Archer M. Huntington was a major benefactor of the American Numismatic Society in New York, and served as its President from 1905 to 1910.
E-Sylum Feature Writer and
American Numismatic Biographies author Pete Smith submitted this
background article illustrating Huntington's family and wealth. Thanks.
Arabella Huntington (1850-1924)
Something different this week. I am not going to write about the numismatic accomplishments of
Archer Milton Huntington. Rather I am going to write about his mother.
Let's start with the birth of Arabella Duval Yarrington. She gave her birthdate as June 1, 1850,
but there is reason to doubt. The 1850 Census was recorded in Richmond, Virginia, in December
of 1850. In that Census, Richard Milton Yarrington (1807-1859), a machinist, was married to
Catherine James Sims Yarrington (1819-1888). Among their children was Catherine, age 5/12
years, born in Virginia, which would correspond with her birth in June of 1850. How Catherine
became Arabella is one piece in the larger puzzle of her life.
Richard Yarrington died in 1859, leaving Catherine to raise five children as the Civil War was
about to threaten Richmond. She opened a boarding house at Shockoe Bottom in the flood plain
near the canal in Richmond. This was the entertainment district that included taverns, gambling
parlors and brothels.
In the 1860 Census, she is listed as C. J. Yarrington, living with five children including Carolina
B, then age nine. For the 1870 census, there is a listing for Kate Yarrington living with five
children. Among them is Bella, then age 19, born in New York. Also living with the family is
John, age one. More about him later.
There is a second 1870 Census listing that adds more pieces to the puzzle. C. J. Yarrington is the
head of the household, followed by her daughters Eliza and Emma. Then comes Bell Demerson,
age 19, born in Virginia, followed by John Demerson, age 45, and later John D. E. Mersion, age
three months. John would have been conceived when Belle was 18.
Census records frequently include spelling errors. The
M in Mersion may also have been a
W making the name Wersion. Errors also occur with misinterpretation of pronunciation.
The 45-year-old John Demerson has also been identified as John Worsham who owned a faro
parlor near the Yarrington boarding house in Richmond. After the war in 1869, he moved to New
York City to run a faro parlor there.
Belle Yarrington claimed to be married to John Archer Worsham (1821-1878). She called her
young son Archer Milton Worsham. Archer and Milton were both family names. Belle claimed
that her husband died after a year of marriage leaving her a widow with a young son. Actually,
John Worsham returned to Richmond, his gambling parlor there and his wife Annette. He died in
What would become of the widow Catherine Yarrington and her widowed daughter Belle? They
found a benefactor in Collis Potter Huntington (1821-1900). They probably met when
Huntington was enjoying the gambling district in Richmond while building the Chesapeake and
Ohio Railroad there. Arabella would have been 18 and Collis would have been 48.
Biographers speculate that Collis Huntington, a married man, provided a house for Worsham and
the Yarrington clan in New York as a cover for his affair with Arabella. Apparently, such things
happened in those days.
Collis had humble beginnings in a place known as Poverty Hollow. He opened a store in New
York and built his fortune in the gold fields of California. Collis and partner Mark Hopkins were
not miners but sold necessary supplies to the miners. They had the resources and opportunity to
go into business as partners in the Central Pacific Railroad building east from Sacramento.
Catherine, Arabella and remainders of the Yarrington family moved into a house on Lexington
Avenue in New York. Collis was a tough and frugal businessman not noted for charity. He did,
however, give lavishly to the Yarringtons. With financing from Huntington, Catherine began to
buy up additional properties with some of those deeded over to Arabella.
One of the properties was off Fifth Avenue at 4 West 54th Street. Arabella studied art and interior
design. She had the house renovated and expanded including a lavish Moorish boudoir. Would
you like to visit her bedroom? You can see it now in a Virginia museum. I visited the New York
site in 1984 as part of the Museum of Modern Art.
Elizabeth Stoddard Huntington (1823-1883), the wife of Collis, was ailing in her later years.
Reports indicate that Catherine and Arabella helped to care for her while they waited for her to
On July 15 1884, Arabella, then 34, married Collis Huntington, then 64, in a parlor at 4 West
54th. Conducting the wedding was Reverend Henry Ward Beecher. They may have married twice.
The first was a secret ceremony shortly after the death of Elizabeth. The second after a suitable
period of mourning. Arabella traded the house to John D. Rockefeller for building lots on 5th
Avenue at 72nd street. Collis adopted Archer Milton Huntington, then 14. His paternity had never
I enjoyed the newspaper report that stated,
the marriage is the result of an attachment existing
from childhood. Was that an 1884 euphemism for having a child together?
Collis Huntington died in 1900 and his $150 million estate was divided equally among Arabella,
Archer, and a nephew, Henry Edwards Huntington (1850-1927). Biographers claim the
inheritance made her the richest woman in America. Like so much else about Arabella, that is
probably untrue. In July of 1913, Henry and Arabella married, reconnecting the family fortune.
Henry was also an art collector and book collector.
Although they were both born in 1850, in the 1920 Census, Arabella is listed as age 59 with her
husband age 69. Her place of birth was listed as Alabama.
In 1921, Arabella sailed from Cherbourg to New York on the Aquitania. She stated that she had
been born in Mobile, Alabama, on February 9, 1851. No birth certificate had been found. She
worked hard to conceal the facts of her early life.
Arabella died on September 16, 1924, and she is buried next to Henry at the Huntington Library
and Botanical Gardens Mausoleum at San Marino, California. Part of her inscription reads
BORN AT UNION SPRINGS ALABAMA JUNE FIRST EIGHTEEN HUNDRED AND
FIFTY. The date may be correct, but the location is not.
Archer donated much of her art collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Other parts were
sold at auction. The auction listing stated,
This important collection long in the possession of a
noted American family of art collectors sold to effect a partition among heirs. Henry was a
strong buyer at the sale.
The Worsham / Rockefeller bedroom was given to the Museum of the City of New York. Since
2010, it has been on display at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts at Richmond.
Who was the most wealthy woman of the Gilded Age? That title is often given to Hetty Green
who was worth more than $100 million when she died in 1913. There is probably a numismatic
connection to her somewhere. A novel by Shana Abe is titled, An American Beauty: A Novel of
the Gilded Age Inspired by the True Story of Arabella Huntington Who Became the Richest
Woman in the Country. She got the title, not by surpassing Hetty Green, but by outliving her.
Wayne Homren, Editor
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