We set out to find Acton’s Francis Skinner, merchant of Boston. We had a surprising amount of difficulty at first. We did find a Francis Skinner who was fabulously wealthy for the time. His son and grandson were mentioned in Boston newspapers as members of a “prominent” family in the top tier of Boston society. Acton’s Francis Skinner grew up relatively secure, but not rich, the son of a doctor and descendant of a respected family in a small country town. He was only thirteen when his father died and would have started out with almost nothing. We were convinced that the Francis we found in Boston could not possibly be “our” Francis. But we were wrong.
Acton’s records and histories did not help us to connect the Boston merchant Francis Skinner to Acton, but fortunately, Boston’s newspapers provided a great deal of information. Commerce, wealth, connections, gossip, and a touch of “scandal” gave reporters plenty to work with, and we were able to put together a story of three generations of Francis Skinners who were unknown to us.
Francis Skinner was born on January 29, 1797 and grew up in Acton. He helped his brother Henry to run the family farm for a while time after his father’s death and was recorded in Acton’s militia list in 1815. In 1816, Francis left for Boston. He found a job as a porter in the store of Elisha Parks at 19 Kilby St. and worked his way up to the position of bookkeeper. (Boston Traveler June 2, 1865 p. 2). By 1818, he was already helping his older brother Abraham, trying to sell items for him and giving him merchandising advice. (See Francis’s letter in the Skinner Family Correspondence, University of Notre Dame.)
After a few years of learning about merchandising, Francis Skinner decided to go into business for himself. In 1822, an ad in the Boston Commercial Gazette (July 8, p. 3) announced that Francis Skinner and James C. Dunn were forming a partnership. At their store at 16 Kilby Street, they would sell “American Goods,” consignments of cloth and yarn. By 1826, the business became known as Francis Skinner & Co. and kept that name through subsequent changes in personnel and location.
Meanwhile, Francis Skinner’s business interests grew. Merchants, with their connections and capital, extended credit and sometimes took ownership positions in manufacturing firms. As early as 1829, Francis Skinner was one of the assignees selling off the mills, other buildings, and 610 acres of land of the Winchendon Woolen Manufacturing Company. (Massachusetts Spy, July 29, p. 3) In 1835, “the Wool and Dye House of the Millbury Manufacturing Company, belonging to Francis Skinner & Co. Boston, was destroyed by fire” with about 3,000 pounds of wool. Francis, a foresighted individual, had insured the property. (Norfolk Advertiser, May 30, 1835, p. 3) As time went on, his success gave him standing in the financial community that led to more opportunities and more success. In addition to owning stakes of textile manufacturers, over time, he also invested in railroads, iron works, and telegraph companies.
Having built up his business, Francis Skinner married Elizabeth Cochran of Northampton, MA on September 20, 1839, apparently in Springfield, MA. Francis bought a home on Mount Vernon Street, part of Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood, in October 1839. Son Francis was born in Boston on Sept. 3, 1840. A daughter was born about 1843. She was called Grace in the 1850 and 1855 censuses but Elizabeth in her death record. (So far, we have not located a birth record.) Son Henry Herbert was born on Aug.1, 1845 in Newton. (Francis’s birthplace is listed as Acton on the birth record.)
In 1845, Francis purchased a “country residence” on Waverley Street in Newton (Boston Post, June 13, 1865, p. 4) The area was apparently picturesque, with “charming views of the western environs of Boston, Cambridge, the Back-Bay churches, and Boston Light, over the long flanks of Corey Hill, and the nearer wooded slope of Waban Hill.” (King’s Handbook of Newton, p. 122). The choice of location may have been inspired by acquaintance with neighbor William Kenrick, one of the founders of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. Francis became a member in 1832.
Newspaper reports from the 1840s and early 1850s show the degree to which Francis Skinner’s professional and social status had grown. Francis Skinner appeared on a list of “The Friends of Mr. Webster” published in the May 19, 1843 Daily Atlas (p. 2) along with other noted businessmen of the time. Two years later, a newspaper predicted success for the new Worcester and Nashua Railroad, using as corroboration the investment of “sagacious men” like Francis Skinner. (Massachusetts Spy, Nov. 12, 1845, p. 2) Another article referred to him as one of “the shrewdest capitalists in the city.” (New York Evening Post, Apr. 19, 1845, p. 2) In 1850, Francis Skinner was appointed to a committee making sure that the products of Massachusetts’ textile industry were shown at the World’s Fair in London. He became a director of the Eagle Bank and at least three insurances companies.
Unfortunately, material and social success did not protect the Skinners from tragedy. Daughter Sarah died in Boston on October 28, 1848 at a year of age. Son Henry Herbert died at their 34 Mount Vernon Street home on Jan. 24, 1854 and daughter Elizabeth/Grace died June 28, 1856. Both of the older children died of scarlet fever. Not surprisingly, the loss of his children hit Francis extremely hard. (Saturday Evening Gazette, June 3, 1865, p. 2)
A business setback followed. During the financial panic of 1857, credit dried up, businesses closed, and notices appeared in newspapers that Francis Skinner & Co. had failed. This was big news, as “this firm has been considered the soundest in the city. Its paper floated in the ‘gilt-edge’ latitude, and was discounted at 1.5 per cent a month when other paper would not be looked at.“ (Boston Herald, Oct. 14, 1857, p. 2) For a business that relied on its reputation, the reports must have been devastating. Within a week, the company announced that its suspension of payments was only temporary because of “the deranged state of the currency,” apparently a shortage in the gold supply, and that they had a “surplus” of more than a million dollars. (Massachusetts Spy, Oct. 21, .p. 1) The company requested that their creditors take six-month renewals of their claims with the interest paid in advance at the time of renewal. Evidently, their creditors worked with them; the company survived. Ads in the Boston Post and Boston Courier in 1859 (both Sept. 5, p. 2) showed that Francis Skinner & Co. of 69 Franklin St., Boston and 2 College Place, New York were the agents for numerous textile manufacturers from the New England states.
In October, 1860, Francis and Elizabeth Skinner sold their Mount Vernon St. home. They were listed in the 1860 census in Newton with their son Francis and several Irish servants including a coachman and cook. From newspaper references, it seems that Newton was Francis’ primary residence in the next few years, but he was involved in a number of other real estate transactions in the Beacon Hill/Pemberton Square area as well.
Business continued in the 1860s, despite political turbulence and then war. Francis showed up in newspapers as a director of companies and business-related organizations and occasionally for an act of charity. In 1860, he joined a group focused on keeping the union intact. We did not find much information on how the war directly affected Francis Skinner and his company, but we did find that in 1863, the captured steamer Chesapeake was carrying about $40,000 worth of cotton bales that had been bought for mills for which Francis Skinner & Co. were the agents. The war could not have hurt his business too much; according to the Dec. 15, 1864 Boston Traveler (p. 6), his $141,800 income was the highest in Newton. It was subject to the income tax that had been authorized to help pay for the war.
On May 27, 1865, the Saturday Evening Gazette (p. 3) reported that Francis Skinner was ill with little chance of recovery, and he died June 1, 1865 in Newton. His June 3 obituary in that paper confirmed his Acton birthplace and the name of his father. (p. 2.) Francis’ personal estate was initially valued at $978,110 in his probate file, including ownership interests not only in Francis Skinner & Co, but stock and bond ownership of manufacturing firms and railroads. In addition, his real estate included 60 acres in Newton valued at $45,000 and a Beacon Hill lot valued at over $10,000. A tribute published in the Boston Daily Advertiser (June 19, page 1) highlighted his intelligence, business acumen, and integrity. The writer took pains to show that Francis Skinner was not single-mindedly interested in commerce; he had a large library and was “studious and well-informed.” Though he was proud of what he had accomplished, he apparently was not ostentatious or desirous of fame. He was evidently quite generous, but usually privately. Were it not for the mention in Fletcher’s History that Francis had helped his sister-in-law, we would not have known that he reached out to his family in Acton.
The only surviving child of Francis Skinner of Acton was Francis (2). He prepared for college at Dixwell’s School, graduated from Harvard University in 1862, and went into his father’s business. For a while, he was in charge of his father’s mills in Lewiston, Maine. When Francis Sr. died in 1865, his will provided for his wife and son and for the continuation of the firm that bore his name. It also contained a recommendation that son Francis 2 be made a partner of the firm. It appears that Francis 2 was less interested in business than his father had been. In 1870, Francis Skinner & Co. was dissolved, and a new association was formed between Josiah Bardwell, senior member of Skinner and Co., and Messrs Jordan, Marsh & Co. (Boston Post, Jan. 24, 1870, p.1) Francis 2 gave up being actively involved in business.
In October 1868, Francis 2 had married Eliza Blanchard Gardner, daughter of well-known merchant John L. Gardner and descendant of rich and powerful Massachusetts families. Francis 2 and his wife were noted members of Boston society. In the early years of their marriage, they lived in Eliza’s family’s houses in Boston’s growing Back Bay. Francis 2 and his mother sold off their Newton property in the early 1870s. (Francis 2’s mother apparently spent much of her later life traveling in Europe. Some of her letters to Francis 2 and travel diary entries still exist in the Fuller-Higginson Collection.) By 1874, Francis 2 and his wife were living at a property owned by Eliza’s father at 200 Beacon Street.
Eliza inherited the 200 Beacon Street property from her father in 1884. In 1886, she and Francis 2 built a home at 266 Beacon Street. The new house was described as standing out on that “famous thoroughfare” for its unusual width and its conspicuously light façade, (Boston Journal, July 21, 1900 p. 5), limestone decorated with carved columns, swags, and lions’ heads. Historic New England has interior photographs of both properties that allow us glimpses of their lifestyle. The pictures of 200 Beacon were taken in the 1884-1885 period, just before the building of their next home. The pictures of 266 Beacon obviously were taken sometime after they moved in.
Francis 2 and Eliza appeared frequently in the society news, noted for their entertaining and their attendance at social events in Boston and elsewhere. They spent summers in the "exclusive haunts of the 400” (Boston Globe, Mar. 30, 1890, p. 13) on Massachusetts’ North Shore and Newport. (In 1894, for example, they occupied the Barthold Schlesinger villa, known as one of the most outstanding estates on the Nahant peninsula, according to the Globe, July 22, 1894, p. 21) They traveled a great deal, sometimes together and sometimes making ocean crossings separately. Though most travels were to Europe, according to a Harvard Class Report, Francis at some point made a circuit around the world. During those travels, it seems clear that they collected. Francis became "well known as a patron of art” (Boston Herald, Nov. 28, 1905, p. 9) Someone in the family painted; watercolors from a grand tour were passed down through son Francis’s estate and are held by the Dedham (MA) Historical Society.
Eliza (Gardner) Skinner died unexpectedly in 1898. Francis 2 seems to have slowed down after that. He died on November 24, 1905, having suffered with kidney disease and heart issues for at least three years. At the end of his life, he was mostly confined to his home at 266 Beacon Street, living alone with his servants. Francis 2 left almost all of his money to his son Francis 3, with some in a separate trust so that if Francis 3 had no descendants, it would go to charities such as the Boston Public Library, Massachusetts General Hospital, the Museum of Fine Arts, Harvard Medical School, and the Free Home for Women in Brookline. Francis 2 also left two paintings to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. He was buried in the Gardner family lot in Cambridge, MA along with his wife and younger son.
Francis Skinner 3 grew up in the midst of Boston society. He attended St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire from 1883-1888. He was apparently happy there; his will included a large bequest to the school. He entered Harvard as a member of the class of 1892. While there, he joined the Zeta Psi fraternity, the class glee club, the Institute of 1770, and the exclusive Porcellian Club. He did not graduate; sources disagree about when he left. We did find a Globe report on a dinner that he hosted at the new Porcellian Club with the comment “Young Skinner is one of the most popular men in college.” (Nov. 23, 1890, p. 21) Presumably Francis 3 left Harvard on good terms; his mother was chosen as one of the matrons, “always stately with their flashing diamonds,” for a debutante dance sponsored Harvard’s senior class in Dec. 1890. (Boston Globe, Dec. 18, p. 5)
In 1893, his mother acquired Federal Hill Farm in Dedham and seems to have given it to Francis 3. It is not clear how much time he spent there in the early years, although in August 1893, his Dedham farm is mentioned as having supplied the “solid young pig as fat as butter” for the annual roast pork dinner at the Nahant Club. (Globe, Aug. 18, 1893, p. 2) Francis 3 stayed with his parents in their summer “cottage” or their Beacon Street home at times in the 1890s, and we know that he traveled to Europe (at least in 1895) and Bermuda (winters of 1897- 1899).
Francis 3 seems to have been “sporty,” showing up in newspapers for rowing crew during high school (Globe, June 8, 1888, p.3) and organizing equestrian events, horse races, and the annual Sportsman’s show in Mechanics’ Hall. His passion, however, was sailing. By 1894 he and partners owned a “syndicate” boat at Nahant. (Globe, June 24, p. 21) Francis 3 bought the famous Burgess-designed Constellation, a 134 foot steel schooner, from a member of the New York Yacht Club in March 1899. He later had a smaller boat built, the 33-foot Sumatra. He was a member of a number of exclusive yacht clubs in Massachusetts and New York, and he spent a good amount of his time cruising. In the summer, his boats also participated in races.
Francis 3 was known as a “club man,” belonging to (among others) the Somerset Club, the "Country Club" (of Brookline), and the Exchange Club. His social calendar extended beyond Boston and the North Shore. In the winter of 1894, he was one of the subscribers of the “Bachelors’ Ball” at the Waldorf that promised, according to the Globe, “to be the smartest and most refined subscription affair that has ever been given in New York. Many ladies are having new gowns made for the occasion. Boston will be represented by Francis Skinner Jr. who is one of the subscribers. As his family is abroad the smart set is curious to know who will be honored with his invitations.”(Globe, Jan 14, 1894, p. 24.) There is no doubt that Francis Skinner 3 was a very eligible bachelor. By 1899, he had money of his own from his mother and his uncle (husband of Isabella Stewart Gardner), and he was the only child of an extremely wealthy father. As a result, what happened next left “Society Agog”.
In 1899, Francis 3 met Sarah E. (“Sadie”) Carr, a tailor’s daughter who had worked as a shop girl and cloak model. Stories vary as to where they met, but all are clear that their ensuing romance was outside the bounds of his parents’ social norms. According to the Isabella Stewart Gardner biography Mrs. Jack, Francis’s mother Eliza was conservative in her social instincts and highly disapproving of those who were not. It was said that Eliza would never have allowed her son to marry Sadie Carr and that Francis 2 also disapproved. Sarah and Francis 3 arranged a wedding free from interference. In June 1900, Sarah contacted a minister at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Boston, telling him that her fiancé was a sea captain away on a voyage, due to arrive soon. She managed to convince the minister that there were no impediments to the marriage. Even after performing the ceremony on June 20, the minister had no idea that the groom, whom he only met that evening, was “one of the richest and most aristocratic young ‘bloods’ in Boston.” (Boston Daily Advertiser, July 21, 1900 p.6) The only witnesses were Sarah’s two sisters.
It was several weeks before the news got out. A short notice appeared in the “Married” section of the Boston Daily Advertiser on July 12 (p.8) and another, evidently, in the Boston Traveler. The news caused a sensation. The story was featured on the front page of the Boston Globe on July 20. Francis 3 did not care. Unusually for the time and for his place in society, he actually offered a statement in response to the gossip about his wedding. He strongly asserted his right to marry “a woman whom he considers in every way adapted by certain estimable qualities to make an ideal life partner” and asked in an eye-opening understatement, why, “simply because a man has a little money,” outsiders had the right to take away his freedom of choice. “Family ties bind me to a great many people, and I do not suppose all these people are elated over the step that I have taken. I, myself, am satisfied, and that is the most important point.” (Boston Globe, August 4, 1900, p. 2) The couple honeymooned on the Constellation, safe, for a while, from Society talk.
However, the rift between Francis 2 and his son was temporary. Newspapers reported that Francis 2 had objected to his son’s choice of bride but that the two men had “made up” at some point in the next couple of years. The Globe reported in April 1901 that Francis 3 made a hurried trip to Boston, after a four-month cruise in the West Indies, to see his father before Francis 2 left on his own travels. (Apr. 9, p. 5) When Francis 2 died in 1905, he left the vast majority of his wealth for the benefit of his son.
In 1906, Francis 3 replaced the farmhouse on his Dedham property with a twenty-room mansion. Like his parents twenty years earlier, he built a showcase home, using fine materials. Historic New England has one picture of the interior, and more pictures and stories can be found in a history of the property. The gardens and landscaping were also impressive. Francis was a third-generation member of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, and he and Sarah enjoyed their plants and flowers, both inside and outside their home.
By all indications, the marriage between Francis 3 and Sarah Carr was a happy one. Unfortunately, tragedy struck in 1914. They had traveled to Europe in February. Sarah returned home early to be with her pregnant sister. In May, Francis 3 was on his way home on the Cunard liner Caronia when a fire broke out on the ship. Newspaper accounts implied that the excitement was the cause, but whatever the reason, Francis suffered a heart attack and died on board on May 7. He was 44 years old and the last descendant of Acton’s Abraham and Sarah (Faulkner) Skinner.
Francis 3’s estate amounted to over $1.8 million. Much, including their Dedham home, went to his wife outright, and most of the rest was put in trust to benefit her during her lifetime. Francis 3 left bequests for St. Paul’s School (in trust to be paid after his wife’s death), the Church of the Messiah, and the Arnold Arboretum, and he also remembered the mate of his yacht, his valet, and other servants of long-standing. Sarah (Carr) Skinner stayed in their home for the rest of her life. She was married again in 1917 to Charles Shea, a lawyer. After their deaths, the Dedham property became the home of the Ursuline Convent and Academy and is now Ursuline Academy.
Back to Acton
When we started researching the Skinner family, we had no idea that the story would involve fortune and celebrity worthy of a television drama. Our research led us far from Acton, making us wonder if Skinners ever visited the town in later years. We have no information on that, but we do have one more Skinner story from Acton.
About a year ago, Jenks Library was sent pictures of an old gravestone found at a property not near any town cemetery. It had a circle cut-out, evidently having been re-purposed. The old slate stone apparently belonged to Dr. Abraham Skinner. Checking Woodlawn Cemetery revealed that at some point, a more substantial stone must have been erected for him, with a matching stone for Sarah (Faulkner) Skinner. One can’t help wondering whether it was done by a successful merchant son (or his descendant) who wanted to honor his Acton forebears.