31 October 2014

"A Man Called Van Aken", Part Four

An elevator ride to the fourth floor of a New York City office building doesn't take very long, even in 1897, but there was probably enough time for sixty-four-year-old former real estate developer William Van Aken to contemplate his next move.  Stepping quickly into the car, guided by a nameless, hardened accomplice recruited just that morning, he heard the elevator boy call out, "What floor, mister?"  Van Aken replied enthusiastically, "Fourth-floor office of J.R. McPherson - I will see him if I have to wait all day.  This thing has got to be settled!"

Illustration from the May 19, 1897 edition of the New York World

Listening to the inner and outer doors clap shut, Van Aken thought back to his last meeting with the millionaire senator from New Jersey.  In 1879 Van Aken proposed that McPherson purchase the approximately 800 acres of foreclosed property at Belle Mead, New Jersey, for the bargain price of $30,000, continue Van Aken's plan to create a small industrial city on the site, and split the profits 50-50.  

McPherson did indeed purchase the land, and although he did not fulfill Van Aken's original scheme - opting instead to embark on a project to create a world-class dairy operation and estimable farming enterprise - wasn't it true that Belle Mead Farm was an enormous success, and that Van Aken never saw a cent?  Didn't the senator sell out in 1891 during his third term when he was being talked up for a presidential run?  Weren't there profits aplenty?  In any case, wasn't McPherson the president of the Western Stockyards Company?  Surely he would like to settle the matter!

Illustration from the May 19, 1897 edition of the New York Herald

As the elevator boy announced, "Fourth Floor", Van Aken contemplated what his life had been like these past eighteen years.  At first, he was active in many other land and business interests all across the country.  But as the years passed, it seemed he couldn't catch a break.   Even his most promising investment in the Kansas City Terminal was tied up in litigation.  He was still wearing fine suits, but now they were noticeably ten years old.  In the final indignity, he was nearly totally blind due to a botched cataract operation. For a while, his son sent him money from Chicago, but for the past eighteen months, he had been living at the modest Adams House Hotel at the corner of Gansevoort Square as a guest of the proprietor, an old friend.

With his companion urging him forward, Van Aken departed the elevator and swept right past McPherson's personal secretary and into the inner office.  The startled former senator, frail even for a sixty-five-year-old, had no time to rise from his desk before Van Aken was put into a chair and pushed right up to McPherson, their knees almost touching.  "I guess you know who I am and why I am here", stated Van Aken.

19 May 1897 New York Tribune

"That matter is tied up in the courts", replied McPherson, referring to the suit Van Aken had brought six months earlier to recover part, if not all, of the $280,000 he spent developing the Belle Mead property. "I refuse to enter into any further discussion".

"I am tired and sick of lawyers and courts.  I'll have no more to do with courts".  And, raising his voice now in anger, Van Aken continued, "I want this case settled without the courts!"

With that, Van Aken's accomplice shoved his master's chair abruptly forward so that the combatants' knees banged together.  Leaning closer now to the feeble senator the blind man breathed intensely, "If you won't settle it, then by God I will settle it!"

Trial of William Van Aken
as illustrated in the June 22, 1897 edition of the New York Herald

Letting loose a rage that had been smoldering for years, Van Aken lunged across the desk and grabbed in his darkness for McPherson.  The frightened McPherson was just able to dodge Van Aken's grasp and start towards the door leading to the outer office.  Out of his chair now, reaching out in the barely distinguishable shadows, Van Aken sprang for his adversary.  At the same moment, the brutish thug gave McPherson a shove which landed him in Van Aken's arms.  

They struggled at the doorway, Van Aken's left hand squeezing so tightly to the former senator's right wrist that he cried out in pain.  "Now will you settle?", he questioned as he slid his right hand into his hip pocket and reached for a .44 caliber revolver,

By this time McPherson's private secretary Edward Low had arrived from the anteroom and assessed the situation.  The moment Van Aken's hand went into his pocket, Low's hand followed.  The fearless secretary, the husband of the former senator's niece, managed to get his finger in between the trigger and the guard of the weapon, preventing the revolver from being discharged.  The three struggled in the doorway while Van Aken's accomplice, realizing that the tide had turned, escaped out of the office and down the stairs.

Van Aken held fast to McPherson's wrist, as Low held fast to the revolver, the fighting lasting four or five minutes and spilling finally into the outer hallway.  Low exhorted the senator to call out.  "Help! Murder!", he shouted as the other fourth-floor tenants came out into the hallway.  Just then the elevator doors opened and the building janitor appeared, delivering a mighty blow to the chin of Van Aken, causing him to at last release the gun which was retrieved by Low.

Still holding McPherson's wrist, Van Aken began to curse, "You've ruined me, ruined me.  And treated me like a dog!"

Five weeks later at the trial for attempted murder, Van Aken's lawyer did a good job of showing there was no proof that his client went to McPherson's office that day to murder the former senator, or even to assault him - and in fact, did not even remove the revolver from his pocket.  When Mr. Low testified that Van Aken and his accomplice appeared to be unprincipled men, the defense attorney saw an opening.  "Did you ever know Mr. Van Aken to do anything so unprincipled as this, being a United States Senator, to speculate in stock certificates when their value would rise or fall according to his vote?", referring to the incident near the end of McPherson's third term when he was nearly laughed out of the Senate for explaining that a telegram authorizing stock transactions that he meant to throw away was accidentally left out and sent by one of his servants.

After this, the defense attorney asked for an immediate acquittal, which was granted - although Van Aken was still ordered to be held over for possession of an unlicensed firearm.

30 October 2014

"A Man Called Van Aken", Part Three

When Jeremiah, "Uncle Jerry", Rusk stepped off the train for his first visit to Belle Mead Farm in the summer of 1889, the newly minted United States Secretary of Agriculture, long time Wisconsin congressman, and three-term governor probably wasn't expecting to see anything special.  Apart from his Civil War service, where he rose in the ranks from major to brevet brigadier general, he had spent most of his life in the Midwest where farms, even innovative ones, were plenty.

"Jeremiah McLain Rusk - Brady-Handy"
by Mathew Brady - Library of Congress Prints and Photographs
Division. Brady-Handy Photograph Collection.

He was greeted at the three-story, telegraph-equipped station by two gentlemen - the farm's proud proprietor, United States Senator John R, McPherson, and the farm manager, New Jersey Assemblyman Jacob Klotz.  That past winter Klotz had dutifully returned to the assembly to vote his boss to the Senate for a third consecutive term, now he was back at the farm ready to show it off.

Belle Mead station circa 1908

Boarding a carriage waiting behind the station, the three men started off on their tour.  McPherson explained that he had purchased the property several years previously in a foreclosure sale when real estate developer William B. Van Aken's cash-flow and marital problems forced him to abandon the industrial city he envisioned for the site.  It was now the millionaire senator who was the beneficiary of the railroad line secured by Van Aken, as well as the hundreds of thousands of dollars in land improvements instituted by the entrepreneur.

The rear of Belle Mead station, circa 1910

As the carriage drove out from the station and headed for the Somerset County countryside, Uncle Jerry got his first look at what he later described as "the finest cattle farm in the Eastern States."  But Belle Mead Farm comprised more than just a prize-winning dairy herd.  Spread out among the dozen farmhouses - including the senator's own "country home" - and the dozen enormous barns, were 10,000 peach trees, hundreds of other fruit trees, 100 acres of oat, 100 acres of wheat, a science-based chicken operation, and a game preserve.

1909 map of Belle Mead Farm.
West is at the top of the map, and the "macadam road" - Rt. 601 today -
should actually be to the north (right) of the station.

According to a contemporary story from the Reading Eagle, "Rabbits, ducks, partridges, guinea fowls, carrier pigeons, and domestic animals of every description abound in the woods." The secretary was astounded to see quail and plover "flying in all directions".

Heading west from Belle Mead station
For the wealthy senator who had made his fortune in the cattle business, and had even patented a design for an improved railroad cattle car, money was no object in assembling a herd for his new farm.  In the preceding four years, determined to have the best dairy operation in the country, McPherson purchased only the finest pedigreed Holsteins and Jerseys from across the United States and Europe.

Secretary of Agriculture Jeremiah Rusk (middle-ground left)
 and Senator John R. McPherson (middle-ground right)
 at the Belle Mead herd dispersal auction, 1891

Klotz was especially proud of DeBless, the "queen of Belle Mead", who produced forty quarts of milk a day, double the production of most good milkers - and there were plenty of other champions in the 300 strong herd.  Cows grazed on hundreds of acres of Kentucky Bluegrass - McPherson was the first to cultivate it in the North - and benefited from the enormous quantities of corn being raised for fodder, as the gentleman farmer was the first in the country to use the ensilage process.

Senator John R. McPherson's "farmhouse" at Belle Mead

As the men made their way back across the nearly 1300 acres to McPherson's finely-appointed farmhouse, the senator enthused about his upcoming trip to the far west where he hoped to pick up more cattle, and maybe even get into the racehorse breeding business.  Neither man knew that they would be together again less than two years later for the auction which would disperse the entire herd, or that William Van Aken would soon be seeking his revenge.

27 October 2014

"A Man Called Van Aken", Part Two

Today the name most frequently associated with Belle Mead is that of New Jersey Senator John R. McPherson.  Pretty remarkable considering that the millionaire politician from Jersey City held the farm property for about a decade, and sold it in 1891!

Senator John R. McPherson

McPherson was born in 1833 in Livingston County, New York, and moved to Jersey City at the age of 26.  He sometimes used the middle name "Rhoderic" but later confessed that the "R" didn't stand for anything at all and was only used to distinguish him from many other "John McPhersons". He knew how to make money in the cattle business, and kept right on doing it in New Jersey, especially after he was elected as a Jersey City alderman in 1864.  By that time he was already well-established in the stockyards business at Hudson City, New Jersey, and was soon a millionaire through his business and real estate holdings.  As the New York World put it in an 1897 profile, "He had a knack of getting on the winning side, especially when politics and business overlapped."

Patent for an improved stock car, 1876

After six years as an alderman, three as president of that board, he was elected to the New Jersey State Senate.  In 1876, the same year he filed a patent for an improved stock car design, McPherson was a Democratic presidential elector for Samuel J. Tilden in his failed bid to defeat Rutherford B. Hayes - the closest presidential election in U.S. history - setting up his own nomination and election by the New Jersey State Legislature to the first of his three terms in the U.S. Senate.

From The Illustrated American, 1891

It was during McPherson's first term in 1878 that he learned of the plight of real estate developer and entrepreneur William Van Aken. A few years previously, Van Aken acquired 800 acres of property in central New Jersey along the proposed route of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad's Delaware and Bound Brook division with the intent of developing a small industrial city along the line.  Despite having secured a railroad station with the promise of regular service, and an expenditure of several hundreds of thousands of dollars in improvements, sales of residential lots were slow, manufacturers were not interested, and he was losing money.
Belle Mead looking west toward the Sourland Mountains

Van Aken's attempt to dispose of the entire enterprise was blocked by his wife - she had recently filed for divorce - and the property went into foreclosure.

Belle Mead looking east

According to Van Aken's later testimony, he and Senator McPherson were well acquainted through Van Aken's business interest in New York dockyards.  It was easy then for him to approach McPherson with a scheme allowing the senator to purchase the foreclosed property at a low price of $30,000 and continue Van Aken's development plan, with the eventual profits to be split between the gentlemen.

That's not how McPherson remembered it when the pair met again eighteen years later, with near-tragic consequences.

26 October 2014

"A Man Called Van Aken", Part One

Search the internet, or elsewhere, for the history of Belle Mead, New Jersey, and you will be sure to find a sentence that reads something like this: "A man called Vanaken bought up all the farms and set out to develop a city, and when he went broke, the property was bought by US Senator John McPherson and renamed Belle Mead."  What a mundane description of a story that includes fortune, ruin, and a charge of attempted murder!

Illustration from the New York Herald, May 19, 1897 

By the 1870s, New York real estate developer and land speculator, William B. Van Aken had already amassed considerable wealth.  With holdings in Kansas City, Chicago, and other locations west of the Mississippi, he now turned his attention closer to home.  Learning that the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad planned to complete their Philadelphia to New York route by laying tracks from West Trenton to Bound Brook, he quickly began buying farms in the vicinity of the small villages of Plainville and Harlingen, eventually accumulating about 800 acres.

Detail from the 1884 Pennsylvania Railroad Map, showing Vanaken Station

Van Aken shrewdly negotiated with the railroad, donating land for a station near the northern border of Montgomery Township, with an assurance that this would be a regular stop on the Delaware and Bound Brook line.  He then set about making such improvements to the land as required for successful, and profitable, development.  By the time regularly scheduled trains were stopping at "Vanaken Station" in 1876, he was well on his way to spending $280,000 (in 1876 dollars!) on roads, buildings, and lot surveying for his new city.

Twenty-five years after Van Aken's initial investment, developers were still trying to turn a profit in Belle Mead.

The next couple of years were a struggle for Van Aken. Expenditures were far outpacing sales. Realizing his losses were mounting, he decided to divest everything.  Unfortunately, Mrs. Van Aken took this opportunity to sue for divorce, tying up all of the mogul's properties in court.  As the value of his investment decreased, the property went into foreclosure.

Enter millionaire senator John R, McPherson, with, (if you believe Van Aken's story), a plan to fix everything.

Continue reading in Part Two tomorrow.

19 October 2014

Little Mollie Brown

There is no doubt the 30,000 spectators who turned out for the 94th annual Far Hills Race Meeting this weekend witnessed some amazing feats of horsemanship.  But it is also safe to assume that every horse was saddled and every steeplechase rider endeavored to remain firmly astride his mount.  It is interesting to consider then that Somerset County's first great female equestrian made her living and acquired her fame atop and above the bare back of her galloping steed.

Marie Louise Brown (1860-1924), known professionally as Little Mollie Brown, and later as simply Miss Mollie Brown, inherited her great skill from her mother, the renowned bareback rider Madame Louise Tourniare.  The German born Louise Ciseck was apprenticed at an early age to the Tourniaire family, beginning her trick-riding career at the age of five.  After wowing Europe and marrying Francois Tourniare, the entire troupe moved to America in 1846.

After the death of Francois, Madame Tourniaire married her second husband, circus musician William C. Brown, and settled in Bedminster, where Little Mollie was born on May 17, 1860.

1872 Newspaper Ad featuring Little Mollie Brown in the center of the page

Mollie debuted with her own act at the age of five, thrilling audiences with her strength and skill as a bareback equestrienne.  She toured with numerous circuses throughout the 1860s and early 1870s, receiving prominent billing and acclaim wherever she appeared.

1874 newspaper ad

In 1873 she astounded the circus world by becoming the first female equestrian to perform a somersault on a moving horse from a standing position.  The feat delighted audiences and brought Mollie to a whole new level of fame - one that sustained her career for another decade, through her teenage years and into adulthood.

1884 newspaper ad
She married circus business professional Clarence Farrell in 1878, and later James Files, and seems to have retired from the ring sometime around 1884.

Mollie Brown died in Philadelphia in 1924, leaving two daughters and a legacy of skill and daring unequaled during her lifetime and beyond.

03 October 2014

Anna Case Wannabes, 1922

First, a question:  Was there really a time when teachers and parents were alarmed that children wanted to grow up to be just like a famous opera singer, or a world-renowned motion picture actress?

The answer is a surprising, or perhaps not so surprising, YES.

Anna Case 1922 Publicity Photo
Pearl White 1922 Publicity Photo

In 1922 New Hampshire schoolchildren were asked, "Whom do you most wish to resemble when you grow up?"  Answers depended upon the age and gender of the children.  The most common answer among third and fourth-grade girls was "teacher".  No other response, out of 26 classrooms full of students, received more than one vote, not even "mother".  Boys of the same age invariably answered "father".

Anna Case and Pearl White share the motion picture bill on a Sunday in 1919

Seventh and eighth graders showed greater sophistication, with the boys opting for Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Washington, while 34 classrooms of girls were split evenly between opera diva Anna Case and silent screen star Pearl White!  The consternation that ensued led to the student survey being written up in several educational journals, along with the directive that educators and parents be wary of the power of the motion picture to mold young people!  This even as the movie industry was touting their product as a tremendous educational resource.

Pearl White made her name initially with the immensely popular 1914 series "The Perils of Pauline". The twenty installments introduced audiences to the "serial" concept, and gave us the term "cliffhanger", denoting the suspenseful ending of each film, which often had Miss White, who performed her own stunts, literally hanging from a cliff!

Anna Case made her one and only foray into full-length feature films with the 1919 melodrama "The Hidden Truth".  The film now being lost, it is unknown whether or not Miss Case was called upon to perform any particular stunts, although she was commended at the time for the fine horsemanship she displayed in the western scenes.  

Anna Case on horseback in "The Hidden Truth"

It seems quaint now that hands would be wrung over idolization of an opera singer or the highest paid Hollywood actress.  But it does say something about the immense visual power of the moving image.  Especially in the case of Miss Case, where students' exposure was limited to that one movie from three years prior, and perhaps a few Edison records.

Pearl White is "Up In the Air", 1914

The motion picture had the ability to create, for perhaps the first time, an icon to rival Mom and Dad.  And Teacher, too.

For more Anna Case, click here.