W.W. Beckwith: Lamar County’s link to a Beloved President

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W.W. Beckwith didn’t live long in Lamar County, and he didn’t gain much fame while here. But, within months of leaving town, his name became recognized in households nationwide.

Warren Wallace Beckwith hailed from Mount Pleasant, Iowa, born in 1874 to Civil War veteran Captain Warren Beckwith and his wife Luzenia. By the time of Warren’s birth, the elder Beckwith, though always known as “Captain,” had graduate in status to become general manager of the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad, a position earning him great respect throughout Iowa and the Midwest. When Luzenia Beckwith suddenly died in early 1880, she left the Captain with five children, Warren the youngest. Luzenia’s sister, Sarah, moved into the Beckwith home to assist with child-rearing, as the Captain’s business responsibilities left scant time for burdensome children. Only 18 months later, the Captain Beckwith and Sarah married. Overnight, Warren’s biological aunt became his step-mother.

Warren undoubtedly lived a privileged childhood, and its impact followed him through life. Captain Beckwith’s position with the railroad earned his family great wealth. The Beckwith’s socialized with other elite Midwestern families, including that of former U.S. Secretary of War Robert Todd Lincoln, the eldest son of assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. The Lincoln’s, though actually living in Chicago, frequented Mt. Pleasant in the summers, the Iowa countryside offering relief from Chicago’s oppressive heat. During these visits young Warren befriended Lincoln’s youngest daughter Jessie, granddaughter of the former president.

After graduating high school, W.W. Beckwith entered the railroad business but not into a distinguished position his father might have arranged. Instead, Warren served as a locomotive fireman, a hard, dangerous job far beneath his family’s social status. A member of the railroad baseball team, Beckwith impressed local industrial league fans as a pitcher and outfielder for a few years. By early 1897, though, Beckwith left Iowa for Texas where he placed his railroad experience to work. Landing a job with E.H.R. Green’s Texas Midland Railroad at the gumbo plant at Atlas in Lamar County, Beckwith labored the first few months of the year shoveling blackland soil to be baked into stone used to hold the railroad’s locomotives on the tracks. Tiny Atlas, so known because the community carried the weight of the Green’s railroad on its shoulders, became the launching pad for Warren’s professional baseball career.

E.H.R. Green, aside from a railroad entrepreneur, indulged in many expensive hobbies, not the least of which was professional baseball. In 1897 he purchased the rights to the Texas League’s Paris franchise, a team he the “Texas Midlands” after his railroad. Upon learning of his employer’s interest in baseball, Beckwith became intrigued. Life as a professional ball player had to be easier than shoveling hard soil in the searing Texas sun. Warren soon made the short trek to Paris where he met with local newspaper man A.W. Neville, the Midlands’ business manager. Beckwith impressed Neville in a brief tryout and signed a contract to play ball for $100 per month, his railroad career apparently over after only five years.

Though Beckwith earned his roster spot as a pitcher, Paris manager and catcher A.C. Jantzen, a longtime minor leaguer, used him sparingly in the pitcher’s circle. Instead, Beckwith played sporadically in the outfield, batting in the mid-.200s as the Midlands limped through April and May with a 9-32 record. By June 1, Dallas manager and Texas League founder John McCloskey had taken a liking to Beckwith’s play and lured him away from Paris with an offer to use him as a pitcher, which Warren considered his natural position. Following a 4-3 win over his former team on June 7, McCloskey called Beckwith the “finest young pitcher in Texas” and complimented his batting.

“He can place his hits wherever and whenever he pleases,” McCloskey noted.

Warren backed up his manager’s comments over the next few days, stretching his winning streak to three consecutive games. By season’s end, Beckwith had pitched fourteen games with a 1.64 ERA for the second worst team in the Texas League, though still ahead of Green’s Texas Midlands. Likewise, he held his own at the plate batting .259, while lumbering to only 2 stolen bases.

Despite proving himself a capable baseball player, Warren returned to Iowa in September and joined his childhood friend Jessie Lincoln at Iowa Wesleyan College. Though starring on the Tiger football team as a and gaining local fame with speed that seemed to elude him on Texas’ base paths, Beckwith’s blooming romance with Jessie did not sit well with either family. Captain Beckwith considered his 24-year old son too immature for marriage, and Robert Todd Lincoln dismissed him as a “baseball buffoon” who held little potential as a husband for his beloved daughter. Regardless, on November 10, the couple took a trip to Milwaukee and returned legally married.

News of the Beckwith-Lincoln elopement against the wishes of Jessie’s well-respected father made for scandalous headlines nationwide. American news readers took a great interest in the story behind the still-revered President’s granddaughter and her seemingly ne’er-do-well husband. The Burlington Hawk Eye ran nearly a full page story on the couple, and news of the 19th century soap opera spread throughout the country, even making headlines overseas. Rather than shy from the attention, six days later Jessie Lincoln Beckwith looked on as her husband celebrated their honeymoon by scoring four touchdowns in Iowa Wesleyan’s 45-0 rout of Keokuk Medical School. Warren’s performance only increased interest in the newlyweds. The New York Times provided full coverage of the game, and the couple continued to garner headlines throughout the rest of 1897. All the while, the Burlington Hawk Eye reported Robert Todd Lincoln incessantly sulking at the loss of his daughter to a baseball buffoon.

In 1898, Beckwith served in the Army stateside during the Spanish-American War. In the meantime, Jessie progressed through a pregnancy leading to the birth of the couple’s first child just nine months and twelve days after their marriage. Warren briefly continued his baseball career a year later, playing eight games for Sacramento in the California League, before returning to Iowa and signing with the Ottuma franchise. By this point, even his step-mother had grown tired of Warren’s baseball antics. She secretly negotiated his release with the Ottuma manager, expecting her step-son to pursue a more lucrative and respectable profession. To her dismay, Warren returned to the only job work he knew, returning to the railroad as a fireman.

Warren and Jessie Beckwith had little peace over the next few years. Though Robert Lincoln eventually reached some measure of acceptance of the marriage, his wife did not, even after the birth of her second grandchild in 1904. A year later, Warren tried his hand at managing baseball, lasting just one season with Oshkosh of the Wisconsin State League. Again, he returned to Iowa and his family, where the tension between Jessie and her parents had reached a boiling point. The couple’s incessant arguing drove Jessie and the children to live with her parents in Chicago. When she unexpectedly moved to Europe in 1907, Warren filed for divorce. Despite his best efforts, he never saw his children again.

Just weeks after his divorce, Beckwith remarried, eventually serving another stint with the Army in an artillery unit in France during WWI. Following the war, he and his wife settled in California with their one child and lived off lived off Captain Beckwith’s estate, to which he was the sole heir following his father’s death in 1905. In 1921, Warren again divorced, remaining single until 1924, when he married Vera Ward, an actress from Asheville, North Carolina. Though Warren was 22 years older than his wife, the couple soon relocated to California where Vera continued acting in silent movies and gave birth to another Beckwith child.

For the next three decades, Warren and Vera continued living off his inheritance and Vera’s motion picture income. All the while, Warren pursued hobbies including hunting and golf and enjoyed his seaside home near San Diego. Still, the children born to he and Jessie Lincoln never attempted to contact their father. As his health began to fail, Beckwith cut back on his outdoor activities, but he eventually succumbed to heart failure in 1955. Vera returned his body to Iowa where he is buried in Mt. Pleasant’s Forest Home Cemetery.

Though W.W. Beckwith’s lived in Lamar County only a few months, nearly 120 years later, his partial season as a member of E.H.R. Green’s Texas Midlands leaves him among Paris’ most unknown historical curiosities. His estranged son, Robert Todd Lincoln Beckwith, great-grandson of Abraham Lincoln, lived until 1985, the last confirmed direct descendant of arguably the most famous American to have ever lived.

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