Monday, February 19, 2018

Gordon Webster Burnham

Gordon W. Burnham (1803-1885) was born and raised to be a farmer in eastern Connecticut, but instead wound up as one of Waterbury's most successful and wealthiest brass magnates, rubbing shoulders with Cornelius Vanderbilt and marketing Waterbury's brass products to the world.
Gordon W. Burnham
Published in The Town and City of Waterbury, Volume II

Gordon Webster Burnham was the ninth of thirteen children (eight of whom survived childhood) born to Jedediah and Phebe (Martin) Burnham in Hampton, CT. The Burnham family had been farming the land there since at least the 1730s.

When he was a teenager, Burnham left farming to try his hand at "trunk peddling" -- traveling the countryside with a trunk packed full of various wares to sell door to door. In 1828, Burnham entered into a partnership with Mason Cleveland, member of a prominent Hampton family.  Mason was Town Clerk, and his brother, Chauncey, was a State Representative. Mason would later become the State Comptroller, a State Representative, and a State Senator, while Chauncey would later become Governor and a U.S. Congressman.
After a period of time, Gordon Burnham was ready to move on. In order to dissolve his partnership with Mason Cleveland, he had to sell of the merchandise on hand. In the process, he traveled to New York, Boston, and other cities, discovering that he was extremely talented as a salesman (J. D. Van Slyck, New England Manufacturers, Volume I, 1879, p. 85).

Burnham next went to work for Edwin R. Yale in Meriden selling tinware from a wagon pulled by two horses. In 1834, Burnham's reputation as a superior salesman landed him a partnership with Aaron Benedict in Waterbury. Burnham had worked for Benedict starting in 1832. The new company was named Benedict & Burnham, with Gordon Burnham in charge of sales. The product line was primarily sheet brass, brass and copper wire, and gilt brass buttons. Within a year, sales figures had tripled.

In 1836, Burnham opened a sales office and supply depot in New York City, partnering with John C. and Moses H. Baldwin under the name Baldwin, Burnham & Co. The company sold products made by Benedict & Burnham as well as various other manufacturers. Gordon Burnham moved his primary residence to New York City in 1837, commuting to Waterbury regularly to stay involved in the manufacturing end of his growing business empire.

In 1844, Arad Welton of Waterbury partnered with Burnham and Baldwin to open a commission business in Boston under the name Baldwin, Burnham and Welton. The name changed again a year later, when James M. Plumb, who had been a clerk at Burnham's NYC office, joined the Boston firm, which then became Burnham, Baldwin & Co. In 1846, Baldwin sold his interest in both firms to Gordon Burnham. The NYC business became Burnham and Plumb, and the Boston business became Burnham and Welton. The names continued to change several times as partners came and went, until the NYC firm was finally dissolved in 1863 and the Boston firm dissolved in 1867. Much of Gordon's retirement wealth came from the dissolution of these two businesses.

Waterbury Business Involvement

In 1843, Benedict & Burnham was reorganized as one of the first joint stock companies in Connecticut. The stockholders and partners of Benedict & Burnham joined with those of Brown & Elton in 1846 to form the American Pin Company. Both of the organizing companies produced brass wire; American Pin was created to turn their wire into consumer products including pins and hooks & eyes.

Waterbury Button Company started as a department of Benedict & Burnham, becoming a separate company in 1849. Burnham was one of the directors.

In 1853, another major Waterbury brass company, Holmes, Booth and Hayden, was incorporated. Burnham helped get the company off the ground by investing heavily in its stock and joined its board of directors, eventually serving as its president. He was similarly involved in the Waterbury Brass Company.

Waterbury Clock Company also started as a department of Benedict & Burnham before becoming a separate company in 1857. Burnam became president of Waterbury Clock in 1881.

Waterbury was the source of Burnham's wealth, enabling him to live a posh life in New York City. In turn, Burnham played a vital role in making Waterbury's brass manufacturing enterprises a massive commercial success.

Fifth Avenue Brownstone 

Burnham had a magnificent home on Fifth Avenue built for himself and his family during the 1850s. Located in what is now the Flatiron District on the southwest corner at 18th Street, it stood across the street from that of Edwards Pierrepont, an attorney and NY Superior Court judge, who became Burnham's good friend. Pierrepont served as U.S. Attorney General in 1875 and Minister to Great Britain in 1876. Pierrepont's townhouse would eventually be replaced by a magnificent Beaux Arts building that still bears his name.


In 1831, Gordon Burnham married Ann Griswold Ives of Meriden, CT. They had three children. The first, Cornelia Yale, died in 1840 when she was seven years old. The second, Henry Gordon, was only two months old when he died in 1842. Their third child, Douglass Williams Burnham (1843-1892), survived childhood, graduated from Columbia University, married, and started a family of his own. Douglass followed in his father's footsteps as a director at Holmes, Booth & Haydens and as a millionaire member of NYC's social elite. He also dabbled in farming on an estate in Fishkill, NY.

Gordon remarried in 1851 to Maria Louisa Brownell, daughter of Thomas Church Brownell (1779-1865). Thomas Brownell was consecrated as the Episcopal Bishop of Connecticut in 1819, founded Trinity College in Hartford, and was the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church from 1852 until his death.

The marriage ceremony for Gordon and Louisa was performed by her father at Christ Church in Hartford. Their first child, Charlotte, was born in 1852 and died just before her fifth birthday. They did not have any more children until 1866, when their son Thomas Brownell Burnham was born.

Maria Louisa Brownell, portrait by Frederick R. Spencer, January 1840
(Sold at Skinner Auction, 2012)

T. Brownell Burnham (1866-1925) was educated with the intention of attending Harvard, but he never enrolled, perhaps because his mother died just before then. Like his older brother, Brownell Burnham was a director in Holmes, Booth & Haydens, as well as a director of American Brass Company, Benedict & Burnham, Waterbury Watch, and American Pin. He married twice, first to Agnes Havemeyer, and second to Edith Crosland. His second marriage led him to England, where she was from, but he continued his involvement in Waterbury companies.

Art Patronage

Gordon W. Burnham was a patron of the arts, not just for his own enjoyment, but for the public as well.

Christophe Fratin, Eagles and Prey, Central Park, NYC

I stumbled across this sculpture during a recent walk through Central Park in NYC. It's the sort of artwork that demands your attention ("Why is there a statue of eagles killing a miserable goat?"). At the base of the pedestal was the name G. W. Burnham, which I immediately recognized as a Waterbury name. A quick Google search confirmed that this was, indeed, Waterbury's G. W. Burnham. A little research led to a lot of research, and here we are.

Christophe Fratin, Eagles Attacking Prey, Central Park, NYC

The bronze sculpture was cast in 1850 in Paris, designed by artist Christophe Fratin, known for his depictions of animals. It was donated to New York City by Burnham and installed in Central Park in 1863. It is the oldest known sculpture in any New York City park. The sculpture was controversial: one critic thought the "wild, exotic depictions" were in conflict with the "tranquil rural beauty" of the park (Central Park Conservancy website). Oddly, newspapers from the period sometimes referred to it as eagles pouncing upon a lion.

Bishop Brownell, Trinity College

Following the death of his father-in-law, Bishop Brownell, Burnham hired sculptor Chauncey Ives to design a larger-than-life statue of Brownell for his grave at Cedar Hill Cemetery in Hartford. When the statue was finished, Burnham decided it would be more appropriate for Trinity College, which was founded by Brownell. The bronze statue was designed in Rome by Ives and cast in Munich, standing eleven feet tall. The granite base added another fifteen feet to the overall height.

Ives was a Connecticut artist, born in Hamden, whose marble statues of Jonathan Trumbull and Roger Sherman were commissioned by the State of Connecticut for installation at the U.S. Capitol in D.C. in 1872.

Bishop Brownell at Trinity College.
Photo by Kenneth C. Zirkel, 2006, Wikimedia Commons.

Thomas Ball, Daniel Webster, Central Park, NYC

Gordon Burnham was a huge fan of Daniel Webster (1782-1852), the Massachusetts statesman known for his eloquence and speeches. Burnham was said to have met Webster at a country tavern, where Webster was in his "not unusual condition, brimful of good fellowship on an empty wallet."  Burnham had retired to his room when "a tremendous rattling and banging on the wall in the next room attracted his attention. Then the sounds of a stentorian voice rolled in. The man in the next room was summoning his neighbor." The man making all the noise turned out to be the famous Daniel Webster, who invited Burnham to join him in drinking from a decanter that was "not quite full." The pair had a raucous good evening. The next morning, Burnham discovered that Webster had charged everything to his room -- "Mr. Webster had generously regaled Mr. Burnham at Mr. Burnham's own expense" (The New York Times, 22 March 1885).

Daniel Webster by Thomas Ball, Central Park
Photo from NYC Parks website

As part of larger celebrations of the U.S. Centennial in 1876, Burnham commissioned a larger-than-life statue of Daniel Webster for Central Park "to honor the memory of one of America's noblest sons; whose patriotic eloquence, devoted to the defence of her institutions during his life, will continue to animate and inspire to the latest time that sentiment of 'Liberty and Union, now and for ever, one and inseparable,' which as saved the Nation, and will continue to protect it." (Letter from Gordon W. Burnham to Henry G. Stebbins, president of the NYC Department of Public Parks, 1874.)

The statue of Daniel Webster was modeled at Florence by Thomas Ball and cast in Munich. Twenty feet tall, it weighs six tons. Following the unveiling in 1876, Burnham hosted a reception for nearly a thousand people at his home on Fifth Avenue. Among the guests were various New York political, religious, literary, artistic, and business leaders. (Peter Harvey, Reminiscences and Anecdotes of Daniel Webster, Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1878)

St. John's Church, Waterbury

Although his primary residence after 1837 was in New York City, Burnham was in Waterbury every two weeks (The Republic, 19 March 1885).

When he lived in Waterbury, Burnham was a vestryman at St. John's Episcopal Church. He and his wife Louisa were major benefactors of that church, which had to be rebuilt after a fire in 1867.

Among the donations made by the Burnhams was a marble bust of Bishop Brownell by Chauncey Ives, displayed within a carved Caen stone Gothic canopy standing twenty-feet tall. Gordon Burnham donated the church's bells, while Louisa Burnham donated the church's clock. The restored church was reconsecrated in 1873.

Hahnemann Hospital Fair

Burnham's wife, Maria Louisa, was one of the founders of the Hahnemann Homeopathic Hospital, which opened on Park Avenue between 67th and 68th Streets in 1878. She served as President of the hospital's Lady Board of managers. In 1880, she helped organize a fundraiser fair for the hospital at Madison Square Garden. The fair opened on April 12 and was scheduled to remain open for several weeks. A charity ball, booths displaying fine furnishings, and art exhibit were among the attractions.

The opening of the fair on April 12, 1880.

Tragedy struck on April 21, 1880, when a portion of the Madison Square Garden building collapsed during the Hahneman Hospital Fair. The dance hall in that section of the building was packed at the time. Five people were killed, and twenty people were injured. Among the dead was Anna Clark Hegeman, one of the organizers of the Hahneman Fair.

"The Tragedy at Madison Square Garden," Harper's Weekly, 24 April 1880

The Burnhams escaped unharmed, but Gordon Burnham lost just over a dozen small bronze statues in the collapse.

Morning Journal and Courier (New Haven), 26 April 1880

Although the police erected a barrier around the ruined building, looters still managed to slip in and steal some of the art before it could be retrieved by the various owners. Three teenagers were accused of stealing one painting each by a newsboy; Gordon Burnham attended the court hearings related to the investigation, although the newspapers did not specify if he was the owner of one of the missing artworks (The Sun, 1 May 1880).

When Maria Louisa died in 1883, Gordon established a small endowment in her memory at the hospital, and donated a portrait of her to the hospital.

Trinity Episcopal Church, Waterbury

Gordon Burnham also contributed to Trinity Episcopal Church on Prospect Street in Waterbury shortly after Maria Louisa's death, donating $10,000 in her memory, which was about one-seventh of the cost of the church's construction and furnishings. A portion of his donation was used to acquire the organ. A memorial tablet to Maria Louisa was placed in the north transept. Construction of the church was completed in 1884.


During the presidential campaign of 1884, Burnham was an outspoken supporter of Grover Cleveland, who had previously been Mayor of New York City and Governor of New York. In October, the Waterbury American ran a pair of letters, one from Frederick J. Brown and one from Gordon Burnham in reply. Brown wrote to ask if Burnham's financial and manufacturing interests would be damaged should Cleveland became president; Cleveland's Republican opponent, Blaine, was running as the "protector of the manufacturers."

Burnham responded by commending Cleveland for his integrity and honesty, while emphasizing the need for a change of political party in power. Burnham wrote that the Republicans had been in power for "so long that they have become corrupt." He added, "I don't believe it healthy or wise for either party to reign in power too long, as it will be sure to become corrupt, which has been the history of the world."

The two letters were reprinted in newspapers throughout the country at the end of October, no doubt influencing at least some voters. The Eau Claire News in Wisconsin reprinted an editorial from an unnamed eastern newspaper on November 1, "The manufacturers are making desperate efforts to frighten and bully their employees into voting the Republican ticket. The workmen are well informed, however, and cannot be frightened. The manufacturers have in several instances reduced the running time in the mills, and threaten to close entirely if Cleveland should be elected. These arguments are used more extensively than ever before. But the letter of Mr. Gordon W. Burnham, published a few days ago, will have a great influence on all intelligent voters, for he owns a larger interest in Waterbury manufactories than any other man in the city, and his judgment is regarded with more confidence than that of any other manufacturer. That he, a life-long Republican, should come out for Cleveland is a "stunner" on his brother manufacturers and the hard pressed Republican leaders."

In the Naugatuck Valley, supporters of Blaine distributed a circular castigating Burnham and his support of Cleveland. Burnham was disparaged as a "non-resident capitalist, having little knowledge of the establishments which have made Waterbury the prosperous city that it is to-day." Workers were warned that a Grover Cleveland presidency would lead to wages being reduced by 30 to 50% in order to compete with foreign manufacturers.

Copy of the 1884 circular, reprinted four years later in The New York Evening Post,
then in The Tennessean, 21 October 1888.

Burnham's Death

Burnham died of pneumonia at his home on Fifth Avenue at the corner of 18th Street on March 18, 1885. The New York Times called him "one of the most widely known" millionaires of the city in his obituary. He was surrounded by his family, including his new fiancee, Kate Sanborn, and his personal physician when he died.

Sanborn had been a close friend of Burnham's second wife, Maria Louisa, and was the grand-niece of Burnham's idol, Daniel Webster. She was also an author and taught English Literature at Smith College for three years. Following the death of Maria Louisa, Burnham and Sanborn grew close. Sanborn was a regular visitor to Burnham's home, helping the much older man through his mourning (at the time of his death, Burnham was 83 and Sanborn was 38). Burnham became dependent upon Sanborn.

Staunton Spectator, 18 March 1885

About a month before his death, Burnham traveled to the resort town of Lakewood, NJ to recover from a bronchial infection. He invited Sanborn to come with him. Weeks later, while still at Lakewood, Burnham asked Sanborn to marry him. He had discussed marriage with her before, but declared that he would not get engaged while a Republican was President. On March 4, 1885, the day that Democrat Grover Cleveland was inaugurated, Burnham finally proposed to Sanborn. She accepted, and he returned to the city to begin making preparations. Sanborn followed him two days later. Not yet fully recovered from his bronchitis, Burnham waited for Sanborn to arrive at the Liberty Street Ferry. The cold air and physical exertion caused his bronchitis to worsen, and he developed pneumonia. A week later, he was dead. (The New York Times, 19 March 1885)

Chicago Tribune, 17 March 1885

The timing of Burnham's death, taking place just before his wedding to a moderately famous young woman, became a romantic tragedy in the nation's newspapers, replete with fainting spells (his) and allegations that his family prevented him from marrying Sanborn before his death. The story of their engagement was elaborated on to include "an elegant cluster diamond ring" which he presented to her at the hotel's dining room (The Republic, 19 March 1885).

The Republic (Columbus, Indiana), 19 March 1885

The Buffalo Courier described Sanborn as a "bright and charming author" who would help "dispel the loneliness he felt in his big house by marrying him." Burnham was reputed to have showered her with "costly diamonds and other gifts," giving her at least four engagement rings (Buffalo Courier, 20 March 1885).

Gordon Burnham was buried at Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn, NY on Saturday, March 21, the day that he had been scheduled to marry Kate Sanborn (Buffalo Evening News, 23 March 1885).

Burnham Family Monument, Greenwood Cemetery, NY
Photo from Green-Wood Historic Fund blog page

At the time of his death, Burnham was president of Holmes, Booth & Haydens, Waterbury Clock, Waterbury Watch, and American Pin; and he was a director of the Atlantic Mutual Insurance Company and the Mercantile Bank of New York City. His estate was worth about $3 million. Kate Sanborn inherited $50,000. Later that year, she published a book compiling the "Wit of Women," dedicated "in grateful memory" to Gordon W. Burnham. She never married.

The Fifth Avenue brownstone was sold by Burnham's sons in 1891 to Blanche de Logerot, wife of Richard de Logerot, Marquis de Croisic, for $460,000 (The Wilmington Morning Star, 4 July 1891). The couple turned the mansion into the Hotel de Logerot, furnishing it an elegant French palatial style. The building was torn down and replaced in 1905 by a 15-story Beaux Arts building.

The Hotel de Logerot, formerly the Burnham brownstone, on Fifth Avenue in NYC, 1893
From The Illustrated American, 11 March 1893

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