FREMONT —Nearly 180 years after the birth of the U.S. first lady best known as "Lemonade Lucy," historians here try with little success to tamp down the legend of how she came to acquire her famous nickname.
"I learned it as a kid 50 years ago," says Tom Culbertson, executive director of the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center in this city 30 miles southeast of Toledo.
"What's the point of trying to undo a detail like that one? You can't get it out of all the textbooks."
When authors call to check information on the first lady's nickname, staff members of the presidential center and former Hayes family residence tell them that it isn't exactly correct. Callers listen to the story. But Mr. Culbertson doubts they change their description of the First Lady born 179 years ago tomorrow.
Still, the decades-old legend of Lemonade Lucy is something of a lemon even though it has been a staple of trivia games and elementary-school history textbooks for years.
As the story goes, Lucy Webb Hayes, a long-time Fremont resident and wife of the nation's 19th president, was such a devout Methodist and enemy of demon rum that she banned alcoholic beverages from White House functions during the term of her husband, Rutherford, from 1877 to 1881.
Behind her back, wags dubbed Mrs. Hayes as "Lemonade Lucy," according to the widely circulated account.
Guides at the Hayes Center have been discreetly dealing with the story for years. "If people ask the question, we tell them she wasn't referred to by that name at the time she was alive ..." Mr. Culbertson says.
In fact, the first written references to "Lemonade Lucy" don't turn up until the 20th century, which didn't begin until 11 years after Mrs. Hayes' death, according to Mr. Culbertson.
In the entry on Mrs. Hayes on the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, the opening paragraph states that: "While First Lady, she was given the moniker ‘Lemonade Lucy.' "
For sure, beer, wine, and other alcoholic beverages were banned from the White House during President Hayes' term. But the "decider" wasn't the First Lady, but Rutherford B. himself, says Mr. Culbertson. And the reason wasn't high morals and concern for the social welfare.
It was old-fashioned politics: the modern day equivalent of Republican office-holders in conservative states tacking to the Right to deal with potential threats from the Tea Party. President Hayes' anti-slavery Republican Party was trying to stop anti-alcohol Prohibitionists from stealing any more of the votes of folks for whom both causes were important, explains the Hayes Center director.
"Lucy had nothing to do with the decision," says Historian Ari Hoogenboom, author of Rutherford B. Hayes: Warrior and President. Hayes was known to take a nip or two before his presidency. And Mrs. Hayes was not intolerant of people drinking in her presence, the historian says. Once, when the couple received a bottle of whiskey as a present, they didn't fling it down the privy but re-gifted it to a relative.
Historians such as Emily Geer combed through opposition newspapers of the era, Mr. Culbertson says. They found references to the president as "His Fraudulency" and "alleged" president. But there were no mentions of Lemonade Lucy. Historian Carl Anthony, in a profile of Mrs. Hayes written for the National First Ladies' Library in Canton, Ohio, noted that Mrs. Hayes abstained from alcohol throughout her life and was sympathetic to the cause of those who wanted to ban alcohol.
But the first lady, who was the first wife of a U.S. president to receive a college degree, resisted attempts by the Women's Christian Temperance Union to enlist her as a leader out of fear of creating political fallout for her husband by association with the controversial cause.
Later, when the organization launched a fund-raising campaign to pay for a portrait of Mrs. Hayes, she was not happy to learn that much of the money was to be used for a temperance public relations campaign, Mr. Anthony wrote.
The historian agrees there is no solid evidence showing that Mrs. Hayes was called "Lemonade Lucy" while in the White House, although he says she was caricatured at the time for the president's decision to ban alcohol.
Mr. Anthony's profile suggests a reason the legend of Lemonade Lucy might have become so popular with historians of the early 20th century, when there was greater moral stigma associated with alcohol consumption.
"She was ... held up as a moral example for Ohio schoolchildren who read about her in their textbooks," he wrote.
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