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.
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.)