Sometimes you stumble upon a character from history who seems like they must have been made up — then you realize that is because they are probably the model for numerous fictional characters that you already know. One such man is George Francis Train. I first came upon Train while reading Foner’s book on the Reconstruction era, in which he describes how Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony allied themselves with this possibly insane, racist, eccentric because he was the only one who would support their struggle women’s suffrage during a crucial post civil-war vote in Kansas. Foner succinctly describes him as:
… an eccentric merchant and financier given to anti-black diatribes, Irish nationalism, and flamboyant adventure (it was he who in 1870 traveled around the world in eighty days). … To Radicals and abolitionists, cooperation with Train was anathema; William Lloyd Garrison described him as a “crack-brained harlequin and semi-lunatic.” But Stanton and Anthony insisted on their right to seek political allies wherever they could find them.
To see just how crazy he was, here is one of the speeches he gave to support Stanton and Anthony:
I am an egotist, and as I, before talking about women, shall talk about myself, suppose we explain what egotism is. It is not properly understood. I think that humility is a swindle — rank cowardice. I believe in egotism, and for this reason: Men can’t get above their level in this world. There are certain natural laws that keep us in our positions. Put your hand in the fire and you get burned. It is a natural law. Step off this hall, defy the law of gravitation, and you go down. Assume your position, I say, and be a man or practice humility and be a coward. Strike out for mankind. Water don’t run up hill. The big logs will get over the smaller ones in the mill pond, the big rocks over the small ones on the macadamized highway. Assume your position, I say. Put your potatoes in a spring cart over a rough road, and the small potatoes will go to the bottom. Therefore, I say, I am trying to elevate man by making an egotist out of him. Moral courage is not purchasable. Physical courage you can purchase for thirteen dollars, a month in the army…. I have made the introductory remarks just to break the ice. I want you to know me, and I want to know you. For it is hard work for these ladies to commence breaking the ice until they get votes, and then they will break ice over the country.
But he very likely was the real-life model for Jules Verne’s book, which was published in 1873, just three years after Train went around the world in eighty days. Later, Train was to repeat the journey in only sixty days (the first time he was arrested by the Communards in Marseille, and supposedly only got out with the help of Alexander Dumas and Leon Gambetta).
For more on Train, read Patricia Holland’s web page.
To see a timeline of woman’s suffrage in the US, read here.