"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, November 24, 2014

A Disappearance and a Family Scandal

Granville Garth


Granville W. Garth was born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1863. In his adulthood, he moved to New York City. He prospered there, eventually becoming president of the Merchant’s National Bank. In 1893, he married 21-year-old Lillie McComb, a daughter of an extremely wealthy California family.  He was rich, respected, and powerful.

Then in December 1903, the world learned that his seemingly ideal existence had some very dark flaws. He became, we are told, “distressed” with his life. So “distressed” was Garth that the board of directors of his bank persuaded him to take a holiday. A sea cruise, that era’s panacea for all ills, physical and mental, was prescribed.

Garth boarded the steamer “Denver,” bound for Galveston, Texas. He never made it to his destination. The night of Christmas Day, the banker disappeared from his ship. His body was never recovered. Was it suicide? Accident? Murder? No one ever knew.

Adding to the mystery was the peculiar behavior of another passenger on the “Denver,” Thomas Lawson. The officers and crew of the ship were given to believe that Lawson “was in charge” of Garth during the voyage. He was said to be “the confidential man” for Blair & Co., a prominent Wall Street firm. They also told reporters that Lawson had taken possession of Garth’s luggage.

A reporter for the “Galveston Daily News” tracked Lawson down, and found that he was not inclined to be cooperative. Lawson “emphatically denied that he had any connection with Mr. Garth beyond having casually met him on board the boat.” He refused to say any more, snapping that he did not like newspaper publicity. Lawson denied knowing anything about Garth’s luggage. He had no idea where it was, but it was in a place where the police could not get it, “and, furthermore, to tell the police with his compliments to go to ____.”

A curious argument played out in the newspapers after Garth’s disappearance. The officers of the “Denver” disclaimed all blame for his presumed death by drowning, stating that the missing man was in Lawson’s care, so watching over him was no particular job of theirs. The “confidential man” continued to deny any connection to Garth, or responsibility for him. The men of the “Denver,” he shrugged, should have watched over their passenger better. The captain of the “Denver” commented that Garth seemed to want to avoid Lawson, preferring to spend as much time alone as possible. Fellow passengers later described Garth as “very nervous,” even fearful. One of these passengers, a Mr. Saalburg, told reporters that on the last night Garth was seen on board, the officers of the ship put up chains between the steerage and cabin compartments. When Garth heard the rattling of these chains, he cried out, “My God, they are going to put me in irons! My poor father!” The captain admitted the missing man showed signs of “mental aberration,” which took the form of a paranoid fear of “espionage” against him, but the banker gave no sign of suicidal intent.

The causes of this “aberration” remained unexplained. Garth’s bank was in an excellent financial shape. He was known as a prudent and highly capable businessman. It was presumed that he must have had personal troubles of some sort, but this was hotly denied by his family.

The newspapers broadly hinted at one of the banker’s “personal troubles.” James Jennings McComb, the father of Garth’s wife Lillie, had left a clause in his will virtually disinheriting Lillie’s sister Fannie if she married an artist named Louis Herzog. After McComb’s death, Fannie defiantly married Herzog anyway. Mrs. Herzog filed an appeal to have this clause in her father’s will overturned. The day before Garth sailed, the Court of Appeals ruled in her favor, deciding that the trustees of James McComb’s estate should allow Mrs. Herzog her full share of his money, which amounted to over two million dollars. Garth—who was one of the executors of McComb’s estate--had fought this effort to have the will overturned. It was reported that because of this squabble, as well as other unspecified family troubles, Lillie and Fannie were refusing to have any communication with anyone in the Garth family.

Even more explosively, a cashier at Garth’s bank, a Mr. Knowles, declared, “Mr. Garth died as the result of a family matter. Garth was a high-strung man with a strong regard for family honor. For two hundred years the Garth family honor had not had a blot upon it. Garth was a man who would make any personal sacrifice to save the family name from any possible dishonor. He died a victim to Southern chivalry—trying to shield his family name.”

Knowles refused to elaborate on this statement.

Things got even weirder. Four days after Garth vanished, the “New York Times” told its readers: “One feature of the case friends of the dead banker refused to discuss yesterday. That was the sudden apparent rise in fortune of Hubert Hartigan, formerly coachman for the Garth family, and now the proprietor of record of a stock farm and stables known as Erin Farm, three miles from Morristown, N.J., which he bought last fall from Theodore Schmalholz of 880 West End Avenue, paying for it with a certified check for about $30,000. Hartigan was formerly employed in a minor capacity in a riding academy in this city. Mrs. Garth employed his sister, Kathleen Hartigan, as maid to her two small daughters. The Hartigans suddenly left Mr. Garth’s employ several months ago and went to Ireland, returning about ten weeks ago with several blooded horses raised in that country, which are now at Erin Farm.”

$30,000 was worth around $790,000 in 2014 dollars. How did Hartigan suddenly go from impecunious coachman to filthy-rich horse breeder? No one knew.

No one believed working for the Garth family paid that well.

It was said that the handsome, “smooth-spoken” twenty-one-year-old Hartigan could provide insight into those mysterious “personal troubles” of his late employer, but he literally ran from inquiring reporters.

Hubert Hartigan, circa 1950.


Hartigan’s attorney (yes, the first thing the ex-coachman did after Garth’s disappearance was to lawyer up,) released a statement saying it was a “source of regret” that his client “should have been unjustifiably accused.” He went on to say that Hartigan and Garth “were always most friendly,” and that the late banker “always had the fullest confidence in Mr. Hartigan.” It was “unfortunate that a young man of Mr. Hartigan’s standing and ability should have been in any way brought before the public in the light which the reports have indicated.”

The attorney added that on his advice, Hartigan would not be giving any interviews.

At this same time, some of the crew of the “Denver” made public their belief that Garth had not fallen overboard, but had “concealed himself” in the ship. In related news, the Garth family vigorously discounted published reports that the missing banker had been seen alive and well in Galveston after the “Denver” arrived there from New York. Garth’s relatives were curiously eager to believe him dead.

A month after Garth vanished, his relatives offered a $10,000 reward for the return of his body, as well as certain papers they believed he carried on his person. They never specified what these papers were, and the reward was never collected.

There was no further significant news in the Garth Saga until April 1904, when it was discovered that Erin Farm was not Hartigan’s property after all. A deed was placed on file with the County Clerk conveying the property from Hartigan to Garth’s wife, Lillie. The deed was placed ten days before Garth disappeared, but was not executed until that April.

Hartigan told a reporter that he had never owned the farm. He had merely purchased it for Lillie Garth. When it was pointed out to him that he had always posed as the owner, he said only, “That was Mrs. Garth’s wish.” However, it was generally believed that Mrs. Garth had given Hartigan the money for the farm, and he only deeded it back to her because of the adverse publicity his purchase inspired.

Unfortunately, after this final blast of enigmatic strangeness from the Garth crowd, the story faded from the newspapers with none of the mysteries resolved. In October 1904, it was reported that Granville's elderly father established a scholarship in his son's name at his alma mater, Columbia University. Garth’s will was probated, leaving everything to his wife and two daughters. Lillie Garth already enjoyed a fortune of some four million dollars that she had inherited from her father.

The last we heard of Granville W. Garth was in July 1905, when his widow, who was living in Europe, got married...to the former coachman, Hubert Hartigan.

And suddenly, although the circumstances of Garth’s disappearance remain murky, the nature of his mysterious “personal problems” becomes a good deal clearer.

[A footnote: Hartigan and the former Mrs. Garth settled permanently in his native Ireland, where Hartigan became an immensely successful racehorse trainer. His clients included the Prince of Wales—who later briefly reigned as Edward VIII—and the Aga Khan. He had 13 Irish Classic winners, a record seven 1,000 Guineas; one 2,000 Guineas; three Oaks; and two St Legers. Lillie Garth Hartigan died in 1937. Hartigan died in 1955, surrounded by some of the greatest thoroughbreds in the world right to the end. Who says crime—or something that may have been uncomfortably close to it—does not pay?]

1 comment:

  1. Poor Garth. He seems not to have any faults that were brought to light. He was probably just a victim of unscrupulous people. It's too bad he married one of them.

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