It was an ill-fated Gilded Age romance. Theodoret, the handsome youngest son of Robert and Maria Bartow, fell in love with Sarah Elliott Marshall, a blond Southern beauty from Natchez, and married her in 1886. Although this privileged couple seemed to have it all—including a lovely young daughter—their story has a tragic ending.
Maria Lorillard Bartow was 45 when she gave birth to her ninth and last child, Theodoret, at the Bartows’ elegant country estate on a spring day in April 1846. When Theodoret was 19, he followed in the footsteps of two of his elder brothers and enrolled at Columbia College (class of 1869). He studied at the School of Mines and joined the Delta Phi fraternity but apparently never graduated. In 1870, at age 26, he was living at home with no profession. Ten years later, in 1880, Theodoret and his brother Reginald Heber, both bachelors, were still living at the Bartow mansion following the death of their mother three months earlier. The census listed the brothers’ occupation as “gentleman.”
However, things were about to change for Theodoret. In 1882 and 1883, New York City directories listed him as a “broker” at 7 Pine Street in the financial district. Theodoret Bartow was now in his late 30s. It is unknown why he started to earn a living after so many years as a gentleman of leisure. His widowed mother’s assets had been transferred to a trust shortly before she died. Was there a cash flow problem after her death? Or was Theodoret simply ready to embrace a modern professional lifestyle and experience the excitement of Wall Street? At this time, he lived part-time in New York City. Newspaper gossip columnists give us a peek at his movements. The New Rochelle Pioneer divulges that in October 1882, “Mr. T. Bartow for some time past sojourning at the LeRoy Place, has taken up his winter quarters in New York City.” Another big change was on the way. In June 1884, the New York State Legislature authorized the “taking of lands” to create Pelham Bay Park, and landowners would be forced to sell their properties to New York City, which the Bartows did in 1888.
One of the neighboring estates was Hawkswood, a grand property with an imposing Greek Revival mansion that overlooked Long Island Sound and City Island. For many years, it was owned by Levin R. Marshall, a very rich Southern plantation owner and businessman from Natchez, Mississippi, whose granddaughter would become Theodoret’s bride. After Marshall’s death in 1870, his widow, Sarah Elliott (or Elliot) Marshall, inherited Hawkswood, which, like the Bartow estate, would be sold for parkland in the late 1880s.
Sarah Marshall’s step-granddaughter and namesake from Natchez married Theodoret Bartow in 1886. In fact, we know that Theodoret and his soon-to-be brother-in-law William H. Jackson were already “well-acquainted with Levin Marshall, late of the town of Pelham,” according to Marshall’s will, for which the younger men served as witnesses in 1870. One assumes that Bartow met and wooed his bride-to-be when she was staying with her relatives up north. (Similarly, Levin Marshall’s son William St. John Elliott Marshall married another neighbor, Elizabeth Stuyvesant Fish Morris of Oakshade, but that’s a separate story.)
Sarah Marshall, the daughter of George M. Marshall and Charlotte Hunt, was born at Lansdowne, her parents’ plantation in Natchez, on July 6, 1856. Her father had graduated from Princeton and fought in the Civil War at the Battle of Shiloh. Ironically, Sarah’s grandfather Levin Marshall (who, as a wealthy planter, owned hundreds of slaves at his Southern properties), “was a neutralist [who] moved permanently to New York [during the war],” a Marshall descendent wrote in a 1996 letter in Bartow-Pell’s archives. And indeed, federal records state that Marshall was deemed loyal to the Union, and his estate received compensation for “stores and supplies” taken from his plantations and used by the Army of the United States. “As a child, Sarah was educated at home by a governess and sent to school in New Orleans when she was older,” according to the letter in Bartow-Pell’s files. It would have been natural for her to visit relatives in New York since “people traveled from Natchez to New Orleans to New York frequently.”
On April 24, 1886, the New Rochelle Pioneer reported: “Mr. Theo. Bartow has left for the South where on the 28th inst, he will be married to a Miss Marshal [sic], of Mississippi.” Did he take a train, a steamboat, or a combination? That very year, an article in the New York Times subtitled “Boat and Rail from New-York to New-Orleans” argued that a mixture of both was best for leisurely travel: “But the trip must be taken in the right way, and the right way is not to go direct through by rail. Neither is an all-water journey down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers altogether pleasant. A combination of the two is a happy medium.” Although it is tempting to adopt the romantic notion of Theodoret traveling down the Mississippi by steamboat to meet his bride, the railroad—which was fast and efficient—would have been more suitable for an impatient groom.
The happy couple married at Lansdowne on April 28, 1886, according to the New York Evening Post. Theodoret had turned 40 a couple of weeks before the wedding; Sarah was almost 30. The ceremony would have taken place in the plantation’s parlor, which Lansdowne’s website describes today as “almost unchanged since the house was built.” The officiant was the Right Reverend Hugh Miller Thompson, who was soon afterward named the Episcopal Bishop of Mississippi. American Etiquette (1889) helps us imagine the scene: “Weddings at home vary little from those at church. The music, the assembling of friends, the entree of the bridal party to the position selected, are the same. An altar of flowers and place of kneeling can easily be arranged at home.” Following the fashion of the day, Sarah perhaps wore a gown of “white silk, high corsage, a long veil of white tulle, reaching to the feet, and a wreath of maiden blush roses with orange blossoms.” The groom would either wear full morning dress with white gloves or full evening dress, depending on the time of day.
Theodoret and Sarah likely lived at the Bartow mansion when they were first married. But in 1888, the year in which the property was sold to New York City and Theodoret received his portion of the proceeds, he bought about four acres of land in Merrick on Long Island, a pretty property that also included a stream. The following year, he built a large three-story house and stable (later known as the Bonnie Hame-Skyfield house, which was demolished in 1960). The couple settled into their new community, and, in 1890, Theodoret joined the vestry of the recently organized Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, where a Lorillard cousin and close friend of the family, Hermann H. Cammann, was warden. To top it all off, the couple must have been elated upon the birth of their daughter, Theodora Carlotta Lorillard Bartow, on December 13, 1890.
Sadly, these blissful times would soon end. When baby Theodora was only 8 months old, Theodoret died at age 45 on August 18, 1891, in Richfield Springs, New York, a well-known spa town with mineral springs and a number of hotels. The burial records of the Episcopal Diocese of New York list his cause of death as “Bright’s Disease,” which is an old-fashioned term for a variety of kidney diseases. Treatment in the 19th century included spas, bloodletting, and unusual diets, none of which had any proven benefit. His sister Henrietta died from “Bright’s Disease” in 1901.
More heartbreak was on the horizon, for about a year later, on September 21, 1892, Sarah followed her husband to the grave. The 36-year-old widow and mother died of cancer (“carcinoma”) in New Rochelle, perhaps at the home of her sister-in-law Henrietta Bartow Jackson. The unhappy event is described in a letter at Bartow-Pell: “Both of her parents were with her and in a letter home [to Natchez] her mother wrote that ‘it was the saddest death I have ever been called upon to witness.’”
Sarah and Theodoret’s toddler daughter was now an orphan, and William H. Jackson, who was married to Theodora’s aunt Henrietta Bartow, was named as guardian in Sarah’s will. The Jacksons lived on Pelham Road and had no children of their own. Theodora was a pretty child, and documents show that she was well taken care of by her aunt and uncle. Dancing lessons, medical bills, and items from Lord & Taylor are some of the expenses noted in the guardianship accounting records. As heir to her mother’s estate, Theodora would inherit diamond jewelry, real estate, and financial investments when she turned 21.
In 1899, tragedy struck again when 8-year-old Theodora died on May 30 of a ruptured appendix. The estate she was too young to inherit then passed to her aunts, uncles, and their heirs. She was buried with her parents in the Bartow plot at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church near today’s Westchester Square in the Bronx.
Margaret Highland, Historian