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Morris Ketchum Jesup : a character sketch online

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IVith the cofnpliments of

'^ ' - ■ Mrs, Morris K, Jesup


Seest thou a man diligent in business, he shall stand
before kings








• 5

Copyright, 1910, by




It was Mrs. Jesup's hope that Dr. Charles Cuthbert
Hall, Mr. Jesup's long-time friend and trusted counsellor,
would tell the story which these pages record. I have
before me a letter written by Dr. Hall in answer to the
suggestion that he undertake the work, in which he ex-
presses his conviction that the life of Mr. Jesup ought to
be written, and with a few rapid but sure touches sketches
in outline what he believes such a biography should be.
Like all that Dr. Hall did, the subject is generously con-
ceived. Of his own relation to Mr. Jesup he writes:
" I loved him, admired him, and, I think, in a measure,
understood him, for in many matters he opened his heart
to me, and, if I were free, it would be my desire to give
my whole mind and whatever powers I possess to the ful-
filment of this work, with the utmost thoroughness and
finish. He was, in my judgment, the ideal American lay-
man, and an adequate biography of his splendidly com-
plete life would accomplish in the world of affairs what
the life of Phillips Brooks did in another sphere."

Less than two months after these words were written.
Dr. Hall had passed away, and the task which he had so
ardently anticipated was left, with many others, to be
carried on by different hands.

The plan of the pages that follow is a more modest one
than that outlined by Dr. Hall. What is offered is not
a biography, but, as the title indicates, a character sketch.



More than this the materials available do not allow. Mr.
Jesup was not a man of words, but of deeds. He never
wrote a letter when he could accomplish his end by an
interview, and of the letters which he wrote and received,
only a handful have been preserved. A brief autobio-
graphical fragment in his own handwriting has preserved
a few dates and facts concerning the early years. But for
the most part the story of his life must be gleaned from
the records of the institutions which he served, or woven
together from the memories which survive in the hearts
of his fellow-workers. If, in spite of these limitations, it
has been possible to give any degree of unity to the picture,
the explanation must be found in the forcefulness of a
character, which stamped itself so deeply upon whatever
it touched, that, even after the lapse of years, the impress
preserves something of the virility and distinction of the

To the many friends of Mr. Jesup who have assisted
the writer, either by written contributions or personal con-
versations, he desires to express his grateful appreciation.
So far as possible, acknowledgment has been made of
this assistance at the appropriate place in the text, but the
most effective help received is of a kind which it is im-
possible to estimate in words. Sidelights shed upon a
character in the course of a conversation, incidental refer-
ences revealing the total impression produced as a re-
sult of a life-long association — this is evidence which is
none the less valuable because it produces its effect by
















Index 241




A T almost any gathering of well-known New Yorkers
held during the last dozen years, one might have seen
a man well past middle life, whose erect form and com-
manding presence attracted immediate attention. More
than six feet tall, with broad forehead, firm mouth, promi-
nent chin, and quick, penetrating eyes, which seemed to
look, not so much at as through the object of their survey,
he impressed the observer at once as one accustomed to
deal with large affairs. His iron-gray whiskers, worn
more full than is the custom to-day, recalled the portraits
of an earlier generation, and there was about his whole
person a certain air of distinction — an Old-World courtesy
and grace that has become all too rare. But the courtesy
served only to emphasize a forcefulness and decision of
character which manifested itself in every motion and
was no less evident in repose. It did not need the defer-
ence with which he was treated by those whom he ad-
dressed, nor the familiarity which he showed with the
subjects under discussion in the different groups through


which he moved, to make the bystander realize that this
was a man who filled a large place in the life of the com-

This first impression would have been confirmed by
closer contact. The inquirer would have discovered that
Mr. Jesup — for it is of course he of whom we are speak-
ing — held a number of official positions unusual even in
these days of wide interests and large responsibilities.
He v/^s l^iesident of the Chamber of Commerce of the
State of New York, a position to which he was elected
in 1899 and which he held until a few months before his
death. For more than a quarter of a century he was Pres-
ident of the American Museum of Natural History, of
which he had been one of the founders. He was one of
the founders of the Young Men's Christian Association,
its President from 1872 to 1875, ^^^ ^^ ^^^ ^^"^^ ^f his
death Chairman of its Board of Trustees. For twenty-
two years he was President of the New York City Mission
and Tract Society, a position which he retained until
within five years of his death, when he became Honorary
President. For more than thirty-five years he was Presi-
dent of the Five Points House of Industry. He was
President of the American Sunday-school Union, of the
Peary Arctic Club, of the Sailors' Snug Harbor, of the
Audubon Society of the State of New York, of the New
England Society, and of the Syrian Protestant College at
Beirut. He was first Vice-President of the New York In-
stitution for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb, and
Vice-President of the Union Theological Seminary, of the
American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals,
and of the Pilgrims. He was one of the founders and
for many years the Vice-President of the Society for the


Suppression of Vice. He was Treasurer of the John F.
Slater Fund for the Education of Freedmen, and a mem-
ber both of the Peabody and of the General Education
Boards. He was a member of the Rapid Transit Com-
mission, which built the first subway in the City of New
York. He was one of the founders, and for seven years
a trustee, of the Presbyterian Hospital. He was a trus-
tee of the Hospital Saturday and Sunday Association, of
the Society for the Relief of Half Orphan and Destitute
Children, and of the Brick Presbyterian Church, and a
mem.ber of many other scientific, educational, and philan-
thropic institutions, in which he held no official position,
but in the work of which he was actively interested.

The list is significant for the breadth as well as the
number of the interests which it includes. Science, edu-
cation, philanthropy, and religion are all represented.
One who followed Mr. Jesup through the duties and en-
gagements which filled his days and weeks would have
found that he had touched most of the streams which
fed the higher life of the community. To a remarkable
degree it is true that the story of his later years is the
history of philanthropy in New York.

In all the organizations with which he was connected
Mr. Jesup was an active participant. He never lent his
name to any enterprise in which he did not believe, and
when he gave himself he gave without reserve. It is not
often permitted to a single man to exercise a decisive in-
fluence in so many diflFerent spheres of activity, and when
it is remembered that Mr. Jesup's training was that of
the business man rather than of the student or the artist,
this becomes the more striking. One who had excep-
tional opportunities to judge his career has truly said of


him that "it is doubtful if there ever Hved in America or
any other country a man trained originally for business
who developed more universal sympathies and interests."^

This sympathy for whatever enlarges and enriches
human life gave distinction to Mr. Jesup's career. Into
each of his multifarious activities there entered two ele-
ments inseparable from the man, romance and common-
sense. He was at once an idealist and a man of affairs.
He had the vision of the future which kindles enthusiasm,
combined with a shrewd practical knowledge of what can
safely be attempted in the present. In this, as in so much
else, he was a typical American.

Mr. Jesup was typical, in the first place, in the large-
ness of his conceptions. Something of the breadth of
the land of his birth attached to all he did and planned.
He was never content with what had already been achieved.
He was always seeing something greater still to be done.
It was this quality which attracted him to Peary and led
him to support the explorer in his efforts to reach the
North Pole. The enterprise appealed to Mr. Jesup be-
cause it pushed discovery to its furthest limit and
measured the sum of possible human achievement in

This breadth of view is strikingly illustrated in con-
nection with the chief interest of his life, his presidency
of the Natural History Museum. He wished to make the
Museum the best institution of its kind in the world in all
the different respects by which success in such an en-
terprise can be measured. He wished to make it first in
its contribution to research. He beheved it ought to be a
place to which scholars should look for the last word of

* President H. F. Osborn, in Science, February 7, 1908.


science in the departments with which it was concerned,
and to this end he encouraged the expenditure of large
sums for expeditions which were designed to add to the
sum of human knowledge and for the publications which
made these results accessible when they had been attained.
He wished to make it first in its facilities for effective ex-
hibition, and thought no cost of time or money too great
which would secure the introduction of some new and
attractive method of display. The wonderful reproduc-
tions of bird and animal life which delight visitors to
the Museum are illustrations in point. He wished finally
to make it first as an agency of popular instruction, and
nothing delighted him more than to see its rooms thronged
with working men and children from the tenements study-
ing the labels which set forth in simple language the
nature of the objects which the cases contained.

As President of the Chamber of Commerce Mr. Jesup
was largely instrumental in securing the erection of the
splendid and stately structure which is now its perma-
nent home. Its beauty and dignity were to him suitable
symbols of what he conceived to be the true function of
the Chamber, as the spokesman and representative of
the higher aspects of the business life of New York. It
was the same with all that he undertook. Whether he
dealt with the Southern question, as in the Slater Fund,
the economic question, as in his work for forest preserva-
tion, the religious question, as in the City Mission and
Tract Society, or the educational question, as in Union
Seminary and the Syrian Protestant College, everywhere
we find him striking out new paths and seeking the solu-
tion of new problems. He was always a leader, never
simply a follower.


Mr. Jesup was typical further in the fact that his suc-
cess was so largely the result of his own individual effort.
The premature death of his father deprived him of the
counsel and support upon which most boys rely for their
start in life, and early threw him on his own resources.
When he was twelve years old he left school and went into
business in order to help his mother, whose fortune had
been swept away by the panic of 1837. He began his
career as an office boy at a salary of two hundred dollars a
year. Before he was twenty-one he was filling a position
of responsibility, and at the age of twenty-four he was able
to start a successful business for himself. With equal
courage and foresight he entered upon a field compara-
tively new at the time, the distribution of railroad sup-
plies. His industry and thrift, combined with business
talents of a rare order, soon gave him a commanding posi-
tion in the business world. He was associated at different
times with many important enterprises and had business
connections with many well-known men. His credit was
always of the highest and, though for nearly a quarter of
a century before his death he had retired from active
business, he left an ample fortune.

He was typical, finally, in the use which he made of
his wealth. Trained in a New England home in the Puri-
tan tradition of responsibility, he began to give away as
soon as he had anything to give. As his power enlarged,
his benefactions increased correspondingly. He gave, not
only his money, but his time, his strength, his sympathy —
in a word, himself. With the advancing years the strain
of these outside interests increased, until he saw that he
could not do justice to them if he continued in active
business. Accordingly, in 1884, while still in the prime


of life and in the full flush of an exceptionally successful
business career, he determined, contrary to the advice of
many whose opinions he valued highly, to give up business
and to devote himself entirely to philanthropy. From
this time until his death, a period of nearly a quarter of a
century, he threw himself into the task of working for
others with as much ardor and continuity of effort as most
men devote to earning a livelihood, and when, in 1908,
the news flashed across the wire that his restless brain
and generous hand were stilled, men freely said that New
York had lost her foremost citizen.

The story to which these pages are to be given is thus
not merely of local or individual interest. It is the story
of a representative life, a life whose activities affected the
welfare of many men, and whose services have left their
permanent record in institutions of far-reaching influence.
Such men as Mr. Jesup, private citizens only in name,
give tone to our public life and stamp their character
upon our civilization. It seems fitting, therefore, that some
public record should be made of what he was and did.



lyrORRIS KETCHUM JESUP was born at Westport,
■*■'*- Connecticut, on June 21, 1830. He was the son of
Charles Jesup and Abigail Sherwood, the latter being the
daughter of the Honorable Samuel Burr Sherwood, of
Saugatuck, Connecticut. On both sides he was descended
from old New England stock, both his father's and his
mother's families having been identified with Connecticut
for nearly two hundred years before his birth.

On his father's side the connection goes back at least
as far as 1649, ^^ which date his earhest American an-
cestor, Edward Jessup,* was a citizen and land-owner in
Stamford, Connecticut (then under the New Haven

Among Mr. Jesup's ancestors on his father's side two
figures stand out with special distinctness. The first is
Edward, the founder of the line, a man of forceful char-
acter and restless activity, meeting us first in Stamford
under the New Haven colony, appearing later as one of
the pioneer settlers of Long Island under the Dutch,
and ending his life as proprietor of a large estate in West-

* The first two American Jesups spelt their name with two s's, but with
Edward, the third of the line, who died in 1750, the second s drops out.



Chester County, New York, which he had purchased from
the Indians, and which is now known as Hunt's Point.
The other is Ebenezer, the fourth in the Hne of descent,
Mr. Jesup's great-grandfather, a distinguished surgeon
who did yeoman service both in church and state, had his
house burned over him by the British troops under Gen-
eral Tryon, and ended his days as a deacon of the Congre-
gational Church and a Justice of the Peace, esteemed and
trusted by all who knew him. But, indeed, all the Jesups
were men of character and substance, and each illus-
trates in some degree the qualities which reappear in their
distinguished descendant. They were thrifty, knowing
how to make one dollar yield another, independent, an-
ticipating the lines of future development, and quick to
take, advantage of each new opportunity as it came, con-
scientious, doing thoroughly whatever they undertook.
Above all, they were men of public spirit, recognizing their
obligations to the community in which they lived, and
interesting themselves actively in the work of school, state,
and church.

When we first hear of Edward, the first of the name,
he was, as already mentioned, a citizen and land-owner
in Stamford, then (1649) in the eighth year of its existence
as an independent community. Three years later he re-
moved to Middleborough, Long Island (afterward New-
town), as one of a party of pioneers who had received
permission from Peter Stuyvesant to establish an English
settlement there. The price which he paid for his land,
four pounds, the equivalent at the then market rate of
eighty acres, shows that he must have been a man of
substance, only one other settler paying as much. We
hear of him also as owning land at other places, as at Fair-


field, Connecticut, and Jamaica, Long Island. He quickly
assumed a prominent place in the community, being nomi-
nated as Magistrate in 1652 and serving in that capacity
from 1659 to 1662. When, in 1653, the threatened out-
break of hostilities between the Dutch and English alarmed
the inhabitants of the new settlement, Edward Jessup was
one of the delegation which was sent to Boston to present
the cause of the settlers to the Commissioners of the New
England Colonies. Two years later, when Stuyvesant,
with six vessels and some six or seven hundred men, left
home on an expedition against the Swedish settlements
in Jersey, the savages, taking advantage of the absence of
the garrison, landed at Manhattan Island on the 15th of
September and began to plunder and threaten the town.
Among those who were present on the night of this at-
tack and who aided in the defence was Edward Jessup,
and for his activity in this connection he incurred the
enmity of the invaders, who threatened to put him to
death and to take his scalp.

Fortunately, the threat was never executed, for seven
years later we find Edward Jessup active in the move-
ment of the members of Middleborough to withdraw
from the Dutch jurisdiction and to cast in their lot with
Connecticut, which claimed authority over Long Island
under a new charter obtained from the newly restored
king, Charles the Second. We hear of him as leading an
expedition to rescue John Christie, a commissioner whom
the Dutch had arrested while trying to ascertain the sen-
timents of the neighboring towns. In the following year
he removed across the Sound and took up his residence
in Westchester County at what is now known as West
Farms, then under the jurisdiction of Connecticut. Here


he spent the remainder of his days, serving as Magistrate
in 1663 and 1664, and transmitting to his descendants
at his death, in 1666, a large tract of land which, together
with one John Richardson, he had purchased from the
Indians, and which received from his son-in-law, John
Hunt, who afterward inherited it, its present name of
Hunt's Point.

The story of Ebenezer Jesup, the fourth of the line,
and the first of the name, carries us into the storm and
stress of Revolutionary times. Unlike his cousins, the
descendants of James Jesup, who were loyalists, and two
of whom served as officers in the British army, Ebenezer
cast in his lot with the Continental cause. He received
his education at Yale College, from which he graduated
in 1760. He afterward began the study of law, the first
of this branch of Jesups to take up a profession, but,
on account of failing health, turned his attention to the
study of medicine and achieved distinguished success as
a surgeon. In this capacity he served in the Continental
army at Cherry Valley, New York. His home, like that
of his father, was at Fairfield, Connecticut, and, in
common with his neighbors of that locality, he suffered
from the raids of the British troops, his house having
been destroyed at the time when General Tryon burned
Fairfield. He was no less active in religious matters,
serving for twenty-four years as deacon of the Congre-
gational church at Green's Farms. He was a man of
liberal spirit, influential in the community and highly
respected, and for many years served as Justice of the

With the second Ebenezer, Mr. Jesup's grandfather,
the connection of the Jesups with business began. At


twenty-two we find him established for himself at Sauga-
tuck, on the Connecticut side of the river, within three
miles of his father's home. He was, no doubt, influenced
in his choice of location by his marriage, for his wife's
family, the Wrights, had interests there. He bought the
grain which the farmers raised on the neighboring farms,
and exported it to the ports of Boston and, later, of New
York. His store soon became the principal one in Fair-
field. With the growth of his business his interests ex-
tended beyond his native town. He became a director
and, later, the President of the Bridgeport National Bank.
He was also interested in the Fairfield County Bank
of Norwalk, and served on its Board of Directors for
many years. Like most of his friends and neighbors
he lost heavily in the panic of 1837, but his credit was so
strong that he weathered it successfully and was able to
lend assistance to other members of his family who had
been less fortunate.

Those who knew Mr. Jesup well spoke of him with
great respect as a man of unusual ability, enterprise, and
public spirit. He was a liberal supporter of the Congre-
gational church, attending first the old church near his
home at Green's Farms, and later, when a new building
was erected in Fairfield in 1832, contributing generously
to its support. He was actively interested in the militia,
bearing the commission of Major, and was known by this
title to the day of his death. Still more significant for our
present purpose was his interest in education. He was a
stanch supporter of the local schools and actively inter-
ested himself in their improvement.

The large storehouse, with its immense timbers and
numerous stories, in which Major Jesup used to keep the


grain which he had purchased, pending the arrangements
for its transshipment, was long one of the landmarks of
Saugatuck. With the one-storied house, in which its
owner lived, it stood upon the ground now owned by his
eldest living grandson James R. Jesup, but both have
long been torn down and nothing but the old wharf
remains to suggest the business which was done there less
than three-quarters of a century ago. The more modern
house, which was his home for the greater part of his life,
descended to his son Francis, who occupied it for some
twenty years. In 1885, however, it was purchased by
his grandson, Morris K. Jesup, the subject of the present
sketch, and presented to the Congregational church of
the place for use as a parsonage, a function which it
fulfils to-day.^

In 1790 Mr. Jesup married Sarah Wright, daughter
of Obadiah Wright, of Saugatuck. They had nine chil-
dren, seven sons and two daughters, of whom the third,
Charles, born on March loth, 1796, was the father of
Morris K. Jesup.

As might have been expected from his father's keen in-
terest in education, Charles Jesup received the best of
schooling and was graduated from Yale in 1 8 14, being
then only eighteen years of age.

It was his original intention, like his grandfather, to

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