Uncle Francis Wells

"He bore through all
*    *    *    *    *    *    *
A simple, loyal nature, pure as snow."

Press of
Edward Stern & Co.,



Francis Wells,






     Francis Wells was born in Philadelphia on the Fourth of December, 1825.  He was the sixth son of Richard Waln Wells, a well-known merchant of Philadelphia, and Abigail Griffitts.  His parents were of Quaker origin, his mother being the daughter of Dr. Samuel Powel Griffitts, a physician generally known and greatly esteemed by the Philadelphians of his day.

     From the principal records of the Wells family, consisting of letters written by various English ancestors and dating back to the year 1722, we learn that they were descended from the younger branch of the family of William, Lord De Welles, who lived at Alford in Lincolnshire in 1283, and whose lineage can still be traced on one of the existing family trees.

     We learn further that the great-great-grandfather of Francis Wells, Gideon Wells, was an English physician of some prominence, who was for many years settled at Cottness, near Howdon in Yorkshire.  His son Richard came to Philadelphia in 1749, being then only sixteen years old, and there entered into business.  In 1759, he married Rachel Hill, the granddaughter of Thomas Lloyd, Deputy Governor of Pennsylvania under William Penn, and the year following he was recalled to England by the death of his father.  The estate being entailed on him according to the English law of Promogeniture, he at once, at the suggestion of his mother, and in accordance with his own sense of domestic equity, proceeded to share it equally with his younger brother.  Soon after this he returned to Philadelphia, and as his wife, whose portrait, in the possession of the family, represents a woman of great beauty and fine presence, but a possible imperiousness, was unwilling to leave the United States, Richard Wells relinquished his English property and interests and remained in Philadelphia until his death.  He was the first cashier of the bank of North America.

     The letters from which the foregoing particulars have been gathered are interesting in many ways, not only as tracing the line of descent and giving the facts of family history, but as showing the qualities of mind and heart, the tastes and principles of their several generations of writers.  High minded and honorable, intelligent and refined, with strong family affection and great filial reverence, they left a legacy to their descendants far more valuable than wealth or title, an example of noble character and solid worth, the "Noblesse Oblige" of which has been felt up to the present time.  And in following the life of Francis Wells through this memoir, we can have little doubt as to the question of inherited traits, or the advantage of an honorable and educated ancestry.

        Of the childhood of Francis Wells there is little to say.  One of a large family of brothers and sisters, and surrounded by an extensive circle of relatives and friends, his boyhood passed happily and uneventfully in the ordinary routine of school and play and home life.  For some time his constitution seemed to be quite delicate, but with good care he soon outgrew this and became as robust as the generality of boys.

     He was early sent to the Infant School of St. Andrew's Church, in Eighth Street, but when he was about ten years old, his parents, who had once or twice changed their residence since his birth, removed to Thirteenth Street above Walnut, where the family remained for thirty-five years.  This move had doubtless much to do with determining the course of Francis Wells's life, for it was in consequence of it that he was led to the Church of the Epiphany, with which he was identified for the remainder of his life; a period of over fifty years.  Soon after they had moved to Thirteenth Street, his mother, having heard of the "new preacher' who was acquiring such a reputation at Fifteenth and Chestnut Streets, was attracted thither, and, being much pleased with him, continued to attend the church, taking her family with her.  Frank was immediately placed in the Sunday school, and here, under the influence and direction of the Rector, the Rev. Stephen H. Tyng, between whose family and his own close personal relations were soon established, he grew up.  In April, 1841, when he was between fifteen and sixteen, he was presented for confirmation; and from that time till the day of his death he was actively engaged in the work of that church.

     Francis Wells was educated at the Academy of Mr. Thomas D. James, which he left, when he was sixteen, to engage in business.  He first entered the publishing house of Godey & Blakiston.  About three years later he took a position with James M. Wilcox & Co., paper manufacturers, with whom he remained nineteen years.  During this time he had developed a decided literary taste, and most of his leisure moments were employed in writing articles for the magazines and newspapers.  He had been a frequent volunteer contributor to the Evening Bulletin, and in 1865, embracing an opportunity of permanently connecting himself with it, he abandoned mercantile life and became assistant editor of that paper, subsequently purchasing an interest in it.  In this position he found congenial employment, and he continued on the staff of the Evening Bulletin, through his life, respected and beloved alike by his associates and subordinates.

     For some years previous to his regular connection with the Bulletin, he had been one of the editors of its "Chess Column," then quite a prominent feature of the paper; and he was the principal founder of the first Philadelphia Chess Club, in 1860.

     In 1868, Mr. Wells went out on the Union Pacific Railroad to Omaha, on an editorial excursion, on which he narrowly escaped losing his life.  He and one of the other gentlemen had been riding on the cow-catcher for the sake of the view, and had returned to the car; but going back in a little while to resume their position of observation, they were only prevented from doing so by some grease spilled on the engine, to which circumstance they doubtless owed their lives, as the engine soon after exploded.

     On the formation of the American Press Association, Mr. Wells was elected President, and held that position until compelled by other claims to resign.

     During the War, he belonged to two military companies, and he was a member of the Union League for nearly a dozen years, having joined it soon after its organization.  He was afterwards a member of the Penn Club, but resigned in 1881.

     In 1873, Mr. Wells was appointed by Governor Hartranft one of the Commissioners of Public Charities of Pennsylvania, and, on the expiration of his term of five years, he was re-appointed, but, in consequence of the too great demand upon his time and strength, was soon obliged to resign.  In 1881, he was made Consul for Paraguay, and in 1885, he became a manager of the Orthopædic Hospital.

     He was at one time a School Director in the Seventh Ward, and for the last five years of his life was one of the lay preachers at Girard College.  He was also a regular delegate to the Diocesan and General Conventions of the Protestant Episcopal Church.

     On the 14th of September, 1881, Mr. Wells married Margaret Florence De Wolfe, a niece of Mr. Frederick Ratchford Starr, of Litchfield, Conn.  At that time he removed to 408 South Twenty-second Street, where, on the morning of Thursday, April 22, 1886, he died of pneumonia, after an illness of four days.

     Such is the outline of the life of Francis Wells.  The many notices published in the daily papers at the time of his death bear the witness of a varied and impartial criticism to the completeness of that life, and express, in some measure, the loss occasioned by his death.  "An able journalist, a perfect gentleman and a pure Christian;" of "forceful ability and robust individuality;" of "unselfish generosity" and "sunny and graceful qualities," "a fearless champion of any cause that he deemed just;" Francis Wells was a "Stainless man and a true friend."

     To quote at greater length from yet another:  "Mr. Wells record has been one of unbroken honor and distinction.  From the beginning of his career until its unexpected close, his purposes have been those of unimpeachable integrity, and his methods ever direct and straightforward.  No man ever connected with the newspaper press of Philadelphia has enjoyed such intimate companionship with the best and ablest of the citizens of Philadelphia, who have earned distinction during more that a third of a century, and has at the same time held so large a personal share in the direction of the public enterprises and the great charities for which the city and the State have become famous.  His associations and achievements were such as to warrant the esteem and the admiration of all; but they never became known through any assertion of Mr. Wells himself; his manner, while at all times cordial, being singularly gently and unassuming, except upon those occasions, where impelled by his correct sense of public wrong or private injustice, he brought into play the brilliant, incisive and caustic eloquence, equally under command of his voice or pen.  His earnest and perfect sincerity, the purity of his personal character and the wholesome and hearty fidelity of his friendships cannot easily be paralleled or readily replaced; while his sagacious counsel, his wise criticism and his fearless and intelligent discussion in public affairs will be equally missed."  (The North American, April 23, 1886.)

     Francis Wells was incapable of a mean or revengeful action, and was always ready to acknowledge, and if possible atone for, an error.  In common with all men of decided views and fearless character, he had his enemies, but his faults were the outcome of his intense, resolute, impulsive and generous nature.  Single of purpose, direct of action and speech, he took it for granted that others were equally anxious to arrive at the truth, a kindly delusion which often led him into mistakes and subjected him to misconception.

     He was an earnest and enthusiastic Republican and a loyal citizen of Philadelphia, for the honor and advancement of which he was ever zealous.

     A warm friend to progress in every shape, he took a practical interest in the education of women, the elevation of the colored race, and in all schemes of public improvement.

     In this connection, and with occasional addition, is given to the reader a memorial of Francis Wells, written at the time of his death by one of his friends who, during a close and intimate friendship of thirty years, enjoyed, perhaps more than any other, opportunities of social and literary intercourse with him, and whose record is heartfelt and just.  After alluding to his many business pursuits and engagements, the writer says:

     "These multifarious occupations, which, in addition to his share in editing a daily newspaper of large circulation, would have taken up the time and energy of any ordinary man, represent a very small part of Mr. Wells's labors; probably no one person can enumerate them or is even aware of them all.

     "Foremost among his activities, comes his life-long connection with the Church of the Epiphany.  He loved the very walls of the building as a child loves its home, and he is so identified with it that nobody who has attended that church within the last forty years can think of it without Frank Wells's animating presence."

     To the work of the Church of the Eqiphany, Francis Wells gave himself with a rare and unselfish devotion, and a love which knew no change.  He bore its welfare and its causes ever in his mind and heart, and rendered faithful and efficient service in almost every department.

     As a teacher, his record is long and marked.  Beginning about 1842, with a class of boys, he was afterwards assistant and finally sole teacher of the male Infant School, which he continued till 1873, when he organized a large and successful Young People's Bible Class.  This was kept up until 1885, in the fall of which year Mr. Wells, at the urgent solicitation of his rector, took charge of the Infant School, which had become much reduced and was in sore need of able and judicious management.  Throwing himself into its work with his customary zeal and energy, he soon reaped the reward of a largely increased attendance and a lively interest.  His musical ability, his power of illustration, and his genial, spirited manner made him very attractive to the children and easily ensured perfect order, and many a text and story, impressed upon their minds during the few short months he was spared to them, bore fruit in their home lives.

     In 1864, Mr. Wells was elected to the Vestry, and being appointed Secretary, held that position during the rest of his life.

     He was Chairman of the Music Committee, and his services, whether as organist or choir master, were readily given whenever needed.  He interested himself greatly in forming choirs of the young people of the church for the extra services, and for many years conducted the music of the Sunday schools.  This he did for the last time at the Christmas Anniversary of 1884, assuming at the last moment the command which had been left vacant, and leading the united schools successfully through.

     In the church's Mission School, its Lyceum and its Bible classes, he was warmly interested, and no one person belonging to the church was more generally known or better liked by old and young than Francis Wells.

     He held himself ready to fill all possible vacancies and to meet all emergencies.  In raising money for the various needs of the church, he was indefatigable, and in all plans of improvement he took a prominent part.  In the introduction of the new organ and the alteration of the Sunday School rooms he was actively concerned; and to him was principally due the successful semi-centennial celebration of Easter, 1884.  Many lesser memorials of him remain, among which are the monument to Mr. Fowles, his former friend and pastor; the present pulpit, designed by him; the chancel inscription, and the climbing plants set out the year before his death against the house wall to the west of the church.  Though all general association with them may be lost, they will continue to speak to a few of the life and work of Francis Wells in connection with the Church of the Epiphany.

     "Francis Wells was by nature and practice absolutely free from cant, but in every aspect and relation of life he was professedly and truly a Christian.

     "He believed firmly in the duty and efficacy of personal relations in charity.  He was a practical friend to his Sunday School scholars, visiting them and following them up closely, and many of them are indebted to him for their start in life.  In the many institutions with which he was at different times connected, he had a knowledge of the circumstances and characters of the inmates which enabled him to help them efficiently when there was a chance of doing so.

     "The Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane, the Lincoln Institute, founded after the War, for Soldier's Orphans; Girard College, the Northern Home, the House of Refuge, are only some of the channels into which he poured his unlimited power of work and human sympathy.  To cheer and amuse the subjects of beneficence or correction was always as much before his mind as to improve their physical and moral condition, and his numerous talents and accomplishments were always at their service.  The amount of work of the same sort which he did in aid of private charity and local progress, for country churches, for village libraries and lyceums, for fairs and entertainments in behalf of schemes of improvement, humble and obscure in themselves, but important in their place, not even he himself could have told.  His kindness of heart and good nature, his readiness to serve and oblige others, made him respond to every call of the sort, even from persons who had no claim upon him, and he probably never in his life refused a request which he was able to grant, no matter at what personal sacrifice, unless he thought it wrong.  This was in nowise the result of weakness, but of an altruism which made the good and happiness of others actually his own.  It is doubtful whether he ever undertook anything for his own exclusive pleasure or benefit, except a too infrequent holiday for his health."

     To the Lincoln Institute and the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane, in particular, Mr. Wells gave much of his time and thought.

     One of the Board of Council of the former institution, everything connected with its management, its finances, and the mental and moral training of the boys was the subject of his attention, and he devised many plans for the general entertainment and profit.  He took much pleasure in the military drill of the boys, and for a long time used regularly to march with them to and from the Church of the Epiphany, which they attended.  Even after severing his connection with the Lincoln, he retained a strong individual interest in its members, and was constantly through life renewing his acquaintance with some one or other of them.

     To the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane he was a constant and welcome visitor and was deeply interested in all pertaining to its prosperity and the comfort and welfare of its inmates.  In 1868, he began a series of  Dickens Readings, which he kept up from early Fall till Summer, for nine consecutive years, discontinuing them then only on account of illness, and resuming them afterwards at occasional intervals.  These Readings were greatly enjoyed by the patients, and resulted in his being frequently called upon for similar services by various other hospitals and institutions.

     To his devotion to hospital work, more especially in his connection with the Board of Public Charities, involving for him frequent night travel, mental and physical labor and a constant drain upon his sympathies, was mainly due the long illness referred to in these pages.  To the nature and efficiency of that work, and the appreciation with which it was regarded, the press gave ample and gratifying testimony at the time of his resignation, in January, 1879.  His illness began on the 31st of December, 1876, and it was not until October 1st, of the following year, that he was able to resume his place at the office.

     "The extraordinary energy and activity of Mr. Wells's mind and temperament, his passion for doing, his unfailing resource and ingenuity, of course count for a great deal in an existence of such incessant exertion in which rest had no part; but they do not take from his merit when we remember that these qualities were always exercised for the sake of others.  The marvel was how he found time and brain to do so much; but great rapidity in his mental processes, complete and instant command of his powers and unusual physical alertness, naturally enabled him to do more than slower-witted and slower-footed people; while unrelaxing system, and habits of promptness and punctuality prevented his being overtaken and run down by his numerous engagements.  They did once, however, overwhelm him when a long and severe illness forced him for a time to give up his efficient duties and the voluntary labors with which he had overtasked his strength, but before many years he was as busy as ever.  If he could have known moderation it would have been well for him, and also for those who profited most by his want of it; but his zealous, impulsive disposition allowed no limits to his efforts; whatever his hand found to do, he did with all his might.

     "If we have dwelt long on this side of Mr. Wells's character, it is because it was more salient in him than in anyone else we have ever known; his disinterestedness, his fundamental absence of vanity, of desire of gain and of mere worldly ambition are attested by the fact that his services were often in walks along which many men push their way to fame, place and profit; three things he never sought or found.  The wish, the necessity  to aid his fellow-beings, was closely allied to a keen sensibility to wrong and injustice, and an innate animosity to them, in which he was spurred on and kept up by a combative disposition, a curious contrast to his perfect amiability.  As an editor, he found ample scope for this tendency, and there are few good causes which will not suffer from the loss of such a partisan.  We will refer to one signal and protracted instance, which marks a memorable episode in his life.

     "From 1856 to the end of the War of Secession, although Mr. Wells was no politician, his ardent patriotism and abhorrence of slavery brought him forward constantly at public meetings, and in the almost daily emergencies which were calling for an earnest word, a manly protest, a spirited and cheering appeal, and for the spending soul and body in coming and going, waiting and acting.  Circumstances forbade his entering the army, but his whole heart was with it, and not many men played a more arduous part in the field than he did at home.  His enthusiastic and elastic temperament, his resolute optimism, and his steadfast faith in the triumph of right, helped many a fainter spirit through the fluctuations of those years.  He had a victorious reward on Sunday, April 9, 1865, when, during evening service at the Church of the Epiphany, a telegram announcing General Lee's surrender, was brought to him, and he read the glorious and blessed tidings to the congregation, and led the Doxology which broke from hundreds of grateful hearts.

     "It may occur to some reader who did not know Francis Wells, that a man so engaged in public and charitable work could have had no time or room for nearer duties and ties; but those who did know him will recognize that his philanthropy was but the expansion of those elements which are most personal and may become most narrowing in a man's associations.  He was of a peculiarly affectionate disposition, the model of a son, a husband, a brother and of a kinsman in almost every degree; his counsel, support and aid were asked and given without stint to his relatives, near and distant, old and young; sometimes involving heavy burdens and responsibilities, as cheerfully borne and as judiciously discharged as if he lived for his domestic obligations alone.  In friendship there are many men and women to testify how staunch, devoted, loyal and constant he was; how patient with the faults of his friends, yet how sincere and fearless in bearing his witness against what he thought wrong in their course, as well as in standing by them under attack.

     "To turn from a review of Mr. Wells's moral characteristics to his intellectual ones, it cannot be without regret that those who knew his uncommon mental gifts must feel that he has left no lasting or adequate evidence of them.  The pressure of daily business and his many occupations prevented his being entirely his own man in this respect, and he was limited to productions of an ephemeral, though often brilliant and powerful, nature.

    A number of his poetical pieces have been published, but the greater part are in the possession of friends.  Of his songs, one or two were popularized and had quite a successful run; among them, "Lulu is my Darling Pride," and the favorite Fremont campaign song, "I'll bet my Money on the Mustang Colt."  The latter was dashed off on a scrap of paper with the crown of a hat as a desk, at the first great public meeting in Philadelphia of that stirring canvass; Mr. Wells and those near him shouting the words to the tune of the Camptown races, the crowd soon catching the chorus.  It was a hit and was quickly adopted by the Free Soil party.  A few months afterwards, a friend of Mr. Wells was calling on Mr. And Mrs. H. W. Longfellow, and the three little girls so sweetly named in 'The Children's Hour' trooped into the room, one of them not over four years old, chanting "The Mustang Colt," which she could repeat from beginning to end.  It had been taught to the young ones by the genial poet and his witty brother-in-law, the late Mr. T. G. Appleton, who were glad to learn the authorship and origin of the song.

     "A man may justly be called remarkable who unites force, sound sense and practical shrewdness with facility and versatility.  Mr. Well had all of these.  His editorials prove his ability to deal with question of the hour, and his private correspondence and letters published when on journeys to different parts of the country show his observation and fancy, his quick sense of the picturesque and of the ludicrous.  Besides these, the ease, point and grace of his impromptu verses, his incomparble wit and humor, his gift for music, his talent for chess and other games and his dramatic reading, exhibit a variety of resources.  He was as generous of these as of his more serious gifts, and but for them there were countless occasions, public and private, which would have fallen hopelessly flat.  From a social point of view it is his highest praise that, with an exuberant love of fun and astonishing readiness of repartee and epigram, he never said or wrote a word that could wound or embarrass anyone.

     "His private life was blameless, his moral character without flaw.  He had many cares and anxieties, and at times carried a load of sorrow and trial that would have crushed many men.  But his firm, unswerving faith, the natural courage and cheerfulness which he conscientiously fostered, and his unquenchable animal spirits, enabled him to surmount everything and kept his powers of enjoyment unharmed.  He knew that he had the respect, confidence, gratitude and affection of those whom he loved and respected, and a perfectly happy and congenial marriage was the crowning event of this noble, unselfish life only four and a half years before the last great change:"  years almost unclouded, and of such complete and conscious happiness as is seldom granted in this world.

     He was taken sick on Saturday evening, April 17, 1886, and though from the first under medical care, it was not until the day before his death that his illness was considered serious.  He was patient, gentle and cheerful throughout, and for the greater part of the time his mind was clear and active.  His thoughts were busy with every detail of his various duties-more particularly his church work-and his domestic associations; of all which he talked much.  When his critical condition became known to him, he met the prospect of death with the calmness and courage of a Christian, and he passed peacefully away on Thursday morning, April 22d.

     His written request was found after his death, that he should "be buried from the dear old Epiphany, and Jerusalem the Golden be sung."

     The funeral services took place at that church on Saturday afternoon, April 24th, and were conducted by the Rector, Rev. G. H. Kinsolving, and the Rev. William Neilson McVickar, of the Church of the Holy Trinity.  For the time all sense of sorrow and bereavement was lost in the thought of

          "The bliss beyond compare;"

and the feeling of rejoicing and exaltation found fitting expression in the words of the hymn,

          "For all the saints who from their labors rest,

Which rang out like a triumph song.

     Francis Wells was laid to rest in the family lot at the Woodlands Cemetery that Easter-Even, in the sure and certain hope of a glorious resurrection.

     To the memory of Francis Wells the tributes of business association and intimate friendship have been freely paid; but to those of us who were nearest and dearest to him the sacredness of the subject forbids much expression.

     As a son and a brother, his devotion is known to all; and to the younger members of his family he was at all times the counsellor, helper and friend.  Ever ready to give the asked-for advice, but never impatient if it was not taken; determined always to believe the best of everyone; full of tenderness and unselfishness; his loving care and his gracious example will long be missed by all.  And for those who have been blessed with his daily companionship and the influence of his true, large-hearted nature, it must surely be that they shall ever be the better and nobler for his life.

Hushed is the garden, where the rock-hewn tomb
Cradles the Saviour dead.
The very birds are songless in the gloom,
The Spring flowers hang their head.
The storm-clouds gather in the Easter-even,
The burial to crown;
But the cold, cheerless rain is stayed, and Heaven
Sends Easter flowers down.
The white, pure, crystal flowers of the sky, Thick, soft and noiseless fall;
Spread by the Father's hand, they gently lie,
His Well-Beloved's pall.
                                                                    Francis Wells 1873.

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