Friday, July 29, 2016

The Cape Ann Granite Company, Part 6 - Demise

Col. Jonas H. French 1
President of the Cape Ann Granite Company
Director of the Maverick National Bank, Boston
On November 3, 1891 news of disaster struck the depositors of the Maverick National Bank. Warrants had been issued for embezzlement and misappropriation of funds. The previous evening federal marshals arrested the bank's president and two of its directors at their residences. Losses were reported to be in the neighborhood of $2,000,000.2

Col. French made strenuous efforts to meet the bail of $75,000 while in custody of the U. S. marshal at his Commonwealth Avenue home.

Jonas and Nella French residence, 128 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston3
By the time friends secured that sum the district attorney had left his office for the day. Col. French was driven to the Charles Street jail for overnight quarters in a debtor's cell. In the morning  bond was reduced to $50,000 and he was released to address  his circumstances.4

Investigators revealed that the charismatic Col. French had persuaded underlings to sign bank drafts for his unauthorized withdrawals. The building's elevator operator, for instance, was led into the office by the janitor to endorse a check in the amount of $40,000.5 

After consulting with his creditors Col. French made a general assignment of all his property to attorneys of a Boston law firm. The house on Commonwealth Avenue was sold by the assignees. The Frenches moved back to the Marlborough Street townhouse where Jonas had lived with his first wife Fannie before her death.
15 Marlborough Street, Boston6
He conveyed several parcels of land in Bay View to the Cape Ann Granite Company to begin settling his debts. Nevertheless in early January 1892 two attachments of $60,000 each were filed against him at the Registry of Deeds in Salem, one by the Granite Company and one by his mentor General Benjamin F. Butler.7

Despite vigorous arguments on the part of Col. French's defense lawyers he was indicted of aiding and abetting the falsification of bank records. Legal proceedings followed a complex course for almost two years. But in the end the government lost confidence that its allegations could be sustained. Charges were declared nol prossed, 'not to be prosecuted,' by United States District Attorney Sherman Hoar.8

Catalog from the Receiver's Sale of the Cape Ann Granite Company, 1893 9
The assets of the Cape Ann Granite Company were purchased by the Rockport Granite Company in a consolidation that created the undisputed leviathan of the local stone industry.

When the Cape Ann Granite Company went into receivership Col. French owed the company about $75,000. During the period of resolution the court-appointed receivers concluded the business with a surplus of $20,000 to be divided among stockholders. Capital stock was owned roughly half each by Col. French and Gen. Butler. In a decision by the State Supreme Court the residual benefits went entirely to the estate of Benjamin Butler, who died in 1893.10 

One wonders whether the 1893 loss by fire of 1,100 barrels of rum in Jonas French's Boston warehouse worsened or improved his circumstances. The rum, worth $50 a barrel, "belonged to Colonel French, but was under Government bonds. It is understood that it was insured." 11

During the embattlement Benjamin Butler was completing his memoir of public service. He never once mentioned the Cape Ann Granite Company, nor any of his business investments. His only reference to Colonel Jonas French was to compliment his service in the Civil War.12

Benjamin Franklin Butler, 1818-1893 13
Six weeks after disclosure of the banking revelations the public learned of the death of his only son, Col. Harry G. French. "He was graduated at Harvard, was genial and gentlemanly, generous and cordial, and endeared himself to those who knew him best. He received his military title for service on the staff of Governor Butler." 14 

Cape Ann newspaper readers heard only the mildest references to Colonel French's troubles, probably from a reluctance to tarnish the luster of its dynamic entrepreneur. This spirit of sanitized tenderness prevailed even into Barbara Erkkila's twentieth-century history of the granite industry. She acknowledged only that "Colonel French had experienced a devastating business failure." She held him aloft until his remarkable recovery the following year. "He turns up again in the granite history of Cape Ann as the operator of a Lanesville quarry...complete with a brand-new railroad." 15

--Next week, "Renaissance"--
1. History of Essex County, With Biographical Sketches of Many of its Pioneers and Prominent Men, C. Hamilton Hurd, 1888.
2. Springfield Republican, November 3, 1891.
3. Photograph from the website, "Commonwealth Avenue looking southeast toward Clarendon, photograph taken in June 1884 from 129 Commonwealth; Manning family album, courtesy of Historic New England."
4. Worcester Spy, November 6, 1891.
5. Photograph by Bainbridge Bunting courtesy of the Boston Athenaeum, from the website
6. Boston Journal, July 9, 1892.
7. Boston Herald, January 7, 1892.
8. Ibid, October 7, 1893.
9. From the private collection of Leslie D. Bartlett.
10. Boston Herald, March 31, 1894.
11. Boston Journal, March 11, 1893.
12. Benjamin Franklin Butler, Butler's Book, A Review of his Legal, Political, and Military Career, 1892.
13. Boston Journal, January 4, 1892.
14. Barbara Erkkila, Hammers on Stone: A History of Cape Ann Granite, 1980.

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