A Storybook Romance

Their marriage was called “the happy ending of a storybook romance” — she “tall and willowy, with manners of exceptional sweetness and grace” and he “soft-spoken and handsome” and “exceedingly popular.”

The groom was my fourth cousin twice removed, Joseph Swagar Sherley, known as “Swagar,”  Louisville native and son of Thomas Huffman Sherley who was a nationally prominent distiller and President of the Kentucky Distillers Association. Swagar’s bride was Mignon Critten, daughter of De Frees Critten, successful New York textile manufacturer with political connections.

Swagar Sherley was born November 28, 1871, graduated from Louisville Male High School, and earned a law degree from the University of Virginia. He returned to Louisville to open a law practice and begin what would be a life-long influence on American politics. In 1903 Swagar was elected to Congress from Kentucky’s Fifth District, ultimately serving eight consecutive terms and achieving an enviable reputation among statesmen.

The Courier-Journal wrote at his death that “[h]is speeches, relying on logic and fact, were described as masterpieces. He did not indulge in the tricks of the professional orator, but the cold logic and reasoning which went into his speeches brought members scurrying from cloakrooms in the House whenever the word passed that ‘Sherley is speaking.'” The Saturday Evening Post once listed Sherley, Representative John J. Fitzgerald of Brooklyn and Oscar Underwood as the three most brilliant men in the Democratic party.

In 1905, Congressman Sherley was invited to join a group of 80 on a congressional junket to Asia organized by then-Secretary of War William H. Taft. It was on this tour that Swagar began courting Miss Mignon Critten who had been invited on the trip because her father was a friend of Mr. Taft and she was a friend of Alice Roosevelt, daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt. Interestingly, it was also on this tour that Swagar’s colleague, Representative Nicholas Longworth, became romantically involved with Alice.


“The Loveboat” — Alice first row center, Mignon first row fifth from right.(From The Alice Roosevelt Longworth Collection of Photographs from the 1905 Taft Mission to Asia, 1905, Smithsonian Institution, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives, 1050 Independence Avenue, S.W., Washington, DC 20013-7012)


Stories of the engagements of these high-powered couples filled the society pages for months. From The Washington Post, 28 Jan 1906:

The steamer Manchuria, in its course through the white-capped Pacific last summer, left for a while the mark of its keel in the waters, which soon disappeared. The same cannot be said, however, of those invisible threads of life which were woven and strengthened by the guiding hand of fate during the comparatively short journey. An expedition designed ostensibly for diplomatic purposes developed favorable conditions for the advent of Dan Cupid, and to-day four are pledged to enter upon that mysterious path.

The [December 1905] engagement of Miss Roosevelt and Mr. Longworth is known to the world, and everywhere its possibilities are being discussed and felicitations are uttered. The engagement of Miss Mignon Critten, of Staten Island, N.Y., and Representative Swagar Sherley, of Louisville, Ky., recently made public, is another romance made possible by this Oriental tour. The handsome bride to be is the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. De Frees Critten, her father being a prominent New York business man and a friend of Mr. Taft. Mr. Sherley’s rise in the Congressional ranks has been rapid, and he is exceedingly popular with both parties. He is a member of the Metropolitan Club, of this city, and the Pendennis Club, in Louisville. Miss Critten has been the guest of her fiance’s mother, Mrs. Thomas Hoffman Sherley, at the New Willard, for the last few weeks, and during her stay here has received much pleasant attention. . . .Miss Critten is more than pretty, she is charming, and possesses a manner that at once wins the hearts of those with whom she comes in contact. Attractive, popular, and with everything to make life bright, she carried with her the best wishes of her many friends at the Capital, which in a few short weeks she will again grace with her presence.

On the same day, the Louisville Courier-Journal reported:

The toast of the hour in Washington society is Miss Mignon Critten, of “Olivecrest,” Staten Island, the unqualifiedly charming fiancee of the Hon. Swagar Sherley. Miss Critten, who is the guest at the Willard of her future mother-in-law, received with Mrs. Sherley on Tuesday afternoon, when more than two hundred prominent persons called, many diplomats among them. Mrs. Sherley wore a costume of black net pailletted. Miss Critten was girlish and lovely in a quaint toilet of rich silk, white, with large, shadowly blue flowers over it, garnished sumptuously in lace. She is tall and willowy, with manners of exceptional sweetness and grace. Countless entertainments have been arranged in honor of Mr. and Mrs. Sherley and Miss Critten. Mr. Nicholas Longworth gave them a luncheon at the Capitol, Mr. and Mrs. Herbert Parson, of New York, a dinner, Mrs. Wadsworth a luncheon to meet Mrs. George Vanderbilt, Senator and Mrs. Newlands a dinner to the four fiancees, Mr. Longworth and Miss Roosevelt, Mr. Sherley and Miss Critten; Mr. and Mrs. Severance a box party, Miss Boardman a dinner, the guests selected from the Taft party; Secretary Taft a reception in compliment to his recent campagnons de voyage, and so the gay story goes. Miss Critten will remain until February 2d, with every hour almost crowded with attentions.

joseph swagar sherley (1)

Joseph Swagar Sherley

mignon critten (1)

Mignon Critten

The wedding took place on April 21, 1906. The New York Times carried the story:

Miss Mignon Critten, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. De Frees Critten of Stapleton, R.I., and Congressman Swagar Sherley of Louisville, Ky., were married at the home of the bride’s parents yesterday afternoon.

Up to 4 o’clock, the hour set for the ceremony, it was hoped that Secretary Taft and Mrs. Taft and Representative Longworth and Mrs. Longworth would be present, but at that hour telegrams were received saying they would be unable to attend.  The telegram from Secretary Taft explained that his absence was unavoidable, owing to the pressure of business arising from the San Francisco [earthquake] disaster, and Mr. Longworth was unable to be present, the telegram said, owing to the illness of Mrs. Longworth.

Archdeacon George D. Johnson of Christ Church, New Brighton, assisted by the Rev. Frank Crowder, performed the ceremony.  The decorations included Japanese cherry blossoms, pleasantly suggestive of the Mikado’s kingdom, where Miss Critten and Mr. Sherley became engaged.  They were both members of the Taft party that visited the Far East.

The bride was given away by her father.  Her only attendant was her sister, Miss Madge Critten.  The best man was Henry Clifford Smith of Louisville, and the ushers were Arthur Peter and Louis Brownlow of Washington, D.C.; Avery Robinson of Louisville, Ky., and Jack Lory of Bears Spring, Tenn.

Among those present were Congressman John W. Gaines, Congressman W. A. Jones and Mrs. Jones of Virginia, Mrs. T. F. Sherley, Fulton Maxville, Mrs. Maxville, Mr. and Mrs. Robert W. Lewis, Sherley Lewis, and Mr. and Mrs. Lewis Nixon.

The wedding gifts included an aquamarine pendant from the members of the Taft party, a card table from Mrs. Longworth, and a loving cup from the bridegroom’s Congressional colleagues of Kentucky.

Although the Sherleys made their home in Washington, Swagar always boasted of his Kentucky birth. “I don’t get back very often, he said once, “and I have lived in the capital so long I am considered a Washingtonian, but I am and always have been a Kentuckian and my home is in Louisville.”

During Sherley’s Congressional terms, he was known for many important advances:

  • He fought for and had an important part in passing the proposal for a comprehensive budget to show the taxpayer what the Government proposed to spend in advance of the outlay.
  • He led and won the fight to fortify the Panama Canal.
  • He provided for enlargement of Government arsenals, reducing the cost of munitions 20 to 40 percent.
  • He led the fight for the Fortification Act which provided for an eight-hour day for Government arsenals.
  • He amended the Public Health Law to provide for investigation and treatment of trachoma, a plague in the Kentucky mountains.
  •  He was chairman of House Appropriations Committee in January, 1918. He supervised the largest batch of appropriation bills in history when he steered measures calling for $27,000,000,000 through the House in one session.
  • During the World War he was close to Woodrow Wilson who depended on him to whip recalcitrant members into line.

Sherley’s long Congressional service ended in 1919, broken by a Republican landslide. He opened a law office in Washington and served a year as director of the division of finance in the United States Railroad Administration. Through the years, he continued to be an advisor to the country’s leaders, particularly President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who commissioned him to supervise the formation of plans for a complete reorganization of the entire Government, aided by a number of leading economists and Government experts.

On the home front, Swagar and Mignon had five children, all of whom were born in Kentucky, evidence of Swagar’s continuing ties to his home state.

mignon sherley and children (1)

Swagar Sherley died at the age of 69, on February 13, 1941, at Jewish Hospital in Louisville. His death was attributed to fluid build-up around the heart and brain following a prostatectomy. His gravestone in Cave Hill Cemetery reads: “Behold the upright man, for the end of that man is peace.”

Mignon lived 28 more years in Washington, DC, to the age of 91.


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