Death of a Robber Baron

Chapter One: Crisis

NEW YORK CITY, Christmas Eve, 1891

Pamela Thompson sat in the breakfast room of her four-story town house on West Tenth Street, quiet and sad. A clock ticked relentlessly on the wall. She drank the last drop of her morning coffee, gazed out the window, and sighed. Rain was falling steadily, stripping her backyard garden of its soft blanket of snow. The papers predicted a heavy downpour through most of the day, casting a pall over the preparations for Christmas. She had hoped that an infusion of holiday joy would lift her bleak spirit. On this day a year ago, her daughter Julia had died.

Her husband sat across the table, hidden behind a page of the New York Times. “More coffee, Jack?” she asked, then began to pour.

He replied with a belated, distracted grunt. Breakfast together these days was rare and brief. Jack would usually cool his coffee with cream, gulp it down, and hurry off to his office at the savings bank on Union Square. Today, an item in the paper had caught his interest and he lingered at the table.

“What’s so fascinating, Jack?”

He lowered the paper and stared as if surprised to see her there. “Yesterday was Henry Jennings’s sixtieth birthday. He rented the largest hall in the Union Club and had a huge, glittering party. It must have cost a small fortune. All the top politicians came and so did the cream of the business world. I would have loved to be there.”

Pamela had heard that Jennings was greedy and ruthless, as well as rich. But she feigned polite interest. “What’s special about him, compared to other successful businessmen?”

“He has an uncanny talent for making money, even where others adept at finance would fail.” Eyes glowing, Jack spoke with almost religious awe of Jennings’s triumphs, especially in copper mining. “He’s called ‘The Copper King’ for good reason. He’s also heavily invested in railroads and banks.”

For a few more minutes they discussed plans for the day. She would work on this evening’s holiday program at St. Barnabas Mission on Mulberry Street, a refuge for poor, abused women and children. He had meetings and other chores at the bank. They would spend Christmas Eve alone at home. He finished his coffee, gave her a peck on the cheek, and hurried off.

* * *

After breakfast Pamela took a tram to St. Barnabas. Caring for its clients gave her the personal satisfaction she lacked at home. In the mission’s chapel volunteers were wrapping presents in bright, colored paper and loading them onto a large table. A tall Christmas tree decorated with candles stood in one corner. Evergreens hung on the walls. That evening two hundred children and their parents from the poorest families in the city would gather to sing carols, light the Christmas tree, and distribute gifts.

Assisting the volunteers was Brenda Reilly, a fifteen-year-old Irish girl, one of the children served by the mission. Pamela had looked after her since she was a toddler while her mother, Monica, was working ten hours a day, six days a week, in a garment factory. Four years ago, in January, Brenda’s father, Dennis Reilly, had killed Monica in a domestic dispute and was put in prison. Brenda then became Pamela’s ward and moved into the Thompson home where she lived among the servants while attending school.

Brenda finished wrapping a gift and now approached Pamela.

As she hugged the girl, she suddenly felt a profound sense of loss and began to cry.

“What’s the matter, ma’am?” The girl handed Pamela a clean handkerchief.

“Thank you, Brenda.” Pamela wiped tears from her eyes. “A year ago this very day I lost my daughter Julia to influenza.”

“I remember her passing, ma’am. She was my age, a beautiful girl. I’m sorry. ”

In a few moments Pamela regained control of her feelings and returned the handkerchief. “Unfortunately, Brenda, I can’t join the party tonight. My husband and I will honor the memory of Julia at home.”

Pamela wished that she and Jack could have taken part. But he would be busy all day at the bank—catching up on paperwork. In the evening, he would be frazzled and not in the mood for high-pitched children’s voices.

To draw her husband into a holiday spirit, she would persuade him to join her for a festive, choral Evensong at the nearby Church of the Ascension on West Tenth Street and Fifth Avenue. Afterward, they would have a quiet holiday dinner at home. Brenda would spend the night with friends.

At noon Pamela left for home. She prepared gifts for the servants, inspected the butler’s cleaning and decoration of the main rooms, and checked on the cook’s progress with the roast lamb. Pamela set the table for two.

Dining alone tonight should bring her and Jack closer together. Over the past several months they had lived like strangers under the same roof. With that distressing thought on her mind, she went to her room to dress, determined to look her best. Her personal maid joined her and they set to work. An hour later, the maid announced, “You’re beautiful tonight. Mr. Thompson will surely notice.”

Pamela stood before a full-length mirror and gazed with approval at her red satin gown, pearl necklace, and diamond ring. Her thick, lustrous black hair, perhaps her chief asset, was set in a chignon. On closer inspection she detected a few thin silver hairs at each temple, but she declared them to be attractive, natural accents. Aside from certain worry lines on her brow, her complexion at the age of thirty-seven was still clear and creamy. Her dark blue eyes gazed back at her with good humor and generous approval, oddly unmarked by the horrors they had witnessed during her work in the tenements. Her figure was still well proportioned and slim enough for her to do without a corset. Finally, she studied her hands and groaned. Despite frequent, generous application of cold cream, they were still red and raw from chores at the mission. A sour thought flitted through her mind:  Why bother? Jack probably wouldn’t notice anyway.

She gave herself an encouraging smile, turned from the mirror, and thanked the maid.

When all was ready, she and Jack went to the evening service at the church. The music was glorious. While the choir sang passages from the Messiah, Jack closed his eyes and seemed transported out of his usual, anxious attitude. Pamela felt encouraged. Things were going better than she had anticipated.

* * *

Late on Christmas Eve, Pamela and Jack sat down to dinner. The table was covered with fine linen and set with their best china, silver, and crystal. Green garlands and red bows hung on the walls. They went through the motions of holiday celebration with joy on their faces, but they were intensely aware of their daughter’s absence. For a year, they had coped with grief in different ways. Pamela had increased her work with poor, battered women and children. Jack had thrown himself into financial investments to the point that they consumed him.

This led to serious tension between them. Each reproached the other for a lack of understanding. After Monica’s murder, Jack had only grudgingly agreed to sign Brenda’s guardianship papers and allow her to live in their home. With Julia’s death his attitude hardened. “Mind you,” he had insisted, “Miss Reilly is to remain in the servants’ quarters and in no way take the place of our daughter. The memory of Julia is dear to me. I’ll not have a substitute diminish it.” He had appeared about to become emotional.

“I understand,” Pamela had said but with a mental reservation. She believed that Brenda would eventually win over Jack and gain an honored place in the family.

To please him tonight Pamela had lighted a candle at a place set for Julia. The meal began, however, with awkward attempts at conversation followed by equally distressing moments of silence while the servants plied them with holiday dishes. When the servants finally withdrew, Jack couldn’t hold back his secret.

“I must tell you, Pamela, that I’ve found an extraordinary investment with Henry Jennings. We will become incredibly rich. You will have a new and grander house on Fifth Avenue, and I’ll join the Union Club and consort with the likes of J. P. Morgan.”

Pamela tried in vain to conceal her concern. During the past year, Jack had made similar announcements, followed by disappointing results. He gave her a reproachful smile. “You doubt me. Well, you heard me speak this morning of the respect that Jennings enjoys among the wealthy and powerful in this country.”

“Yes,” she granted. “Most of them share his values.”

Missing her irony, he lowered his voice, as if afraid that servants were listening. “I’ve recently discovered that he’s secretly investing in a new company, Copper Mountain. It’s going to mine a fantastically rich vein of copper in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Investors who buy in early, before the price of shares skyrockets, will make fortunes.”

Pamela sensed a dangerous enthusiasm in his voice. She asked guardedly, “How is this an attractive opportunity for you?”

His tone turned defensive. “A few months ago, as a guest at the Union Club, a lawyer for Jennings took me aside and confided that the new company was initially offering shares to selected buyers, like J. P. Morgan, at a discounted price. I’m one of the chosen few. When the company sells to the public, our shares are bound to double and triple in value. In addition, we can expect annual dividends of twenty cents on the dollar. Most investments yield only three to five percent.”

“So did you go ahead and buy shares in this company?” Pamela tried hard to keep her voice level.

“Yes, I bought $20,000 worth.”

“And where did you find that much money? It’s a breathtaking sum, more than you earn in ten years. Was it lying under a rock in our garden?” She was tempted to pound the table and shriek with outrage.

“Don’t be sarcastic, Pamela. It’s unbecoming. I took $15,000 from the trust fund that I administer for you, and I borrowed the rest with this house as security. The shares I purchased and the income from them will go back into your fund.”

“Jack! Have you lost your wits! I can’t believe you’ve emptied my trust fund and mortgaged our home. This harebrained scheme rests on the doubtful integrity of Henry Jennings. Granted, he has been successful in business and is very rich, but I’ve heard that he’s a false, predatory rascal. A few years ago I noticed him in the newspapers, railing against his workers’ demand for higher wages and safer conditions in his Michigan copper mines. They’d gone on strike, and he’d hired scabs to replace them. Frankly, I wouldn’t trust him with a dime.”

“You have no head for business, Pamela. When we married, we agreed that you should manage the household; I would take care of our finances. If you were in charge of our money, you’d give it all to the poor. Tonight, we’d be outside in the cold, begging in the streets.” He paused to let his remark sink in. “Jennings wouldn’t have gained his wealth and respect if he behaved like a larcenous thug. It’s in his interest to make this new company successful. He has put his own money into it.”

“And I’m sure that he can easily and secretly take it out.” She shook her head. “Jack, I’m not a simple, shuttered housewife. I know the value of money much better than you. Honest wealth comes from service to others for the common good. Jennings and his kind strive only to enrich themselves, any way they can. Their wealth is a monstrous sham.”

Jack shook his head. “How can you condemn Jennings’s wealth out of hand? Your own father was a wealthy man.”

She stared at her husband with a mixture of anger and pity. “Unlike Jennings, my father was an honest man, a professional electrical engineer. His inventions literally brought light into the lives of many. He never cheated anyone. The trust fund that you’ve despoiled is his legacy to me. You were supposed to administer it in my interest.” Her voice was becoming shrill. She paused, calmed herself, then spoke slowly and carefully. “Jack, you have grievously insulted my intelligence and betrayed my trust. The very least you could have done was to consult me.”

He flinched as if she had hit him. “I see, Pamela, that we can’t have a reasonable conversation about this matter. In fact, for some time we’ve been at odds on almost everything. Perhaps the death of our daughter has distracted you. And I suppose it has affected me as well. I often can’t concentrate on business.” He met her eye, measured his words. “I’ve thought this over. It would be best for both of us if I were to move tomorrow into furnished private rooms near the bank. The butler will look after this property, and I’ll continue to cover your expenses.”

His words came as no surprise, but she grasped them slowly. “I’m sorry, Jack, that our marriage has come to this, and on a blessed Christmas Eve of all days. But so be it. I fear for our future.”

“Then good night, Pamela.” Slowly, deliberately, he folded his napkin and rose from the table. His chin was rigid, his lips tight. He nodded stiffly and left the room.

For a long moment Pamela sat fixed to her chair, listening to his heavy footsteps in the hall, then lighter on the stairs. Finally his door shut. She stared at his empty chair and began to wonder what to do. At first, nothing came to mind. Minutes passed fruitlessly. She began to feel utterly abandoned. Then she said to herself, “I must seek help. I’ll need a lawyer.”

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