Thursday, May 29, 2008


Arthur Edward Stilwell and the Brownies

Yesterday, poking around online researching a project I'm working on, I stumbled upon the strange story of Arthur Edward Stilwell and his friends, the brownies. After working as a clerk, traveling salesman, and insurance policy developer, in the 1880s Stilwell moved into the apparently lucrative business of trust companies and belt-line railways. One of his accomplishments was founding the town of Port Arthur in Texas. The town was to be a seaport, and a terminus of a railway that ran south from Kansas City, so that the agricultural products of the American midwest could be exported. The railway eventually failed, apparently, but the town of Port Arthur survived.

That's not the interesting part of Stilwell's story, though. The juicy bit is this:
Stilwell blamed the "Cannibals of Wall Street," and John W. Gates in particular, for his losses, and wrote several books on finance and world affairs. He then published novels, poems, and stories alleging that the ideas for his railways and Port Arthur came to him from "brownies." Stilwell was a Christian Scientist. He married Jennie A. Wood on June 10, 1879, and they had no children. He died in New York on September 26, 1928. Among the other Texas communities founded by his firms were Nederland, Diaz, Rochester, Hamlin, Odell, Sylvester, and Rule.
So this is a Gilded Age-era entrepreneur whose reach appears to have outstripped his grasp, who was advised in all his business dealings by brownies. Little elven creatures. And this wasn't anything that Stilwell kept secret, either.

The April 7, 1924 issue of Time Magazine carried a story simply headlined "Brownies."
The recent sale of the Kansas City, Mexico & Orient Railroad at public auction to Clifford Histed for $3,000,000, recalls the peculiar circumstances under which the line was originally constructed.

Its author was Arthur E. Stilwell, one of the foremost railroad buyers in the U. S. In a dream, what Stilwell described as "brownies" urged him to build the Kansas City Southern, the shortest line from Kansas City to the Gulf of Mexico. No sooner was this task completed than the same "brownies" became insistent that he run another line from Kansas, southwest, into Mexico. Stilwell even consulted Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who declared that "spirits" were directing his work.

Accordingly, the Kansas City, Mexico & Orient was organized in 1901, capitalized at $50,000,000. Its line runs from Wichita, Kan., to Alpine, Tex; then there is a gap of unfinished line to Falomir, whence the road proceeds through Chihuahua to Sanchez; after another gap, it begins again at Fuerte and ends at its Pacific terminal at Topolobampo.

What kind of "brownies" suggested this unhappy venture is uncertain. The road has been beset by one difficulty after another, and has been involved in much litigation. Finally, the road was ordered sold to satisfy a government lien of $2,500,000 with interest, advanced in 1923 to enable the road to continue in operation.

The new owner, Mr. Histed, declares the road will be reorganized, built up and extended. And so far he has not mentioned "brownies."
(Even eight decades later you can hear the Time reporter chuckling over that last line, can't you?)

Stilwell's wife, apparently, shared his belief in the spiritual. And as this Time Magazine obituary from October 22, 1928 suggests, she was willing to follow his lead, even after death.
Died. Mrs. Arthur Edward Stilwell, 68, widow of the late famed railroad builder (TIME, Oct. 8); by an eight-story leap from her apartment, 13 days after the death of her husband; in Manhattan. Both Mr. & Mrs. Stilwell were spiritualists, students of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sir Oliver Lodge. Mr. Stilwell once declared that "brownies" advised him in his business enterprises. Mrs. Stilwell left a note, stating that her death would take her to Mr. Stilwell "on another plane of consciousness."
So at least eight towns in Texas, founded by a spiritualist (and "student of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle") who took direction from brownies that appeared to him in his dreams, and who blamed his business failings on the "Cannibals of Wall Street." Little elfin creatures situating communities in very particular locations at the end of railway lines--at the end of leylines, perhaps?--opposed by cannibalistic forces half a continent away, vying for control of the continent.... Sounds like there's a story in there somewhere, doesn't there?

Sounds like a Paul Jessup story to me. :) Cannabalistic brownies and such :)
There's definitely a story in there...cannibals of Wall Street..gnomes of Zurich...Brownies vs. cannibal gnomes? (Take that, Travelocity!)
Mercy mercy me! NEDERLAND was founded, indirectly anyway, by BROWNIES?! I've drien through Nederland at least 500 times since 1967 when we moved to Texas, and always wondered where such a weird name came from. This guy Stilwell sounds like he's worth an entire steampunk alt-hist treatment. What if he'd succeeded in Kansas City Southern's original aim, Port Arthur became the economic powerhouse of the Gulf Coast (I'm laughing as I type this), and eclipsed New Orleans as the Southern port of record? Wouldn't Marie Laveau have had some interest in a good ol' voudoun curse on them pesky brownies?

Yo've made my day, as usual. Thanks.
There's definitely a story in there somewhere. I'm just not sure yet what it is...
Is this all the fault of cartoonist Palmer Cox, believed to be the first to succeed in turning his characters into a commercial franchise. His "Brownies" were a cultural phenom of the 1880s, even before the creative and commercial successes of the Yellow Kid and Buster Brown.
Palmer Cox and Arthur Stilwell controlled by teeny little aliens they call Brownies.

This just gets better and better. Whatever you decide to write, Chris, I look forward to and will read with pleasure. But this raw material is hugely amusing and loads of fun.
I stumbled on Palmer Cox a bit further in my researches, actually. In the end the story that I wrote this week--a comic script, actually--that included Brownies didn't use any of this goodness, so I've got time for it all to percolate in my hindbrain as I figure out just *what* the story is!
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