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Odd Wisconsin Archive

The Congressman's Gold Teeth

Isaac Van Schaick (1817-1901) came to Milwaukee in 1861 to help run his brother-in-law's flour mill. He got rich, and was well-liked; the secret to his success, he later said, was "being one of the boys."

A Politician Liberal with His Money

In 1871 the boys in Milwaukee persuaded him to run for the Common Council, and two years later he began representing them in Madison. Although he served in the State assembly 1873-1875 and in the State senate 1877-1882, he claimed, "I never liked politics. I was not a politician and I never ran for office because I wanted to. I always ran to please somebody else." He refused to campaign by the accepted method of stump speeches. "I never tried to make a speech," he said. "Speeches don't count for much. I got out among the boys and I spent my money freely; that is how I won."

The Republican boys in Milwaukee discovered that Van Schaick was virtually unbeatable. "They tried me once and found I could win. Then they dragged me in whenever there was a hard fight and when I was in, I tried to win -- and I did."

Dental Inhibitions

Van, as he was known to the local press, was as successful at getting bills passed as he was in winning elections, though under the Capitol dome he also kept his mouth shut in public. "I didn't make any speeches but I got my bills through, and lots of the speech-makers used to come to me to help them get their bills through, too."

One reason he might have disliked speeches was the state of his teeth. All the early portraits of Van Schaick show him with his mouth closed. The press speculated that, having lived his whole life on the frontier and devoted all his time to his business, he'd simply neglected his dental care.

Off to Washington – and New Teeth

So in 1884, when he learned he was to take a seat in Washington, D.C. among the country's leading statesmen, Van Schaick felt he ought to address the problem. He went to a specialist in Milwaukee who was one of only three dentists in the country that could do bridge and crown work. The doctor discovered quite a lot of such work to do, labored enthusiastically on the Congressman's mouth, and sent a bill for hundreds of dollars to Van Schaick's office down at the mill.

One of the boys at the mill thought it would be a great joke to give the bill to the newspapers, and show the world how much Van Schaick's vanity had cost him.

The press had a field day. The story ran not just in Milwaukee but around the nation, and some speculated that the congressman would have to be constantly on guard against muggers due to the treasure he carried around in his mouth.

Good-natured Van took it all in stride, feeling he'd got his money's worth. When he needed a little dental work back East a few years later, the dentist assured him that the same work in Washington or Baltimore would have cost him at least $2,000.

Van Schaick took his seat in the House on March 4, 1885, served one term, took the next off, and then served another, 1889-1891, before retiring to a Baltimore suburb where he died on August 22, 1901.

:: Posted in Odd Lives on November 7, 2012
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