The Man Who Was Phileas Fogg

Written by William Bryk on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.

Born in
Boston in 1829, George Francis Train had been orphaned before his fifth birthday
when his parents and siblings died of yellow fever in New Orleans. He sailed
back alone, "with a shipping tag pinned to his coat as if he had been a
bag of coffee," and was raised by his grandmother and maiden aunts (who
found the sailors had remarkably enriched the boy’s vocabulary). At 17,
he entered his uncle’s shipping business as a clerk and, proving imaginative
and industrious, became a junior partner.

In 1850,
Train first met a president of the United States. He walked uninvited into the
White House, presented a letter of introduction from Secretary of State Daniel
Webster (a former attorney for Train & Co.) and sat down for half an hour
with President Zachary Taylor. Train later wrote, "He wore a shirt that
was formerly white…spotted and spattered with tobacco juice. Directly behind
me, as I was soon made aware, was a cuspidor, toward which the President turned
the flow of tobacco juice. I was in mortal terror, but I soon saw there was
no danger…he never missed the cuspidor once…"

Later that
year, while changing trains in Syracuse, NY, he saw an animated, attractive
young woman chatting with her friends. "Look at the girl with the curls,"
Train said suddenly. "Why, do you know her?" inquired a traveling
companion. "I never saw her before," Train replied, "but she
shall be my wife."

He immediately
changed his plans, jumped aboard her train, sat down in the same car and struck
up a conversation with her chaperone. He learned the charming young woman, Miss
Wilhelmina Davis, was stopping to see Niagara Falls. Train suddenly needed to
see this wonder of nature. Once there, Train somehow took over the duties of
escorting Miss Davis to the Falls. He wrote, "our love was mutually discovered
and confessed amid the roaring accompaniment of the great cataract," and
they were betrothed.

bearing was assured and confident; his manner distinguished; and his wardrobe
elegant. His conversation was usually brilliantly witty. In combination with
his swarthy features, black curly hair and flashing eyes, he was irresistibly
attractive. He married Willie on Oct. 5, 1851.

At the onset
of the Australian gold rush, Train and Willie headed for Melbourne. When they
arrived after 92 days at sea, they found 600 ships in the harbor and a city
grown from 10,000 to 40,000 within a year. Train worked as a commercial agent
for American shippers while writing feature articles for American and foreign
newspapers, often about himself, his speeches and his adventures.

He met Lola
Montez, whose dancing talents were best appreciated in bed; she had been mistress
of the King of Bavaria and now lived off her past by appearing in an operetta
entitled Lola Montez in Bavaria. She was tough and imaginative as well
as sexy: she dealt with a defamatory news article by horsewhipping the editor;
when a sheriff arrived at her hotel with a warrant, she tore off her clothes
and insisted that if he would arrest her, he must carry her off naked. The sheriff
did not execute the warrant. Train won her friendship, probably because he was
generous, funny and didn’t hit on her (after more adventures, she died
in Brooklyn, where she is buried under her true name, Eliza Gilbert, in Green-Wood

Train traveled
home by making his first round-the-world trip. At every stop, he cabled articles
to various papers. When he landed in New York, he received a blizzard of publicity,
including 16 columns in the Herald devoted to him and his tour of the
world. He had written much of it himself. Years later, he would give a friendly
journalist an article Train had written reporting on one of his speeches, saying,
"You see, I have put in the cheers and applause where they belong."
He wrote a series of articles on European business for the Merchant’s
, later collected in Train’s books Young America Abroad,
An American Merchant in Europe, Asia, and Australia and Young America
in Wall-Street

In 1856,
he was presented to the man who molded his politics and even his facial hair
for decades to come.

Bonaparte was a nephew of the first Napoleon. In December 1852, he had overthrown
the Second Republic with little bloodshed and reestablished the Empire by plebiscite.
Napoleon III had set male fashion by wearing a waxed mustache and a narrow goatee,
a combination called an imperial. Like most of Napoleon III’s admirers,
Train was most impressed by his transcendence of special interests as "a
man who goes neither left nor right but forward."

Train was
in London in 1861 and, at a time when the British establishment largely favored
the South, he became the Union’s fiercest champion. He financed a newspaper,
the London American, which presented the Union point of view, particularly
by reporting the innumerable speeches of George Francis Train. He also gave
Sunday breakfasts in his London townhouse for leading politicians and newspapermen.
On one side of his invitations was a rakish photograph of Train, his eyes gleaming
from beneath his mop of curly hair, and on the reverse:

Come and
meet a dozen live men at my round table breakfast next Sunday at eleven.

He was attacked
by the British press: Punch suggested, "The fittest position of
all for him would be that of suspension at some altitude from the ground by
a ligature embracing his neck with a running noose, and maintaining him in antagonism
to the force of gravitation." In his own country, however, he was hailed
as "the Eloquent Champion of the American Union." In 1862, as he later
wrote, "I…returned to my country the most popular American in public

he had never held public office, he spoke of himself as a candidate for president
in 1864. The Democratic National Convention expelled him; nonetheless, he campaigned.
On Election Day 1864, Lincoln polled 2.2 million; the Democrat, 1.8 million
and if "Train got any votes at all, it is not recorded."

Even while
running for president, he started a new deal: Union Pacific. Congress had enacted
legislation to subsidize the construction of a transcontinental railroad and
agreed to turn over 6400 acres of public land and financial subsidies of up
to $48,000 for each mile of track built. The Union Pacific Railroad Company
retained Train as their chief lobbyist. In 1864, he persuaded Congress to double
the railroad subsidies for construction.

Then he
recalled Napoleon III had financed massive public improvements through a bank,
the Credit Mobilier. Train organized the Credit Mobilier of America at the behest
of the directors and leading shareholders of the UP. Somehow, the UP awarded
cost-plus construction contracts to Credit Mobilier, siphoning government money
into its directors’ pockets. The construction costs were wildly extravagant.
Credit Mobilier became a byword for corruption. But the railroad was built and
finished within five years.

In 1866,
he campaigned for women’s suffrage in a Kansas referendum. His oratory
was astonishing: the Lawrence State Journal wrote: "He came! He
saw! He conquered!" Susan B. Anthony credited most of the 9000 votes cast
for women’s suffrage to his hard work and thunderous eloquence.

Then he
ran for president again. He decided to go around the world for publicity, using
the railroad to cross America, and doing it faster than anyone had ever done.
He paid his way by lecturing. When he arrived in France, a delegation from the
First International called on him at his hotel in Marseilles. They invited him
to speak. "Well," he boomed, "I cannot keep these good people
waiting." Ten thousand people were at the Alhambra theater. He stood up
and sang the "Marseillaise." He was as eloquent in French as in English,
and after rousing the crowd to a frenzy, he marched with them upon City Hall,
which was seized in the name of the Commune. Within a few days, Train was arrested
and deported–in a private railway car, complete with manservant and chef.

Upon his
return to the United States, Train announced he had gone around the world in
80 days. This, of course, did not count his month playing revolutionary. But
two years later, Jules Verne published Around the World in Eighty Days.
The hero, though English, is eccentric, egotistical, eloquent and ingenious.
George Francis Train was Phileas Fogg.

His growing
eccentricity ended his business career: even the men who knew him no longer
trusted his judgment. His oratory was wilder than ever. One writer described
it thus: "He double-shuffles and stamps on the floor ’till the dust
obscures him; he beats his breast, clenches his fist, clutches his hair, plays
ball with the furniture, outhowls the roaring elements, steams with perspiration,
foams at the mouth, paces up and down ’till he looks like a lion in a cage
lashing his tail."

His campaign
literature introduced him as "The Coming President. The Man of Destiny.
First Campaign Gun. Victory, 1872: Six million votes, Nov. 12, for the Child
of Fate! Train and the People against Grant and the Thieves!" Again he
ran as an independent. Grant polled 3.6 million votes; his Democratic-Liberal
Republican opponent, 2.8 million; the Labor Reform candidate, 30,000; the Prohibitionist,
6000. And again, if Train got any votes, they are not recorded in the tabulations.

Three days
before the election, Train learned the radical feminist Victoria Woodhull had
been arrested. She had been charged with obscenity: One of her newspaper articles
on sex had included a phrase from Deuteronomy, "red trophy of her virginity."
Train then published The Train Ligue, a title alluding to his French
revolutionary experiences, consisting of Old Testament verses concerning nudity,
murder, incest and adultery. Then, he dared Anthony Comstock, the "Roundsman
of the Lord," to arrest him for printing "disgusting slanders on Lot,
Abraham, Solomon, and David." To Train’s delight, Comstock had him
imprisoned without bail for public indecency. At his arraignment, Train was
asked whether he pleaded guilty to the indictment. He replied, "I am guilty
of publishing an obscene paper composed of Bible quotations." The judge
entered a plea of not guilty.

The case
became an embarrassment. The court offered to release Train if he would plead
not guilty by reason of insanity, but Train refused. He stated he would rather
die in jail than be a hypocrite, and cried, "Back to durance vile!"

as Meyer Berger observed in The Eight Million, Train continued
making speeches, even in the Tombs. The guards wearied of his magniloquence
and stuck him in an unheated cell. Train wrapped himself in a traveling rug,
roaring, "I’ll raise hell in this Egyptian sepulcher!" Then the
guards hustled him to Murderer’s Row, hoping this might frighten him. Instead,
he canvassed his fellow inmates and won election to the coveted presidency…of
the Murderer’s Club. Finally, the warden moved him into solitary confinement.
This was enough and he copped the plea. Train was discharged without having
been tried on the charges in his indictment. Upon his release he complained,
"My lawyers did not understand me. They are like all lawyers. They think
it better to lie your way to freedom than to suffer for the truth."

his career in ruins, his fortune lost and his reputation destroyed, Train gradually
began living away from his family. As one biographer wrote, "escapade after
escapade, eccentric performance after Quixotic involvement, all in bewildering
succession, simply made normal domestic life impossible."

In 1876,
he was adjudicated a bankrupt, listing assets of about $100. At the age of 47,
he owned merely a watch and the clothes on his back. Now he made his living
through his platform speeches, enhancing his marketability by living up to his
reputation as an eccentric. He no longer sought the presidency, but dictatorship.
He referred to himself as "Citizen" Train. It, too, bore the flavor
of revolutionary France and stressed his independence: he was "not a Democrat,
not a Republican, not a Catholic, Protestant, not a man marked with anybody’s
brand, but simply a citizen…" He became a vegetarian; he refused to
shake hands, arguing such contact drained his vital energies, and when introduced
to a new acquaintance, solemnly shook hands with himself. He adopted a new calendar,
dated from his own birth, and occasionally conducted services as a minister
of the Church of the Laughing Jackass. He remained good copy for the papers,
writing articles in his telegraphic, allusive style with a double-colored pencil,
blue at one end, red at the other.

He made
his last two trips around the world in 1892 and 1896. He still believed he was
important: in Japan, he made a speech to a crowd gathered to watch the Emperor
travel by a later train, convinced they could have come only to see him.

Upon his
return, Train moved into Mills House No. 1, at 160 Bleecker St. in the Village,
an impressive Italianate hotel designed by Ernest Flagg to provide "…decent
accommodations at low cost for people of small means." There he dictated
his autobiography, My Life in Many States and Foreign Lands. Train presented
the 19th century as if it had revolved around him, writing, "It is supreme
Dictatorship with me, or nothing. I am plaintiff against the whole world. I
have been in fifteen jails for expressing my opinion, but I never robbed even
a henroost."

It would
be nothing. In 1903, Citizen George Francis Train ("I am sometimes the
only Citizen of these United States! There should be more of them!") joined
Eliza Gilbert in Green-Wood Cemetery.