1915 was a year of turmoil and conflict. On the other side of the world a great war to end all wars was decimating European cities. The assassination on June 28 1914 of heir to the Austria-Hungarian throne, Archduke Francis Ferdinand by Serbian extremist Gavrilo Princip triggered the outbreak, although the rise of European nationalism accompanied by build-up of military might – in both weapons and great armies – had been brewing for over a hundred years. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on July 28, setting in motion a series of domino effects triggered by historic alliances between the countries and empires of Europe. Germany entered the war because of an alliance with Austria-Hungary. Serbia drew upon alliances with Russia, which sought support from France. As the German army swept through Belgium on its way to France, England entered the war to support Belgium. A bitter trench warfare saw millions of men on both sides fighting in appalling conditions, knee-deep in mud, bitterly cold, ill-fed, living and dying side by side sometimes mere metres from the enemy trenches. By the time this war was over, the scene had already been set for a second war to end all wars.
America watched anxiously as the ancestral homes of its various immigrant populations threw themselves into the Great War – the war to end all wars. Travel to the courts and society of Europe was curtailed, although some hardy souls felt it unnecessary to avoid England and the Atlantic crossings continued. American President Woodrow Wilson advocated an isolationist policy, seeing no reason to involve the new world in the implosion of the old world, and most politicians and civilians agreed with him. Some young men travelled to England and volunteered to fight alongside the British in the defence of the realm, but when a German submarine torpedoed passenger liner Lusitania, drowning thousands of American civilians off the coast of Ireland, the war came to America as well. The decoding of the so-called “Zimmermann note”, from German Ambassador to Mexico Arthur Zimmerman, which showed that Germany was urging Mexico to declare war on the US further strengthened the argument to join.
As Europe seethed, the Silverthornes and their extended family were also undergoing traumatic events. Alice, age 16 and home from school for the holidays, attempted suicide. While the details of the attempt have been hidden for the best part of a century, it is probable she took an overdose of the drugs and medication commonly prescribed in those days for a number of ailments.
Alice survived relatively unscathed, but the tissue of lies and deception that had been their happy and privileged family life was torn apart, dramatically changing the lives of all concerned. Suicide was as shocking then as now and for one so young, beautiful and privileged, in the background of Edwardian-era religious belief, was a deep wound to the family. Something was seriously wrong.
While Alice had a flair for the dramatic, this was both a serious attempt and a cry for help. Alice retired to the family home and apologies were made for social engagements, claiming illness. Given her mother’s fatal illness and the known contagion of consumptive illness, few outside the family suspected anything else could be wrong and sympathy was extended from afar. She was left to recuperate in peace – alone with her torment.
The extended family moved as one to eliminate this threat to Alice and the family name. Half-guessed truths and suspicions were finally aired and an awful story came to light. Allegations of incest and child abuse were laid at the door of her father. Whether they were true or not was barely the point – they spread like wildfore, as opnly the juiciest and most scandalous rumours can. The years of business trips to Europe unaccompanied by Louise, the stories of European nightclubs, inappropriate adult attire and cocktails, public drunkenness were put together and quickly hushed. For the sake of Alice’s future and that of the family it was important that such stains on the public good name be hidden. A young girl may be the victim in such situations but it was still seen as lowering her value on the marriage market and that was the only future open to girls from wealthy families. Paid work was strictly for the lower classes and spinsterhood was a poor second option, particularly spinsterhood with accompanied reputation.
Alice was withdrawn from Rosemary Hall over the holidays with no explanation given. She was made a ward of her maternal uncle Simeon Brooks Chapin (married to Louise’s sister Elizabeth), although she never lived with him and his family. Instead she moved back to Chicago to live with her two aunts, the widowed Alice Chapin May and Josephine Chapin and was enrolled in a finishing school near Washington. From this point on she listed her home address as with her aunts.
It can’t have been easy for these ladies (aged 35 and 25 respectively) to suddenly assume responsibility for the health, guidance and future of a troubled teenager, but they made the sacrifice. They were extremely close to Alice her whole life, visiting her regularly in her adulthood, even when she lived on a different continent. They would stand by her during the worst of her future public humiliation and notoriety, accompanying her to court and defending her reputation in the papers – even as they disliked even seeing their names in print. As they had loved her mother Julia, they loved and protected Alice, always providing her with a stable base and loving family. She had found safe harbour.
Poor Louise Mattocks Silverthorne was pregnant and gave birth to a daughter Patricia, during this time. Her only solace was that, unlike her mother’s humiliation, the disgrace was not publicly known. Privately she was tormented. The rumours that her husband had forsaken her for another – her own step-daughter – were everywhere. She had not suspected anything (or had she dismissed the suspicions as too terrible to give credence?) Meanwhile she was pregnant and had one small child and was not in a position to consider leaving her husband – particularly without making the disgrace known.
Louise also loved Alice and it cannot have escaped her notice how tormented she had become, how inappropriate she was for a girl of her age in an era of chaperoning, how her clothing and manner was too adult for the child she should have been. Some rumours had it that Louise was the one who found Alice after the overdose, a truly shocking experience for anyone. Louise was tied to William, for better, for worse, at least for the time being.
The family counsel met and decided how to handle the crisis. William, Louise and their growing family were exiled to Connecticut. William resigned from Western Felt Works and sold his shares to his brother in law Henry Faurot. This was the beginning of financial and social decline for the Silverthornes.
Alice never saw or spoke to her father again.
“de poetas y locos todos tenemos un poco”
we all have the traits of poets and of mad people
A PRIVATE ROOM IN EXCLUSIVE MUTHAIGA CLUB, COLONIAL AFRICA IN THE 1920S.
A sensuously beautiful woman leans casually against a wall strumming her mandolin, watching her friends banter over who she will sleep with tonight. What it is to be in demand! Her long pale fingers play seductively over the strings of her mandolin in the half-light. Plucking them slowly, one at a time, she taunts her audience with her low siren song:
“A is for Alice, a doubtful shot,
B for the boy she so nearly got
C is for C-B always demure
D is for Delamere, upright and pure
E is for Eileen the catch of the season
F is the fucking we like with good reason…”
This scene from the movie White Mischief is what the world remembers of Alice Silverthorne de Janze de Trafford. In various books and movies of the era she is the symbol of the orgiastic lifestyle of Kenya’s Happy Valley community during the 1920s and 1930s. She is remembered as the friend of the promiscuous and much-married Idina Sackville Wallace Gordon Hay (Erroll) Haldeman Soltau and as the lover of Idina’s murdered former husband Joss, Earl of Erroll. An after-thought of history.
During her life Alice was notorious as the “fastest gun in the Gare du Nord “, the beautiful young American-born countess who shot her lover then married him. What sort of woman would inspire a man to pledge undying love to her after she has very nearly mortally wounded him? Alice, it seems, inspired considerable loyalty in her men under any circumstances.
“It’s no use; I always get my own way. I always take what I want and throw it away when I like; don’t forget this ever, I hate repetition….”
Comte Frederic de Janze attributed these words to his former wife, Chicago heiress Alice Silverthorne, a year after she had “thrown him away” in a manner that made headlines on both sides of the Atlantic. Public humiliation did not prevent him from defending her in a Parisian court, beseeching the judge not to sentence Alice to jail time. Her victim had recovered from his injuries sufficiently to tell the court that the shooting was his fault. He was severely reprimanded for his troubles.
Alice’s charm however has not lasted through subsequent generations. While researching this book, one of her grandsons Guillaume de Rougemont wrote me that she was “an unhappy, insecure and deeply selfish manic depressive, who ended her own life after abandoning and totalling neglecting her two young children”. While there certainly is something that made Alice act as she did and she was deeply unhappy at periods in her life, I am not sure it is as simple or easy to explain. He goes on to say that his mother (Paola) would never admit that Alice had abandoned her “because the truth is too painful”. Indeed, my research has not turned up a single negative comment about Alice by either of her daughters.
Most of Alice’s generation is gone now. They were a generation who died young through the attrition of war, drugs, suicide and occasionally murder. A few of the younger generation still survive. They remember Alice as a true friend, a fascinator, the life of the party and in times of war, a true patriot who threw off her hedonistic lifestyle and rushed into uniform to do her part for her adopted country, dirtying her privileged hands in the blood and disease of critically wounded soldiers.
Countless Silverthorne and Armour relatives still claim Alice as kin. Many of them never met their famous relative, but they hoarded precious newspaper clippings on the Countess of Chicago, carefully tucked between the pages of books or slipped into family photograph albums for 6 or 8 decades.
In fact, despite the scandalous newspaper coverage of the time, no-one who actually knew Alice has a bad word to say about her. They speak of her kindness, her wit, her beauty, her passion for animals and her distress at injustice, particularly cruelty to animals. They also speak of her sadness, the melancholia that pursued her through four decades and three continents.
The search for Alice started in the thriving metropolis of Chicago in the beginning of the 20th Century, a time of speak-easies, prohibition and gangsters. A time when society took itself very seriously and scandals were to be hushed up at all costs.
Then across the Atlantic to Paris between the wars, the time of Hemingway and Stein, the American “lost generation” of artists and writers who sought inspiration in the euphoria sweeping the newly liberated Paris. And to the jazz age London of the Bright Young Things, wealthy glamorous twenty-somethings too young to have taken part in the horrors of the Great War but old enough to feel its apocalyptic reach as it decimated a generation of young men – their older brothers, friends and lovers. The nihilistic hopelessness it engendered in the generation that followed made them reckless and numb – in search of a thrill, something to make them feel alive, unsure why they lived when so many died. They sought their excitement in juvenile pranks and hi-jinks played upon the background of post-war London, Paris and the Riviera.
And to the colonial outpost that was British East Africa, a place of hard working settlers eking out a living from a land they had barely begun to understand. The beautiful and cruel landscape of eastern Africa, vast plains dotted with thorn trees and startlingly high mountains covered in jungle and topped with snow, inhabited by animals so bizarre and exotic when compared to the domesticated beasts of northern America and Europe. This was what drew Alice, her husbands, her lovers and her friends. This was the land that offered them a second chance, the opportunity to create a new society, a utopia, far from the censorious eyes of family and society. This was the land that ultimately destroyed them – or allowed them to destroy themselves.
And finally, a tragedy. A tragedy that drove Alice across oceans and continents, drive her to wild, impetuous and ultimately fatal actions. A tragedy that made it all comprehensible.
To call it madness is too simple.
Yesterday I received a treat in the mail.
To start at the beginning, some number of years ago when I started researching Alice’s story, I rapidly assembled a list of “core texts” that I needed to be able to read. (I should add in here that the reference and bibliography sections of books are a great way of finding your way back to the original texts, both books and newspaper articles. Often they will also include the details of people interviewed as well. As I have an academic background, I am very keen on these sources, and on getting as close to the original source as possible.)
Chief in my list of core texts were the two books by Alice’s first husband, Vicomte Frederic de Janze. Frederic died aged 33 do there is no chance of getting an interview with him, so texts that he has written are the next best thing to the original source.
The first book, Vertical Land, is extensively quoted in White Mischief (Fox) and The Life and Death of Lord Erroll (Trzebinski), and pretty much any other book that touches on the Happy Valley set in Kenya. The second book, Tarred with the Same Brush, also deals with thinly veiled portraits of the Happy Valley set, and their activities.
Both are incredibly rare and difficult to get hold of.
I eventually tracked down (with the assistance of Errol Trzebinksi and Frances Osborne, author of The Bolter ) a copy of Vertical Land in the Reading room at the London Library. I was able, for a small fee, to get this transferred to the local State Library, where I was allowed to read it in their reading room and make notes. Needless to say I took so many notes and quotes I probably should have just written it out in longhand. As it is now out of copyright, it has been put online at Project Gutenberg and can be read in full here.
Tarred with the Same Brush remained elusive, although the lovely Frances Osborne sent me a photocopy of her copy. While some of the text is difficult to understand without the background knowledge of to whom it refers, and the knowledge that they are real events being recounted, albeit somewhat disguised to protect the guilty. It is only a pity he didn’t write about the shooting and court case as it would have been fascinating to hear his thoughts about what was happening with his ex-wife.
I had previously set up a number of searches through websites such as Alibris and Biblioz. These searches had managed to find a number of other rare books for me (including Oserian: Place of Peace, a private publishing by Charles Hayes, which contains a fascinating treasure-trove of stories).
To my great surprise, Alibris finally turned up gold! An ex-library copy of Tarred with the Same Brush, and at a reasonable price. And it arrived in the mail yesterday – a tattered maroon book stamped throughly inside and out with the markings of various libraries, slightly yellowed pages, the occasional ripped page or marked page. Much as I love the cheapness of e-books, it really isn’t the same as holding a real book in your hands.
I am now settling down to read the original text, dredging my memory to remember which name represents which person, fitting together the stories with the real events.
Small things can cause such excitement!
PS: Another useful resource is Open Library.
While you may be fascinated by the subject of your research, unless you can find a story – with a hook – you are not going to get published.
Of course, this may not be your aim. You may be reconstructing a family history for your own pleasure or your family’s information. All equally valid.
But if you want to be read – even by a tolerant and cooperative family – you need to tell your story.
Lists of dates and facts – while interesting to you, and representing the result of hours, days, months of dedicated and creative research – are not that interesting to read. The excitement you felt when you tracked down some hard-to-find little gem of research does not usually translate to excitement in the reader. You have to assume that your average reader is not as obsessed with your subject as you are. They need to be wooed.
Is your story going to be chronological? Or are you going to start with the most dramatic part and then go back in time to show how the subject got to that point? Is there a dramatic part? Too many flashbacks can be confusing unless really well handled.
The best advice I ever received (from Frances Osborne, author if Lilla’s Feast and The Bolter, both about her ancestresses. She said “write with passion”.
It took me a while to work out what that meant to me. My natural writing style has been subjugated over the years into something the cross between a university essay and a government report. Excellent for presenting dry facts and a logical argument but not great for writing a biography.
Write with passion didn’t mean overly flowery detail, emotive words, embroidered prose. It meant entering into the spirit of the subject, the spirit of the times and telling the story from her perspective, even if it was written in third person, not first.
I’m still working on it.
When they took the air on the streets of New York, the handsome widower William and his beautiful daughter attracted admiring glances from the ladies of the town. When William travelled for work, Alice went with him, charming his business contacts with her pretty smile. She was dressed always in the best and most beautiful of children’s clothes, lace and ribbons pulling her shiny dark hair off her face, making the most of her grave eyes and serious demeanour.
She posed a considerable business advantage for William even at this early age, her shy smile and beautiful violet eyes charming the gruff businessmen. Canny Scotsman that he was in his genes and in his heart, William encouraged her and pressed his advantage.
While she spent most of her time with her father and governess, Alice was not without friends her own age. Alice’s Armour, Chapin and Faurot relatives doted on her and she became very close with her cousins Lolita Armour, Elizabeth Chapin and Julia Belle Faurot, with whom she visited and sometimes stayed. Their playgrounds were the mansions of Chicago’s newly rich and the country estates with mile-long drive ways, balconies and porticos, marble floors and grand staircases – places for hiding and places for fairytales – playing princess, waiting to be rescued by a handsome prince. The little girls attended the theatre and horse shows together, competing and applauding each other’s achievements, clapping politely as they watched Lolita’s mother, Chicago grand dame Mrs J Ogden Armour, present rosettes and ribbons to the winners.
Alice travelled with her father when his work took him overseas, charming his hosts and gaining an understanding and intimate knowledge of the world that many adults would envy. In 1908 they sailed to meet destiny in the form of a beautiful American woman in Paris. Little did Alice know that Paris would play such an important part in her life, the scene of the happiest, most dramatic and devastating chapters of her life. The trip to Paris in 1908 was just another journey to the already world-weary nine-year old.
A single, wealthy man, charming and glamorous with a hint of tragedy in his demeanour, William Silverthorne was a popular figure on the social scene, successful with the ladies. He was considered very eligible. Mothers lined up to introduce him to their daughters. He took as his second wife Chicago beauty Esther Louise Mattocks (known as Louise), who according to their daughter Patricia , had been on the stage – a fairly risque thing for the times when the word actress was another name for prostitute. Louise was lucky though – her provenance saved her from such gossip. She was the great-grand-daughter of the former Governor of Vermont, John Mattocks, after whom her father had been named.
She was described as one of the great beauties of the Mid-West in the late 1890s and her beauty had been praised in magazines and newspapers under the heading “Women of Peerless Beauty”. She had beautiful eyes and an elegant profile, her hair bobbed and layered in a flapper style, waves of shiny chestnut hair framing her face. Louise was considered a catch, although the society papers congratulated her on stealing a march on her peers when she announced her engagement to William Silverthorne.
Louise Mattocks was in Paris with her mother, Mrs SF Dickinson, formerly Mrs Sarah Mattocks. They were putting distance between them and a scandal brewing back home where Louise’s mothers’ second husband, Colonel Dickinson was reported to be quite publicly enjoying the company of a female guest in the unfortunately named French Lick Springs, far from the restrictive eyes of his wife. Mrs Dickinson could not pretend she didn’t know about the affair – it was reported in the newspapers and was a topic of excited gossip and exaggerated sympathy amongst her friends and neighbours. The European holiday allowed her to avoid having the shame rubbed in her face every day.
While the tour of the Continent was a panacea for Mrs Dickinson’s woes, she had other pressing issues on her mind. Her daughter, whose beauty had been trumpeted in magazines, was still unmarried and unattached at age 32. After more than a decade of the humiliation of attending her friends’ weddings as an endless bridesmaid, Mrs Dickinson took Louise to Paris to seek a husband in fresh grounds. Here Louise’s brief flirtation with the stage was unknown and eligible young men were said to be looking for the clean looks and style – not to mention fortune – that an American girl could offer. Her wilful nature would be seen as the fresh American attitude and energy to revitalise tired blood-lines in the old world.
As often happens when travelling abroad, they found themselves with friends from home and fate came for Louise in the form of William Silverthorne.
William and Louise had known each other since Louise was a young girl. Her sister Elizabeth was married to Simeon Brooks Chapin, brother of William’s first wife, Julia Belle Chapin. Why had they not been matched in America? Possibly they were just not in the same city at the same time. But probably Louise Mattock’s mother had higher ambitions for her beautiful daughter than a widowed older (he was 41 when they married) relation already encumbered by a child. Like many an upper middle class mother, she was probably seeking a young man with a fortune, the scion of an old family, not somebody else’s leftovers. One daughter had already married into the Chapin family. But despite her charms and attractions Louise had not managed to catch such a trophy and matters were more desperate now. Rather than return from Paris with her spinster daughter in tow, William Silverthorne must have seemed the ideal solution. He was still handsome, charming and wealthy. And the child Alice was adorable and engaging if somewhat spoilt.
William and Louise were married in Paris within a couple of months of being reintroduced. Nine-year old Alice accompanied them on their honeymoon. Mrs and Mrs WE Silverthorne and (child) Silverthorne signed the manifest of the Kaiserin Augusta Victoria, sailing from Southampton and arriving in New York on September 12 1908. They were just in time to celebrate Alice’s ninth birthday on American soil. The bride was listed (incorrectly) as being 40 years old.
How did young beautiful and wilful Louise Mattocks find being a stepmother? Alice had been the apple of her father’s eye, the centre of his world, doted upon by a large family and servants, all trying to make up for the sadness of her mother’s death. The household revolved around keeping her entertained and happy. William took his daughter on business trips and overseas, dressing her in sophisticated lace dresses and exhibiting her at European nightclubs, much to the disapproval of the Armour family and the mothers of Alice’s friends.
Accounts written later in Alice’s life say that Louise Mattocks Silverthorne put her foot down to curb Alice’s spoilt ways. Whatever their difficulties at the time of their marriage, in later years however they were seen to be very close. In the 1920’s and 1930’s Louise Mattocks Silverthorne crossed the Atlantic to be nearer to Alice and lived next door to her in London for a time while her children got an English education. Louise’s daughter Patricia says that her mother had wanted her to be like her glamorous half sister Alice, encouraging her in her own romance with a French nobleman.
As an adult Alice was less like her quiet dutiful mother and much more like her headstrong stepmother, who had taken risks with her reputation and enjoyed herself. Alice also took risks, following her heart and experiencing great emotional heights of love and passion – and the depths of despair, betrayal and depression. While the newspapers peddled the wicked stepmother story, printing column inches on how Louise had been jealous of Alice, in fact they were close, and Louise supported her emotionally through the trials that dogged Alice in her later life and brought her notoriety on three continents.
Louise Mattocks became pregnant within two years of her marriage and produced a baby. After the long barrenness of his first marriage with the invalid Julia, this must have seemed a good omen for William. The new baby also cemented Louise’s maternal position in the family, no longer there at William’s pleasure, but now a mother by inarguable right. Did Alice understand this?
Pregnancy was a lottery at the best of times in this time. Inadequate medical care could provide neither pain relief nor life saving procedures. Infant and maternal deaths were common. Louise and William’s joy at the birth of their new baby turned to grief when the infant ailed and died quickly, unnamed and unbaptised. In an age when it was thought best that the mother forget and move on rather than grieve for a lost babe, even this baby’s gender has been obliterated by uncaring time.
In 1912 another baby was born. He was a healthy strong baby boy and was named William Edward after his father. Then another tragedy in 1914, a daughter, Victoria Louise also died in infancy.
In all Louise bore five babies, half brothers and sisters for Alice. Only two survived to adulthood. Two died in infancy and one died age 5 years. In an era of high infant mortality this was not an uncommon occurrence (although 60% mortality was significantly high) but each eagerly anticipated and blessed birth ending with a tiny wooden coffin lying on the church altar and lowered into the cold New York earth was no doubt a tragedy for both Louise and William. Alice, age 11 when the first baby died was aware of what was happening, a harsh lesson on the facts of life before antibiotics and vaccines when illnesses now considered trivial could easily claim the life of even the strongest baby.
The teenage Alice was bored at home. As an only child she had no great interest in babies. Her half-siblings were considerably younger than she and while they provided some distraction, they were not companions to her. The constant pregnancies and growing brood meant Louise Silverthorne was not travelling with William for business, but remained at home.
Alice resumed travelling with her father, travelling to Europe where he dressed her in lace and took her to nightclubs where she developed a taste for cocktails. She was reported to be seen walking a panther in a diamond studded collar down the streets of Paris, then beginning to develop its reputation as a city of sin. These were not seen as appropriate activities for an American girl in her early teenage years.
Prior to World War One, the Great War, Europe seemed a long way away from America. However, gossip travels quickly even across water, and reports of Alice’s inappropriate activities travelled back from Europe to Louise Silverthorne waiting at home with her infant son and successive pregnancies. When it started to be reported in newspapers she was not able to dismiss the gossip so easily.
Louise put her foot down and deemed it no longer appropriate for Alice to travel as her father’s companion. Instead she was sent away to school. No record remains of her early years so this seems to have been her first school. She attended Rosemary Hall, now part of Choate Rosemary Hall, from 1913-1915. The all-girls environment was considered a safe place to park her while William and Louise concentrated on their infant son and expanding their brood.
Their choice of school was interesting and non-traditional, looking to the future and recognising the talents and potential of their daughter, reflecting the influence of the very modern Louise Mattocks Silverthorne on her step-daughter’s education. Rosemary Hall in Greenwich Connecticut had been established by the notable Caroline Ruutz-Rees. A prominent member of the National Women’s Suffrage Movement, Miss Ruutz-Rees taught her students to be career women as well as wives, to practice “feminism by indirection”. She drew on the traditions of English education from her own girlhood to model a school unlike any other of the time. She established the wearing of uniforms in a time when this was not usually a requirement at girls’ schools .
The philosophy that she tried to impart to students was to ‘shoot straight, speak the truth and have a regard for intellectual life’ , a philosophy that imprinted itself on the adolescent Alice. Many of the school virtues would later be used to describe Alice – she was unafraid, hated injustice, and despised dishonesty.
The school catered for approximately one hundred students, all but a handful boarders. Alice shared a twin bedroom with another girl in the junior cottage of twelve girls. They shared a sitting room and were supervised by a teacher and serviced by maids who lived on the school grounds. The following year when she returned from summer holidays just prior to her 15th birthday, she was in a cottage with the older girls.
The school had a rigorous academic curriculum centre around English, Latin and Mathematics with Science (Physics, Chemistry, Botany, Physiology), German, History, Drawing, French, Sight-singing, Diction, History of Art, and Landmarks in European Civilisation. The schedule of activities ran from rising at 6.55am to retiring at 9.30pm with lessons from 8.35 to 9.15pm, six days a week with Wednesday and Saturday afternoons off from 2.15pm onwards. Certainly a more structured and rigorous life than Alice was used to.
Students were encouraged to participate in all the sports for which they were considered fit – there is no indication that they ever managed to tempt Alice onto the hockey fields! However there was also an open-air riding ring with an instructor skilled in dressage and jumping, gymnastics and dancing, and in winter, ice-skating and tobogganing. Perhaps these were more to Alice’s taste.
Alice bloomed. She perfected the flawless French that would stand her in such good stead in Parisian Society and put some cultural context to her wide travels with her father. She discovered her literary and musical talents – she was a gifted guitarist, developed her singing and took part in the glee club. She was elected an editor on the school magazine, the surrealistically named “?” (Question Mark). A photograph of the school editorial committee shows a group of solid respectable girls dressed identically in school uniform forming two straight rows. At the rear on the left, slightly out of step with the other girls, stands Alice. She has her tie pulled down and slightly askew so her collar hangs open, and she looks slightly amused comapred to some of the serious countenances of some of the other girls. Her unusually symmetrical beauty is visible. The bland school uniform, designed to eliminate identity and sublimate any budding sexuality was inadequate for the task of making Alice conform. She looks chic. But she also looks mischievous.
The magazine was a passion for her, something she was good at and was really interested in. Artistic pursuits were a reasonable talent for a girl to pursue before her marriage and later use to entertain her husband, so they met with the approval of her family. Alice submitted prose and poetry articles for her school magazine even after she had left the school. One sentimental piece tells of a child watching the silver moonbeams dancing on a lake and fantasising it is a dead mother come to visit, making Daddy cry. Another, a lullaby inspired by Kipling’s City of Sleep, tells of an idyllic land of dreams where sadness and boundaries fade away and dreamers drift along on a silvery sea surrounded by petals of roses and violets. The emotions of adolescence, mixed with a sadness and longing for the mother she had barely known mixed with darker sorrows and knowledge that a young girl oughtn’t have known were already surfacing in Alice, setting a course for a tempestuous emotional life.
The school aimed to prepare the girls for college education whilst providing a “thoroughly liberal” education. No girl was allowed to graduate without qualifying for admission to college under the Bryn Mawr College Entrance Examination and Rosemary Hall also had certificating privileges for those students who elected to attend Smith or Vassar. Despite the choice of school Alice was not destined for the world of academia. She left Rosemary Hall suddenly, the summer before her sixteenth birthday, prior to the examinations, to attend a finishing school in the Washington area. Perhaps she had decided academia was not for her.
Something that happened over the holidays changed her course, something that had been brewing for some time and finally came to a head in a way that could no longer be ignored or hidden from the family and society at large. The same traumatic events that would haunt her life and her relationships and drive a wedge between her father and herself, made her want to run away.
(c) copyright reserved
If you are lucky, your biographic subject, their friends, relatives and times, might appear in books, newspapers and magazines.
However, unless you are researching someone who is currently famous, these resources may be difficult to find. Here are a few hints I came across.
1. Newspaper archives. As mentioned, the wonderful newspaperarchive.com has an increasing number of papers from all around the world, and going back over a hundred years. They are also searhable by key word. This remains problematic in tracking down references to women who are oftend referred to as “Mrs John Smith” rather than their own name “Eleanor Smith” (for example). Also, if your subject has a common (popular!) name, this can be difficult.
Other newspapers also have their archives on line.
2. Magazines. These are much harder to find. Few magazine archives seem to exist, with the exception of Time and Life (online). A number of magazines articles I came across were sent to me by family archivists and geneology buffs.
3. Advertisements, postcards and other ephemera. These turn up on ebay from time to time, particularly if you have a topic of popular interest. For instance, Armour and Co. advertising material is frequently for sale. Postcards of towns are also for sale – handy if you are trying to get some idea of how a town looked many years ago.
4. Books. Amazon has an excellent second-hand book seller option, which often has items for sale very cheaply. In additon, some of the harder to find books can be sought through online searches at Alibris.com and Biblioz. Both of these take your details and the details of the book and then set up a permanent search.
5. Libraries often have books and newspapers – but you may have to go there to get them. Alternatives can be to get your local library to borrow it for you on an interlibrary loan, or to purchase copies of microfiche. Some libraries offer this, others don’t.
6. Geneology groups, family groups often have someone who is the collector of family history, particularly if there is someone notorious or famous in the family tree. They may have already collected the items you are after. Family may be happy to loan you items, providing you are not unearthing their family skeletons! If you are, then be aware you may only be given access to the items they want you to see.
7. Google. Don’t overlook Google as an excellent source of leads in tracking down items. Many of the online forums have buffs who are excellent sources of information, and of resources.
Alice’s uncle Henry Faurot played an integral part in the Silverthorne family fortunes that would shape Alice’s inheritance. As well as marrying Catherine Silverthorne, he was a partner in the Silverthorne businesses. Through his work with PD Armour he identified the opportunity that resulted in the Western Felt Works, the industry that provided serious money to the Silverthorne brothers and set them up in an industry that would survive the changes happening in the early twentieth century.
But most importantly, it was Henry Faurot who provided the introduction between the nouveau riches William Edward Silverthorne, his brother in law, and Julia Belle Faurot, the beautiful and delicate grand-daughter of PD Armour, lion of the Chicago social register. In 1892 William Silverthorne made a familial coup with his marriage to Julia, PD Armour’s grand-daughter through his only daughter Marietta and her meatpacker husband Emery D Chapin.
While Julia’s daughter Alice would garner thousand of column inches across the newspapers of three continents, front page headlines and multi-page feature articles with photographic spreads, Julia Belle Chapin Silverthorne barely rated a mention in the newspapers of the time. Julia’s mother Marietta Armour Chapin, an Armour heiress no less, likewise adhered to the strict Edwardian code that a lady’s name should only appear in print at her birth, marriage, birth of children and death. Indeed, so scrupulous in their observance of this code were Julia and Marietta, that many of these events also passed unmarked by the social chroniclers of the day.
Marietta had been brought up in the grandeur of the Armour’s South Michigan Avenue mansion, a huge dark Gothic structure half covered in ivy. Her life was carefully controlled, chaperoned and insulated from the harsh realities of her father’s business ventures. As an only daughter, her role in life was to make an advantageous match. Her reputation had to be absolutely beyond reproach. With her father in industry, there were too many strikes against her marrying into the old families of the social establishment already.
Wrought iron fences and gates surrounded the Armour city mansion, keeping reality at arm’s length. Visitors would drive up to the portico, where the butler was waiting to assist them to alight, protected from the harsh Chicago weather, and the grime and poverty of the Chicago streets. Above the portico, a large balcony afforded a view of the wide tree-lined avenue while in fine weather passing carriages could watch Marietta and her friends, parading in the fashionable pale colours of debutantes, taking in the pale afternoon sunlight in sharp relief against an arch of stained-glass. On either side, massive semi-circular bay windows extended up three floors to the domed roof. Below, basement windows peeked above the manicured grass. The house bore every possible embellishment to make it more imposing on a grand scale. PD Armour needed to make a statement of position and power and the Armour mansion dominated in this respect.
Marietta was the third of the four children of Phillip Danforth Armour and his wife, the formidable Juliana Brooks Armour. Despite the conspicuous wealth, Marietta was brought up to be modest, thrifty and to marry well. While her brothers learned about running businesses, Marietta was taught how to run a household by her efficient, no-nonsense mother. She was well provided for in her marriage but the bulk of the Armour fortune had remained intact and with the early death of PD Armour Jnr, the eldest son, the money, businesses and properties passed to the next son Jonathon Ogden Armour under the strict laws of primogeniture. PD Armour had been uncertain of the abilities of his second son to keep the business afloat and even went so far as to proscribe the next two generations of inheritance. The new world may have valued a meritocracy but in terms of keeping fortunes together, they recognised the benefits of the old ways.
Marietta could not have pleased her father more with her choice of husband. Emery David Chapin had the entrepreneurial streak that Armour valued. In 1856 he had established a wholesale grocery business in Milwaukee, but returned to Chicago and in 1880 was engaged in the pork packing firm of Chapin and Cudahy. The meatpacking industry had been very good to PD Armour and there was no reason to expect it would not likewise support his daughter and any offspring in comfort. While the Chapins were also in industry they had a greater claim to the establishment. Emery was the grandson of John Putnam Chapin, 8th Mayor of Chicago and a descendant of Deacon Samuel Chapin, a founding father of Springfield Massachusetts whose contributions to the community are memorialised with a statue in Court Square Springfield.
Armour’s faith was on shaky ground though. Chapin’s dealings as a Board of Trade operator were less successful than the meat industry and when he died in 1882 he left Marietta $40,000 of unpaid debts. Julia’s brother, Simeon Brooks Chapin, only a schoolboy at the time of his father’s death, paid his father’s estate’s debts in full in 1900, much to the surprise of the creditors who had long since given up on seeing their money. Family honour was restored.
(More on the life of Simeon Brooks Chapin is available here.)
Despite Emery’s poor financial position at his death, his widow Marietta Chapin left an estate of $500,000 when she died fifteen years after him in 1897, perhaps due to her family’s inheritance. (Julia Chapin Silverthorne received $50,000 plus a division of the balance of her mother’s estate after other gifts.)
Marietta and Emery had three surviving children, Alice (December 28th 1858), Simeon Brooks (May 31st 1865) and Julia Belle (August 14th 1871). (There were two other live births, Florence born March 3rd 1861 and died in infancy and Henry Franklin born April 6th 1863 and died age 9 in 1872.) By all accounts they were a close family. Julia named her only daughter Alice after her beloved older sister, and later when she needed rescuing, her Uncle Simeon and Aunt Alice went beyond the call of duty to step in and care for the teenaged Alice.
The task of caring for their ailing mother fell to the eldest daughter, Alice Chapin. She remained unmarried until after Marietta’s death and was left the house in Marietta’s will to safeguard her future. While her mother remained sick at home, Alice Chapin involved herself in charity work but her social life was somewhat curtailed by her home duties.
After her mother’s death she accepted the offer of marriage from Mr Francis Edwin May, President of the Indiana Oil and Natural Gas Company, a wealthy bachelor only eleven years older than her. They married in 1900 and lived in Chicago. At age 42 it had seemed that she was destined for a life of spinsterhood and the late marriage was greeted positively by her siblings. The marriage seems to have been a happy one, and the couple travelled abroad regularly. When he died 10 years later leaving no children, Alice moved her spinster niece Josephine Chapin in as a companion and embarked upon a widowhood freed of the implications and restrictions of spinsterhood.
Julia’s brother Simeon B Chapin, after working for Armour and Co for a number of years, became a Wall Street stockbroker, a prominent banker and businessmen in New York and Chicago, maintaining a home on Fifth Avenue and country residences at Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, Myrtle Beach NY and Pinehurst, North Carolina. He married Elizabeth Mattocks, whose family was to have an integral part in the life of his as yet unborn, niece Alice Silverthorne. The oldest of Simeon and Elizabeth’s four children, Simeon Brooks Chapin Junior bought out his father’s chair on the stock exchange when Simeon Senior as ready to retire. The Chapins were major stockholders in Armour and Company.
The exact circumstances of the meeting between William Edward Silverthorne and Julia Belle Chapin has been lost in the vagaries of time, but their lives had been connected for some time.
Chicago society was a series of circles moving within circles. Just as New York had Mrs Astor’s 400, an exclusive social set who met and re-met in a series of unending social functions where only the host and the seating arrangements changed, so Chicago had its own inner circles. The wealthy social elite were neighbours, living in grand mansions on exclusive avenues. They holidayed in the same places, had country estates at Lake Forest, though none so grand as the Armours’. The so-called classless society was creating its own classes and shoring up the boundaries to keep the others out.
The husbands did business together; the wives lunched together and plotted the courses of their daughters’ debutant seasons leading inevitably to marriage with each other’s sons. That Julia and William met was inevitable and they may well have known each other for many years. Having PD Armour’s protégée Henry Faurot as a brother in law no doubt oiled the social wheels and improved handsome entrepreneurial William Silverthorne’s standing in the eyes of Julia’s family. It seems likely that Henry Faurot was instrumental in William and Julia together, and certainly in vouching for William’s good character with her widowed mother Marietta and her protective grandfather, PD Armour. The Scottish heritage shared by the Silverthornes and the Armours may have helped – PD Armour was proud of his Scottish blood and was a noted contributor to the Illinois Saint Andrew Society.
The warmth of the pale Chicago sun put a little colour in Julia’s ivory skin on the beautiful June day of their wedding. The veil concealed her frail beauty as her father walked her down the aisle to the arms of the minister and her waiting bridegroom. Her dark eyes shone with joy, and perhaps something more. They may not have known she was fatally ill at this stage – how could someone so young and beautiful be dying? Julia was a devoted wife and much loved by her family and friends. No fewer than two nieces were named after her, Julia Belle Chapin and Julia Belle Faurot.
After their 1892 wedding Julia and William moved to the relative anonymity of Buffalo, New York and lived quietly with two servants.
The Silverthorne family continued to move from success to success in the business-world, while William and Julia travelled and enjoyed their quiet lives. Despite their happiness, it was seven long years before Alice was born on 28 September 1899, just in time for the new century. In an era with 10% infant mortality, the production of many children was the aim of every marriage, in the hope that some would survive. Infertility was inexplicable and incurable. The birth of Alice was a blessed and long-awaited event.
The bloodlines and fortunes of four prominent families, the Silverthornes, Armours, Faurots and Chapins, came together to give her a good start in life. From these solid hardworking pillars of the community, this no-nonsense sturdy immigrant stock, came the changeling Alice. Petite, pale with enormous violet eyes and a charming gamine way, she was a much wanted, and as it turned out, only child. A German nurse joined the household to care for the precious infant.
Having waited so long for their blessed daughter, William and Julia took her everywhere with them. Beloved of both parents, Alice’s childhood was privileged. She travelled with them to Chicago to visit both sets of grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, interstate on business, overseas. In the excitement that ship-board life with all its diversions and entertainments can offer a small child, she was probably unaware of the purpose of their travels. The frequent overseas trips were a desperate search to cheat the inevitable. Julia was dying a slow lingering death from consumption.
Consumption, the old name for tuberculosis, was a scourge. Respecting no boundaries, it affected the wealthy and the poor alike, young and old. In the 1900’s in America tuberculosis claimed 194 lives for every 100,000 people. Sufferers coughed and coughed, spreading the disease to their carers and loved ones, coughing up their lungs in chunks of blood, unable to stop. They hid their condition, fearing the social isolation, dreadful conditions and almost definite death-sentence of incarceration in government run sanatoriums. Once breathed in it formed granulomas on the lungs, capsules of live bacteria sitting like lethal time-bombs ready to reactivate, enter the bloodstream and colonise elsewhere in the body – maybe tomorrow, maybe next year, maybe in twenty years time. In the days before antibiotics, the so-called white plague was incurable and lingering death was inevitable.
But how could one give up on someone so young, so beautiful, so vibrant? William and Julia desperately sought treatments and rest cures from the top doctors in America and Europe. In 1904 they took Alice and her nurse with them to the sea-cures at Cuxhaven, Germany. The treatments were to no avail.
Tragedy struck early in the life of little Alice when her mother died in 1907 in Buffalo NY. She left eight year old Alice a $200,000 estate in trust and a lifelong case of consumption. Distraught at the loss of his beautiful young wife, William retired from Silverthorne and Co and moved with Alice from Buffalo to New York City. Alice, William’s only connection to the beautiful young wife he had lost, became his closest companion.
So you know your topic – the person or event you want to research. Assuming it is not yourself or someone you know – where can you start to find information?
To start with, make sure you have some sort of cross referencing system ready to go. You never know what little gem of information you come across that might have significance and meaning later on. This used to be a card file of names, dates, places and subjects. Now it is more likely to be computer based. And yes, there are tools out there that you can buy that will help you. In addition to those that are specifically for biography, you can use Endnote, a really powerful research and reference tool. Ancestry tools might also be useful. Either way, it is much easier to enter the data straight away than decide later on the you need it and have to enter the data all over again.
If your subject / event is famous or infamous, they might have mentions in books. Research for you biogrpahy should certainly include finding out what has already been written. A keyword search in Amazon will turn up not only books about the topic, but also mentions of your topic in books on other subjects. And so many of the Happy Valley residents are mentioned in general books about kenya, colonialism, the Briitish in Africa etc. Also in fictional works – be careful to note what is purporting to be fact and what is fiction.
The next easiest place to look for information is in newspaper archives. As noted before, many of these are now online and also available by keyword search. Others can be located using online databases and library catalogues – libraries may be happy to send their microfiche to your local library to read on site, for a small cost.
Another really interesting and relatively easy source of infromation is travel documents / immigration papers. Ellis Island has their infromation all online now, making tracking travel into and out of the United States easy. Infromation such as who your subject was travelling with, what they listed as their occupation, where they listed their regualr address or the address where they would be staying – all useful information. Be aware that this information is not always accurate though – some of the dates of birth seem to be approximate! And tracking women is often difficult as they may be listed as “Mrs Smith” ratehr than their full name.
So what should you be noting? Obviously that depends on your topic, but generally:
• names – friends, relatives, acquaintances, bystanders, contemporaries. All of these develop a background picture of the environment your subject was living in. And should this person turn out to have some significance, you need to know where to go back to find more information.
• places – again, names of local places, common or colloquial names can all be followed up separately. Make sure that you keep some detail of the context – who was there and what date – again, so if you need more research on a particular place you can quickly ascertain which references to go back to.
• dates – if, as Alice and her friends did, your subject/s move arund a lot, a timeline of dates and places is vital. Alice travelled extensivley between Europe, Africa and America – it was ometimes difficult to ascertain where she was when other events were occurring
When you start your research off, you don’t really know where your story might lead you. It is so much easier to do the referencing thoroughly the first time than to have to keep rereading sources to try to remember where that piece of information that is suddenly relevant, might have come from.
Alice’s cousin, Lolita Armour, was Alice’s best friend although she was several years older. Named after her mother, she was a shining example of what the socially aware young heiress should be, although her wealth seemed to attract bizarre newspaper coverage.
Born premature and crippled, it was feared she would die, as was the fate of most premature babies at the time. The Armours threw the full weight of their fortune behind her and purchased the services of a wet nurse, a new mother who was lured away from her own child to nurse Lolita instead. The efforts worked and against the odds Lolita survived, although occasional newspaper articles would dog her life claiming that the natural child of her wet nurse had been adopted out and her mother had never seen her again. After the drama and difficulties of Lolita’s birth, the Armours had no more children.
Lolita’s problems were not over. She had been born with congenital hip dysplasia (dislocation) and the newspapers avidly followed as her powerful father threw his wealth and determination into finding a cure. The Armours were a wealthy and powerful family and readers were fascinated to read of their woes.
In the early 1900s hip dysplasia condemned its sufferer to the life of a cripple, unable to stand or move unaided. Internationally-renowned Viennese surgeon Professor Albert Lorenz claimed to be able to effect a complete cure in such cases – despite his controversial survival of the fittest views. (He allegedly claimed that curing such children did humanity a disservice by saving children who would normally be “weeded out”.) J Ogden Armour travelled to Vienna to consult with him. Professor Lorenz was persuaded to come to America to treat Lolita with his famous bloodless surgery for the price of $100,000 USD and all expenses paid for himself and his staff.
Professor Lorenz arrived one night during in a severe storm and approached a local house seeking shelter only to be turned away. When he went the next morning to his first appointment with the Armours he discovered it had been them who had turned him away the night before. Despite their immense wealth and the accusations of shoddy business practices, the Armours were socially aware and would have been appalled at such a gaffe. One can only imagine their embarrassment. As prominently wealthy people, particularly with so many people in their employ who might bear a grudge against them, it would have been highly unlikely that they would have let a stranger into their house. Some years later their guard was let down and the house was robbed, Mrs Armour bashed by the intruders.
Professor Lorenz treated children with deformities such as Lolita’s with a revolutionary new technique that has saved millions from the life of a cripple. His contribution to humanity and to the field of medicine is considerable and his so-called bloodless surgery technique is still largely the treatment in use today.
The bloodless surgery technique involved Lolita being anaesthetised on the kitchen table then having her hips manipulated using weights and straps until they forced the ball of the thigh bone into the hip socket with a click. Her hips were then immobilised in a plaster cast for half a year. The pain involved in the manipulation would have been minimal due to the anaesthetic and immediate immobilisation. However the discomfort in wearing a hot, itchy and smelly plaster cast for six months would have been distressing for a young child such as Lolita, who may not have fully understood why this was happening to her. There would have been regular cast changes as she grew – the awful noise and jerking as the old cast was cut from her body, the smell of weeks of fetid sweat released from inside the cast, then being held down in position as the wet plaster reapplied, heating up until it felt like it would burn her skin as it dried. This cannot have been a pleasant time for her but Lolita suffered uncomplainingly.
Professor Lorenz’s visit to cure Lolita paid off for American medicine and other children with the same deformities. While he was in America for the Armours he also treated many poor children free of charge and spoke to the Orthopaedic Society, hence spreading this revolutionary approach that remains in essence the treatment successfully used today.
Despite a New York Times article declaring the operation a complete success, Lolita’s health remained precarious. She needed to travel several times to Vienna for adjustments and reviews. However, often she was too unwell to make such a long voyage, and Professor Lorenz would travelled to Chicago to review her progress. Eighteen months after the operation she was taken to Vienna for Professor Lorenz to teach her how to walk. Lolita’s arrival back in America age 8, walking down the gangplank unaided hit the newspaper headlines, as did dancing lessons age 11. By her teenage years she was an accomplished sportswoman and equestrian, a miracle considering her poor start in life. (Lolita wore calipers and used a wheelchair as an elderly lady so while the treatment was not wholly successful, it did save her – and many others – from the life of a cripple.)
Hats off to researchers and writers prior to the advent of the internet. Research must have been incredibly time consuming and expensive, particularly if the subject you pick lived in a number of countries, none of which you happen to live in.
The advent of online genealogy websites and online newspaper archives is an amazing blessing. Being able to search electronically by keyword or name cuts down the enormous hours of reading edition after edition after edition on the off-chance that your subject is mentioned.
On-line chat forums associated with these sites and other interest groups provide access to people from around the world who have special interests in areas you might need information. For instance, the online Formula One forums helped me track down that Alice’s first husband was not a Le Mans driver when she met him (Le Mans did not actually exist prior to their marriage) despite this “fact” being reported extensively in books and nespapers of the time. Nor could the FI forum members identify anyone from any other race-courses who, even using a nom de circuit, might have been him. All this with a friendly chat at the same time. I could never have amassed their decades of knowledge to come to this conclusion.
Alice was born in Chicago Illinois. Her family was mostly from Chicago and New York, with ancestry in Scotland. She spent some of her childhood in Buffalo, New York, also took a number of trans-Atlantic trips to European countries. She spent her adult life between USA, France, Kenya and England. Her husbands were from France and England, and one lover was from South Africa. One husband travelled to South America and Australia. A number of her friends and lovers were military men and hence were posted in various battle fronts. Many of her friends and lovers travelled extensively.
This required me finding and researching newspaper and official archives from all of these countries – a great deal cheaper and easier online than through flights to various libraries to go through their microfiche archives. Photographs are available online and many national archives now have a number of their catalogues available online.
So, a few of the really helpful generic sites:
– Amazon.com (keyword searches and index searches)
– and of course Google, which done regularly on a range of different associated topics, turns up all sorts of amazing links.
Some newspapers and magazines (Time-Life, London Times) have their own archives which are again searchable by key-word. Newspapers from the early 1900s had very different editorial standards, and, one can only presume, were not sued on a regular basis for inaccuracies and flat-out fabrications. (“Leap Year’s Wierdest Romance” featured sketches of how the shotting may have occurred) So be careful taking their word at face value – try to back it up with documents from other sources. Nonetheless, they can be highly entertaining and give you some pointers on areas to investigate.
The best part of these forums were the people – some really lovely helpful people, some other authors that I got in contact with who were very generous with their time and knowledge.
Are there other websites and resources that you have found of help in researching biographical and genealogical information? Please let me know in the comments section and I will add them to a future post.