It was a hugely profitable business. In 1850, Walter’s father, William Garrett, built what Weslager called “one of the most pretentious mansions in Christiana Hundred”—three stories tall with 19 rooms, oak floors, paneled doors, wainscoting, fireplaces with marble mantles and balustrade stairs. Locals called it the “snuff mill mansion.” And it wasn’t even William Garrett’s full-time home; he had moved to Philadelphia. William Garrett bequeathed the snuff mill to his sons, Walter and William Jr., the latter of whom died childless, thus returning his share to his brother.
When Walter Garrett married Henrietta Schaeffer in 1871, he was a 40-year-old bachelor—tall and heavyset, with a flowing mustache, who wore a frock coat, starched collar and silk hat. She was 22, and blond and had left school in the eighth grade. As one of the richest men in Philadelphia, Garrett had a wide choice of potential wives. According to Weslager, however, he was “smitten” when he saw Henrietta scrubbing the stoop in front of her parents’ house on South 13th Street.
“A latter-day Cinderella story” is how the newspapers described it. Walter bought her a three-and-a-half-story house on South Ninth Street. Then he bought the house next door for her family and connected the two so Henrietta could visit her family at will. He also provided a coach and horses, a coachman, a cook, a personal maid and a downstairs maid.
“To say that Walter loved his pretty, young wife is an understatement,” wrote Weslager. “He adored her, he cherished her and he became so devoted to her that he didn’t want to leave her side.” Henrietta didn’t like highbrow amusements such as the opera, so Walter stopped going. She did like sentimental sheet music, so he bought her a rosewood piano on which to play it. She also liked Atlantic City, so he built her a 10-room “cottage.”
But Henrietta was not dumb. After Walter died in 1895, she did not blow the $6 million he left her. She lived modestly—more so than Walter—and kept careful track of her investments. Her physician would later testify that he often found her reading stock reports when he made house calls. In the 35 years before her own death, the estate grew to $17 million and to $30 million by the time it was distributed in 1951.
Settling the estate took years because every claim had to be investigated. In 1937, Henrietta’s body was exhumed to confirm that no will had been secreted in the coffin. Genealogists produced a three-volume report dismissing relationships to all but three cousins. These were people Henrietta had never met, but to whom she was related through her mother.
Afterward, workers went to Henrietta’s house on Ninth Street with orders to smash everything, including the rosewood piano. Administrators had decided that nothing could be sold, lest some buyer later use an item to claim a relationship to the family and make a new claim on the fortune. The fragments were loaded into seven wagons, transported to a lot outside the city and burned.
Now, call your lawyer and make that will.