This is the saga of a branch of the Baker Family tree, now defunct, that spanned 130 years from 1820 to 1950. This line has really interesting skeletons. Whereas all families experience ups and downs over the generations, here the highs go higher and the lows go lower. And since no descendants survive, we do not have to worry about hurting anyone’s feeling when we air the dirty historical laundry. Without further ado, meet William Robinson Baker, a man who gained tremendous power and wealth as part of the early rise of Houston.
William Robinson Baker
Asa Baker was the father. Raised in Westmoreland, NH, under difficult circumstances because his own father abandoned the family when he was a young boy, Asa rose to the rank of Captain in the War of 1812. He settled in Baldwinsville, NY, near Syracuse, where his house remains, designated as a historic home. Asa died suddenly by drowning. As stated by the county coroner: “Asa Baker, on the 20th day of April, 1851, at about eight o’clock in the evening, casually fell into the Seneca River and then and there casually, accidentally, and by misfortune, was drowned.” It would not be the last of sudden, unexpected death in this line of the family.
Hannah Robinson was William’s mother. She was the daughter of William Robinson, a merchant from Philadelphia. She remained in Baldwinsville until 1853 when she left to join the rest of the family in Houston where she lived with her children until she died in 1889 at the ripe old age of 94. Her family erected a very nice monument in Glenwood Cemetery. A photo of her survives.
Born 21 May 1820, William Robinson Baker began his life modestly as stated in his biography in the “Biographical Encyclopedia of Texas” (1880):
“At the age of ten years he was put to manual labor. His early literary acquirements were exceedingly limited, for his father, though a scholarly man, was held in check by the pinches of poverty, and in consequence was obliged to become the tutor of his own children. He however succeeded in giving his son William a tolerable knowledge of the English rudimentary branches. Performing hard labor until the age of seventeen, he determined to go to Texas, and in 1837 arrived in the Republic, locating at Houston, where he has resided ever since. Soon after his arrival he got employment as book-keeper of the Houston Town Company, and was thus engaged for about two years. From 1839 to 1841 he carried on a kind of general store.”
Fortunately for him, as a book keeper, he reported to the Allen Brothers – land speculators who founded Houston in 1836. He parlayed this opportunity well. His claims to fame included:
- Harris County Clerk from 1841 to 1857
- Secretary, vice president, general manager, president, and board member of Houston & Texas Central Railway from 1852 to 1877
- Bank President of City Bank of Houston (it failed in 1885)
- Major Land Owner and Developer in the 6th Ward of Houston
- Mayor of Houston from 1880 to 1886
- Part-owner of Houston Post Newspaper from 1883 to 1889
His success appears to be front-loaded with his railroad job and his land development. His 1860 stated wealth of $300,000 in real estate and personal property of $75,000 (including 23 slaves) put him as one of the top 30 richest Texans. After he sold his stake in the railroad in 1877, he turned to other activities with mixed success. He ran as the astute businessman who could fix the city budget when he won election as mayor in 1880. However, the deficit actually grew by $200,000 during his three terms. He lost by 4 votes on his fourth try in 1886. He purchased the City Bank of Houston. Questions arose whether he knew about the poor capitalization of the bank when he obtained it. A bank run soon closed the bank in 1885, and cost him money in the ensuing lawsuits. Baker attempted to save the Houston Post when he purchased it in 1883, but then had to shut it down in 1884 as it continued to hemorrhage cash. He sold his interest in 1885, allowing for a long successful run of the paper until 1995. Despite these setbacks, William R Baker still had considerable wealth to the day he died.
William Baker married Hester E Runnels, a prominent debutante, raised by her uncle, Hiram Runnels, who was a former Governor of Mississippi in 1833 before moving to Houston in 1855. Runnels County Texas is named for him. Like other storied men of Texas, he appears as a larger-than-life character as described in “The History and Geography of Texas as Told in County Names”, 30 Aug 1913:
“He served for a short time in the army fighting Indians. In 1817-1818 he was a member of the conventions that framed the first Constitution of the State of Mississippi…. In 1831 he was a candidate for Governor, but was defeated by a small majority; was again a candidate for Governor in 1833 and was elected. In 1835 he was a candidate for re-election and defeated. In 1836 was elected president of the Union Bank a year and for some animadversion upon his management he caned Gov. McNutt upon the streets of Jackson. For a similar reason he fought a duel with Volney E. Howard, editor of the Mississippian, in 1840.”
Siblings of William R Baker
William brought all his siblings to Houston. While his brother died young, his sisters all married the rich and famous of this early city. Houston has (or had) a Baker Street, Bagby Street, Taylor Street, Runnell Street and a Szabo Street all named after individuals in this account.
- George Robinson Baker – went to California during the Gold rush. Died young at 28 years. No known offspring
- Marianna Baker married Thomas Bagby – Library Patron, President of Third National Bank, Founded the Houston Direct Navigation Company to transport cotton
- Emily Baker married Horace Dickinson Taylor – cotton broker, one time mayor of Houston
- Julia W Baker married William Clark. He was a merchant who owned a store downtown. He died before 1870, and Julia lived with family in Houston before moving to Waco with her children.
- Harriet Baker married Alexander A Szabo – Operated first powder mill and the first cotton gin. Received many cotton-related patents. City Treasurer for twenty years.
William and Hestor lived on Rusk Ave between Austin and LaBranche Streets. Back in the day, the rich owned blocks in downtown Houston. As years passed and these individuals moved from the increasingly commercialized downtown, many of these great mansions became obsolete. The Baker house site is now a parking lot. Fortunately, the home sites of the other Baker children have seen a better fate. The Houston City Library now sits on the site of the Thomas and Marianna Bagby home. The Horace and Emily Taylor house site, which lost acreage when Buffalo Bayou was rerouted, sits on the current Sesquicentennial Park. Alexander A Szabo moved into his first wife’s family house, the famous Kellum-Noble House, then bought a large parcel next door. This land now comprises Sam Houston Park.
William and Hester had one child, Lucy, born 13 Jul 1848. She would have been raised in the highest privilege that Houston offered. Despite the Civil War in the 1860’s, the family showed an appetite for the fashionable Metropolitan cities, particularly New York and Paris. On 15 Jun 1869, she married Edmund P Turner, whose biography was described in “The Alumni Bulletin of the University of Virginia”:
“Edmund Pendleton Turner, ’59, of Houston, Texas, died at Sewanee, Tenn., July 31, 1907, from the effects of a stroke of paralysis suffered more than a year earlier. Interment was made in the family burying ground at Oropaxie, New Kent County, Va. Captain Turner was born in 1835. From 1855 to 1859 he was a student in the academic department of the University of Virginia, and later graduated in law from one of the colleges of the North. He was a soldier in the Confederate army, and rose to the command of his company. For many years prior to his death he was engaged in the practice of his profession in the city of Houston.”
That “college to the North” was Harvard Law School. He attained a rank of Captain as a Assistant Adjutant-General during the Civil war, coordinating troop movements in the regional headquarters of Houston under Major General John Magruder. Edmund served as a pallbearer at Magruder’s funeral.
Then 1873 happens. Lucy (Baker) Turner gave birth to her only son, William Baker Turner, exact date still unknown, probably in New York City. Then, we see the following newspaper announcement surface in the “New York Post” on 3 Jun 1873:
“At Grand Hotel, very suddenly, Mrs. E.P. Turner, daughter of Mr. William Baker, of Houston, Texas. Notice of funeral hereafter.”
The circumstances of her death are never made clear. New York City was issuing birth and death certificates but no documents can be located for either Lucy or her son. The obituary the following week on 10 Jun in “The New York Herald”, while long and sad, does not address the question.
“This much admired young woman, so amiable, so dearly loved, has been snatched suddenly from among us. Her early life gave promise of a long period of happiness and usefulness. Her gentle and genial disposition made sunshine to all in her presence. But Death, regarding not the beautiful traits of her character, swept his scythe over the very threshold of her life. Relentless Death! This is thy world; thou reapest here; but unseen angels snatch the flower from thy sickle and plant it in a garden over which thou hast no dominion. So has this treasured flower been removed from the clouds and storms of this world, to bloom and flourish in a heavenly home.”
Next mention of the family does not occur until almost 9 months later when Lucy’s body is returned to Houston for burial as reported by the “The Galveston Daily News” on 6 Mar 1874.
“Interment of Mrs. Turner – Capt. E.T. Turner returned from the North on Tuesday with the remains of his beloved wife, nee Lucy Baker, whose untimely death was reported several weeks ago. The remains of the amiable and universally respected lady were met at the depot by numerous friends of the family, and escorted to the residence of her father, Wm. R. Baker, Esq., by one of the largest funeral corteges ever seen in Houston. The funeral service was conducted by Rev. Dr. Zealy, of the Baptist Church. By direction of the sorrowing mother of the deceased, an elegant tomb had been erected in the garden, where the resting place of her idolized daughter will always be in view. The grounds were beautifully decorated with the most exquisite flowers and wreaths of immortelles, and everything was done that could be to testify grief for the death or respect for the memory of the dear departed.”
E.P. Turner did marry again to Mary Ashley Van Alstyne on 19 Dec 1874. She was daughter of William Ashley and Maria Van Alstyne. William was a treasurer and major stockholder of the Houston and Texas Central Railway. The town of Van Alstyne (north of Dallas), formed in 1873, was named after Maria. Mary came with a child, Maria, better known as Daisy, from a previous marriage that ended in divorce in 1873. They also produced another child, E. P. Turner Jr, known a Pendleton, 13 years younger than William Baker Turner.
It is not until 1880 with the death of Hester Baker of a stroke, that we really learn what happened to Lucy. It turns out that William and Hester had custody of their grandson following the death of Lucy in childbirth. Now Edmund and his new wife Mary want custody of the young boy. Not even all the wealth and power of William R Baker can prevent him from losing his grandchild in this court fight. From “The Galveston Daily News”, 22 Feb 1880:
“The Houston Telegram tells of a touching scene in a court room the litigants being Col. William R. Baker, of railroad fame, and Capt. E.P. Turner, once adjutant to Gen. Magruder, afterward Col. Baker’s son-in-law, and now married to a daughter of Mrs. Van Alstyne. Capt. Turner applied to Judge Masterson for a writ of habeas corpus of William R. Baker, citing him to show cause why he should not give into the custody of the former his child William B. Turner, which was being illegally held by him. To this Col. Baker made answer that the child was the only son of the relator, E.P. Turner, and his wife, Lucy E. Baker, who was the only child of defendant and his wife, Hestor E. Baker, lately deceased. That the mother died at the birth of the child some six years ago, and ever since that time it had been, by and with consent of the relator, in defendant’s custody and that of his late wife; that the child had formed attachments which, if broken now, would be dangerous to it in its frail condition of health and weak constitution. The defendant had arranged to have persons for whom the child had already formed attachments, and who were friends of all parties, to take charge of his house and child. Judge Masterson heard that defense, and decided that the law and facts required the child to be turned over to the custody of his father, the relator. At this point, says the Telegram, the little boy’s nurses began weeping, and Mr. Baker went across the room to the child, and with tears streaming down his cheeks, he kissed the little boy good-bye. The scene was one of painful interest. Grown men with tears standing in their eyes, the sob of women mingled with the wails of the child, who was of himself too young to appreciate the situation, but who, knowing that he was to part from those who lad loved and cared for him from birth to the present time, and the tears of others affected him by sympathy.”
So the simple story might be that Edmund and Lucy moved to New York City shortly before 1873. That she died there from childbirth, and that Edmund remained in New York until 1874 when he moved back to Houston in March 1874 and married Mary in Dec 1874. However, E.P. Turner is mentioned as lawyer in a Houston newspaper account on 6 Dec 1973 which suggests that Edmund never lived in New York. So one is left with the sense that there is more to this story.
William Baker Turner
William B Turner is living with his father and stepmother as shown in the 1880 census. He attended Phillips Academy in Exeter NH in 1888. Through it all, as the only remaining descendant, he remained the apple of his grandfather’s eye. When William R Baker died on 30 Apr 1890, he named his grandson as beneficiary of his considerable estate. Terms of the will were very unusual. Young William B Turner got $2,000 a month until the age of 30 when he would inherent the bulk of the estate, UNLESS he married early and produced an offspring anytime after he turned 21. So guess what? William, age 22, married on 30 Jan 1895 the very attractive Emma Carolyn Lewis. It looks like they lived in San Antonio at first, where they had a child, William Baker Turner Jr in 1897. William Sr was 24 when the family became $450,000 richer. News of the marriage, baby and the unusual terms of the will made the papers over the county.
In the 1901 city directory of Houston, he is living at the Rusk residence. He is working in the famous Benz Building. In 1902, he disappears from Houston although his name continues to pop up in continuing lawsuits. Later accounts suggest that they divorced around 1900. William Jr later recalls living in Denver CO between 1900 and 1902. The timing of the marriage and divorce suggest that Emma and their son were merely pawns for William B Turner’s grab for the estate money.
It is difficult to follow the money. Several lawsuits appear in the Texas papers without discussion of the details. We learn William B Turner moved back to New York City. In 1902 he married again to Mary Kennedy, a women married once before. She came from modest means, immigrating from Ireland when a young girl. A fast downward spiral ensues. At some point, he starts selling home cures, and referring to himself as Dr William B Turner. In reality, his name is associated as a business manager with Egan Medical Company of 168 West 23rd St, which published some dubious medical cures in NY newspapers.
He also developed a fascination with the Thirteen Club. Started in early 1880’s, this fraternal organization would dine together to laugh in the face of superstition. However, William’s Thirteen club was different. It was a suicide club where members would discuss how they would do oft themselves. On 18 Dec 1907, after a meeting of the 13, while his wife visited family in Chicago, he shot himself in front of a mirror. Details of his death make news across the country, including his suicide note:
“My Dear Wife – I think it will be for the best for me to leave you. You are the only person on earth that I love excepting my son, and, as you know, my affection for him is parental. I have known and lived with you for the last five years, and have been nothing but a drag and a hindrance to you. I have supported you and have given you what love and affection I am possessed of, but what you have done for me is a greater debt than I could ever repay during the balance of my life. I may be doing you an injustice in saying that I feel I am doing this for your good, but I do feel so, although I love no one but you. I still feel that you will be better off and far happier than with me. With all my dying love. ‘YOUR HUSBAND'”
In the end, William Baker Turner was a complete train wreck. Newspaper accounts indicate that he drinking and smoking heavily (some newspaper even mention 100 cigarettes a day), and that he had consumption. A week later the Houston Post received word of the death and put the entire story together and posted this obituary on 25 Dec 1907:
Former Houston Young Man Shoots Himself in New York
“William Baker Turner, aged about 35, grandson and heir of the late William R. Baker, pioneer merchant and former mayor of Houston, took his own life in New York city last Wednesday evening, advice of his death reaching this city only yesterday. Mr. Turner shot himself in the head, the bullet entering the left cheek and ranging upward through the head. The young man, who has been in the patent medicine business in New York for several years, is believed to have been a member of the “Thirteen club,” the members of which are said to enter into a suicide pact. No one saw the shooting. Mrs. Turner being absent in California at the time. The bulk of the vast estate left by William R. Baker went to William Baker Turner, the only surviving child of this only child. The estate was valued at about $450,000 and under the provisions of the will young Turner was to receive only a certain amount of the income until he became 30 yrs, old unless he married after he became 21 and his wife bore him a child after that. Mr. Turner married when he was about 21 years old and in about two years after son was born. The property was turned over to him the executors of the Baker estate who were Judge E.P Hill, Henry Brashear and Presley K. Ewing. Mr. Turner and his first wife were divorced after a few years of wedded life, and he remarried about five years ago. The first Mrs. Turner married a wealthy mining engineer several years ago and she and her husband are now in Panama. Through poor business management and other ways Mr. Turner lost the fortune that had been bequeathed to him, and of recent years he had been selling medicines, being known a Dr. Turner.”
William Baker Turner, Jr
After the divorce, William Jr reports living in France until 1906, presumably with his mother, Caroline. Was she leading the high life of “Gay Paree” or putting distance from an erratic huband? Whatever the reason, they returned to New York, and Caroline remarried in 1907 to Granville Moore, a successful mining engineer with interests all over the globe. The new family remained in New York a few years with William attending boarding school at Princeton Preparatory School in Princeton NJ. In 1915 he moved west with his family to enroll at University of California at Berkeley. Two years later in 1917 he joined Officer’s Training School but the war soon ended. William never resumed college. It was around this time that his father’s demons took over and he started drinking. The next twenty years paint the sad story of a lost soul. His stepfather describes him having various jobs through his business interests:
“Upon beginning his working career, he worked for me at a company’s manufacturing plant which I controlled and managed and which produced heavy chemicals, also he worked for me on a 1600 acre orchard and alfalfa ranch on the Sacramento River which I owned and, at different times, at several mines in which I was interested and which I operated. During those many years, he was not constantly in my employ but he was much of the time. While working for me, I showed him no preference nor favored him over other employees but his work was always satisfactory.”
In the census, William lists his occupation as “mining engineer” in 1920 in San Francisco, and as “Real Estate Salesman” in 1930 in Beverly Hills, both times living with his stepfather and mother. Based on William’s later record, we see that he moved from San Francisco in 1922 to work in Hamilton City (near Chico) until 1927, and that he moved back home in Los Angeles until 1937.
1937 was the year that William B Turner Jr was diagnosed with Tuberculosis. It would be easy to imagine why he might have been forced from house. He travelled north to Sacramento, and went on complete bender drinking in his words “about a quart of whiskey a day”. He alternated his time between odd jobs and rehab facilities. On Jan 1938 he was convicted of passing $92.67 in bad checks, and sentenced to the Sacramento County Industrial Road Camp. Released in 2 July 1938, he violated parole the following week on 11 July 1938 by passing another $5.00 in bad checks, and sent to San Quentin prison. He broke parole on purpose to gain additional treatment for his TB. Finally he was released in 21 Oct 1941. From here onward, he would alternate his time between odd jobs and sanitariums.
On Oct 1946 he sent a letter to request a pardon. His file contains numerous recommendations from college friends with whom he maintained contact. On 23 Apr 1947, he was recommended by the Superior court for a pardon. William B. Turner wrote a letter to the Governor’s office on 16 Sep 1947 from the Green Shutter Hotel in Hayward Cal.
“The story of my trouble, in brief, I was informed that I had Tuberculosis – I had just lost two of my best friends and my fiancee from this disease – I lost my head – thinking that I had but a year or so to live – and went out and made an utter fool of myself .”
William Turner died on 22 Dec 1947 of complications from TB. His body was cremated the following week on the 29 Dec. No family listed as informant. No cemetery burial, just Oakland Crematory. He received his pardon 7 Apr 1950 from Earl Warren, then Governor of California, later Supreme Court Chief Justice. His death marked the end of the ancestral line of William R Baker, a span of 130 years.
Looking back, one sees two young adults, William B Turner and William B Turner Jr, unable to cope with early adulthood. Or was it three? One has to wonder if it started with Lucy. Although we have discovered a lot about this branch family, there are clearly additional mysteries yet to be uncovered.
A few side notes about individuals mentioned above.
- Pendleton Turner, William’s stepbrother, settled in Washington DC as an insurance adjuster. Apparently he never married, and lived his life as a playboy socialite. Frequent newspaper articles find him at the latest society event. One amusing account reports a suit for $100,ooo by a husband for breaking up his marriage.
- E.P. Turner served as a lawyer in Houston until he suffered a stroke in July 1906. Funds were solicited to prevent him “being taken to the poorhouse”. He died in Aug 1907, and is buried in the family grave in Virginia.
- Mary (Van Alstyne) Turner moved to Richmond to be near her son, Pendleton. There are local newspaper accounts of her giving a few nice parties so she probably lived comfortably until her death in Dec 1913.
- Mary (Kennedy) Turner drops out of sight following the death of Edward. She may be the same woman who was living in Bronx, and working as a druggist.
- The whereabouts of Daisy Turner could not be found.
- Granville and Caroline Moore lived out the remainder of their lives in Los Angeles and San Francisco. It was apparently a quiet time for them with few newspaper articles. Caroline died in 1956, while Granville passed in 1958, both in San Francisco.
- There are living descendants from Asa Baker, some of whom likely still live in Houston. The surnames of Baker, Bagby, Szabo and Clark are all now gone, but a few Taylors remain.