleswarth. The site contains over 250,000 politicians of varying notoriety, and my one hope is to make a blog/website that is as history-conscious as the Political Graveyard. There really isn't any other site like it out there, and it remains one of my most frequent internet haunts, and I urge anyone with an interest in political history or cemeteries to! Please visit it at the following link!

3. Google Books: This excellent apparatus has helped me discover the wonderful world of state registers, directories, and legislative manuals. The state registers and legislative manuals mentioned above were developed in each state to better educate citizens on who exactly was serving in their state government, along with what laws were being passed. Its only drawback is that some of the books aren't fully viewable, which I find a bit stymieing on occasion. It is also very time consuming pouring over pages and pages of digitized old state-books, but part of the fun of this project is the digging! These works have truly been a blessing to find, as they record many politicians that aren't listed in Who Was Who or on 

4. Following on the heels of Google books is this wonderful website, and it isn't called for nothing. This site is a repository for many pieces of information, including various texts, live music, and moving images. Unlike Google books, I've been able to find more fully viewable state manuals and biographical directories here. 

5. Congressional Quarterly's Guide to U.S. Elections, Volume II: This huge book was brought to my attention by my cousin, who discovered a copy while attending college. It lists numerous election results (senatorial, congressional and gubernatorial) since the 1820s and details thousands of candidates for public office over the past 200 years or so. To date, this wonderful book has yielded many good names, including unsuccessful candidates Jerothmul B. Barnaby, Rhamanthus M. Stocker, and Lycurgus Sayles.

I'd be remiss in mentioning the actual "literature" behind all of these great name finds. Here's a small snippet......

  • State Registers: These works are similar to Almanacs, and the majority of them that I've used to help find new politicians for the list date from the 1820s until the turn of the 20th century. They often have a small roster of state officials/legislators/candidates for a particular year but aren't as in-depth as some of the succeeding works. Nearly every state published a register at some point, with special mention going to Connecticut, New York, New Hampshire. Each of these states have numerous registers available on Google books and
  • Bluebooks/Red Books/State Legislative Manuals: Pretty much everyone knows what a Bluebook/Redbook is, but in case you don't, it has a similar set up to an almanac and lists pertinent information on a particular state's government. This usually takes the form of a state government/legislative roster with small biographies of the incumbent officeholders, and on occasion, pictures of these officials are also included. Legislative manuals are quite similar, but center on various statutes, bills, regulations, and laws that were the topic of discussion during a particular legislative session.
  • Legislative Souvenirs: Not every state produced a souvenir of their legislative bodies, but the ones that have I owe a great debt of gratitude to! A legislative souvenir is a moderate-sized book profiling each individual legislator, giving a proper biography of each, along with their birth dates, family, town/village of origin, political/religious faith, election statistics, and almost always a portrait. Massachusetts and Connecticut are two states that produced these wonderful treasure troves of info and are available online at Google books and
  • County histories: Throughout the latter part of the 19th century, nearly every state produced a series of books chronicling each county within its borders. The title of these works was usually something along these lines: "A History of So and So County and Some of its Prominent Men and Pioneers". These books have pertinent info on some the elected officials from a particular county, and often have portraits accompanying the articles.

                                                            Copyright stuff

   Finally.....I think it best to address various info/copyright issues, and the amount that I know on such matters could fill a thimble! While the writing about the individuals contained herein comes from my own hand, the facts and the pictures of the various politicians have been gathered from the multitude of sources mentioned above (an exception to that rule will be the various grave site pictures that pop up from time to time, as those will have been taken by me.) The majority of the books used are (if you decide to take a look for yourself) quite old, with most dating from the 19th century. Most of the pictures posted here were scanned/copied/saved from these obviously old books, and I try to make a point in mentioning where I found said picture/information, in case others may want to read more on "so and so". 
   As a lot of work and research went into the creation of this site, it is my hope that anyone reading it will, in turn, use it for interest and research. All I ask is that anyone who might a peak and finding an interesting tidbit about "so and so" and decides to make mention of it elsewhere, don't forget to give us a mention! Providing links to the site here is also encouraged, as is all forms of comment and messages. I also try to provide where I found a certain tidbit or factoid (hence the red links featured in each write-up) and take special note to record where I located a particular portrait of someone. Give credit where credit is due I always say!
   All in all, the feedback on this very goofy project has been greater than I could have ever imagined. I hope that anyone who may stumble across this zany corner of the internet can get some laughs and knowledge out of the many men and women that will be posted here. If you enjoy reading about some of these strangely named individuals and are a history buff, please follow the Strangest Names In American Political History via the Facebook like box located at the top of the page. In mid-January 2012 this site made its first appearance on Facebook. If you decide to take a peak, don't forget to like us on Facebook!

Enjoy the historical weirdness! 

                          The Strangest Names In American Political History Book, established 1999.

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