Unpacking History One Discovery at a Time
As I learn more about my Sanford family, one of the mysteries for me is how my great-aunt, Medora Sanford, a Daughter of the American Revolution, a devote Methodist revivalist, and a Postmistress, came to marry a rogue gambler and hotelier with connections to corrupt political machineswho later become a person-of-interest in a gruesome murder.(1)
Medora grew up in a well-to-do family with her parents and siblings in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. Her father Elam Sanford was Deputy Collector of the Port of Perth Amboy under President Millard Fillmore. Toward the end of his life, he held the position of Postmaster of Perth Amboy until his death in 1881(2). When Elam Sanford, died, Medora took over his duties and became the Postmistress of the Perth Amboy, N.J. Post Office. She earned $1800 for the year 1883.(3) Medora married late in life to Louis Todd, gambler, hotelier, politician and broker.(4)
I don’t know how they met; that remains one of the mysteries. Perhaps Medora and Louis were introduced at a social function, or perhaps they met at a Broadway play or civic event in New York city. Regardless they married in 1892 when Medora was 49.
Proclaimed the Woman’s Century by the Los Angeles Herald, the 1900’s were off to a grand start for well-heeled women and Medora was in the thick of it. The bicycle craze had taken over the city and became forever identified with Susan B. Anthony and the suffrage movement. Department stores were emerging and as were women’s clubs for socializing, philanthropic work, education , and self-improvement. This was also a time of renewed interest in our country’s history and the role of women in our country’s future.
… women engaged in an intense debate over the boundaries that defined women’s public place as well as the values that would govern women’s lives in the future.(5)
During the early years of their marriage, Medora and Louis must have lived a pretty glamorous life as residents of the grand Hotel Vendome, one of Louis’s hotels. Medora was active in civic life as a member of the DAR, the Women’s Eclectic Club, New England Women’s Club and the Post Parliament Club, among others. Her clubs met at the Waldorf Astoria and other posh places.(6) I like to think Medora supported women’s right to vote. It is likely she attended lectures and presentations on the subject at her various clubs since The Eclectic Club hosted at least one such meeting:
Mrs Catt and the president were guests of the Eclectic Club one of the fashionable clubs of New York which meets once a fortnight at Delmonico’s The women seemed interested to learn about our work. (7)
Louis’s civic activities tended more toward politics and borrowing money and then appearing before the magistrates over said borrowing of money.(8) In 1895 he was brought before the courts under a charge of cheating his manager out of the profits of this Hotel Vendome (9). By 1896 Louis owned both the Vendome and the Marlborough hotels and must have felt flush enough to contribute $1000 to the campaign to bring the 1896 Democratic Convention to New York. Despite Louis’s money, and the money of many other businessmen, the convent
ion was awarded to Chicago.
New York was at the center of the modern world and the well-to-do and wealthy were experiencing the magic of the industrial revolution. New York was also home to poverty, disease, filth and corruption. In 1891 another great wave of immigrants from Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Ireland came through Ellis Island and other immigration centers around the country. Millions of low-wage workers and tens of thousands of poverty-stricken families crowded into the slums of New York, increasing pressure on the city services.
The nation was gripped in the beginnings of an effort to contain a growing sense of disorder, a sense that immigrants, garbage, unionism, corruption, and vice were all exceeding the bounds of their containment and that those bounds must be reestablished. In New York City, in 1890, Jacob Riis published How the Other Half Lives-a photo documentary of ghetto conditions that would have national impact. The following year, Josiah Strong pointed out that “a mighty emergency is upon us.” (10)
Louis and Medora could not have been ignorant of the horrific conditions in which many of their New York neighbors lived. It is likely their hotels employed Irish and Italian immigrants for kitchen, custodial and maintenance, and perhaps, bellman or doorman jobs.
Our family story says Louis gave Medora money following a successful gambling event to purchase a home in Ocean Grove, New Jersey, a community known for its summer Methodist revivalist meetings. This home in Ocean Grove gave Medora and her mother, Jerusha Larkin Sanford, a permanent place to stay while attending the services.
Drawing from the major population centers of New York City and Philadelphia, Ocean Grove became a popular destination during the growth of the camp meeting movement in post Civil War America. Tents and an open-air wooden shelter, or tabernacle, were erected in the 1870s, for the trainloads of visitors arriving by the New York and Long Branch Railroad after 1875.(11)
Medora was generous with her money, and often sent funds to Minnesota for family photographs and hosted her nieces and nephews at her home in Ocean Grove. In June of 1900 Medora applied for U.S. Passport. A grand-niece of hers holds the diary from that trip; a trip Louis did not make.
By 1905 Louis was in serious financial trouble and was sued in Bankruptcy Court with nearly $750,000 in debts– mostly held by women, but that’s a different mystery I need to understand. In 1905 he also came under suspicion for the murder of a Mrs. Todd who claimed to have been his real wife. She was found dead on the railroad tracks in Philadelphia.
By 1910, Medora and Louis both list Ocean Grove, Neptune, Monmouth, New Jersey as their residence.(12)
I do not know if they had a relationship based on love, or if their relationship was one of convenience and personal politics as so many relationships were among the upper classes in the late 19th Century.
Their civic and political lives narrowed after Louis’ bankruptcy and legal trouble with a more sedate life year-round in Ocean Grove. My father’s cousin has found memories of visiting and we have photos of the house and the town.
Regardless of the why, our family boasts a marriage between a religious socialite and a rogue gambler and business man. Was their chemistry? love? respect? or was this simply a marriage of convenience with business accommodations laid out before the vows. I don’t know that anyone knows, but if they do, please fill me in.
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