July 1993

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Madam Thornton

four reminiscences from the

The Centennial of Bath, 1793-1893

Rev. L. Merrill Miller, D. D.

from a speech on the evening of June 6, 1893
printed in The Centennial of Bath, 1793-1893, p. 17

Colonel Williamson had commenced building, in 1799, a grand country seat on his Springfield Farm, so-called, a mile and a half below the village, near Lake Salubria. It was the largest private dwelling in eastern New York, and calculated to dispense hospitality on a princely scale. Although constructed of wood, it was considered magnificent, with its spacious parlors broad halls and grand assembly room, with their high ceilings and heavy mouldings, all finished and furnished exquisitely after the latest style. It was flanked by two wings, each as large as an ordinary dwelling house, set off with piazzas and porticoes. The grounds about were artistically laid out and graced with ornamental trees and shrubs, and the then rare Lombardy poplars. On its completion, in 1801, he placed it in charge of Major Presley Thornton, a kinsman of Washington and an officer in the Revolution, who had just come from Virginia with a young wife of rare wit and beauty. She was long known as "The Madam," from her graceful and commanding ways. The colonel made his home with them after he retired from the agency, maintained the establishment, and dispensed its hospitality with a generous hand. The place became famous for its brilliant assemblies. For there gathered on such occasions all the beauty and aristocracy from all the Genesee country, and even the distant Susquehanna.

The Major died in 1806, and the Colonel soon after left for Europe and never returned. The Springfield Farm, with the appurtenances, passed into other hands. The purchaser failed and it fell to his creditors, and soon the famous mansion, with its gardens and walks, showed signs of decay and became a picture of desolation—the abode of the owl and the bat and other uncanny things. Thirty odd years ago it was taken down to give place to the present farm house of Mrs. R. B. Wilkes.

The Major brought with him a few slaves as household servants. He was followed the next year by Captain William Helm, a wealthy planter from Prince William county, Va., and his family and a retinue of about forty slaves. He purchased a number of farms and set these colored people cultivating them. He built a fine mansion on the present site of the First National Bank, and lived there in great splendor, says Austin Stewart his born thrall. He purchased and rebuilt the old grist mill erected by Williamson near the bridge, and engaged John Richardson, the grandfather of Clinton Richardson, as miller, who ground the first superfine flour. He entered into large speculations. His wife died, and on the death of Major Thornton he married his widow. His money soon gave out and his enterprises failed. Some of his slaves ran way; some were seized by the sheriff and sold to satisfy his creditors and his whole estate vanished. He became intemperate; the Madam left him, and, in 1826, he died in penury in this village, cared for only by one of his former chattels.

Ansel J. McCall

From the historical address printed in
The Centennial of Bath, 1793-1893, pp. 126-127

Among the names of those living in the early times, whose strong individuality and exceptional characteristics have been impressed upon the society of their day, and who have lived in tradition for generations after, may be mentioned that of Madam Susan Thornton. Many of us remember her in her old age, when she resided on East Morris street, and an old gentleman once related to me his impressions of her appearance, some years after her marriage with Captain Helm, one morning when he saw her walking across Pulteney Square from the Agency House to that of her husband. Their residence then stood on the corner, afterwards occupied by the Clinton House, and now by the Bank of Bath. He described her stately and graceful carriage, the brightness of her eyes and her handsome, attractive face. She was prominent in that period of festivity and lavish hospitality, when the old customs of Virginia were transplanted to the banks of the Conhocton, and many interesting events occurred in the life of this lady, to whom was always given the title of "Madam."

Louisa L. R. Pitkin

A letter printed in The Centennial of Bath, 1793 -1893, p. 147

156 South Fitzhugh Street
Rochester, N. Y.,
May 15, 1893


The following trifling reminiscences are sent, not for their value, but as an acknowledgment of the courtesy of an invitation for June 6th and 7th prox:

Possibly there are not many (if any) among the residents of Bath, who recall Mrs. Thornton-Helm as a personal acquaintance so early as 1817.1 spent the summer and fall of that year in my brother's family, in my 7th year. School life in B. is among my most pleasant recollections. A gentleman teacher, whose name I do not retain, daily intercourse with Virginia Thornton, Amelia Helm and Washington Helm furnished my recreation. Mrs. Thornton is a historical personage. Her seat at the left of the preacher, on the platform, was a weekly observation of my child life.

Her stately form, brunette complexion, with the invariable "turban" upon her head, made her a fair representation of her distinguished ancestress, Pocahontas.

Mrs. Thornton's hospitality was proverbial. Next door neighbor to my sister, Mrs. M. E. (Harvey) Montgomery, she was the source of helpfulness in many ways during Mrs. M's. extreme youthfulness as a housekeeper. She married at 16 years of age, going from Dansville to Bath, and always felt unbounded gratitude for Mrs. Thornton's kindness. Mr. Montgomery's two eldest children were born in Bath—William Rochester Montgomery in 1813. He now lives in Hillsdale, Michigan. The second, Sophia Harriet Montgomery, died in her 21st year in this city.

My brother, Wm. B. Rochester, was some years a resident of your beautiful town—beautiful for its surrounding hills, etc., etc. He married for his second wife, while there, Miss Amanda Hopkins, of the adjoining village of Springfield. Her only remaining child is Gen. Wm. B. Rochester, of Washingtron, D. C, ex-Paymaster of the United State Army.

The antique view of your program with its back-view of hill, is well remembered by me.

Respectfully, LOUISA L. R. PITKIN.

William Howells

Letter to the Centennial Committee. (Page 271 The Centennial of Bath, 1793 - 1893.)

Nor were the citizens of Bath, at the time of which I speak, unmindful of the dignity of learning or unskilled in the conventional amenities of social life. From the traditional period of the early glories of the village the women of Bath had been noted for their beauty and the generous hospitality of their homes, and who that ever saw Madam Thornton, even in the stately decadence of her fortunes, will doubt that the minuet and cotillion in Bath would answer the most rigorous demands of the Eastern cities?

Sherman S. Rogers

From the Centennial Oration of , delivered June 7, 1893. (Page 247 The Centennial of Bath, 1793 - 1893.)

I remember very well Madam Thornton, respecting whom several things have been said here to-day. I am glad to add one word more. Past her prime a little, as I first saw her, she was still stately in her uprightness and queenly in her movements. With all her singularities and unique use of language, which many of you understand, she had also wonderful and sterling qualities. In the great reverses which came to her, from being the owner of many slaves and much property, and holding a high position in society, and thence down to real poverty and need through severe experiences, she manifested singular patience and fortitude. The nearest to complaint, which I recall, was once her saying, "I should be very content, while I staid here, were I sure of the same fare my old servants always had in my kitchen." She came to Ogdensburg, where I saw her to the last. Supported by simple faith in Christ, and trusting to him as the Resurrection and the Life, she calmly waited her decease. To friends, telling her death was near, she replied, "Hush." She wished to go quietly and silently. I am glad to add this simple testimony concerning Madam Thornton to all that has been said about her to-day.

The Steuben County Historical Society has reprinted The Centennial of Bath, New York, 1793 -1893. The book has orations, reminiscences, a general history of the village, and an index. 280 pages. Send payment of $22.95, s/h $3.00 to SCHS, P.O. Box 349, Bath, NY 14810.
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