Biographies & Memoirs



WHILE HIS FRIENDS IN LEAVENWORTH WERE CRUSHED TO get only a branch line, Fred saw the new train solely as a business opportunity. He immediately changed the name of his business at the Planters’ House to “Central Railroad Ticket Office” and advertised through tickets to New York, Boston, Washington, and “all points in the United States and Canada.” He also began training a young man to replace him day to day in Leavenworth, so he could start using the train to broaden his business horizons. He arranged with his bosses at the Joy System to sell passenger tickets in Kansas for all their railroads, including the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy, which was the dominant line out of Chicago. And he informed the publisher of the Leavenworth Conservative that he could now solicit ads for the paper all over the state—and anywhere else the trains could take him.

Fred Harvey turned himself into a railroad warrior. He began traveling relentlessly not only in Kansas but in Missouri, up to Chicago, and eventually all the way east to New York. He sold the West to Easterners and the East to Westerners, along the way making numerous friends and business associates—which, to him, were pretty much the same thing. Soon he hired a second young man to work with him on the road so they could canvass cities more quickly and efficiently, making collections on newspaper ads and dropping off ticket vouchers. Then, as business improved, he hired even more traveling employees so he could be represented in more places. The most dependable of this group was a young man from Leavenworth named William “Guy” Potter, who took his mentorship with Fred very seriously.

Within a year, Fred was so successful as a traveling salesman that his clients started giving him healthy advances just to keep their part of his well-divided attention. In 1868, his bosses at the Leavenworth Conservative offered him a contract paying an annual advance of $3,000 ($47,000)—about fifteen times the average per capita income in the nation.

It was a good deal, but Fred had been learning a lot about negotiating during his travels. He was bolder now, more self-assured, and he understood how American businessmen thought. He had learned, as one friend put it, “how to ask for things … You should have seen Fred when he was building up. He used to ask for everything! He asked and kept on asking and finally got it.” But he asked in such a way that all parties involved felt they were getting more.

Even as he was shaking hands with the publishers of the Conservative to clinch the deal, he was—according to a handwritten account of the meeting in his datebook—already angling for something else.

Once I’ve sold an ad for you,” he asked, “would you mind terribly if I solicited for another paper in another town, one that doesn’t compete with the Conservative?”

The clients thought about this for a moment. It was a request both audacious and completely logical, as long as Fred could be trusted.

“Well,” said one of the owners, “I guess as long as you don’t neglect us. I just want to do what’s right.”

So, with another handshake, he was also free to sell ads for the St. Joseph Herald, the Kansas Farmer, and several other publications. And none of them ever regretted it. “Fred Harvey was the best newspaper solicitor I ever knew,” said his boss at the Conservative.

Fred went on to develop similarly complex and fruitful arrangements with the railroads and the adjoining packet boat lines. Several of them put him on monthly retainer because he brought in so much business. The deals weren’t all as big as the one with the Conservative—the Missouri River Packet Line, for example, paid him only $40 ($625) a month—but it all added up.

Fred kept track of all his deals in a bulging brown leather wallet with his name embossed in gold on its well-worn front. Inside was a datebook, a sleeve for his cash, and, tucked into the innermost flap, a hidden treasure to remind him that there was more to life than business. It was a small card he and Sally had printed up for their son’s first Christmas season. It showed two cherubs kissing beneath a full moon and, below them, the words “Happy New Year, Fordie Harvey.”

The datebooks he carried had a standard format, a full page for each day, but Fred would use the same book for several years. Sometimes he would write short descriptions of his business day, including reports on the weather and how hard he had worked. (“Still in Pittsburgh, worked very faithfully this morning in trying to get ads, but could do nothing. Weather very mild.”) He also noted whenever he got a letter from Sally, and whenever he gave her money (in ledger form, “Wife, $5” or “Mrs. Harvey, $10”). But often he communicated with himself by jotting down lists—not every day, but rather when the listing spirit moved him. He crammed a month’s worth of household expenses—pew rental fees, payments to the “servant” and the “washerwoman”—onto one page. He made lists of newspaper ads and train tickets for which he was owed a commission, business expenses to submit to his assorted employers, and moneys owed to his assorted employees. He kept track of the loans he made—including the money he gave to his perennially broke sister and brother-in-law in St. Louis, which he knew he would probably never see again. And he kept tabs on his investments.

With so much free time spent on the trains and in hotels, Fred read voraciously. He devoured newspapers, magazines, and books, “not for mere pleasure or pastime,” according to one admirer, “but for the acquisition of profound knowledge.” But he also read with an eye toward finding new business opportunities.

He wanted every penny he made to work for him. He invested in real estate and made private mortgage loans. He even made one foray back into the restaurant business—a silent partnership in the American House in Ellsworth, Kansas, a resilient young cattle town just reached by the railroads. The popular hotel and restaurant was right on Ellsworth’s “Snake Row,” the raucous part of town frequented by Wild Bill Hickok.

In the summer of 1868—when Fred’s investment in the American House peaked—Hickok was running for sheriff of Ellsworth, hoping to cash in on his newfound fame. An article about Hickok in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine caused outrage in the West because of its wild claims about the many hundreds of men he had gunned down. In response to the furor, he gave another interview to set the record straight, telling the St. Louis Democrat he had killed “considerably over hundred men,” but never “without good cause.” The stories became the cornerstone of Hickok’s legend, and one of the earliest examples of national media hype about cowboys. Yet despite all his celebrity, Wild Bill lost the election, and soon moved on from Ellsworth. As did Fred, once his investment of $4,485.22 ($70,100) was repaid with interest.

FRED’S STAMINA AS a railroad warrior was all the more astonishing given his uncertain health. While he was energetic and driven, his bout with typhoid as a young man had left him less than robust, and he had been excused from the draft during the Civil War because of “physical disability.” He suffered from a variety of chronic ailments of the gut and head, referring to his main problems as “neuralgia” and “headaches,” although it was never clear whether he was talking about migraines, or a form of nerve pain in his body or extremities, or what today would be called clinical depression. Perhaps all three.

He suffered frequently from insomnia during his train rides—although he was probably not alone in that. The trains were extremely noisy, but the engines threw off so much smoke and soot, and the moving cars kicked up so much dust that passengers were left with a no-win choice: Either leave the windows open and deal with the smoke and dirt or close them and survive the stultifying heat and stale air. Still, Fred fell ill more often than others, and would lose entire days of work lying in a hotel bed waiting for his misery to lift. And, being Fred, he kept a running tally of his sick days in his datebook. (“Started out this morning but had to return in consequence of being sick,” he wrote one day in Cincinnati, “have been in bed all day sufferd [sic] very much with my head. Weather mild.”)

He tried all sorts of remedies—including many of the patent medicines for which he sold newspaper ads—and he was forever jotting down recommendations for new cures. His datebooks were peppered with notations to try a “linimint” made with “equal parts spirits of camphar, oil of peppermint, fluid extract of bella donna,” or “podophylium 60 g, letandrin Sanguinnat … and pure caryenne, each 30 grams,” which would be made into “60 pieces with a little soft extract of mandrake or dandelion.” He also consulted numerous doctors and near-doctors, including a “spiritualist” in Chicago.

But nothing provided long-term relief, and he came to see his toils as his treatment as well as his torment. “His nervous disposition made it almost imperative to load himself with work,” one family member observed. “Yet this very excess of work … made him more nervous, setting up a vicious cycle.”

Actually, there was a new medical theory concerning Fred’s condition. Dr. George M. Beard, a prominent young New York physician, published a study in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal in April 1869 about a revolutionary new diagnosis. He called it “neurasthenia” or “nervous exhaustion,” and said its victims experienced not only fatigue, headaches, and neuralgia but anxiety, depression, and impotence. His theory was that neurasthenia was caused by depletion of the energy reserves of the central nervous system in the brain or the spinal cord, comparable to the way anemia depleted blood. Neurasthenia, he claimed, caused “more distress and annoyance than all forms of fever combined, excepting perhaps those of a malarious origin. Fevers kill, it is true, while these neuroses do not. But to many, death is by no means the most disagreeable of the many symptoms of disease.”

The ambitious thirty-year-old doctor had come to believe his new illness primarily plagued the wealthy and successful, whose problems, he said, were being ignored by medical science. “The miseries of the rich, the comfortable and the intelligent,” he lamented, “have been unstudied and unrelieved.” Beard also believed that neurasthenia was “a disease of … modern civilization, and mainly of the 19th century and of the United States.” But it wasn’t just that the illness was more commonly found here. He suspected the country itself might actually be causing the symptoms.

It cannot be denied that in America there are climatic conditions and business and social environments to the influence of which the nervous system is peculiarly susceptible,” he wrote, “especially if complicated with evil habits, excesses, tobacco, alcohol, worry, or special excitements.” The problem was that “competitive anxieties [are] so intensified in this country” that they led to a pathological “worry of business and professional life.”

Because of this epidemiological anomaly, it wasn’t long before Beard’s critics, as well as critics of American life in general, started to joke that maybe his disease should be called something else.

Perhaps what people like Fred Harvey had, they said, was a case of “Americanitis.”

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