The Story of Edson Keith

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Ray Hahn

The Story of Edson Keith

During the early morning of Monday, September 21, 1896, a story was unfolding in Chicago that would fill several pages of the Chicago Daily Tribune and the Chicago Chronicle for the next several days.

Edson Keith, the millionaire banker, merchant prince, and head of the firm of Edson Keith & Company, committed suicide Monday morning by drowning himself in Lake Michigan. When he was discovered missing on Monday, it was immediately reported to the Central Station and police detectives started a city-wide search. However, it was not until members of his household staff read the Tuesday newspaper that they realized Mr. Keith was probably the victim of a drowning being reported in the account they were reading. They read a description of a hat and coat that had been found on the beach of Lake Michigan on Monday morning.

When the accounts of Keith’s actions were pieced together it seems that he had spent another sleepless night pacing the hallways of his home. His butler found him in a state of deliriousness at 2 AM. He apparently left his home shortly after daylight Monday and went to the water’s edge at the foot of 16th Street. He was observed by many who later offered testimony but made no effort to guard him from his intended actions.

The medical examiner’s diagnosis declared his death as self-inflicted and likely caused by temporary insanity due to insomnia. The diagnosis was corroborated when accounts of several fishermen who were on the beach told the stories of what they witnessed.

A good portion of the entire story was told in the Chicago Tribune on Wednesday morning September 23. Additional analysis confirmed that Mr. Keith’s circumstances began at least a decade earlier when he first began to suffer from insomnia and dyspepsia. In attempts to ease his suffering, in some years he spent time in more favorable climes such as California in winter and New Hampshire in summer, but his condition changed very little.

His suicide was not unexpected. His brother Elbridge and his wife had spoken just a few weeks before, at which time Mrs. Keith expressed concerns; she had said, “I … suspect that he was losing control of his mind through long suffering.”

Probably one of the richest men in America in that era, Keith had been in charge at Edson Keith and Company for nearly twenty years. Everyone liked him. His personal secretary accounted his experiences of working with Mr. Keith saying he had never heard him say anything nasty or unkind about anyone.

The Keith company, by that time, had an international reputation for manufacturing and importing the finest dry-goods and millinery products available. Founded in 1858 by Osborn R. Keith (verified as Edson’s brother) and Albert Faxon, in a small setting on Lake Street, the company was a wholesale concern with sales approaching three-quarters of a million dollars. The company name changed each time a new investor or partner joined their ranks. And in 1871 the physical location changed to Wabash Avenue after Mrs. O’leary’s cow kicked over an oil lamp.

In the mid-1880s Keith’s annual sales rose to 4.5 million dollars and the company became Edson Keith & Company with over 200 employees in Chicago, a huge cadre of traveling salesmen, and 500 more in a Milwaukee factory that churned out thousands of millinery delights daily.

After Edson’s suicide in September 1896, the dry-goods division was sold to Ehrich Brothers of New York. Three years later another move was made to Michigan Avenue where business continued until the 1920s.

[Interesting aside: on March 13, 1895 Edson executed a Last Will and Testament in Jefferson City, Missouri. The will ordered distribution of his estate in three amounts of $300,000 each; one to his wife Susan and to his two sons, Edson, Jr. and Walter W.

Several nieces and nephews were also mentioned to receive grants of between $1,000 and $10,000 each. The residue was to be used to create a trust fund for the children of the sons and daughters of his brothers.]

Classified advertisements called for experience workers to run machines making high quality hats appeared in the Chicago Tribune up to the end of July 1922, but no information was found concerning the end of business date.

In the historic stream of events, it is likely that Edson Keith had nothing to do with these postcards that carry his name, but it certainly may be said that these postcards are scarce or even rare. In forty years of collecting, they are the only three I’ve seen.

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fantastic hats – thank you for the post –

Love this story! The art on these postcards is beautiful. Very interesting to hear the story of the company and its founder. Now, we really know the importance of a good night’s rest!

Yes, I love these Post cards.

This is a really good example of biographical history and tragedy illustrated with the ornaments of popular culture.

I hadn’t heard of Keith untila few minutes ago, but now find myself wondering if any of his company’s creations are still being worn today, perhaps by descendants of the original purchasers of what have become treasured family heirlooms.

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x