Change

March 24, 2012 at 5:13 pm (Alice's Childhood, Chicago, Silverthorne Family) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

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.

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The Chicago Countess

March 24, 2012 at 5:08 pm (Alice's Childhood, Chicago, Kenya, Paris, Silverthorne Family) (, , , , , , , , , , )


“de poetas y locos todos tenemos un poco”
we all have the traits of poets and of mad people
(Spanish proverb)

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.

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William loves Julia

August 13, 2011 at 6:47 am (Alice's Childhood, Chapin Family, Chicago, Faurot Family, PD Armour and Family, Silverthorne Family) (, , , , , , , , , )

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.

Mrs Henry Faurot and friends, Mrs. John F. Jelke and Mrs. Kersey Coates Reed (1928)

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.

Mrs Wrigley, Mrs Swift, Mrs PD Armour, Lt W Rogers and Col J Morrow (plane is a promotion for Armour products) 1919

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.

Simeon Brooks Chapin (grab from Youtube link)


(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.

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The winds of change….

July 15, 2011 at 12:30 pm (Alice's Childhood, Chicago, Faurot Family, PD Armour and Family, Silverthorne Family) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

When Armour Felt Works, which used the fur from the animals, collapsed following a catastrophic fire, Henry Faurot, carefully trained by his mentor PD Armour to recognise an opportunity, saw a gap in the market: a number of skilled workers with industry experience but no work. Armour and Co also had nowhere else to off-load the fur that they had used to make felt. An honourable man, Faurot sought PD Armour’s permission before he took advantage of the situation. His previous experiences in business with his wife Catherine’s brothers had been profitable and so in 1899 he approached his brother in law William Silverthorne to finance a new venture. The Western Felt Works was born, a change in industry for the Silverthornes and another profitable one. Later the same year another brother, George Morrill Silverthorne joined them.

Western Felt Works initially took over where the Armour Felt Works had left off. Its product range was identical, felt pads and horse blankets, and suited the market demand for the time. However as motorcars replaced the horse and carriage, the company needed to reposition itself to survive. Staying with transportation, they changed their products to suit the burgeoning automotive industry and produced seat padding. Considering Chicago’s future as a centre of car manufacture in the United States, this proved a prescient and fruitful decision.

Alice’s father William E Silverthorne was also an entrepreneur in the truest sense of the word, backing a number of new inventions. He had a particular interest in the development of pour-outs for bottles and methods for treating paper containers for holding liquid products, precursors to milk and juice cartons commonly in use today. His interests extended to mining. He organised and financed the Alice Loraine Company, which held mining leases and properties in the Cobalt Section of Canada.

In 1899, the same year his daughter Alice was born, William E Silverthorne, by now managing operations in Buffalo New York, was appointed the first president of the Western Felt Works. This was the apex of his career and influence. He was married into the influential Armour family, whose tentacles of influence reached far outside the mid-west into the White House, was president of his family firm, receiving income from the felt-works and several lumbar mills, and his beautiful wife had presented him with a remarkably pretty baby girl, another heir for the Armour fortune. The future looked golden for the Silverthornes.

Within ten years it would be unravelling, and within fifteen years it would all be gone, leaving him disgraced, an outcast and broke, forever estranged from his daughter.

The Armours, Silverthornes and Faurots were social lions in turn of the century Chicago, a city undergoing enormous change, caught in the grind between the past and the future. The industrial revolution had brought wealth and privilege to a few, and grinding, soul-destroying production-line manual labour and poverty for many. Silverthorne’s mills, Armour’s meat-packing plant, Faurot’s felt works and associated industries had provided great wealth and power for their families but the tension between the wealthy and the poor had spawned a new class – the criminal class. With the introduction of prohibition, speakeasies sprang up, flaunting the restrictions on alcohol, attracting the working class and the elite alike to a dangerous glamorous flirtation with organised crime. Mob bosses became household names, garnering inches of newspaper space as they seized control of the illegal alcohol trade and sought new vices as opportunities for income. City life stepped up a notch.

The tension of this social change would shape Alice’s life. The passions and restlessness it inspired in her would catapult her from the conservative Chicago debutante scene to new horizons in lands far away. While she was in some ways an independent woman ahead of her time, in other ways she was very much a product of the times, a woman who did not accept the social boundaries and mores of her elders and instead explored the world and all it had to offer. And for beautiful passionate Alice, a lot was on offer.

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American Empire: Armour Meatpacking

July 14, 2011 at 12:59 pm (Alice's Childhood, Chapin Family, Chicago, Faurot Family, PD Armour and Family, Silverthorne Family, Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , )

The civil war had also been pivotal in the meteoric success of Alice’s maternal family, the Armours. Armour Felt Works was part of the Armour Company empire, a series of industries based around the Armour Meatpacking Company. The company had been founded by brothers Herman Ossian Armour and Phillip Danforth Armour, who had profited – and profiteered – during the American Civil War. Hungry Union Armies drove up the price of meat and PD Armour sold short pork futures in the New York Market, gambling on the end of the Civil War to drop prices. He was right. He made nearly $2 million in 90 days. The brothers were multi-millionaires by their early 30’s and Chicago replaced Cincinnati as the leading meat processing city in the US.

In 1915 poet Carl Sandburg was inspired to write a poem on the dual nature of the boom-town, with big industrial enterprises spawning a boom in desperate, crippling poverty for many and feeding a secondary boom in criminal activity. He identified the cut-throat business practices of the meat-packing barons as largely to blame when he called Chicago “Hog Butcher for the World”.

CHICAGO
HOG Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders:
They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I
have seen your painted women under the gas lamps
luring the farm boys.

And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it
is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to
kill again.

And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the
faces of women and children I have seen the marks
of wanton hunger.

And having answered so I turn once more to those who
sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer
and say to them:

Come and show me another city with lifted head singing
so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on
job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the
little soft cities;
(excerpt) Carl Sandburg

The Armour brothers’ drive and ambition in pursuing the American Dream wrought social change in the lives of ordinary Americans. Their talent was to put together quite disparate resources and see the opportunity to change a production and delivery system, an opportunity that nobody else could see. The result was meat as a staple on every dinner-plate in America.

After the war, the Armours turned their attention to expanding their meat empire using the rail network to deliver meat far and wide. Previously meat had been a luxury enjoyed only by the wealthy due to the costs involved in small-scale slaughterhouse and delivery operations. Livestock tended to lose weight being herded cross-country to market restricting the markets livestock producers could access, and the animals that slaughterhouses could purchase. Preservation methods were limited to smoking and salting and meant that the meat could not be kept for long or transported far after the kill. By using the railways to buy cattle in Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Texas, then bringing them in by rail to central points for slaughter without the loss incurred in driving the cattle on foot, the Armours could buy cheap and minimise their slaughterhouse costs. Again using the railways, the Armour Company could establish a large market share for cheap almost-fresh meat wherever the railroad tracks went. In 1872 they installed the world’s largest cool room and began using natural ice as their preserving method, expanding the territory into which they could sell their meat. The American householder developed a taste for the luxury of meat.

Very much in keeping with the times, the Armours turned butchery from a small scale process into a production line. PD Armour’s great great grandson Jeff Armour Nelson describes the process thus: ” Hogs and steers were herded off trains and into pens, and from there into narrow chutes which led to the slaughterhouses. They were stunned by a hammer-blow to the head and quickly slung up by the hind legs to an overhead moving belt. Then they moved past long lines of men working at top speed – cutting their throats, removing their vital organs, peeling off hides and bristles, and sawing the carcases into chops, steaks and hams.” They could slaughter and process a thousand animals a day. A promotional postcard of the time shows workers standing on a floor awash with blood surrounded by carcases suspended from a conveyer belt.

The Armour empire expanded further. Refrigerated ships expanded their reach across the oceans and soon they established frozen meat works in Buenos Aires , taking advantage of the excellent fatted cattle and cheap local labour.

Armour and Company were also ruthless in selling their products, flooding new markets with below-cost products until the “mom and pop” competitors were put out of business. Then they could raise the prices to make a handsome profit.

Production line techniques had cut costs and delivered a product to many whom previously could not afford the luxury of meat. These same production line techniques later inspired Henry Ford and engineer Clarence Avery to streamline car production so that in 1913 a car could be built in 1.5 hours, reversing the process of stripping a carcase so that the car was built from the chasse up.

Armour’s other secret also revolutionised the meat-packing industry. PD Armour once wrote “waste is criminal” and he applied this principle to his meatpacking empire. He hired chemists to make sure no part of the animal went to waste, no product required another manufacturer, no profits went elsewhere. Armour and Company produced a huge range of goods ranging from prime steaks through to leather-products, glycerin, gelatine and Neat’s-foot oil made from the hooves and horns, fertiliser from the blood, felt from the fur, soap, candles and tallow from the fats, glue from the sinews and bones. PD was quoted saying “We use every part of the pig except the squeal.” No doubt if he could have found out how to harness that, he would have sold it at a profit as well.

The Armour meat-packing empire was a huge industry in Chicago and northern US, and as a large-scale employer wrought significant social and financial influence. PD Armour died in 1900, leaving what was then a massive fortune of $15 million* with rumours that he had given away $25 million. By 1918 PD Armour’s son J Ogden Armour featured in the Forbes first rich list, listed in the $125 million category. The company had a turnover listed at $600 million in 1918 and profit at $20 million per annum. At its peak its annual turnover was $961 million, and the family holdings also included bank and railroad stocks . (Armour Meats is now part of the Dial company.)

There were some problems with the Armour system. The relentless focus on profits overlooked important ethical principals such as worker safety. There was huge turn-over of staff in the slaughterhouse as workers could not cope with the screaming of the animals. Workers were constantly covered in blood and pressured to kill faster and faster. Staff turn-over was not a problem to Armour; in the poverty of Chicago’s immigrant ghettos there were always more workers to take their place in this lowest of occupations.

Even more catastrophically, food hygiene standards were ignored. The importance of food safety and hygiene was perhaps not as scientifically established as it is now but the public was aware that spoiled food could be fatal. Sawdust, rats, faeces and animals parts not usually considered for human consumption made their way into the Armour meat supply. When soldiers in the Spanish-American War died after eating the meat Armours had supplied to the War Department, the public outcry finally reached the American Congress and food safety was discussed at a legislative level. Armour finally acted to clean up the industry. By WWII Armour and Co had a Government contract to supply meat to the army again.

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The American Dream

July 14, 2011 at 12:52 pm (Alice's Childhood, Chapin Family, Chicago, Faurot Family, PD Armour and Family, Silverthorne Family, Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

The American dream attracted immigrants seeking their fortune in the New World away from the poverty and class system entrenched in European society. It proved elusive for many, but the six Silverthorne brothers and one sister were lucky enough to become the step-grandchildren of lumbar merchant Asa P Kelley. Taking advantage of one of the abundant natural resources in the mid-west, Kelley had established wholesale and retail lumbar yards in Chicago, Illinois and North Tonawanda, New York. He was looking for some cheap labour – and as it turned out, heirs – for his self-built company.

From 1861 to 1865 the American Civil War wrought wide-scale catastrophic damage to the burgeoning nation. Buildings, homes, businesses and infrastructure were decimated in cities and states across America. Whole families were forced to flee, homeless and with few possessions left, and desperately seeking shelter, new homes and new lives. With the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in December 1865, four million slaves were freed. Many stayed in the south, the only life they had known, but many more moved to the northern cities to experience the freedom and opportunity they had heard so much about.

The Civil War was a disaster for many, but Kelley and his Silverthorne step-grandsons saw opportunity. The free-market economy had delivered unprecedented demand for their products, and they rode the crest of the post-Civil War rebuilding boom to a new life of wealth. Lumbar was not a glamour industry but building materials were in high demand and priced at a premium. Alice’s father, William Edward Silverthorne and his brother Asa K Silverthorne were young men, strong and hard-working, and they learnt their trade apprenticing for minimal wages. Their Scottish thrift had held them in good stead and they had accumulated much of the profit from the post-war boom. By 1891 Kelley was ready to retire and his heirs were ready to spread their wings.

Bringing in another brother, Albert E Silverthorne, they bought out Kelley and set up their own company, AE Silverthorne and Company. Despite the glory of becoming entrepreneurs in their own right, they were canny enough not to let their pride get in the way of their profits and carefully maintained customer and family loyalty by including in their advertising and signage “incorporating AE Kelley Lumbar”.

The Silverthornes learned quickly what other families took generations to understand – the importance of keeping money in the family. Over the ensuing decades they set up companies with each other, each building on the success and experience of the last. Continued rapid growth at the end of the 19th century meant huge demand for timber for building, and the Silverthorne brothers were well-placed to capitalise.

The fourth partner in Silverthorne and Co Lumbar was the husband of their sister Catherine, Henry Faurot. As well as being family, he brought in some important contacts, expanding the horizons of the Silverthorne business and social aspirations. It was he who brought ambitious nouveau riches William Silverthorne into the sphere of the socially prominent Armours, playing matchmaker between William and Julia Belle, beautiful cloistered youngest daughter of tycoon PD Armour’s beloved only daughter.

Henry was an astute businessman with a head for numbers, a fine addition to the family. When his father had died in 1868 in Michigan of malaria acquired during the Civil War Peninsular Campaign, his mother had been forced to take four year old Henry with her back to her father’s farm in Stockbridge Valley, New York. Three generations living on the farm income was a tough beginning for the little boy. Mrs Faurot started a small store to provide food and clothes for her growing son and from the age of 10, Henry kept the accounts. The bright little boy learned all he needed to know to succeed in life at the same time.

Faurot’s mother had been a childhood friend of millionaire businessman Philip Danforth Armour and she wrote a letter of introduction for young Henry after his graduation from Friends Seminary in 1882. He was taken on as a clerical officer, his first job paying the lowly wage of a dollar a day (and the occasional suit of clothes). His talents were soon recognised by his new mentor and he rose quickly through the ranks at Armours. As an only child he remained close to his mother and consulted her on all major decisions in his life, including his 1891 marriage to Catherine Silverthorne.

Joining the ambitious Silverthorne family was a life-changing commitment that opened up new opportunities and horizons for Henry. Soon after the wedding he resigned from Armour and Co and borrowed against his life insurance as part of the start-up capital for AE Silverthorne and Co. It was an uncharacteristic gamble that paid off handsomely, as well as sealing his commitment to his wife’s family.

Faurot had a one third interest in the company, and in 1892 his share of the profit was $9,201.75. The year old company was already worth $55,515.26. He only stayed with the company three years before returning to the welcoming bosom of the Armour Company, selling his shares back to his brothers in law. His new position was as the general manager of Armour Curled Hair Works Division, where he was well-regarded. It had been a long journey from the small shop at Stockbridge Mills.

Meanwhile, the Silverthorne brothers moved from strength to strength, expanding their lumbar empire into the southern states as the building boom continued and the demand for infrastructure increased. In 1895 they set up the Summit Lumbar Company in Arkansas and Louisiana and the Anchor Saw Mill Company in Mississippi. They also owned several other smaller mills dotted around the countryside.

The lumbar industry of the American free-market frontier was not completely without regulation though. In 1896 Albert E Silverthorne was arrested in Chicago and charged with deceit against creditors. He was bailed for the amount of $34,000, a huge amount at the time. Nonetheless the Silverthornes’ continued to profit and grow, and they wound their immigrant roots into the fabric of American society.

Brother-in-law and partner Henry Faurot continued his meteoric rise in the Armour Company. He was now the Vice President and General Manager of Armour Felt Works. In 1898 when the felt-works buildings were destroyed in a catastrophic blaze, Henry saw the opportunity he had waited for all his life. Owner PD Armour was too unwell to turn his energies to rebuilding and reluctant to hand the company reins over to this son Jonathon Ogden Armour whom he thought not serious or entrepreneurial enough to manage the Armour empire.

The Silverthornes were ready to spread their wings from the lumbar industry and expand their ambitions to new markets. Opportunity was knocking.

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an infamous crime

July 9, 2011 at 12:32 pm (Chicago, Happy Valley, Kenya, Paris, PD Armour and Family, Silverthorne Family, Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

The murder of Lord Erroll was a scandal, yet another red scar on the reputation of the new British East Africa colony.

<strong>”Are you married or do you live in Kenya?”

Kenyan settlers were a colony of mostly hard-working farming communities. The exception were the Happy Valley lot, a group of exiles and black sheep gathered from two continents to party in the warm tropical sun, far from the disapproving eyes of their families and society in general. While the farmers toiled with new crops and new farming techniques, the Happy Valley settlers partied.

The scandalous murder of Lord Erroll uncovered the adulterous world of a small group of mostly European settlers, drink, drugs, orgies, wife-swapping, multiple marriages and divorces. In a colony trying to entice further investment from England, this type of behaviour was not the image they wanted.

But the murder of Lord Erroll, the premier Scottish peer, who had carried the Kind George’s train at his coronation – this was something to big to sweep under the carpet. An investigation was set in motion that would expose Kenyan society to disapproval, tarnish the reputation of the settlers, and end forever the idyllic life led at Happy Valley.

If you want the chronological story, read the books. But there are so many fascinating tangents, so many fascinating people, so many stories….these are the rabbit holes I want to look into.

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The woman who shot her lover then married him

June 3, 2011 at 10:31 am (Chicago, Happy Valley, introduction, Kenya, Paris, PD Armour and Family, Silverthorne Family, Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

In 1984, when I should have been studying for my senior school exams, I was reading a book called White Mischief about the unsolved murder of the adulterous Earl of Erroll in Kenya at the height of World War II.

One chapter entitled “The fastest gun in the Gare du Nord” caught my attention.  This was the story of Alice Silverthorne de Janze de Trafford, a Jazz Age American heiress with a troubled story, who along with her husband, a French Comte, was friends with Erroll and his wife Idina (nee Sackville, daughter of Earl de la Warr).  Alice was also, with Idina’s knowledge, Erroll’s mistress for over two decades.

Alice was best known at the time however, as the woman who shot her lover Raymond de Trafford, in the Gare du Nord in Paris, then five years later married him, and it was this part of the story that stayed with me. What sort of woman can shoot a man and still convince him to marry her?

Fast forward to 1999 and I was on bed rest with a high-risk pregnancy, and bored, bored, bored. Surfing the net was one of the few things I could safely do.  After exhausting the multiple birth sites and scaring myself with the possibilities of what could go wrong, I turned instead to the genealogy websites, and, having exhausted my own family, started researching Alice. 

At first this was quite difficult but as more and more resources started being available on the net, a fascinating story emerged of a complex woman struggling with her psychological inheritance in a world where there were few rules that could not be broken.

This led to a journey of over a decade and brought me into contact with some interesting people whose lives were intimately or tangentially affected by Alice and her story.

This is the story of that journey, of the people who helped along the way, the clues that led to understanding, or sometimes led to more puzzles, the tangents too obscure to include in a biography, but ultimately as fascinating as Alice’s story itself, her friends and family whose lives were as interesting and complex as Alice’s. 

For Alice, was a product of her times, of her family and her friends and of the lands that her adventurous spirit took her to.  The tragedy that befell her was both of her own making and also predestined by her personality, upbringing and the tragedies that befell her.

And I fell in love with Alice’s story.

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