Thursday, September 15, 2016


It's not every day when the death of someone from Evanston makes the front page of the New York Times - but that is exactly what happened on Saturday, November 8, 1902 when readers saw this:

Illinois Man Contracts Fatal Blood Poisoning
While Picking Flowers

Special to the New York Times

Chicago, Nov. 7. - Charles G. Ayars, for thirty years a citizen of Evanston, died from the effects of blood poisoning Thursday at Orlando, Fla., where he had made his home for a year past.  Ten days ago Mr. Ayars, who was extremely fond of flowers, was plucking roses in his garden.  A thorn pricked his thumb, and blood poisoning set in with fatal results.

Charles G. Ayars was born seventy-two years ago in Paterson, N. J. His father, James Ayars, was a well-known minister in the early days of the Methodist Church and one of the founders of Northwestern University.  Charles Ayars was educated at Rutgers College, Vermont, and came to Chicago in 1867.  

An interesting way to die - to be sure.  Let's see what else we can "dig up" about Charles Ayars and see if we can find out whether or not he ever sang for Abraham Lincoln.

Charles Gerry Ayars was born December 28, 1831 in Paterson, New Jersey (some sources say Newton, New Jersey).  His father was the Rev. James B. Ayars, Sr. (1805-1873), a minister in the Methodist Episcopal Church and a tireless worker for the temperance cause.  His mother was Harriet Amelia, nee Reed (1807-1869).

James and Harriet Ayars had five sons.  The oldest, Enoch Reed Ayars (1827-1856) was a dentist who joined Walker's expedition to Nicaragua and died of wounds he received in the Battle of Rivos in 1856.

Charles Gerry Ayars (1831-1902) is the subject of this article.

James B. Ayars, Jr. (1829-1893) was an insurance adjuster and an attorney who lived in Chicago for a time and died in Indiana in 1893.

William Henry Ayars (1840-1865) was a student at Northwestern University in Evanston when the Civil War broke out.  He enlisted, and served eighteen months in the Union Army.  He became a lieutenant of what was then called a "colored regiment" and was killed at the Battle of Petersburgh, Virginia in 1865. 

Howard B. Ayars (1839-1844) was the youngest and he died at the age of five years in 1844.

Charles G. Ayars came from an interesting family, to say the least.  Ayars received his elementary education wherever his father happened to be stationed at the time.  He finished his education at Rutgers College in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and entered the business world in 1848 when he was seventeen.  He was a clerk at several stores and spent one year with a wholesale paper house in New York.  In 1857, Charles Ayars relocated to Covington, Kentucky where he became a General Agent with the Phoenix Fire Insurance Company of Hartford, Connecticut.

In 1859 he became a resident of Cook County and engaged in farming at Evanston.

On April 25, 1859 Charles G. Ayars married Miss Margaret Fredenberg (1830-1913) of New York.  She was the daughter of William and Julia Fredenberg.  Margaret had one brother, Cornelius Fredenberg.

The 1860 US Census finds the newlyweds living with the Rev. James Ayars and family in Evanston.  Charles listed his occupation as "Farmer."  

In 1861, Charles and Margaret Ayars moved to the area known as Forest Hill, at the crossing of the Wabash and Pan Handle railroads. Today that neighborhood is in the vicinity of West 75th street and South Oakley avenue.  Charles operated a large farm in this area, producing large quantities of hay for the Chicago market.  While he lived there, Ayars served six years as the Clerk of Lake Township.

In 1867 Charles Ayars was appointed a deputy sheriff of Cook County and then of Chicago.  Around this time there was much litigation over land titles.  Many squatters had to be dispossessed, and his duties as deputy sheriff sometimes brought him exciting experiences.

The 1870 US Census finds Charles and Margaret Ayars living in Lake Township, Cook County, with the Post Office of the Union Stockyards.  He listed his occupation as "Deputy Sheriff."

In 1874 Ayars and his wife moved back to Evanston, where he was elected County Commissioner for the Evanston District.  At the expiration of his first term he was re-elected and served a total of six years in this position.

The 1880 US Census for the Village of Evanston was conducted by Philo P. Judson.  He reported that Charles and Margaret Ayars were living in the Village, with Charles' brother James, and James' wife Lucy. James Ayars was an insurance salesman; Charles was "County Commissioner."  They had one live-in servant:  20 year old Apolonia Kerrscht.

In 1883, Charles Ayars renewed his association with the Phoenix Fire Insurance Company, as state agent for Illinois, having charge of all business outside of Chicago.  He remained in the fire insurance business until late in life when his failing health forced him to give up his business activities.  

Charles and Margaret Ayars were named in the 1891 Chicago Blue Book of Selected Names of Chicago and Suburban Towns Containing the Names and Addresses of Prominent Residents.  The Blue Book reported that they were living at the Avenue House on Chicago avenue in Evanston, pre-cursor to the North Shore Hotel.

The 1900 US Census shows Charles and Margaret Ayars living at 421 Greenwood Boulevard in Evanston.  An apartment building sits on that site today.  Charles was 68, Margaret was 67.  They reported that they had no children.  Charles listed his occupation as "Fire Insurance." Strangely they said their live-in servant's name was "Minnie Ayars." They listed her as a servant, but then told the census taker that Minnie was "at school."  They said she was fourteen-years-old and that she had been born in Michigan.  

About this time, Charles Ayars' health was failing, and he decided to get out of the harsh Chicago winters and spend his remaining winters in Florida, and that's where he was when the news of his death came across the wires, as related at the beginning of this article.  

Here's his Obituary from the Evanston Index from Saturday, November 8, 1902:

Charles G. Ayars

In the death of Charles G. Ayars at Orlando, Fla., Thursday, Evanston lost a citizen who had long been prominent in social and political life. Mr. Ayars had been in poor health for some time and had been spending his winters in Florida for several years.  He had been quite unwell for some time but his immediate taking off was caused by blood poisoning resulting from his hand being pricked by a thorn while plucking roses in a garden.  His body will arrive here Sunday and will be placed in a vault until Mrs. Ayars arrives which will not be for some days.  At that time funeral services will be held.

Charles G. Ayars was born seventy-two years ago in Patterson, N. J. He was the son of James Ayars, one of the well known ministers of the Methodist church.  He was educated at Rutger's college and came to Evanston in 1859.  In 1861 he removed to Lake township where he remained for ten years engaged in farming.  While residing in the town of Lake he held the positions of town clerk, and he was deputy-sheriff of Cook County from 1866 to 1874.  He returned to Evanston in 1871 and has made his home here ever since.  In 1875 he was elected county commissioner and held the position until 1881.  Mr. Ayars was in the fire insurance business for many years until poor health compelled him to give up active business life.  Mr. Ayars was a man who was always highly respected.  He was of spotless character.  Mr. Ayars was a strikingly handsome man and his genial temper and kindly ways made him friends all through life.  

He was a member of the masonic fraternity and valued his masonic ties very highly.

Mrs. Ayars who survives him was Miss Margaret Fredenburgh, and comes from one of the oldest New York families.

Mrs. Ayars had her husband's body brought back from Florida to Chicago, where it was interred in Rosehill Cemetery. 

From the Evanston Index, November 15, 1902:

Charles Gerry Ayars

The funeral services of the late Charles Gerry Ayars will be held at 3 o'clock tomorrow afternoon at the new chapel in the Rose Hill cemetery.  The services will be conducted by Evans lodge, Evanston commandery acting as an escort.  Rev. Dr. Milton S. Terry and Rev. Dr. William Macafee will assist.

What about the tale that Charles Ayars sang for Abraham Lincoln?  Did it really happen, or is it apocryphal, as so many stories about Lincoln are.

For the "rest of the story" we turn to a book entitled Abraham Lincoln's Visit to Evanston in 1860 published by Evanston's City National Bank and written by Josiah Seymour Currey, the then president of the Evanston Historical Society.   

Currey relates that Lincoln was invited to visit Evanston by his old friend Julius White who later went on to become a general in the Union Army.  At the time of Lincoln's visit, Mr. White was a member of the Chicago Board of Trade and was harbor master.  He had a home at the northwest corner of  Ridge avenue and Church street.  

Lincoln was not thrilled about a visit to Evanston.  Noted sculptor Leonard Volk (a past subject of this blog) was after Lincoln to sit for a bust of him Volk wanted to carve.  Volk later said that Lincoln told him, “I'd rather come and sit to you for the bust than go there and meet a lot of college professors and others, all strangers to me.” When Lincoln tried to beg off of the visit, Julius White wouldn't hear of it saying that all the guests for the engagement would be disappointed.

Lincoln came to Evanston on Thursday, April 5, 1860, more than three years before Evanston was officially incorporated as a city and six weeks before Lincoln was nominated to run for President of the United States.  

Lincoln was brought from Chicago to Evanston by Harvey B. Hurd, who had been designated to act as his escort.  Upon his arrival in Evanston, Lincoln was taken for a carriage ride around town by Julius White. After the ride they returned to White's house where a general invitation had been extended to the people to come in the evening and shake hands with the distinguished visitor.  The house was soon filled with visitors and Lincoln stood in front of the fireplace in the drawing room and conversed with the people as they arrived.  Lincoln was soon drawn outside by residents on the home’s front lawn, who had taken to “blowing horns, singing and shouting” and, eventually, calling for the famed orator to make a speech.  Although he had originally not wanted to make the visit, Lincoln was enough of a politician that he was quickly able to charm the crowd.  The Evanston Index reported that “He stood shaking hands with admiring friends while a stream of wit and humor, and story and laughter, came bubbling up from the great soul within."

At one point Lincoln and the assembled citizens were serenaded by a local quartet.  The particulars were related by Henry A. Pearsons, who attended the event:

"A really good quartet, led by our long-time friend and fellow citizen Charles G. Ayars, called for Lincoln's special commendation.  I recall how (Lincoln) put his arms around Ayars' shoulders and said: "Young man, I wish I could sing as well as you. Unfortunately I only know two tunes, one is "Old Hundred," and the other isn't.' "   

So now you know the story of the Evanstonian who sang for Abraham Lincoln on Lincoln's only visit to Evanston in 1860.

Charles G. Ayars - he really did sing for Lincoln - may he rest in peace.   

Special thanks to Mr. Mike Kelly for bringing this interesting Evanstonian to my attention.    

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