"...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, October 19, 2015

The Unpaid Assistants of Arthur Stilwell; or, Behind Every Great Man is a Great Brownie

So what it comes down to is that the citizens of Port Arthur, Texas, can thank a bunch of fairies for their city.

This statement probably needs some explanation.

Arthur Stilwell was one of the great unheralded entrepreneurs of the Gilded Age. He was born on October 21, 1859, in Rochester, New York, into a family of achievers. His father was a respectable retail merchant, but the star of the family tree was Arthur's grandfather, who was one of the builders of the New York Central, as well as a founder of the Western Union Telegraph Company. Arthur spent much of his childhood in this grandfather's company, and the old man was obviously a big influence on the boy.

When he was fifteen, Stilwell went out into the world armed with $707, a great share of the family's ambitious streak, and, well, some other assets which we will discuss in good time. After working in various jobs in St. Louis and New York, he was forced to return home to help his family after his father--who seems to have been the Stilwell clan's token failure--lost most of his money in bad oil speculations. Stilwell set up a printing business, which soon became so successful that he went "on the road," selling business and legal forms throughout the country. His little empire really took off when he came up with the idea of printing railway timetables that carried commercial advertising. In the course of developing this new enterprise, he learned much about railroading. Before he was twenty, this young sales executive was on the way to becoming a very wealthy man.

He eventually changed careers by becoming an agent for Travelers Insurance Company, a line of work that proved characteristically prosperous. He developed a number of new products that helped revolutionize the insurance industry. As restless as he was industrious, Stilwell eventually left insurance to go out West. In 1885, Stilwell moved to Kansas City, then one of America's fastest-growing cities, to start a venture capital and investment firm. He sold real estate, and pursued his long-held dream of building railways. His great ambition was to build a line connecting Kansas City to the Gulf of Mexico. He acquired rail lines that eventually became the Kansas City Southern Railroad. While building these lines, he founded a number of towns, the best-known being Stilwell, Oklahoma, and Port Arthur, Texas. Stilwell faced some disappointments common to such ventures, such as lawsuits, hurricanes, and diseases, particularly the dreaded yellow fever. In 1899, Stilwell lost control of the venture when his railway was forced into receivership. However, two years later, the company discovered a large oil field in Texas which paved the way for its later success.

Stilwell then organized the Kansas City, Mexico, and Orient Railway, with the aim of building a line that would link Kansas City to the Pacific. Unfortunately, this ambition died due to various financial problems, and, more importantly, the Mexican Revolution. The company went into receivership in 1912. However, like Stillwell's previous venture, the next owner, William Kemper, discovered oil beneath the rail lines, making it a very prosperous bargain for him. Stilwell's habitual good luck seems to have been contagious.

Stilwell then went into a pleasant and prosperous retirement. He occupied himself with the usual civic activities. He designed beautiful and popular residential enclaves and amusement parks, and also founded a mission house. However his real passions were more artistic pursuits. This go-getting entrepreneur loved books, art, and music. He was a fine singer and organ player, and was fond of composing novels, poetry, songs, and plays. He also wrote several books of political and social analyses.

His published writings revealed that Arthur Stilwell was not in the usual mold of business executives. In his book, "Live and Grow Young," he said matter-of-factly that "All my life, even when a child, I have received messages from the spirit world, and they have greatly influenced my life." In fact, he attributed all his personal success to the fairies of the spirit world, or "Brownies," as he called them. One notable instance was when he planned to buy a railroad that ran from Shreveport, Louisiana, to Houston, Texas. The "Brownies" warned him against it. His "corps of spirits" told him not to make Galveston the terminal of the Kansas City Southern Railroad, because that city was doomed to destruction. On advice of the "Brownies," he founded the city of Port Arthur to use as a terminal instead. He followed their instructions for his new railway to the letter. Paying a mere $7 an acre for the land, the town blossomed "as if by magic."

Four days after the Port Arthur terminal was completed, Galveston was destroyed by the legendary hurricane of 1900.

According to an article in the June 15, 1922 "New York Times," Sir Arthur Conan Doyle said the railway magnate had been through the greatest psychic experiences of any living man. "I have built more than 3,000 miles of railroad," Stilwell said. "Every part of every route had been determined by spirits who have come to me in my dreams and told me what to do...They have never given me a false message."

His otherworldly gifts first manifested themselves when he was four. He began telling his mother that they would be getting certain visitors, long before they arrived. When he was 14, he caught a glimpse of a girl named Jennie Wood, who was a complete stranger to him. He informed his mother that he would marry the girl in five years. And so he did. His "nightly advisors," also helped him with his writings. "The engineering plans that I have put in effect have all come from an engineer who has been long dead," he told the "Times." "I have transcribed scores of poems which have been dictated to me by poets. I have written the music of many songs, which have been dictated to me by musicians." Through the same methods, he had also written twenty-one "spirit novels."  The only explanation the "Brownies" gave him for this spiritual involvement was, "For some reason it is easier to communicate through you than through others. You don't know why and neither do we." (Cf. Rosemary Brown.)  "Today I am telling everything," Stilwell told the "Times" reporter.  "I don't care whether I am called a 'nut' or not."

One has to wonder if his spirit friends approved of this new policy of openness. Shortly after Stilwell spoke to the "Times," he was injured in an elevator accident, which left him an invalid. In 1928, he contracted pneumonia, and died of a stroke on September 26. His wife was left alone and devastated by his death. Without him, she felt she had no reason to go on living. A believer in spiritualism herself, she decided to join him on the other side. Less than two weeks after Stilwell died, Jennie put on her finest clothes and threw herself out their apartment window.

The Stilwells were childless, and had no living close relatives. After their remains had, at their request, been cremated, no one could be found to claim the ashes. Their urns were stored in a funeral home, where they mysteriously disappeared.

Perhaps the Brownies claimed them as next-of-kin.


  1. Fairies are notoriously strict when it comes to keeping bargains. Perhaps Mr Stilwell did break a promise by talking so much. However, he seems to have lived a happy life, with material success and a clearly loving wife. I wish we could all have such other-worldly help. And I wouldn't mind having some novels that are ghost, er, spirit-written, for me.

  2. I really enjoyed this one - intersects with several of my interests, including TX/Gulf coast history (including yellow fever), but especially the influence of Spirits on inventors...you might enjoy this post of mine about another inventor who attributed his success to the Spirit world:


    Keep up the great work


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