In my research on Jay Cooke, I read that Cooke had a private telegraph line. When Matthew and I first surveyed the collection, we discovered several folders full of ticker tapes and queried one another about best practice for housing them. It was helpful to have this piece of information to explain the quantity of telegrams in the Cooke papers. They are rather fun to read, and add a bit of behind-the-scenes perspective on Cooke’s voluminous formal correspondence.
M. John Lubetkin, in Jay Cooke’s Gamble, describes how Cooke received news of the final collapse of Jay Cooke & Co. by telegram on September 18, 1873:
“About 11 a.m. there was a discreet knock on Cooke’s door. However rigid he was in dress and decorum, he wanted news instantly. At first glance, the telegram’s contents may not have registered; but then, upon rereading it, stoical as he was, he probably had to fight an involuntary gasp. Other telegrams quickly arrived. Glancing up and walking toward the front of his bank, Cooke gave an order and attempted to regain his composure.” (p. 4, based on Cooke’s account)
While I had hoped to find some evidence of these telegrams in the collection, correspondence of any form from September 1873 is extremely limited. What I did find, however, were telegrams reporting other types of news–mostly business related (requests for meetings, buying and selling of securities, informal reports from business partners, and the like)–and some personal correspondence from friends.
J.R. Young informs Cooke that Harper’s Weekly had attacked him, and asks for “facts for reply”.
In another, more colorful, telegram, Cooke’s friend Samuel Wilkeson laments not being able to see him in Philadelphia:
“NY. SEP. XIITH. JAY COOKE. PHA. I WAS CARRIED BY PHILA. YESTERDAY. SICK FROM MY BOOTS TO MY HAT. IT WAS A GRIEF TO ME NOT TO SEE YOU. I AM FLAT DOWN WITH DYSENTERY. I HAVE NO BRAINS. NO COURAGE NO PURPOSE EXCEPT TO GET AMONG MY SHEEP. DO WRITE TO ME AT CANAAN. YOUR LETTERS ARE MEDICINAL. SAML. WILKESON.”
These brief missives are a few examples of the correspondence in the Cooke papers. The telegrams offer a glimpse into the private negotiations that moved the market and helped to build Cooke’s empire and reputation.
This telegram is a good example of the way that business was conducted between Cooke and his associates:
“TU TWENTY FOUR. ST. ALBANS VT. JAN XVIIITH. JAY COOKE. PHA. HAVE RECD. TELEGRAM|FROM BAXTER OF CHICAGO AND NORTH WESTERN ASKING HIGHEST OFFER I WOULD MAKE FOR THEIR INTEREST REPLIED PAR AND INTEREST. OR IF LIKELY TO FALL INTO ADVERSE HANDS WOULD PAY A LITTLE MORE. HE REPLIES THAT YOU OFFER THIRTY FIVE THOUSAND. IF I REPLY WITHDRAWING AND THEY ACCEPT YOURS YOU MUST SAVE THE FRACTION ONE THIRD FOR ME. WILL YOU. REPLY. HAVE JUST RECD. ADVICES FROM WASHINGTON SAYING HENRY UNWILLING TO ACT UNTIL HE RECEIVES INSTRUCTIONS FROM YOU ON MATTER WE TALKED OF IN NY. WHEN KING WAS PRESENT. DELAY IS INJURING AS ADVERSE PROPOSITIONS ARE BEING CONSIDERED. PLEASE INSTRUCT HENRY|TO ACT PROMPTLY AND IN HARMONY WITH KING. J. GREGORY SMITH”
Jay Cooke & Co.’s fall was a great shock to many, and in the one thin folder of letters from September 1873, friends and strangers alike offer expressions of sympathy for Cooke’s “misfortune”, but confess great confidence in his ability to recover. One author declares that “every man, woman and child” in the Union owes Cooke a debt of gratitude for all that he did to support the war. These letters are moving and reveal the esteem with which Cooke was held in the public eye. Cooke was a larger-than-life figure, shaping the financial world for many years, and I imagine that the 25-plus years of rich correspondence in this collection will reveal much about this man and his fiscal decision-making processes. I look forward to announcing the new finding aid for this collection by the end of May.