No. 653
Crime, Eccentricity, and the Sporting Life in 19th Century America.
May 27, 2024

Philanthropist or “Moral Leper?”

April 30, 2013
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The archives of the Humble Oil & Refining Company are about the last place where you’d expect to run across a first-rate poltergeist account, but it just goes to show that we live in a funny old world.  In 1948, a folklorist and historian was browsing through the company’s papers when he came across a letter that had absolutely nothing to do with oil.  It read:Jan [illegible] '
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Strange Company - 5/27/2024
Included in yesterday’s trip to Fall River was a stop at Miss Lizzie’s Coffee shop and a visit to the cellar to see the scene of the tragic demise of the second Mrs. Lawdwick Borden and two of the three little children in 1848. I have been writing about this sad tale since 2010 and had made a previous trip to the cellar some years ago but was unable to get to the spot where the incident occured to get a clear photograph.  The tale of Eliza Borden is a very sad, but not uncommon story of post partum depression with a heartrending end. You feel this as you stand in the dark space behind the chimney where Eliza ended her life with a straight razor after dropping 6 month old Holder and his 3 year old sister Eliza Ann into the cellar cistern. Over the years I have found other similar cases, often involving wells and cisterns, and drownings of children followed by suicides of the mothers. These photos show the chimney, cistern pipe, back wall, dirt and brick floor, original floorboards forming the cellar ceiling and what appears to be an original door. To be in the place where this happened is a sobering experience. My thanks to Joe Pereira for allowing us to see and record the place where this sad occurrence unfolded in 1848. R.I.P. Holder, Eliza and Eliza Ann Borden. Visit our Articles section above for more on this story. The coffee shop has won its suit to retain its name and has plans to expand into the shop next door and extend its menu in the near future.
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Lizzie Borden: Warps and Wefts - 2/12/2024
When these photos from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York were taken at Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery at the end of May in 1899, Memorial Day didn’t exist. “Decoration Day,” however, was an established holiday celebrated every May 30. The idea was to visit the final resting places of thousands of […]
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Ephemeral New York - 5/27/2024
An article I recently wrote for the British online magazine, New Politic, is now available online. The article, “The Criminal Origins of the United States of America,” is about British convict transportation to America, which took place between the years 1718 and 1775, and is the subject of my book, Bound with an Iron Chain: […]
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Early American Crime - 12/17/2021
John Wesley Elkins.11-year-old John Wesley Elkins was slight of stature—four feet eight inches tall, weighing 73 pounds. He was intelligent and well-spoken, and he had never caused trouble until the day he murdered his parents. At 2:00 am, on July 24, 1889, while his parents were sleeping in their Iowa farmhouse, he shot his father in the head and then beat his mother to death with a club.
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Murder By Gaslight - 5/25/2024
CHIEF OF CONSThe Morning Times(Cripple Creek, Colorado)February 15, 1896Courtesy of Mitch Morrissey ig Ed Burns robs a dying man?      Mitch Morrissey, a Facebook friend and historian for the Denver District Attorney’s Office, found and published an interesting newspaper piece on "Big Ed" Burns, one of the most notorious characters in the West. Burns was a confidence man and
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Soapy Smith's Soap Box - 4/2/2024
Youth With Executioner by Nuremberg native Albrecht Dürer … although it’s dated to 1493, which was during a period of several years when Dürer worked abroad. November 13 [1617]. Burnt alive here a miller of Manberna, who however was lately … Continue reading
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Executed Today - 11/13/2020
Shooting at the Elevated. | Mother Mandelbaum's Secrets.

Philanthropist or “Moral Leper?”

Edward S. Sanborn
Edward S. Sanborn.

In Kingston, New Hampshire, Edward Sanborn was known as a public minded citizen and a generous supporter of education and religion. In Boston he was a ruthless businessman, a libertine and brothel keeper. His double life remained a secret until he was found dead in one of his West End whorehouses on August 4, 1885.

A Double Life

Edward S. Sanborn was born in 1818 to a prominent family in Kingston, New Hampshire. Though he never officially gave up his residency in Kingston, around age thirty Sanborn left for Boston to seek his fortune. In retrospect it appears that from this time forward he deliberately intended to lead a double life. He took up with prostitutes; but just visiting a brothel was not enough for Edward Sanborn, he had to own one. Using money inherited on his father’s death Sanborn joined with a group of women to open a house of ill repute in Boston’s West End.

When in Kingston, Sanborn regularly attended the Congregational Church. He donated generously to the Congregationalists but also gave freely to the Universalists and Methodists. In Kinston he was a great supporter of churches saying, “They are necessary to keep the boys and girls out of deviltry.” Though he spent more of his time in Boston, Sanborn was so well liked in Kingston that he was elected as their representative in the state legislature.

In Boston, however, Sanborn was not well liked. He was an unscrupulous businessman who “insisted on realizing more for his money than anyone else could get.” He was also a notorious miser who would rather walk a mile and a half than pay a horsecar fare. But it paid off—before long he owned at least three profitable brothels in the West End.

Around 1868 Sanborn met in Boston, Miss Julia A. Hilton a pretty nineteen year old girl from Maine. They began living together at his house on Lyman Street; to the world she was his housekeeper, but in fact she was his mistress and the manager of the brothels. Miss Hilton possessed the same business acumen as her lover and soon had amassed a small fortune of her own.

Julia A HiltonMiss Julia A. Hilton.

In his sixties, Sanborn began to concern himself with how he would be remembered after death. He had a monument erected in a Kingston cemetery where he and Julia Hilton were to be buried side-by-side. At the time he was peeved with Kingston for not reelecting him to the legislature so left the town nothing in his will. Instead he left $40,000 to Dartmouth College and the remainder to his sisters and to ex-Governor Noyes of Ohio who had been a classmate many years earlier.

He soon had a change of heart, realizing that memory of his gift to Dartmouth would last only as long as it took to cash the check. Instead he set out to build and endow an elegant brick and granite school building in Kingston, to be called the Sanborn Seminary. Miss Hilton would fund the school’s library. Life-sized marble busts of each donor would be displayed over a plaque reading:

This seminary was founded and endowed and this building erected by Edward Stevens Sanborn in token of his regard for his native town and his appreciation of the impotence of education. The library was presented by Julia Ann Hilton.

Edward Sanborn had not only changed his views about Kingston but about his relatives as well. He drafted a new will cutting off all but one half-sister to whom he left a small annuity. He gave $5,000 to the Congregational Church of Kingston and $2,000 in trust for the poor women of Kingston “who the selectmen may best adjudge entitled to the benefit by their industry and virtue.” The rest of his estate, over $200,000 was to go to the Seminary.

Julia Ann Hilton died in April 1885 leaving Edward Sanborn devastated. He took sick and never recovered, dying himself on the following August 4. Sanborn’s secret life was revealed and the press referred to him as a “moral leper” and a “degraded miser.”

These two deaths set off a particularly unseemly legal battle over the ill-gotten gains of the brothel keepers. Hilton’s will left between $1,000 and $2,000 to her mother and to each of her siblings. The remainder, over $80,000, she left to Edward Sanborn. Her family challenged this will on the grounds that Edward Sanborn had held undue influence over Julia Hilton. Sanborn’s family joined with Dartmouth College to challenge Sanborn’s last will claiming that he was not in his right mind when he drafted it. In Kingston, the now finished Sanborn Seminary building stood vacant waiting to see if funds would be available for its operation.

< Julia A Hilton
Sanborn Seminary, Kingston, N.H.

The Hiltons agreed to join their case with that of Sanborn’s relatives and let both matters be settled by the state of New Hampshire. A probate hearing was held the following January in Exeter, New Hampshire. Though it was shown that Sanborn’s mind was failing toward the end, the symptoms did not appear until after the death of Julia Hilton; long after the will was drafted. Both wills stood intact and the bulk of both estates went to the Sanborn Seminary.

Edward Sanborn was buried under his memorial in Kingston, New Hampshire, but Julia Hilton was not buried beside him. Her relatives did not follow her wishes and took her body back to Maine. Sanborn was too sick following her death to do anything about it. Sanborn Seminary was opened in 1888 and continued operation until 1966. The building still stands and is owned by the town of Kingston, New Hampshire.

Sources:

  • "Double Lives." The National Police Gazette [New York] 10 Oct. 1885: 2.
  • "E. Sanborn's Double Life." Springfield Republican 21 Sept. 1885.
  • "Julia A. Hilton's Will." Biddeford Daily Journal 18 Nov. 1885.
  • "Sanborn Seminary - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Apr. 2013.
  • "Sanborn Will Probated." New York Times 14 Feb. 1886.
  • "The Sanborn Will Case." Boston Journal 1 Jan. 1886.
  • "Will Case Compromised." Lowel Daily Courier [Lowell] 19 Nov. 1885