Everywhere that Burleigh went, Burleigh went, Burleigh went – everywhere that Burleigh went the press was sure to follow.
The press followed H.G. Burleigh, a 19th century State Assemblyman, Congressman and political power broker from Whitehall and Ticonderoga, because reporters knew there would always be an entertaining story that more often than not came with a nugget of breaking news.
“The Hon. H. G. Burleigh was in town Monday on business,” The Granville Sentinel reported on February 1st, 1889. “For once he has been out of Whitehall and not charged by the Glens Falls or Plattsburgh papers of being on ‘significant’ political business.”
A tale that H.G. told to The Troy Press in January 1889 set off a war between newspapers over the veracity of the story.
The Rensselaer County paper reported that Burleigh told a reporter that President-elect Benjamin Harrison had once hugged an un-named single woman at a reception and stuck a peacock feather in her hair.
Wearing a peacock feather is a symbol of freedom, courage, strength and wisdom.
The New York World assigned a reporter to track down the woman, who turned out to be Miss Churchill, a former Washington, D.C. socialite who had since married Dr. William H. Biggam of Fort Plain.
Miss Churchill, or Mrs. Biggam, was the sister-in-law of Warner Miller, a former U.S. Senator and Congressman from Herkimer County who was a good friend of Burleigh.
The woman told The World that she attended the reception but Harrison did not hug her or plant a feather in her hair.
“The story is very pretty but untrue. It is quite flattering, but fearfully false,” the woman told the World reporter, according to a January 18th, 1889 report in The Granville Sentinel. “Oh yes, I do remember him (Harrison). He was never over-genial, rather dignified than otherwise.”
The Sentinel, a long-time Burleigh booster, defended Burleigh.
“For the first time during his existence, the veracity of the Hon. H. G. Burleigh of Whitehall has been brought into question. The distinguished gentleman (Burleigh) was supposed to be a second George Washington, not merely in the science of statesmanship, but as to speaking the truth,” The Sentinel editorialized. “But a wicked newspaper reporter now seeks to vilify his good name, and to prove that Mr. Burleigh has for at least once in his life been lured into exaggeration!”
The Sentinel suggested that either The Troy Press had misrepresented Burleigh’s story or that The World had misrepresented the woman’s response.
“We give our journalistic brethren notice that we stand by Burleigh in this question of veracity. We shall defend his honor as a gentleman, and uphold his integrity as a truth teller and a faithful church attendant.”
The Troy Press stood by its reporting.
“Mr. Burleigh is a man with a remarkably retentive memory, as any politician who has ever trodden upon his toes has an occasion to know. With a bright eye, full habit (tendency to stoutness) and bald head, he has a relish for anything spicy, and an incident of a social nature like this one in question he could never forget,” The Troy Press maintained, according to a January 25th, 1889 report in The Sentinel. “He is a capital story teller, genial, witty and companionable. The uncontradicted fact that Mr. Burleigh was one of the party is proof enough that there was plenty of fun going on.” …
“The stupid World interviewer interprets Mrs. Biggam’s polite, ambiguous and tactful disclaimers as flat denials of the truth of the story. He is the guilty fellow that is making all this mischief.”
Portrait of Henry G. Burleigh.