June 23, 1922. The waiter from the Metropole, one of London’s most fashionable hotels, hurried to find his manager. He had just returned from the room of J. Sanford Saltus, where he was supposed to serve breakfast. Something was amiss, however—the door to Mr. Saltus’s bedroom was locked, and he did not respond to the waiter’s calls.
Hotel Metropole, 1908. ANS Archives.
The elderly philanthropist was well known to the hotel’s staff, having been a frequent guest for more than ten years. This time he had arrived about a week earlier and had last been seen the previous evening around nine o’clock, when he had requested a ginger ale and retired to his room.
After speaking with the waiter, the hotel’s manager ordered a porter to break into the bedroom. Inside, a grim scene confronted the staff: the partially disrobed, lifeless body of Saltus. Severe burn marks covered two fingers on his right hand. On a dressing table near the corpse were two glass tumblers, both containing unidentified clear liquids, at least one of which presumably was the ginger ale he had requested the previous evening. On the floor next to the table was an empty packet labeled “cyanide of potassium.” Also on the table was a cablegram that read: “Letters received. Great surprise and honor. Am happy but now well, and will go to sanitorium [sic]. Let us remain true friends for the present. There’s no one but you. Be cheerful and hold your own. Love, Estelle.” It was a scene that would have confounded Sherlock Holmes: A dead benefactor, no signs of a struggle, the doors locked from the inside. What had occurred, a suicide or some terrible accident?
John Sanford Saltus had been born in 1853, almost sixty-nine years earlier, in New Haven, Connecticut, to a well-established New York family. He was the only son of Theodore Saltus, the founder of the Saltus Steel Company, from whom John Sanford inherited his great wealth.
As a boy, Saltus attended at least briefly the Anthon Grammar School in New York City. (Coincidentally, the school’s founder, William Henry Anthon, was the brother of the ANS President at the time, Charles Anthon.) Otherwise, Saltus was educated at home by private tutors because of his “delicate constitution.” Perhaps as a result of this solitary upbringing, Saltus developed a deep shyness that lasted throughout his life—even in adulthood he was described as living in “semi-seclusion” in a New York City hotel. The result, as a colleague would later note, was that Saltus had “a certain bashful, embarrassed timidity, that until you got to know him intimately made him appear as lacking in social instinct and provincial in his thoughts.”
Saltus was a colorful character—a “modern romantic,” according to an obituary—with varied interests. A lover of the “lost cause” of the Confederacy, Saltus acquired the first known Confederate half-dollar, which he donated to the ANS, and the die from which the Confederacy’s silver coins were struck. The latter he donated to the New Orleans Museum.
J. Sanford Saltus, 1911. Courtesy Salmagundi Club, N.Y.
Saltus was a skilled fencer. As a longtime member of the Fencers’ Club of New York, he established the Saltus Cup award in 1905 to honor champion fencers, an award still presented today to the winners of a national U.S. fencing competition. Saltus longed to be an artist and studied painting briefly at both the Art Students’ League in New York and the École des Beaux Arts in Paris, although he does not appear to have had any success or even exhibited any of his works. Instead, Saltus devoted much of his life—and inherited fortune—to supporting the arts, founding prizes at the National Academy of Design (in 1908), École des Beaux Arts (in 1910), and Art Students’ League. In 1913, he endowed the ANS award that bears his name. In time, Saltus would be named an officer of France’s Legion of Honor because of his patronage of the arts.
Saltus was also an avowed Francophile. He commissioned statues of Joan of Arc in New York City and New Orleans; in France in Nice, Blois, Rouen, and Domrémy; and in England at Winchester Cathedral—all anonymously or through fictitious “Joan of Arc committees.” “Wherever we find a touch of pure romance,” noted one of Saltus’s eulogizers, “search and you are apt to discover John Sanford Saltus standing a little to one side and paying the bills.”
Saltus was equally passionate about the fate of the lost Dauphin, Louis XVII, and amassed an extensive library on the subject, which he subsequently donated to the Salmagundi Club, of which he was a member. (It was said that as a result of the donation, the club’s library had the largest collection in the United States of material regarding the Dauphin, at that time.) While at the Salmagundi Club, Saltus also was able to indulge in his love of costumes, appearing at the club’s annual parties adorned in the garb of the likes of King Lear. Similarly, he was regularly seen in costume in Nice during Carnival.
Saltus in Carnival constume, undated.
In the 1880s Saltus married Medora Hubbell, a fellow artist, and settled down to life in the Fifth Avenue Hotel in New York City, with periodic trips abroad, typically to France. He joined the ANS as a life member in 1892 and quickly became one of its more active members, serving in a number of capacities: from 1897 to 1898, he was Second Vice President, and from 1900 to 1905, Corresponding Secretary. He was also an avid proponent of the Society’s publications and medallic programs, serving on the Society’s publications committee from 1899 through 1905 (he chaired it from 1900 to 1904) and on its orders and decorations committee from its inception in 1901. In addition, Saltus provided a significant amount of funding for the Society’s efforts to commission commemorative medals, and he had a role in many if not most of the medals the Society issued starting in 1897 until his death.
By the start of the twentieth century, Saltus’s life appears to have been solidly structured. Everything changed, however, in 1906. That year began ordinarily enough with his election in January to the ANS’s newly formed governing Council. However, on March 19, Saltus wrote to the Society’s Secretary, Bauman Belden, stating that he needed to forego an upcoming meeting: “Mrs. Saltus has been very ill,” he wrote, “and I am much worried about her. She is a little better today in some ways, but I would not like to leave here at night.” A month later, Saltus’s beloved Medora was dead.
In early May, two days after he buried his wife, Saltus wrote again to Belden, this time resigning from all active responsibilities with the ANS (while still retaining his membership). “Think of it,” he wrote, “you have a wife who loves you, and who you love. I had one, but she is gone. It is awful to be alone.” Three months later, after complaining of being “ill and lonely,” Saltus fled to Paris. Saltus subsequently would be elected as Second Vice President of the ANS in January 1907, but remained steadfast in his refusal to accept governing responsibilities. That decision, however, did not prevent him from continuing to support the ANS. In addition to funding its medallic programs, he donated numerous objects. Indeed, at the time of his death it was estimated that he had donated more than 3,300 medals and decorations, 1,700 coins, and a similar number of pieces of paper money.
After the death of his wife, Saltus spent much of his time traveling in the United States and Europe. At the time of his own death, Saltus was visiting London to attend a meeting of the British Numismatic Society. (Saltus was a founding member of the BNS in 1903 and had served as Vice President from 1910 through 1921, although apparently without attending any meetings but one. In 1910, he had also donated the funds to the BNS to establish a medal award in his name.) Earlier in 1922, Saltus had been nominated to serve as the Society’s President—the first (and still only) American to be so honored. At their June 28 meeting, the BNS was planning to pay homage to the “Godfather of the Society,” as Saltus was known to its members.
Saltus arrived in London around June 14 and checked into the Hotel Metropole, as he had done many times before. On June 17, Saltus wrote to W. J. Andrews of the BNS about the June 28 meeting, enthusing that “the reception you are going to give me at our Society is like the Welcome to the Prince of Wales!” He also noted that he was planning to return to the United States sooner than expected, in about a month or so. Less than a week later, Saltus was found dead in his hotel room.
Program from BNS meeting Saltus was to attend on June 28, 1922. ANS Archives.
The contemporaneous newspaper accounts of Saltus’s death questioned whether it was suicide or some type of accident. Some of Saltus’s associates—at least those at the ANS—had doubts as to whether his death was truly accidental. John Reilly, the ANS Treasurer, was certain it was a suicide. “We were much shocked to read about Mr. Saltus’ peculiar demise,” Reilly wrote to Sydney Noe. “Poor man, he lacked the necessary equipment to keep a proper balance at all times. Maybe being president of several things bothered him.”
Given the circumstances of his death, a coroner’s inquest was immediately scheduled and an investigation begun. During the investigation it was confirmed that Saltus had died by ingesting cyanide. The cyanide itself Saltus had purchased only recently from a local druggist, although he apparently did not have the prescription, as required under British law. Witnesses gave conflicting statements regarding Saltus’s state of mind: one hotel official reported that he “seemed to be in very good spirits, and was enjoying excellent health,” while the hotel’s assistant manager testified that on the afternoon of his death Saltus had been “unusually agitated” over the death of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, who had been assassinated on June 22 by IRA gunmen as he returned to his London home after dedicating a war memorial in the Liverpool Street Station. In addition, there was that mysterious cablegram from “Estelle” advising Saltus that the two of them would remain “true friends.” British officials knew the medical cause of death—cyanide poisoning—but the question remained: was Saltus’s death a tragic accident or, for some reason, suicide?
Further information emerged in the days following Saltus’s death. For instance, it was learned that the mysterious “Estelle” who had sent the cablegram was, in fact, Estelle Campbell, the widow of another prominent New Yorker. Saltus had known Campbell since they were children and apparently had proposed to her by cablegram about week before his death. Campbell told the press that “it was agreed that I should join him in Paris in the last week of July to prepare for our wedding there.” She also reported that shortly before his death he had cabled her “regarding a new collection of coins, in which he was deeply interested, and to which he referred as including ‘a great find.’” He had written, she said, that he was “the happiest man in the world.”
Estelle Campbell, July 1922.
Ultimately, the inquest reached its verdict: death by misadventure—essentially, death by accident. British papers reported that it was “the disclosure of his hobby [coin collecting] that gave the clue to the solution of the mystery” of his death. Saltus, it was reported, had purchased several coins shortly before he died. He was using the cyanide, it was said, to clean the coins. “It is believed,” one paper reported, “that, absorbed in his examination of the coins, he reached for a drink of the ginger ale without looking to see which glass he took,” and chose the glass with the cyanide by mistake. The mysterious burn marks on Saltus’s fingers were attributed to a last-minute realization of what he had done: the moment he realized his “fatal error,” Saltus “plunged his fingers into his throat to provoke sickness and so expel the poison,” with the result that the cyanide burned his fingers.
Even after the inquest’s official pronouncement, however, not all were convinced. “I thought of Mr. Saltus yesterday,” John Reilly wrote to Noe afterward. “Poor fellow. I wonder what really happened.” Reilly had good reason to wonder. At about the same time Reilly was writing to Noe, the Society’s curator, Howland Wood, received a letter from Rev. Milo Hudson Gates, a Fellow of the ANS and Rector of the Church of the Intercession, a church located across Broadway from the Society’s Audubon Terrace headquarters. Gates happened to be in London at a nearby hotel at the time of Saltus’s demise. As he explained to Wood: “I heard of Mr. Saltus’s death and went immediately to offer my services. They certainly were needed because the chances were at first very strong that the verdict would be Suicide. I attended the inquest and we were able to bring out so many facts against this theory that the Coroner’s verdict was ‘Death by Misadventure’. . . Mrs. Saltus [sic] alas, as of course you will know as well as I, has had a terrible blow. It was sad enough and tragic enough as it was, but what a tragedy it would have been if the Court had rendered a verdict of Suicide. I am very glad to have been able to help in preventing this.”
Rev. Milo Gates, 1938. Courtesy the Archives of the Episcopal Diocese of New York at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.
Saltus’s body was returned to New York City the next month, where funeral services were held at the Marble Collegiate Church on July 21. Saltus was buried in the Bronx’s Woodlawn Cemetery, alongside his beloved Medora. When his will was later submitted for probate, the court determined that at the time of his death Saltus was worth about $3.5 million dollars (about $41 million in 2006 dollars). Of this, a substantial amount was bequeathed to various causes, the most significant of which ($100,000) went to the Museum of French Art. Additional monies were distributed to various relatives. The single largest bequest ($500,000, or almost $6,000,000 in 2006 dollars) went to Estelle Campbell. Nothing was bequeathed to the ANS.
Did Saltus commit suicide? The case holds many unanswered questions. For example, if Saltus and Campbell had so recently become happily engaged, why did she cable him to suggest that they “remain true friends”? That does not sound like the language a newly engaged couple uses. Similarly, in his June 17 letter to the BNS’s W. E. Andrews, Saltus noted that he was planning on returning to the United States at the end of July—why would he do this if his fiancée was coming to Europe at the same time to plan their Paris wedding? Also, when one reviews the contemporaneous press accounts, although there are many detailed descriptions of Saltus’s room, none mention old coins either near the glass of cyanide or anywhere else in the room. The official inquest records have been lost, so there is no way to confirm exactly what was in the room. Ultimately, it may be impossible to say for certain whether Saltus did commit suicide due to an engagement gone bad, or if he simply met a tragic end because of poor eyesight and a love of coins.