These carte de visites of John Clement and Olivia (Brown) Clifford and their children were taken in June of 1864. This seemingly happy little family didn’t remain little for long. And when it came to happy…I’ll let you decide.
Before we get into the Clifford’s life story let’s take a moment to appreciate this tattered yet marvelous image. If Mrs. Clifford was hiding behind Fred she did a much better job of hiding than Mr. Clifford whose head we can see peeking out from behind Lily. Neither child looked much enthused about the picture taking business but oh how grand their outfits were!
Olivia “Lydia” Brown and John Clifford married in 1858 and lived in Buffalo, New York for about ten years before relocating to Manhattan. Lily was the couple’s firstborn in 1860, then came Fred in 1862, and Willy in 1864. About every two years the Clifford’s welcomed another baby until they were the parents of 11 children.
John started out as a banking clerk, but by 1870 he was a successful merchant with five live-in servants. His real estate and personal assets totaled $175,000 (comparable to $3.5 million today). Unfortunately the Clifford’s amassed just as much grief as they did wealth. Olivia outlived her husband and all but three of her 11 children. Four were babies when they left this world; Adrian, May, Ethel, and Mabel.
Fred died in 1897 at the age of 35. He succumbed to apoplexy, a term used at the time for many sudden deaths that resulted after a loss of consciousness. In 1899, the couple’s 7th child, Jessie, died of poisoning at the age of 27 years. It’s unknown if it was intentional or accidental. William committed suicide in 1908 at the age of 44. It was reported that he was driven to his unfortunate end by ill health and losing all he had during a stock market slump.
John Clement Clifford died in 1894. He was in his early sixties. The life expectancy in 1895 was 46 years, so this seems pretty good. But I wonder if he might have lived even longer if it weren’t for all the family tension.
June 10, 1892 – The Evening World (NY, NY)
Just two years before his death John was assaulted in his home by Theodore Roth after catching the young man in his daughter Grace’s bedroom. Unbeknownst to John, his daughter and Roth were secretly married a month earlier. That’s kids for ya’! But that was minor in comparison to the scandal involving his wife four years earlier.
May 20, 1888 ~ The Sun (NY, NY)
The oldest Clifford child, Lily, now Mrs. Elmer E. Millard, had her husband arrested for abandonment after she discovered he was having an affair with her mother, Olivia! Lily even produced an image of a letter to prove her claim.
May 30, 1888 – The Sun (NY, NY)
I have to say that reading about the affair had me on the edge of my seat, but the most interesting bit to me was that Lily had the frame of mind to have the letter photographed. My mind whirled with thoughts about just what format this photographic proof took. I suspect it was just a rolled-up piece of paper, but I initially pictured it mounted as a cabinet card. ha!
The letter was dated November 14, 1887, and written in black ink at the top was: “Written to my husband, Elmer Millard, by Mrs. J.C. Clifford of 111 West Fortieth street of this city.” The wording seemed strange to me for an intimate letter. It made me wonder if Olivia had been framed. The letter went on:
“Darling: I must tell you how much I appreciate your goodness to me this week. Mornings, afternoons, and evenings, when you could get away from your work, you have been with me. It was kind and loving of you, and tells me more than words that you are happy in my society. I know, darling, you are true, for you could have gone elsewhere without my knowing it, believing you were at your work. I thank you for your goodness, and love you more than ever. Anything in the world I can do for you that will give you pleasure I will do with all my heart. You and you only I depend on for all my happiness. In future I hope you will always do as you have done this week. Never be cold and indifferent to me, for it breaks my heart. Yours, lovingly, L.”
June 2, 1888 – The Sun (NY, NY)
My speculation of a set up was proven wrong by the above article. Elmer admitted to the relationship with his mother-in-law and cowardly chose to blame everything on her, claiming she “held a strange and unaccountable influence” over him.
I wish I knew what became of Lily. I could find no trace of her after her reconciliation with her husband in 1888. It’s as if she dropped off the face of the earth. Before her relationship with Elmer, Lily was married to Fred Myers and had a daughter, Ella Alice Myers, born in Manhattan on March 25, 1882. Was Ella the little girl Elmer referenced in his letter to the newspapers? Had he been raising Ella as his own? Or did Lily and Elmer have a child together?
Just as my search for Lily came up empty so did my search for Ella and any other children Lily may have had. Elmer Millard remarried in 1907. Of course, this only tells us that their marriage ended. But I do believe Lily perished sometime before 1910 as her mother listed three living children on the census that year. Those three would have been John, Winslow, and Grace. Or was Lily only “dead to Olivia” in the emotional sense due to their falling out over Elmer?
Yet another scandalous family event was publicized in 1894. Now a widow, Olivia lived with her daughter Grace. It seems the pair were a little too convivial, which I learned means lively and jovial. And Grace’s pugnaciousness, or eagerness to fight, landed her in court.
Aug. 31, 1894 – Evening World News (NY, NY)
Who was the mysterious “uncle” who paid Grace’s fine? Perhaps the secrecy of his identity was because he was one of the women’s lover. Although I didn’t find any further newspaper articles I have a hunch this family faced more public embarrassment than what I managed to dig up.
Olivia lived with her son Winslow in Manhattan until she died on February 13, 1922. Four months later, Grace died at the age of 48. Her rocky marriage to Theodore Roth had ended and her husband at the time of her passing was Nathaniel Annis.
I’m left pondering if whiskey and beer were at the root of many of the family’s problems or if the family dysfunction led to the consumption of said whiskey and beer.