Hidden History

The Pen Pal Who Changed a President

When corruption threatened the administration of Chester A. Arthur, one ordinary woman put pen to paper. Julia Sand’s passionate letters caught his attention, and rewrote history.

The Pen Pal Who Changed a President

When Julia Sand spied the visitor in her parlor, she could barely believe it. She had dreamed of this moment for months. At last, he had come to see her.

The man, at 6 feet 2 inches, towered over Sand and her family members, who had gathered to greet him. His signature muttonchops had recently turned a distinguished salt-and-pepper gray, manifesting the immense stress of his newish job. The chops flowed into a considerable mustache. Dark brown eyes peered from his round face.

The man was Chester A. Arthur, the 21st president of the United States. He had arrived, unannounced, on Sand’s doorstep one warm August evening in 1882.

Though President Arthur maintained a residence on nearby Lexington Avenue and frequently ventured around Manhattan, Sand had never met him. In fact, the 31-year-old woman had barely left the house in the previous five years. Single and in failing health, she lived with her brother’s family in a spacious home on the Upper East Side.

With little else to occupy her, Sand followed Gilded Age politics like some people follow the Kardashians today. And when President Arthur showed up in her living room, Sand was understandably freaked out. Her brother later teased her for appearing frightened of the president, comparing him to a genie his little sister had released and then wanted to stuff back into the bottle.

Sand felt so flustered by Mr. Arthur’s appearance, she hid behind a curtain during parts of his stay and later expressed mortification that the butler had served him sherry in a claret glass. So cringey!

For an hour, President Arthur discussed politics and music and his distrust of the press. Sand later wrote that he sounded like “a gentle-voiced Episcopalian minister.” Then, as abruptly as he had arrived, Mr. Arthur left, the members of the Sand household still gaping behind him. It certainly wasn’t every day the country’s most powerful man strode into the parlor of a wealthy but otherwise unremarkable family.

So what brought President Arthur to 46 East 74th Street that summer night? A series of remarkably candid letters Sand had sent the president imploring him to be a better man. He visited her roughly a year after the first one had arrived. In all, she would send 23 notes over two years.

A letter from Julia Sand addressed to President Chester A. Arthur, December 1882. (Image courtesy Chester A. Arthur Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress)

Through those letters, Sand became the embattled president’s conscience as well as his biggest cheerleader. President Arthur never wrote Sand back, but his unexpected visit reflected his respect for her counsel. While there’s no way to tell for sure, many historians believe Sand’s appeals swayed President Arthur toward making momentous reforms. Those letters helped turn what might have been a forgettable term into a meaningful one.

“It seems that Arthur was affected by her letters,” says Michelle Krowl, a historian in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress. “He did make some significant shifts in what people expected him to do. Julia was a naggy little good angel on Chester’s shoulder.”

“I think her letters exerted some influence. Her first letter arrived at just the right time for him, with his friends describing him on the verge of an emotional collapse,” says Scott S. Greenberger, author of The Unexpected President: The Life and Times of Chester A. Arthur. “Then he gets this eloquent letter that expresses confidence in him.”

While President Trump once promised to “drain the swamp” by tossing lobbyists and political insiders out of power, President Arthur actually did it. With Sand’s urging, the former party hack enacted sweeping civil service reforms that changed the way the government functioned, eliminating the machine politics he himself had benefited from as a younger man. D.C. became more stable and productive, with a consistent, apolitical workforce, and President Arthur created a lasting legacy, something even he didn’t expect when he took office.

The question, one historians have grappled with for decades, is why. Why did President Arthur seem to listen to Julia Sand?

In 1881, American politics were polarizing, partisan and careening toward a potential disaster (not unlike in 2019, actually). Republicans had split into warring factions. The Stalwarts, led by U.S. Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York, hoarded power through political patronage. The Half-Breeds, a derogatory term the Stalwarts coined to describe their “half Republican” rivals, wanted to reform to a merit-based system.

James Garfield became president in 1881, with Arthur as his vice president. Arthur was a Conkling lieutenant who had never actually enacted policy, and critics regarded him as lacking intellectual and moral gravitas — someone who merely served as an administrator for the politicians above him. The New York Times called him “about the last man who would be considered eligible” for the nation’s highest office.

Yet that’s exactly where he landed after Charles J. Guiteau, a troubled lawyer passed over for a job in Garfield’s government, shot the president on July 2, 1881. When police captured Guiteau, he declared, “Arthur is president now.” It would take months for that to happen, as Garfield lingered 79 days before succumbing to sepsis from the gunshot wound. But Guiteau’s exclamation led many to mistakenly believe Arthur orchestrated the assassination attempt. This distressed the sensitive man. “Arthur was very affected by the implication of rumors that he might have had something to do with the assassination [attempt],” says Krowl.

A lithograph announcing James A. Garfield and Chester A. Arthur as the Republican candidates for president and vice president.

Not everyone believed the innuendo. Sand, for one, did not, and she read the newspapers religiously, Greenberger notes in his book. They were her main form of entertainment, since she was consigned to her home, and her family discussed politics nightly around the dinner table.

The Civil War deeply impacted their outlook. Sand’s older brother Henry had died from a wound sustained at the Battle of Antietam in 1862, and two Sand siblings journeyed south the following year to paint watercolors of the field where he fought. The Sands thought that government reforms were essential for keeping the Union on the right path after the devastating war. They worried that if government corruption continued unchecked, the ideals of justice and freedom that Henry had fought for would erode.

The family believed in Garfield’s reform platform. After the assassination attempt, with the papers speculating that the wounded president was getting worse instead of better, reformers worried that their agenda would not be fulfilled by the corrupt politician waiting in the wings.

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It was with that in mind that Sand began writing to Arthur, as Garfield lay on his deathbed.

The first letter Julia Sand sent to Chester A. Arthur on August 27, 1881. (Image courtesy Chester A. Arthur Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress)

“The hours of Garfield’s life are numbered — before this meets your eye, you may be President,” the first letter opened. “The people are bowed in grief; but — do you realize it? — not so much because he is dying, as because you are his successor.” (She was nothing if not brutally honest.) The letter continued: “Do what is more difficult and more brave. Reform! … Rise to the emergency. Disappoint our fears. Force the nation to have faith in you. … It may be difficult at once to inspire confidence, but persevere. In time — when you have given reason for it — the country will love and trust you.”

Sand sensed that Arthur, who had built his career on cronyism, had reached a moral crossroads when Garfield was shot. “She may have helped Arthur tap into an element of his character that hadn’t been publicly displayed for some time,” Krowl says.

Arthur, a recent widower, was mourning the loss of his wife and was further devastated by Garfield’s shooting. “The most frightful responsibility which ever devolved upon any one would be the casting of the Presidency upon me,” Arthur wrote to a friend.

His career had been motivated by personal, not professional, gain. He was a gifted manager of people and resources. Yet he preferred to stay behind the scenes. It seems it never crossed his mind that in becoming vice president, he might actually one day assume the top job.

When he learned of Garfield’s passing in September 1881, Arthur bawled.

He never wanted to be president. But he had no choice.

Amid the turmoil of Arthur’s ascension, the debate continued to simmer over whether government jobs should be doled out like lollipops as rewards for party loyalty.

In December 1881, months after Arthur was sworn in, “Gentleman George” Hunt Pendleton, a U.S. senator from Ohio, introduced a reform bill requiring civil service applicants to take an exam. Those who scored best would get jobs. The bill banned awarding positions based on money or favors. Pendleton proposed, of all things, merit-based promotions.

In his biography Gentleman Boss: The Life of Chester Alan Arthur, Thomas Reeves notes that Conkling expected Arthur, his former deputy, to resist such reforms. However, Arthur surprised his old boss. The new president proclaimed his support for reform in a December 1881 speech to Congress, saying he believed Garfield would have done the same. Arthur hoped to honor his predecessor’s legacy and patch his own tattered reputation — for as Julia Sand well knew, Arthur hadn’t started out crooked.

The son of an abolitionist preacher, Arthur was an ambitious yet honest youth. As a young lawyer, he won a landmark case that assisted with the racial integration of New York City railroad cars. As a quartermaster of the New York Militia during the Civil War, Arthur served honorably.

Young Arthur exhibited virtues prized by Gilded Age society, Greenberger notes. Well-mannered, courteous and considerate, Arthur treated his employees well and took an enlightened-for-the-day stance on civil rights, quietly donating money to support an African-American church.

Still, even as a young man, Arthur aspired to excess. Growing up a poor preacher’s son with seven siblings gave him a hunger for extravagances he never got to enjoy in his austere home. His 1859 marriage to Ellen Herndon, a woman from a well-off Southern family, compounded those impulses. Arthur wanted to surround Ellen with the same finery she grew up with. They threw elaborate parties, hobnobbing with prominent New York City families like the Roosevelts and Vanderbilts.

After the Civil War, Arthur entered politics and rose to collector of the port of New York, imposing import duties on all goods shipped into New York from other countries. It was the most lucrative job in the federal government, when you tallied all the kickbacks he accepted along with the duties.

Arthur’s friendships with shady politicians such as Conkling and Tom Murphy — a collector whom Arthur once defended in court for furnishing poorly made hats to government troops — slowly relieved the burgeoning politician of the idealism of his youth. Arthur loved his newly opulent lifestyle. Historians say he quelled his conscience by sometimes feigning ignorance in cases of fraud.

A political cartoon depicts members of the late James A. Garfield’s cabinet looking at Chester Arthur, expressing skepticism about whether Arthur would be successful as president, 1881.

Arthur’s work overshadowed all else, including his family. He was a loving, but never doting, husband, father and son. “The major obstacle to the happiness in the Arthur family was Chester’s frequent absence,” Reeves wrote in his biography of Arthur.

When he visited his dad on his deathbed, the old preacher embraced his son and pleaded with Arthur to keep him company through the night. Greenberger says Arthur agreed but soon broke his word, leaving shortly to attend to business. It was a pattern oft repeated in Arthur’s life. Five years later, in 1880, Arthur was schmoozing in Albany when Ellen died suddenly from pneumonia.

After entering the White House, Arthur became depressed, a side effect of Bright’s disease, a kidney ailment he was diagnosed with during the second year of his presidency. In the 19th century, Bright’s disease led to renal failure, and Arthur’s symptoms included debilitating bouts of kidney pain, weight loss and fatigue. His wan complexion even prompted Sand to joke, in a letter sent after he visited her house, that Arthur looked as though he had contracted malaria.

The fiercely private president kept his illness a secret, subscribing to Gilded Age beliefs that suffering in public lacked grace. He knew his condition was life-threatening.

Julia Isabella Sand was the eighth child of a prosperous German immigrant family. She showed writing prowess from an early age. Her brother Henry, the one who died in the war, once declared his youngest sister would “make her mark in the world one of these days as a poetess.”

Unmarried women of this era lived with their families. After her father’s death in 1867, Julia moved with her mother to New Jersey. Two years later, Julia returned to New York to reside with another brother, Theodore, a prominent New York City banker.

Sand called herself an “invalid,” but her exact condition is unknown. She told Arthur she had “deafness” and spinal issues, but she was vague about the specifics. Her poor health and lack of husband granted her time to pursue her writing. “Illness was one way in which a (privileged) woman could empower herself. Thus, a woman could reject social expectations while at the same time maintaining her social respectability, which would have been very important in New York high society,” Dr. Susan M. Cruea, an English professor at Bowling Green State University who has written extensively about 19th-century gender roles, writes in an email interview.

Portrait of Julia Sand from the book “The Unexpected President.” (Photo courtesy Da Capo Press)

Life in 1880s New York was dull for women. Even healthy ones had few options for entertainment, notes Esther Crain, author of The Gilded Age in New York, 1870–1910. “Women didn’t go out on their own,” Crain says. “They couldn’t eat alone in restaurants. Exercise, moving, things like that were not seen as feminine. They spent a lot of time at home, and writing letters was obviously seen as a feminine activity that women could do.”

And so, Sand wrote. She penned articles for Harper’s and Century. She worked on a book she later published. And she wrote to politicians, including Arthur.

Sand’s brother Theodore met the then–vice president once at the New York Union Club, and when Arthur became president, the Sand family yearned for him to come around on reform. Sand believed that Arthur was a good man who had become misguided. Each letter revealed her faith in his nobility.

“You have great responsibility resting on you, but you will prove equal to it,” she wrote in one letter. In another: “Are you content to sit, like a snake charmer, and let loathsome serpents coil about you, priding yourself on it that not one of them dares sting you? I would rather think of you like St. George, in shining armor, striking death to the heart of the dragon.”

Sand’s letters could be playful, cajoling, scolding. She frequently asked Arthur to visit (hence her giddiness when he finally showed up), and she dubbed herself “the president’s Little Dwarf.” The dwarf, she explained in a letter, referred to the lone person in the king’s court who spoke the truth. She teased him mercilessly about his decision-making: “I admit that I was wr-did you think I was going to say wrong? Oh no!-wright, only you were wrighter. (That was the aesthetic way of spelling it.)”

Arthur appreciated a woman with charm. That lent Sand’s opinions unusual weight for her day. “I would say that it was very rare at that time for a woman to exert influence over a powerful man who was not a relative,” says Cruea.

Just how Sand’s letters, which were sent through the mail (we know this because in Greenberger’s book, he notes that Arthur wrote Sand’s return address in his notes), initially caught Arthur’s attention is a mystery. But their contents certainly appealed to him. Arthur craved reassurance, and Sand gave it to him, sprinkled with pointed criticisms. She once chided him, “Why do you take such comfort in half measures?”

Sand’s health suffered ups and downs during her correspondence with Arthur. Months before his visit, she summoned the strength to ride a horse. But on the evening he came, Sand had felt too ill to even partake in the family dinner.

Sand’s feelings for Arthur sometimes seemed warmer than that of a “Little Dwarf” for her king, though her affection was more sisterly than romantic. Her letters suggest Arthur represented her hope of engaging in society again one day. She described a dream in which he sent her flowers on Christmas, a day she felt forgotten by her family. She also fantasized about attending a ball with him, wistfully imagining her mother’s pleasure at seeing her daughter wear a gown again after so many years.

By 1882, Sand knew Arthur was wavering on his 1881 pledge to pursue civil service reform. She could see him backsliding toward his old ways.

He had, to her delight, vetoed the initial version of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which suspended Chinese immigration, only to sign a second, slightly milder version of the law. Sand was furious, as she conveyed in a letter: “I felt that you were doing things which made you feel that you could not, with comfort, look me in the face.”

While Arthur said the right things regarding reform, his critics were unconvinced that the Stalwart would follow through. Sand shrewdly attempted to motivate him by appealing to his vanity. She argued that signing the Pendleton bill would cement his legacy. “As President — so far as the world knows — you have never lost your dignity once …  You have done better than friend or foe expected. And it is to your honor that it is so.” Her approach seemed to work.

On January 16, 1883, Arthur signed the Pendleton Act into law. No longer could Democrats or Republicans reward unqualified cronies with cushy appointments. Instead, applicants had to prove their worth by meeting stringent standards. They had to — gasp — be good at their jobs.

The initial law covered only 10 percent of positions in the federal government, but it has been strengthened by subsequent acts over the years and today governs the majority of federal employees.

Arthur received Sand’s 23rd and final letter in September 1883. Having regained some strength, she was visiting Newport, Rhode Island, and she told him she’d seen his son, who was also vacationing there and raising a bit of hell with his friends. Sand teased Arthur, calling the president an “awful old sinner,” an apparent reference to his own drinking and carousing during his younger days.

In that letter, Sand invited Arthur to visit her once more. He never did. “There’s no evidence to suggest she wrote any more letters,” says Greenberger. “He seems to have treasured them, so it’s hard to imagine he would have tossed any.”

The last letter Julia Sand sent to President Chester A. Arthur on September 15, 1883. The letter begins with the greeting, “My very bad friend.” (Image courtesy Chester A. Arthur Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress)

The abrupt stop to the letters remains a mystery. Sand mentions in the last letter that she had been “very, very ill” a few months earlier, “but somehow I pulled through.” Historians have theories about the end to the correspondence. Sand could have gotten sick again. She could have tired of writing to someone who never responded. Or she could have become distracted by a new project.

In 1885, Sand published her book, Wahrheit Und Dichtung, a psychological study of the author George Eliot. The short manuscript showcases Sand’s trademark wittiness — she muses about one of Eliot’s works: “Is not the whole thing a little like the play Hamlet, with Hamlet left out?”

Rather surprising, considering her mysterious disability, Sand lived to be 83. Alas, her later years were less happy and productive than her early ones. She spent her final three decades in an asylum. A newspaper in Watertown, New York, reported in 1886 that Sand had watched a young man “to whom she had formed an attachment” drown. The story described Sand as “a beautiful and brilliant young lady of rare literary accomplishment.”

Krowl says the incident could have triggered her institutionalization but cautions that no one knows for sure. “At the time, people weren’t sent to institutions for treatment,” Crain observes. “It was to keep them away from the general population. Mental issues were seen as shameful.”

In 1933, Sand died at the Long Island Home. Her cause of death was arteriosclerosis, a hardening of the arteries associated with old age. She was buried close to her parents in the Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. Her brother Henry, the soldier, has an elaborate gravestone nearby. Julia’s grave is unmarked, says Jeff Richman, the cemetery’s historian.

After Sand’s death, two male family members threw her remaining papers away, never imagining “spinster Aunt Julia” had anything of significance worth saving. Arthur’s correspondence with her was nearly lost to history as well. Arthur had always been exceedingly private — he once told a visitor to the White House, “Madam, I may be president of the United States, but my private life is nobody’s damn business.”

Ashamed of his years of graft and greed, Arthur ordered most of his papers burned hours before dying of kidney disease in November 1886 at just 57 years old. But the former president did set aside an envelope with all 23 Sand letters, which his son preserved. “[Arthur] was very clear he wanted a lot of stuff burned, but he wanted these letters to be saved. I don’t think that was an accident,” Greenberger says.

Chester Alan Arthur II died in 1937, leaving his son many of his father’s papers, including Sand’s letters. Chester Alan Arthur III knew nothing of his grandfather’s correspondence, which had never been mentioned in the media (remember, Arthur disdained the press). Curious to know more, Arthur III placed a newspaper ad in 1938 seeking information about Sand and her family. Paul B. Rossire, a Sand nephew present for Arthur’s surprise visit, responded, recounting his aunt’s passion for politics and describing her as a “bluestocking,” Depression-era slang for intellectual.

In 1958, Arthur III sold the Sand letters and some other surviving Arthur documents to the Library of Congress, where they remain today.

So: Why did Arthur allow Sand to influence him?

There are many possible answers. Though Arthur loved his wife, his carousing frayed their relationship. He felt guilty and lonely after her death — every day, he placed fresh flowers around a framed photo of her he kept in his bedroom at the White House. He may have viewed Sand as a chaste stand-in. “Did Julia Sand, who was also younger than him and from an affluent family much like his wife’s, remind him in some way of his wife that he missed?” muses Cruea.

Chester A. Arthur’s official portrait as President of the United States, 1882.

By all accounts, Arthur was a romantic who bristled at criticism. His desire for respect was often at odds with his moral compass. Sand became a steadying influence, reassuring him that he was worthy of praise.

Plus, she desired little from him in return, aside from the visit. Krowl says presidents throughout this era received a barrage of requests from people, for jobs, political favors, endorsements and more. “In Julia’s case, there was none of that,” Krowl says. “She just wants him to do the right thing.”

In 2018, The New York Times published an obituary of Sand as part of its “Overlooked” series, which revisits obscure but important figures in history. “She couldn’t even vote. What an amazing example of someone who used her skills and abilities to work around her limitations and have a profound effect on her country,” says James Pothen, who penned the obit.

Barack Obama once famously declared, “Who you are, what you are, it doesn’t change after you occupy the Oval Office.”

Arthur proved Obama wrong.

Not unlike today’s president, Arthur was scorned by many, including within his own party, as well as intellectuals who doubted his moral fortitude. Many of Arthur’s contemporaries dismissed him as corrupt and unreachable.

Yet he changed, and he may not have done so without Sand’s voice in his ear. “I do not like to think of men as blocks of marble, things that may be cut down in the finishing, but cannot be made to expand,” she wrote in one of her letters. “I prefer to think of them as things with infinite power of growth.”

Arthur proved Sand right.