Crime and Scandal

Fortunate Son: The Madness of John Stark

For nearly 200 years, from the beginnings of the nation, the Stark name, beginning with John Stark, was the gold standard of New Hampshire. The family fortunes followed the arc of the new Republic from farming to industrialization to railroads and finance. Then in 1922, things took a dramatic turn.

John Stark’s Descendants

General John Stark was the hero of the Battle of Bennington. John’s son Frederick served as superintendent of the Union Locks and Canal Company of Manchester. Frederick also worked as a surveyor, judge and owner of a store that supplied the river men. He was the most influential businessman in the blossoming mill town of Manchester when he died in 1861.

Frederick’s son George became a surveyor and railroad builder. He was superintendent of the Nashua & Lowell Railroad and later the Boston & Lowell. He belonged to a six-man committee chosen to turn around the moribund Northern Pacific Railroad. A general in the New Hampshire militia, George was an essential recruiter for the army at the outbreak of the Civil War. By his death in 1892, he had built a fine home in Nashua. Though successful, he avoided any display of his wealth.

George’s son John Stark followed in his father’s footsteps As a civil engineer, he worked for the railroads. But by 1859, the Starks realized that finance was the blossoming industry of the day. Together they established a New York bank, J. F. Stark. John Stark would become a major force in Nashua as president of the New Hampshire Improvement Company and Pennichuck Water Works, with real estate and insurance interests. He served for 22 years as a library trustee and set up a country home in Hollis. He died in 1920.

George Stark

Then there was John’s son George. Few people in New Hampshire knew of him. Schooled partially at Andover, he had left the state as a young man, living in Boston, Atlantic City and Philadelphia. What little was known about him was that he worked in advertising. Those who knew John Stark , however, knew how George had disappointed him. And just after John died in 1920, the entire state found out just how much of a disappointment he was.

General John Stark

General John Stark

In John’s will, he left his son an income that would come from the investment profits from $50,000 (roughly $625,000 in today’s dollars). George bridled at the amount and vowed, “the exiled son of New Hampshire returns to his native soil to claim the inheritance that is his.” He announced his intention to sue to break his father’s will. The state waited in anticipation until June of 1922 when the trial over the Stark fortune began.

As celebrity trials go, the Stark case started out rather mildly, retelling the details of George’s early days. His father had married Eva Barr in 1873, and the couple had two children. Eva died in 1875, the same year George was born, and John married Eva’s sister Carrie, who raised the children.

Downhill Slide

There were few signs of acrimony in their early relations. That changed as George grew older. He had attended Andover, but stole money that his father sent him to pay bills and used it to party in Boston. Eventually, the school told John to come remove his incorrigible son.

Free from school, George turned to alcohol in a big way. He hopped from Canada to Boston on a non-stop binge. Frequent letters arrived at John’s home, asking him to pay the bills that young George had run up, sometimes fleeing ahead of paying. John wrote checks — for hotels, doctors, dentists and more – all to keep George out of jail.

John was trustee for a $14,000 legacy that George’s grandfather had left to him. When he turned the money over to George, he refused to take any fee for managing the funds. He begged young George to preserve the capital and use the modest income to launch himself on a successful career. George ran through the money, buying fancy furniture for an apartment, and travelling.

Along the way, George had married. Alcohol, especially absinthe, had pushed him into insanity. He ended up in a sanitarium for the insane. There, he met Alice Whitney. The two began a relationship and George moved in with Alice – well before his divorce from his first wife.

George credited Alice with helping him stay sober. But Alice had a difficult personality. When she and George visited New Hampshire, John cautioned the woman that his son could not support himself, much less a wife. The couple married anyway. Alice attacked John and smeared his first wife, claiming that she didn’t believe John was George’s real father. By the time they left, John confided to a friend he could no longer stand their company. He had dropped them off at the train station and left them to wait in foul weather.

Living Large

George and Alice moved to Atlantic City to improve Alice’s health. There they lived lavishly, renting expensive rooms and dressing in fine clothes. George launched himself into an advertising agency in Philadelphia, but never managed to pay his debts. By the time of his father’s death he had returned to Boston and was staying in a sanitarium for treatment of a nervous breakdown.

George wrote to his aunt — who was also his stepmother — with a plea for more money: “All I want is enough to take care of wife and self. Feel as though I am not going to live long.”

The reply was abrupt and harsh: “You were provided for far more generously than you deserved after 25 years of demand upon him.”

At trial, Carrie expanded on her late husband’s attitudes: “My husband worked hard and his belief was that the children of the wealthy should work.” John, she said, had drawn his will carefully and thoughtfully. He left George a modest income by design.

After two weeks, George produced a surprise witness. A nurse who had been fired by his aunt testified that the widow was more involved in creating the will than she let on. Then the blockbuster: George produced doctors to testify that John, his father, was insane and incapable of drafting a will.

John Stark, Reputation Upheld

John’s lawyers then blasted back at George: “He comes back to New Hampshire not to claim his rightful heritage, but to slander his father. He stands on the very brink of his grave and points his menacing finger at his father who cannot reply.”

A line of Nashua business leaders took the stand to testify that John Stark was not crazy. Among those who testified was Harry Gregg, father of future governor Hugh Gregg.

The attorneys presented a seemingly never-ending list of bills and pawn tickets that John paid off to get his son out of debt. And finally, they presented arguments that the doctors George had called upon had diagnosed his father as insane without ever meeting him in person.

At the end of the trial, the jury quickly declared that John Stark’s will was valid, dismissing George’s contention that his aunt had manipulated his insane father.

This story was updated in 2021.

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