In January 1881, as Bloomington’s wealthiest citizen Asahel Gridley lay dying in his Bloomington mansion, a local minister asked him if he feared hell. “Not a bit of it,” he was purported to have said. “I’ve lived in hell since the day I was married.”
Fair or unfair, stories of questionable veracity such as this color much of what we know — or think we know — about Asahel and Mary Gridley and their 45-year marriage. With the Gridleys it’s often hard to separate fact from legend, but as sometimes said by both the foolish and the wise —never let the truth get in the way of a good story!
And although Asahel Gridley had a mean streak that could produce hair-raising, teeth-rattling blue streaks, he was no Mr. Potter from “It’s a Wonderful Life.” In fact, no early resident played as important a role in promoting Bloomington as the indefatigable Gridley.
“Being of a highly impulsive nature … he fires up with a zeal often more intense than wise,” noted town of Normal founder Jesse Fell of Gridley, adding that though he was known to rain invective down upon even his best friends, that did not make him “a bad man.”
Raised in upstate New York, Gridley came to Bloomington in October 1831, enjoying initial success as the proprietor of a general store.
In March 1836 he married Mary Enos of Pittsburgh, Penn., and when she first arrived in Bloomington she was taken aback at what was little more than a rustic village. Many years later she recalled that Asahel “had so impressed me with Bloomington’s glories that I fondly anticipated getting into a perfect paradise. Well, I was disillusioned, I assure you.” The couple would go on to have 10 children, four of which survived into adulthood.
The Panic of 1837 was a gut punch to Gridley’s economic prospects and left him staggering toward bankruptcy. Fortunately, state politics offered a welcome diversion — and perhaps the promise of financial gain. It was in the Illinois House of Representatives on Dec. 5, 1840, that Gridley and fellow Whig lawmaker Abraham Lincoln jumped out a window in a failed attempt to prevent a quorum and an unfavorable vote.
Gridley’s financial woes (bankruptcy came in 1842) gave him a familiarity with the law, and it wasn’t long before he left shopkeeping for a successful legal practice on the Eighth Judicial Circuit, jostling for clients with the likes of David Davis and Lincoln.
As a state senator, Gridley played a paramount role ensuring the route of the Illinois Central Railroad would pass through Bloomington, and the arrival of the first train in May 1853 represented one of the most momentous events in city history. Gridley, to the surprise of no one, then became a land agent for the IC, and as a driven “speculator-politician” he made a personal fortune.
In 1859-1860, Gridley built the city’s most palatial residence on the 300 block of East Grove Street. “The Oaks,” an Italianate mansion of cream-colored brick, can still be seen behind a 1930s apartment building that shares the same name.
At least one outlandish Asahel and Mary story is true.
In a letter dated Oct. 30, 1860, Judge David Davis recounted to his wife Sarah how Mary Gridley escorted U.S. Sen. Stephen Douglas, who was a Democrat, into Bloomington on Asahel’s own carriage — a carriage adorned with a pro-Douglas flag no less. This was happening while Asahel accompanied former Ohio Gov. Thomas Corwin, a fellow Republican, by carriage. (It appears there were competing political rallies in Bloomington.) Davis viewed Mary’s act as an affront to her husband, making him “a laughing stock” and “bringing him into public ridicule.”
Asahel Gridley died on January 25, 1881. After the funeral at The Oaks the story goes that Mary ordered her husband’s casket carried out the back door, saying the “rugs had already taken enough punishment.”
The Gridleys will be two of the eight featured characters in the upcoming 20th anniversary Evergreen Cemetery Walk, the annual living history program staged by the museum and Illinois Voices Theatre, and sponsored by Evergreen Memorial Cemetery.
Performances are 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Oct. 4-5 and Oct. 11-12. Tickets —which are going fast! — can be purchased at the museum, The Garlic Press, Casey’s Garden Shop & Florist and the cemetery.
Back in 1859, Gridley found himself accused of making “slanderous accusations” against “his old and respected friend” William Flagg, who was not amused and sued for libel. Surviving correspondence shows a desperate Gridley beseeching Lincoln to take the case. According to one version of events, Lincoln agreed and was able to settle before trial with the argument, as he told Gridley, “that the people generally know you to be impulsive and say things you do not mean, and they do not consider what you say as slander.”
In other words, Gridley’s slanderous accusations weren’t slanderous because he talked like that to everyone!