Thornton Chase: chapter 7 Chapter Seven

WILDERNESS

      It was fortunate that Thornton had his vision, because the next few years were, perhaps, the worst in his life. The gradual collapse of his marriage and his continued failure to achieve financial success drove him further and further into a psychic wilderness of loss of confidence, loss of purpose and meaning, and questioning of the very nature of his self. It finally drove him into a literal wilderness as well--the Colorado frontier and its still unsettled mountains.

      From August 1872 until July 1874, Thornton Chase labored at various jobs in Boston, but he never found one that provided a decent living. It is likely that, in addition to the continuing economic depression, Chase's own search for a vocation was part of his employment problem. A similar problem occurred later in his life, when his involvement in the Bahá'í Faith severely restricted his ability to earn a living. In the early 1870s Thornton was in his mid-twenties, an age when many try various careers. One source says that he was a "salaried member" of two church choirs in Boston, which suggests that he was attempting to earn part of his living through his music.[1] Thornton later became a professional actor and perhaps aspired to success in Boston's many theaters, which provided opportunities not available in Springfield. Perhaps he remained in Boston to pursue an acting career at night while he held various jobs during the day.

      The primary source of information for the next four years of Thornton's life is a letter he wrote to the Rhode Island Superior Court in 1878, when Annie filed for divorce. It gives only one side of Thornton's story, but other sources corroborate some of its information and reinforce the impression that the letter is honest and complete.

      By the summer of 1874 it became clear to Thornton that he could not remain in Boston, for he had been unable to support his family adequately there. Because of the continuing economic depression, work was not available in the cities. Hence Thornton decided to try the frontier instead. He heard of a job in Fort Howard, Wisconsin (the modern city of Green Bay) and spoke to his wife about taking it. Possibly the job was connected with the timber industry, which was--and still is--the mainstay of Green Bay's economy. Annie agreed that he should take the job. According to Thornton Chase, he departed Springfield for the West on 17 July 1874. As he left their house in Springfield, Annie stood in the door, weeping, and said "God bless you!"[2] These proved to be her last words to him.

      Fort Howard was a small city of 2000 people.[3] To the east was Lake Michigan; to the south, rolling land that was just being extensively cleared and farmed; to the north, hilly forest. Thornton notes he was "in frequent correspondence" with Annie until 10 February 1875, when he received a letter from her that said "she did not wish to see his face again and commanded him never thereafter to appear in her. . . presence."[4] Nevertheless, he continued to write her and did not relinquish hope that their marriage could be saved.

      In March 1875 he moved to Chicago, perhaps hoping that the big city would provide him better job opportunities. However, the city was still suffering from the economic depression, which affected it particularly seriously, and from the Great Fire of 1871. Thornton obtained employment as an actor in McVicker's Theater, one of Chicago's most important theaters.[5] The pay was better--seventeen dollars per week--but he had to spend six or eight dollars per week on "stage wardrobe and accessories," thus he was unable to support his family very well. He wrote Annie in January 1876 and asked her to come to Chicago and live with him. As he later explained to the Superior Court:

[He] agreed to provide for her comfortable living in a respectable boarding house with himself, to which he received a reply that she would come to him, provided he should send the money sufficient for passage for herself, children and her mother, provided that her mother should come with her and be supported by him, the defendant, and that her household furniture should be brought with her from Springfield Massachusetts to Chicago involving the cost of one hundred dollars for freight, and provided further that he the defendant would procure a house in a fashionable part of the said city of Chicago where there was good society, thereby meaning such fashionable society as the said city of Chicago contained. The defendant by reason of his small income was unable to comply with the exactions of his said wife.[6]

If Annie did write such a letter, then she had spoken at least one untruth, because in September 1875 her mother had remarried; in early 1876 Phebe Allyn Hopkins would have been living with her new husband in Newport, R.I. Thornton's daughter Jessie confirms that Thornton did ask Annie and their daughters to move to Chicago.[7]

      In early 1876 Thornton left Chicago for White Church, Kansas, a hamlet on the prairies a dozen miles west of Kansas City. It is not known why he moved to Kansas; a brother of his mother had lived in Topeka, Kansas, in 1865, and perhaps had written Thornton about a job. In White Church he served as a teacher, apparently at a school for black students. His salary, fifty dollars per month, was probably quite adequate in a small frontier town. He again wrote his wife and asked her to join him, but she wrote back and asked for money instead. However, the job did not last because the school was broken up "by negro and political troubles."[8] The only known comment in a local newspaper was "there is no school at present in White Church. Some enterprising teacher should apply for the situation."[9] Perhaps Chase quit or was fired.

      In November, 1876, he moved again, to the hamlet of Wabaunsee, Kansas, thirty miles west of Topeka, where he earned a very meager salary as a singing tutor. The village was so small it was not even on contemporary maps of Kansas; probably he had been hired by a particular family to teach their children. By his own admission, Thornton was unable to send his wife any money at all during the year 1876.[10]

      Finding his luck in Kansas to be poor, on 17 August 1877 Thornton moved to Del Norte, a small mining town of a thousand inhabitants at the edge of the San Juan Mountains, in southwestern Colorado. Thornton now lived on the frontier. Colorado had become a state only a year earlier, in 1876. On 25 June 1876--as the nation celebrated its centennial--the Sioux Indians killed George Armstrong Custer and his Seventh Cavalry, only a few hundred miles north of Colorado. The San Juan Mountains had just been wrested from the Ute Indians; the first prospectors had entered the mountains in 1873 and 1874. Del Norte had sprung into existence when silver had been discovered nearby in 1873. The mountains had so much precious metal that they became known as the "silvery San Juan," and one publication extolled them as "the most richly mineralized spot on the face of the great round globe."[11]

      In Del Norte, Thornton was "unsuccessful in his endeavors beyond procuring food and fire for himself." In February 1878 he received a notice from the Rhode Island Superior Court, sitting in Newport, that his wife had filed for divorce. (Annie had moved to Newport and was living there with her mother.) Her petition stated that

he [Thornton Chase] hath deserted the said Annie E. L. Chase for a period of five years last part, during which time she has not seen him, and. . . for the last six years past he has utterly failed to support said Annie, and her two children, he being able to do so. And she further represents that she has no knowledge of the residence or whereabouts of said James B. T. Chase and does not know when he may be found.

      Certainly the claim that he had deserted her for five years is an exaggeration; he had left for Wisconsin only three and a half years earlier. Jessamine, daughter of Thornton and Annie, was not yet four years old. Her statement that she was unaware of Thornton's whereabouts was perhaps reasonable, for he had moved frequently during the previous several years, and she stated that she had not received any letters from him for sixteen months. Thornton, in his reply to the court, mentions a letter he wrote to Annie in November 1876, fourteen or fifteen months before she filed for divorce, but does not mention any subsequent correspondence.

      It seems certain that Thornton had failed to provide for Annie and his family, for Thornton, in his reply to the court, never claims that he did provide for them. He says that he had done his best, but even he implies that support had been inadequate. Thornton Chase was not a lazy man and possessed considerable talent, as his previous life experience had already demonstrated. Either a string of extraordinarily bad luck, a series of bad employment decisions, or inner turmoil over the purpose and direction of his life, or a combination of all three factors, caused his failure.

      Thornton received the court notice in Del Norte, to which town it had been forwarded from Waubansee. He wrote a certified letter in reply, in which he pleaded that his marriage not be ended:

And the defendant further sayeth that notwithstanding that he has been interdicted by the said Annie his wife from seeing her he has on several occasions during the years 1872, 1873, 1874 and 1875 sent and forwarded to her such sums of money from time to time as he could possibly give her by the most economical living, and still is making unremitting exertions by teaching, laboring and singing to regain his lost fortunes and to provide for the support of his said family as heretofore.

      That he is strictly of temperate habits and through all the many years since his departure from his said family by and with his wife's consent for the said purpose and since said tenth day of February 1875 he has received no encouragement or expressions of love or affection yet in all respects he has been faithful to his marriage vow and has been contending with his successive misfortunes aforesaid with the constant and faithful purpose of regaining her distressed affections and for the purpose of further providing for her wants and necessities and for the support of his children.

      That by reason of his present poor condition he is now debarred from attending in person the hearing of this case, but nevertheless answers the complaint or petition of the complainant his wife, that justice may be done in the premises as this Honorable Court shall order and decree.

      Wherefore the defendant prays that the complaint or petition of the said complainant Annie E. L. Chase his said wife be dismissed and that he be hence relieved from making any further answer or defense in this behalf and for such other or further relief in the premises as to justice and good conscience may seem meet.[12]

      This is not a letter from a callous deserter of wife and children; such a man would not reply at all, let alone request that the marriage--and his parental responsibilities--be continued. Rather, one senses in the letter a sincerity of purpose and a genuine distress that his marriage might be terminated. Nevertheless, it is difficult not to sympathize with Annie, who had two young children to support. One wishes that the chain of job opportunities had taken Thornton east instead of west, or that Annie had been more willing to move with her husband.

      Descendants of Thornton through Sarah, his older daughter, recall that everyone wanted Annie to reconcile with Thornton. Sarah had "her heart set on it" because she "adored" her father, but Annie refused.[13] When the Superior Court met in March 1878, it sympathized with her, not Thornton, and granted Annie a divorce.

      Annie Chase was now free of Thornton. Subsequent records show that she continued to live in Newport, R.I., until her death on 2 March 1918. Her mother, Phebe, lived with her from the time of Mr. Hopkins's divorce of Phebe in 1882 until her death on 30 April 1910.[14] The Newport city directory annually listed Annie as "widow James B. T. [Chase]"; in this way she avoided the stigma of divorce, which was great in the late nineteenth century.[15] According to her descendants, she earned a meager living through embroidery and fancy sewing work; later she was partly supported by Jessamine, who lived with her mother and made a living as a music teacher (Jessamine never married).[16] Annie may also have published poetry for use by children in school; there are several poems authored by an "Annie Chase" or "Annie E. Chase" in poetry collections published for use in schools.[17] However, her descendants have no recollection of her writing poems; hence the works may have been composed by another woman with the same name.

      Presumably Thornton was informed by the court that his wife's request for a divorce had been granted. The evidence suggests he was devastated by the news. Apparently Thornton left Del Norte and went into the San Juan Mountains, wandering in search for gold and silver and for a new life. After five years of doing his best to earn a living and find a vocation, his hopes and dreams had been shattered. The only account we have of these days, although exaggerated, speaks of his pain:

      The state of Colorado is prolific with unique characters and in the literary profession there is a full quota of queer representatives. We are reminded of one Thornton Chase, who penetrated the silver San Juan in the early day. He had heard the story that there were very ancient workings near Rico, and this was his only clue to the whereabouts of a hidden treasure amounting to exactly $250,000. He was undoubtedly crazy and searched the mountains high and low. Anything of an ancient appearance had a charm for him and he kept constant watch on his companions for fear that they would find it. He was a fine-looking man and very bright in some ways. . . . He had a keen-edged, long-bladed knife with which he declared he would kill his step-mother when he found the treasure. This knife he used to sharpen on a whetstone (although the knife was never used) two or three times a week. He would run his thumb along the blade and say to himself "Ah, that's good; that's fine," and then, between his teeth, "Curse her!" Then his plan was to have John Roach to build him a fine vessel, with two catamarons [sic], to bring him provisions. He would search the world for fifty females (twenty-five blondes and twenty-five brunetts [sic]) representing every type of female beauty, and would then never set foot on land. . . . In Boston he was a salaried member of the choir of the two leading churches, receiving a salary of $1000 in one (morning) and $600 in the other (evening service). It is needless to say he never discovered the treasure.[18]

      Most likely some facts of the account--published in 1886, about eight years after Chase's divorce--are exaggerated. For example, if Chase had earned $1600 per year ($32 per week), he would have had no financial troubles, and he would never have left Boston in the first place. A piece of information elsewhere in the account--that he was the youngest captain in the Union Army--may or may not be an exaggeration, but Chase himself is likely its source. Later events in his life confirm that he was a mountaineer, and this fact suggests another source of distortion: Thornton's fantasy about women may be partly a product of the expectations and excesses of his rough mountaineering companions, or at least of the memory of the mountaineering companion who wrote the account.

      Because the account does not come from Thornton himself, because it may not offer a well-rounded account of his mountain days, because his personal papers do not offer any caveats or corrections, and because Thornton is no longer able to explain, the account of Thornton's fantasies must not be relied on to draw hard and fast conclusions about him. However, the description of Thornton's fantasies about women matches the fact that he had never been successful in his relationships with them. He may have keenly felt the irony that his mother--the only woman who had loved him--was dead. Whether he actually wanted to kill his stepmother or not, clearly his relationship with her was very poor. Perhaps she had made his marriage difficult or had made it impossible for Jotham Chase to hire his son when Thornton's business had failed, or perhaps Thornton blamed his problems as an adult on her relationship with him during his childhood.

      The statement that he sought a harem of fifty women, true or not, is consistent with the frustration that Thornton must have felt after his divorce; for a harem theoretically represents a situation where a man dominates and controls his relationship with women. Finding a buried treasure would have provided him with the money to obtain control over his life and to cease his painful struggles, enabling him to float around the world on his own yacht, living a life of luxury and pleasure.

      One is struck by the contrast between this alleged reaction to adversity--a fantasy--and Thornton's previous reaction--his mystical experience in Boston. The contrast underlines the greater severity of this crisis and suggests a more profound sense of failure. Nevertheless, the vision, ultimately, proved more powerful than the fantasy, because Thornton never made the latter the goal of his life. While he never found an ancient treasure, he eventually did find the equivalent--silver, and in the San Juans. But he did not make the fortune into an opportunity to renounce his struggles and live a life of luxury; he continued to develop his talents. He also controled any hedonistic tendencies, overcame his fears regarding a marital relationship, and considered a second marriage.

Footnotes

[1]"Reminiscences," a column in Field and Farm, a Colorado periodical, in Dawson's Scrapbook 9:381, Colorado Historical Society, Denver, Col. (the scrapbook does not contain the date of issue of the Field and Farm from which the column was taken, nor the page number). A copy of the column may be found in Robert H. Stockman, Thornton Chase Research Notebook, p. 12.8, author's personal papers.

[2]James B. T. Chase to Newport Superior Court, Newport, R.I., 12 February 1878, in the divorce record of Annie E. L. Chase and James B. T. Chase, Court Records of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Providence College Library, Providence, R.I. (copy in author's personal papers).

[3]Asher and Adams' New Commercial, Topographical, and Statistical Atlas and Gazetteer of the United States: With maps showing the Dominion of Canada, Europe and the World (N.Y.: Asher and Adams, 1874) 209.

[4]James B. T. Chase to Newport Superior Court, 12 February 1878.

[5]Bessie Louise Pierce, A History of Chicago, Volume 3: The Rise of a Modern City, 1871-1893 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1957) 471.

[6]James B. T. Chase to Newport Superior Court, 12 February 1878.

[7]Marriage certificate of Stephen Albro Hopkins and Phebe Ann Allyn, 10 September 1875, Newport City Hall, Newport, R.I., notes in Thornton Chase Research Notebook, p. 8.11. Charles Lawton recalls that Jessie mentioned to him on "different occasions" that Thornton Chase had asked the family to move to Chicago; telephone interview with Charles Lawton by the author, 22 May 1987, author's personal papers.

[8]James B. T. Chase to Newport Superior Court, 12 February 1878. A photograph of Thornton's Topeka, Kansas uncle, dated 1865, is the personal property of Thornton Chase Nelson (photocopy in author's personal papers).

[9]The Wyandotte Gazette, November 17, 1876, p. 3, col. 2. The paper mentions that the county had a school for black children as well as schools for white children, but it is not clear whether the school for black children was at White Church. White Church is literally a white church; it was established originally as a Methodist mission to the local Indians. It is six miles west of Kansas City, too far for urban blacks to send their children daily, but it might not be too far if the blacks the school served were rural farmers. Further research on the subject is needed.

[10]James B. T. Chase to Newport Superior Court, 12 February 1878.

[11]Del Norte is described in Frank Fossett, Colorado: Its Gold and Silver Mines, Farms and Stock Ranges, and Health and Pleasure Resorts. Tourist Guide to the Rocky Mountains, 2d ed. (N.Y.: C. G. Crawford, 1880) 90-92, 156. The quotation about the San Juans is found in Sidney Jocknick, Early Days on the Western Slope of Colorado and Campfire Chats with Otto Mears, The Pathfinder, From 1870 to 1883, Inclusive (Denver: Carson-Harper Co., 1913) 161.

[12]Petition for divorce by Annie E. L. Chase to the Superior Court, Newport, R.I.

[13]Personal interview of Margaret Hansen, granddaughter of Thornton Chase, by Robert Stockman, 30 August 1985, Venice, Cal.; author's personal papers.

[14]Death record of Annie Allyn Chase, Newport, R.I. City Clerk's Office, notes in Thornton Chase Research Notebook, p. 8.1; petition for divorce by Stephen Hopkins against Phebe L. Hopkins, Newport Superior Court Records, Newport, R.I., book 24, p. 117, notes in Thornton Chase Research Notebook, p. 8.12; Death notice of Phebe Lincoln Hopkins, in Newport Daily News, 30 April 1910, p. 4, col. 7.

[15]See for example The Newport City Directory, 1884. Containing a Directory of the Citizens, Street Directory, The City Record, and Business Directory, also Directory of the Summer Residents. (Boston: Sampson, Davenport, and Co., 1884) 64. Similar entries exist for other years, such as 1887, 1888, and 1889.

[16]Personal interview with Margaret Hansen, 30 August 1985.

[17]Annie Chase, "Motion Song--Daisy Fair," in Charles R. Skinner, ed., Arbor Day Manual: an aid in Preparing Programs for Arbor Day Exercises (Albany: Weed, Parsons and Co., 1890) 57-58; Annie Chase, "A Flock of Birds," in Skinner, Arbor Day Manual, 182-83; Annie E. Chase, "Flag Song for Washington's Birthday," in Stanley Schell, ed., Werner's Readings and Recitations No. 49: Washington Celebrations (N.Y.: Edgar S. Werner and Co., 1912) 88; Annie Chase, "Spring," in Lizzie J. Rook and E. J. H. Goodfellow, eds., Tiny Tot's Speaker, Designed for the Wee Ones, composed of Recitations, Motion Songs, and Concert Pieces (Philadelphia: The Penn Publishing Co., 1913) 28.

[18]L. W. Cutler, "Reminiscences," a column in Field and Farm, March 20, 1886. I am indebted to Marie Griffith for finding an original of this column.
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