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The Business of America

The Passion Of Henry Clay Frick

June 2024
6min read

His reputation obscures a complex man haunted by tragedy

History is full of misnomers that, like it or not, we are stuck with. Columbus, understandably confused about where he was, thought the people he encountered in the Bahamas were “Indians.” Like it or not, they have been ever since. Another undoubtedly permanent misnomer in American history is the phrase robber baron. The original robber barons, for whom the phrase was coined, were men who owned castles overlooking the Rhine River in the Middle Ages. They made tidy livings forcing those who sought to use the river for commerce to pay tolls to pass their castles. These men were, economically speaking, parasites, no better than the racketeers who in a later age would extract “protection money” from local merchants.


The image, if not the phrase, was first used in a modern context by The New York Times, in 1854, to describe the men, such as Cornelius Vanderbilt, who ran the steamboat lines on American rivers. Often these men were perfectly happy to withdraw from competition on a particular run, provided they were well compensated to do so. Vanderbilt, for instance, was paid a hundred thousand dollars by his competitors, plus five thousand dollars a year for ten years, to take his ships off the Hudson River.

If that were all there was to it, then Vanderbilt, too, would have been an economic parasite. But unlike the original robber barons, who contributed nothing, Vanderbilt’s competitive threat forced down prices. Harper’s Weekly, more economically astute than the Times, wrote in 1859: “This great boon—cheap travel—this community owes mainly to Cornelius Vanderbilt.”

However unfair, the phrase stuck. By 1878 it was being applied to those who were piling up huge fortunes in the rapid industrialization the country underwent in the post-Civil War years. Here its use was perhaps even more unfair. However ruthless their behavior at times, these men created wealth in prodigious quantities. While self-interest played no small part in their economic calculations, the “invisible hand” saw to it that they provided hundreds of thousands of workers with better jobs than could be had elsewhere and millions of consumers with better and cheaper products than had existed before. Moreover, many of these men used part of their wealth to endow a nearly endless number of museums, colleges, hospitals, libraries, concert halls, and other eleemosynary institutions that have made us all substantial heirs to their fortunes.

The writers who used the phrase with such glee—themselves known by the term muckrakers —were not, of course, much interested in the truth. Essentially propagandists, they were interested in making a point, and robber baron served their purposes admirably. In four short syllables it portrayed these men as all alike, indifferent to the needs of society as a whole, and interested only in money. In fact the robber barons were as varied as the rest of humankind. Some, to be sure, were interested in little but money. Others, however, led rich, full lives that were only made richer and fuller by their wealth.

A new biography of one of these men, Henry Clay Frick, is an extraordinarily powerful brief for this assertion. Written by his great-granddaughter Martha Frick Symington Sanger and called Henry Clay Frick: An Intimate Portrait (Abbeville Press), it is one of the handsomest examples of bookmaking I have seen in some time.

Somewhat larger in size than a regular biography, it has a standard-length text, much of it drawn from family papers and letters not previously used by historians. And it is illustrated with a wealth of photographs, drawings, and paintings, many never before published. The book is at one level a window into the fascinating and vanished world of the very, very rich at the turn of the century. It is also a catalogue of Frick’s art collection, pound for pound possibly the finest ever assembled and now open to the public at what was once Frick’s Fifth Avenue mansion in New York City.

But at another level the text and the illustrations together paint a rounded portrait of a complex man who could be tough as nails in business and then come home and roughhouse happily with the children he adored. The tragic death of one of these children, his daughter Martha, for whom the author was named, would cause Frick the greatest pain he ever suffered.

Martha was born a happy and healthy child on August 5, 1885. She flourished until she was two. Then she took ill, and despite the best possible medical care, her condition became chronic. No one knew what the cause might be until one day, two years later, her nurse noticed a small wound on the child’s right side that was oozing pus. She wiped it away and was horrified to find a pin emerging from the wound. Apparently Martha had swallowed it just before she took ill, and for two years it had slowly worked its way through her body, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake.

A doctor cleaned and dressed the wound, but aseptic procedures were in their infancy then, and the infection festered for another two years. Martha slowly and inexorably went from bad to worse. She was in nearly constant pain, her hair fell out, and she lost weight. Finally, in the summer of 1891, the wound opened again, and pus poured out. The nurse, named Annie, called for Frick. He took one look and said in desperation, “Annie, what shall I do? What shall I do?”

Only years later did Frick tell someone what had happened as he stared death in the face.

But there was nothing to be done, given the medical science of the day. A few hours later the child died, leaving a hole in Frick’s heart that would never be filled. In his personal conduct a typical Victorian male, Frick rarely spoke of her afterward, except that on her birthday he would say at the dinner table that Martha would have been so many years old that day. But when a Pittsburgh bank that catered to children’s accounts failed, Frick sent checks to each of the young depositors to make up their lost money. Each check had Martha’s image engraved on it.

Although intimate biographies are never definitive ones, especially when written by family members, who necessarily carry family baggage, the private person they illuminate often illuminates the public person as well. Frick, for instance, is probably best remembered today, thanks to the muckrakers, as the man who ruthlessly broke the Homestead strike of 1892, almost exactly a year after Martha’s death.

When it came to running the Carnegie Steel Company, of which the H. C. Frick Coke Company was a subsidiary, Frick could be ruthless indeed, if never dishonest or extralegal. The early 1890s were a time of great labor unrest in this country as workingmen sought, by organizing, to gain an increased share of the wealth being created in industry. The owners, naturally enough, resisted. Andrew Carnegie wanted the union at the Homestead steel plant broken but, being personally very sensitive to public opinion, did not want to be seen as breaking it. He retreated to Scotland and left Frick, who didn’t give a damn about public opinion, in complete charge. “Am with you to the end,” Carnegie wrote him.

Frick, intent on a lockout, built a twelve-foot-high fence around the entire plant and hired three hundred Pinkerton detectives to man what was instantly dubbed Fort Frick. The workers, learning of the imminent arrival of the Pinkertons, set up bulwarks outside the fence surrounding Fort Frick and prepared to hold it. When the Pinkertons arrived, they were attacked with everything from rifles to dynamite, and when the dust had settled, three Pinkertons were dead and the workers were in possession of the plant. But if they had won the battle, they had lost the war. The governor of Pennsylvania dispatched eighty-five hundred militia to restore order, and under their protection Frick began hiring nonunion workers.

It was, of course, a public relations disaster for Frick and the Carnegie company until a deranged anarchist, operating on his own, tried to assassinate Frick. Alexander Berkman, a Lithuanian immigrant, barged into Frick’s office on Saturday, July 23, 1892. Frick, instinctively realizing what was happening, attempted to leap from his chair while Berkman pulled a revolver and fired at nearly point-blank range. The bullet hit Frick in the left earlobe, penetrated his neck near the base of the skull, and lodged in his back. The impact also hurled Frick off his feet, and another bullet struck him, again in the neck. An employee who happened to be in Frick’s office grabbed Berkman’s arm and deflected a third shot.

Although seriously wounded twice, Frick rose and tackled his assailant. All three men crashed to the floor, where Berkman managed to stab Frick four times with a knife before finally being subdued by other employees, who had rushed into the office. For more than two hours doctors probed for the bullets, while Frick refused anesthesia so he could help guide them. Finally he telegraphed his mother and Carnegie that he had been “shot twice, but not dangerously,” and went home.

Only years later did Frick tell someone what had happened as he stared death in the face: Martha had appeared at his side, “as clearly and as real as if she had been physically present.” Those not spiritually inclined—and I am one of that number—might well ascribe this merely to the unfathomable workings of the human mind. But there is a curious confirmatory bit of evidence. Berkman, who could not have known of Frick’s vision, claimed that he had missed Frick’s head on the first shot only because he had been dazzled by the sunlight shining brightly through the window of Frick’s office. But Frick’s window in that Pittsburgh office building faced due north.

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