Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The people who tell the story: Alanson Palmer, millionaire turned pauper

Erie County Poorhouse Insane Asylum by Robert J. Higgins

As the research for the next installment of the Orphans and Inmates series continues, real people whose lives are so compelling that they demand a place in the story are continuing to find me. I was searching the period newspapers when I came across the story of Alanson Palmer.  Palmer was a veteran of the War of 1812 and one of Buffalo's earliest millionaires until he lost his fortune in the panic of 1837.  Sadly, Palmer was in and out of the Erie County Poorhouse after that and ultimately died in the Willard Asylum for the Insane, in Ovid, New York.  A millionaire-turned-pauper who died in the insane insane asylum would certainly make an excellent character in my story, so I decided to investigate him further to see if his connection to Orphans and Inmates would reveal itself.

Image Source: Victorian Buffalo: Images from the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, by Cynthia Van Ness
Announcements of his death, which appeared in many newspapers in New York and elsewhere in the United States, portrayed Alanson Palmer as a brilliant, yet benevolent business man.  Other articles about the building of Buffalo's infrastructure revealed the same.  In 1835, when discussions of establishing a university in Buffalo were underway, Palmer donated $15,000 to endow a professorship in Mathematics and Natural Philosophy and several acres of land.  However, it was one of his other investments in the city that caught my eye, The American Hotel, which was built in 1836.  Located on Main Street, between Eagle and Court Streets, it was among the earliest of the grand hotels in Buffalo, and Palmer purchased it for $100,000. Readers of the Orphans and Inmates series may recall that the American Hotel was featured in both A Whisper of Bones and The Seer and The Scholar.  How sad to think that by the time those books took place (1840's), Palmer likely didn't have the means to stop in for a pint in the hotel he had once owned.

Another interesting part of Palmer's life with possible connections to my stories were his marriages .  In 1817 he married Patty Swain.  Patty was the daughter of Daniel Swain, who, ironically, was the Poormaster in Boston, New York.  Sadly, Patty died five years later.  In 1827 Alanson married Julia Matteson.  Her last name might ring a bell if you are regular reader of my blog. Antoinette Matteson was a clairvoyant healer who lived and practiced in Buffalo during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  She was a strong-willed and beloved woman who faced without fear the medical establishment of the day and, on more than one occasion, the law.  She is absolutely worthy of representation in some way in my next book (for more information on this fascinating woman see my blog post from Friday, October 30, 2015).

I wondered if Julia Matteson was related in any way to Judah H.R. Matteson, Antoinette's husband, and immediately contacted a colleague who specializes in genealogy.  As yet, no common ancestor has been identified between Judah H.R. Matteson and Julia Matteson.  However, in the process of trying to find a connection between them, my colleague found another more interesting relationship.  The daughter of Alanson and Julia (Matteson) Palmer, also named Julia, married Samuel E. Cleveland in 1854,  Cleveland was first cousin to the 22nd and 24th President of the United States, Grover Cleveland (who was also a former Mayor of Buffalo and Governor of New York).  Palmer's daughter certainly seemed to have married well considering the decline of her father's status.

Schenectady Courier, Wednesday, April 12, 1837 from
Palmer's decline played out in the period newspapers in Buffalo and elsewhere.   In 1837, after losing his fortune, Palmer wrote a short piece for the Buffalo papers which was reprinted in the Schenectady Cabinet entitled Come and Get Your Pay.  He encouraged his creditors to seek him out for repayment while he still had control of what little was left of his finances and pledged his sincere effort to repay all that he owed.  Apparently, he bounced back somewhat because in September of 1843, the New York Evening Express announced that he purchased a large parcel of land in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for the amount of $60,000.00.  Whether he used his own funds or had the help of financial backers is uncertain.  It seems after that, the years were not kind to Palmer. In 1847, The Buffalo Daily Courier reported him in default on several payments and announced the sale at public auction of several of his properties. There was a report in the same paper in March of 1860 of a juvenile delinquent found guilty of throwing snowballs at passers by. His unfortunate target was Alanson Palmer.   In 1861 the Buffalo Daily Courier reported that Palmer's empty wallet had been stolen.  In the winter of 1868, the Courier again reported that Palmer was arrested and charged with petit larceny for stealing a shirt.  Given the old and decrepit appearance of Palmer, by then in his mid-seventies, the judge dismissed the case and sent him to the poorhouse for four months. A few years later, in 1870, the New York Courier and Republic reported that  he was arrested for vagrancy and sent to the poorhouse for six months after just having been released from there.

Although many of the period newspapers imply that Palmer spent the remainder of his life as a pauper after he lost his fortune, it was more likely just the last decade of his life spent at the poorhouse.  A search through the Buffalo city directories revealed that Palmer retained office space on Main Street until 1857.  There was a record of admission to the poorhouse in December of 1864 for 63 days.  He was classified as a pauper and a vagrant at that time.  Another entry into the poorhouse in August of 1867 added the classification of intemperate to his description.  According to The Auburn Morning News (December 29, 1875) Palmer was transferred to the Willard Asylum, the state institution for the insane, when the Erie County Poorhouse asylum was being enlarged.  The first enlargement of that asylum was in 1874, a year before his death, however, the poorhouse records indicate that when Palmer was admitted in December 1870, he became a long term resident and that he was actually transferred to the Willard Asylum on June 19, 1872.  It seems reasonable to assume that he was sent there either because he was considered incurable and,or, because the poorhouse asylum was overcrowded.

When Palmer parted with his wife is a mystery.  I could find no evidence that Julia departed immediately after the initial financial crisis in 1837.  It does not appear that Palmer's situation was dire until about 1847, when much of his property was sold at auction. However, The Buffalo Daily Courier reported that Palmer served on a Grand Jury in 1852.  It is doubtful that he would have been chosen if his mental stability was in question, or if he was an inmate at the poorhouse, so perhaps he was still a citizen in good standing at that time.  Other records indicate that Palmer petitioned to serve as the administrator of his mother-in-law's estate upon her death in 1856.  It was recorded that Julia Matteson Palmer was absent from the state and believed to be in Michigan at that time.  That was the first indication that Julia had left Buffalo.  The announcement of her death that appeared in the Buffalo Morning Express on October 17, 1889 indicated that she died in Brooklyn, New York, and her body was transferred back to Buffalo for burial.  Strangely, neither of Julia's children were listed as witnesses or beneficiaries in her will. A sum of money was left to grandchildren by one Julia's deceased daughters. It is possible that she was estranged from her surviving children at the time of her death, or perhaps she just didn't think they were in need of her assets.  I find myself wondering if Julia had any contact with Alanson during those dark years before his death, and if so, was it a comfort to him or just a reminder of how far he had fallen?

There are even more unanswered questions regarding Palmer's relationship with his children.  Palmer married his second wife in 1827, so his surviving children, Charles and Julia, would have been under ten years old when he lost his fortune in 1837.  If his wife departed at that time, she likely would have taken the children with her.  If she parted with Palmer in the late 1840's or 50's, the children would have been grown and perhaps no longer in her care.  I wondered what the children were told about the family's reversal of fortune. Did they resent their father for the change that took place in their lives?  Did they have any contact at all with him growing up? Both young Julia and Charles left Buffalo, the former going to New York City and the latter to Cleveland, Ohio.  Did Palmer know that despite his failure, his children grew into respectable adults? Did he ever contact them and ask for help?  These are questions that the historic record does not provide answers for. Why neither of them chose to take in their father is also unknown.  The stigma of an insanity diagnosis would have been enough to keep Palmer's family away.  One wonders, though, if the insanity is what drove the family away or if rejection from his family lead to his mental instability?

The life of Alanson Palmer certainly provides plenty of interesting details to build a character around.  The beauty of writing fiction is that it gives us the ability to fill in the missing pieces of the story and add of few twists using our imagination. What if Palmer's wife did not want to leave him?  Perhaps Palmer was ashamed of his failure and pushed his family away, seeing the poorhouse as just punishment for his actions.  Maybe his daughter had visited him once or twice in the asylum, and brought with her tales of her childhood and of her own children.  What if his last thoughts were of her when he died?  What do you think?  If you could add a chapter to Palmer's life, what would it tell us?