The Man Who Saved Henry Clay Frick:
John George Alexander Leishman
John George Alexander Leishman
On July 23, 1892, an assassination attempt in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania rocked the international business world and changed the course of American diplomacy. On that day, Alexander Berkman, a darkly intense Russian Jewish intellectual and self-proclaimed anarchist, sought to destroy Henry Clay Frick, the man Berkman blamed for the carnage of the Homestead steel strike in the preceding weeks. Armed with a pistol and a sharpened rat-tailed file, Berkman gained easy access to the headquarters of Carnegie Steel and found his way into the second floor private office of the chairman, 43-year-old Henry Clay Frick.
“He had forced his way into Frick's private office on the heels of a Negro porter who had taken in his card. He had immediately opened fire, and Frick had fallen to the ground with three bullets in his body. The first to come to his aid, the paper said, was his assistant Leishman, who was in the office at the time. Workingmen, engaged on a carpenter job in the building, rushed in, and one of them felled Berkman to the ground with a hammer. At first they had thought Frick dead. Then a cry was heard from him. Berkman had crawled over and got near enough to strike Frick with a dagger in the thigh. After that he was pounded into unconsciousness. He came to in the station house, but he would answer no questions. One of the detectives grew suspicious about the appearance of Berkman's face and he nearly broke the young man's jaw trying to open his mouth. A peculiar capsule was found hidden there. When asked what it was, Berkman replied with defiant contempt: `Candy.'” (Emma Goldman, “Living My Life”).
Henry Clay Frick, who continues to be well known to historians and whose name is recognized by many non-historians, was a south central Pennsylvanian of Mennonite ancestry who had monopolized the manufacture of coke, an essential ingredient in the production of high-grade steel. His business success had brought Frick to the attention of Andrew Carnegie, which resulted in a business alliance between the industrial tycoons, which would have more than its share of symbiotic cooperation, and bitter enmity over the years. Frick had been Carnegie’s on-the-scene administrator during the disastrous Homestead strike. Carnegie was off in Europe, far from the mêlée, as Frick enforced what he believed to be Carnegie’s wishes.
As the anarchist Emma Goldman relates, at the moment when Berkman entered the room with murderous intent, Henry Clay Frick was not alone. In the office with him was a man who has vanished from historic memory: John George Alexander Leishman. Leishman, then thirty-five, was an eight-year veteran of the fabulous growth era of Carnegie’s steel empire. Often overlooked completely (some of the Berkman assassination attempt accounts condescend to call him an "assistant" while others do not even use his name), Leishman was in reality not only a pivotal member of the inner-workings of the Carnegie enterprise, he would also go on to notable accomplishments on the international scene.
John George Alexander Leishman had been born in Pittsburgh on March 28, 1857, the only son of Scots-Irish immigrants. His father John B. Leishman had drowned in the Allegheny River the same year in which he was born. In nearly as dramatic a fashion as the older Andrew Carnegie, little Johnny Leishman, also a Scot, also a diminutive lad who looked to be no more than a kindergartner, began a lifetime of work at age ten, as an assistant for a Pittsburgh physician. Over the next seventeen years, Leishman would, like some real-life Horatio Alger hero, work his way to become a trusted confidant of both Frick and Carnegie.
Prior to his entry into the Carnegie service, John Leishman had been in the service of Shoenberger Steel Company, as what was termed a "mud clerk". Mud clerks were the steel industry’s representatives on the river wharf, responsible for tracking the shipping of good: the arrival of raw materials and the departure of finished products. To guarantee efficiency and success, mud clerks lived 24 hours a day in small sheds on the riverbank. Personable well liked and efficient, Leishman gained the trust and respect of Mr. Shoenberger, who was a noted Pittsburgh civic leader.
John Leishman’s expertise in this work led first to an unsuccessful venture as an independent steel broker and then, later a successful partnership in the same kind of enterprise. Joining with his friend and colleague from their Shoenberger Steel days, William Penn Snyder, John Leishman rose to become the senior partner in the firm of Leishman and Snyder, Iron and Steel Brokers. It was in this capacity that Leishman first caught the attention of Andrew Carnegie, who subsequently convinced Leishman to leave his own firm. Leishman did so, by entering Carnegie's service on October 1, 1884, as Special Sales Agent. Thereafter, William Penn Snyder continued their former partnership in what became known as Shenango Steel. William Penn Snyder’s descendants continue to be business and philanthropic leaders in 21st Century Pittsburgh.
As has been noted, John Leishman was an undersized man of Scottish heritage, not unlike Carnegie himself. All indications suggest that Andrew Carnegie saw more than a little of himself in the younger man, John Leishman. Indeed, throughout his life, Carnegie continued to think of Leishman as one of his “boys” and included Leishman in the official “History of the Carnegie Veterans Association”, (a roster from which H. C. Frick is noticeably absent). Leishman’s success in his association with Carnegie is similar to and a precursor of Charles Schwab’s career with Carnegie. John G. A. Leishman rose to occupy the following positions: Vice Chairman, Carnegie Brothers & Company, Ltd.; Vice President and Treasurer, Carnegie Steel Company and President, Carnegie Steel Company.
At the moment when Leishman joined the Carnegie enterprises in 1884, Carnegie Brothers & Company was in an expansive phase. Carnegie’s indispensable steel making genius, Captain Bill Jones, was at that moment booming the production of steel rails and John Leishman served as the Special Sales Agent brokering every lucrative deal with the Pennsylvania Railroad. Leishman’s subsequent success was based upon this exclusive relationship he forged between steel and the railroad.
Leishman's period of business successes coincided with personal joys. On September 9, 1880, at Homewood Chapel, he had married Julia Crawford, the daughter of Edward Crawford of Pittsburgh, and his wife, Nancy Fergussen, of Scotch-English Protestant descent. Julia Crawford and her sister Jean, who lived with the Leishman family throughout their married life, were described by a society observer of the day as big blondes who possessed many expensive diamonds. By the mid 1880s the Leishmans had settled in a mansion in Pittsburgh's ultra fashionable East End, with Mellons, Fricks, Joneses and Laughlins as their friends and neighbors. Their social and business connections also provided the Leishmans entrée into an extraordinarily exclusive circle of sixty-odd families. Called the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, it was conceived as an idyllic summer colony, bought and developed by Henry Clay Frick in Cambria County, a short, convenient train ride away from the infamous smoke and soot of Pittsburgh’s industry.
To create the summer colony, an abandoned Pennsylvania Railroad earthen dam was rebuilt and increased in size to create a vast mountaintop reservoir for pleasure boating, which was named Lake Connemaugh. The Club’s holdings grew to include a large multi-storied clubhouse, which served as a dining room and lodge, as well as more than a dozen private summer cottages of generous size, facing the artificial lakefront. Fishing, picnicking and socializing took place each summer season in this mountaintop aerie. Lake Connemaugh was so large it could even accommodate motor launches and a small steamer. Among the Club’s members were Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, Andrew Mellon and Leishman’s former employer, Shoenberger. Also members of the Club were the future inventor of the Autocar, the founder of Nabisco, several future U. S. Congressmen, a future U. S. Attorney General, the developer of the earliest phonographic dictation system, many leaders in the nation’s steel, glass, and railroad industries and the creator of the U. S. national income tax. The vast majority of the members were Pittsburgh millionaires. Among the members of this exclusive social circle were John and Julia Leishman.
This idyllic setting described by the only Johnstown member of the Club, Cyrus Elder, as “the mountain of a dream” masked a ticking time bomb; since the dam (the largest structure of its kind in the world) was poorly maintained and rarely inspected. This lack of attention contributed to its failure on May 31, 1889, following a week of record rainstorms. The classic account of its failure has been chronicled by David McCullough, detailing how the dam melted away and a wall of water plunged down from South Fork, resulting in one of the worst disasters on American soil, the Johnstown Flood. At least 2200 lives were lost-about one third of the bodies were never identified. Only three of the immediate family of any of the South Fork Club members were among the fatalities. The press was quick to point accusations at the exclusive club, but few legal consequences resulted. The South Fork members distanced themselves from the place immediately-never returning to their summer cottages that would forever stand high and dry above the abandoned lakebed. Some of the summer homes have recently been restored due to visionary efforts of “The 1889 South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club” and can be visited today as part of the US Government’s Johnstown Flood National Memorial.
The members of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club who were in Pittsburgh were hastily assembled in an ad hoc meeting and formed into what was called “The Pittsburgh Relief Committee.” Two decisions were made at that meeting which affected the lives of all of the Club members thereafter. One was to make immediate, generous and tangible gifts to help the flood relief efforts. The other was a pledge never to speak of the Club or the Flood in public or in private. Thus resulted a strange situation where children and grandchildren of South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club members were brought up knowing nothing about their family’s association with the sad events of May 1889.
The stratagem of not talking about the Club approved effective. As hard to believe as it may seem to modern observers, there were almost no lawsuits brought against the membership of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. All litigation was handled by attorneys Philander Knox and his partner James Reed, both of whom were themselves South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club members. At their law firm Knox and Reed, a special room was established to deal with all matters concerning the Flood. The firm's history states that the contents of this room were destroyed when the firm moved to a new building in 1917. Twenty-eight years afer the disaster, the door was closed on the aftermath of the Flood.
John and Julia Leishman, similarly, closed the door on those summers at Lake Connemaugh. For only a few more years, would they center their attention upon his work at Carnegie, socializing with the same select group of friends, drawn uncomfortably close by a shared pledge of silence.
While some modern observers have suggested that John G. A. Leishman was too weak and ineffectual to have served as President of Carnegie Steel for long, the accounts of his role in foiling the Frick assassination attempt do not describe a man who was either weak or ineffectual. Amid the growing rancor between Frick and Carnegie, Leishman attempted to steer a middle course until he retired from Carnegie service in June 1897, to accept appointment by President McKinley, as United States Minster to Switzerland. Leishman’s appointment as United States Minster to Switzerland removed him from the subsequent intense wrangling at the post-Homestead Strike Carnegie Steel, where Frick and his party were at loggerheads with Carnegie (off at his beloved Skibo Castle in Scotland but still very much in charge). Leishman attempted the delicate task of remaining cordial with both of his illustrious friends throughout the remainder of his life. Sadly, over time, the friendship with Carnegie was the only one that lasted. A lingering rancor developed between Frick and Leishman, while on the other hand, Carnegie continued to “pension” Leishman after his retirement from US diplomatic service.
Also, Leishman’s daughter Martha’s second husband was the socialite and insurance scion James Hazen Hyde, whose fall from the head of Equitable Life Insurance (a company his father had founded) was brought about by a scheming board member whose name happened to be Henry Clay Frick. Frick, too, was bested in the ensuing scandal and had to resign as did all the Equitable board members. The scandal changed forever the insurance business in the United States and catapulted Charles Evans Hughes to national fame. It was one of the more unsavory episodes in Frick’s life; one that many historians have chosen not to tell, perhaps fearful of the ire of “Miss Frick” (Helen Clay Frick), a formidable semi-recluse who for most of her 96 years used her vast inherited fortune to relentlessly pursue anyone who ever said anything unkind about her father. Especially if what was said happened to be true.
Leishman had made the friendship of, by then U. S. President William McKinley. Their friendship predated April 1886, when the Leishman’s elder daughter Martha was baptized at fashionable St. Stephen Episcopal Church in Sewickley, Pennsylvania, a verdant residential Pittsburgh enclave nestled on the north bank of the Ohio River. The future President stood as Martha's godfather. Leishman and McKinley had come to know one another through their mutual friend Philander Chase Knox. Knox was the senior partner in the Pittsburgh law firm Knox and Reed (its successor firm remains a leading law firm in Pittsburgh). Knox and McKinley were college friends, having graduated in the same year from Mount Union College in Alliance, Ohio. Knox, as a South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club member, was the attorney for all of the members of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. His efforts were crucial in shielding his friends and fellow South Fork members from litigation following the Johnstown Flood. Interestingly, although the account of the history of the law firm states that the room devoted to all the material and litigation regarding the South Fork club was discarded in 1917, to this day there hangs on the wall in one of the conference rooms at Knox’s old firm, a group photograph of the members of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club.
Philander Chase Knox went on to political prominence in McKinley’s administration and held positions of power and influence in Washington through every administration after that, until Wilson was elected. It is likely that Knox and McKinley thought of Leishman as a good candidate for U. S. ambassador to Switzerland and they may have understood the wisdom of extracting Leishman from the leadership struggles at Carnegie Steel. Leishman graciously accepted the President’s invitation and off he went to Switzerland, then on to Turkey, Italy and finally Germany, as U. S. ambassador. While serving in Switzerland, Leishman is described as living lavishly, with guilded plates and footmen at every place for the dinner parites he hosted. The family spent much time in Paris where they were intimates of the Rothschilds, and became patrons of the arts. Leishman purchased the famous painting called “The Madonna of the Streets.” Its current whereabouts is unknown but it is one of the most reproduced paintings in the world and can be seen easily in any image search on the web.
On December 19, 1900, in a cipher telegram, he responded to the Secretary of State: “Please advise the President that I am under renewed obligations for the promotion and gratefully accept the post as Minister to Turkey.” Leishman’s years in Turkey were hugely successful, personally and diplomatically. They include the incident of our nation’s purchase of the first United States embassy owned by our government, the Embassy in Istanbul, the Palazzo Corpi. Up till then, it had been the practice to lease the buildings housing United States embassies around the world. John Leishman thought that practice ridiculously wasteful, and tried to convince the American government to buy the Palazzo Corpi. Finding his idea rebuffed, Leishman went forward and bought it with his own funds. Then, he resorted to a stratagem to have Congress buy it from him. Throwing a lavish banquet and card party in Washington, attended by many members of Congress and the administration, Leishman first lost heavily. Then, at a crucial moment he wagered that if he won, Congress would purchase the Embassy. Leishman indeed won the evening and so our first United States-owned embassy was the result of a wager at the card table. (Leishman enjoyed cards and gambling, up until the night before he died). Also while in Turkey the Sultan decorated not only Leishman but also his wife and daughters. Leishman was responsible for the safe release of several kidnapped missionary women whilst he was serving in Turkey. In 1904, he presented the demand that the American citizens should have the same rights and privileges in Turkish Dominions as were granted to certain favored nations; and that the American minister should have direct access to the Sultan. In 1906, his grade was raised to that of Ambassador. In 1909, he was transferred by President Taft, as Ambassador to Italy.
Ambassador Leishman’s brief tenure in Italy seems to have passed without major incident, but the same cannot be said of his ambassadorship in Germany, which began in 1911. By that time his younger daughter Nancy Louise had become a lovely young woman and caught the eye of the young men in the German capitol. Family oral tradition relates that one of those whose imagination and heart she conquered was Crown Prince Wilhelm, heir to the throne. This infatuation was recounted by Nancy herself, years later, to a distant cousin; yet it appears to have been a closely guarded secret. However, what is very well documented in the society pages of European and American newspapers is Nancy’s much-publicized engagement to the hereditary Prince von Croy. The young and good-looking Prince, of the highest German nobility and descended from an old Polish noble house, held a hereditary rank which made him the social equal of European heads of state such as the Kaiser and Emperor Franz Josef, to whom he was related. At the time of their engagement, Nancy was 19 and the Prince 24. The engagement was to have been kept secret but apparently Mr. Leishman made a comment about it at a private dinner party. Word of the engagement leaked out and caused general pandemonium at the Berlin Court. The Kaiser was reported to be furious. He certainly was under pressure from various royal an noble cousins, including Karl's imfamous aunt Isabella who had previously objected to the marriage of the heir to the Austria-Hungary throne; and so, Wilhelm II refused to give his permission for the Prince to wed Nancy. Even so, family lore says that Nancy and the Prince von Croy were more or less thrown together by the Kaiser’s behind the scenes plotting, so as to get Nancy out of the Kaiser’s son’s system. At any rate, the Prince and Nancy were wed, amid much publicity, in Switzerland. The Prince’s family attended, thereby “defying” the Kaiser. This was in 1913, and about that same time John Leishman was recalled as Ambassador. The offical line in Berlin and among the crowned heads of Eastern Europe was that the wedding was not sanctioned by them; consequently, the Kaiser refused to see Leishman for his official farewell.
Nancy had been named for her maternal grandmother Nancy Fergusson Crawford. Nancy was born in Sewickley, on October 2, 1894 and was baptized at the Church of the Ascension (Episcopal), Pittsburgh. She was married to the 13th Prince von Croy amid much international press coverage on October 28, 1913, the civil ceremony preceding the religious ceremony by one day. The marriage occurred at the church of St. Joseph in Versoix, a leafy enclave near Geneva, Switzerland. Nancy wore white velvet and old lace and her mother's bridal veil.
John G. A. Leishman’s less than auspicious leave taking from Germany may also have been clouded by the fact that Leishman had profited by what we might call insider trading from information he gleaned while serving in Germany-there was a lawsuit in New York and Leishman was required to pay damages of about $75,000 - a tidy sum in 1913. He and Julia retired to Monte Carlo for the remainder of their lives. Although they lived chiefly abroad, Mr. Leishman was particular about being listed in Pittsburgh’s social directories, noting his private club memberships, which included the Union League Club of New York, the New York Yacht Club, the Metropolitan Club of New York, the Washington Club, Pittsburgh’s Duquesne Club (Leishman was a charter member), the Pittsburgh Club, the Travelers Club, Paris and the Circle d'Orient, Constantinople.
The First World War found the Leishmans in an odd situation. Daughter Martha (who as an adult insisted on the French spelling of her name, Marthe) was by then married for a second time, to James Hazen Hyde, who served as a heroic volunteer ambulance corps leader. Daughter Nancy was married to a member of the Kaiser’s troops. After the war, Nancy and her Prince’s marriage did not survive long. His pre-war holdings in six or seven European countries included beautiful estates in France from which both he and Nancy were barred due to his wartime service in Germany. She was dubbed “The Woman Without a Country” by the press; since the French courts decreed that she was a woman of “undetermined nationality.” Her divorce from the Prince was precipitated by divergent expectations regarding her role as the wife of a high-ranking nobleman. Karl felt she should remain at their large estate, in the role of dutiful wife and mother quetly sequestered from all but Karl's family. Nancy longed for the more exciting life of high society. Their growing rift was exacerbated by Nancy’s discovering the Prince’s affair with their children’s young American governess, Helene Lewis of Albany, New York, to whom to make matters worse, the Prince had attempted to give Nancy’s furs. Fed up at last, the beautiful and vivacious Nancy rented a villa in Wiesbaden, and led the high life for a number of months, surrounded by members of café society, spending the Prince’s money liberally. The couple was divorced in 1922. Fourteen years later, Nancy married Andreas d'Oldenberg, minister of Denmark to France and Grand Officer of the Legion of Honor. He died 9 Sept 1939. Nancy lived in Copenhagen at the time of her death in 1983. The Prince later married and divorced a second American, Miss Lewis, who fared no better as an Amerian duchess than did Nancy; Karl was married twice thereafter.
John Leishman’s grandson, Martha and James’s son, Henry Baldwin Hyde, became a decorated O.S.S. officer in World War II. (He ran Operation Penny Farthing). The Prince and Nancy’s only son, Prince Karl - almost the exact contemporary of his first cousin H. B. Hyde - must have served in the army of the Third Reich. Julia Leishman died first (1918) and then John (1924). Both are buried in the Cemeterie de Monaco.
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"History of Carnegie Veterans Association” by William B. Dickson, 1938.
“Who Was Who in America,” 1897-1942, page 720.
“The Romance of Steel: The Story of a Thousand Millionaires,” by Herbert
N Cassar, page 149.
“The Turk and His Lost Provinces,” by William Elery Curtis, Chicago:
Fleming, Revell Co., 1903.
“The Martial Adventures of Henry and Me,” William Allan White
The Associated Press, Sketch #2459, issued July 1, 1936: “James Hazen
Saxon, Wolfgang, “Henry Hyde is Dead at 82: Wartime Spymaster for
O.S.S.”, “New York Times,” 8 April 1997.
“J. G. Leishman Dies: A Former Diplomat,” “New York Times, March 28,
1924.* * *