By Jerry Pennington
This is a story about true love and treachery. It unfolded in Orange County in the latter half of the 19th Century and involved one of Orange's wealthiest and most prominent businessmen. Lessons of a non-romantic nature that can be taken from the story include: 1.The role of women in business and commerce in Orange even during the Victorian era. 2. The effect of hard work in the American system of capitalism. 3. The fact that you can run but you can't hide.
The love story is best begun in the middle with the obituary of Henry Thompson September, 1884. It read in part: "We are pained to announce the death of one of our most respected and opulent citizens, Mr. Henry Thompson, which occurred at his residence Sunday morning. His illness was brief, after scarcely a week's struggle he was borne to the land where eternal rest is promised to the righteous. Mr. Thompson came to Orange about the beginning of the war [Civil War], a poor man; but by honest industry and careful attention to business he succeeded in amassing quite a fortune. It may be said that he introduced the manufacture, by machinery, of shingles on the Sabine River....... Mr. Thompson leaves a wife to mourn his death, and she has the heart felt sympathy of the entire community."
What the obituary did not say (because no one knew) was that he left behind more than his wife, Sallie.
Henry met Sallie, his wife to be, in Hardin County in 1862. He was 33 and she was 17. In Court testimony 25 years later, she recalled he had been in Texas about 2 years before they met and he worked on the railroad. He had no property at all and they struggled financially because "it was a period of civil war". They moved to Orange and opened a small store by purchasing a few hundred dollars worth of goods on credit. She said they began in the "humblest way" and made money and accumulated means "slowly and gradually by our joint labor, counsel, economy, prudence and industry." Just 18 years later, when George Bancroft, the largest saw mill operator in Orange lost his mill to fire he credited Henry Thompson with his financial rescue in the form of a large loan. Henry and Sallie were well liked and admired as a couple in Orange. They were truly an America Success Story and built a large two story house on the river next to their store on a site which one day would be occupied by the Jack Tar Hotel.
Mercantile Store of Henry and Sallie Thompson Division Street at Sabine River, Orange Texas, circa 1884
Although Sallie Thompson refused to discuss in court "the course and events of our married life or its methods or history", she did say there was always "congeniality, sympathy, confidence and trustfulness between us" during their 22 year marriage. Letters maintained by the family bear out a good loving relationship. When Henry was in New York City buying goods for their store he wrote to her in Orange lovingly and often, chatting with her about his activities. During the last week of his life Sallie never left his side and soothed his fever and anguish brought on by malaria.
This, then, is the story of true love. Where is the treachery?
In 1885, less than a year after the death of her husband, Sallie, who was running the large mercantile store and shingle mill by herself, was served with a court injunction shutting down all of her business and freezing her assets in three different banks. The suit was filed by a woman in Canada claiming to be her husband's true widow! She produced a marriage license from Scotland and said, since he left no will and had never bothered with a divorce, she and her five children with Henry were the only rightful heirs to his fortune.
Sallie had to deal with disbelief, potential financial ruin, and of course the shame of what was probably the hottest gossip of the decade in a small lumber town. She hired lawyers in Houston and fought. During the battle she learned that her husband of 22 years had, in fact, walked out on a family of six in Canada shortly before he met her and kept that secret from everyone. He also had never bothered with a divorce or a will.
The court records end without any judgment showing the out come. The deed records show Sallie held on to all of her extensive real estate holdings. No one knows the final outcome but likely it involved some cash payment. Sallie remained in Orange until her death November 17, 1930. She had a will.
Henry Thompson standing