The Ghostly Love Story That Haunted the Father of U.S. Forest Conservation

General Photographic Agency/Getty Images
General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

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

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

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10 Facts About the White Night Riots

The Elephant Walk, one of Harvey Milk's favorite bars in San Francisco's Castro District, was one of the many landmarks damaged during the White Night Riots. In 1995, it was fittingly renamed Harvey's in Milk's honor.
The Elephant Walk, one of Harvey Milk's favorite bars in San Francisco's Castro District, was one of the many landmarks damaged during the White Night Riots. In 1995, it was fittingly renamed Harvey's in Milk's honor.
jondoeforty1, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

On November 27, 1978, Dan White, a former police officer and city supervisor, broke into San Francisco City Hall with a loaded revolver. Evading metal detectors, he snuck through a basement window and shot and killed both Mayor George Moscone and Harvey Milk, San Francisco's first openly gay elected official, in their offices. Weeks earlier, the mayor had refused to reinstate White as city supervisor after he previously resigned from the position; Milk was among those who backed the mayor's choice. Hours after the shootings, White turned himself in to the police and confessed to his crimes. What seemed like an open-and-shut murder case, however, turned out to be anything but.

The city's gay and lesbian population stood aghast on May 21, 1979, as White was convicted of the lesser crime of voluntary manslaughter, which only carried with it a maximum prison sentence of seven years and eight months (White would only serve five years). That night, thousands of enraged protestors showed up at City Hall and engaged in violent clashes with the police over the outcome of the trial. What would later become known as the White Night Riots redefined the relationship San Francisco's gay and lesbian community had with the political structure and law enforcement in the city at the time. Here are some facts that you should know about the White Night Riots, one of the most violent protests in San Francisco history.

1. Dan White's trial will forever be known for the "Twinkie Defense."

During Dan White's trial, his legal team had to convince the jury that their client wasn't a cold-blooded killer but was instead a man suffering from diminished capacity due to ongoing bouts of depression. Among the evidence they used to illustrate that White wasn't in his right mind during the killings was the fact that he had recently given up his normally healthy lifestyle in favor of sugary junk food and soda. To give these claims credibility, the defense even called Dr. Martin Blinder, a psychiatrist, to the stand to talk about how, among other things, White's sudden intake of sweets was clearly a sign of a man depressed. (He also brought up White's strained marriage and unkempt beard.)

Reporters covering the trial would coin the term Twinkie defense to describe the unique strategy, but despite its outlandish nickname, it was enough to sway the jury after six days of deliberation. Today, "Twinkie defense" has been inscribed into law dictionary history as a derogatory label for an improbable legal defense. (Though, in reality, Twinkies weren't even brought up during the trial, and the killings were never blamed directly on junk food itself.)

2. The police openly supported Dan White's cause.

Dan White, the former police officer, turned himself in to an old friend down at the department just a couple of hours after the killings. Soon, members of the city's police and fire departments had helped raise over $100,000 for White's defense and many officers were seen openly wearing “Free Dan White” T-shirts in the weeks and months before the trial.

3. The White Night Riots started off as a peaceful march on Castro Street.

Many within the city's gay community were furious when the verdict was announced, and that night, a crowd of people spontaneously gathered in San Francisco’s Castro District to begin a nonviolent protest march. Gay and lesbian activists raised their fists and led the way, chanting “No justice, no peace!” throughout the district. Originally, 500 people began the march, but that number would soon balloon to 1500 as the crowd moved through the city.

4. Famous activists spoke at the protest, including Cleve Jones and feminist Amber Hollibaugh.

Harvey Milk’s friend, Cleve Jones, spoke to a crowd on Castro Street through Milk's own bullhorn. He angrily denounced White's conviction, saying, “I saw what those bullets did. It was not manslaughter, it was murder.”

When the marchers reached City Hall, feminist and lesbian activist Amber Hollibaugh climbed onto the railing and gave a speech in front of the ever-growing crowd. She yelled, “It’s time we stood up for each other. That’s what Harvey meant to us. He wasn’t some big leader. He was one of us. I don’t think it’s wrong for us to feel like we do. I think we should feel like it more often!”

In the years after the protests, Jones and Hollibaugh would continue to be vocal activists in the LGBTQ community. In 1987, Jones became one of the creators of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, a handmade quilt made up of more than 50,000 panels that commemorate the lives of over 105,000 people who have died of AIDS-related illnesses. It remains the world’s largest community folk art project. And Hollibaugh went on to establish Queer Suvival Economics (QSE) in 2014, a project that addresses the intersection of sexuality, poverty, homelessness, labor, and the criminalization of survival.

5. Chaos broke out once the crowd reached City Hall.

By the time the demonstrators had reached City Hall, they had attracted a crowd of 5000, and the peaceful march soon evolved into a full-fledged riot. Grieving and angry protesters broke the windows and bars of City Hall, set police cars on fire, pelted the cops with rocks, and ripped parking meters off the sidewalks, leaving 59 officers and 124 protestors injured in three hours. The White Night Riots remains one of San Francisco’s most violent protests, and one estimate put the cost of the damage at $1 million.

6. Some police officers covered their badges with black tape during the riots.

When police arrived on the scene, they were ordered to hold the crowd back. However, many officers began assaulting the demonstrators with night sticks, with some even covering their badges with black tape during the chaos. Protesters tore off tree branches to use them as protection against the police who were armed with clubs and riot shields. After three violent hours, the police used tear gas to stop the protestors. Later, the FBI investigated the police’s use of force but no officers were ever reprimanded.

7. Rogue police officers retaliated by raiding The Castro District, San Francisco’s “Gay Mecca.”

After the destruction at City Hall, some rogue police officers headed to The Castro District, an area known for its large gay community. Harvey Milk was an admired public figure throughout the district and was even nicknamed “the Mayor of Castro Street.” One of his favorite haunts was the Elephant Walk bar, a safe space for people otherwise unwelcome in straight bars.

During the White Night Riots, a crowd of people dashed into the bar for shelter, but the police stormed in and demolished the property. Officers clubbed and injured the people inside, crashed bar stools, and broke windows while shouting anti-gay slurs. When former police inspector Jack Webb questioned why officers were pouring into the Castro when it had been quiet and nonviolent, the police captain allegedly responded, “We lost the battle at City Hall. We aren’t going to lose this one.”

In 1995, 16 years after the riots, and after surviving a fire that almost destroyed the entire building in 1988, the Elephant Walk bar reopened under a new name: Harvey’s. You can still find it at 500 Castro Street.

8. Flyers were plastered all over Castro Street warning protestors from speaking out.

Days after the riots, flyers appeared around the Castro, warning neighbors to keep quiet in fear of persecution by the law. The flyers read, “Our defense against the police is each other, our strength is our silence.” The ongoing distrust in the gay community ran so deep that the flyers even discouraged people from cooperating with law enforcement looking for information about the Elephant Walk attack.

9. The day after the White Night Riots would have been Harvey Milk's 49th birthday.

The day after the riots, May 22, would have been Harvey Milk’s birthday, and an estimated 20,000 San Franciscans peacefully gathered to celebrate and honor his legacy. This event had been organized months prior to the riots, but in light of the protests, the organizers came prepared with community “gay monitors” who wore shirts with “PLEASE! No violence” printed on them. The community policed themselves as Mayor Dianne Feinstein ordered police not to enter the immediate area. The “noisy and sometimes drunken” celebration of Milk's life was a complete turnaround from the night before. “Last night, gay men and lesbian women showed the world we’re angry and on the move,” Cleve Jones said at the gathering. "Tonight, we are going to show them that we are building a strong community.”

10. The 2008 movie based on Harvey Milk's life and assassination omitted all mention of the White Night Riots.

Directed by Gus Van Sant, the biographical film Milk details the life of Harvey Milk, focusing on his rising political career as a gay rights trailblazer. But the film comes to an abrupt end when Dan White shoots Milk and Mayor Moscone, with a closing shot of a candlelight vigil across San Francisco. The film’s omission of the violence that wracked the city on May 21 also omits Harvey Milk’s legacy that sparked an aggressive fight for gay rights on the West Coast. In 2017, however, Van Sant did wind up recreating the riots as a producer on the miniseries When We Rise, which chronicles the major events in recent LGBT history.