The legendary career of infamous Coal Region monopolist Franklin B. Gowen came to a bloody end in a Washington hotel room in December 1889. The events that month have led to years of speculation and conspiracy theories about the death of the man who once led the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad to dominate the southern anthracite coal fields in Eastern Pennsylvania.
Franklin Gowen rose to power and prominence in the 1860s after beginning a successful career as a lawyer in the Schuylkill County seat at Pottsville. In 1867, he began performing legal work for the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad and in January 1870 was elected president of that company at a crucial moment in the history of the Coal Region.
As organized labor began an ascent under the leadership of a coal miner from St. Clair named John Siney, Gowen became convinced that in order for his company to succeed, he needed to destroy the miners’ union and consolidate power. Throughout the 1870s, Gowen used legal (and extra legal) maneuvering that led the P&R into the anthracite coal business. The railroad became the largest owner of coal lands in Schuylkill County and, with Gowen at the helm, would never let go.
Gowen became infamous for his role in crushing the Workingman’s Benevolent Association and other nascent labor movements in the Coal Region and led efforts to smoke out and crush a shadowy group of Irishmen known as the Molly Maguires. He brought in the Pinkerton Detective Agency to assist his company’s Coal and Iron Police, leading to the arrest of the suspected Mollies. In a series of showcase trials across the Coal Region in 1876 and 1877, Gowen personally helped to convict some of those on trial as a special prosecutor. The legitimacy of these trials has since been called into question.
In the 1880s, Gowen lost his place as president of the P&R after a series of disastrous financial decisions. He continued working with the P&R until he was forced out in 1886. He went back to practicing law and that’s what brought him to Washington, DC in December 1889.
Franklin Gowen traveled to the nation’s capital to perform legal work on behalf of a railroad and had been staying in Wormley’s Hotel on H Street in downtown Washington. This hotel had a famous reputation in Washington in the 19th century – it was the place where key decisions were made in how to settle a dispute over who won the 1876 Presidential election.
On Friday, December 13, 1889, Gowen was last seen by hotel staff entering his room and was never heard from again. The following day, this story was published in the Washington Evening Star.
*WARNING: THE FOLLOWING NEWSPAPER ARTICLE CONTAINS GRAPHIC CONTENT*
He is Found Dead in His Room at Wormley’s
BULLET WOUND IN HIS HEAD
Various Rumors as to the Cause of the Fatal Act
Franklin B. Gowen of Philadelphia. formerly president of the Reading Railroad company, was found dead in his room at Wormley’s hotel at about 1 o’clock this afternoon with a bullet wound through his head.
Mr. Gowen registered at Wormley’s on last Monday, the 9th. He was alone and was given a room for the week. This afternoon the clerk began to suspect that something had happened to Mr. Gowen, for he had not been seen since dinner time yesterday. He sent several times to Mr. Gowen’s room and repeated knockings failed to bring any response. At length it was decided to break into the room and Policeman Cross was called in from his beat to assist. A man was lifted up and climbed in over the transom.
He found the body of Mr. Gowen lying on the floor with his head under the table. The dead man had evidently stood up before the mirror and fired the fatal shot. The pistol was a Smith and Wesson, thirty-eight caliber, brand new. It lay on the hearth several feet from the body. Its ivory handle was crimsoned with blood. The dead man was very well dressed and his coat and underwear were soaked in blood. Through the wound in the head the brains were oozing. The body was cold, showing that death had taken place several hours ago – probably before last midnight.
Mr. Gowen’s baggage consisted of a valise and a tin box of legal papers. In his pockets in bills and coin were $126. There were also some French coins, evidently carried as pocket pieces. All the dead man’s effects were taken to the central station.
Nobody about the hotel had at anytime heard the pistol shot. Aid was called and the body removed in a patrol wagon to the morgue. A messenger was sent to Postmaster General Wanamaker, who was a friend of Mr. Gowen, and telegrams were sent to the dead man’s friends in Philadelphia. Notice was at once sent to the coroner who made preparations for an inquest.
No cause can be assigned for the rash shot. It was rumored that Mr. Gowen’s mind had of late been affected by the severe strain under long railroad litigation.
Mr. Florence, the head clerk at the hotel, says that Mr. Gowen was in the habit of taking a little champagne with his meals, but nothing else.
He had not spent a cent, however, in liquors of any kind during this last visit.
Mr. Gowen came to Washington on Monday last to conduct the case against southwestern railroads before the interstate commerce commission, and on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday appeared as Mr. Rice’s attorney in these cases.
Mr. Gowen had not been noticed about the hotel since yesterday, when he retired to his room.
In Pottsville, the news struck like a thunderbolt. At the Pottsville Republican office, a crowd of people gathered when the news was posted on their public bulletin board. Theories abounded about the cause of Gowen’s death. Did he really die of his own accord? Was he instead murdered by devotees of the Molly Maguires out for revenge? Was he murdered by his former business partners?
Many theories exist, but the strongest evidence remains with the fact that Gowen took his own life in December 1889 as he dealt with professional frustrations and increasing mental instability. His body was taken to his hometown of Philadelphia, where he was buried in Ivy Hill Cemetery.
Gowen left behind a complicated legacy. He undoubtedly had been one of the most powerful people in the Coal Region in his time. But he left behind him a trail of corruption, destruction, and desolation.
Site of Wormley’s Hotel Today
Wormely’s Hotel was torn down and this structure was built in 1906.
1500 H Street (Just a few blocks from my apartment in downtown Washington)
Featured Image: Franklin B. Gowen (Hagely Museum and Archives)