"He was a close observer of human nature, much of a reader, kept up with the literature of the day, an eminent merchant, and genial companion, fond of anecdotes, and possessed of general information."—Helen Hopkins Thom
Johns Hopkins' life story was one of clipper ships, Conestoga Wagons, cargo lines, the railroad, and well-made deals. The American entrepreneur, abolitionist, and philanthropist came from a family of Quakers. What follows is excerpted from our copy of a family biography written by his great-niece Helen Hopkins-Thom. Though mentioned daily in broadcasts or referenced in publications worldwide, very little is remembered or shared about the life of an American who gifted the world Johns Hopkins University and Johns Hopkins Hospital. This was made clear visiting for our college tour, we met no one with any idea who Johns Hopkins was. The stories revealing his generous, warm and visionary personality to our family, fell by the wayside. So, with that said, raise a glass of champagne and cheer the fantastic life of a great American. Hopkins is the third-great beloved uncle and namesake of my husband and eldest son.
Helen Hopkins-Thom felt a special kinship from early childhood with her great Uncle Johns. She learned late in life that in his last years he asked her parents if he could come and live with them and they'd refused. Her book is an expression of love, and an effort to rectify her parents' actions. Thankfully she wrote.
Johns Hopkins was born in 1795 to a family of Quakers on a tobacco plantation called Whitehall, in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. The King of England had granted land to William Hopkins, Samuel Hopkins' father, where a white brick house later sat on five hundred acres. Johns' father Samuel purchased his brothers' shares to the plantation. A favorite Hopkins pastime was fox hunting, often Johns and his older brother Joseph rose in the morning to saddle up "Rattler" and "Tom" and go riding. In 1792 Samuel married his bride Hannah Janney, bringing his eighteen-year-old bride from Virginia to Whitehall. Johns was very close to his mother; she played a large part in his future. Johns was one of eleven children and the second eldest son. The Hopkins of English ancestry historically belonged to the Church of England. In 1671, ancestor Gerard Hopkins met the Quaker preacher George Fox while Fox toured the colonies converting many to his religion of Friends, among them the Hopkins family.
Hannah Janney Hopkins read daily to her eleven children, knitting them woolen suits made of yarn from their flock. By a twist of fate, unknowingly, I made our baby mattress from our sheep's wool, and read to our children from Greek mythology—Hannah's favorite book was the Illiad of Homer. The Hopkins children heard the tale enough times that Hannah could tell it by heart, start to finish, and the children memorized sections. Epic tales for an epic future.
—Hannah lived to be ninety-one.
When Johns was about twelve years old, the narrative of life he knew at the plantation began unraveling. Discussions at Meetings every Sunday focused on the fledgling "Abolition" movement. After two months of disequilibrium and thoughtful reflection, the Society of Friends voted to free all slaves and a refusal not to do so meant expulsion from Quaker Society.
Whitehall, the home, and birthplace of Johns Hopkins.
In 1807 the Hopkins freed the slaves at Whitehall; all those able, were free to go, all those aged, or needing care were welcome to stay. Beloved Aunt Minty received a cabin and an ample allowance for life. Eldest son Joseph was called home from school in Alexandria to help work the fields, and Johns withdrew from the local school where he studied under an Oxford master. From then on everybody worked the land.
Johns loved History and English Literature and enjoyed reciting long passages of poems he memorized. His schoolmaster nick-named him "Johnsie Hopkins." Johnsie found time to work his studies at home around his field chores. And every Sunday the schoolmaster visited the Hopkins home for dinner and listened to him recite his readings. Johns was never able to finish his schooling, but because the love of learning anchored, he made himself into a well-read man with a lifelong intellectual curiosity. The lost schooling of his youth fueled his future dream of realizing a university, and in this way, he afforded others the experience he lost. During this period, Hopkins learned the lessons of "self-denial, industry and thrift," lessons that will significantly shape his future in the world of business.
The Hopkins children worked the plow and the field, and the family kept the plantation. From his mother, Johns learned the nature of generosity. When Johns turned seventeen, Hannah told him, "Thee has business ability... and thee must go where the money is." And so, Johnsie was sent to live with his Uncle Gerard Hopkins, a wholesale Grocery and Commission Merchant residing in Baltimore. He was close to Aunt Dolly who shared a sense of humor. When Johns turned nineteen, the Gerards were sent by the Society of Friends to attend a Quaker convention in Ohio. On leaving they placed Johns in charge of their young children and the business.
"So we shook hands and parted. I felt my responsibility to be very great, did as my uncle told me, and on his return, on looking over his affairs, he was surprised to find I had done much better than he had expected. I had increased his business considerably, and it is with pride and pleasure that I look back to that time, and to the great confidence, my Uncle reposed in me. I had to undergo much anxiety during their absence. It was the year 1814; the British forces had entered Washington, burned the capitol, and all kinds of rumors reached me. I well knew they would come to Baltimore. At last the unwelcome news was brought us; they were coming up the Chesapeake.
The citizens were alarmed, many leaving the city, and considerable confusion prevailed. I, having charge of the store and the little children at the dwelling and the relative who attended to them, it seemed to me that I had to carry a significant load. I felt it my duty to stay at the store, but the children went away. While I was troubled and debating in my mind what I should do, and where to send the children, as the people were fleeing in every direction, to my great surprise and joy my Uncle and Aunt arrived home, three days before the bombardment of Fort McHenry and the Battle of North Point." —Johns Hopkins
More "Privateers" of commerce sailed out of Baltimore with tobacco, grain, and flour than any other harbor in America. In this same year, 1814, Johns lost his father, Samuel Hopkins, of whom his niece Sarah Hopkins said; "What strength of mind, what fortitude! His mind was firm and unshaken as a rock, and his last words were, 'All is well.' "
While living and working with his uncle and family, Johns and his cousin Elizabeth fell in love. Johns proposed, and she accepted. When Johns approached his uncle to ask for her hand, he heard they couldn't marry; if you married a cousin in the Society of Friends, you ventured at your peril. As hard as Johns protested his uncle was unwavering. Johns was devastated, he and Elizabeth both felt that their love was transparent; why hadn't anyone said anything long before it developed into what they imagined everybody anticipated-- the desire for marriage. In what rivals the tale of Tristan and Isolde, Johns and Elizabeth pledged to remain loyal for life to each other.
After the failed courtship, Johnsie moved out of the home of Uncle Gerard and Aunt Dolly and into the Beltzoover Hotel. Young Johns and Uncle Gerard disagreed on more than the rules of marriage; Johns believed the sale of whiskey was a legitimate business and Uncle Gerard did not. Gerard Hopkins saw it as an avenue leading "souls into perdition," that withstanding he gave Johnsie ten thousand dollars to begin his business venture, and backing arrived from other relatives as well giving him a credit of thirty-thousand. His first business partner was Benjamin Moore; they established a partnership called Hopkins and Moore. Moore and Hopkins broke off their partnership after three years with Moore saying that the reason was; "Johns is the only man I know who wants to make money more than I do." Johns went into business solo enlisting three of his brothers, Philip, Gerard, and Mahlon, as salesmen and formed "Hopkins Brothers;" "Wholesale Provision House of Hopkins Brothers," cutting into markets in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina. He later brought his brother Samuel into the business without telling him, thereby saving him financially. Samuel had partnered in a lumber business that went bust; Johns settled the business debt closed it and without disclosing to his brother published the news that Samuel had joined Hopkins Brothers. Samuel protested, but in the end, he retired with a fortune.
Johns made it his practice to take moonshine in return for goods. He then rebottled it under the brand name "Hopkins Best," this started a rumor later (no evidence survives) in the 1920's that he sold whiskey to South Africa and had corrupted the missionaries there. His decision temporarily barred him from Quaker meetings. He made big money, and told a cousin Tom that "the first year I was in business, I sold $200,000 worth of goods." Late in his life, he stated that selling whiskey was the most significant mistake of his life. Johns worked at it for twenty-five years from age twenty-five until he was fifty and by then a wealthy man. He used his position to become the leading financial capitalist of Baltimore.
Johns lent money freely all over Baltimore. And was an excellent judge of character. Johns made it his business to buy up notes overdue, at a low figure, from Baltimore businesses. His name was so valuable as a business asset that he was paid well by companies that he endorsed, for the use of his name. His selections were thoughtfully made and astute, he rarely failed at decision making. Johns' greatest business move was the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. "Hopkins Brothers" had grown into a household name through the distribution of his goods by covered Conestoga wagons, each pulled by four to six horses with bells jingling. He instantly saw the advantage of a railroad and became the companies largest stockholder. When the railroad hit its darkest days, he pledged his wealth to back it.
"Johns was regarded as one of the greatest financial authorities of his day."
Johns had an eye for character. It gave him immense pleasure to aid young men in their hopeful business ventures. When the bank had refused a loan if a man won his character approval, Johns gave them credit, watching as their business succeeded, his loans repaid, and his decision proved. Once a friend commented that Johns had done an exemplary thing by helping a young man, to which Johns replied; 'Just a good piece of business, that's all."
One day Johns invited a young man whose family had been neighbors in Anne Arundel County to attend an auction with him saying "Henry, can thee go out with me to the Savage Factory to attend an auction sale? I want thee to bid on it." "Certainly Mr. Hopkins. Anything I can do for you I am glad to do." The auctioneer called "Going, going, gone!" William Henry Baldwin for $40,000, Savage Factory. Mr. Baldwin, I congratulate you on your purchase!". "Henry, thee has a cheap property," said Johns, while Henry looked at him and said, I don't have ten thousand dollars. Johns explained that he knew that Henry was the right person to run the factory, the gift made, and another young man's future laid out new.
Johns was thrift. He needed reminding to buy a new coat, as he often wore threadbare ones when he wore a jacket at all. "In his dress, Uncle Johns was always careless; he had to be urged to buy a new suit and never wore an overcoat even on the coldest days."
He loved country life, and the home he built called Clifton. Johns purchased an existing property which he enlarged to include over five hundred acres, remodeling the house in the Italianate style. He bought an imported Italian mantelpiece, China in profusion, sculpture, and paintings. He had an Italian artist paint a fresco mural of the Bay of Naples for his entrance hall. For his gardens, he purchased rare shrubs, plants and fruit trees; nectarine trees, fig bushes, grape arbors. One of his closest friends was his gardener, Fowler, an old Scottish gardener trained on the estate of the Duke of Buccleuch, 100,000-acre estate in England. On a visit to Baltimore, the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, paid a visit to Clifton, spending an afternoon visit with Johns. Always the financier, persons wishing to visit his gardens could buy tickets at his bank. Sadly, it was Johns' most vital wish to have the university located on the grounds at Clifton, and it didn't happen. After his death, the board of directors feared the location was too remote and too close to the brewery. How wrong they were! The plantings and gardens arranged by Johns had the future students in mind. He often walked at night through them with Fowler stopping to visit trees he especially admired.
Clifton—Johns Hopkins' country home.
"This estate Fowler is to be the site of a great university, a place where the young men of coming generations will have the opportunity which I have always dreamed. Young men will study great things here under these trees that thee and I have planted, and yonder, over nearer the Patapsco, will be a great hospital. I have thought it all out, Fowler. All my family will be taken care of according to their needs, but after that is done all I own shall go to these two children of mine, a university, and a hospital. Like the man in the parable, I have had many talents given to me, and I feel that they are in trust; I shall not bury them but give them to the lads who long for a broad education and who will do great things someday with the knowledge they receive here in this university. Thee knows, Fowler, for thee has seen me surrounded for years by my nieces and nephews, that I have a great fondness for young people and a great sympathy especially with young men who are ambitious to make their mark in the world. Well, they shall have a chance right here under the shadow of these old trees." —Johns Hopkins
Johns' love of children was evident when a child visited for dinner. He always had the high chair placed next to his chair. Johns was available to his nieces and nephews lifelong, helping them along with their endeavors. His interest in their lives was absolute. Dinners lasted hours at Clifton. Hopkins gathered his family close whenever he could generously sharing the best he could offer along with the fine wines he appreciated. Johns was adamant that even if one abstained from drink; at his table, the glass remained poured and you could refuse if you would, but not by making a statement that presumed a moral superiority over anyone else. He hated that idea. "Let the wine stand if thee does not want it, but don't publish thy temperance resolves."
"There was never dinner at Clifton without champagne..."
Johns was the founder and president of the Bank of Baltimore, and under his supervision the bank came to the aid of the city numerous times, lending the city one million dollars for defense preparations. He was a staunch Union supporter and an Abolitionist, outspoken, direct, terse and convincing, which made him enemies in the business community of Baltimore. His age and his Quaker faith prevented him from participating in the Civil War. But by his actions aiding young men denied success in the financial world, and by out right monetary gifts to others with his endorsement, Johns felt he helped in his way with the rebirth of the nation after the destruction of war.
Johnsie's favorite room was his library. There he passed the evening hours with his dog, Zeno. A case of cholera, a disease that hit and devastated Baltimore several times over his lifetime, left him with health ailments, and issues of insomnia. Often he was found walking the porches at Clifton late in the night on the arm of Fowler, finding solace in conversation and the gardens by moonlight. Johns knew the city lacked adequate medical facilities; he witnessed the ravaging toll that smallpox, yellow fever, and cholera had inflicted and this no doubt influenced his plans. Johns loved reading about travel but never found the time to take any voyages; he traveled no further than New Jersey. He felt his life was too circumscribed to permit stepping away from his duties both to his family and business. It was a regret he mentioned more than once in his later years.
Johns asked Elizabeth to tell him what direction they should follow, Elizabeth said that she was and would remain forever loyal. She didn't want the relationship altered between them. Elizabeth said she'd not marry and would stay his companion, there for him as long as he needed her. Neither did marry, and their exceptional dedication and friendship lasted as long as they lived. Johns purchased her a house around the corner from his home, and she lived there lifelong. Elizabeth died at eighty-eight in the house he'd given her. Asked by a nephew why he never married, Johns replied; "After I failed to win the woman I loved, marrying another would be wrong as I might fail to be true." Hopkins believed marriage was a sacred institution.
Johns Hopkins died the December 24th, 1873, at his home surrounded by his sister Eliza and his beloved dog Zeno. He left the most significant philanthropic legacy to date, the unprecedented sum of seven million dollars from which the two great institutions he dreamed of those many years materialized.
Johns visiting with Johns...