Rep. William Astor Chanler, Sr.

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Rep. William Astor Chanler, Sr.

Also Known As: "Willie"
Birthdate: (66)
Birthplace: Newport, Newport County, Rhode Island, United States
Death: March 4, 1934 (66)
Menton, Alpes-Maritimes, Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur, France
Place of Burial: New York, New York, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of John Winthrop Chanler and Margaret Astor Chanler
Ex-husband of Beatrice Minerva Chanler
Father of William Astor Chanler, Jr. and Sidney Ashley Chanler
Brother of John Armstrong Chanler; Winthrop Astor Chanler; Emily Astor Chanler; Elizabeth Astor Winthrop Chapman; Bessie Chanler and 7 others

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About Rep. William Astor Chanler, Sr.

William Astor Chanler (June 11, 1867 – March 4, 1934) was a soldier, explorer, and a U.S. Representative from New York, son of John Winthrop Chanler and Margaret Astor Ward. He was the great-grandson of William Backhouse Astor, Sr. and a descendent of General John Armstrong, Sr. His mother was a niece of Julia Ward Howe.

Chanler regarded it as an American obligation to be on the side of the people who fought for their independence, and during his life he participated in rebellions and independence struggles in Cuba, Libya and Somalia and provided support for insurgents in Venezuela and China.

Early life

Born in Newport, Rhode Island, Chanler had nine brothers and sisters, including the politician Lewis Stuyvesant Chanler and the artist Robert Winthrop Chanler. His sister Margaret Livingston Chanler served as a nurse with the American Red Cross during the Spanish-American War. Chanler's older brother John Armstrong Chanler married novelist Amélie Rives Troubetzkoy. Chanler and his siblings became orphans after the death of their mother in 1875 and their father in 1877, both to pneumonia. The children were raised at their parents' estate in Rokeby (Barrytown, New York). John Chanler's will provided $10,000 a year for each child for life, enough to live comfortably by the standards of the time.

Chanler attended St. John's Military Academy in Ossining, New York, then Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire, and Harvard University, which he left on his twenty-first birthday in 1888. Harvard later awarded him an honorary master's degree in 1895.

Chanler married actress Beatrice "Minnie" Ashley in New York on December 5, 1903. They had two sons, William Astor Chanler Jr. and Sidney Ashley Chanler, before separating amicably in 1909. William Astor Chanler Jr. (1904–2002) was a published historian. Sidney Ashley Chanler (1907–1994) was a public relations executive who married Princess Maria Antonia of Braganza, daughter of the Duke of Braganza, in 1934.

African explorations

Visit to Kilimanjaro, 1889-1890

A Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society of London, of the Imperial and Royal Geographical Society of Vienna, and of the American Geographical Society of New York, Chanler first visited Africa in 1889-1890 in the company of his friend Royal Phelps Carroll. They spent ten months in Maasai territory near Mount Kilimanjaro. Chanler took with him a state-of-the-art Kodak camera designed to take four thousand photos without reloading, but upon his return it was discovered that the camera had not been properly loaded with film.

After returning to the US, Chanler visited Wyoming in 1890 and became friends with Butch Cassidy, who escorted him to the Hole-in-the-Wall bandit hideout.

Journey with Von Höhnel, 1892-1894

Between 1892 and 1894 he explored the territory in the vicinity of Mount Kenya with Ludwig von Höhnel, a lieutenant in the Austrian Navy. They proceeded inland from the coast, mapping the Guasso Nyiro River, the Lorian Swamp, the Tana River, Lake Rudolph and then Lake Stefanie. They were the first westerners in this region to come into contact with the Bantu Tigania and Igembe Meru. In early February 1893 they were attacked by some 3000 warriors of the Wamsara (a subgroup of the Meru), who retreated after killing three porters.

The expedition was eventually stranded in what is now the Meru North District of Kenya because of the death of all of its 165 pack animals (probably due to trypanosomiasis) and the desertion of many of the 160 porters. On August 24, 1893 von Höhnel was gored by a rhinoceros in the groin and lower abdomen and was forced to return to Austria. Chanler himself came close to death from malaria before he finally succeeded in returning to Zanzibar. Out of about five hundred photos taken during the journey, 155 photographs taken by von Höhnel have survived.

As part of the scientific contribution of the journey, Chanler collected numerous specimens of plants and animals, including insects and a small crocodile. Many of the African animals in the American Museum of Natural History were donated by him after being collected on this expedition. Chanler's Falls on the Ewaso Ng'iro River and Chanler's Mountain Reedbuck (Redunca fulvorufula chanleri) were named for him.

In 1896, Chanler also published the first ethnographic description of the Cushitic Rendille, a community he would describe as "the most original and interesting of all the strange and different peoples met in East Africa".

Although von Höhnel and Chanler remained lifelong friends, von Höhnel considered Chanler to be reckless:

"It did not take me long to find out what an enterprising, high-spirited American Mr. Chanler was, and I realized that on this expedition I would have to be the mother of wisdom. Later on it was indeed a sight to watch my young traveling companion running risks that were not always commensurate with the object to be achieved. He often needed to be cautioned."

Political and military career

Chanler was a delegate to the Democratic State Convention at Saratoga, New York in 1896 and in 1897; and was a member of the New York State Assembly (New York Co., 5th D.) in 1898. A fervent supporter of the Cuban struggle for independence, in February 1897 he took a leave of absence in order to accompany a shipment of weapons and ammunition to the Caribbean together with Emilio Núñez. Among the guns were two M1895 Colt-Browning machine guns that Chanler had donated (Rubens states that they were Maxim-Nordenfelt guns).

Participation in the Spanish-American War

In April 1898, at the outset of the Spanish-American War, Chanler responded to President William McKinley's call for 1,250 volunteers by forming a New York regiment, with the encouragement of Theodore Roosevelt, who was hoping to lead it. Known as the "Tammany Regiment," it was to be equipped at Chanler's expense. It was disbanded in early May because the volunteer quota had already been reached. Chanler immediately volunteered his services to General Máximo Gómez and was given the rank of colonel, however on May 10, 1898, he received a commission as captain and assistant adjutant general on the staff of Major-General Joseph Wheeler. He served as acting ordnance officer, Cavalry Division, Fifth Army Corps, from May 23 to August 23, 1898. In June and July 1898 he fought in the Battle of Las Guasimas, the Battle of El Caney, San Juan Hill, and in the Siege of Santiago de Cuba, for which he received a commendation from Major General Wheeler for "gallantry in battle". He was honorably discharged on October 3, 1898.

Election to Congress

In November 1898, Chanler was elected as a Democrat to the Fifty-sixth Congress, defeating incumbent Lemuel Ely Quigg and serving as representative of New York's 14th congressional district from March 4, 1899 to March 3, 1901. During his term he introduced H.R. 9963, legislation to improve living conditions for American sailors. He was not a candidate for renomination in 1900. In 1904 he declared his candidacy for governor of New York on the Democratic / Independence League ticket but later withdrew.

First hand account recorded by Edwin Manners on August 17, 1905:

"Late this evening I went up to the Manhattan Casino. The William Astor Chanler association was holding its summer night festival and outing there. Mr. C. has explored a little in Africa: he is now exploring darkest Tammany. I noticed him, a manly young fellow, surrounded by some politicians, and while apparently a good mixer, he betrayed a subconscious pant as if the element was not just to his taste. So have I felt and bravely overcome. So I permitted the bands, that played unusually sweet music, to set me whirling almost any petticoated reveler that came to hand in the mazy dance. So I lived awhile, while others paused."

Later life

An owner of thoroughbred racehorses, Chanler raced both in the United States and in France. One of his trainers was U.S. Racing Hall of Fame inductee, Preston M. Burch. In 1896, he purchased the well-known broodmares Mannie Grey (dam of Domino), Bandala and Winona.

In 1904, Chanler purchased the yacht Sanibel on which he spent his honeymoon in the Caribbean. He is known to have invited Sun Yat-Sen aboard to discuss his plans for overthrowing the Qing Dynasty.

In 1907, Chanler filed a lawsuit for libel against newspaper owner William Randolph Hearst for printing a story which implied that Chanler had engaged in the sexual abuse of girls together with actor and comedian Raymond Hitchcock.

In 1910, with a Turkish commission as colonel of auxiliaries, Chanler went to Libya to fight for the Senussi against Italy in the Italo-Turkish War. On October 23, 1911 a unit of Arab cavalry commanded by Chanler routed Italian troops landing at Benghazi. Chanler was forced to leave the country a few days later after drinking poisoned camel's milk. In 1912, he went to Somalia and served as military adviser to Mohammed Abdullah Hassan ("Mad Mullah") against the British.

He spent considerable time in Europe and on December 8, 1913 was involved in a mysterious accident in France, injuring his right leg. Various reports suggested that Chanler had been in a car accident, or that he had been dueling with boxer Frank Moran and was shot (Chanler was backing Jack Johnson against Moran in the upcoming World Heavyweight Championship in Paris). In spite of several surgeries the injury never healed and Chanler's leg was amputated above the knee in late September, 1915.

He moved to Paris in 1920 and, encouraged by the success of his 1896 travelogue Through Jungle and Desert, he published his first novel, A Man's Game, under the pseudonym John Brent. The book was based on events in 1902 when Chanler had been involved in a plot to overthrow President Cipriano Castro of Venezuela. In 1925 he published his second novel, The Sacrifice, under the pseudonym Robert Hart, in which Jewish conspirators were planning to take over Western culture and government. Chanler's sister in law, Margaret Terry, married to his brother Winthrop, remarked in a memoir that late in life Chanler (known as "Willie" to family and friends) was "an ardent anti-Semite... [who] holds the Jews responsible for the World War" and that he "believes the Pope to be somehow run by the Jews, and many other things that cannot all be true."

Chanler died on March 4, 1934 in Menton, Alpes-Maritimes, France. His remains were returned home for interment in the Trinity Church Cemetery in New York City, near the graves of his father and grandfather.

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Rep. William Astor Chanler, Sr.'s Timeline

June 11, 1867
Newport, Newport County, Rhode Island, United States
September 24, 1904
Age 37
New York, New York, United States
November 16, 1907
Age 40
New York, New York, United States
March 4, 1934
Age 66
Menton, Alpes-Maritimes, Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur, France
New York, New York, United States