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.