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Mrs. Harvey Ellis

New information provided by the ProQuest online index of the St. Louis Post Dispatch mandates modification of several statements in a previous post of this blog titled "Alcoholism" as well as several others in chapter 8 of my book Reconfiguring Harvey Ellis (2004). Now at an age and stage when I no longer need curriculum vitae enhancement, I have chosen to present the new information as a copyrighted blog post rather than in traditional print form so that it will be available as quickly as possible to people interested in Ellis. I thank St. Louis architect Gary Tetley for calling my attention to this new information about Harvey Ellis and his wife and serving as a sounding board. Others who have provided research help are, in St. Louis, Mari Coleman of the St. Louis County Library, and, in Minneapolis, Denise Mayette of Sheltering Arms, and Linnea Anderson of the Social Welfare Library, University of Minnesota. What follows was generated by articles in the issues of the St. Louis Post Dispatch for August 6, 7, 8 and 28, 1890; March 13, 1891, and September 7 and 8, 1893 along with relevant information provided by my book. Some of the contents of the articles are confusing, contradictory or inaccurate, but in the aggregate -- and always keeping verifiable specific context in mind -- they nevertheless provide valuable information that should be integrated with previously known facts.
     Through the years certain parts of the biography of Harvey Ellis have been clarified -- although some important gaps still remain -- but his wife has remained largely in the historical shadows. Data for the 1900 United States census recorded on June 14 of that year reveal her first name, Alice, and 1860 as the date of her birth and, by inference, 1885 as the year of her marriage, no documentation of which has yet been located. In the early 1950s Ellis's niece and nephew, then his only surviving relatives, disingenuously claimed no knowledge about his wife, and his friends were notably silent about her, although in 1928 one of them, Francis Swales, wrote that the "marriage was not altogether fortunate and would have been conducive to despair in a weaker character [than Ellis's]."
     In mid-March 1885 Ellis left the successful architectural practice that he and his younger brother Charles had established in Rochester in 1879 and began an eight-year odyssey that took him to St. Paul, Minnesota by 1886, to Minneapolis by 1887, to St. Joseph, Missouri by 1889, and to St. Louis by mid-1890. During those years he achieved national renown because of publication of his beautiful perspective renderings in widely circulated professional magazines. Established architectural firms sought his service, and each change of location and employer seemed to initially involve an enticing chance to design a building for an important competition. Presumably, his wife would have accompanied him to the Midwest, and indeed her presence in Minneapolis, St. Joseph and St. Louis has been established. In St. Joseph a daybook kept by Edmond Eckel, senior partner in the firm of Eckel and Mann, meticulously recorded its payrolls. Ellis's first known payday with them was June 24, 1889 (records before that date were destroyed in an office fire, so he could have joined them somewhat earlier). Then earning thirty dollars a week, he was the highest-paid employee in the office, which suggests the importance of his position within the firm, and now it has been verified by the junior principal, George Mann, that Ellis was hired mainly to work on their entry for the competition for the new St. Louis City Hall, whose deadline was December 1, 1889.
     On February 14, 1890 Eckel and Mann won the competition, besting the second-place design by Sidel, Ginder and Guissart, an ephemeral St. Louis firm. Almost immediately city authorities demanded significant revisions to the prize-winning design, and for the next nine months Ellis was busy with the redesign and several other projects. Although he was based in St. Joseph the payroll reveals that between March 24 and June 10 of that year, 1890, he was out of town on jobs for the firm in Excelsior Springs and St. Louis. Between April 24 and July 15 he received five dollars a week while his wife surprisingly received from the office between fifteen and twenty-five dollars a week.
     One reading of the payroll record is that Mrs. Ellis was in St. Joseph while Ellis was working elsewhere, and it was just simpler for her to be paid directly by the firm than for Ellis to remit part of his wages for household expenses from wherever he was. Another reading of the record is that it could be the first documentation of marital strife, that Ellis and his wife were living apart from each other. At some point in May, 1893 Mann, taking with him from the St. Joseph office Ellis and George Siemens, moved to St. Louis to oversee the city hall project. Ellis and his wife settled at the Garfield Hotel, just a block away from the construction site. On May 20 Mann wrote to Eckel in St. Joseph, "Mrs. Ellis came to me for money, and I told her I would not pay her a cent that she must look to Harvey for her money." She must have been seeking more than just her portion of Harvey's wages, because her usual weekly payment from the office was recorded in Eckel's daybook. Whatever the circumstances, they do not explain the disparity in the amounts of money each received during those three months.
     A previously unknown event might possibly explain it. When the Ellises were in Minneapolis they had adopted a child, and Ellis could have been supporting both a wife and a child then living apart from him. They named the child, a boy then about four years old, Charles Hayden Ellis and called him Charlie, which possibly honored Ellis's younger brother and former business partner Charles. One speculates that Hayden might have been his wife's maiden name. The paper reported that the boy's last name was Nicholson and that he had been born in Indianapolis and placed for adoption in Sheltering Arms of that city. No adoption record in Indianapolis has been located. However, there was also a reference to Sheltering Arms in Minneapolis, a more likely source, since Ellis had no known connection with Indianapolis. The archives of Sheltering Arms in Minneapolis yielded the name of Leonard Mickelson who was one and a half years old when he was admitted on October 1, 1884. He was placed "on trial for adoption" on April 23, 1888 with unidentified people. Considering the age of the child, the date of placement, the phonetic similarity between Nicholson and Mickelson, the possible confusion between Indianapolis and Minneapolis, and the often careless, inaccurate reporting in these Post Dispatch articles, very likely Leonard Mickelson's adoptive parents were Mr. and Mrs. Harvey Ellis.
     It has not been possible to establish an exact calendar of happenings or determine where husband and wife were at certain times as events in St. Louis unfolded during the next four months, and what follows may need future correction. Soon after arriving in St. Louis Mrs. Ellis and Charlie moved from the Garfield Hotel to a boarding house. Other residents and servants observed her habitual mistreatment of the boy, then about six years old, which culminated at some point in June in her leaving the child alone while she traveled to St. Joseph. Because Ellis also was either out of town, according to his employer George Mann, or "on a spree" -- more of that later -- according to Mrs. Ellis in a subsequent police interview, Mann intervened and took the child to the central police station. Mann and a police sergeant then sought to place Charlie in the St. Joseph Asylum, a facility for indigent or abandoned children as well as for juvenile delinquents. However, because neither parent was available to sign necessary paperwork, on June 16 Charlie temporarily went to the House of Refuge, a residence for widows and orphans. Within the next week or so he was released at Mann's request to, rather amazingly, Mrs. Ellis who by then was back in St. Louis.
     About a month later, on July 21, she asked a colored [Post Dispatch usage] washerwoman named Josie Bates, who worked at her lodgings, to take the child for a week, giving strict instructions that he was not to have any contact with whites [Post Dispatch usage]. Two days later Mrs. Ellis told Mrs. Bass that she never wanted to see the child again and left a bundle of clothing for him. She then moved to a different boarding house and effectively disappeared. Because someone reported to the police that a colored woman was keeping a white child secluded in her house, Mrs. Bass was interviewed by a neighborhood patrolman. The second abandonment was thus revealed, and Charlie again was taken to the central police station, from where a court matron then took charge of him. On July 27 Mrs. Ellis was located, another investigation ensued, and the next day Ellis was summoned to the station; he arrived intoxicated. Told to return the following day, he instead left for St. Joseph. Again Mann became involved in the matter, but, inexplicably, so did the police chief and the mayor of St. Louis. On August 5, accompanied by Charlie, the court matron personally took a report about the situation from the police chief, dated that day, to the mayor and told him she had located an affluent childless couple who were willing to take the boy. The mayor ostensibly ordered her to temporarily place the child with them.
     The next day, August 6, a story headlined: "Gave The Child Away/ Mrs. Harry Ellis's Disposition Of Her Six-Year-Old Son/ Given To A Colored Woman Under Mysterious Circumstances" appeared on an inner page of the paper. The fact that Mrs. Ellis's husband Harry was an architect working for Mann on the new city hall did not seem to resonate that day with the reporter. However, by the following day Harry Ellis had been identified as Harvey Ellis, and the story had jumped to the lead position on the front page with a large-font headline that proclaimed "Little Charlie Ellis/ Twice Abandoned In A Great City By His Parents." The story of the previous day was retold in somewhat garbled fashion.
     A day after the front-page story, another murky element was added by an article on an inner page headlined: "What Did She Mean?/ Architect Mann Unable To Understand Mrs. Harvey Ellis' Statements." She apparently had publicly said that Mann and city politicians were to blame for "all the trouble." Mann responded only with:

I do not think that at this time the woman is fully responsible for all she says, as she has had much trouble lately. We all thought that the condition of affairs would improve if we got the two [Harvey and his wife] separated. Ellis has, I know, a good reason for not living with the woman and I hope that matters will all be quieted down, as he is one of the best draughtsmen in the country and capable of doing a great deal of good work.
A week later Mann wrote to Eckel: "I will be home...and will tell you all about the Ellis matter. I have had a Hell of a time with her."
     Why did all of this become front-page news? Why was a tragic domestic situation quickly transformed into a tawdry public one that also involved the police chief and the mayor? Was it just that a lurid story sells papers? Was it just Harvey's celebrity in the architectural world that aroused interest once people realized who he was? Or, hovering over the sensationalist journalism, were there overtones of civic rancor about the local architects' recent loss of the design competition for the city hall to the out-ot-town firm of Eckel and Mann? Were there whiffs of a questionable prior relationship between Mann and the mayor in the competition? Even if so, it is hard to understand what civic purpose would have been served by the public flailing of Mrs. Ellis, an obviously disturbed woman, and to a lesser extent, Ellis. Thirty-eight years later, when asked for his recollections about Ellis, Eckel's son said egregiously colloquially among other things, almost as if reading from these articles, that the pair farmed out a little boy she did not want to take care of and that Ellis did some of his best work when drunk.
     It is a given that no responsible adult in her right mind, even an abusive adoptive mother, would leave a six-year-old child alone while she went out of town. However, all evidence to date points to the fact that Mrs. Ellis was not a responsible adult, and indeed one of the subheadings in the story about giving Charlie to the washerwoman proclaimed "Mrs. Ellis Is Ill." After that incident she was diagnosed with severe nervous excitement and entered the Mullanphy Hospital. There her actions led to the conclusion that she was insane -- it is necessary to keep in mind that insanity in the 1890s described a range of conditions that would be given other diagnoses today. After release from the hospital, she returned to her lodgings and recovered to some degree but was described as still being very ill. When questioned about Ellis's whereabouts after the front-page article was published, his office colleagues said they did not know where he was, but Mann said that he was out of the city. He also said:

Mr Ellis is, I believe, the finest draughtsman in the country. He is known to every architect in the United States by reputation. But he drinks too much sometimes. He is now in St. Joseph, sober I  understand, and I very much regret the publicity this case has brought him into, for it is certain to set him off again. He is very fond of his boy and will, I believe, offer no objection to his adoption by the people who now have him because Charlie would have a good home and will be well cared for. I suppose Ellis and his wife have separated. I don't know anything about their domestic affairs, and don't want to know. I saw him in St. Joseph on Sunday. He said she could live here [St. Joseph] and he be there [St. Louis] and that he would send her money.
     Actually of course Mann knew a great deal about the domestic affairs of Mr. and Mrs. Ellis. Among other things he knew that Ellis reluctantly relinquished Charlie only after unsuccessfully asking his brother Charles, living in Rochester with his wife and infant daughter, to take him when it was apparent that Mrs. Ellis could not or would not care for him. There is no further word of the child until half a year later when the Post Dispatch reported that he had been returned, at an unspecified time, to Sheltering Arms in Minneapolis. Although the adoption record there had noted that it was a trial adoption, to date no record of Charlie's return has been located. One wonders if he really had been quickly placed with an unidentified affluent couple, or had that been just a statement to the press intended for some reason to remove him from the spotlight and thereby dampen public interest in the situation? Whatever the case, one can only hope that the rest of Charlie's life became more settled and happier than his first six years had been.
     At this point a digression is warranted. The first police report said that Charlie's father "was on a spree" at the time that Mrs. Ellis left the child alone and departed for St. Joseph. That was incorrect -- according to his employer, Ellis was at the time out of town on business -- but because there are other statements in the Post Dispatch articles referring to Ellis's drinking, certain parts of chapter 8 of my book pertaining to Ellis and alcohol now need significant modification. In the book I acknowledged that alcohol had been a problem briefly during his youth and possibly also at the very end of his life. Years ago, after my initial research about Ellis, I along with everyone else at the time accepted the idea put forth by Claude Bragdon in 1908, four years after Ellis's death, that Ellis was a "slave of drink." However, because of insight gained from renewed research for my book, after a hiatus of many years, I concluded, for two reasons, that the prevailing idea, planted by Bragdon, of lifelong continuous, habitual alcoholism that caused Ellis to squander his artistic gifts while wandering aimlessly through his short life, could not be substantiated. First, no such charge that I knew about had ever been made while Ellis was alive, and by 1908 Bragdon had become generally condescending and dismissive about his former friend Ellis. I surmised that the "slave of drink" remark was just one of a  number of disparaging remarks that Bragdon, for unknown reasons, chose to publish about Ellis when he was  no longer alive to read them. Second, I concluded that the sheer magnitude of Ellis's verified activities and achievements as an artist, teacher, architectural designer and perspectivitst left little time for constant inebriation. Mann's previously unknown contemporaneous statements to the press are the needed proof that at times Ellis drank to excess while he was in St. Louis; but Mann also clearly stated that Ellis drank when he was stressed. In 1890 in St. Louis and possibly even at other times during his troubled nineteen-year marriage to a mentally unbalanced wife there indeed may have been abundant stress for Ellis.
     As many sensational stories often do, the one about Charlie also soon faded away, although about three weeks later it was summarized, very briefly, in an article whose main purpose was to report that the Ellises had legally separated -- again, why would this have been of interest to the public? It noted that "Mr. Ellis will contribute a stipulated sum to his wife's support, but they will not undertake living together again."
     That would seem to have ended the marital history of the Ellises in St. Louis, but there is more to the story. As pieced together from the two September 1893 Post  Dispatch articles, after the publicity about Charlie, Mrs. Ellis became addicted to morphine and the sedative chloral hydrate. One wonders of course if drugs might have played a part in her earlier aberrant mistreatment of the child. Whatever the case, concerned about his presumably estranged wife's addiction,  Ellis thought a visit to her mother in Rochester might be good for her. The exact time of her visit and how long she was in Rochester are not known -- it could have been days, weeks or months at anytime during the previous three years. That Ellis regularly sent her part of his wages "all the time," as he had agreed to do three years earlier, suggests that her stay might have been lengthy.
     On August 25, 1893 Ellis also was in Rochester, for on that day he signed and dated a plein-air pencil sketch of a scene in Brighton, a Rochester suburb. Possibly he was there to visit his wife, possibly her family had summoned him, possibly he had come to retrieve her. Whatever the circumstances, shortly thereafter they both returned to St. Louis, apparently separately. Once back, she accused  Ellis of living with another woman during her absence. He denied it, and his office colleagues said that she had become morbidly jealous, repeatedly accusing him of being involved with other women. There was another quarrel, and on the morning of September 7, 1893 she attempted suicide by ingesting a large but not lethal dose of chloral hydrate that she had bought at a drugstore -- these were the days when powerful sedatives seemed to be rather casually available and daily newspapers openly advertised for sale other products such as, for example, Tincture of Opium. It resulted in deep sleep rather than death. That too became sensational front page fodder headlined in even larger font than previously used for the story about Charlie, "Was Jealous/ Draughtsman Harvey Ellis' Wife Takes A Dose Of Poison./ She Claimed Her Husband Thought More Of Another Woman/ Her Jealously Alleged To Have No Genuine Foundation."
     Surprisingly, in view of the legal separation, her suicide attempt apparently happened in Ellis's presence at the Garfield Hotel, where he had been living ever since coming to St. Louis three years earlier. Shocked and too upset to function -- or was it just possibly that he wanted to avoid the press that seemed to be ever-present in St. Louis when events concerned him? -- he called his friend George Siemens at work. Siemens ran to the nearby City Hall Dispensary to have an ambulance dispatched to the Garfield Hotel. He went with it to the hotel and accompanied Mrs. Ellis back to the Dispensary, remaining there while her stomach was pumped. Immediately after that, a reporter was allowed to question her before she was taken to the City Hospital. She told him she was living at the hotel with her husband. Siemens then terminated the interview. Later Ellis went to her at the hospital, The next day's headline was "Sorry She Did It." That morning when she was interviewed before being discharged from the hospital, a reporter -- the press again -- described her as a "frail little woman." She talked to him in rambling fashion about family troubles and other unspecified subjects for half an hour. The reporter judged her "not responsible for her behaviour," and doctors at the hospital thought that her mind was "in a measure unbalanced." When asked where she was going from the hospital, she said:
Back to Harvey; he always supports me, even if he does love another woman better than he does me. He is a pretty good follow [even] if he does drink sometimes, and I am going back to him right away.
 One can only speculate that compassion, affection and love existed -- perhaps submerged from time to time -- along with periodic exasperation and, eventually, a religious faith that decried divorce. How else can their on-again/off-again relationship that continued in Rochester for the next decade, that is for the rest of Harvey Ellis's life, be explained?


This new information somewhat alters the chronology of Elli's return to Rochester, New York.. Previously I interpreted the dated drawing of the scene at Brighton to mean that Ellis had permanently left St. Louis by August 25, 1893. I now know that he returned to St. Louis in early September, but the exact length of time he statyed there is unknown. Signed paintings and architectural renderings place him permanently back in Rochester by1894.

...find more details in Reconfiguring Harvey Ellis

...look for forthcoming posts

Reconfiguring Harvey Ellis
Beaver's Pond Press (Minneapolis, Minn: 2004)
9x12 hard cover, 364 pages, 260 b&w and 45 color illustrations,m $70
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© Eileen Manning Michels November 2010