The fall of 1807 marked one year since Meriwether Lewis returned from the Lewis & Clark Expedition. Appointed by Jefferson to the post of Governor of Upper Louisiana, Lewis had yet to leave for St. Louis to take up his duties. He lingered in the east, romance among the many things crowding his mind. Although he had been entranced by several “bewitching gypsies” in that city, Lewis had yet to find that special someone.
“I am now a perfect widower with rispect to love,” Lewis complained to his friend Mahlon Dickerson of Philadelphia. “I feel all that restlessness, that inquietude, that certain indiscribable something common to old bachelors, which I cannot avoid thinking my dear fellow, proceeds, from that void in our hearts, which might, or ought to be better filled. Whence it comes I know not, but certain it is, that I never felt less like a heroe than at the present moment. What may be my next adventure god knows, but on this I am determined, to get a wife.”
That November, Lewis thought he had found the ideal candidate. While visiting the Fincastle, Virginia home of George Hancock (the father of William Clark’s intended, Julia Hancock), Lewis made the acquaintance of lovely 16 year-old Letitia Breckinridge and her sister, Elizabeth. Letitia and Elizabeth were the daughters of prominent Fincastle lawyer and Revolutionary War veteran James Breckenridge, a member of the Virginia legislature and a future Congressman and brigadier general.
Lewis made no secret of the fact that he was smitten with Letitia. His brother Reuben Lewis wrote home that the “accomplished and beautiful” girl was “one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen, both as to form and features … I should like to have her as a sister.”
Hoping to win the young lady’s affections, Lewis expressed his intention of making a formal call on Letitia with the object of courting her. Unfortunately for Lewis, the girl reacted negatively. She was not interested and seemed to want to flee from Lewis’s “challenge.” Shortly after her meeting with Lewis, Letitia decamped to Richmond with her father. Reuben wrote glumly, “unfortunately for his Excellency [Lewis], she left the neighborhood 2 days after our arrival so that he was disappointed in his design of addressing her.”
Of all Lewis’s abortive affairs of the heart, this one seems particularly to have stung. It is not known why Letitia fled from Lewis’s affections. Undaunted Courage author Stephen Ambrose suggests that perhaps Lewis simply came on too strong, or maybe Letitia was put off by his heavy drinking – though Lewis would hardly have been unique among Virginia gentry in that respect. It may have been all too obvious that Lewis was still struggling with the problems of re-entry into “normal” life following the high adventure and independent command of the Lewis & Clark expedition. Or perhaps Letitia simply had someone else already in mind.
Following his attendance at his co-captain William Clark’s wedding in January 1808, Lewis left for St. Louis to take up his governor’s post. That summer, he heard from another friend, William Preston, that Letitia had married a rich young fellow named Robert Gamble of Richmond. “So be it,” Lewis replied, resigned. “May God be with her and her’s, and the favored angels of heaven guard her bliss both here and hereafter, is the sincere prayer of her very sincere friend, to whom she has left the noble concentration of scratching his head and biting his nails, with ample leasure to reuminate on the chapter of accidents in matters of love and the folly of castle-building.”
Lewis tried to be generous to the winning suitor, Robert Gamble. “Gamble is a good tempered, easy honest fellow,” Lewis conceded wistfully. “I have known him from a boy; both his means and his disposition well fit him for sluming away life with his fair one in the fassionable rounds of a large City. Such is the life she has celected and in it’s pursuit I wish she may meet all the pleasures of which it is susceptable.”
There is no further real mention of romance or courting in Lewis’s letters and papers. The press of business and increasing financial woes may have made courting impractical. Or maybe Lewis simply never found the right person. He was destined to die in 1809, aged 35, a “musty, fusty, rusty old bachelor” to the end.
As for Letitia, her marriage to Robert Gamble appears to have been a successful one. She bore Gamble nine children. Eventually they moved to Tallahassee, Florida. During the Civil War, several of Letitia and Robert Gamble’s sons served as officers in the Confederate Army. Letitia survived the war, dying in Tallahassee in March 1866, aged 75.
If Letitia’s maiden name, Breckinridge, rings a bell, it should. Letitia’s uncle, John Breckinridge, was the progenitor of the famous Breckinridge dynasty of Kentucky, which produced generations of illustrious politicians, military officers, social activists, and diplomats. The most famous member of the Breckinridge clan was John C. Breckinridge, who served as Vice President under James Buchanan and ran unsuccessfully for President in 1860, coming in third to Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas. Although Kentucky decided to remain with the Union upon the outbreak of the Civil War, Breckinridge broke ranks with his state and sided with the Confederacy, serving as a general in many of the major battles in both the western and the eastern theater.
Named Confederate Secretary of War in early 1865, Breckinridge did his best to broker an honorable peace for the Confederacy. Historians owe him a debt, as he was instrumental in saving the Confederate government archives from destruction during the fall of Richmond in April 1865. Fearing he would be put on trial, Breckinridge fled the country after the Confederate surrender, but was granted amnesty and returned to Lexington, Kentucky, in 1869. He died there of cirrhosis in 1875.
If John C. Breckinridge was the most famous member of the Breckinridge clan, the most infamous member was his great grandson, John Cabell “Bunny” Breckinridge, who appeared as the alien leader in Ed Wood’s notorious cult film Plan 9 from Outer Space. A flamboyant homosexual and sometime drag queen, Bunny Breckinridge worked as a burlesque performer and actor in Europe before settling in San Francisco in the 1920’s. Openly gay in an era when it was unheard of, Breckinridge later attracted the attention of pulp movie director Ed Wood, who cast him in Plan 9, which would affectionately come to be called “the worst movie ever made.”
Although Breckinridge was convicted of “sex perversion” and briefly committed to a criminal hospital following the release of the movie in 1959, he continued to live his life openly and unrepentantly, becoming a favorite of other celebrities and young hippies for his unique lifestyle and flamboyant ways. He lived long enough to see Plan 9 become a cult favorite and to see himself portrayed in Tim Burton’s 1994 movie, Ed Wood. When he passed away in 1996 at age 93, the following quote in his obituary summed up his life: “I was a little bit wild when I was young, darling, but I lived my life grandly.”
More great reading: The Two Wives of William Clark
Postscript: My frequent commenter Shannon Kelly found this portrait of Letitia Breckinridge Gamble in the inventory files of the Smithsonian. It was painted by Cephas Thompson (1775-1856). Excellent sleuthing, Shannon! Thanks!