Thursday, August 30, 2012

Pecunia non olet

According to the historian Suetonius,Vespasian, who ruled the Roman Empire from AD 69 to AD 79, had a son named Titus who found fault with him for contriving a tax upon public toilets. Vespasian held a piece of money from the first payment to his son's nose, asking whether its odor was offensive to him. When Titus said "No," he replied, "Yet it comes from urine." 
The moral: Money doesn't stink.
But then any emperor would believe the same.

William Hathaway Forbes
© 2012 by Linda Minor

“By the late 1830s, opium was the basis of East-West commerce. It balanced the payments…Everyone needed it.”
 Jonathan Goldstein, Jerry Israel, Hilary Conroy, America views
China: American images of China then and now, p. 61.

Shortly after his retirement from the China trade,  John Murray bought an island off the coast of Massachusetts near Nantucket in Buzzard’s Bay called Naushon. His son William Hathaway was then a mere lad of 7 or 8 years. Then one of the wealthiest families in New England, Forbes began a concentrated effort toward his son's proper education--without much cooperation on the part of the youngster.

William Hathaway Forbes failed to graduate with his Harvard class of 1861, in which he began as a freshman in 1857.[1] To his father's great embarrassment, he was summarily expelled, as revealed in the article below, which appeared in the Pittsfield Eagle during his junior year at Harvard. One biographer linked the scandal to the secret society called “Med. Fac.” that had been operating at Harvard since at least 1820. Not unlike the Skull and Bones secret society at Yale, it had its roots much earlier among the medical faculty.

Fortunately for the Forbes family, war intervened and Will Forbes rose in the 2d Cavalry of the Union Army, eventually attaining the rank of lieutenant colonel. His friend and brother-in-law, Henry Sturgis Russell (whose family had started Russell & Co.) served in the same regiment until he was promoted to brigadier general over the "colored" regiment (the Fifth). Henry married Mary Hathaway Forbes, Will’s sister, in 1863.[3]
  His father, John Murray Forbes, showed his disappointment in his son when headlines in January 1860 revealed him to be the culprit who almost killed an undercover cop who hid in Appleton Chapel hoping to catch a repeat burglar. Reminiscent of Barbara Bush when her son Neil was criticized for helping to loot Silverado Savings, Will’s mother also sped to her son’s defense. Boys will be boys, as the saying goes. But Will's father, usually called simply J.M. Forbes, didn’t want to rock the boat; he had only just begun to remove the stench of opium from his reputation.

William Hathaway’s friend and Harvard classmate from the class of 1860—Henry Sturgis Russell, son of George Robert and Sarah Russell—would join the Massachusetts Cavalry as soon as they heard the war drums. They were young and itching for excitement. Their fathers, grandfathers and uncles had all experienced that same adrenalin in the Far East decades earlier as merchant traders.

It was also war which consumed  much of the career of another descendant of Samuel Russell--William Huntington Russell--who in addition to operating a military school in New Haven also had helped to found the secret society Skull and Bones similar in many respects to the Med Fac society which operated years earlier at Harvard.

Henry’s Russell's uncle, Samuel Wadsworth Russell had started Russell & Co. at 2 Suy-Hong in Canton in 1824 in competition with the Perkins and Forbes family, with whom he merged his company in 1832. Henry’s father, George Russell was a partner in Russell, Sturgis & Co. formed in Manila in 1828.[2] They had more or less taken over the trade of the East India Company in China when the British departed.

By the time William’s own father, John Murray Forbes, first laid eyes upon the Chinese city of Canton, where his uncles (one of whom, James Sturgis, had married a Perkins girl, making him “Uncle Jimmy”) and brothers had garnered the family wealth, he was working for the larger firm which bore the Russell name. But it was all the same family business--trading mostly in opium in China and later investing profits in America for their Canton trading partner, Houqua, under the name of Russell & Co.

After his first tour in China, Will Hathaway’s father had returned to Milton, Massachusetts, married Sarah Hathaway, a friend of his sisters, and then quickly returned to China to seek his fortune. In the meantime, Russell & Co. had made him a partner of the firm, based on his close relationship with Houqua, who controlled the opium trade on the mainland. To please his new partners he stayed in China without seeing his new bride again for almost two years. Once he returned, however, he remained in Milton, working as Houqua’s agent until Canton’s importance was toppled by the rise of Hong Kong. 
After those best-forgotten days in China, where he and the Houqua hong had made fortunes working around China's leaders who wanted to keep opium out of the hands of its people, John Murray Forbes spent the remainder of his life investing those fortunes (both his and Houqua's) in what was then America's most high-tech industry. He built the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy railroad.

Ten years after Will's Harvard class graduated  without him, the university finally awarded him a retroactive honorary 1861 Harvard degree. They had forgotten his adolescent indiscretion as well as his status as a drop-out, as soon as he struck it rich. Perhaps to celebrate this honor, Will built a summer house on the island his father had purchased with opium profits, a home which future generations of the Forbes family used as a networking base.
Harvard Crimson - October 13, 1897 
Colonel William Hathaway Forbes '61, died on Monday at his place on Naushon Island. W. H. Forbes was born on Nov. 1st, 1840. He was the son of J. M. Forbes and the brother of J. Malcolm Forbes. In college he was a classmate of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Col. N. P. Hallowell, W. P. Garrison and H. P. Bowditch. He left college during his first Junior term and entered business in Boston in '61. In December of the same year he was given a commission in the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry. In 1865 he married Miss Edith Emerson, daughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and was engaged in active business in Boston until 1887. In 1872, by the vote of the corporation, he received the degree of A. B. 

Colonel Hallowell who was Mr. Forbes' chum in college speaks of his broad-mindedness and generosity of nature. He was always ready at college to help those who were struggling, and in later life he was never happier than when doing a generous act in behalf of some unfortunate who had appealed to him. 

With interests many and wide, for many years a prominent figure in Boston business and society, Colonel Forbes bore worthily a name that has been among the foremost and best in the life and progress of several generations.

Is it naive to question the source of the money that built the railroad? Does money somehow lose the taint when invested in good old American free enterprise? It's a question that persists until the present day.

[1] Edited by Albert K. Teele, The History of Milton, Mass.: 1640 to 1887, p. 356 (Boston: Press of Rockwell & Churchill, 1884), p. 356. Also see Massachusetts Historical Society papers of Edith Emerson Forbes and William Hathaway Forbes at the website for the Forbes Papers, accessed August 25, 2009.

[2]His partner was Henry Parkman Sturgis, later referred to euphemistically as a "merchant in the Far East," and there were three other Sturgis brothers involved in the firm—Russell, George and Samuel.

[3] Teele, History of Milton, p. 570. Also Mary Caroline Crawford, Famous families of Massachusetts Vol. I  (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1930), p. 304.

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