Ellis Paxson Oberholtzer.

Philadelphia; a history of the city and its people, a record of 225 years (Volume 4) online

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Irish lineage and in early manhood engaged in merchandising, but is now con-
nected with the insurance business. In his political views he is a republican.
The mother of our subject, who was born in Philadelphia in 1865, died in June,
1907. She was quite prominent in church work, especially that of the Harper
Memorial church, and was an active worker in behalf of the Presbyterian Home
and the ladies' auxiliary of Mary Commandery, K. T.

William B. S. Ferguson passed through consecutive grades in the public
schools and after leaving the high school entered the law office of John A. Ward
in 1901. Five years were devoted to the mastery of legal principles, and in 1906


he was admitted to the bar, although qualified for admission a year earlier. He
at once began the practice of his profession in association with his former pre-
ceptor, with whom he was connected until the death of Mr. Ward. He gives his
attention to general practice and has succeeded in winning a good clientage. He
is making substantial progress both in volume of business and in the character
of the litigated interests entrusted to him.

Mr. Ferguson married Miss Lulu B. Good, a daughter of Daniel Good, chief
of the Western Union Telegraph Company. They are members of the Pres-
byterian church and Mr. Ferguson belongs to St. Albans Lodge, No. 529, F. &
A. M., the Artisans, Haddon Assembly, the Law Academy and the Philadelphia
Law Association. In politics he is an earnest republican and takes quite an
active interest in party matters. He has served as a member of the lawyers
auxiliary committee and his interests are reaching to all those things which should
be of vital concern to the loyal and progressive citizen.


George Clifford Thomas, facing failure and heavy loss in business in the
year 1873 when the country was involved in a widespread financial panic, came
in the ensuing years to be recognized as one of America's most eminent finan-
ciers. But the position to which he attained in moneyed circles had for him
comparatively little value aside from the opportunity which it gave him to help
his fellowmen and to further the work of Christianity in the world. He has
been justly termed the foremost layman of the Episcopal church in America.
It has been said that his horizon was the world and that he "was conspicuous
example of the many American laymen to whom wealth is responsibility and
not privilege and who gave to the service, the services and the institutions of
the communion to which they belong, a daily diligent labor more valuable than
all their gifts." No native son of Philadelphia has more greatly honored the
city nor been more highly honored by his fellow citizens than George Clifford

The birth of Mr. Thomas occurred October 28, 1839. His father, John W.
Thomas, was one of Philadelphia's most prominent merchants and for many
years was accounting warden of St. Paul's church. The son attended the Epis-
copal Academy in the period of its greatest prosperity. At an early age he as-
sumed the management of his father's financial interests, for which he displayed
marked aptitude, and his ability won recognition from Jay Cooke, who offered
him a position in his banking house and soon admitted him to a partnership.
In 1863 and throughout the period of the Civil war, when the great financial
operations of the government were conducted by the firm, George Clifford
Thomas was one of the active partners. He took a prominent part in the work
accomplished by the firm which strengthened the finances of the government so
that it was enabled to carry on the war which cost from three hundred to eight
hundred million dollars annually. The great part which Jay Cooke & Company
took in popularizing the government loans has never been fully told. Mr.

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Thomas was actively instrumental with Mr. Cooke in promoting and carrying
on the largest and most successful money operations that any government ever
undertook. Upon the failure of the firm in September, 1873, Mr. Thomas gave
every dollar of his fortune for the benefit of his creditors. For several months he
was compelled to give his personal attention to the work of straightening out the
firm's afifairs. Undaunted by his experiences he began business anew before the
close of the same year, entering into partnership with Joseph M. Shoemaker
under the style of Thomas & Shoemaker. Within a few years the firm had
gained an influential clientage, the business being recognized as hardly second
to any controlled by the banking and brokerage firms on Third street. Again
the personal ability of Mr. Thomas won recognition when Anthony J. Drexel
invited him to become a partner in the well known Drexel house. From that
time until his death there were few large financial transactions of Philadelphia
in which Mr. Thomas did not figure. He was concerned .in the Reading &
Northern Pacific reorganizations and all the big operations of the Drexel &
Morgan firms before his retirement. For twenty-one years he ranked among
the first of Philadelphia's international bankers. Because of ill health he retired
from business in January, 1905. His financial interests were in part repre-
sented by membership in the Stock Exchange, a directorship in the Farmers &
Mechanics National Bank, and the Pennsylvania Company for Insurances on
Lives and Granting Annuities. He was also manager of the Philadelphia Sav-
ings Fund Society and an investor in many other financial institutions.

In commenting upon his business career following his death, the Philadelphia
Press said : "Banker, philanthropist and churchman, George C. Thomas has en-
riched far more than himself during a long, busy and successful life. He began
with the advantages of fortune and he used them wisely, shrewdly and with high
success, but he did far more than merely make money in business and in bank-
ing. He held high standards of personal integrity and business honor. When
reverses came he pleaded no legal bar to his liabilities and his success through
life was measured by no man's losses. He continued the sound, careful, con-
servative tradition of the banking of this city and he did his work as a banker
by the wise and fruitful use of personal honor, credit and resources and not
through banking corporations or their manipulation. Such men by example and
by achievement strengthen every good impulse in their callings, lessen the force
and peril of temptation for others, and by rendering investments more secure
and credit more stable, stimulate thrift, encourage saving and give hope and
security to multitudes. The whole level of business transactions, of care in con-
tracts and of diligence and prudence in dealing with the investment of others, is
raised and advanced by a banker like George C. Thomas. Through his hon-
esty, honor and prescience other men profit and the community gains. He added
to this large gifts and he gave with a banker': far-seeing system. He under-
stood that men immeasurably increase the value of their benefactions when
they build into institutions and aid and endow organi.-ations that live after them.
The church for which he did so much, the missions of the Protestant Episcopal
church and a wide range of personal charities, profit for all years to come by

his generosity."
Vol. n'— 4


In early manhood George C. Thomas wedded Miss Ada E. Moorhead, daugh-
ter of J. Barlow Moorhead, a prominent iron master, and theirs was largely an
ideal married relation because of the harmony of their interests and purposes,
especially in the field of religious activity. They became parents of two sons,
George C., Jr., and Leonard Moorhead Thomas, and a daughter, Mrs. Sophia
Thomas Volkmar, of California.

Their Philadelphia residence was a palatial home at Twenty-first and Spruce
streets, and Greystock at Chestnut Hill was their abode through the heated sum-
mer months. Their Philadelphia home contains a priceless collection of books,
pictures, relics and art treasures which has been the delight of every art lover
of Philadelphia and New York. The rare books and the pictures aggregate an
amount of artistic and financial value probably unequalled in any other private
collection in this country. The library includes some of the rarest books ever
printed and autograph letters and documents whose value is beyond computa-
tion. One is a collection on vellum — Horas Peatse Virginis Marise Secundum
Osura Romanum, cum Salendario. Its only rival for the worship of bibliophiles
is the celebrated Grimani breviary. It is written in Gothic characters and has
seventy-nine exquisitely executed full-page miniatures. It includes a calendar
of months, each with a border of masterly conception and variety. This was
done in the golden age of Flemish illumination, early in the fifteenth century,
and is alone warrant for denominating the library which contains it a notable
one. Another rare volume is the York manual of the early fifteenth century,
one of only four in existence. It is done on vellum, with the primitive tools
used before printing was known. The other three of the manuals are in the
university library at Cambridge, the Minster library at York and at the Bodleian.
The first book ever printed in England is here, done by William Caxton on the
old wooden printing press set up at the Sign of the Red Pole, in the Almonry
at Westminster. It is the "Dictes and Notable Wise Sayings of the Philoso-
phers," published November i8, 1477. The royal book of "The Book for a
King," also published by Caxton and of which only five perfect copies are
known, is in the collection. One of these brought more than ten thousand dol-
lars at a sale in England.

The Bibles owned by Mr. Thomas include almost every rare edition ever
known. One is the volume with which the English Bible began its history. It
is the first complete English Bible, printed at Antwerp in 1535, by Miles Cover-
dale, and with it are Tyndale New Testament, printed at Worms, and the first
sheets of an issue of the Bible authorized by Thomas Cromwell and printed in
Paris. In another alcove is the first Bible printed in this country, the Eliot
Indian Bible with the New Testament. This is the Ives copy and one of the
very few perfect ones in existence. Near this rarity are the primer of Henry
VIII, the Appleton copy ; Queen Elizabeth's prayer book and the later primer.
The prayer book once used by Martha Washington, having on its flyleaf an in-
scription from her declaring this, was presented by Mr. Thomas to the Colonial
Dames and is now kept in the Pennsylvania room at Mount Vernon. The
famous Mark Baskett Bible, over which scholars disputed for years, is also in
the Thomas library. Other "first editions" are there in plenty, and perhaps the
most remarkable of them all is the first copy of Defoe's "Robinson Crusoe"


which ever came from the press. Rivaling it are the first editions of the English
translation of Don Quixote, which set the whole world to laughing; of Gold-
smith's Deserted \'illage, and of La Fontaine's Fables in the diminutive vest-
pocket edition in which they made their first bow to the English-speaking world.
Of the works of Milton, Mr. Thomas owned magnificently bound copies of
Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained and that seldom discovered Lycidas, of 1638.
The Kilmarnock copy of Robert Burns' poems shares honors with rare editions
of Shelley, one of which is an edition of Queen Mab, which contains the extra
leaf found in but a scant number of Shelley editions. The Knickerbocker His-
tory of New York and the rare little Thackeray book. The Second Funeral of
Napoleon, once owned by Frederick W. French, are both in this wonderful
library. A volume for which dealers have spent thousands of dollars in vain
search and which Mr. Thomas placed in high honor in hijs library is the first
edition of Tennyson's poems. Not less valued are the copy of Bleak House,
in the original parts, in which are the original drawings; and the set of water
color drawings made by Palethorpe for Pickwick Papers. There is also a set
of the original proof sheets of Walter Scott's The Surgeon's Daughter, which
he corrected and emendated and afterward reprinted as The Chronicles of the

The collection of autographs is also notable. It includes the original libretto
of Die Meistersinger, penned in the small, cramped hand of Richard Wagner.
It includes the major part of the autographs of the signers of the Declaration,
the originals of Grant's dispatches announcing Lee's surrender, and the letters
of Lincoln to General Hooker. These autographs are in volumes, carefully
sorted and classified, and are from the hands of every sovereign of England,
every sovereign of France, many of the world's famous musicians and artists,
and many men of letters. An expense account of Marie Antoinette challenges a
piquant interest, since its items are most amazingly frank and equally as ex-
travagant. In the autographs of musicians are those of Beethoven, Gluck, Han-
del, Haydn, Wagner, Jenny Lind, Schubert and Mozart. The patriotic appeal
is in the twelve letters of George Washington, among which is his letter to Clin-
ton announcing the Treaty of Peace, and the letters of William Penn, which
fully describe the last hours of Charles II and Penn's dealings with the Indians.
Another document of great historical import is Robert E. Lee's letter surren-
dering his commission in the Army of the United States at the outbreak of the
Civil war. Of similar appeal is the letter written by Jefferson Davis, as secre-
tary of war, promoting U. S. Grant to the rank of captain in the Fourth United
States Infantry, August 9, 1853.

Hardly less commendable to the attention of collectors are the paintings
which adorn the Thomas home. Many of these at one time belonged to Adolph
E. Borie, secretary of the navy in Grant's first administration, whose daughters,
Mrs. James Rhoads and Mrs. John T. Lewis, sold them to Mr. Thomas. One
of the prizes of the collection is the portrait of Lady Gertrude Fitzpatrick as
Sylvia, by Sir Joshua Reynolds. The canvas is one of the most charming ever
achieved by the great Englishman and has been the object of many pilgrimages
since it was placed in Mr. Thomas' house, and by him considerately within the
reach of genuine art lovers. Of supreme importance to Americans is the por-


trait of Sir Henry Irving in his character of Philip II of Spain, painted by-
James McNeil Whistler. The Laborer's Return, by Jean Francois Millet, was
purchased by Mr. Thomas for seventy thousand dollars, and forty thousand
dollars was paid for a Grazing Scene by the celebrated Troyon. In each in-
stance Mr. Thomas, with the exact care of the real art lover and capable col-
lector, chose those canvases most characteristic of their authors. He gave per-
haps a slight preference to the work of the French landscape painters, the
founders of the Barbizon school, and to the Dutch genre painters. But no im-
portant period is without representation in his galleries. The Valley of the
Stour, by Constable, ranks with The Coming Show, by Troyon, and A Winding
Path, by Rousseau. Others of primary importance to all art lovers, and more
particularly to students of art history, to whom demonstrations of the progres-
sion of the art of painting are the desideratum, are The Hour of Witchery and
The Pond at Ville D'Avray, by Corot; Dans La Plaine, by Jules Breton; On
the Banks of the Oise, by Daubigny ; Morning in Spring, by Corot ; At Prayer,
by Gerome; A Roman Bath, by Alma-Tadema; The Goose Herd, by Troyon;
The Dedham Meadows, by Constable ; Sheep Grazing in the Highlands, by Rosa
Bonheur; The Guitar Player, by Fortuny; The Court Jesters, by Zamacois; In
a Deep Reverie, by Anton Mauve ; The Return of the Laborers, by Jean Fran-
cois Millet; The Fisherman, by Corot; William IV when Duke of Clarence, by
Sir Thomas Lawrence; The Vidette, by Detaille; A Gray Day, by Corot; The
Twins, by William Adolph Bougureau; Talking to Her Neighbor, by Gerard
Dou; A Life Saver, by Moran; Passing Away of the Storm, by William T.
Richards ; At the Window, by Meyer Von Bremen ; A Summer Day, by George
Innes; Portrait of Washington, by Rembrandt Peale; One of Washington's
Stafif, attributed to Gilbert Stuart; Cattle at Rest, by Peter de Haas, and Chil-
dren on the Shore, by Joseph Israels.

Appreciative of social amenities, Mr. Thomas was a member of the Union
League, Art, Corinthian Yacht, Merion Cricket, Germantown Cricket, Phila-
delphia Country, Racquet and Church Clubs. He made frequent cruises on his
yacht Allegro or his schooner Ednada, and thus won recreation from business
cares. He was a many-sided man. His interests ranged widely over various
fields. A born leader of men, clear headed, warm hearted, with strong convic-
tions, he was a positive force in every movement with which he became identi-
fied, whether in the realm of finance, philanthropy, education or religion. He
left many monuments to his constructive power but none more characteristic
of his genius or of his idealism than those in the field of religion. His pro-
foundly religious nature found ample room for self-expression within the
church. He was a truly great churchman, giving himself with equal devotion to
the far and to the near. Missions gave outlet and expression to his world-wide
sympathies; his own parish furnished abundant opportunity for close personal
contact and individual helpfulness. He was treasurer of the Domestic and
Foreign Missionary Society for the Protestant Episcopal church for more than
ten years and was deputy to general conventions representing his diocese for
twenty-one years. Reared in the Episcopal faith, Mr. Thomas became intensely
interested in church work through Bishop Phillips Brooks, who organized the
Holy Apostles church at Twenty-first and Christian streets. At that time he


asked Mr. Thomas to take charge of the Sunday school until "a regular super-
intendent" could be found. Mr. Thomas entered into the work with zeal and
"the regular superintendent" was found, for in the forty-one years which elapsed
ere he passed from this life he was seldom away from the school at its regular
sessions and only when necessity obliged him to be absent. He always at-
tempted to arrange his vacation periods or business trips so as to return for the
Sunday service and he became one of the most prominent Sunday school work-
ers in the country. The little mission Sunday school of the Holy Apostles be-
came one of the strongest in the city. To the work Mr. Thomas consecrated his
life. He gave continuously and without limit of his time, strength and means,
for the accomplishment of a result; a result in the attainment of which he would
have been the last to claim the preeminence which rightfully belonged to him.
It was always a marked characteristic of the man to give all credit to his pastors
and fellow workers. The superintendency of his Sunday school and the train-
ing of its teachers was the joy of his life. He knew teachers and pupils by name
and it was a lifelong habit to visit them personally when sick or in trouble. Not
only on such occasions did he cheer them with his presence but also with some
token of regard, usually a large bouquet of roses or carnations. This beautiful
tribute of remembrance indicated his wisdom as well as tenderness. His good-
ness also found expression in unselfish service which was as wise as it was gen-
erous. This thought for others became more and more the dominant note in a
beneficent life. Among his last words were these to his pastor: "I wonder if
anybody knows how hard I have tried to help people." That they did know was
manifest when the end came and hundreds gathered to pay their last tribute of
respect while hundreds of letters were received from those far and near, ex-
pressive of the love and gratitude which they felt to one whose life was ever an
inspiration. He did not confine his activities to the parish Sunday school but
extended his efforts to the schools of the diocese of Pennsylvania, becoming the
leading spirit in the American Church Sunday School Institute and in the Joint
Commission on Sunday School Instruction. Among the munificent gifts made
by Mr. Thomas was the Chapel of the Holy Communion, at Twenty-seventh and
Wharton streets, as a thank offering for the recovery of his son, George C.
Thomas, Jr. ; the Richard Newton Memorial building to the church of the Holy
Apostles, Twenty-first and Christian streets, and a hall and gymnasium. Twenty-
third and Christian streets, for the use of the members of the church of the
Holy Apostles. He also gave the large piece of ground for the nurses' home of
the Hahnemann Hospital to that institution. This gift was also presented as a
memorial to his daughter. With Mrs. Thomas he gave a large parish house to
the Chapel of the Holy Communion and also donated twelve thousand dollars
toward erecting the parish house of the Chapel of the Mediator at Fifty-first
and Spruce streets. Mr. Thomas' last gift was made on Palm Sunday, when
he gave five thousand dollars to the Chapel of the Mediator. He announced the
gift the moment he learned that the congregation would start subscription for
a church edifice on the lot adjoining the parish house. In addition to his money
Mr. Thomas gave that which was even greater — he gave himself, gave of his
time, his energy and his thought, to the work of the church and was a leader
in all of its movements. The church tower of the Holy Apostles church, erected


in 1 90 1, is a fine monument to his labors and that it was so regarded by the mem-
bers of the parish is indicated in the fact that upon its interior was placed the
following inscription :

'"To the Glory of God

And as a loving tribute of appreciation and

respect to


Who, as accounting warden of this parish

for thirty years, has been to it a

tower of strength.
This Tower is Dedicated by the
Members and Friends of the Parish of
the Holy Apostles."
His pastor, in writing of Mr. Thomas, following his death, said: "His de-
sire to serve was equaled by his ability to do. As a speaker he was forceful and
versatile. His utterances, full of rare common sense and marvelously attuned
to every occasion, hid behind them the force of personal conviction which en-
dowed them with magnetic powers. This personal conviction convinced others.
Of his immense benefactions no one will ever know. The number of young
men that he has started in business, the number of destitute families he has suc-
cored, the number of pensioners who looked to him alone for support would
roll up into the hundreds. Like the fountains of Versailles he poured forth his
benefactions through a hundred channels, but unlike these periodic streams, he
never seemed to exhaust his capacity. A few instances will suffice for illustra-
tion. For many years it was his custom to provide tickets from the railroad
surface roads and steamboats to be used for the benefit of such sick persons of
the parish as needed a change, and at the same time made provision for them at
the end of their journey. During the winter he furnished coal and during the
summer ice for all whom his almoners esteemed worthy. At the time of the
coal strike in 1902, when coal reached an almost prohibitive price, he filled the
basement of the church with a huge supply in anticipation of distress he felt
sure would follow. During the famine this coal was sold in small lots at a price
at which the poor could afiford to buy. It was Mr. Thomas' endeavor to assist
persons to help themselves and thus he put a price upon the coal but gave freely
if an individual could not afford to pay. He purchased much property in the
southern part of the city which he bought for the charitable purpose of improv-
ing the neighborhood of the church and providing a really comfortable home for
the poor at a reasonable price. He seemed to enjoy paying a good price for
really good work and thus to encourage excellence. No one could be more con-
siderate than he of others' rights and no one could be more tender of others'

Mr. Thomas passed from life April 21, 1909, and on the occasion of the
funeral, which was conducted in a most quiet and unostentatious manner, more
than one hundred Episcopal rectors and vicars of churches in this city and im-
mediate vicinity were present, together with representatives from the various

Online LibraryEllis Paxson OberholtzerPhiladelphia; a history of the city and its people, a record of 225 years (Volume 4) → online text (page 7 of 62)