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 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, 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 St. 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.
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.
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.
It was with that in mind that Sand began writing to Arthur, as Garfield lay on his deathbed.
Read the rest of this story at Narratively.