Hearts Through History Romance Writers

Saratoga Springs: Playground of the Wealthy and Powerful

by | November 6, 2011 | 3 comments

Bankers, stockbrokers, politicians and millionaires mingled at Saratoga Springs, New York in the Gilded Age of the late 19th century. As with any age, however, it had its characters, some of whom made great fodder for the newspapers of the day.

I mentioned last month about Florence Vanderbilt finding love in Saratoga Springs with  Hamilton Mckowen Twombly who, at the time was clerking for Western Union. In fact, Twombly confronted her father, William Henry Vanderbilt, son of the Commodore, on what was then considered the “millionaire’s” piazza of the United States Hotel where Twombly screwed up courage to ask Vanderbilt for his daughter, Florence’s, hand in marriage. By all accounts, Twombly, an 1871 graduate of Harvard, was quite a handsome man with dark, wavy hair parted in the middle and a handlebar moustache and Florence was a comely young lady. The Twombly family name was well known in New England with ancestors who came to America in 1656 with a land grant for what became Dover, New Hampshire and Twombly’s father was engaged in shipping enterprises so young Twombly was far from poor. But even though his family was “comfortable” they could not match the gilded age wealth of the Vanderbilts. George Waller reports in Saratoga: Saga of an Imperious Age that the conversation went thusly:


“What is your yearly income, Mr. Twombly?” Vanderbilt inquired.

“Eighteen hundred dollars, sir.”

“And do you think you can maintain my daughter, as she is used to, living on that?”

“I don’t know, sir,” Twombly said, “But I can keep her as well as you kept her mother when you married her.”

Florence had little to fear in the money department, however, because shortly after their marriage  Twombly was somehow elected vice-president of Western Union at a salary of  $15,000/year—a nice raise for the one-time clerk. That was the start of a career of Corporate Board membership that included railroads, shipping lines and banks, mostly with Vanderbilt connections, that surely afforded Florence the luxury she was accustomed to. By all accounts theirs was a happy marriage. Their mansion (Florham) in Convent, New Jersey now houses Farleigh Dickinson University. But it all started at the spa town of Saratoga Springs, New York amid the hops of the United States and Grand Union Hotels.  You can view an illustration of the Florence’s and Hamilton’s wedding at this link to the New York Public Library’s digital collection:



Another famous summer resident of Saratoga Springs had a less pedigreed lineage but certainly exercised considerable influence in New York circles. John Morrissey was an Irish immigrant who had a career that touched on many of America’s gilded age events.  As a youth he engaged in stealing to keep out of the clutches of poverty then sought his fortune during the Gold Rush. He found it, not in mining gold but in winning it from prospectors in various gambling pursuits. Gambling during the gilded age was not so frowned upon but rather  considered a skill, and thus a profession, even in light of the potential for cheating. He was also good with his fists and became a famous pugilist, defeating the American Champion, Yankee Sullivan, back in Massachusetts in 1853 on a technicality. That brought him to the attention of Tammany Hall politicians who needed an enforcer against the Know-Nothing party which was making inroads into New York City politics with ballot rigging and such which, undoubtedly, Tammany Hall politicians felt were their exclusive tools of the trade. For his troubles, Morrissey and his gang, the Dead Rabbits (tells you a lot about the gang) were granted the opportunity to open gambling houses undisturbed by law enforcement.  At one point Morrissey had “stakes” in over 16 gambling houses. With the backing of Tammany Hall headed by Boss Tweed he ran for Congress in 1866 and won, serving two terms in which he focused on Irish interests and wasn’t above flexing a muscle or two to get what he wanted. Eventually, he turned on Boss Tweed with testimony that help secure Tweed’s imprisonment for corruption, and this no doubt helped him get elected to the state Senate.

His political connections proved useful when he opened a richly appointed casino he called The Club House in 1869 in Saratoga Springs. Morrissey and his beautiful wife Susie, who he courted with persistence until she finally agreed to marry the rough-around-the edges boxer, enjoyed rubbing elbows with the rich and famous and gained some measure of respectability in the more democratic summer society of Saratoga Springs, even if it didn’t continue beyond the summer seasons.  The Club House stands today, renamed the Canfield Casino after one of its later owners and serves as Saratoga’s Museum. Unfortunately, Morrissey was enamored enough with the scions of Wall Street to make investment’s based on Vanderbilt’s advice and Black Friday 1869 saw him lose upwards of $800,000 while the Commodore walked away considerably richer during that Wall Street manipulation of New York Central Railroad stock. Still, Morrissey was influential in elevating gambling at The Springs, including his investment with William Travers, John Hunt, and Jerome Leonard into the Saratoga Race Course which is still today one of the most beautiful race courses in the country. Gambling casinos were shuttered by the state in 1951 only to be resurrected again in this century and with state blessing.

Giulia Morosini is certainly not a household name today but in 1880’s New York society she was.  Her father was  G. P. Morosini, a man often referred to as a banker but in truth he was a smart man whose loyalty to Jay Gould, as a confidante, bodyguard and secretary, amassed him his fortune. His daughter was known to be high spirited as well as an excellent horse woman. In Saratoga one could find her in the late afternoon astride one of  her many fine horses in her tight fitting riding costume, her face partially hidden by a thin veil, as her horse pranced down Broadway and out to the countryside. A beautiful woman who reportedly spent $200,000 on clothes a year, she remained unmarried because her father did not approve of any man as “good enough.” But in 1911, after her father’s death wherein she inherited the bulk of the estate, she married a former (and previously married) policeman who had reportedly saved her life five years earlier after a horse she was driving ran away. Unfortunately the marriage didn’t last and in 1914, she barred him by court order from her home, which created a minor scandal. The Morosini family was not unfamiliar with scandals of the heart. Giulia’s sister, Victoria, had run away with the family coachman in 1884 and the elopement made front pages, especially since her father disinherited her as a result. That marriage lasted only two years and it was said that certain arrangements promised from the family lawyers induced the breakup. Victoria subsequently lived in seclusion until her death in 1933.


Many personalities of the era were on display at Saratoga Springs during the season. There was always a parade of horses and carriages down Broadway and equipping one’s carriages with premium equines added to the competition of finery exhibited by the ladies. William Henry Vanderbilt was said to have a rivalry with Lucky Baldwin (who had earned his $30 million in the gold fields and gambling halls of California) for the best carriage and horses as well as the best guests aboard. Lucky was known to stock his carriage with beautiful women, sometimes specifying only blondes or only brunettes. With his fortune, he apparently had no problem in attracting passengers.

The Springs, with its mixture of entertainment (gambling, racing, dances, plays, opera), health in the form of over a dozen different springs, and grand hotels became the place to summer for the wealthy and famous.  Amongst the families of Vanderbilts, Whitneys, Asters, Steeles and Walls could be found other famous and infamous visitors. James Fisk proudly squired his curvaceous mistress. Josie Mansfield, around the various points of interest, including The Club House which allowed “respectable” ladies into its salon but not into the gambling rooms. The writer Henry James came in 1870 to find out what all the fuss was about and was not impressed with what he perceived as the spa’s nouveau riche extravagance in architecture. While decrying the setting, he describes, in an article for The Nation, the wealthy male guests as such: “They are not the mellow fruit of a society which has walked hand-in-hand with tradition and culture; they are hard nuts, which have grown and ripened as they could. When they talk among themselves, I seem to hear the cracking of the shells.” Ladies fared somewhat higher in his estimation. “If the men are remarkable, the ladies are wonderful. Saratoga is famous, I believe, as the place of all places in America where women adorn themselves most, or as the place, at least, where the greatest amount of dressing may be seen by the greatest number of people.” James pronounced the ladies of Saratoga as “chic.”  In the end, James preferred the more closed society he found in Newport to the open, and therefore brasher, society he found in Saratoga.

The actor, Edwin Booth, came to Saratoga to rest after a tour of Hamlet. Ulysses S. Grant came to Saratoga as a victor in 1865 and summered nearby in 1885, the year of his death. Mark Twain, after his visits to Grant, came to Saratoga to play billiards. Regular visitor Lily Langtry, the Jersey Lily, caused a stir when she wore red shoes out for an evening. Lillian Russell and her “good friend”, Diamond Jim Brady who owned a reported “thirty sets of jewels consisting of more than twenty thousand diamonds of varying size and shape and six thousand other precious stones,”  (Saratoga: Saga of an Imperious Age) strolled the streets of Saratoga in the gay nineties. Florenz Ziegfield was known to escort his latest discovery, Anna Held, down Saratoga’s sidewalks. William C. Whitney came to play the horses and the Whitney Stakes, with members of the Whitney family in attendance, continues to draw some of the finest horses to the raceway.

Anyone remember the movie Saratoga Trunk starring Ingrid Bergman and Gary Cooper? Based on a book by the same name by Edna Ferber,the film recreated the scenes around Saratoga during the 1880s including the hotel suites, ballrooms, and lobbies that awed visitors.  Here’s a link to the trailer to give you that Saratoga feeling: http://youtu.be/MJEs8wzzSEY.

A trip back in time to Saratoga Springs, playground for the wealthy and powerful during the Gilded Age, surely stirs the imagination.

Anne Carrole writes about cowboys who have grit, integrity and little romance on their mind and the women who love them. You can check out her contemporary romance, Re-ride at the Rodeo, at The Wild Rose Press. She also is co-editor of the review website,www.lovewesternromances.com


  1. Angelyn

    Great post! I love the Gilded Age and details about wealthy society and how it lived back then. The resort at Cresson, PA is a particular favorite.

  2. Anne Carrole

    Thanks for stopping in Angelyn. I don’t know much about Cresson PA but it seems as if it was another example of the mobility railroads created, allowing the wealthy to get a way from it all during the summer months.

  3. Caroline Clemmons

    I remember (vaguely) the book and movie “Saratoga Trunk,”ut really knew nothing else about Saratoga Springs. Thanks for sharing.



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