President in Petticoats: How to Smear an Ex-President

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What could be more fun to mock than the defeated former president of the Confederacy dressed up in women’s clothes? Back in 1865, this scenario played itself out when Jeffferson Davis, fleeing from arrest by the Union army, grabbed his wife’s petticoat in haste and dashed out the door.

What happened next was the story of the press gone wild, like a transcontinental game of telephone. Cartoons began appearing in northern newspapers showing Davis dressed in flowing gowns with his black men’s boots sticking out.

This week an exhibit collected by photography dealer Charles Schwartz will open, displaying more than 40 different cards depicting the humiliation of the ex-president, embellished in the style of Thomas Nast. “Cartes de visite” were cards people collected with topical themes like this.

“It’s amazing to see what the Northerners did with the little information given to them,” says Erin Barnett, curator of the exhibit that’s called ‘Presidents in Petticoats! Civil War propoganda in Photographs.” Cardmakers created photo montages as well as hand drawn caricatures, with Davis in full hoop skirt and bonnet. Later these images made their way into popular magazines like Harper’s Weekly and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. Collector Schwartz was able to amass about 100 images of the subject, scouring flea markets and antique shops.