Saturday, April 3, 2021

Grinnell's Would-Be Millionaire

When I was a boy and our Philco black-and-white TV was still new, I used to enjoy a 1950s program called "The Millionaire." Perhaps some of you remember it? Each episode featured the executive secretary of the fictional, fabulously wealthy John Beresford Tipton, a man who never appeared on screen, but who had the expensive hobby of giving away anonymously each week a million dollars. The show enjoyed an enthusiastic following for six seasons, in part because the idea of becoming a surprise millionaire was attractive to a lot of people.  It figures, right?

Headline from Cedar Rapids Gazette, June 1, 1901

I mention the TV show because in the first years of the twentieth century a Grinnell resident thought that perhaps she had stumbled onto some similarly good fortune. Fannie Partlow—a widowed and divorced washer woman—figured that she might inherit from millionaire William Marsh Rice (1816-1900), who had been murdered in New York City in September 1900. Fannie, whose maiden name was Rice, thought that she and her sister, Mrs. Maria (Rice) Schuler (1827-1911) of Des Moines, recognized in newspaper images of the dead millionaire their long-lost brother, William Rice. The Rice sisters intended to stake a claim on the Rice estate, which at the time was valued at about $8 million—almost $250 million when converted into twenty-first-century dollars.

Today's post examines Fannie Partlow's rags-to-riches plan, and how it played out in early twentieth-century Grinnell. 


Newspaper Likeness of William Marsh Rice
(Audubon County Journal, October 11, 1900)

The biography of millionaire William Marsh Rice describes him as a self-made business phenom. When still a young man, Rice settled in Houston where he began his successful scaling of the American business ladder, investing in real estate, lumber, railroads, and cotton, among other things. Although the tycoon spent considerable time in New York, he regarded Houston as his home, explaining why in the 1890s he composed a will that bequeathed most of his considerable estate to creating in Houston the "William M. Rice Institute for the Advancement of Literature, Science and Art." Rice personally selected the trustees and had the institute—now better known as Rice University—formally chartered. By the terms of Rice's will, the institute could not open until after its donor's death, so the official opening did not occur until the September 1912 anniversary of William Rice's murder. The endowment that Rice bestowed upon the institution was so generous that until the 1960s Rice University did not charge tuition. Less happily, Rice's endowment, designated  only "for the white inhabitants of the City of Houston and the State of Texas," prohibited enrollment of African Americans, the first of whom gained admission to Rice only in 1965.

Rice's murder in New York on September 23, 1900 was big news all across the country, and many Iowa newspapers published the details, finally blaming the homicide on the rich man's valet, Charles Jones (1875-1954), and an avaricious lawyer, Albert Patrick (1866-1940)Unraveling the details of the crime took months, but ultimately the investigation revealed that Rice's valet, at Patrick's urging, had subjected Rice to some weeks of mercury poisoning. When the poisoning failed to achieve the prompt demise of the eccentric millionaire, Jones killed the eighty-four-year-old with chloroform. Meanwhile, attorney Patrick had authored a fraudulent will that gave the bulk of the estate to Patrick who had promised to share his gain with Jones. When an official autopsy of the victim revealed mercury poisoning, Jones confessed to his part in the scheme, but threw all the blame on Patrick. In exchange for his testimony, Jones was freed; Patrick, on the other hand, was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death, later commuted to life imprisonment (later still, Patrick was pardoned). 


Fannie Rice Partlow (undated photograph, perhaps from 1890s?)

OK; that's William Marsh Rice. Who was Fannie Partlow, and how did she become involved in this distant scandal?

Fannie Rice (1840-1924) was one of eleven (or more) children born to Peter Rice (1794-1878), a man with a foggy past and at least three wives. Like most of her siblings, Fannie was born in Crawford County, Pennsylvania, but by the time US census officials found the family in 1850 Peter Rice and children were living in Garnavillo Township, Clayton County, Iowa. The census describes Fanny (documents often mix the spelling of her name) as being seven years old, although in fact she had to have been about ten. The record reports that older sister Maria was 22 years of age, and brother William, the center of their subsequent claim to fortune, was 19.

Extract from 1850 US Census for Peter Rice Family

Ten years later the census confirmed that most of Fannie's older siblings had left the family hearth, now relocated to sparsely-populated Sperry Township in Clayton County, Iowa. At age 21, Fannie was second oldest of the children still resident in her father's home. By this date brother William had already fled, supposedly angry after a dustup with his father. In 1862 Fannie married William Partlow (1807-1876), who, because of an unspecified disability, had recently been discharged from the Fourth Iowa Cavalry (William Forse Scott, Roster of the Fourth Iowa Cavalry Veteran Volunteers 1861-1865 [NY: J. J. Little and Co., 1902], p. 70). Like Fannie's father, her husband was a farmer, and, although Partlow was thirty-three years older than Fannie, the couple had five children, two of whom died in infancy. William himself died in 1876, leaving his wife a widow with three young children (Mary [b. 1863], Maria [b. 1865], and Samuel [b.1870]).  According to her obituary, Fannie arrived in Grinnell in 1883, possibly following her oldest daughter who had married in Des Moines in 1881.

William Partlow (1807-1876) in Civil War Uniform

Not long after reaching Grinnell, Fannie remarried, taking Charles Cleal (b. 1840?) as her second husband in an 1885 ceremony registered in Marshalltown. For the next several decades Fannie used her new husband's surname, Cleal—except, surprisingly, for the 1901 stories about her prospects for inheriting from Rice; in these stories she invariably appeared as Fannie Partlow, using the name of her first husband for reasons that were never explained.

Record of July 4, 1885 Marriage of Fannie Rice to Charles Cleal
(Iowa Marriage Records 1880-1951)

How long Fannie's second marriage lasted I don't know, but the bond certainly had broken by 1900 when Charles Cleal, who was then living alone on 3rd Avenue in Grinnell, told census-takers that he was divorced; Fannie said the same to Iowa census officials in 1905, but I did not find the divorce record to confirm the date of their separation. After the divorce, Charles continued to live on 3rd Avenue in Grinnell, apart from "Mrs. Fannie A. Cleal," who occupied the "third house north of 6th Avenue, west side of Penrose." The 1908 directory recalls only "Mrs. Fanny A. Cleal," who then resided in the Ames Block downtown (824-828 Main Street); Charles Cleal disappeared from Grinnell records, his fate unknown.


The news of William Rice's murder in far-away New York in 1900 apparently bypassed Fannie Cleal completely. Grinnell newspapers had not paid much attention to the scandal, and, in any event, as Fannie's sister later told newsmen, none of the Rice daughters could read. Nevertheless, it was Fannie's sister, Maria Rice Schuler, who first raised the possibility of their becoming millionaires. According to the story repeated in several newspapers, it was Schuler's Des Moines neighbor who, more than six months after Rice's death, introduced the sisters to their prospects for great wealth. The neighbor, who allegedly did not know Schuler's maiden name, saw a newspaper picture of William Marsh Rice and "was struck by the likeness of the picture of the murdered man" to Mrs. Schuler. The neighbor took the newspaper to Schuler, "who is unable to read," the newspaper added importantly, and asked Schuler if she knew the person pictured in the paper. "Why, that is a picture of my brother William," Mrs. Schuler is reported to have said, adding that William had left home fifty years earlier. Mrs. Schuler soon visited sister Fannie in Grinnell, "and after comparing notes they became convinced beyond doubt that the murdered man was their brother" (Davenport Daily Republican, June 4, 1901). 

Maria Rice Schuler and Fannie Rice Partlow
(Des Moines Register Leader, December 1, 1912)

Perhaps because the story had a Cinderella coloring, newspapers found it difficult to ignore, and tales of the prospective millionaire washer-women multiplied. The Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican was typical:

From the wash tub to the affluence of millions is a wide remove in the conditions of life, but this is likely to be accomplished by Mrs. Maria Shuler [sic] of Des Moines and Mrs. Fannie Partlow [sic] of Grinnell. The women have paused long enough in pursuing the arduous duties of the wash tub to remember that they had a brother named William M. Rice, and they claim that this brother was the late William M. Rice, the New York millionaire, who was recently murdered...and that they are the heirs to his estate of $8,000,000 (May 31, 1901).

Iowa newspapers seemed persuaded that the women's claim was legitimate, and they uniformly expressed confidence that the women would inherit a windfall. Even the Grinnell Herald gave an optimistic assessment of their chances:

Grinnell Herald, May 24, 1901

To advance their claim Fannie Partlow and her sister retained the services of Grinnell attorney J. H. Patton, whose obituary remembered his inclination to take on cases of the underprivileged. The Grinnell lawyer promptly set to work, dispatching a letter to Charles F. Jones, the former valet of William Rice, at that time imprisoned in New York for his part in murdering Rice. Patton observed that he represented "several illiterate but deserving persons," and sought information on how to proceed (New York Tribune, May 25, 1901).

Undated Photo of J. H. Patton
(L. F. Parker, A History of Poweshiek County Iowa, v. 2 [Chicago: S. J. Clarke Pub. Co., 1911], p. 924)

Writing to Jones seems an odd path for the attorney to have pursued. Not only was Jones acknowledged to have been complicit in the murder; he was also then in prison, and therefore in no position to help advance the interests of the Iowa petitioners. I suppose that Patton had in mind that, since Jones had long been the valet of the dead millionaire, he was best able to know whether, as the sisters maintained, wealthy William Rice had a snake-bite scar on his leg and a scar on his finger, as their long-lost brother had. These specific identifying features helped persuade newsmen that the Rice women had an authentic claim to the estate.

What reply Patton received to his inquiry is unknown; no record of a reply survives. However, if Patton did hear from Jones or from anyone else connected to the inheritance, the news must have been discouraging, as Patton seems to have let the case expire. Newspapers found no reason to reengage with the women's claim to great fortune, and the Rice women, now deprived of a public forum, were obliged to resume their humble occupations without the financial windfall they had sought.


Certainly those responsible for deciding the fate of William Rice's fortune had reason to be suspicious of the numerous petitioners who claimed to be kin to the dead tycoon. In January 1901, for example, months before Fannie Partlow had heard of William Rice's death, the New York Times announced discovery of "Three Persons, Living in Poverty in Missouri" who were said to be legitimate heirs of Rice's estate. "The three are ignorant country folks, and were not aware of their uncle's death nor the sensational circumstances connected with his demise," the newspaper said. Whether they could travel to New York seemed doubtful, the newspaper remarked, "as for many years they have been the poorest people in the county, being barely able to eke out an existence, and they have not the means to carry them out of the State" (New York Times, January 14, 1901).

Headline from story in New York Times, January 14, 1901

A few months later a Muncie, Indiana tailor also submitted a claim for the Rice estate. Carl J. Carrolson alleged that he was grandson and heir of William Marsh Rice. According to the Indiana man's story, his mother had gone to New York some years earlier "to establish her claim as a daughter-in-law, [but] met death in a mysterious manner." The newspaper thought Carrolson's "proof of identity so strong that his case has been taken by a prominent legal firm who will supply the money for prosecuting the claim" (Rock Island Argus, April 10, 1901).

That autumn a collection of Massachusetts folk who claimed to be relatives of the dead millionaire attempted to have the original Rice will quashed; if their effort proved successful, Rice would have been declared to have died intestate, and they could claim a share of the estate. The two sisters and two nephews, all from Springfield, Massachusetts, made light of the claims of Fannie Partlow and Maria Shuler of whom they had obviously heard (The World, November 26, 1901).


Back in Iowa, Fannie and her sister seem to have given up their pursuit of millions. Apparently, however, the washerwomen had not abandoned hope entirely, because, when Maria Schuler died "in poverty" in 1911, the Marshalltown newspaper expressed the view that "millions [were still] within reach." 

Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, June 19, 1911

Consequently, when Albert Patrick was pardoned and released from prison in 1912, vowing to go to court to obtain a share of the Rice estate, the Iowa claimants attempted to revive their case. Fannie Partlow was still alive in Grinnell, but now a third sister, Elizabeth Chenoweth (1847-1933), and a Menomonie, Wisconsin brother, Joseph Rice (1852-1924), both unmentioned in the original petition, renewed the case, adding to the petitioners a raft of nephews and nieces along with Grinnell's Fannie Partlow. Why this third sister and brother had not been part of the original claim is unclear; perhaps the two women hoped to acquire their fortunes without sharing the money with anyone. The expanding roster of potential millionaires in 1912, however, indicates that the prospect of easy millions was very tempting, and encouraged the women's two siblings and a host of descendants from the next generation to pursue the gold.

Des Moines Register and Leader, December 1, 1912

The new claimants selected Des Moines attorneys, F. L. Meredith (1871-1947) and C. O. Holley, to represent them, an indication that the initiative this time lay with the Des Moines clan, rather than with Fannie in Grinnell or with their brother in Wisconsin. In a newspaper interview, Meredith explained his situation: 

I have corresponded with all of the heirs, and while I am not ready to say that [the Des Moines petitioners] are the real heirs, I am inclined to believe that they are, because of the honesty and sincerity of the sisters... Much of the life of Rice coincides with the printed reports of his years of work in Texas published since his death, and of which the relatives have had no knowledge (Des Moines Register and Leader, December 1, 1912).

The measured enthusiasm in Meredith's statement deserves attention. I could find no report of exactly how Meredith proceeded or what he learned from pursuing the claim. Instead, news of the Iowa hopefuls again disappears from the record, perhaps only a passive, although final, recognition that no millions were coming to the washerwomen in Iowa.


In the years after the dreams of great wealth had evaporated, Fannie's name occasionally made it into the newspapers. Unlike reporting on her pursuit of the Rice estate, in these years news accounts continued to identify Fannie by the surname of her second husband, without improving his or her reputation. For example, in late summer 1915 "Fannie Cleal" appeared in local court on charges of petit larceny. The complaint alleged that Fannie had walked out of the C. A. Blair store on Broad Street in Grinnell, taking with her a rain coat she had not purchased. The court fined her $100 and costs (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, August 28, 1915). The following year she and her daughter, Mary Martin (later Nutting; later still, Alltis), filed suit against E. B. Brande (1866-1928) and his son, Dawson Brande (1890-1940). According to the petitioners, Fannie and  her daughter were

driving along Third Avenue in Grinnell when their buggy was struck by a car driven by Dawson Brande and in which E. B. Brande, the owner of the car, was riding. It is alleged that the car was being driven at an excessive speed and that notwithstanding it was after sundown the car did not display lights in front. The ladies claim that they were thrown from the buggy by the force of the collision and each in her separate petition claims to have been injured and each sets out an itemized list of her money damages. Mary Martin asks $800 for pain and suffering and Fannie Cleal asks $900 for the same item (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, February 17, 1916).

In March the court found in Fannie's favor, awarding her $600 instead of the larger sum she had sought (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, March 18, 1916). Brande, however, appealed, and the case was reheard that fall, at which time the court reversed the earlier decision, finding now for the defendant—that is, it denied Fannie the money she had sought, noting that the women had been driving their buggy on the wrong side of the road (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, September 30, 1916). As with her attempt to acquire a share in the estate of William Marsh Rice, Fannie came away with nothing.


Death Certificate of Fannie Ann (Rice) Partlow Cleal, August 24, 1924

Fannie Rice Partlow Cleal died August 23, 1924 at her daughter's Grinnell home. The death certificate, certifying that the 84-year-old had died of uremia, confirms that much else about the woman remained unknown—intentionally or not. To the question asking the name of the father of the deceased, the document bears only the surname "Rice," with no given name. The certificate reports the birthplace of the father as "not known"; the spaces asking the maiden name of the mother of the deceased and her birthplace bear the same reply. Identifying the dead woman as "Fannie Ann Partlow," the death certificate continues the fiction of her married life, omitting entirely any reference to Fannie's second marriage. Worse, when Fannie's daughter May (or Mary, Mrs. Charles Alltis), informant for the death certificate, specified her mother's husband, she provided the name "Samuel Partlow," which was actually the name of Fannie's deceased son (and May's brother), not Fannie's first husband, William Partlow. 

Undated Photograph of Samuel Partlow (1870-1919), youngest child of Fannie Partlow; he
operated a number of restaurants in Grinnell, Marshalltown, Des Moines, Hampton, and Ottumwa

Although Fannie's published obituary omitted much, it did not fail to note that Fannie's "life has known much toil and not a little suffering" (Grinnell Herald, August 26, 1924). Nothing was said about the failed claim to the William Rice fortune and Fannie Partlow's dream of millions.


In truth, the claims of Fannie and her sister, despite all the public support, seemed dubious from the start. For example, how could Maria and Fannie have recognized in a newspaper picture of an elderly man their twenty-year-old brother whom they had not seen in half a century and from whom in those fifty years they had received not a single word? Moreover, the William Rice who died in New York was said to be 84, whereas, if we accept the story that the Iowa women told, their brother could have been no more than 70 years of age in 1900. Age reliability in this era was not too great, of course, but a fourteen-year difference surely occupied the outside range of possibility. Adding these considerations to the suspicions that attached to the numerous claims of the impoverished to the enormous Rice estate, we cannot be surprised that the Iowa washerwomen did not succeed in becoming millionaires.

Undated Photograph of the Set of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire"

At the same time, the lure of great fortune is perfectly understandable, and remains potent today. Decades after "The Millionaire" went off the air, "Who Wants to be a Millionaire," yet another show tempting contestants with great wealth, premiered on American television, going on to become "one of the highest rated game shows in the history of U.S. television." The nighttime version of the show attracted some 30 million viewers three times a week, one indication of the enduring appeal of an "easy" million. But, like the various jackpot lotteries now in operation, actually winning a million dollars was rare, despite the enormous appeal of the potential prize. Over the twenty-plus years when "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" was broadcast, for instance, only a dozen winners succeeded to the top payoff, a minuscule fraction of the thousands who auditioned to appear on the show.

Without access to Fannie's private thoughts—in a diary or letters, for example—we cannot know how optimistically she approached pursuit of the Rice bequest. Her 1916 civil suit against E. B. Brande, like her 1915 arrest for petit larceny, implies a cynical attempt to work the system. Perhaps from the very beginning she was aware that her claim was bogus. But what would we say if someone like "The Millionaire's" executive secretary, Michael Anthony, knocked on our door and announced that an anonymous donor wished to give us one million dollars?


PS. In the pandemic when so many institutions are closed, I owe special thanks to Marilyn Kennett, head of Drake Community Library (DCL), for allocating me some time in the library to check microfilm, and to Liz Cabelli, archivist at DCL, for checking files in search of J. H. Patton's role in pursuing the Rice legacy. I also thank Traci Patterson, archivist at Rice University's Woodson Research Center, who kindly undertook to search several folders of Early Rice Institute Records (UA 101) for evidence of Fannie Partlow and others connected to the Iowa petitioners. Regrettably, she found none, but I am grateful for her help all the same.

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