William Marsh Rice’s Checkbook

This is one of many checks to Rice's valet, Charles Jones.

This is a strange one, even for me. There were a couple of boxes of William Marsh Rice’s correspondence sitting out on the map case today–I don’t know who was using them or why. But there they were, so I felt obliged to take a look. Inside one I found a folder full of cancelled checks, all personal rather than business in nature. The dates on them began in the spring of 1896, when the Rices were in Houston hoping that the warm weather would improve Mrs. Rice’s health. It didn’t–she moved on to a spa in Waukesha, Wisconsin where she died. There are a handful of checks written there and then the remainder came after William Marsh Rice returned to New York. There are checks in the folder all the way up until his death in 1900.

As I mentioned, these checks seem to be on an account used for purely personal expenses. For example, quite a few, both large and small, are written to Siegel Cooper and Co., which turns out to be a department store that began in Chicago but opened a huge store in New York in 1896. (The link is well worth a look, by the way.)

Here’s the store:

Rice wrote checks to one particular establishment far more than any other. There are easily a couple of dozen of them in the folder. I was pretty frustrated for a while because I couldn’t really make heads or tails of his handwriting on these checks, but finally, in desperation, I just typed into google what I guessed it said: Our Home Granula Co. (Note that he wrote this check on a piece of regular paper. He did that a lot. I don’t know if it was normal or if it was millionaire behavior.)

Well, Our Home Granula Co. was a real thing. It was a health food sold as having curative power, a cereal similar to grape nuts that was invented and sold by a sanitorium in Dansville, New York. Mr. Rice bought a very large quantity of it. Tiny ads for Our Home Granula ran in the back pages of many newspapers. Here’s the text of one of those ads:

Granula, An Incomparable Food. 
PREPARED from Winter Wheat, containing all 
the nutritious elements of that grain, and is the 
best food made for invalids and children. It is a 
Twice COOKED FOOD, ready for immediate able use, 
and yet will keep in a dry place for years unaltered in 
quality. 

Unequaled as a diet for cases of nervous exhaustion 
and debility, constipation and dyspepsia. Has been 
tested for years by James C. Jackson, M. D., in Our 
Home Hygienic Institute, upon all classes of invalids, 
with remarkable success. It is one of the cheapest 
foods in use, a pound of it containing more absolute 
nutriment for brain and body than an equal weight of 
any preparation in the market. Delicious as a diet. 

Single cases of 34 lbs. each, • – – $3 00 

Single cases of 48 lbs. each, • – – 6 00 

Less than case — per lb., – – – – 15c. 

Trial Box by mail, prepaid, – – – 86c« 

The above are net prices without discount or varia- 
tion, delivered on cars of N. Y., Lake Erie & W., or 
Delaware, Lackawanna & W. R. R., at Dansville. In 
ordering, do not fail to direct how goods shall be sent, 
by freight or express, and by which R. R. Make all 
remittances by Money Order, Registered Letter or N. 
Y. Draft. Local checks not received. Ask your gro- 
cer. 

I find myself at a loss for words.

Bonus: Just when you start to think you might actually know too much about someone, the mystery creeps back in. During the period in 1896 when he was in Houston, Mr. Rice wrote several checks to the Koken Barber’s Supply Company. Among these checks is the single largest in the folder–it’s for $600.

This is mystifying. Even if William Marsh Rice was the world’s first metrosexual, that’s way too much for beard maintenance. In fact, a quick look at an old Koken Barber’s Supply Catalogue makes it clear that it would be hard to get to $600 without buying several of their hydraulic lift barber chairs. I guess he could have been outfitting a barber shop, but why do it out of his personal funds?

It really is a pretty nice beard.

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13 Responses to William Marsh Rice’s Checkbook

  1. effegee says:

    I was intrigued by the Rices’ return to Houston in 1896. I’ve read in a couple of different books that he left Houston prior to Texas’ secession from the U.S. and never lived here again although he retained a strongly positive feeling for the place.

    Are there other documented periods of his return to Houston after war?

  2. Stan Bullington says:

    Our Home Granula Co. sounds like a chapter out of TC Boyle’s Road to Wellville!

  3. Melissa Kean says:

    Yes, he came back on a fairly regular basis, pretty much one trip a year. He retained very significant business interests in Houston and he liked to check in on things, although he never did live here after the war. The period he was here in 1896 might be the longest he stayed–it was two or three months.

    • effegee says:

      I knew about the business interests. I had an image of an absentee owner which made his commitment to the city and its inhabitants all the more puzzling. Granted, he did quite well having arrived in the place with his net worth awash in the Gulf. But the obvious affection for a place that he left 3 decades earlier was somewhat difficult to understand. Annual visits, which were no small undertaking in the second half of the 19th century, obviously served to preserve the bonds formed during the last two antebellum decades.

  4. James Medford says:

    I wonder if someone still has the checks that Albert Patrick wrote when he bought all that chloroform …

  5. Grungy says:

    The $600 check has me thinking “Sweeney Todd”.

    • Deborah Gronke Bennett says:

      Maybe Koken’s was a front for something else. Brothels? Money laundering? Inciting the Spanish-American War?

  6. Joseph Lockett ('91) says:

    I’d almost swear that “Our Home Granula” shows up in a line from Doug Killgore’s play and film *The Trust* (presumably still available on DVD from whatever is the current incarnation of the Rice Campus Store), which was how I first learned the story of Rice’s life and murder.

  7. Bill Allison says:

    Interesting that Rice banked with S. M. Swenson & Sons, who also had a Texas connection, via the SMS Ranch, among other things. Wonder if he knew him from Texas?
    http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/aps01

  8. I thought maybe he was investing in or loaning money to Koken. The hydraulic-lift barber chair had just been patented in 1892 and was going into production. Or maybe, and perhaps more likely, he was helping someone, maybe a trusted barber, set up their own shop?

  9. Pingback: Waiters Payroll, Capitol Hotel, 1897 | Rice History Corner

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