Happy Birthday, Henry Berthrong!

Berthrong in later yearsHenry Berthrong had an amazing and varied life – some small part of it as a baseball player.  At the time of his retirement, he was likely the longest serving US civil servant (certainly among the oldest); at the time of his death he was the oldest living major league baseball player.

Henry Washburn Berthrong arrived 01 January 1844, the first of five children born to Linus Percival and Mary (McPherson) Berthrong in Mumford, New York, a town not too far from Rochester.  Linus was a partner in a mercantile store and also a blacksmith while Mary was tasked with family management.  Linus died before Henry hit his teens, the victim of his gun accidentally going off while on a duck hunt and shooting him in the arm.  Linus was brought home where doctors thought his best chance to survive was amputating his arm – and the amputation process killed him.

Henry can trace his ancestry back a long way.  Abisha Washburn, his great-great grandfather, helped mold cannon during the Revolutionary War and may have actually served in the Continental Army.  Go back a few more generations in that Washburn line and you can find a John Washborne who made his way from England to the Plymouth settlement in 1635, bringing his family along a few years later.

As a child, Henry showed an aptitude for drawing and studied art with the owner of the Fraunberger studio in Rochester.  He also studied the art of making wood cuts for printing.  His studies would have to wait, however.  In 1861, the Civil War began, and in 1862 Henry Berthrong joined the 140th New York Volunteers, went to the front in September of that year, and joined the Fifth Corps, Army of the Potomac – initially as a musician.  Over time, he performed other roles, especially when his regiment guarded occupied areas around the District.

While with the 140th, he drew constantly, focusing on portraits of generals – Grant, Sherman, Sheridan, Meade and others.  He and another soldier would take shoe pegs and nail his penciled portraits to the top log of his tent.  On the side, Henry was also a bit of a prankster – all in good fun.  Another soldier, B. S. Blake, said, “Almost from the start his genial disposition, full of youthful spirit, and his humorous pranks made him well known throughout the regiment…”

One time, he was furloughed and stopped in Washington DC prior to catching a train to Rochester.  Then, a fan of artwork appeared – as Berthrong told a writer for the Boston Globe on the 100th anniversary of his fan’s birthday.

“…I was on a furlough and passing through Washington on my way to my home, Rochester, N. Y., and while I was wandering around I finally pulled up and sat down on one of those iron settees between the White House and the war department. Taking a pad and pencil I began to make a sketch of the White House and just about the time I had it nearly completed someone came and stood directly in front of me. I looked up from my work, and there stood the great form of President Lincoln. I confess I was somewhat startled. I wore a zouave uniform, and, of course, the President knew I was a soldier.

“In his very kind manner he said to me: “What are you doing, young man?” I replied that I was trying to make a sketch of the White House. He said, ‘Let me see it,’ and taking it in his hand began comparing it with the original. He then said: ‘Do you know that you have a talent in drawing? Have you ever taken lessons?’ I told him that I had been studying to be an engraver on wood, but enlisted before I had completed my full course.

“He then said: ‘What are you going to do and where are you going?’ I told him I was on a furlough and intended taking the evening train for my home. ‘How long a furlough have you,’ Lincoln asked. I replied that I had two weeks. ‘That is short to go to Rochester and return to your regiment. You come with me.’

“We walked on to the war department and on the way he asked me about my home, who and how many were in my family, what was the number of my regiment, how many battles I had been in and many other questions. Reaching the adjutant general’s office he said to Col. Samuel Breck, assistant adjutant general, ‘This young man has but two weeks’ furlough. I would like you to extend it two weeks longer.’

“We then walked to the 17th street door. Mr. Lincoln had been holding my sketch in his hand all this time and as we parted he said, ‘I would like this sketch, it interests me.’ I said, Mr. Lincoln, I am delighted to give it to you and shall always consider it an honor to have had such a privilege.

“He then said: ‘Please put your name and regiment at the bottom, also the date.’ I did so and handed it back to him. We shook hands and he wished me a pleasant voyage to my home and a safe return to my regiment.

According to the Globe article, “Mr. Berthrong met the President at a reception at the White House just after the war, and stepping up to him asked the President if he remembered him, and then told Mr. Lincoln that he was the young man who made the sketch of the White House and told him the time. Mr. Lincoln remembered the affair very well, he said, and they had another short chat…”

“Made Sketch For Him – H. W. Berthrong, Arlington.”, Boston Globe, 12 February 1909, Page 13.

Bertrong painted a large painting of Lincoln which stayed in the family, despite large offers from Lincoln’s son.  He later painted Grant’s portrait in the days just before Grant passed away, something Grant’s children claimed was the best painting of the general and president ever done.

Returning from the war meant getting a job – and he took a job as a clerk in the War Department.  And, he got married – the first time was to Anne Thompson, who was perhaps 14 years old when they first discussed getting married (a marriage license record exists from December, 1864), and 15 years old when a marriage license was granted in October, 1865.  They had one child, a daughter named May, but as Berthrong’s career in civil service changed, Anne stayed in DC while Berthrong moved on.

Wait!!!  This is supposed to be a biography about a baseball player…

Berthrong was a speedy and graceful athlete.  He was a member of a Potomac River rowing team that won a national championship.  And, he took up baseball, a sport he played while a young adult in Rochester and may have played while in the army.  Almost immediately upon settling in Washington, Berthrong became a catcher and outfielder with the two best clubs in the capital city –  the Nationals and the Olympics – and he would invite players he knew in Rochester to come to Washington where they could get a clerk position with a government office and still have time to play ball.

He was likely the fastest professional baseball player of the post-Civil War years.

“Berthrong was a wonderful outfielder in his day, and I once saw him when both the right and left fielders had been disabled by injury cover all three fields and never miss a fly, moving from side to side, according to his judgement of the batter, and sizing things up right every time.”

“They Die Hard.”, Buffalo Enquirer, 17 August 1896, Page 8.

Lots of players claim to be fast – Berthrong could prove it, and did so in a letter to Tim Murnane of the Boston Globe.

“I have received so many inquiries by mail and individually as to my exact time in running the bases that I take the liberty of writing you the facts.

“The time was made in Washington, July 9, 1868, and was taken by five stop watches, where several men contested. From home plate to home plate in 14-1/4 seconds.

“One incident of this trial has never been spoken of. John Morrissey, the great sporting man of that time, wagered a wine supper with a friend that I could not run the bases inside of 15 seconds, and he was one of the parties who held the watch.

“He paid the debt, and 12 of us sat down to supper one week afterward. I ran 100 yards on the white lot at Washington without special training in 10 seconds flat. John Morrissey then offered to back me to run any man in the world 100 yards for $10,000. I ran 26 races at that distance and was never defeated.”

“That Curved Ball.”, Boston Globe, 21 April 1895, Page 29.

When the Washington Olympics joined the National Association in 1871, Berthrong was an outfielder and backup catcher to Doug Allison.  That was his only season as a major leaguer, though.  His job sent him west.  Henry went to Carson City, Nevada where he helped the government set up a new branch of the United States Mint.  While there, he and a few friends started one of, if not the first, baseball club in Nevada –  the Silver Stars.

Olympics of Washington - Berthrong at top right

Berthrong (#3) with his Olympics teammates.  Dave Force is #7, Asa Brainard is #8, and Doug Allison is #10.  (Spalding Collection)

Berthrong moved to Boston after returning from Carson City – and he soon married a well connected lady a bit closer to his own age named Hannah Boutwell, the niece of Secretary of the Treasury George S. Boutwell – who was also a former governor of Massachusetts.  By this time, Berthrong was the appraiser of merchandise at the Boston Customhouse.  He held that position into the mid-1880s, but something else was calling him.

As you can imagine, it was his painting skills.  As a portrait artist, he was in demand.  So, in 1883, he decided to open a studio – and his wife, Hannah, took over his job in the Customhouse.  Berthrong became nationally famous for his portraits of presidential candidates of both parties.  In fact, Berthrong claimed to be the only man in America who worked both sides of the aisle.  One order came from Mark Hanna, who asked for 600 portraits of William McKinley – each one being about eight feet by six feet in size.  Check out this painting he did of Benjamin Harrison.

Berthrong at Work

In time, as Henry and Hannah created more children (they’d have five, but one died as a toddler), they needed more dependable income.  Henry returned to the Custom House.  He took a brief break from Boston when he was dispatched to Cuba to set up a U.S. Customhouse there.  Then he returned – and while he worked at the Customhouse, Hannah became a translator and linguist.

For a while, the Boston Customhouse was the tallest building in Boston.  On the 25th floor, more than 300 feet into the air, there was an observation balcony where people could look out over the Hub.   In 1915, John M. Durick committed suicide by jumping from the observation balcony, falling nearly 400 feet to his death.

“To none was the shock greater than to Henry W. Berthrong, a Customhouse employee, who stood on the edge of the steps leading to State St. and was within two or three feet of the man’s body when it struck beside him on the pavement. The fright with which the event struck into Berthrong’s heart and the sight of the suicide’s body almost caused him to collapse in his tracks. Had Berthrong been struck by Durick’s body, he would undoubtedly have been killed, it is thought…”

“…Henry W. Berthrong, an aged clerk, 30 years ago a famous ball player and artist, who had come to the door to get the air for a moment, jumped as if a bomb had been set off beside him. The shock attending the sudden drop of the man, apparently from nowhere, was severe, and for some minutes afterward Mr. Berthrong found it almost impossible to recover his composure and speak about the accident.

“When he was able to talk of it, he declared that the man had fallen less than three feet from him, so near, indeed, that the body almost grazed him in passing. For a moment he was dazed with surprise until he realized the meaning of the sight before him, when he was very nearly overcome with emotion.”

“Man Leaps From 25th Story of Customhouse”, Boston Globe, 10 September 1915, Page 1.

Berthrong continued at the Customhouse until he turned 80 years old, retiring in 1924 after more than 50 years in the military or civil service.  And, Hannah and Henry celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in style.  On the side, he participated in Grand Army of the Republic benefits, performing the violin in an orchestra (see photo below – Berthrong is in front at the far right) and occasionally performing dance routines.  He was a lifelong Mason, and an honorary member of the Elks.

Berthrong in Orchestra

In 1927, Hannah passed on, and Berthrong would soon follow.  When he fell ill for the last time, he was moved from his home to a veteran’s home in Chelsea, MA.  Newspapers reported that the oldest living major league ballplayer was near death.  Al Reach previously held that spot, but had died in January.  Three months later, Berthrong passed to the next league on 24 April 1928.


1865 New York Census
1850, 1860, 1880, 1900, 1910, 1920 US Census
Rochester City Directory, 1851
District of Columbia Marriage Records
Massachusetts Marriage Records
US Civil War Soldier Records
www.findagrave.com – Henry Berthrong
www.findagrave.com – Linus Percival Berthrong
www.findagrave.com – Abisha Washburn
www.findagrave.com – John Washborne

Library of Congress Image – Berthrong and Benjamin Harrison

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. “Olympics of Washington, D.C., A. J. Leonald, l. f., G. W. Hall, c. f., H. W. Berthrong, r. f. , F. A. Waterman, 3b., C. J. Sweasy, 2b., E. Mill, 1b., D. W. Force, s. s., Asa Brainard, p., H. F. Borroughs, D. L. Allison, c., J. W.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed August 19, 2020. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47d9-c2c4-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

“Brevities.”, Reno Weekly Gazette and Stockman, 20 June 1895, Page 1.

Chadwick, Henry. Letter to the New York Star, reprinted by the Washington Evening Star, “The Old Nationals”, Washington Evening Star, 24 October 1895, Page 10.

“They Die Hard.”, Buffalo Enquirer, 17 August 1896, Page 8.

“Grand Army Minstrels.”, Boston Globe, 07 January 1897, Page 12.

“Diamond Dust.”, Wilmington Sun, 18 November 1898, Page 3.

M. “Off On A Tangent.”, Carson Daily Appeal, 10 June 1876, Page 2.

“That Curved Ball.”, Boston Globe, 21 April 1895, Page 29.

National Republican, 03 November 1882, Page 4.

“Made Sketch For Him – H. W. Berthrong, Arlington.”, Boston Globe, 12 February 1909, Page 13.

“Man Leaps From 25th Story of Customhouse”, Boston Globe, 10 September 1915, Page 1.

“Funeral Friday of Henry W. Berthrong”, Boston Globe, 25 April 1928, Page 32. (Also picture)

Image of Arlington Orchestra, Boston Globe, 26 April 1904, Page 3.

“Two Retire From Customs Service”, Boston Globe, 21 August 1924, Page 7.

“Rochester Boy Made Portraits of Famed Men”, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, 20 June 1922, Page 23.

“Ends 50 Years’ Work With Government”, Brattleboro Reformer, 21 August 1924, Page 1.

“Baseball Star of ’65 Sinking”, New York Daily News, 15 April 1928, Page 10.


3 thoughts on “Happy Birthday, Henry Berthrong!

  1. Thank you so much for this lovely tribute to Henry (my great-great grandfather). You have introduced me to some information I’d never heard before — what a startling incident at the Customs House in 1915! A few additional genealogy details for you: he was a Mayflower descendant, both through Abisha Washburn’s wife, Hannah Morton (who was a great-great-granddaughter of Stephen Hopkins), and also through Henry’s 6th great- grandfather, John Washburn, Jr (son of the John Washburn you mention), marriage to Elizabeth Mitchell, a granddaughter of Mayflower passenger Francis Cooke.

    • Your visit has made my month – and is incredibly well timed!!! I am modifying this to be included in the SABR BioProject.

      May I write back to ask a few other questions?


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