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Mr. Johns Hopkins
By Kathryn A. Jacob
The Johns Hopkins Magazine, January 1974
[The following article, reproduced with the permission of the Johns Hopkins Magazine, appeared in the January 1974 issue (vol. 25, no. 1, pp. 13-17), following the centennial of Johns Hopkins' death. While references to events and situations current to 1974 are dated, this remains the best brief biography of Johns Hopkins. Kathryn A. Jacob is a former Archivist of The Johns Hopkins University.]
One hundred years ago, on December 24, 1873, a Quaker businessman named Johns Hopkins died, leaving the unprecedented sum of over seven million dollars to found the hospital and university which bear his name. The centennial of his death seems a suitable time to review the life of this shrewd, heavy-handed, hard-nosed, tight-fisted, civic-minded, child-loving, and generous man.
Johns Hopkins' progress from grocery clerk to leading citizen was rapid and steady, but records to document his success story are scarce. He was a merchant and banker, not a man of public affairs and certainly not a man of letters. Johns Hopkins never spoke in public nor did he compose letters with a consciousness that posterity might be looking over his shoulder. It is only by piecing together scraps of public records, business letters and personal recollections (most notable being the anecdotal biography of Johns Hopkins written by his great-niece, Helen Hopkins Thom), that a picture of this Quaker merchant emerges.
When Johns Hopkins was born on May 19, 1795, George Washington was in the midst of his second term as president. Johns was born at Whitehall, his family's 500-acre tobacco plantation in Anne Arundel County, situated on land granted by the King of England to William Hopkins in the seventeenth century. (The Hopkins Homestead still stands off Rt. 301 near Crofton, Maryland.)
Johns' father, Samuel Hopkins, was a devout Quaker. He had married Hannah Janney, also a Quaker, in 1792 and, in addition to Johns, they had ten other children, five sons and five daughters. (None but Johns had an unusual first name. Neither misprint nor incorrect grammar, "Johns" was a family name. It was introduced into the Hopkins family in 1700, when a Margaret Johns married a Gerard Hopkins and the couple named their son, the university founder's grandfather, Johns Hopkins.)
"Johnsie's" first twelve years were carefree. Tobacco was a profitable crop and his father became a man of means. All the plantation work was done by the family's numerous slaves. But in 1807, the pleasant routine of the family changed dramatically. In that year, following the direction of the Society of Friends which had begun to preach that human slavery was inconsistent with their faith, Samuel Hopkins freed his slaves.
To free his work force meant that his family, accustomed to leisure, had to learn very careful economy and self-denial. Johns and his older brother, to their great regret, were called from school to work in the fields. And while it may seem too much akin to the old Abe Lincoln-Horatio Alger syndrome to be true, Johns began to study at night in near darkness. During these years on the farm, Johns' habits were shaped to self-denial, industry and thrift. He became a caretaker for his younger brothers and sisters, and indeed, maintained a protective attitude toward them throughout his life. The memory of these hard early years obviously made a vivid impression on young Johns' in many ways.
When Johns was 17, his Uncle Gerard, who owned a wholesale grocery business in Baltimore, asked that he be allowed to come to the city to learn the merchant's trade. His mother told Johns, in what turned out to be a great understatement, that "thee has business ability." Thus, with his parents' consent, he left for Baltimore. It is said that he arrived in the big city with a modest supply of clothing and a large supply of ginger cakes.
From his own account and that of Uncle Gerard, it is clear that Johns "took kindly to merchandizing." Within two years, Gerard had enough confidence in his nephew's ability that he left him in charge of his business for several months while he attended a Friends Meeting in Ohio. Johns heeded his uncle's admonition to "buy goods and do the best ye can." As a 19-year-old general manager, he not only maintained his uncle's prosperity but increased it considerably.
No story would be complete without a sad love affair, and Johns reputedly had his while living in his uncle's house. Though he always remained an admirer of women, it was here that he met the only one he wanted to marry, his cousin Elizabeth. He proposed and she accepted. But neither had reckoned on the determined opposition of Uncle Gerard and the Society of Friends to the marriage of first cousins. Unable to overcome this resistance, Johns and Elizabeth vowed never to marry another, and neither did. They remained close friends and, in his will, Johns left her the house in which she lived on the corner of St. Paul and Franklin Streets. She died there in 1889.
After his unsuccessful courtship, Johns moved out of Uncle Gerard's home and into the Beltzoover Hotel. Romantics make much of this sad tale and claim that, as a result of his impossible love, Johns turned furiously to the making of money. However, while it is true that Johns launched his own career soon after losing Elizabeth, a less romantic difference of opinion seems to have been the cause.
Johns and his Uncle Gerard didn't agree on certain business practices. In particular, they differed as to the propriety of buying and selling whiskey. Johns felt whiskey was legitimate business, but his uncle declared that he would never consent to "sell souls into perdition." This quarrel, say the less romantic observers, was the reason Johns and Uncle Gerard separated. Nevertheless, Uncle Gerard endorsed Johns' first independent enterprise with ten thousand dollars, and Johns was generously backed by other relatives.
Johns took as his first business partner a Quaker friend, Benjamin Moore, and their wholesale company became known as Hopkins and Moore. After only three years, the partnership was dissolved--according to one tradition because Mr. Moore felt that Johns had too great a love for money. He reportedly said of his former partner, "Johns is the only man I know who wants to make money more than I do." After this brief partnership, Johns decided to go into business for himself. Taking three of his brothers as salesmen, he formed the wholesale house of Hopkins Brothers and was soon doing a large business in Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina.
A rumor that circulated in the 1920s probably grew from one of Johns' earliest entrepreneurial ventures. According to this myth, Johns laid the foundation of his fortune by selling whiskey to Africa and undoing the work of American missionaries. It is true that, once in business for himself, he made it his policy to take moonshine in return for goods. He rebottled it and sold it under the brand-name of "Hopkins' Best." However, while this activity caused his temporary expulsion from the Meeting, there is absolutely no evidence that any Hopkins' Best bottles ever showed up on the Ivory Coast. Certainly the practice was profitable; in later years, Johns reminisced to his favorite cousin, Tom, that "the first year I was in business, I sold $200,000 worth of goods."
Johns soon proved to any remaining doubters that he had "an instinct for business." He combined personal economy and extreme care for details with great energy. When he retired from Hopkins Brothers after 25 years, he was only 50 years old but already a very wealthy man. Using this wealth, he rapidly became Baltimore's leading finance capitalist.
An exceptional judge of character, Johns Hopkins seldom made a mistake. He often took whimsical satisfaction--perhaps a nostalgic one--in lending money to young men whom cautious bankers had refused, and then watching as their success mounted, his loan was repaid, and his judgment vindicated. When someone who had witnessed his endorsement of a note for a young man just turned down by the bank told Mr. Hopkins that he had just done a very kind thing, Johns bluntly replied that it was merely good business. Indeed it was, and many have pointed out that he usually profited handsomely from these acts of "kindness." But it is also certain that without his encouragement and backing, many of Baltimore's greatest fortunes and benefactions would have remained only daydreams.
Johns Hopkins also possessed great boldness and had the vision to see that the prosperity of Baltimore was bound up with his own hopes of success. This trait is exemplified by two of his greatest business adventures. One was the rebuilding of the harbor area. Baltimore's trade had outgrown its facilities and the harbor area was clogged with small buildings awkwardly converted into warehouses. Johns undertook his own slum clearance program. He bought up old lots right and left and replaced them with modern warehouses and office buildings. Thus he not only expanded the resources of the port but brought himself substantial returns on his investment.
Though usually extremely careful and deliberate, when his imagination was fired Johns could rush in where less courageous souls feared to tread. This was the case with his greatest venture, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. As a trader whose merchandise had to be dragged in great Conestoga wagons over the mountains and far up the Shenandoah Valley, he was quick to see the potential of the railroad. Although conservative investors refused to sponsor an untried adventure like the B&O, Johns Hopkins gave the undertaking his hearty support. He quickly became the company's largest stockholder, controlling between 15,000 and 17,000 shares. In 1847 he was made a director and in 1855 chairman of the company's powerful finance committee, a position he held until his death. During the financial panics of 1857 and 1873, he pledged his personal fortune to the company, thereby rescuing his original investment and at the same time averting financial disaster for the city.
Johns Hopkins was a strong Unionist and abolitionist. His beliefs sprang from his Quaker background and the convictions of his parents. They were outspoken principles which made him many enemies, but he never let public opinion stop him from using his prestige and influence to aid the Northern cause. Most notable were his efforts to put the B&O at the disposal of the Union. Edward Hungerford, in The Story of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, describes how Johns threw his considerable influence behind his best friend, John Work Garrett, president of the B&O, to overcome the Southern sympathizers on the railroad's board. Through their efforts, the B&O was put at the disposal of the Union armies, and despite the heavy losses caused by Southern saboteurs the railroad proved invaluable to the Union.
In spite of his many generosities, in small things Johns, like many wealthy men, was often extremely cautious. During his most malleable years, he saw his parents practicing rigid economy and he carried many of these habits throughout his life. He was, as his great-nephew Samuel Hopkins has put it, "penny wise and dollar foolish." His great-niece Helen Hopkins Thom, recalled that he hesitated to recarpet his house because he hated to lose the interest on the money it would require. He was as careful in buying a three acre tract of land as he was in financing an international loan. He had to be prodded to buy a new suit, and though he often talked of traveling to Europe, this man who traded in Europe, purchased art in Europe, and controlled a railroad that criss-crossed the East, never traveled further than Cape May, New Jersey.
Johns Hopkins loved his family and he was loved by them. Among his living relatives, none of whom actually knew him, Johns' kindness to family members and their devotion to him is legend. Samuel Hopkins, his great-nephew, and Annette Thom Cromwell, Johns' great-grandniece, recall that their parents' most vivid recollections of Uncle Johns centered on his thoughtfulness toward his family. The responsibility he felt toward his brothers and sisters as a young man never diminished.
But although he always acted in their best interests, his methods were often less than subtle--as this story, told by his nephew Joseph, illustrates: "Uncle Johns' brother, Uncle Samuel, did not go into the firm of Hopkins Brothers when that firm was inaugurated but associated himself with a man named Matthews in the lumber business...This business got into bad shape and was about to dissolve. Uncle Johns overhauled the business, settled it up and then, without consulting his brother, published in the paper that Samuel Hopkins was dissolving partnership with Matthews and that he had become a member of the firm of Hopkins Brothers. This meant that he had saved him financially. He had done it without consulting Samuel, who was not at all pleased at the high-handed proceeding: however, instead of being ruined, [Uncle Samuel] later retired worth a hundred thousand dollars..."
There were always nieces and nephews visiting at Clifton, Johns' summer home, and any such visitor who needed a high chair was always placed next to Johns at the dinner table. Johns was very good to his young relations; but he never failed to put them in their place if he thought it necessary. He usually did so with a touch of rather acid humor, as the following incident, recounted by Helen Hopkins Thom, may indicate. Each Christmas, Uncle Johns gave the young people a small sum of money. As they grew older, some felt it was too little and that their rich uncle should be more generous. They decided to give him an unusually nice present one year, in hopes of making him ashamed of giving them such small ones. He received their gift with great appreciation but then, to their dismay, he added that his small gifts were apparently no longer needed. Thereafter, the plotters received no presents from him, while those who had sent him nothing received a larger gift than usual.
Johns was always particularly annoyed by any show of superiority, and he tried never to make any himself. His nieces and nephews recalled that he was apt to tell unflattering jokes about himself, with enjoyment. Men and women who flaunted their abstinence from liquor vexed him mightily. Among the numerous anecdotes attesting to this trait is one told by his nephew Joseph: "I never took a dinner at Clifton when there was not champagne, whether company was there or not. Jim (a servant) started to fill my glass and I put my hand over it. 'Take thy hand off thy glass, Joe' said Uncle Johns. 'Let the wine stand if thee does not want it, but don't publish thy temperance resolves.'"
Johns year was divided between living downtown in winter and "in the country" in summer. The downtown residence was a massive brick townhouse, number 18 West Saratoga Street. (The neighboring home still stands as an office for St. Pauls' Episcopal Church, but Johns' home has been replaced by a Dollar-A-Day Rent a Car Lot.) He once wanted to have a billiard table installed here, but warnings from Friends put a stop to his plans.
Though it hardly seems to be out "in the country" today, Clifton, Johns Hopkins' summer home and greatest delight, was then the epitome of rural living. (This house still stands, in the midst of the Clifton Park Golf Course, where it serves as a club house.) Johns bought it in 1838 at an auction and gradually acquired the 500 acres surrounding it. The old house was modelled in the Italian villa style and its walls were frescoed by Italian artists. Before long, it was the showplace of Baltimore and a stop on all sightseeing tours. Grape arbors, nectarine trees, and fig bushes grew on the beautifully manicured grounds.
At Clifton, Johns could usually find respite from the insomnia which had plagued him since an illness in 1857. He spent as much time as possible there, where he loved to entertain guests, among them the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII. Johns Hopkins enjoyed the good life. His table was luxurious and his dinner parties were famous. His penchant for frogs' legs was often satisfied by his favorite nephew, Joseph, who gathered specimens for his uncle on all-day rambles.
In 1873, Johns Hopkins turned 78, and Ulysses S. Grant began his second term as President. The year was an eventful one for Baltimore. It began with the coldest weather in the city's history; temperatures fell to 20 degrees below zero. This was followed by one of the city's most serious financial panics. Later in the year, a devastating fire destroyed large portions of the city and only narrowly missed Johns' Saratoga Street house.
He was active throughout this period but, in November, he caught a serious cold. After a few days in bed he insisted on going to his office. His relatives said that, as usual, he refused to wear an overcoat or overshoes despite the stormy weather. And the following day his cold developed into pneumonia.
On the day before Christmas eve, Johns Hopkins lay ill in bed at Saratoga Street. His dog Zeno and his sister Eliza were with him. His house, as he told his doctor, was "in order." Six years before, in 1867, he had given careful thought to the long and detailed will which was to distribute his estate of about $8 million.
From the early days of his career, Johns Hopkins had looked upon his wealth as a trust to benefit future generations. He is said to have told his gardener that, "like the man in the parable, I have had many talents given to me and I feel they are in trust. I shall not bury them but give them to the lads who long for a wider education." His philosophy quietly anticipated Andrew Carnegie's much publicized "Gospel of Wealth" by more than 25 years.
In the years prior to the writing of his will, he spoke frequently of these ideas with a Dr. Parker of Philadelphia and with George Peabody. Hugh Hawkins, author of Pioneer: A History of the Johns Hopkins University, 1874-1889, believed that Johns was strongly influenced by Peabody, whose philanthropies resulted in the Peabody Institute; it was soon after the Institute was dedicated, in 1867, that Johns directed the incorporation of the Johns Hopkins University and Hospital.
Despite the various clues as to his motives, it still remains unclear why Johns Hopkins decided to endow a university. It is possible that he found compensation for his own thwarted education by giving to others that for which he had longed. Further, he belonged to a sect which places a high value on learning, although there is no evidence that he had been involved in the support or management of any local schools or colleges. Even more puzzling is the question of what the term "university" meant to him. It is doubtful that he envisioned the innovative type of institution his university was to become.
His reasons for founding a "teaching hospital" are less cloudy. Several times during his life, Johns had seen the city thrown into panic by epidemics of small pox, cholera, and yellow fever. He himself had fallen victim to cholera once and felt the effects of it for the rest of his life. He was acutely aware of the low quality of the city's medical facilities and of the care they offered.
Whatever his thinking, Johns wrote his will in 1867, incorporating the two institutions which would influence the city's future. His bequest to the university was the largest ever made to an American institution of learning. It was in the form of B&O stocks and his estate at Clifton. To found the hospital, he set aside a large amount of real estate.
His will has been referred to as a "testament happily free from all definite ideas." Though the remark was made pejoratively, the fact is that, although he knew himself to be a master of finance, Johns Hopkins realized he was no authority on education. He left this work to those who were. He might, like Stephen Girard, have marred his philanthropy by including in his will whimsical restrictions destined to seem increasingly absurd as years passed. Instead, he appointed a carefully chosen body of trustees and left the fulfillment of his designs to their judgment. (One of his few stipulations was that scholarships be provided to poor and deserving young men of Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina, the three states from which he had derived the foundations of his fortune.) These trustees, whom Daniel Gilman, the university's first president, called "a capital selection of men," met only once before Johns Hopkins' death.
In addition to providing for the university and the hospital, Johns left over one million dollars to be divided among his relatives, and he provided generously for his servants according to their years of service. He also left money to the Maryland Institute, the Manual Labor School, the Home for the Friendless, and the Baltimore Orphan Asylum.
Late on Tuesday night, December 23, Johns Hopkins fell asleep. Early in the morning on December 24, 1873, with his dog Zeno still at his side, he quietly died. The city did not learn of his death until Christmas Day when the Baltimore Sun carried the news on its front page. The article concluded: "This city owes no small share of its prosperity to his enlightened and energetic efforts.... In the death of Johns Hopkins, a career has been closed which affords a rare example of successful energy of individual accumulations and of practical beneficence in devoting the gains thus acquired to the public good."
As Baltimore learned of his passing, ships in the harbor and businesses everywhere lowered their flags to half mast. The new steamship "Johns Hopkins" was draped in mourning.
On the day of his funeral, December 26, 1873, the fire bells tolled solemnly. Most of the city's businesses closed for the afternoon. Thousands stood in line to pass by the plain coffin which lay in the parlor on Saratoga Street. In the afternoon, 130 carriages, carrying among others the governor and the mayor, accompanied the hearse to Green Mount Cemetery. Enoch Pratt was one of the pall bearers. After a simple Quaker service, Johns Hopkins was laid to rest on a hillside in the center of the city he loved.
One can still visit his grave. It lies adjoining the lot of John Work Garrett Sr., one of Johns' best friends, whose estate of Montebello bordered Clifton and who sat on the first boards of both the hospital and the university. (His grandson, John W. Garrett, also a university trustee, bequeathed his estate of Evergreen to the university.)
Johns lies between his sisters, Eliza and Hannah. The inscription on his simple white slab reads:
Anne Arundel County, Maryland
5th month 19th 1795
died in Baltimore
12th month 24th 1873.
He was the founder of the
Johns Hopkins University
and of the
Johns Hopkins Hospital.