Osborne family.

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Three generations of the Osborne family are represented in this collection. There are, in addition, papers from an earlier generation of the Coffin, Pelham and Wright families. Major figures in the collection are described in the following historical sketch.

The papers of Peter Pelham (b. Dec. 18, 1785) form the earliest body of records. As a U.S. Army officer in the War of 1812, he was wounded and captured by the British, then returned to American lines in exchange for British prisoners. After the war Pelham was promoted to captain and stationed in the Florida Territory as a sub-agent for Indian affairs. Among his correspondents between 1812 and 1826 were Secretary of War John C. Calhoun, Col. Henry Atkinson, who was his uncle, Col. Henry Leavenworth, and Col. Josiah Snelling. Later, as an Army recruiter, Capt. Pelham toured the Middle States and traveled the frontier from St. Louis to the Upper Mississippi. Correspondence and military orders are dated from such outposts as Camp Cold Water, St. Peters, Detroit and Prairie du Chien. Pelham married Martha Coffin, the sister of Lucretia Coffin Mott and the daughter of Nantucket and Philadelphia Quakers. They had one child, Marianna. Capt. Pelham again dispatched to the Florida Territory, died on July 10, 1826, near Pensacola.

Martha Coffin Pelham remarried in 1829. Her second husband was David Wright (b. Mar. 18, 1806), who moved from Pennsylvania as a young man and practiced law in Auburn, N.Y. There were six children from the second marriage, among them Eliza (see below); Ellen, who married William Lloyd Garrison Jr; and William, who married Flora MacMartin, a relative of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The Wrights and the Coffins, and their relatives in the Mott family, were active in the movements for women's rights and abolition. Martha Coffin Wright died in 1875 and David Wright in 1897.

Eliza Wright, Martha and David's eldest daughter, married David Munson Osborne in 1851. Osborne (b. Dec. 15, 1822) was the son of John Hall Osborne and Caroline Bulkley of Rye, N.Y. When John Osborne died in 1839, David was left to support his mother, brothers and sisters. He began his business career as a clerk in a New York City hardware store. In the course of his work he met James Watrous, an Auburn storekeeper who invited Osborne to become a junior partner in his enterprise. Osborne moved to Auburn and in the following year sent for his family in Rye.

When James Watrous retired, Osborne assumed control of the store but abandoned it soon afterwards to manufacture straw cutters and corn shellers. After the business failed, Osborne moved to employment in Buffalo. As general superintendent of the Buffalo Agricultural Works, he met William Kirby, a mechanic who possessed untried patents for agricultural machinery. Soon Osborne was back in Auburn with Kirby. Their new company turned out 200 combination mowers and reapers in 1857, and in the national trials held in Syracuse that year the Kirby machine took second prize behind the winning entry of Cyrus McCormick. By 1866, having won two blue ribbons in the national trials, D.M. Osborne & Co. was solidly established, and about to distribute machines in Europe as well as America. Eventually there were offices and warehouses in Philadelphia, Chicago, St. Louis, San Francisco, Hamburg, Paris, Odessa, Sydney and Buenos Aires.

As a Republican, David Munson Osborne took an active part in local politics, being elected alderman from 1871 to 1874 and mayor from 1879 to 1880. After his death in 1886, his wife continued to interest herself in the arts and education in Auburn. She died in 1911.

The Osbornes had four children: Emily married Frederick Harris, a banker from Springfield, Mass.; Florence, the second born, died when she was twenty-one; Thomas Mott (see below) married Agnes Devens of Cambridge; and Helen married James J. Storrow Jr., a financier in the Boston firm of Lee, Higginson & Co. All these people wrote scores of letters around the turn of the century, and the correspondence of Thomas Mott Osborne amounts to thousands of items between 1880 and 1926.

Thomas Mott Osborne (b. Sep 23, 1859), only son of Eliza and Davud Munson Osborne, acquired a taste for music and the theater from his mother. At Harvard he directed the orchestra and glee club and was a member of the Hasty Pudding Club. Once back in Auburn, he turned his personal recreations into service for the community by inviting troupes of actors to the city and underwriting the cost of their performances. He conducted the city's amateur orchestra, which he founded, and before the concerts he sometimes delivered lectures on the music of Mozart, Beethoven and Wagner. Osborne was acquainted with Walter Damrosch, corresponded with Melville Clark, and on one occasion conducted the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra. In spare moments he wrote closet drama. Later in life, as a prison warden, he encouraged inmates to produce musicals, while on other occasions he made them captives for one of his importations.

He performed well in his studies at Harvard, graduating with honors in 1884. The business-sense he gained from his father disposed him to be among the founders. of the Harvard Cooperative Society, but though he later kept careful accounts to survive for twenty years as a corporation executive, he detested the office of a businessman. In 1887 he assumed the presidency of his late father's company. He directed the firm until 1903 when J.P. Morgan and associates purchased factories and stock for the International Harvester Trust Co. Osborne also held the positions of president in the Auburn Iron Works and the Cayuga County Dairy Co. and vice-president in the Eagle Wagon Works and the Columbian Rope Co. He was a principal stockholder of the National Bank of Auburn and one of its directors.

In 1886 Osborne married Agnes Devens of Cambridge, Mass. They had four children, all boys: David Munson Osborne II, Charles Devens Osborne, Arthur Lithgow Osborne and Robert Klipfel Osborne . Agnes Devens died at thirty-one, a month after giving birth to her fourth child.

After losing his wife, Osborne channeled more energy into politics, philanthropy and social reform. In the first presidential election in which he had been eligible to vote he abandoned the Osborne heritage of Republicanism and the politics of James G. Blaine to support Grover Cleveland and the Democratic Party. Thereafter he was generally found among the Democrats, except for recurring intervals when his principles forced him into short-lived third parties or back to the fold of Republicans.

In 1894 he was candidate for Lt. Governor of New York on the Citizen's Union ticket. As an eastern manufacturer, Osborne bolted Bryan's plank of "Free Silver" in 1896 and 1900; but when the silver issue was dead in 1908, Osborne returned to Bryan and the Democratic Party. When the Buffalo Democratic Convention (1906) nominated William Randolph Hearst for governor, Osborne was among the "Honor-Democrats" who campaigned for the Republican, Charles Evans Hughes. With the patrician's contempt for Hearst's "hysterical journalism," Osborne denounced the publisher as a self-advertised "saviour" who played to the ignorance of the multitude while trading secretly with Tammany Hall and the trusts. Osborne went out on the stump for Hughes, who, when elected, rewarded Osborne with a seat on the Public Service Commission.

Osborne worked for the Hughes administration two and a half years, during- which he wrote two striking opinions against the New York Central Railroad. In the first case, he employed a tactic to which he reverted throughout his life: he obtained first-hand information by use of a disguise. Soon Commissioner Osborne was riding the rails in the rags of a hobo. Observing railroad procedures between New York and Albany, he perceived that the crews of heavy freights could not be reduced from six men to five without a loss of safety and that a second brakeman was essential for switching operations, especially at night.

In another decision, Osborne revealed an inclination to challenge wealth and power when they were used irresponsibly. His dissenting brief in the Buffalo, Rochester & Erie Railroad case argued against a continuation of the New York Central's monopoly along the westward route from Albany. He accepted the proposition that public service corporations confined to a small community might be maintained as "local monopolies" but he would not countenance a state-wide utility in private hands, "even with the curb of the Public Service Commission." According to Osborne, willing competitors like the B.R. & E. should not be discouraged by state agencies from challenging established monopolies. Public convenience and the state's network of transportation benefitted from sound competition.

Osborne resigned from the Public Service Commission to convene the Saratoga Conference, out of which emerged the Democratic League with Osborne as chairman. His political aspirations crested when Cayuga County put him forward as a gubernatorial candidate. He failed in the nomination of 1910 but remained with the Democratic Party. The winner and a lukewarm political ally, Governor John A. Dix, tucked him away as Forest, Fish and Game Commissioner, a post Osborne soon resigned.

Osborne was a leader of the Democratic Party of Cayuga County and a factor in New York State politics between 1905 and 1912, when he canvassed the state for Woodrow Wilson. In his first campaign for mayor of Auburn, Osborne had breathed new life into local politics. Among his achievements, he introduced new efficiency into municipal administration and won a home rule charter for the city. As Osborne left the mayor's office in 1905, he founded the Auburn Publishing Co. Through its daily newspaper, The Auburn Citizen, he extended his influence as the prod behind Democratic successes upstate. His "political dynamite," as a Harvard friend called it, pushed national issues into the background and battered the Republican steamroller to a standstill.

Concurrent with his activism in business, public administration and politics, Osborne carried a full burden of philanthropic obligations. The George Junior Republic of Freeville, N.Y., absorbed his time and money for fifteen years. The Republic accepted marginally delinquent youth and experimented with the honor system, paid labor and self-government to guide its "citizens" away from new brushes with the law.

In 1896 Osborne was a trustee and later was elected President of the Board. From this station he was able to translate into action his theories on education and citizenship. An indication of the mutual trust which tied "Uncle Tom" to the young who gave him the nickname was the heavy correspondence he maintained with them after they left Freeville. Osborne followed many a career with counsel and cash. At least three of the brightest young men Osborne spotted at the Republic were financed through prep schools and then, like his own sons, sent on to Harvard. It was much the same later with convicts whom he befriended, for his work at the George Junior Republic led to a concern for inmates of the state's prisons.

In 1913 Osborne was appointed chairman of the New York State Commission on Prison Reform. He cast about for a device to excite the public imagination and turned to his old tactic. In the guise of a sentenced criminal, Osborne had himself incarcerated in Auburn Prison as "Tom Brown-33333." A book-length account of his ordeal and that of the men forgotten there, Within Prison Walls (1913), created a sensation. The power of the state was committed to his reforms, and the politicians would have to give way. Osborne began to prune his interests in the field of Progressive reform in order to concentrate his energies in the service of an enlightened penology.

With Warden Charles Rattigan at Auburn, Osborne organized a self-governing body of convicts within the prison. The Mutual Welfare League, as it was called, took over large shares of prison management after an election of officers among the prisoners.. Old timers held their breath as Osborne spun out his theories. According to Osborne, the "old system".had crippled men by telling them when to move or speak; the "new system" loosened the lockstep of prison regime and prepared a man to live in freedom without being a threat to society. For too long, prisons had been "nurseries. of crime" where society retaliated against the "criminal type." Osborne rejected "bad seed" theories and proposed to cultivate the positive human instincts implanted in every man. On a few occasions Osborne was betrayed by a man in his custody, but for a decade in a handful of prisons he broke the cycle of revenge between society and the convict. The function of state prisons was "not revenge but education." The Mutual Welfare League became a school of reformation inside the walls, and an "outside branch" was to help parolees secure jobs. Otherwise, three out of every five men who left prison would return, convicted of a new crime.

A corollary of Osborne's doctrine of developing social responsibility was his active opposition to capital punishment. A scientific basis was lacking for the claim that fear of execution deterred major crimes and, in Osborne's opinion, the death sentence was proof of the system's ethic of reprisal.

Osborne wanted fundamental changes in the judicial structure to incorporate the "indeterminate sentence." This idea demanded the ultimate flexibility on the part of the state. In essence, it provided that men who were ill-equipped to function in society would not be released at the end of a fixed term, which was determined by the crime and not the evolving attitudes of the criminal. By the same token, a reformed man should not be required to go stale in prison until his sentence expired:

The whole of criminal legal procedure and prison government must be recast and should consist of two kinds of court. First, courts of condemnation, whose duty is to ascertain whether a given man had done a particular act. If so the man must receive an indeterminate sentence. And, second, courts of Release, Commissioners or Experts, whose duty shall be to decide when and whether it is safe to let the criminal out.

In December, 1914, Osborne began to implement some of his ideas as the new warden of Sing Sing Prison at Ossining, New York. His administration produced mixed results. A profound change occurred inside the prison as conditions leading directly to physical and psychological breakdowns were immediately attacked. Judging by the transformation of spirit which followed, the Sing Sing chapter of the Mutual Welfare League bore out Osborne's theories about tapping the good will of convicts. But outside the prison Osborne ran into a wall of obstruction. The Westchester County machine, which had counted the wardenship among its plums of patronage, regarded Osborne, the upstate reformer, an alien twice over. Other wardens and high administrators in the New York prison system were out of sympathy with his moral agitation, and a chorus within the press never let him off for "sentimental coddling." In this atmosphere political enemies plotted to defame Osborne before having him removed from office.

Late in 1915 Warden Osborne was summoned into court on trumped-up charges. The Westchester Grand Jury indicted him, but the absurdity of the charges was manifest when Judge Arthur S. Tompkins dismissed the case in mid-trial without hearing the case for the defense. Sing Sing celebrated the return of its warden, but though Osborne had been vindicated, the allegations remained fastened to his reputation. The atmosphere between Ossining and Albany turned sour. Osborne hung on till October, 1916, when, in an open letter of resignation, he blasted away at Governor Whitman for his lack of resolution and principle:

But I do so desire to influence the future, so far as I may, to the end that no man so weak as yourself, so shifty, so selfish, so false, so cruel, may be trusted with further power.

Osborne's effective service at Sing Sing amounted to little more than sixteen months. With George W. Kirchwey, Harry Elmer Barnes, Samuel A. Eliot and others, Osborne continued to advocate the cause of penal reform, but through private agencies. At the same time, Osborne sent out inquiries to Maryland, Maine, Pennsylvania and elsewhere for another job as warden.

While many avenues of Progressive reform were barred by the advent of World War I, Osborne was offered, through the good offices of his friend, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the wardenship of the U.S. Naval Prison in Portsmouth, N.H. Political mountebanks, hard-line penologists and a few ranking navy men received Lt. Cmdr. Osborne's unsparing criticism when they interfered with his program at the naval stockade, but at Portsmouth Osborne had the counsel and backing of the Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels and his assistant, Roosevelt. Osborne's work at the Naval Prison was thus a success, despite the anticipated obstruction. It might also be noted that Osborne ushered in his mission to Portsmouth with a hitch in the Navy as "Landsman Tom Brown." By design, Brown served a stretch in the brig and had his enlistment cut short by a dishonorable discharge.

After leaving Portsmouth Osborne redoubled his efforts through private agencies and led a column of the Progressive drive deep into the Twenties. He was honorary chairman of the National Committee on Prisons, president of the New York State Prison Council, and chairman of the National Society of Penal Information. His practical efforts gave temporary relief to the people with whom he had personal contact, and the societies he founded continue to function. The National Society of Penal Information, the Welfare League Association and the Osborne Association banded together in 1932 under the name of the last agency. With headquarters in New York City, the Osborne Association continues to provide ex-prisoners with lodging, job information and social services which are calculated to discourage recidivism. At the same time, the Association provides information to active penologists in an effort to raise the nation's correctional standards.

During his life Osborne routinely collided with entrenched ignorance. At times he was close to despair: "It is no use talking, the politicians are too strong for us." Soon he would recover his former zest. Based upon Osborne's personal inspection of more than thirty prisons in the Twenties, reports were published on prison conditions in the United States, Britain and Greece. His film, The Right Way, enabled him to tour the country to spread the message of prison reform.

On the lecture circuit in Nashville six months before his death Osborne summed up his program:

Now what I have been trying to get at in my life-time is that in the vast majority of instances a prisoner is bound to take his place again in society. He can either be prepared for that obligation in a manner that will deter him from being a future menace, and make him a useful member, or he can be so treated during his incarceration that when he gets out again he will be a positive evil and tenfold more troublesome than before. My position on the problem is that criminals are prepared for a return to society neither by brutality and harshness, nor by sentimental, slushy treatment. My program has been to find out what good qualities• the prisoner has and to work on those qualities until his point of view toward life has been changed.

Thomas Mott Osborne died on October 20, 1926, while returning home from an evening at the theater.

Lithgow Osborne (b. Apr. 2, 1892) was the third son of Thomas Mott Osborne. When he was in the middle of his senior year at Harvard, Joseph C. Grew snapped him up for an assignment in the U.S. Embassy in Berlin. That was 1914, when American overseas staffs were expanding rapidly to deal with the repercussions of the European War. As private secretary to Ambassador James W. Gerard, and later as third secretary of the embassy, Lithgow Osborne was plunged into the diplomatic and social life of wartime Germany. His journals recount the excitement and the routine between 1915 and 1917. Shortly before President Wilson broke relations with Germany, Osborne was transferred to the American Legation in Havana. Because of his familiarity with European affairs he was soon returned to the Continent as Secretary of the American Legation in Copenhagen. There he met Countess Lillie Raben-Levetzau, whom he married. They had three sons: Richard, Lithgow Devens and Frederick Raben-Levetzau.

After the Paris Peace Conference Osborne returned to Washington, D.C. He worked within the State Department for a few years but resigned to cut a new career as a publisher. At Harvard Osborne had excelled in English and been elected to the Crimson. In 1922 he became the vice-president and editorial writer of the Auburn Citizen-Advertiser. A decade later he was back in government when Governor Herbert H. Lehman appointed him Commissioner of Conservation. After another ten years he departed Albany for Washington and a desk in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Late in the war, when Lehman was shaping the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), Osborne joined his staff. A little later, President Roosevelt made Osborne. Ambassador to Norway, a post he held until May, 1946.

For several years after his return from Oslo Lithgow Osborne was chairman of the board of trustees for the American-Scandinavian Foundation. In 1954 he helped draft the original Declaration of Atlantic Unity, which was both a statement of purpose and an agency designed to bolster the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). A second Declaration of Atlantic Unity (1962) was sponsored by 270 American and European statesmen, some of whose correspondence is present in the collection.

Non-correspondence materials in the collection mostly relate to members of the Osborne family who have been described here, but there is an abundance of letters from other relatives and business acquaintances. A list of important correspondents is found in the description, which follows, and the accompanying genealogical charts will help in the identification of secondary figures in the family.

Genealogical charts:

Osborne Family (A) - John Hall Osborne and offspring Osborne Family (B) - Thomas Mott Osborne and offspring Coffin family Devens family Garrison family Harris family Mott family Pelham family Storrow family Wright family Yarnall family

From the guide to the Osborne Family Papers, 1786-1968, 1880-1925, (Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
creatorOf Osborne Family Papers, 1786-1968, 1880-1925 Syracuse University. Library. Special Collections Research Center
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
associatedWith Daniels, Josephus, 1862-1948 person
associatedWith Democratic Party (N.Y.) corporateBody
associatedWith Devens, Charles, 1820-1891 person
associatedWith George Junior Republic (Freeville, N.Y.) corporateBody
associatedWith Herter, Christian Archibald, 1895-1966 person
associatedWith Howe, Louis M. (Louis McHenry), 1871-1936 person
associatedWith Lehman, Herbert H. (Herbert Henry), 1878-1963 person
associatedWith Mott, Lucretia, 1793-1880 person
associatedWith Osborne, David Munson, 1822-1886 person
associatedWith Osborne, Lithgow, 1892-1980 person
associatedWith Osborne, Thomas Mott, 1859-1926 person
associatedWith Peabody, George Foster, 1852-1938 person
associatedWith Roosevelt, Eleanor, 1884-1962 person
associatedWith Roosevelt, Franklin D. (Franklin Delano), 1882-1945 person
associatedWith Smith, Alfred Emanuel, 1873-1944 person
associatedWith Trask, Katrina, 1853-1922 person
associatedWith Villard, Oswald Garrison, 1872-1949 person
associatedWith Wright, David Minton, 1809-1863 person
associatedWith Wright, Martha Coffin, 1806-1875 person
Place Name Admin Code Country
United States
Auburn, N.Y.
New York (State)
Cayuga County (N.Y.)
New York State
Prison reformers


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