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.
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.
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.