Gif and the Ghost Girl: Part 2

Well, back to Gifford Pinchot and his eerie relationship. After Laura Houghteling died in 1894, Gifford wore mourning for 2 years. He told his parents that Laura’s passing was “nothing more than a temporary separation”. He meticulously recorded his interaction with her in his diaries. Two months after her death, he “sat with Miss Houghteling” in the church at Biltmore”. She was with him at Grey Towers, on a train in Frankfurt Germany, shared meals with him, and often visited him at night. In January 1895, 11 months after her death, Laura “spoke to me, saying she wanted to be with me as much as I want to be with her”.

Gifford actually moved in to the Houghteling family home in North Carolina for a time. Laura’s mother also believed that Laura had not really died and the two of them would sit in Laura’s room and converse, trying to contact Laura amid her possessions.

Gifford used to linger outside the house in Washington DC where Laura died. In April, 1896 he apparently married her during a late night visit to this house, writing in his journal, “In God’s sight my Lady and I are husband and wife”. After this marriage, Gif no longer wore his all black mourning clothes.

Gifford believed Laura was with him often, though her appearance was erratic. He often consulted mediums, psychics and attended seances. Apparently some people warned him that his celebrity made it critical that he be very discreet about communing with the dead. His mother was unhappy with his “mystical wife”, and though he was handsome and popular and to all appearances an eligible bachelor, Gifford lived with his parents in Washington, content with his spiritual life with Laura. He continued to build the US Forest Service, and preach conservation.

After his friend Roosevelt left office, Pinchot got fired by President Taft in 1910. Gif mounted a campaign against the enemies of conservation, got involved in legal fights, lobbied to protect our forests, and through all his trials, Laura was with him. In fact, Gifford was actively pursuing an intense spiritual quest, trying to unite with Laura on some other plane. It is not clear how he thought this would happen.

Meanwhile, Gifford’s mother wanted to see the dynasty carry on, and she wanted to see it before her death. An engagement was announced between 49 year old Gifford and 33 year old Cornelia Bryce, a New York heiress who was a feminist and very politically active. The marriage was rushed, and took place 9 days before Gifford’s mother died in 1914. Gifford’s last diary entrance about Laura was written 14 days before his marriage. He kept all her letters and photos at Grey Towers.

Gifford and Cornelia were married for 32 years and had one son. Cornelia was very politically astute and helped Gif get elected to 2 terms as Governor of Pennsylvania. She was a suffragette, marched and picketed for factory workers, hosted plenty of political dinners at Grey Towers, and seemed an admirable helpmeet. She and Gifford had separate bedrooms at Grey Towers (as was the custom at the time), but apparently met up on the sleeping porch that connected the two rooms.

I have to wonder… Gifford Pinchot led almost 2 separate lives. He was born in 1865, lived a prosperous, elegant, purposeful life, and met Laura Houghteling when he was 27. Their relationship developed in the gilded age, the Edwardian period around the turn of the last century, when gender roles were still fairly proscribed. Gifford and Laura had two years to establish a very spiritual and intellectual relationship. It was intense enough that it nourished Gifford for 20 years.

Cornelia was a “modern”, savvy, earthier woman, one with her own political agenda. She was outspoken, energetic, and a very pragmatical person.

Both women contributed immensely to Gifford’s carreer, although Laura did it in absentia. And though Laura is not mentioned in the diaries after Gif’s marriage to Cornelia, Gifford still managed the kind of solo expeditions to the wilderness that fostered his “meetings” with Laura in earlier days. After Gifford’s death in 1946, his family donated his papers to the Library of Congress, but witheld Laura’s letters, and Gifford’s diary for 1893, the year Laura and Gif were courting. It is unknown if these papers still exist.

As an interesting side note, I tracked down Laura’s grave. I was very surprised to find it was in Graceland Cemetery in Chicago, which coincidentally is right behind the Baby’s new digs. Next time we visit the Baby, I think I will go pay a call on Laura too.

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2 Responses to “Gif and the Ghost Girl: Part 2”

  1. bicyclebuiltforone Says:

    Hahaha! I still haven’t gone over there, but I’ll be sure to sit down and have a nice chat with her for you when i do go.

  2. FS employee Says:

    Oh my! This doesn’t fit the image of our Grand Forefather/Forester that the agency has cultivated for 100 years. But somehow, it makes me like Ol’ Gif even more. If nothing else, it shows he was open-minded. I am a huge fan of Cornelia and even more so now that I know what she overlooked in order to support the “greater good”!

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