Saturday, May 15, 2010

Madam and Forty-Niner, Maggie Gardner led Double Life in Salem and out East

Even more than a journalist, Ben Maxwell was a raconteur. He had eyes and ears for a story - but he didn't always have the patience for the fine detail of research. Some of his best stories are from the early days of Statehood. He collected some of them in his article, “Salem in 1869: A Year of Transition” published in Marion County History, volume III, June 1957.

He used 1869 to divide eras in Salem - as a rough frontier settlement and as a settled town with more civilized amenities and culture. In just a few years (see Virginia Green's notes on 1869, 1870, and 1871) a fire department, water service, and the rail arrived. Like all divisions it's ultimately arbitrary, but his point remains about the development in those years of key city services.

About our town in 1869 he said
Salem in that interlude was small, somewhat lacking in gentility, unsanitary by modern standards, self satisfied and dull. There were those here distinguished for their holier-than-thou piety. Another element whooped it up in the town’s numerous saloons, were occasionally seen around Maggie Gardner’s place and engaged in fisticuffs, rowdy conduct and undignified displays…


Salem in 1870 had thirteen saloons, three drug stores that sold liquor and two breweries; one of which advertised to deliver anywhere for forty cents a gallon.


“Madam” Maggie Gardner conducted a well-ordered bagnio with four or five inmates on the east side of Liberty Street between Court and State. She came to Salem in 1867 and had the thanks of Salem’s poor for her charities and assistance in time of need. She died penniless in her room above a State Street resort on September 15, 1892. Those curious about further details of Maggie Gardner’s life may read her obituary in a Salem newspaper.

The way Maxwell handles Gardner's obituary is Ben Maxwell in a nutshell. He finds all kinds of great material, and the general outlines are fascinating and accurate. But the details aren’t always there. Here it sounds like you could pick up any paper and find the obituary - Gardner was famous (or infamous) it seemed.

But Maxwell, it turns out, was reading only one paper, and making an over-confident and off-the-cuff generalization for his readers. There is no obituary for Maggie Gardner in any of the daily papers on the 16th or 17th.

But there is an obituary in one of the weekly papers published on the 16th.

The Weekly Oregon Statesman and Pacific Agriculturalist, one of the many incarnations of the Statesman, was published every Friday for several years in the 1890s. On Friday, September 16, 1892 Maggie Gardner's obituary appeared. It refers to her death on the "previous" day. Clearly Maxwell inferred that Gardner had died on Thursday, the 15th.

But this isn't quite right. The daily had also published an obituary on Saturday, the 10th,1 and it is this obituary that is reprinted in the Weekly of the 16th. Maxwell was reading the weekly when he made the notes that contributed to the MCH article! It is characteristic of Maxwell that he doesn't cross-check with other sources or other papers - one citation is always sufficient, and in other instances the one citation isn't always remembered correctly.

So, for the record: Maggie Gardner died on Friday, September 9th, 1892.

The obituary is fascinating for far more than a note about Maxwell's research propensities. It touches on the boom-and-bust nature of our economy, which we still suffer today, on 19th century migration patterns, on the ways privacy could be maintained in a pre-Facebook era, and on the ambiguous role of the brothel madam as both care-taker and exploiter. It's a classic American story of self-refashioning, multiple times.


Death of Mag Gardner, the First White Woman Ever Seen in California

Yesterday afternoon at about 2 o’clock, at her rooms in the Adolph block on State street, Mrs. Margaret Dalrymple, better known as Maggie Gardner, passed to her reward. She was a sufferer from consumption and had been bedfast for a month or longer. Of the life of this woman since her arrival in Salem in 1867 perhaps the least said the better – let the mantle of charity cover her o’er, for in life she was full of charity, and many are those in this city who can thank her for food when they were hungry, or clothing or assistance when they were in need. But of her earlier history there is much to be said, since she was the pioneer woman of California. She was born at Salem, N.J., and died from consumption, her age being nearly 67 years.

She left her native city in 1849, to go to California. She sailed on the ship de Mondeville from New York on Feb. e, 1849, arriving at San Francisco harbor on Sept. 18th of the same year. Her presence became known among the miners and 3000 of them assembled at the landing place to get a glimpse of her. She was then unmarried; her maiden name being Sinnickson. At that time there was not a house standing where the city of San Francisco is now located. In fact, a considerable portion of it was then under water, the ship anchoring where the Palace hotel now stands. Miss Sinnockson erected a hotel, containing seventeen rooms, which she called the New York house. It was built on leased ground, for which she paid a monthly rental of $800. Her charge for table board was $10 per day, and lodgers finding their own blankets and sleeping on the floor paid $2.50 per night for the privilege.

A few months after her arrival at the Golden Gate she married Pierre le Mortelle [Morteile?], the captain of the vessel on which she sailed from New York, and was the first American woman ever married in California, the marriage fee charged by the dominie [?] being six ounces of gold dust. The event attracted general attention: the marriage notice, after being printed in the Alta-Californian, then a small sheet, was reprinted in satin in golden bronz and distributed as a memento. Eleven gentlemen celebrated the event by giving the couple a supper which cost $500. She was married a second time some years afterward to George Dalrymple. They became separated in some manner and after a few years he heard of her as being at the Sandwich islands. He went there in search for her, but died at sea while en route to his him in San Francisco. Dalrymple left a large estate and it was through litigation over this that she came into prominence. Mrs. Dalrymple was once worth not less than $100,000, but on the very day of her death $50 arrived from Boston from her friends to assist her through her illness. This money came to the Salem board of charities for disbursement. A few years ago she went East on a visit. Her relatives there are all well-to-do, and so far as known were ignorant of the life led by this somewhat famous woman in her far western home. She has a brother on the editorial staff of the Banner of Light, a spiritualist paper of Boston, and a brother-in-law is one of the proprietors of the well-k[n]own Dr. Jayne’s Proprietary Medicine Co. in Philadelphia. She was a woman of fine education and came to Salem from San Francisco.

The obituary almost reads like fiction, but several of the details appear to be verifiable.

According to this compilation of early San Francisco marriage and death notices, on November 3rd, 1849, Margaret Sinnickson wed Pierre Le Mortellee, the Rev. A. Williams officiating. The notice appeared in the Alta California on the 29th of November. But there were several marriages recorded in 1848 and 1849, and it is difficult to believe she was in fact "the first American woman ever married in California," and to think her "the First White Woman Ever Seen in California" is just pure embellishment.

The San Francisco City Directory of 1850 lists a P.M. Mortellee having a New York House, and this part of the account also appears to check out.

Her east coast relations also check out. And it appears she successfully led a double life! This collection of clippings from the Hunterdon County (NJ) Democrat of December 23rd, 1879, cites a visit:
Mrs. Margaret Dalrymple, a sister of Thomas S. and Ruth V. Sinnickson, of Trenton, arrived in this city a few days ago from Salem, Oregon, of which place she is now a resident. Mrs. Dalrymple is a native of Salem, and sailed from New York, February (January) 31, 1849 and arrived in San Francisco the 18th of September following…. A few months after her arrival she married the captain of the ship on which she had sailed from New York, Pierre Le Mortelle… Her second husband was a Mr. Dalrymple…. [ellipses in citation]
It would be interesting to find out what the compiler had omitted behind the ellipses!

The History and Genealogy of Fenwick's Colony, New Jersey says "The Sinnickson family is one of the oldest in South Jersey" arriving in the mid-17th century and having a couple of US congressman around 1800. Her grandfather was Andrew Sinnickson the 5th. Her father, Thomas, married Clarrisa M. Stretch in 1821 and they had
three sons and six daughters—Hannah Ann, Margaret, Robert, Ruth, Thomas, Maria, and Jane, who died young; Andrew likewise died in infancy...Margaret Sinnickson married in San Francisco. Robert is unmarried and is a printer by occupation. Thomas married Caroline, daughter of Benjamin Lloyd. They have one son—Lloyd Sinnickson...[italics added]
This account has no mention of Ruth.

Details on the second marriage and estate controversy were difficult to find.

Here, a George Lafayette Dalrymple is alive in August of 1866. But the Dalrymple name is harder to follow. We could find nothing about his death or the settlement of the estate.

The name Dalrymple is also interesting locally because one of the great house wrecks occured when the Dalrymple house was moved. James and Margaret Dalrymple had built the house in 1862. So when Margaret Dalrymple 2 came to town in 1867, the existence of Margaret Dalrymple 1 would be another reason our second Margaret might go by "Maggie Gardner"!

We hope to find more information and articles about Maggie Gardner's Salem activities in the 1860s and 70s. Her protean doubleness, in Salem as brothel madam and in charitable service, between infamous roles in Salem and out east as part of a prominent family, and between prosperity and ruin, together says something about American creativity and capitalism.

Update. Our look at the pioneer cemetery records was not very good, and we over-looked Garnder's burial record. It was under "Dalrymple." Curiously, the record cites the Capital Journal one-liner, but not the vastly more expansive Statesman obit.

1In this case, the issues of the daily are also microfilmed out of order; they go 3rd, 4th, 7th, 6th, 10th, 9th, 8th, 13th, 14th, 15th and so on, back in order now. This misordering doesn’t seem to have made Maxwell miss the daily's obit, but it certainly complicated our task!


  1. Here's scan of the Friday, Dec 12, 1879 Penn Yan Democrat, which contains a story about Maggie. Interestingly the Statesman obit is substantially copied from it!

    So yeah, the passage almost reads like a press packet - something prefab and canned.

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