Homer’s Connection to Abraham Lincoln

Drive through the town of Homer, and you will see a charming Main Street setting – a quintessential slice of rural Americana reminiscent of an Edward Hopper painting. What many passing visitors and native Homerians do not see are Homer’s historical ties to one of the most celebrated presidents in U.S. history: Abraham Lincoln. The village of Homer will honor those historical connections with a national celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday. The event will be held May 13 to 17, during which Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer will host lectures discussing Homer’s connection to Abraham Lincoln.

Three men from Homer, Francis B. Carpenter, painter of Lincoln’s portrait and the famous “The First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation Before the Cabinet;” William Osborn Stoddard, Lincoln’s private secretary who made written copies of the Emancipation Proclamation; and Eli Devoe, foiler of an assassination plot by the Knights of the Golden Circle, all played significant parts in what would become Lincoln’s legacy.

Local sign maker paints presidents
Francis B. Carpenter attended Homer’s Academy on the Green and painted signs for local businesses. He later painted portraits of the academy’s first board of trustees as well as prominent businessmen like Henry S. Randall of Cortland.

The talented portrait painter never abandoned his roots. Perhaps this was because he owed so much of his success to Paris Barber, the son of prominent Great Western Store owner Jebidiah Barber. Paris Barber, named after the Trojan prince, helped to financially support Carpenter when he studied with artist Sanford Thayer in Syracuse.

Carpenter returned to Homer in 1845 to open a studio, which was located where the Homer Center for the Arts is today. The soon-to-be painter of five presidents walked door to door in Homer’s village, offering portraits in exchange for meals. Carpenter’s paintings of the board of trustees would become his largest collection of portraits and a treasure that would later be displayed in the library of Homer High School until the mid 20th century. The paintings survived four fires during that time.

After a successful exhibition of his work in 1851, Carpenter was commissioned to do his first presidential portrait, of Millard Filmore. He would later paint four more presidents: John Tyler, James Garfield, Franklin Pierce and Abraham Lincoln, whom he maintained had the “saddest face I’ve ever painted.”

Editor becomes Lincoln’s secretary
William Osborn Stoddard was born on Albany Post Road, and like Carpenter, received some of his education at Homer’s Academy on the Green. Stoddard, whose grandfather participated in the Central New York portion of the Underground Railroad, would often satisfy his love of nature by going to the woods by the old stone quarry in Homer (visible to anyone going northbound on Route 81 near exit 12), to find sarsaparilla and wild raspberries.

Stoddard’s curiosity would carry him to places far away from Homer. First he traveled from Syracuse to Buffalo, where he took a lake steamer to Detroit. From there he headed to Chicago and landed a job as literary editor for the Chicago Daily Ledger. He enjoyed a stint as a prairie farmer before returning to journalism at the Central Illinois Gazette.

In between career changes, he received a bachelor of arts cum laude from the University of Rochester, granted in absentia on account of his standing and scholarship. It was with this new diploma and position as assistant editor that Stoddard would find success. Abraham Lincoln decided to visit Stoddard in order to assess the political views of Illinois. This prompted Stoddard to become more politically active, and he decided the paper should endorse Lincoln as a presidential candidate. The relationship between the two men would eventually sow Stoddard’s ambitions to become part of Lincoln’s White House staff.

Detective thwarts assassination attempt
Eli Devoe, was born in 1809, the same year as Lincoln, in a log cabin near Atwater Cemetery in Homer. Unlike public figures Francis B. Carpenter and William Osborn Stoddard, Devoe’s life was much more private. His work was in covert operations.

What is known is that Devoe was a devoted protector of the president and risked his life to ensure the president’s safety. When it was rumored that there would be an attack on Lincoln along the inaugural route to Washington, a man named Kennedy sent detectives from the agency Mattsell’s Shadow into Baltimore to investigate. One of those detectives was Eli Devoe who traveled under the alias “Davis.”

Devoe and his partner infiltrated a group called the Knights of the Golden Circle. The two men uncovered the plot and all those concerned, including Lincoln, agreed to follow the detectives’ plan to foil it. On his way to his inauguration in Washington, Lincoln was supposed to take a train through Baltimore but instead chose a different route. Mary Todd Lincoln took the original route with a Lincoln body double. The true identities of Devoe and the other detective were eventually discovered by the Knights of the Golden Circle, and the two narrowly escaped. Lincoln, of course, lived to see another four years.

The legacy continues
All of these men were shaped by their connection to the Central New York area. Both Stoddard and Carpenter’s education at Academy on the Green, Carpenter’s connection to the village patrons, and Devoe’s humble upbringing may have reinforced the values that gave them the tenacity to become such important players in Lincoln’s life and legacy. Their roles in the democratic process shaped history, and it is that history that will spur people’s curiosity in Homer and the rest of Central New York.

During the May celebration, the play “Freedom” by William Allen will be performed at Homer’s Center of the Arts. The celebration will also feature Lincoln impersonator James Getty, a parade and wreath laying for Carpenter in Glenwood Cemetery, Civil War re-enactors, and two lectures and book signings by Harold Holzer. For those interested in the life legacies of Francis B. Carpenter, William Osborn Stoddard, and Eli Devoe, the 2009 Homer Bicentennial, “Homer’s Celebration of Lincoln in Paint and Print,” will be a nonpareil of valuable history. To see the calendar of events, visit www.lincolninpaintandprint.org.

by Casey Quilan

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