[TheChamp-Sharing title=”Sharing is Caring”]
Isaac Merritt Singer: ScoundrelAt the beginning of 1860 (the American Civil War broke out in April, 1861), Isaac Merritt Singer maintained five separate households, including in each, a wife with assorted children–assorted because Singer had, by this time, sired in the neighbourhood of 18 offspring. No one’s sure of the exact number.
Although Singer remained legally married to Catherine Singer for over 30 years, the woman known to Isaac’s friends, business associates, and employees as Mrs. I.M. Singer was, in fact, (Mary) Ann Sponsler. His other three wives included Mary Walters Merritt, Mary McGonigal Mathews, and a Mrs. Judson, whose first name remains unknown to this day.
In January, 1860, much to the surprise of almost everyone who knew him, Isaac Singer divorced the r-e-a-l Mrs. Singer, who turned out to be the unknown Catherine Singer – and not Ann (Sponsler) Singer. But Ann’s surprise proved bigger. Isaac proposed to continue living with her, but flatly refused to marry her, which unsettled Ann enough that on August 7, 1860, she said some things Isaac took violent exception to. So violent, he beat her into unconsciousness. Then he pounded his daughter Voutetti Singer into unconsciousness when she interceded on behalf of her mother.
Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly picked up the story, reporting that Mr. I.M. Singer of No. 14 Fifth Avenue, New York, was arrested for beating his wife. Ann emphasized the nature of the incident with the words “in a violent manner”. The court took her charges seriously and placed Singer under strict orders to keep the peace.
At this point, the Illustrated Weekly and other New York papers remained in the dark about Ann Sponsler Singer’s real marital status.
All of that would change.
Sensing something unpleasant in the wind, Singer decided to flee via steamer to Europe, but in typical Singer fashion. In the early fall, the 49-year-old Singer booked passage under the name J.W. Simmons. Isaac took none of his five wives with him. Instead, he sailed off with Mrs. Kate McGonigal. Travelling under the name Mrs. Simmons, Kate turned out to be the 19-year-old sister of wife number four, Mary McGonigal (Mathews). After several pleasant months of dalliance in Europe, Singer returned from London in early 1961, accompanied, not by Kate-the-young-sister-of-Mary, but by a youthful woman known only as Lucy. Lucy lived In New York with Singer for several months. Kate McGonigal’s fate remains shrouded in mystery.
Ann Sponsler decided enough was enough. She filed suit against Singer, claiming “during her whole married life, she has received from her husband the most cruel and inhuman treatment, and that his conduct toward her has been such as to render it unsafe and improper for her any longer to cohabit with him; that he has repeatedly beaten and choked her to insensibility, frequently forcing the blood to flow in streams from her nose, mouth, face, head and neck … and … his unparalleled atrocity and savage barbarity toward herself and children finally forced her to make a criminal complaint against him and cause his arrest”.
Born into a large New York family of German immigrants in 1811, Isaac Merritt Singer grew into a handsome, solidly-built young man who easily attracted women, all of whom he reportedly treated with varying degrees of arrogance, and, when he thought the occasion warranted it, absolute ruthlessness. He apprenticed for a short time at a successful machine shop, and, in the evenings, attended stage plays. In record time, he decided he possessed all the stellar qualities of a leading man.
At age nineteen, Singer ingratiated himself to theatre people and soon convinced a travelling group headed by Edwin Dean that he was a major talent in the making. Without hesitation, he quit his job in 1830 and took up the life an itinerant actor. His good looks and tall frame, however, proved more imposing on the streets of Rochester than on the stages of the theatre. Singer landed a few minor supporting roles. Reviews of those days, when they mentioned him at all, found considerable fault with both his acting and his over-bearing voice.
Near year’s end, Singer married Catharine Maria Haley. He was not yet twenty. She was fifteen. They took up residence with Catharine’s family. Singer spent little time at home and soon took to rummaging about the immediate countryside, working as a stage hand, an advance man, and an actor. In 1836, Singer, who had also worked on and off as woodworker and dry goods clerk, suddenly signed on as advance man with another travelling group and departed New York.
In Baltimore, Singer stumbled upon one Mary Ann Sponsler, an attractive eighteen-year-old he took an immediate fancy to. He pursued her, quickly impressed her parents and totally won them over, boarding in the Sponsler home for several weeks. During this period, he proposed marriage to Mary Ann and arranged for her to meet him when he returned to New York, which she did in September, 1836. Persuasive as he was handsome, young Isaac, now twenty-five, convinced her to forgo marriage and to live with him as Mrs. Isaac Singer.
By mid-summer, 1837, Isaac Merritt Singer had two wives and three children, a son named Isaac by Mary Ann, whom he called Ann, and a son and daughter by Catharine.
For almost two years after Ann gave birth, Isaac knocked around as a part-time actor and handyman, finally ending up as an unskilled labourer working on the Erie Canal. Unlike other workers, however, Singer turned his attention to the gruelling labour involved in excavating rock and dirt by hand. He set about designing a machine to drill into solid rock, which he patented in 1839. Almost immediately, he sold has patent for the princely sum of $2,000.
Flushed with money, Singer, by now out of favour with the recognized theatrical groups, formed his own acting troupe, the Merritt Players. His investment proved unwise. Singer toured for almost five years, always struggling to hang on; but his expenses regularly exceeded his box office receipts. Finally, dead broke, he called it quits in 1844, settling in Fredericksberg with Ann, who had been touring with him. He took full-time employment in a successful print shop. Singer spent the rest of his life claiming great success as a stage actor. And his colourful stories, combined with his ability to recite long soliloquies from Shakespeare, proved remarkably convincing.
Now employed in a print shop, Isaac Singer almost immediately saw a need for a machine that would automatically shape and produce the large wood letters then used to set newspaper and advertising headlines. With money borrowed from Philadelphia businessman George Zieber, he set about inventing such a device. His first efforts, however, ended abruptly when an explosion in the building where he rented space destroyed his prototype. The ensuing delays cost Singer dearly. In the months it took to locate another backer, rent a second manufacturing facility (owned by Orson Phelps of Boston), recreate a machine, and promote a sales location, new technologies in printing pushed his invention to the edge of obsolescence.
With time on his hands, and few sales prospects to bother him, Singer spent considerable time downstairs with his landlord. Orson Phelps was building sewing machines for two young American inventors. Unfortunately, the machines proved so poorly designed that, at the end of the tooling process, the vast majority of them failed to work. Equally vexing for Phelps, the handful that did work proved unreliable and required constant repair. Ironically, Phelps was producing for buyers a machine that failed to work, while Singer had no buyers for a machine that worked superbly. Phelps decided the best way out of his money-losing venture was to produce a sewing machine re-designed by Singer, especially as the latter had already detected the major weaknesses in the two inventors machine. Singer agreed and turned again to George Zieber for additional financing. To his everlasting regret, Zieber failed to secure an iron-clad written agreement from Singer. Instead, Orson Phelps, who agreed to provide plant space and tools, joined George Zieber and Isaac Singer to form a partnership that managed to leave Zieber holding little more than Singer’s vague verbal promises.
In early November, 1850, Singer turned out his first sewing machine and, via newspaper advertising, offered it for sale. Only it didn’t sell. Priced at over $100, the machine proved far too expensive for the average American household. In addition, husbands saw no need to spend money on any so-called labour-saving device designed to make clothing their wives already made with a simple needle, some thread, and a little time. And there was no market for the machine in the garment industry, where workers laboured incredibly long hours for little pay and under notoriously primitive working conditions. Isaac Singer and his two partners floundered, an occasional machine sale keeping their enterprise from sinking out of sight.
Introduced early in the industrial revolution, interchangeable parts could be tooled by expert craftsmen to within an accuracy of one-sixteenth of an inch, an astounding accomplishment for its day. One class of American manufacturers, however, the firearms maker, found this feat less than satisfactory. Men isolated in the vast expanses of the New World needed weapons that could be repaired without the services of hard-to-find expert gunsmiths. If a part required replacement, that process needed to be simple and, above all, totally reliable. Gun makers soon set about developing machine tools, gauges, and milling cutters capable of manufacturing parts to one-thousandth, then one ten-thousandth of an inch.
With his usual foresight, Isaac Singer, even though his early total sewing machine production and profit margins remained modest, saw the real potential in transferring Samuel Colt’s hand gun manufacturing techniques to the production of Singer sewing machines. He risked everything, investing heavily in machinery designed exclusively to mass produce sewing machines with interchangeable parts. In late 1857, Singer opened in New York City, the world’s first truly mass production facility built to turn out something other than firearms. A natural promoter, Isaac contacted the city press and received extensive news coverage, which spread enthusiastically throughout nearby states. Within 10 years, I.M. Singer & Company led the world in sewing machine sales and had cut production costs to a little over $10 per machine. He sold his new Singers for 50% less than his very first machine and yet had increased his profit margin to a staggering 530% per machine!
1851 proved an eventful year for Isaac Merritt Singer. Orson Phelps, unable to abide Singer’s violent temper tantrums and steady stream of verbal abuse, surrendered his partnership for a cash settlement and Singer’s verbal promise that, as business increased, sewing machine production would be assigned to Phelps. To raise the cash needed to buy out Phelps, Singer in brought Brazilian Ransom, who paid significantly more for his partnership than the amount Singer settled on Phelps. Singer, however, disliked Ransom and set about bullying the man from the offset. Singer flew into temper tantrums, issued streams of physical threats, and subjected the hapless Ransom to unrelenting verbal attacks. It worked. Ransom grew gravely ill. Singer simply used his partner’s declining health as yet another issue over which to belittle and berate the man. Ransom promptly quit the firm, receiving a modest shipment of new sewing machines as payment for his substantial investment. Ransom died within a matter of weeks.
This again left Isaac Singer and George Zieber as sole partners, but Zieber, even after witnessing the demise of Singer’s earlier partners, still served without a written agreement that assured him a legal claim to the Singer patents he had financed. Isaac now felt in need of someone to handle the company’s legal and financial matters and personally brought in yet another third partner, New York attorney Edward Clark. Zieber, who had borrowed in order to support Singer’s work and family, now needed to repay his debts. Unfortunately for Zieber, he knew nothing of Singer’s arrangement with Edward Clark.
At this juncture, Zieber took a prudent step, and thereby made a fatal mistake. Unaware of Clark’s new status, Zieber decided to resolve the contract issue with his friend and partner Isaac Singer. The company was turning a profit and Zieber’s creditors were asking to be paid what they had loaned to finance the Singer Company’s start-up costs.Zieber broached the subject with Singer. Predictably, Singer flew into a rage, refusing to discuss his partner’s request or the man’s unpaid loans.
Ironically, George Zieber now turned to Edward Clark for legal advice. Clark told him point blank that no binding agreement existed with Singer and that he might be better off taking a small cash settlement and dissolving the partnership. A short time later, when the final patent rights for Singer’s machine were issued in the late summer of 1851, all were assigned exclusively and equally to Singer and Clark. George Zieber, the man who financed the beginning of the Singer Company and who personally maintained Isaac Singer and his family through all of the lean years, was excluded and left with no recourse but to sign an agreement now forced on him by Clark. Singer and Clark owned the patent rights they believed would earn them millions, and Zieber was to receive a third of the company’s profits, excluding any revenue generated by the patents.
George Zieber’s days as a Singer partner were numbered, and he knew it – which makes his final ouster all the more bizarre. Like Barzillan Ransom just a few months earlier, Zieber’s health took a turn for the worse near year’s end in 1851. Confined to his bed and seriously ill, Zieber’s alertness may have faltered. Whatever the cause, Singer approached his ailing partner, according to Zieber, and informed him that his doctor did not expect him to live. Singer, knowing the conscientious Zieber owed money he felt obliged to repay, recommended Zieber sell his partnership and use the cash to settle his affairs. The Singer Company was no where near the financial status it would climb to in later years, so the gullible Zieber agreed. Clark drew up the papers and George Zieber signed away his interest in the company.
Zieber was not terminally ill and quickly recovered. Singer never talked to Zieber’s doctor. The entire episode was concocted by Singer and approved, by Clark. Zieber soon left the United States and sailed to England, with a vague plan to continue in the sewing machine business. He returned to Singer a few years later as editor of the company’s newsletter and subsequently opened a Singer dealership in Brazil. For years afterward, Zieber inexplicably maintained a social relationship with the Singer family and visited their home often. The easily duped former partner continued clinging to the futile hope that the now rich and world famous Singer would, at long last, recant and do the right thing by sharing his good fortune with the little man who had made it all possible.
Such grand gestures were totally uncharacteristic of Isaac Merritt Singer’s. George Zieber knew this, but couldn’t accept the injustice of it all. He spent a portion of his later life being pleasant to the man he detested above all others.