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January 14, 2011 / johnoliversimon

The Wedding Day – 2

Cassandra Hills of Thomaston, Maine, around the time she married Will Adams and left for California.

Here we tell the story of our ancestors, in the Hills, Adams, and Coon families of San Francisco, from the viewpoint of the marriage of Oliver Kehrlein and Frances Cassandra Coon, May 12, 1907, at “Umadilla,” the Adams family manion in Menlo Park.


Any two young people, marrying, conjoin their family histories for good and ill. Within the happy space of a month, Oliver Kehrlein and Frances Coon will conceive their first-born daughter, my mother, to be named for her mother. As Frances and Oliver greet the wedding guests at “Unadilla” on that foggy June afternoon a century ago, we can forgive them if each has chosen to consign certain questionable topics to the realm of the forever unspoken.

Frances Coon is a native daughter, of eminently respectable stock. Each of her grandfathers arrived in San Francisco in the first years of the Gold Rush. In the background of the photograph, beyond the brilliant chatter of the young people as they cross the lawn, William James Adams, the patriarch of “Unadilla,” soberly dominant in top hat and silver mane, surveys his domain. A motherless child — his mother Sarah died when he was an infant — Will Adams left his native Thomaston, Maine at the age of twenty, to find work as a river-boat pilot on the Mississippi, where he may well have known Sam Clemens. Arriving in San Francisco in 1850, he was canny enough to perceive that fortunes would be made in California not by swinging a pick in the Mother Lode but by selling the necessities to those who did so.

Adams started a lucrative wholesale grocery business in Sacramento and then, returning to San Francisco, invested in a succession of lumber companies, busily clear-cutting the virgin forests of the West. In 1854 he became a member of the second Vigilance Committee, which ran the plug-ugly Sydney Ducks out of town. In the fall of 1856 he went back to Maine to court a Yankee wife. He must have remembered a pretty Cassie who was no more than fourteen when he left Thomaston. Cassandra Hills McIntyre — first in a line of four Cassandras —  was the daughter of country doctor Cyrus Hills, a charming alcoholic, Harvard dropout and confirmed agnostic, who gave his five daughters mostly unpronounceable classical names: the other four were Loucynia, Arch-Ann, Theoxinia and Aurelia. Clever, flirtatious Cassandra married a sea-captain, Lewis McIntyre, when she was just sixteen, but he promptly drowned when the marriage was barely a year old.

Cassandra, as a young widow, could no longer properly take part in girlish games like sledding; shut in by the Maine winter, bored to tears by the pious company of older women, and charmed by Will Adams’s tall tales of the golden West, she wasted no time in snagging the glamorous traveller. They were married in Thomaston on January 13, 1857. Crossing the Isthmus of Panama on their way to California, they must have put up for the night in an indigenous reed hut, where Cassandra was bitten by a triatomine bug and came down with Chagas Fever. Family legend has it that she went permanently bald, wearing a wig the rest of her long life. Fifty years later, on the afternoon of her namesake granddaughter’s wedding, Cassandra Hills Adams is the matriarch of “Unadilla,” holding court from a rocking chair in the parlor, her magnificent false ringlets piled into a crest and set with silver stars.

Frances Coon’s other grandfather, Henry Perrin Coon, also found his way from the rural northeast to California during the Gold Rush. Grandson of a Revolutionary soldier and the youngest of thirteen children, Henry Coon was born in 1822 on a farm in Taghkanic, New York, not far from the Massachusetts-Connecticut boundary. Young Henry went off to study at Claverack Academy, where he wrestled and debated, using both skills on one occasion when he threw an older student who had insulted him into the snow. [1] Henry grew up tall and strong for that day and age, five feet eleven and 190 pounds, having “remarkable breadth of shoulders and depth of chest, with head in proportion, his forehead broad, with full blue eyes, whose general expression was earnest and thoughtful.” If you put him in a room with his big-boned great-great-grandsons, he wouldn’t stand out.

Henry taught grade school for a year, then entered Williams College, where he thought about a career in the ministry, but after a severe cold ruined his speaking voice, he ended up taking a medical degree from Temple University in 1848, and the following year he married Ruthetta Folger of Hudson, New York. The Folgers went back to the earliest English settlers of the region; they were scientists and sea-captains, and Mary Fitch Folger, Ruthetta’s mother, lived to be a hundred. Meanwhile, James Marshall had spied a gleam of heavy metal in the millrace above Sutter’s Fort, and his cry of ¡chispa! echoed around the globe. The world started pouring into California, and Henry Coon knew which way destiny’s finger was pointing. He left wife and infant daughter back in York State, and arrived in San Francisco in 1853.

Like Adams, Coon had the practical Yankee sense to understand that hardscrabble miners would not be the ones who struck it rich in California. For awhile he practiced medicine, sharing an office with Dr. Samuel Merritt, who would give his name to a tidal lake in Oakland. But Henry had short patience for the Hippocratic trade, and soon, like Adams, he went into dry goods, buying up barrels of vinegar on the wharves as ships came in. This led to a chemical company start-up, as Coon used his medical school education to find commercial success formulating acids. He went back east via Panama in 1854 and brought Ruthetta and daughter Mary out to California.

Henry Coon, along with Adams and most of the respectable men in San Francisco, was in on the action when the Second Vigilance Committee took the law into its own hands after Jim Casey shot the muckraking journalist James King of William. Unlike Adams, whose participation in popular politics left no lasting impression on his career, Coon’s enthusiasm and sober judgment so impressed the Committee that he was drafted to run for Police Judge on the reform ticket of the People’s Party. He was elected in November, 1856 with 60.7 percent of the vote, and reelected two years later with an overwhelming 76.5 percent. California historian Hubert H. Bancroft credits Coon with restructuring the San Francisco police department during his tenure, accomplishing “sweeping reforms amid great obstacles.”

In those rough and ready frontier days, nobody thought it unusual that Henry Coon only began to study law for the first time when he was elected judge, discovering therein “the true bent of his mind and taste.” When Coon retired from the bench after a second term, he told friends that he didn’t mind the personal threats and anonymous letters – he just needed a rest. The one debit in his tenure as judge is that he failed to take any action to prevent the 1859 duel in the sandy wilderness near Lake Merced in which State Supreme Court Justice David S. Terry, a pro-slavery southerner and one-time prisoner of the Vigilance Committee, shot and killed United States Senator, ward boss and Union man David Broderick.

Despite such echoes of national politics, Californians were so out of touch with the dimensions of the conflict that was developing on the eastern seaboard that Henry Coon thought it was an excellent idea to take his family, including ten-year-old Mary, four-year-old Henry Junior, and infant Charles Mayhew Coon, back to New York State to visit relatives in the spring of 1861. On the return voyage, their ship outran a Confederate privateer off Cape Hatteras. Back in San Francisco, Henry hung out his shingle as a doctor once again, but his medical practice was interrupted when the People’s Party candidate for Mayor was embroiled in a real estate scandal. Called on to run for office on short notice, Henry Perrin Coon was elected Mayor of San Francisco on May 16, 1863, with 59.9 percent of the vote. He was reelected two years later in a closer race.

Mayor Coon cuts a low profile in current histories of San Francisco. “Under his administration,” understates Hubert H. Bancroft, “the city was well-governed.” He strengthened the defenses of the Golden Gate against possible attack by the Confederate cruiser C.S.S. Alabama, feared to be prowling Pacific waters. He surveyed and regularized the city’s title to the “outside lands” falling beyond San Francisco’s narrow original borders — an unfriendly State Supreme Court held the city fathers personally liable in case of possible default and Coon had to sign his name eighty thousand times on separate bonds — and he vetoed an extension of Montgomery Street south of Market on the grounds that since he held title to land in South Beach he was liable to personally benefit from the measure, a niceness of conscience that has never distinguished San Francisco politicians before or since.

On April 15, 1865, Mayor Coon presided over a memorial march fourteen thousand strong, as San Francisco — instantly informed by a telegraph line which had replaced the Pony Express four years earlier — bid farewell to the martyred Abraham Lincoln. Finally, it was Coon who contracted Frederick Olmsted, fresh from laying out Central Park in Manhattan, to design what would become Golden Gate Park. Although the work on the park itself didn’t get going until the succeeding administration of Frank McCoppin, Mayor Coon, in his farewell address to the city council, spoke powerfully to the issue, envisioning “pines and bridle paths among the shifting sands.” The park’s Coon Hollow is named for him and not for the masked bandits who prowl there, feasting on remnant picnic lunches.

Henry Perrin Coon returned gratefully to private life, sold insurance — anything was preferable to medical practice — served a term as State Tidelands Commissioner, and was active in the Calvary Presbyterian Church. The family rode east on the new Intercontinental Railroad, and spent the winter of 1870-71 in Europe. Mary was nineteen, and Henry, Charlie and Fred were fourteen, ten and six — definitely a handful. Henry James ought to have written a short story about the enthusiastic California family “doing” castles and cathedrals while blundering across sophisticated Continental social codes. On their return, Mary married her long-term suitor, Dr. W.F. McNutt. The family spent a winter in Oakland, and then built a mansion on a 320-acre spread down in rural Menlo Park.

Ruthetta, whose health had been delicate, died on August 17, 1876. Henry remarried the following year, to twice-widowed Hannah Moore Bingham, who had a sunny teenaged daughter named Josephine. There is little news of his final years; he had a clear conscience, and I imagine he was happy. While staying at the storied Palace Hotel on Market Street in San Francisco, Henry Perrin Coon suffered a heart attack, and died on December 4, 1884, at the age of sixty-two.

In  the aftermath of her husband’s death, Hannah was hoping to keep things in the family by marrying Josie off to her step-brother, but the young man fell in love instead with a neighbor girl down in Menlo Park, so that on October 20, 1885, there was a wedding at “Unadilla,” the Adams family mansion. When Charles Mayhew Coon, the late mayor’s handsome son, married Cassie Adams, the twenty-three year-old daughter of Will and Cassandra, “it was the most notable social event of the week,” according to some predecessor of Lady Teazle in the Call. “The ceremony was an extremely quiet one, and was witnessed only by a few relatives and intimate friends.” Mary Coon McNutt’s little children were the pages, and after the ceremony, “the guests remained an hour or two enjoying themselves in the parlor with vocal and instrumental music, or in meanderings through the surrounding lawn and gardens, and returned to the city on the five o’clock train.”

“Wild, harum-scarum,” her own more proper daughter characterized Cassandra Hills Adams, now Coon: “her father’s favorite, tall, blonde, slender, never at a loss for an answer.” As a teenager, Cassie Adams gave riding lessons to the young officers at the San Francisco Presidio, who never could chase her down; in her eighty-second year, she ran away to live in sin with the man she loved. She ought to have had a long and happy life with her husband Charlie, but it was not to be. Practically a year to the day from her marriage, on October 12, 1886, after a hard labor, Cassie gave birth to a daughter, whom they named Frances Cassandra Coon, the third of our four Cassandras. After the birth, the young couple, who had apparently been rather innocent of the sexual facts of life, seem to have practiced celibacy “in order to let this little girl have her babyhood.” The little family moved to San Diego, where Charlie began work as a cashier for the West Coast Redwood Company, a lumber operation owned by his father-in-law Will Adams. There, on November 13, 1887, after a short illness, said to be typhoid fever, Charles Mayhew Coon died abruptly and unexpectedly at the age of twenty-seven.  “Bereft but not destitute,” Cassie moved back to Menlo Park to be close to her parents, who took a large hand in raising both the fatherless Frances Coon and her motherless cousin Jacques Adams, five years younger.

Blonde, brilliant Cassie Adams Coon must have found herself rather more glamorous and eligible as a young widow in the gilded age of San Francisco than her mother had been decades earlier in rural Maine. There was no shortage of gentlemen hoping to squire her around town, and Cassie had very little on which to judge them beside their good manners. Finally, she accepted the proposal of Dr. Augustus Palmer Dudley, a handsome, charming gynecologist. who practiced in Manhattan out of his four-story brownstone on Madison Avenue and East 61st Street, just a block from Central Park. Cassie must have come to him first as a patient when she was pregnant with Frances, as Dr. Dudley had worked in 1885-86 at the California Women’s Hospital in San Francisco; the two came to share a special bond, as he was also originally from Maine. It is not hard to imagine a letter of condolence after the death of Charles Mayhew Coon deepening into an epistolary infatuation, the forerunner of our twenty-first century email romances; certainly Gus Dudley and Cassie Adams Coon knew about as much, or as little, about each other, as today’s cyber-penpals do. They were married in her ancestral Thomaston on September 13, 1891.

The marriage was an unqualified disaster. Like Cassie’s grandfather Cyrus Hills, Augustus Dudley was an alcoholic and a charmer; his stepdaughter calls him “an attractive scoundrel.” He was a womanizer, skimming the cream off his obstetric practice. Before the bloom had fairly worn off the marriage, Gus and Cassie had two daughters in rapid succession, lovely Janey (born July 21, 1893 in California) and plain Grace (born September 30, 1894 in New York), who would be bridesmaid and flower girl, respectively, at their step-sister’s wedding at “Unadilla” in 1907. And then, sometime in the late nineties, something traumatic and destructive happened between Gus Dudley and his ripening stepdaughter Frances Coon. Her comments are damning in what they leave out: “the details… the humiliation, are too degraded to be worded here.” Writing many years later, Frances Coon’s daughter Frances Adler minced no words: “[Frances Coon] hated her stepfather. She claimed he had tried to rape her, a claim denied by all the other members of the family.” Looking a century back down the road, Frances Coon’s great-granddaughter Kia Simon believes her: “if she says she was molested, she was probably molested.”

Cassie’s second marriage was predictably unhappy. In 1896 she borrowed money from her little brother Charlie, who would soon become the father of Ansel, in order to send Gus to a spa, what we would probably call a rehab center today, in Carlsbad, near San Diego. In 1903 they signed a written agreement of separation, one of whose tenets was that Janey and Grace would not be raised as Catholics. Young Frances had been educated at the Convent of the Sacred Heart, first in Manhattan, and then in Atherton,  and passionately attached herself to the nuns who consoled her as well as their religion which provided a refuge from her evil stepfather. Frances was baptized as a Roman Catholic in March 1904, two months before graduating from Sacred Heart with a blue ribbon for scholarship and leadership. Tearfully contrite, promising never to do any of it again, Gus did not pause in his attentions until Cassie took him back yet again. Uncle Charlie Adams counseled Frances to be nice to Dr. Dudley so that he wouldn’t take his anger out on her mother!

It was Gus’s idea that if they all did a grand tour of Europe together these conflicts would work themselves out. Frances only consented to go along with her mother and step-father if she could bring her new boyfriend, a recent Stanford graduate named Oliver Kehrlein. Dr. Dudley was in the mood to agree to anything as long as he got his way. Gus was already a sick man, and his colleagues warned him not to sail; once on the high seas, he became deathly ill, although he was spied creeping across the stateroom to take a few nips from the old bottle when he was thought to be too weak to stand. In a hotel in Liverpool, a few days after their arrival, on July 5, 1905, Augustus Palmer Dudley died of pulmonary tuberculosis, septic pneumonia and cardiac failure. He was fifty-two.

The planned vacation was cancelled with what must have been sighs of relief — Cassie would take her grand European tour two decades later with her granddaughter Frances Kehrlein — and mother and daughter returned to Menlo Park to be reunited with Janey and Grace. Oliver Kehrlein stayed on in New York City to attend medical school at Columbia; Frances Coon was already wearing his ring. On their wedding day in 1907, as she emerges from the sacred darkness of the Church of the Nativity, on the arm of her “fair-haired lad,” till death do them part, we can only imagine what mixtures of joy and unspeakable shame are pulsing within her white silk underdress.

[1] Claverack Academy, later Claverack College and Hudson River Institute, closed in 1902. Its most famous alumni were birth-control activist Margaret Sanger and novelist Stephen Crane.



Leave a Comment
  1. lindahubbardgulker / Jan 15 2011 4:12 pm

    Hi John, I’m editor of an online magazine about Menlo Park and Atherton and came across your account of your ancestors and Unadilla. I’m presuming the mansion is long gone but wondering if you know where it was located. Thanks, Linda
    Editor, InMenlo

  2. Mark Reed / Jul 17 2015 8:07 pm

    Great family history! Cassie Adams was a schoolmate of my great-grandmother Emma Mangels at Laurel Hall, San Mateo, and Cassie inscribed a poem in Emma’s autograph book, dated Sept 22, 1876. If you would like a scan to add to your collection, contact me.

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