The Richmond History Podcast

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Lewis Ginter: Richmond's Gilded Age Icon

I just finished Brian Burn's book Lewis Ginter: Richmond's Gilded Age Icon.  It is a very easy to read and very informative portrait of a under appreciated man.  I would guess that the common belief about Major Ginter (1821-1897) is that he must have loved plants, and that is only because Richmond's botanical gardens is named for him (it wasn't even initiated until well after his death by his niece Grace Arents).  He did appreciate gardens but if that is all you know of a man who was a Confederate Civil War hero, a tireless entrepreneur, a self reinventor, a real estate developer, philanthropist, humanitarian, a man who could be said to have introduced the pre rolled cigarette to America and the foundation of what became baseball cards, and the force behind The Jefferson Hotel, one of the only 5 star, 5 diamond hotels in Virginia among other things, you might as well be wrong.
When I heard that this book was coming out all I heard was that it was going to expose Ginter as being gay.  Among people that study Richmond history, it is pretty well know that he had a very... and I mean very... close relationship with his close companion John Pope.  This worried me when I heard the hype because I was really interested in the truth of the man, Lewis Ginter and not speculative scandal.  Not to say that he was or wasn't gay, but before our times when it is more accepted to be openly gay, it is incredibly hard, if not impossible, to say what happens behind closed doors.  Even in our more open times, it is very hard to know what happens behind straight, gay or other wise doors.  As well, because of the hype I heard, I was scared the book was going to be exclusively about him being gay.  I am very glad that I read it anyways and I can say I was wrong.  The Ginter-Pope relationship is laid out with out making a big deal, assumptions, or even speculating on the topic.  Yet, there is enough evidence in the book for the reader to see the relationship.  Other relationships in the book, equally explored and worth noting are the ones with Rev Hoge of Second Presbyterian, Joseph Bryant, Joseph Reid Anderson of Tredegar Iron Works, and the city of Richmond, the only one of Ginter's relationships that I think could be unequivocally be called love.
I did leave me with a few more questions about Ginter, but I think that means it was a good biography because I cared about who this guy was through out and never tired of him.  Ginter a somewhat shy guy  didn't leave much of a paper trail.
The chapters are short making it very easy to read, but it is not dumbed down.  It is a portrait of a man that would be a good read for anyone around the world but is a must read for any Richmonder interested in their history.  Some Richmond history buffs seem to focus on the Civil War. The War Between the States is touched on, but some reader may find in this book that, yes, interesting things do happen between wars, other then the lead up to the next war.
There are a couple of typos but nothing too distracting.  I can only hope that it is reprinted in many additions and those can be fixed in those additions.

Lewis Ginter:Richmond's Gilded Age Icon is available from The History Press for $21.99

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