Bad Behavior Scandals

Henry Clay Frick: The Man Who Beat Up His Assassin

While I was out in Pittsburgh I had to be near the Frick Building, an area which has a lot of great eroded signs painted on the sides of buildings…which then sparked a bit of a obsession with photographing more and more of them. Of course, that also made me thing of how fascinating Henry Clay Frick was and that his life would make for an interesting post here. Unfortunately I didn’t have the time to visit The Frick museum, next time, but I thought I’d combine a few of my general travel photos around Pittsburgh with the story of Henry Clay Frick, once a “king” of this city.

These letters are back in style now but these are originals from my old neighborhood!  Wholey's is famous for their fish sandwiches. Once a week I'd go get a Wholey’s is famous for their fish sandwiches. Once a week I’d go get a “Junior Whiting on soft” and some Lemon Blennd to drink. Mmmm. The tower was for drying out the hoses which used to be made of cotton, not for a lookout. Here it is in 1920. The tower was for drying out the hoses which used to be made of cotton, not for a lookout. Here it is in 1920.

Young Millionaire

Henry Clay Frick was born southeast of Pittsburgh in 1849 to a wealthy family. While his father was not successful in business, his grandfather ran a lucrative whiskey distillery (and it’s still made today by the Jim Beam company). His grandfather was a wealthy man, ambitious and a sharp dresser. This would be who Henry would idolize and initially model himself after. His earliest ambition became to be rich like his grandfather and he would achieve his goal much sooner than he thought possible.

At just 21-years old Henry made the money he had dreamed of by using a beehive oven to turn coal into coke (not the drink, the stuff used to make steel). Soon he formed a partnership with Andrew Carnegie and became an even wealthier man.

The Lovely Adelaide

In 1881 Henry attended a reception with his friend A.W. Mellon. There he spotted a tall beautiful woman with blue eyes. Her name was Adelaide Childs and she was the daughter of a shoe manufacturer who had recently died (and who supplied Henry’s company store actually). Henry asked his friend for an introduction, as was proper. But they needed someone older to broker the introduction and so A.W. took off to find the right person but he wasn’t having much luck. Especially under the pressure Henry was imposing by pacing around like an excited bull.

Finally Henry couldn’t wait anymore. He went straight up to Adelaide himself. Six months later they were married. They would have four children together. His six-year old daughter Martha died in 1891 as a result of a pin she had ingested at the age of 2. Henry Clay, Jr. died in 1892 as an infant. His daughter Helen would become his favorite. His son Childs would become a renowned paleontologist.

Their children’s deaths affected them deeply. Henry and Adelaide blamed themselves for Martha’s death particularly. He surrounded himself with Victorian mourning mementos and commissioned an angelic portrait of Martha (you can see it here) and had it engraved on his checks. Adelaide retreated into a quiet depression and suffered chronic ill health. Henry’s daughter, Helen, stepped in for her mother as her father’s escort to social functions (he refused to allow her to marry, though she never seemed to hold it too much against him).

In 1912, Adelaide and Henry (along with friend J.P. Morgan) booked tickets on the luxury liner, the Titanic. Adelaide sprained her ankle and fortuitously they decided to skip the trip. J.P. Morgan then cancelled his trip too.

Deadly Strike

In 1892, Henry faced a strike from his workers. Coal mining was dangerous, dirty and low-paying and the 25,000 men on strike wanted to form a union. Henry was strongly opposed to unions of any kind. The workers (some armed) locked the other staff out of the factory and surrounded the mill in protest.

Henry reacted by bringing in 300 Pinkerton detectives to regain control of the mills (and really because he wanted a safe passage for his replacement hires). He towed his detectives and their rifles up the river on barges quietly during the night. Of course this wouldn’t end well. During the 12 hours of fighting more than 10 men were killed and 70 were injured. The Pennsylvania State Militia intervened but Henry still refused to talk unions with the workers and hired the replacement workers instead. For those who weren’t fired for striking he halved their wages.

That same month, a young Russian man named Alexander Berkman, influenced by social reformer Emma Goldman…who was also his lover, arrived at Henry’s offices. In his jacket was a revolver and a steel file. The two had been plotting Henry’s murder in revenge for the workers killed and with hopes to inspire a working class revolution. Upon entering Henry’s office Berkman pulled out a revolver and shot Henry in the neck and ear. The vice-president of Frick and Carnegie Steel, who was in the room and had been conducting a meeting with Henry, tussled with Berkman and likely saved Henry’s life in doing so.

The Cathedral of Learning at Pitt where I went to school. With all those stories my class was of course...in the basement. What a view :/ The Cathedral of Learning at Pitt where I went to school. With all those stories my class was of course…in the basement. What a view :/

Instead of calling out for help or wailing in pain, Henry was rather…annoyed. He got up and tackled Berkman. The anarchist used their proximity to stab Henry a few times in the leg with his steel file. A carpenter who had been in the hall came in upon hearing the commotion and attempted to subdue the assassin by hitting Berkman with a hammer in the head. It was only when the police arrived that he was finally fully restrained. And then they quickly noticed that the anarchist was chewing something in his mouth. It was a capsule of dynamite, enough to blow the entire building up. Police confiscated it.

When a doctor finally arrived, Henry refused anesthesia and helped the surgeon probe around for the bullets. Reportedly Henry told him: “Don’t make it too bad, Doctor, for I must be at the office on Monday.” He returned to work within a week. Berkman was sentenced to 22 years in prison (he served 14). The violence from the New York anarchists angered the workers on strike. Their holdout had now collapsed, all because of a couple of outsiders stirring up trouble for them.

This is the Monongahela River, which Henry floated his detectives secretly to the mill on. This is the Monongahela River, which Henry floated his detectives secretly to the mill on.

20 Million Tons

Famously (well in Pennsylvania anyway), Frick was one of the founders of the South Fork Fishing Hunting Club above Johnstown, Pa. It was an exclusive club that counted the top businessmen as members. But all that money didn’t mean that everything was above board. They went cheap on repairs to the dam which formed their private lake and after an excessively bad winter and just as severe spring rains the dam failed in May of 1899.

A club employee telegrammed the town of the dam’s imminent failure but the townspeople dismissed the warning. They believed the dam would eventually fail, just not anytime soon. A few hours later the dam burst. The Johnstown Flood unleashed 20 million tons of water (in some places it reached 70 feet high) and killed well over 2,000 people. Survivors could still vividly remember years later the terrible sound of the rushing water which brought with it trees, iron railroad tracks and entire train cars. More died after the floodwaters had subsided from the debris and fires. The town was nearly leveled and took years to clean up.

With the best lawyers the Club escaped legally and wasn’t held responsible. The tragedy was declared “an act of God.” Survivors received no legal compensation from men who were swimming in money. In order to rehabilitate their reputations the Club members took part in relief efforts. Henry donated funds and Carnegie built a library there (it’s now the Flood Museum). There’s a small photography exhibit on the flood’s aftermath at the Carnegie Museum right now but you can see how badly the town looked after here too. A 15-minute informative documentary from the History Channel is available on youtube as well, here.

Lady Rosebud

Henry Clay Frick died of a heart attack on December 2 (eek, my birthday) in 1919 just shy of his 70th birthday, and four months after his partner and frequent rival Andrew Carnegie. He left 83% of his fortune to philanthropic causes. The impressive art collection he had built is now housed in The Frick (and was the Frick’s old home). It opened as a public museum in 1935, a few years after Adelaide’s death. And if you’re ever in Pittsburgh you can also visit the historical Frick Park, dedicated to his daughter Helen, nicknamed “Rosebud” as a child for her complexion.

Henry’s daughter Helen received most of the remaining portion of his estate even though his wife, son and four grandchildren also survived him. While he had donated a significant amount she still inherited $38 million dollars – which is not only a nice sum but actually it’s worth $404 million dollars in today’s money! She faced her brother’s jealousy over the inheritance and sexism from the board of The Frick Collection even though she had a keen eye for art and was well-educated.

Not that she didn’t hold her own prejudices. After WWI she excluded people with German-sounding names from using The Frick Art Reference Library. She also spent year tangling with John D. Rockefeller, Jr. who her father had made a trustee of the Frick Collection. He took her to court and she lost. All he wanted to do was add art to the Frick Collection that hadn’t been purchased by Henry.

In the mid-1960s she became infuriated by the University of Pittsburgh’s Frick Library (which she had paid for) employing Germans and displaying modern art. She withdrew her financial support but remained on the board. Twenty years later, in 1983, they finally persuaded her to resign. When she stepped down she “turned her face to the wall and said she wanted to die.” She did the next year.

Left: (top) Helen as a girl and (bottom) with her father, Middle: Adelaide Childs Frick, Right: Henry Clay Frick Left: (top) Helen as a girl and (bottom) with her father, Middle: Adelaide Childs Frick, Right: Henry Clay Frick

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6