John Timbrell Milward Pierce by Anna Markham
John Timbrell Milward Pierce aged 31
In 1881 a handsome young Englishman with an adventurous spirit and an abundance of charm boarded a steamship to New York. What lay ahead he could not possibly have known, but his American experience would encompass triumph and tragedy and, ultimately, ignominious exile.
Ever resourceful, and buoyed by the strength of his adored wife Annie, he was to build a new life from nothing in South America. He shielded his beloved family from the ever-present threat of kidnapping and betrayal, and eventually achieved appointment as a minister in the Bolivian Government. His parents would never forgive him for what had happened, but in time his homeland would.
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Chapter 1 - Beginnings
Hilldrop Crescent, in London’s Camden Town, was to earn its notoriety in 1910 when it was the scene of Dr. Crippen’s grisly dismemberment of his wife Cora. But in 1861 all of that lay far in the future, and the crescent’s substantial villas provided an entirely suitable first address for a respectable newly-married couple.
It was to 32 Hilldrop Crescent that 29-year-old attorney John Timbrell Pierce brought his bride Mary Jane to begin their married life in August 1861. It was familiar territory for Pierce, whose parents lived around the corner at 33 Camden Road Villas.[ 1 ] For 25-year-old Mary Jane, however, north London is likely to have felt very far away from her roots in Redditch, Worcestershire, where her father Henry Milward owned a needle and fish-hook factory of international repute.[ 2 ]
John's Father, John Timbrell
Nine months after the wedding, the Pierces welcomed a son, born at home on 11 May 1862.[ 3 ] The boy was registered in the same name as his father, John Timbrell Pierce, and when he was four months old the family travelled to visit Mary Jane’s parents in Redditch and to celebrate the baby’s baptism there at St Stephen’s Church.[ 4 ]
The young John was not to remain an only child for very long. Just a few days after his first birthday, he was joined by a sister, Mary Milward Pierce (“May”), who was to remain loyal to him throughout his life.
In January 1868 John Timbrell Pierce was called to the Bar, and he went into practice in Chambers at 3 Middle Temple Lane.[ 5 ] The Pierce family continued to grow, and in time moved from London to the town of St Albans.[ 6 ]
In the spring of 1871 the younger John, now eight years old, was sent away for his education. He was enrolled at a school which had connections with Mary Jane’s extended family. The small school was owned and run by Mary Jane’s uncle Henri Janson and was based at the Janson family home, 65 Hova Villas, in the seaside town of Hove.[ 7 ] Young John Pierce boarded with the Janson family at 65 Hova Villas, as did his 10-year-old cousin Charles Frederic Milward who was a fellow pupil.[ 8 ]
By 1878 the Pierce family was complete, with two surviving sons and six surviving daughters. In August of that year Mary Jane, whose mother had died in 1867, received news from Redditch of the death of her father Henry Milward. Mary Jane and her five siblings each inherited a substantial fortune under the terms of his will.[ 9 ]
Mary Jane’s inheritance was more than enough to keep the Pierces and their children in some style, and John Timbrell Pierce’s enthusiasm and ambition for his career at the Bar were significantly dimmed now that financial security was assured.[ 10 ]
‘Frettons’, Danebury, Essex
the home of John's parents from 1880
In 1880 the family moved to ‘Frettons’ in Danbury, Essex, a house with 16th-century origins but which had been enlarged and adapted over the centuries. The family settled happily at Frettons, with a resident governess to educate their daughters while their sons attended boarding schools. Meanwhile John Timbrell Pierce relished the life of a well-to-do gentleman, accepting directorships which interested him, but free from the burden of providing for his large family.[ 11 ]
By the spring of 1881 the younger John, now nearly 19, had finished his academic education. He had proved to be an exceptionally able student with a leaning towards mathematics and the sciences, and was also fluent in five languages. After leaving school he had completed an apprenticeship under a French engineer, as a result of which John was now fully qualified and spoke excellent technical and colloquial French.[ 12 ]
In his school years at Hove with the Janson family, John had been profoundly influenced by his cousin Ailsa Janson, almost a generation older and himself a civil engineer passionate about building railways. Ailsa’s railway engineering career took him to Germany, Sweden, Hungary, Egypt, Sudan and, finally, Brazil, where he died of yellow fever at Pernambuco in April 1885.[ 13 ]
John himself yearned to travel and was drawn to the New World, from where exciting tales of gold-rush fever had reached the English press while he was growing up. It was clear that America, and especially the Wild West, offered enormous opportunities for a young man with a pioneering spirit. With just enough money to pay his passage to New York, John Timbrell Milward Pierce (as he now called himself) was about to embark on the biggest adventure of his life so far.
Chapter 2 - The American Adventure
After the end of the American Civil War in 1865 the arid lands of the Great Plains, formerly Sioux territory, began to move towards statehood and thus full membership of the Union. Nebraska, a thinly-populated territory of some 77,000 square miles which had fought on the Union side against the Confederacy, was admitted as the 37th state in 1867.
Having travelled to Kansas, Oregon and Iowa since landing at New York in the summer of 1881, John Timbrell Milward Pierce arrived in Nebraska in 1883 to work at a ranch in Knox County. The ranch occupied land in the north-eastern corner of Nebraska, just south of the Missouri River which formed the border between Nebraska and Dakota Territory.
After a year in Knox County, John purchased a half-share in the ranch from Cyril Dalrymple MacLagan, later described locally as “a young Englishman of means, but a lightweight mentally”[ 14 ]. John developed a plan to charge young Englishmen between $300 and $800 per year to learn farming. It was a brilliant idea; the students did most of the ranchwork, and this supply of fee-paying farmhands meant that the ranch ran itself without significant labour costs.
By the time MacLagan became mentally unbalanced and was taken home to England, John had acquired title to the whole of the ranch and, indeed, much of the rest of MacLagan’s property.[ 15 ]
The ranch, known as “Bow Ranche”, was a fine piece of land, comprising 1,700 acres of rich valley land with eight miles of water frontage on the Missouri, and controlling a range of over 20,000 fertile acres overlooking the valley of the Bow River tributary. There were several farm buildings and a mill, as well as a principal house with 17 rooms, pleasant grounds, orchards and a tennis lawn.[ 16 ]
Bow Ranche had no nearby town; its mail was delivered to the tiny settlement of Blyville, which amounted to little more than a post office. In order to do business or to have a social life John had to travel 25 miles north and cross the Missouri by raft or ferry to the city of Yankton.
Yankton, located on the northern bank of the wide Missouri in the far south-east of Dakota Territory, had grown from virtually nothing to a significant commercial centre in two decades. In 1880 the population of Yankton was some 3,400,[ 17 ] having been below 50 in 1859 - a small collection of wooden structures in a vast buffalo-grazed plain.[ 18 ]
Gold had been discovered in the Black Hills up the river from Yankton in 1874, precipitating huge growth. The city already had a fleet of steamboats, providing the easiest means of travel to the west, and when gold fever hit Dakota Territory the steamboat industry came into its own. Prospectors lodged in the town before boarding boats up-river, and returned there with pockets full of gold soon afterwards. The gold boom supported warehouses, machine shops, saloons and bawdy-houses, as well as mills, shipwrights and hotels.[ 19 ]
Well before John Pierce arrived, the ever-expanding railways had cast a dark shadow over the riverboat industry; and on 1 April 1881 Yankton had suffered a huge flood which destroyed its steamboat fleet, never to be replaced. The city soon received a further blow, losing its status as capital of Dakota Territory to the city of Bismarck in 1883. Nevertheless, Yankton’s natural artesian wells, providing cheap and apparently endlessly renewable power for mills and other industry, seemed to provide an assurance of continuing prosperity.[ 20 ]
While he continued to reside at Bow Ranche and to run it as a commercial cattle ranch, John was increasingly interested in property speculation in the Yankton area; and he bought and sold numerous development plots in the growing city.[ 21 ]
He was also interested in the financial markets and, together with fellow Englishman George H.C. Wright, he established in London and in Yankton a banking firm known as Pierce, Wright & Co. through which bonds could be issued to investors. At first the bank’s main business was the making of loans secured on farmland; but within a short period it developed a more international approach, floating American securities on the English market and lending English money to American borrowers.[ 22 ]
With his growing interests in agricultural and development land, as well as his partnership in a banking venture, the 22-year-old John Timbrell Milward Pierce was by 1884 a man of note in Yankton. As he was discovering, this was a place where a young man with a good mix of charm and commercial nous could truly make an impact.
One Yanktonian on whom he certainly made an impression was the young, and radiantly beautiful, Annie MacGregor.
Chapter 3 - Annie
Annie MacGregor, aged 15, 1884
Anne Wylie MacGregor, always known as Annie, had been born in Weeping Water, Nebraska on Thanksgiving Day, 25 November 1869.[ 23 ] Her father, a Scottish physician and surgeon named Dr. John MacGregor, had emigrated with his bride Mary to the United States almost immediately after their marriage in Dundee in February 1869.[ 24 ]
In 1877 the MacGregors, by now with three children, moved from Nebraska to Yankton, where Dr MacGregor established himself in medical and surgical practice. Once into her teens his daughter Annie quickly blossomed into a beauty. She was not yet 15 years old when she caught the eye of 23-year-old John Pierce in 1884, and it was love at first sight for them both. By the autumn of that year they were engaged to be married; but Annie’s father was anxious that she should not rush into marriage too soon, and insisted that they wait until Annie was at least sixteen before setting a wedding date.[ 25 ]
The period of their engagement turned out to be a hazardous time for John. In October 1884, while trying to catch a horse on the ranch, John was badly kicked in the face and, as he put it, “only escaped being brained by an inch or two”.[ 26 ] Shortly before this he had had a dangerous encounter with an Indian which had resulted in John being shot through the jaw. The bullet entered one cheek and exited the other, destroying several of John’s teeth, and left him with lifelong scars on both sides of his face.[ 27 ]
In a further mishap on 26 October 1885 John fell through a pair of French windows at Bow Ranche, thereby “cutting my nose off on one side, and nearly taking an eye out.” 28
John, who like many of his contemporaries was interested in the supernatural, attributed psychic experiences of a clairvoyant nature to each of these three incidents; and he reported these in detail to the London-based Journal of the Society for Psychical Research. To his great satisfaction, his reports were followed up, verified and published in the Journal in two issues in 1885.[ 29 ]
After Annie MacGregor’s sixteenth birthday in November 1885 her father gave his blessing for the young couple to plan their wedding. John and Annie celebrated their marriage on a scorching day at Bow Ranche on 6 July 1886 with temperatures as high as 110 degrees Fahrenheit, not unusual in what was an exceptionally hot summer. 30 [ 31 ]
Annie on her wedding day,
6 July 1886
Bow Ranche, Nebraska
At first the newlyweds settled on the ranch in the spacious house in which John had made his home as a bachelor. However, rural life was not ideally suited to this highly sociable couple, and they decided to move to Yankton. So, within months of marriage, John placed a newspaper advertisement in London inviting English bidders for the sale of the ranch.[ 32 ] It was not an easy sale; Nebraska was in the grip of a biting drought from which there would be no real relief for three years. However, after the property had been advertised in the English press more than a dozen times, a buyer was eventually found.
The Pierces settled in Yankton and, having had to wait two years between their starstruck first meeting and their wedding day, they wasted no time at all in starting a family. Mary Winifred (“Molly”) was born on 6 February 1887, and she had a brother before the year was out; John Timbrell Laurence (“Laurie”) Pierce entered the world on 14 December 1887.
Soon the family was living in some luxury at what was then the northern edge of the rapidly-developing town of Yankton. On 5 September 1887 John Pierce had acquired a “two-story brick house, outhouses and enclosed premises”, plus three adjacent undeveloped lots, all on Douglas Avenue, College Hill.[ 33 ] He went on to tear down much of what was on the combined site, and built a palatial residence which was still remembered as late as the 1940s as having been, in its time, “one of the finest homes in the northwest”.[ 34 ]
The opening of the Pierce observatory, Yankton, 1889
(John in foreground with children Molly and Laurie)
The property, which in 1889 became one of the first Yankton homes to have electric lighting installed, included a library of some 5,000 volumes (including many rare editions) and an impressive wine cellar. A graceful curved stairway descended into the spacious entrance hall which, in turn, opened onto the ballroom. There was also a tennis court, a swimming pool, and exotic formal gardens renowned for their imported lawns.[ 35 ]
Once he was content with the house and its grounds, John built a private observatory on an adjoining lot with two powerful telescopes. The local higher education institution, Yankton College, was given access to the Pierces’ library and observatory for the benefit of its students.[ 36 ]
The Pierce House, 1009 Douglas Avenue, Yankton
The Pierce House, as it became known, was the centre of John and Annie’s glittering social life. The couple hosted sumptuous parties, one of which was the subject of an article in the local newspaper on 2 March 1888; the guests were said to have assembled in full evening dress and been treated to “one of the most toothsome spreads that ever graced a Yankton table.”[ 37 ] The house was also a perfect place for Annie to host the local dramatic club, which put on several elaborate productions.[ 38 ]
Chapter 4 - Pursuit of a dream
Following the sale of Bow Ranche, John continued an involvement in agriculture by buying parcels of farmland in Yankton County. He enjoyed considerable success in his farming, winning prizes for his Galloway cattle, Shetland ponies and purebred sheep and hogs, and reporting record grain yields.[ 39 ]
However, John’s real passion was to build a railway - or, as he had learned to call it in the American way, a railroad. By the late 1880s the railroads were well-established in the formerly barren Great Plains region; Yankton’s first railroad connection had been built in 1873, linking it to Sioux City, Iowa some 75 miles to the south-east. Railroad entrepreneurs enjoyed lucrative opportunities to buy up land in areas which would be served by a new line, certain of a local increase in land prices when the railroad arrived. There was no sign that enthusiasm for the building of new rail routes was likely to abate.
John Pierce was confident that with his engineering experience, his passion for railroads, and his access to rich English investors, he was the man to lead a new and exciting railroad venture. The plan on which he settled was to link the places he knew best: Southern Dakota Territory and Nebraska.
The proposed route, from Yankton to Norfolk, Nebraska, was planned to form part of a longer railroad line so as to connect Sioux Falls in the north to Omaha in the south. This was a departure from the east-west orientation of the other railroad routes which had been developed locally up to this date - and an important one, because it would involve bridging the wide Missouri River.
That would be no mean feat of engineering; the river at Yankton was over half a mile in width in normal flow, and was notoriously prone to catastrophic flooding of the kind which had ruined the steamboat industry in the spring of 1881. Any entrepreneur who could construct such a railroad would steal a march on his competitors and create a vital link between southern Dakota Territory (which was admitted to statehood as South Dakota in 1889) and its neighbour Nebraska.
It would, if it could be achieved, be an immense improvement on the existing situation, whereby traders had to rely on a raft or ferry (or, depending on the season, potentially treacherous pontoon spans) to get them across the fast-flowing and unpredictable river.
Indeed, John Pierce’s vision was much greater than simply the building of a railroad - it was a vision of resurgent influence for Yankton. Its rival Sioux City was experiencing booming business, having the benefit of several railroads passing through it. If Yankton was to reassert itself as the dominant commercial centre in the region it had to overcome the problem of the “wide Missouri”, once its greatest asset and now a major hurdle to the dream of linking the burgeoning railroad systems north of the river to those south of it. A railroad bridge over the river at Yankton would re-establish the town as a natural hub for traders and, it was hoped, would halt the rise of Sioux City.[ 40 ]
John’s enthusiasm and confidence were contagious, and before long several businessmen had joined him in forming the Yankton, Norfolk and Southwestern Railway Company. He pledged substantial funds of his own, and quickly recruited investors from among his friends, family and business contacts in England.
The project was initially kept secret while feasibility studies were carried out. A surveying party of seven men departed Yankton on 29 May 1888 with two wagons and equipped for a month of work, but no member of the party was prepared to disclose for whom they were working. A newspaper reported that “all hands are as mum as oysters”.[ 41 ]
In January 1889, confirming rumours which had been circulating locally all winter, John Pierce announced his railroad project with a fanfare. It was expected that the railroad, which was to be 60 miles in length with a budgeted cost of $260,000, would be under contract “very early in the spring” and under construction as soon as the season permitted.[ 42 ] By the end of February the railroad company was backed by $2,000,000 of share capital, and construction contractors were eagerly awaiting news as to which of their bids John would accept.[ 43 ]
The enthusiasm of the townspeople of Norfolk for the proposed railroad link between their town and Yankton was demonstrated by the results of a vote held on 23 April 1889 as to whether Norfolk should commit $75,000 of funds to the railroad company. The proposition was approved overwhelmingly, by 764 votes to 43.[ 44 ] The bonds were to be forfeited if the line was not completed by 1 July 1890, but in any case it was expected that completion would take place as early as 1 January 1890.[ 45 ]
Crofton Court, near Orpington, Kent
In May 1889 the Pierces took their children Molly and Laurie to England and stayed there for most of the summer. John was kept busy seeking further financing for the railroad; it was clear that the requirement for funds was such that institutional investors were needed, and he secured a substantial commitment from the London bank Baring Brothers & Co. The family set up home at a house known as Crofton Court, near Orpington in Kent which had been provided to them by John’s parents, and were to keep that house as their English pied-à-terre for several years to come.
Back in Yankton, John came close to causing grave offence on Independence Day in 1890. On that most patriotic of days in the American calendar, it was observed that the Stars and Stripes displayed on the flagstaff of the Pierce House was flying at half-mast, while the Union Flag at John’s nearby observatory was at full mast. However, an investigation by a Grand Army Committee (which summoned John to explain himself) concluded that the situation had been caused inadvertently by a mechanical fault in the flagstaff at the Pierce House, and no censure was called for.[ 46 ]
Despite the strains of raising finance, there was still time for social pleasures. The summer of 1890 saw at the Pierce House what the local newspaper described as “A Novel and Delightful Social Innovation”: the tennis party. On 22 July, John and Annie hosted 50 friends to a tennis tournament played on their asphalt court: “the only court of its kind in the vicinity”. The eight pairs of gentlemen’s doubles partners included Annie’s brother Rob Roy MacGregor, though due to inexperience he and his partner were given the (evidently insufficient) advantage of starting 15-love ahead in each game. After what appears to have been a highly successful and exuberant party the winners, a Mr Austen and a Mr Bruce, were each presented with a gold-lined silver cup by John Pierce.[ 47 ]
The former Pierce Hotel, Yankton (now an
office building) - photograph taken
In August 1890 John seized an opportunity for diversification of his personal property interests when a hotel development project ran into financial difficulties. He acquired the site of the old Hotel Morrison in downtown Yankton from its beleaguered owners and completely redeveloped it to great acclaim. The grand opening of the Pierce Hotel, as it was now called, was held on Thanksgiving Day 1891; according to the local press:
Guests were entertained by the Elmendorf orchestra of Sioux Falls, and a sumptuous banquet of oysters, hot and cold meats and assorted delicacies was served until 2 a.m.[ 48 ]
The Pierce Hotel was just one of the projects keeping John busy in 1890. In that year he also became head of the Yankton Electric Company, which generated power using one of Yankton’s natural artesian wells.[ 49 ] John had ambitious plans for a brand new electricity plant, but while those plans were being developed he occupied himself with reactivating a long-dormant packing plant east of Yankton and the Portland cement plant west of the city.[ 50 ]
On the surface, all was going extremely well for John Pierce in Yankton. He had a happy marriage, a growing family, a large property portfolio and a finger in every commercial pie.
Deep down, however, John was concerned that he might have overcommitted himself in promising a railroad with such confidence. His banking firm, Pierce, Wright & Co., was not selling enough stock in the railroad to finance the project, and John was becoming exasperated at the difficulty he faced in raising funds on his frequent trips to London. He had mortgaged most of his property in Yankton, and raised substantial funds from family and friends at home, but every dollar invested was quickly swallowed up in paying contractors’ bills.
Frustratingly, the investment promised by Baring Brothers in London had still not materialised. Meanwhile the $75,000 bonds so enthusiastically voted by the city of Norfolk had lapsed in July 1890, and other than preparatory work scarcely any construction had taken place.
No doubt the sensible course, if sufficient financing was not to be had, would have been to abandon the project, but John had committed all he had to it (and much of his family’s wealth too) and could not contemplate walking away from that investment. Moreover, he was sure that once the railroad was completed it would be so profitable that he and the other investors could quickly be repaid in full. That optimism was to lead John to take a decision which, in just a couple of years, would lead to his downfall and disgrace.
In collaboration with the New York banking firm of Coffin & Stanton, a plan was developed for Pierce, Wright & Co. to issue two new products. The first was a new class of bonds supposedly secured on schools in six counties of South Dakota. The bonds would attract investors by offering high interest rates. In fact, the instruments were fraudulent and had no connection whatsoever with the schools named on them.
The second new product was a tax sale certificate. These were, in principle, a genuine investment vehicle, but the Pierce, Wright & Co. version was a worthless forgery.[ 51 ]
In terms of raising capital, the scheme was an overwhelming success. On a trip to London in the early summer of 1892, John found investors eager to take up the high-interest bonds and tax certificates. John returned to Yankton with over $1 million of new funds, and the local newspaper reassured its readers that the railroad really was going to happen.[ 52 ] But John’s partner in Pierce, Wright & Co, George H.C. Wright, was to take no further part; he announced his resignation from the firm in June 1892.[ 53 ]
With a railroad confidently believed to be in the pipeline, speculators set about building towns in the hitherto entirely rural northeast of Nebraska. In the summer of 1892 one such town was planned and laid out near the old Blyville post office, which had served Bow Ranche since the 1880s. John Pierce suggested the name “Crofton” after his English home, Crofton Court. The name was duly approved, and Crofton, Nebraska remains on the map to this day with a population of 754.[ 54 ]
Chapter 5 - Tragedy in an English springtime
In November 1890 John and Annie Pierce had had a third child, Dorothy, and by late 1892 Annie was pregnant once again. Even after the successful fundraising earlier in the year, the railroad project was in need of further financial backing from English sources; once again the Pierce family departed for London. Little did they know that they would never return to the United States as a family.
John had said to Yankton associates that he would be back in town by May 1893. The spring of that year was a busy time, with the arrival of another daughter, Marjorie, born at Crofton Court on 1 March 1893.[ 55 ]
John, meanwhile, was endeavouring to raise the necessary finance from his English associates, but by May his efforts had not borne sufficient fruit, and the family remained in England. In a letter to his chief engineer in June 1893, John said that financing had been set back by recent losses suffered by his associates in Australian banking ventures. Moreover, the railroad’s principal institutional investor, Baring Brothers & Co, had suffered a default on a major loan it had made to the Argentine Republic, and was no longer in a position to advance the funds it had promised to the railroad company.[ 56 ]
With John still in England and failing to raise enough finance, the clement weather of the summer and autumn of 1893 soon passed with little progress being made on the construction of the railroad. Once winter had set in there would be no hope of commencing work until the spring of 1894.
John was under great pressure to find new capital. In an attempt to raise above-board funding for the railroad, he incorporated a new company, London and South Dakota Investment Company Limited, in London in November 1893. When news of the incorporation reached Yankton, it was said that:
Unfortunately a financial depression was now gripping the American markets, and by 1894 virtually all U.S. railway building projects had ground to a halt.[ 58 ]
Privately, John was becoming increasingly desperate in the face of the financial crisis which was spiralling out of control. He had expected that by this time Yankton would have a functioning and highly profitable railroad, and that all investors (whether in the genuine or the fraudulent bonds) would have been fully repaid with nobody any the wiser as to what had been going on behind the scenes.
In fact, far from that being the case, there was still a persistent shortfall of funds (partly caused by the high interest rates being paid on the school bonds and tax certificates) and John was having to sell still more of the fraudulent bonds in order to have any hope of completing the project. Even worse, some of the forged bonds had fallen into the hands of “sharpers” who had discovered the forgery and were using their knowledge of it to blackmail him.[ 59 ]
Meanwhile, a series of tragedies hit the Pierce family in England which, for them, eclipsed any financial concerns. In April 1894, while the family was visiting Torquay in Devon, 13-month-old Marjorie, known by her pet names of “Bibs” or “Bibsy”, fell ill with diphtheria. After three days of illness, Marjorie died on 18 April.[ 60 ]
The Pierces were, of course, heartbroken by the death of their youngest child. On the day Marjorie died, John wrote a poem on black-edged notepaper:
Marjorie (“Bibsy”) Pierce, aged 1, 1894
To Bibs, 18 April 1894
The family’s troubles were by no means over. Very quickly, all three of the remaining Pierce children began to exhibit symptoms of diphtheria. The disease claimed the life of six-year-old Laurie on 7 May, and two days later three-year-old Dorothy died at Crofton Court.[ 61 ] The Pierces’ eldest child, Molly, was also seriously afflicted by the diphtheria; she was fortunate to survive, albeit with a severely weakened heart which was to trouble her all her life.
As she buried three of her four children, Annie was pregnant again. She gave birth at Crofton Court to another daughter, Doris Margaret, on 28 August 1894. The baby was baptised at St Andrew’s, Orpington a month later.[ 62 ]
When Doris was only a few weeks old, John received a tip-off from his Yankton attorney Harry Eller to the effect that, in his absence, investigators had gone though his affairs and discovered the school bonds and tax certificates. His empire was unravelling fast and there was absolutely nothing John could do about it. It was only a matter of time before the scandal would become public knowledge.
John quickly and quietly developed a plan to move to South America, far away from creditors and law enforcement agencies. He booked saloon-class passages for himself on the SS Etruria leaving Liverpool for New York on 29 September 1894 and on the SS Campania sailing the same route on 6 October, but failed to board either vessel as he struggled to tie up as many loose ends as possible before leaving. 63
Departure could not be postponed indefinitely, however; John knew that a warrant might soon be issued for his arrest. Unable to contemplate leaving without Annie and the children, he made arrangements for all of them to cross the Atlantic with a departure date of 10 October.
On 9 October 1894, John made the final preparations for his imminent departure. At dinner that evening with his friend and neighbour, Henry Vaughan Hart-Davis, he was apparently as cool and calm as ever - “not the least bit nervous or agitated”.[ 64 ] By way of thanks for the unstinting friendship and support offered by Hart-Davis at a time of crisis, John left as a gift for him a Second Folio of the works of Shakespeare, published in 1632, with the simple flyleaf inscription “[to] Henry V. Hart-Davis from J.T.M. Pierce, October 9, 1894: Charlie’s birthday.[ 65 ]”
Chapter 6 - Exile in South America
On 10 October 1894, John Pierce boarded the steamship “Britannic” at Liverpool, bound for New York. Although booked to travel with him, at the last minute Annie stayed behind.[ 66 ] With a baby only a few weeks old and a 7-year-old still recovering from diphtheria, Annie would have to bide her time in England until John had found a bolthole safe enough for the family’s exile.
So John travelled alone, carrying two pieces of luggage; he described himself as “transient” but declined to specify his final destination. The ship docked at Ellis Island, New York on 19 October.[ 67 ]
John’s departure from England did not go unnoticed by his creditors; a warrant was issued for his arrest, and a receiving order was made by the High Court in London in December 1894.[ 68 ] Meanwhile his father, who suffered serious financial loss as a result of the project’s collapse and was aghast at the damage John had wreaked on the family’s reputation, disowned him; John’s name was never again mentioned in his parents’ house.
News of John Pierce’s flight from the English jurisdiction reached Yankton within days, and a sheriff was appointed locally to seize his assets. Meanwhile, creditors lodged claims totalling around $5 million, a colossal sum in 1894. Although it was obvious to all that John could not have been acting alone, and must have had significant legal and administrative help to issue such a vast quantity of bonds, nobody else was pursued in connection with the scandal.[ 69 ]
John’s papers showed a huge portfolio of local assets; he had been interested, on one side or the other, in the majority of Yankton County property transactions in the few years leading up to his departure.[ 70 ] However, much of his property was mortgaged up to the hilt and would yield very little equity. Moreover, some of the assets which came to light could not be realised by either the Yankton sheriff or the English receiver, such as Pierce’s $50,000 investment in silver and gold mines at Zacatecas, Mexico.[ 71 ] This investment would provide a lifeline for John and his family as they built a new life in South America.
On 14 September 1895 the Yankton County sheriff held a sale of John Pierce’s property in the county. The sale included 76 lots of land in the city of Yankton, plus eight farms in various parts of the county. Also sold were the rights of way of the Yankton & Norfolk Railroad over 70 acres of land on the Yankton side of the river.[ 72 ]
Most, if not all, of the property was purchased at knock-down prices by English investors who claimed to be creditors of Pierce and who said that they would have to spend “considerable money to wipe out clouds upon titles”.[ 73 ] They promised to invest substantial further money of their own in order to complete the railroad project, but as years passed without significant progress it became increasingly clear that they were committed to recouping their own losses rather than pledging further investment to the project.[ 74 ]
John’s beloved library of rare books and engravings was sold by New York auctioneers Bangs & Co, on the instructions of the sheriff, in a three-day sale in November 1895. The sale list was a truly eye-watering catalogue comprising thousands of items, including several fine specimens of 15th century printing, rare 16th century woodcuts, and a First Folio of Shakespeare’s works published in 1623. Sadly, this wonderful collection of rare editions - many of which were listed as being in excellent condition - was sold for derisory prices by the auctioneers, far below what they were achieving for private vendors at the time.[ 75 ]
Within a few months after his departure, John sent for Annie and the children to join him in South America. He had found his way to Bolivia, which had the attraction of having no extradition laws, and was living in simple accommodation in the tribal settlement of Santa Rosa de Yacuma, deep in the Amazon Basin in the Beni region.
Here John and Annie scraped a living on the sidelines of the rubber industry; he worked as a gang foreman and she cooked the workers’ meals. At about this time they, rather wishfully, added “Hope” to the family surname, and throughout their time in South America the family was known as “Pierce-Hope”. John no longer used his middle names “Timbrell” and “Milward” in deference to the damage which the scandal had wreaked on his relatives (particularly his mother’s family, the Milwards) back in England.[ 76 ]
It was not long before John was able to build some capital; he had carried some $15,000 worth of gold from the Zacatecas mine with him into exile, as well as $50,000 in cash, and had invested it in Bolivian mining ventures. Within two years he had trebled his investment and had established himself as one of the most astute financiers in Bolivia.[ 77 ]
John and eldest daughter Molly on horseback, Bolivia
Despite having fled thousands of miles to one of the remotest parts of the world, John’s safety, and that of his family, was in peril. His creditors had vowed that they would spare no expense to apprehend him, and had hired detectives to track him down in South America. Moreover, although Bolivia was not a signatory to formal extradition treaties, the country’s authorities threatened John that they would give him up to the English or American courts if he did not pay the bribes they demanded.
John did pay the bribes, and in fact was sufficiently generous with them that he was provided with a permanent bodyguard of two armed Bolivian soldiers. John himself always carried a revolver in his belt and had a derringer within arm’s reach. With a constant threat of kidnapping either of himself or of a family member, the Pierce-Hopes’ home was a veritable arsenal.
Despite these precautions, John had at least one very narrow escape. During a momentary separation from his guards he was suddenly seized by masked men and taken to an isolated house where he was held prisoner for several days. The motive of his kidnappers turned out to be purely mercenary, and fortunately John was able to procure the payment of a large ransom in order to secure his release.[ 78 ]
After about a year in the Amazon Basin, John was engaged on a railway building contract which necessitated a move to the pleasant city of Cochabamba in the foothills of the Andes - over 300 miles away from Santa Rosa as the crow flies. The family made the long journey through pampas, rainforest and mountain terrain on muleback; Annie, who was pregnant with her sixth child and not a keen rider at the best of times, was characteristically stalwart and uncomplaining, but it cannot have been a comfortable journey.[ 79 ]
In Cochabamba the Pierce-Hopes at least had decent accommodation and a steady income, but Annie was nevertheless forced to take in sewing to supplement John’s earnings. During their time there, two further sons were born: Ronald in April 1896, and Ian in July 1898.
Shortly after Ian’s birth, John, with his valuable combination of engineering and linguistic expertise, was asked by the Bolivian government to undertake the building of a railway linking Bolivia’s administrative capital, La Paz, to the port of Guaqui on the shores of Lake Titicaca. The Pierce-Hopes moved to Guaqui where in 1903 Annie, pregnant once again, became seriously ill with smallpox. Their fifth daughter, Joyce, was born on 11 September while Annie was still extremely unwell; sadly, as a result of the illness, Joyce lived only sixteen days.
As the construction of the railway progressed, there followed a move for the family to La Paz, breathtakingly high on the Altiplano plateau at over 11,000 feet. John and Annie’s eldest daughter Molly, who for a few years had been living with her MacGregor grandparents in Yankton whilst attending high school, rejoined the family to their great pleasure. Annie’s youthful looks meant that when she and Molly went to dances or to the theatre (accompanied, for propriety’s sake, by American or British escorts) they were often mistaken for sisters. Molly and John spent many companionable hours on horseback, and the youngest children Ronald and Ian were accomplished riders from an early age.
During this relatively happy and prosperous period John spent a great deal of time with his children and relished fatherhood, taking a particular interest in his young sons who, in turn, loved to be with him. He was a gifted musician, playing the piano by ear for their amusement and teaching them old songs.[ 80 ]
While in La Paz, John made a valuable friend in José Manuel Pando, President of Bolivia since 1899. President Pando was greatly impressed with John’s skills as an engineer, and it was not long before he appointed John to the post of Minister of Public Works in the Bolivian government.[ 81 ]
The security provided by John’s government appointment was particularly valuable, as the Pierce-Hope family was still growing. Two further daughters, Sylvia and Phyllis, were born in La Paz in 1904 and 1906 respectively, and in August 1910 John and Annie’s fourth son and last child, John Roderick (known as Jack) arrived.
In 1908 John and Annie had made the difficult decision to send Ronald (then aged 12) and Ian (10) away to England for their education; Annie later said that this was the hardest thing she had ever had to do.[ 82 ] Both boys were sent away to preparatory school and, in due course, to Haileybury. This effectively meant the end of their time as children within the family; Ian did not see his father again until 1917 and Ronald, tragically, not at all. Sadly, they did not have contact with their grandparents in England either; their grandfather John Timbrell Pierce in Danbury was still so dismayed by his son’s conduct in relation to the Yankton affair that he refused to have any contact with his grandsons.[ 83 ]
In early 1911, at the age of 41, Annie became seriously ill in La Paz with a haemorrhagic illness and came close to death. The local doctor, a German ominously named Dr Slaughter, was unable to diagnose her condition; and in his worry and frustration John smashed the whole of a china tea set against a tree because the previous two owners of the set had died and he feared that it was cursed. Annie survived, but was no longer fit enough to live in the challenging conditions of La Paz; the doctor insisted that a move to a lower altitude was essential. In the meantime an extended convalescent trip to Europe was arranged for Annie and the children though John, of course, could not accompany them.[ 84 ]
The Pierce family (without John), London, 1912
From left: Molly, Ronald, Sylvia, Annie (with Jack), Phyllis, Ian, Doris
John arranged for his daughters Molly, Doris, Sylvia and Phyllis to make the long rail and sea journey via Peru and Panama to England, where they were met and cared for by his sister May and enjoyed a happy reunion with their brothers Ronald and Ian. Annie followed with baby Jack and his nanny by a slower route via Cape Horn which was thought better suited to Annie’s convalescent condition. Over the next year and a half Annie recovered her strength and the children relished the opportunity to spend time with their older brothers.[ 85 ]
John had by now lost his Bolivian government post as a result of a change in policy which required that all ministers be Bolivian citizens. Deeply distressed by his sudden unemployment, he urgently needed to identify a new home for the family in a place where he could find work.
To his great relief, in late 1912 John was offered a job as a surveyor in Asunción, Paraguay. He sold the La Paz house and sent word to Annie that the family should rejoin him in Asunción. In November, Annie and the children boarded the SS Highland Rover and returned to South America. Their new home, a property known as “La Quinta”, consisted of two houses set in large grounds planted with citrus trees and a banana grove and, to the amusement of the children, came complete with a German landlord who ate raw meat and eggs.[ 86 ]
Paraguay was far from stable at the time; a series of conflicts between cívicos, led by Major Albino Jara, and radicals of the Liberal Party, caused several regime changes. In 1912, a cívico rebellion took place during which John took the precaution of displaying the Union Flag at La Quinta to indicate non-partisanship; the rebellion was eventually defeated at Paraguarí, where Jara was killed.[ 87 ]
In 1913 John moved the family again to Corumba, Brazil, where he was engaged as a surveyor for the Madeira-Mamoré railway - constructed in thick rainforest to transport rubber from north-eastern Bolivia past waterfalls and treacherous rapids to the navigable stretches of the Amazon River across the Brazilian border.[ 88 ]
Jack Pierce, aged 4
La Paz, 1914
The family home in Corumba was heavily infested with cockroaches and termites; nevertheless the children adapted well, learning Portuguese without difficulty and acquiring a host of exotic pets including an armadillo, a monkey and a parrot. Little Jack, by now three years old, quickly learned not to tease the monkey after once being bitten on the ear. Despite the lack of physical comforts, these were relatively contented times, with the family well-supported by loyal staff including an excellent Japanese cook.[ 89 ]
Chapter 7 - The final years
As the First World War gathered pace, change was afoot once again for the Pierce-Hope family. They moved back from Corumba to Asunción where, in December 1914, John and Annie’s eldest daughter Molly was married to Frank Middleton, an Anglican pastor responsible for a huge parish covering much of Argentina and Paraguay.[ 90 ] In a joint ceremony, Molly’s sister Doris was married to Clement McEwen.
Frank and Molly made their home in Rosario de Santa Fé, Argentina, where Frank’s parish was centred, while Doris and Clement remained in Asunción. By 1916 Molly had produced John and Annie’s first granddaughter, Dorothy, and Doris their first grandson, Ewen. Meanwhile John and Annie and the younger children kept moving to wherever work was available, spending a brief period in Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, before settling in Quilmes, near Buenos Aires in Argentina.
Unfortunately John’s opportunities for work dried up at about this time, and Annie was forced to become the family breadwinner, taking a post as assistant principal in a girls’ boarding school in Quilmes. A welcome consequence of her employment at the school was that daughters Sylvia and Phyllis, now aged 12 and 10, could be educated at the school for free. This was their first formal schooling; until this time they had been taught by Annie. The youngest Pierce-Hope child, Jack, was enrolled at St George’s College, also in Quilmes.[ 91 ] Despite the strain caused by John’s underemployment, the family was holding together.
Ronald Hugh MacGregor Pierce,
There was tragedy ahead, however. John and Annie’s eldest surviving son, Ronald, had left Haileybury in 1913 and had joined the West Yorkshire Regiment (Prince of Wales’ Own) on the Western Front. He was killed in action near Thiepval on 14 September 1916, one of over 400,000 British casualties of the Battle of the Somme. Ronald’s body was never recovered, but he is commemorated both at the Thiepval Memorial and on the Danbury gravestone of his brother and sisters who died in the spring of 1894.[ 92 ]
Although he was by now in his mid-50s, John Pierce thought it only right that he should contribute his efforts to the war which had claimed the life of his son - and in which another of his sons, Ian, was serving in France. In 1917 he volunteered as an ambulance driver, and served in the Royal Field Artillery on the Greek front.[ 93 ]
In return for war service, John was granted an amnesty from any legal process in the English courts relating to the Yankton affair, and for the first time since 1894 it was safe for him to visit his native country. On his way to Greece he stopped briefly in London; he stayed at the Jermyn Court Hotel and was able to spend a precious few hours with his son Ian, who was on three days’ leave from the French front.
Despite not having seen one another for nine years, father and son spent a convivial time together, dining in a favourite restaurant where John was still able to converse fluently in French with the waiter. However, the short sojourn was bittersweet for John; although his sister May was delighted to see him, no other member of the family acknowledged him. John served well in Greece but was eventually discharged due to illness, and he returned to South America in poor health.[ 94 ]
Annie, now in her late forties, had been appointed principal of the school at Quilmes.[ 95 ] Relations between John and Annie were by now under serious strain. For several years before his war service John had spent time away from home either on surveying trips or in his attempts to find new work, and the burden of bringing up the children had fallen disproportionately on Annie. The couple had been devastated by Ronald’s death and, to make things worse, John had sought solace in drink. He was ageing prematurely in mind and body, and was no longer easy to live with.
Annie was also concerned for the education of her youngest children. Her early marriage had meant that she herself had not completed high school, and she was determined that her own children should have the best possible education. Although the schooling available in Quilmes was better than nothing, she knew that the children would have far greater opportunities in America.[ 96 ]
John Timbrell Milward Pierce, aged 47
(bullet scar visible on jawline)
In the summer of 1918 Annie’s father Dr John MacGregor died in Yankton. Encouraged by her widowed mother, Annie now made the difficult decision to leave John with their daughter Molly in South America and to return, after an enforced absence of some 16 years, to the country of her birth.
In August 1919 John said a sad farewell to Annie as she boarded the Cunard liner “RMS Vauban” at La Plata, Argentina, accompanied by their three youngest children: Sylvia, then 14, Phyllis, 12 and Jack, nearly nine. The passenger manifest shows that she gave her name as “Berena A. Pierce-Hope”, (Berena being John’s pet name for her), suggesting that she did not want her true identity to be obvious to the U.S. immigration authorities.[ 97 ]
Annie and the children were met at New York by her brother John Angus MacGregor, who escorted them to Yankton. After a short period there Annie settled in West Virginia where she earned a living as a teacher of Spanish and brought up the youngest children alone.[ 98 ]
Annie kept her youthful looks and energy well into later life, gaining her bachelor’s degree in just over one year at the age of 62, and lived to see all her surviving children married and with families of their own. She died in Bluefield, West Virginia in November 1955, aged 86.[ 99 ]
After the departure of Annie and the children, as well as his son Ian who settled in the United States after his Army service, John stayed in Argentina with his eldest daughter Molly Middleton and her family. Although he was increasingly suffering from memory loss, he was still able to delight his young granddaughters Dorothy and Joyce with wonderful stories of adventure and mystery. In due course Frank Middleton’s term in South America came to an end, and the family, including an increasingly frail John, moved to England in 1926.
Later that year John received a visit from his son Ian and daughter Phyllis, who had travelled from their homes in the United States to see him. They were dismayed to find that his once razor-sharp mind had deteriorated beyond recognition and that, although still an amusing conversationalist, he had difficulty in remembering their names. John was cared for by Molly and Frank Middleton and visited by his sister May, who provided financial support for his upkeep for the remainder of his life.[ 100 ]
Less than two years after his return to his native country, and still shunned by almost all of his birth family, John Timbrell Milward Pierce died of heart disease in Carshalton, Surrey on 11 September 1927 at the age of 65.[ 101 ]
The Yankton to Norfolk Railroad never was built - although traces remain, in the Bow Valley area of north-eastern Nebraska, of the roadbed which was constructed in John Pierce’s time. The age of the train was, in time, superseded by the dominance of the automobile, and the interstate Highway 81 runs parallel to what would have been the railroad route. Residents had to wait until 1924 for a permanent bridge to be built across the Missouri at Yankton.
John Timbrell Milward Pierce has over 70 living descendants in the United States, England, Australia, New Zealand and Denmark.
Much of the story of John Pierce’s life, including detail of the American and South American periods and the reasons for his exile, was lost to succeeding generations of his English descendants. In piecing together this account I was helped enormously by the late Vernon Linnaus of Norfolk, Nebraska, whose research on lost railroads provided me with invaluable evidence.
A happy consequence of my research has been the tracing of my American cousins Heather Pierce Carr and Nancy Hinchee, to whom I am greatly indebted for their enthusiasm and kindness and for copies of precious family letters and photographs.
I owe a debt of thanks to many others who have helped me along the way. My mother, Rosemary Loyd, was an exemplary research companion on our September 2006 visit to South Dakota and Nebraska. My father, David Markham, drew the maps which are reproduced here. They, and several others, were kind enough to read successive drafts of the manuscript and provide constructive criticism, and I am most grateful.