Who Was Richard Henry Jones?
by Greg Carter
Richard Henry Jones suffered a paralytic stroke in late February 1896 at the age of fifty-five. His crippled condition left him incapable of speech for several days, and too weak to write. He made illegible scribbles on paper, but visitors who implored him to unlock a decades-long secret gained nothing. At 8:45 pm on Tuesday, March 10, Jones died surrounded by his eldest son’s family in Saint Augustine, Florida. His life in America ended as it had begun 25 years earlier: hidden behind an assumed name, with a vacant genealogy, and only rumors towards a search for identity that would mystify four generations.
Who was Richard Henry Jones? Was he an heir to a prominent British banking family, a boy prodigy chosen for elite training in choral music, a decorated naval war hero, or an artisan painter scraping for work during the Reconstruction of the American South? Though the oral history has become diluted, with misplaced aspirations and errors of naiveté, Jones was quite possibly all of these things. Or, as likely, his greatest secret may have been that the facts of his life were as simple as they appear.
The documents of Jones’ life tell a fairly short and straightforward story. This is particularly true, if one explores his story backwards.
Though Jones lived his final ten years in Saint Augustine, his body was returned for burial in Old City Cemetery in Jacksonville, where he lived and worked sporadically between 1870 and 1886. In Jacksonville, Jones made his living as a decorative painter, operating a paint shop under the name Jones & Verrel in 1884, and apprenticing his son, Harry, who continued as a painting contractor until retirement. Father and son were photographed outside Milford Paint, another possible employer, who advertised sign-painting and decorative painting services on their storefront façade. The elder Jones may have also been under the employ of Gilmore & Son Painters in Jacksonville. He was at least acquainted with the proprietor, Archibald Gilmore, who was such an esteemed citizen of North Florida that the town of Mill Cove eventually took his name. For two years (probably 1880-81), Gilmore boarded the Jones children in Mill Cove twelve miles below Jacksonville, while their father pursued projects in Tallahassee.
Along with painting, Jones was also an accomplished musician. He was an organist at Saint John’s Episcopal Church in Jacksonville, and his son stated proudly in youthful correspondence that his father played "the biggest organ in the South" during his days in Tallahassee. As very young boys, Harry Jones and his brother Howard joined their mother and father at the organ each night for an evening hymn. Harry again inherited an artistic gift from his father, and sang in both the Saint Augustine Cathedral and Trinity Episcopal Church choirs throughout his adult life.
Richard Henry Jones was married March 25, 1872, to Charlotte Elizabeth Abbott, as few as two years after his arrival in Jacksonville and as few as three years after his immigration to the United States. As an engagement ring, she wore an eighteen karat gold band, bought for ten dollars from JJ Holland Jewelers, on Bay Street, exactly twelve months before his wedding day. Abbott was nineteen that day, and was a fairly new citizen of Florida herself.
The Abbott family were permanent residents of Cleveland, Ohio. Charlotte Abbott’s father was Reverend Caleb J Abbott, a Presbyterian minister from New York, who taught music like her future husband. Charlotte’s mother was Lucy Keys, who was born in Wolcott, Connecticut, near New Haven, and whose father was also clergyman. The Keys moved to Tallmadge County, Ohio in 1824, and Lucy married Caleb Abbott fourteen years later in Newburg. They had five children, and settled for a time in Saint Louis, Missouri, where Charlotte was born. By the time of the federal census of 1870, the Abbotts and their two teenaged daughters were at least seasonally living in Jacksonville. Her parents were away from Florida, however, before grandchildren were born in 1873 (February 5) and 1874 (April 19). Those announcements, from the still newly wedded couple to the Abbotts, were sent to Cleveland.
For three years, the small Jones family of four struggled to make payments on a house in Jacksonville, which was mortgaged under Charlotte’s name. Tragically, it was in that house that Charlotte died Friday, July 16, 1875, at the age of twenty-two. Her sons were twenty-nine months (Harry) and fifteen months (Howard) old. In August of that year, Jones picked up an unfinished letter—a greeting really—from his deceased wife to Lucy Abbott, weakly scribbled less than seven days before her death. Jones completed the message with a description of his loneliness and economic hardship since the tragedy, and an appeal for help. At the time, he was unemployed or under-employed, with no prospects in Jacksonville until winter. The boys were home, under the care of a nurse, for whom he paid board, wages, and laundry. Along with his children’s needs, Jones’ expenses had increased from thirty-five dollars to seventy-five dollars a month, and he was eager to sell or rent the home, while moving the family to Cleveland. The Abbotts, however, controlled Jones’ property, and though no written response survives, the Abbotts apparently furnished some means for father and sons to remain in Florida. On September 6, 1875, Jones was named administrator of his wife’s estate in Duval County Court. His sons never moved to Ohio.
Instead, the Jones boys grew to adulthood in Saint Augustine, where the family arrived in 1886 or 1887. Harry married Ellen Lyons Pacetty less than a year before his father’s death, raised four daughters and knew three grandchildren in a house at 56 Marine Street, before his own passing in 1942 at the age of sixty-eight. His brother, Howard, left Florida for northern states, where he married and raised children who communicated regularly with their Florida cousins. He died in Dover, New Jersey, in 1933 at the age of fifty-nine.
Whether Howard consciously followed his mysterious father’s footsteps to New Jersey is unknown. If, in fact, Jones developed an alias upon arriving in America, then he debuted his new self in Newark, New Jersey. In July 1869, "H. Jones" received a receipt for four dollars from the International Order of Odd Fellows in Newark—a slip presumably acknowledging his dues. This receipt remains the earliest document of Jones’ life in the United States, and the first paper record of his American alias.
It is important to understand that the legend of the alias is entirely family folklore. Nowhere in any printed records, interviews, or court documents did Jones himself ever claim to have lived under any other name in his life. His son however, swore in letters just before and after his father’s stroke that the existence of the alias was common knowledge. His Ohio grandmother, Lucy Abbott, supported the story in a letter in 1896, suggesting that in life, Charlotte Abbott had been under the same impression.
Beginning weeks before Jones' death in 1896, Harry began a letter writing campaign to sources in London, Liverpool, Manchester, and New York, seeking a trail towards his family’s true name and true lineage. The biography of his father shifted slightly during the four decades of correspondence, but was based mostly on two sources.
The most reliable source was an 1884 interview with Richard Henry Jones published in the Florida Herald of Jacksonville. Titled, "Interesting Reminiscences of a Participant", the piece appeared in the April 1, 1884, edition of the Herald, and allowed Harry to remember his boyhood adventures in the Royal Navy during the Crimean War.
Harry's second source was a bragging story of his father’s, that linked him in childhood to the famous British composer Sir Arthur Sullivan. Though it failed to survive, a letter from Sullivan, which Harry himself had seen, was once used by Jones to prove his claim of friendship to the great librettist. They were friends in youth, and sang together in a select choir of boys shortly before Jones' escape for adventure in the navy.
Marrying the primary written and narrative sources, Harry's biography of his father was further augmented by clues of memory. Jones had, for instance, spoken of a godfather in England named Portal, and had suggested that his schooling was intended to set him up in the Bank of England, for which the Portals manufactured banknotes. The select college he attended with Sullivan was in London, but Jones also purported to have been born on Upper Parliament Street, Liverpool, some 500 miles to the north. Allegedly, his relatives attended a church in Manchester (also north) "which had the name of Jones" and dated 1666. Jones had both a brother and a sister in England, who lived with an appointed guardian after their mother and father died. He made contact at least once with the sister, who emigrated to Australia. To her, Jones sent two of his three service medals, sometime after 1884, when the Florida Herald reporter had inspected all three at the Jones & Verrel paint shop.
If one accepts both the interview and the Sullivan story as fact, then Harry's boyhood most likely followed a path like his famous choir mate. Sir Arthur Sullivan was born in 1842. Harry was either born in 1841 or early 1842 himself, so that he was fifty-five at his death in March 1896 (according to his obituary). Sullivan sang first in the choir of Sandhurst Parish Church, then at the Chapel Royal between April 1854 and sometime in 1857. If Jones ran away from a London boarding school at the age of eleven (1852), he was in the navy before either boy would have been selected for the Chapel Royal. Furthermore, Jones received decoration for his part in a historic military encounter in 1851.
Jones himself might have misremembered his age in leaving school. His obituary is also unreliable. Because of the physical presence of the medals, the military record is most trustworthy. He entered the Royal Navy on board the sloop of war, HMS Diamond, commanded by Captain CB Hamilton. He served as second class boy (powder monkey), whose duties were to pass charges from the magazine to the guns, and was stationed at gun number six.
Diamond arrived at Balaklava in the Crimea in 1851. Upon arriving, half the crew was sent to man a twenty-two gun battery on shore. Jones was wounded in the arm by a shell fragment during the fighting, leaving a mark that he carried always. Because the wounded were sent back to their ships in Balaklava, Jones was aboard ship during the siege of Sebastopol. Diamond returned to England for fitting out.
Jones continued service on a vessel sent to China, and laid sixteen miles below Canton for eight months. The British made a descent on the city and captured the Chinese governor. Jones' vessel then left with 500 wounded from Hong Kong. En route, they collided with a Dutch ship and lost forty-five men, along with spars, masts, and rigging. The damaged ship then was then victim to Asiatic cholera, which killed men fast enough to require funerals every two hours, to require a tow boat for the bodies (on which Jones was stationed), and to stop in Singapore for burial. After refitting in Singapore, the vessel returned to England, were the crew was discharged. Jones joined a last man-of-war heading to New Zealand in 1853, where he was at the taking of Taranaki from the Maoris.
There is a sizable gap in the timeline between the end of Jones’ naval service (c1854) and his dues receipt at the IOOF in Newark in 1869. Lucy Abbott told her grandson that in disowning his past, Jones had often remarked that Newark was his home. He perhaps lived in New Jersey during this entire span. There is also a family legend that Jones moved to Florida to outwit a lawyer sent by his people in England to return him to the United Kingdom.
Unfortunately, none of Jones’s history has been supported by research. No chorister who was a classmate with Sir Arthur Sullivan used the names Jones or Portal. And none ran away during the period in question. The Portal family secretary informed Jones in 1896 that there was no lost member of their clan. The navy’s meticulous records offer no one of the proper age, background, or name to match Jones' particulars.
In 1930, the Public Record Office in London returned the name of a seaman on HMS Diamond who enlisted as Henry Jones in 1848. His record included service as a second class boy on two vessels (HMS Maander and HMS Impregnable) before promotion under Captain Hamilton’s command on HMS Diamond, after which he was discharged, in 1857. This Henry Jones was born August 2, 1833, in Wandsworth, Surrey, London, and lived in Wandsworth. He was of fair complexion, blue eyes, and light brown hair.
Tantalizingly, the Public Record Office offered no further trace of Henry Jones beyond his military discharge. Disappointingly, acceptance of this identity for Harry effectively eliminated the Sullivan connection as tall tale, invalidated any suggestion of a blood tie to the aristocratic Portals, and diluted the daring of a young boy’s military accomplishment by adding nine years to Jones' age.
The truth may have fallen somewhere in between the character portrayed by the Public Records Office and the one clung to by Harry and many of his descendants. If one endorsed Henry Jones as Richard Henry Jones, the enlistment in 1848 rose off the page as the most reliable date on the record. If Jones was under an age limit when he wanted to sign-up, however, it was not impossible to think he had lied about the year 1833 when giving a date of birth to the Navy. Though a seven year old could never have talked his way into the service, an eleven or twelve year old might have passed for fifteen, thus placing Jones' real birth year possibly in 1836. This made Harry too old to have been truly a contemporary of Sullivan, but not too old to have shared experiences and mutual friends. If Harry truly carried a personal correspondence from the celebrity, he may have simply appealed to Sullivan as a countryman and a veteran of the same musical pedigree.
Discharged from the Navy in 1857, this version of Jones might have been only twenty-one when he returned to civilian life. He might have lived twelve more years in England as a young adult during which he might have returned to music professionally or semi-professionally, and performed Gilbert & Sullivan light opera. Somewhere during this period, he also learned painting, and might have worked in some of the same theatres as Sullivan during the height of the librettist's career.
The Portal connection was the most damaged by this scenario, but it was also the least supported by the events of Jones' life. Though Harry remembered that his father was escaping his family in moving to America, Lucy Abbott told her grandson that Jones promised someday to take Charlotte to England. By the time he and Charlotte were engaged, the threat in London was either gone or hadn't been invented yet. Jones was also nearly destitute with two babies when his wife died in 1872. Though it might have compromised his convictions, a wealthy family in Britain could've been a more palatable place to appeal for support that his mother-in-law in Ohio. Unless the wealthy family was a later fabrication for the benefit of wide-eyed children.
Harry Jones, for one, accepted the Navy's Henry Jones as a likely identity of his father. Upon receiving the initial report in 1930, Harry wrote to several offices in London and the British Consulate in Jacksonville seeking certificates of birth and death for this Henry Jones. His efforts died in the bureaucracy of public records and the difficulty of overseas communication during this era.
His discovery, however limited, made it possible that the answer to the mystery of Harry Jones was, in fact, that there was very little mystery to begin with.