The Ghostly Love Story That Haunted the Father of U.S. Forest Conservation
Laura Houghteling was terminally ill with tuberculosis when she met Gifford Pinchot, the man who would marry her after she died. The bright and beautiful daughter of a rich Chicago merchant passed away before the age of 30, but Pinchot remained faithful to her for decades, relying on the support of her love from the afterlife as he crusaded for the conservation of America's natural resources.
The only thing Gifford loved as much as Laura was nature itself. Born in 1865, he was the oldest son of wallpaper merchant James Pinchot and Mary Pinchot née Eno, the daughter of Manhattan real estate baron Amos Eno and sister to traffic safety innovator William Phelps Eno. Gifford—6-foot-2 with a robust mustache—was voted the handsomest man in his graduating class at Yale. In 1891, he was hired to manage the forests surrounding the construction of George Vanderbilt's Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, America's largest privately owned home.
Asheville's hot springs and lush scenery were attractive to wealthy families across America, and the Houghteling family bought Strawberry Hill, a property adjacent to the Biltmore, in 1890. Laura was 26 in 1891, the year they moved in—several years past the age when she would have been expected to wed. Her single status wasn't because of her personality, which was, as her Asheville Daily Citizen obituary would put it, "lovely in every trait of character." Her beauty equaled Gifford's; she had long blonde hair and a soft, kind face with large light eyes. She was unwed because of her health.
As members of the upper-class social circuit, the pair had known each other casually for years. Yet their first meeting in North Carolina, at a luncheon, was very formal; they called each other Miss Houghteling and Mister Pinchot. In his diary years later, Gifford remembered blushing when he first called her Laura. The relationship became intense, conducted over picnics, horseback rides along the French Broad River, and a few stolen passionate embraces.
Both remained hopeful that she would recover and thrive, but they also took solace in religion and their shared interpretation of the afterlife. Their faith posited the physical body as a sort of clothing for the spirit, unnecessary to life itself. The couple read metaphysical works together, including the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson (who also wed a woman dying of tuberculosis), Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, and the Spiritualist novels of early feminist author Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Ward. Both believed that to be dead was to be one with God, and that their lover could share in that communion from Earth.
On New Year’s Day 1894, the reluctant families finally gave their blessing for the couple to be married. Laura had just moved from her beloved Strawberry Hill home to Washington, D.C. for new medical care, but the treatments were in vain. She died on February 7, 1894—before the pair could be married in any kind of official way. Gifford accompanied the Houghtelings to her burial in Chicago, and then went straight back to work.
Thirty-eight days after her death, Gifford recorded in his diary: "My lady is very near." Soon his entries were a chronicle of "my darling" and the "presence and peace" she brought him. He came to think of her last dwelling in D.C. as "our house," and took to standing outside of the building, even after it was sold to someone else. He wore black for two years, but sometime in 1896, he stopped wearing mourning clothes and began to consider himself married.
He usually wrote about Laura in his diaries in the present tense. Some days he wrote in code, using the language of weather to describe his visions of love; a "bright" or "clear" day when he felt her with him, a "cloudy" or "blind" day when he did not. Other days he just said, "To our house with my Laura." He talked to Laura, reading books with her, traveling with her—at least, with her spirit. Gifford was not just unloading his problems to her and dreaming of her, but felt he was taking advice from her on his speeches, ideas, and political plans. Occasionally she even rebuked him, as when he read a book "My Lady did not approve of" and he felt filled with regret. When he sensed her presence grow distant, he discreetly consulted a medium.
The convenience of a spirit who was with him always—rather than a woman with actual needs—was something of an asset as Gifford climbed the ladder in his career. When he faced professional challenges, he sometimes relied on Laura's support. Reflecting on an 1896 speech in Philadelphia, he wrote, "I spoke as My Lady's servant." As the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service (and before that, chief of the Department of Agriculture’s Division of Forestry), he shaped the institution into a force to be reckoned with, training the foresters who would eventually be called "Little GPs" after his initials.
Teddy Roosevelt entered Gifford's life in 1899, when the then-governor of New York invited the forester to his house. There, Gifford bested him in a pre-dinner boxing match. The pair shared a number of qualities: a love of the outdoors, a belief in conservation, and a knowledge of tragedy; Roosevelt had lost his wife and his mother on the same day in 1884, a pain he still carried into the new century. Teddy and Gifford fought a hostile Congress and powerful industrialists to preserve and protect hundreds of millions of acres of land from the corporate entities that had already ravaged Eastern forests. Because of Roosevelt and Pinchot, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and the Petrified Forest are preserved for the enjoyment of citizens today.
Pinchot's single status was a hot topic among D.C. social circles, where he was once called the town's "most eligible bachelor." He had stayed in top physical condition and was a regular churchgoer, but it was all for Laura. Self-restraint was key to both of their upbringings, and while you can't prove a negative, he was probably completely celibate until well after Roosevelt left office. And Laura was still with him, in their way. After testifying before a Senate committee as Chief Forester in 1906, he wrote, "I felt today my Lady's help."
After Roosevelt left office, Laura was less and less clear to him, and the ailing Mary Pinchot sensed an opportunity to see her favorite son married to a living woman. After several persistent proposals, he married Cornelia Bryce on August 15, 1914, just nine days before Mary's death. The marriage was a match on many levels: their political values and ambitions (Cornelia was nationally known for her feminism, and Pinchot became the vice-president of a Men for Suffrage organization); their wealthy families; and their status as older newlyweds, Pinchot being 49 and Cornelia being 33. They had one child, Gifford Bryce Pinchot, and the marriage lasted 32 years, during which Pinchot served two terms as governor of Pennsylvania.
Swedenborg wrote that true spouses spend eternity together, but that temporary human marriages are sometimes necessary when one's time on Earth lasts longer than their true spouse's. After his human marriage, Gifford kept all of Laura's letters and his diaries in a blue Tiffany box ordered a month after her death. But he never wrote of her again. His last reference to her was 14 days before his wedding; it was "not a clear day."
Additional Sources: On Strawberry Hill: The Transcendent Love of Gifford Pinchot and Laura Houghteling; The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America; Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism