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.
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.
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.