Over the wire

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.

In this telegram (July 27, 1866), 

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.

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The City draped in Mourning

Today marks the anniversary of the death of Abraham Lincoln, who was assassinated in 1865 by John Wilkes Booth.  While there is little need to recount the events of April 14-15, 1865, when Lincoln and members of his cabinet were mortally wounded, the echoes of mourning in correspondence from the days following are worthy of a look.

The above letter from J.W. McMillen is interesting in its conjunction of mourning Lincoln’s death and discussions of business.  McMillen writes on April 16, 1865:

“The early morning papers of yesterday announced the assassination of our excellent President and Secretary Seward, and before Nine oclock the death of the President was announced.  All business was at once suspended and the City draped in Mourning, universal grief and sadness seemed to prevail in every heart, the Governor called upon the people to meet in the State House Yard at 12 oclock  to give expression to their feeling in view of the great Calamity that had befallen the Country, fully fifteen thousand people assembled, and were addressed by Democrats and Republicans, all took the ground that there could be but one party Now, and that for the Country.  I firmly believe that great good will come out of this great Aflliction.  I think the firing on Sumpter will not compare with the feeling that has been aroused in every heart by the cowardly assassination of Mr. Lincoln, and it will result in a more firm determination to exterminate all traitors.”  Later, McMillen goes on to discuss sales of 7/30 loans and the distribution of circulars about them.  “I am gratified to see the large increase in the daily subscriptions of the past week, hope it may continue.”

I have been working on the Jay Cooke papers (collection 148) this month, and within his correspondence, there is a great deal of documentation about the assassination of Lincoln because of Cooke’s prominent connections within the federal government.  Cooke was called the “financier of the Civil War” because of his efforts to raise money for the Union war effort by selling government bonds.  Cooke was friends with Salmon P. Chase, the secretary of the Treasury, and was entrusted with many major stabilizing efforts during Lincoln’s presidency and immediately following his death.

These two telegrams offer a glimpse into Cooke’s importance in stabilizing the financial markets, which he did with his own money after Lincoln’s death was confirmed and financial panic was beginning to grip the nation.  The second telegram is authorizing Cooke to buy securities to quell the beginnings of a crash.

Cooke’s brother Henry ran Jay Cooke & Co.’s Washington business, and was also a major player in the political arena, making their operations successful into the 1870s.

Cooke’s family connections were a major aspect of his social and political life.  Even personal correspondence is filled with discussions of national politics, finance, and other charged topics.  In the letter below, R.N. Allen laments Lincoln’s death and the appointment of Johnson as his successor:

“…I heard the Horrible news of Mr. Lincoln’s assassination, Oh Jay what is to become of our country now surely we are not to be under the guidance of Andrew Johnson, there no way to reach Mr. Chase he is the only one now that my mind reverts to who has been in the Presidential road + who might constitutionally be reached for…” (April 17, 1865)

There is much more correspondence in the Cooke papers, including many letters from Salmon P. Chase and other prominent public figures.  These papers are extremely rich in their coverage of the Civil War era, offering behind-the-scenes views of major negotiations, financial discussions of national importance, and windows into the social and intellectual lives of the men who surrounded Cooke.

The Jay Cooke papers are currently being processed, and will be unavailable to researchers until mid-May 2010.  At that point, a finding aid will be available online for these materials for the first time.