The Tin Plate King

William Bateman Leeds was known as the “Tin Plate King” for his domination of the tin plate industry in late 19th-century America.  He began as a florist in Richmond, Indiana, but by the time he died in 1908 he had amassed an estate worth an estimated $40 million dollars (the equivalent to almost a billion dollars today).  His son Rudolph changed the course of my family’s history.

William Bateman Leeds (1861-1908)

William B. Leeds was born in Richmond in 1861.  His mother, Hannah Ann (Starr) Leeds, was the daughter of Charles W. Starr, one of Richmond’s early business leaders.  Hannah’s brothers were also highly successful as leaders of the Starr Piano Company and other business ventures in Richmond.

William first tried his hand in the floral business.  Then Henry Miller, a General Superintendent of the Pennsylvania Railroad, convinced William to join the railroad business in 1883.  That same year he married Jeanette Gaar, the daughter of John M. Gaar.

William’s marriage to Jeanette Gaar changed his fortunes forever.  Jeanette’s father was one of the owners of Gaar, Scott and Company.  Gaar-Scott made tractors and farm implements that were shipped all over the world.  When her father died in 1890, Jeanette inherited a good deal of money.

William took the inheritance money and formed a partnership with Daniel Reid to buy a modest tin-plating firm in Richmond.  Leeds and Reid quickly began organizing the tin-plate industry.  The American tin business had always been overshadowed by Europe, but the McKinley Tariff of 1890 gave American companies an edge and Leeds and Reid took advantage of it.

In 1894, William resigned his position with the Pennsylvania Railroad to focus all his energy on the tin-plate business.  Four years later, Leeds and Reid with two more partners formed the American Tin Plate Company, headquartered in Chicago.  Although it struggled briefly, eventually this company became hugely successful.  It became the largest tin-plate conglomerate in the country; in the age of trusts and monopolies it was one of the biggest.

William divorced Jeanette in August of 1900.  It was reported that William paid Jeanette $1,000,000 to secure the divorce–the largest sum ever paid to obtain a divorce in the United States at the time.  Within days, William remarried to a younger woman.

William was still the Chairman of the Board of American Tin Plate when it was purchased by U.S. Steel for about $40,000,000 in 1901.  William and his partners took the proceeds of this sale and invested them in the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad Company.  William became its president.

In 1904, William resigned as president of the railroad.  He continued to serve on many corporate boards and have his hands in many businesses.  His health, however, began a swift decline.  Over the next four years he suffered several strokes, culminating in his death in Paris in 1908 at the age of forty-seven.

The Leeds Mausoleum at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. The body of William B. Leeds was removed to Richmond, Indiana at the request of his granddaughter. On March 15, 2002 he was interred in the Leeds family plot at Earlham Cemetery in Richmond. On January 29, 2009, the New York Times reported that the mausoleum was still for sale and had been reduced from $5 million to $3.5 million. (Click to enlarge photo.)

William was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, New York.  John Russell Pope, the architect of the Jefferson Memorial, designed the Leeds mausoleum.  It sat on a 9,452 square foot lot; the tomb itself was 30 feet by 30 feet and was crafted of Tennessee (pink) marble.  The inner sarcophagus was of Italian Carrara marble; the lid alone weighed more than 3,000 pounds.

———–

Jeanette Gaar Leeds didn’t want to lose her son.  At the end of her seventeen-year marriage to William B. Leeds she was left with $1,000,000 and a teen-aged son named Rudolph.

Jeanette lived in Richmond, Indiana and she wanted her son to live there too.  She knew that he would be tempted by the high-flying lifestyle of his father.  And if he were to inherit enormous sums of money upon his father’s death, there was little doubt he would leave Richmond for New York or Chicago or his father’s 263-foot yacht.

In 1906–before the death of William–Jeanette took a step to keep Rudolph in Richmond.  She bought him a newspaper.

Rudolph Gaar Leeds (1886-1964)

The Richmond Palladium was an old paper;  its first edition dated to January 1, 1831.  The paper had passed through many different owners in the 75 years before Jeanette Leeds purchased it.  It had even changed hands a few times in the previous five years.

When Mrs. Leeds bought the Palladium in 1906, no one could imagine that Rudolph Leeds would be associated with the paper for over 50 years.  Rudolph had no academic or practical training in journalism, but he had a passion for politics and the news.  His tenure at the head of the Palladium was the longest in the paper’s history.

Mrs. Leeds quickly realized Rudolph needed help managing the paper.  She turned to a young man she knew from the Second National Bank in Richmond–a teller who took good care of her in an age when personal service in banking really mattered.  That teller was my great grandfather, Edward H. Harris, Sr.

Rudolph Leeds and my great grandfather worked well together, from his hiring in 1910 to his death twenty-seven years later.  Through hard work and mergers with smaller papers, they built a newspaper that made a difference.  They influenced not only the Richmond community, but the newspaper industry as a whole.

Edward Henry Harris, Sr. (1880-1937)

When my great grandfather died in 1937, his son got involved in the newspaper.  Then when Mr. Leeds died in 1964, my grandfather became the publisher of the Palladium-Item.  When my grandfather died in 1969, my uncle became the publisher until the paper was sold to Gannett in 1976.  Even then, my father continued to work at the Palladium-Item until 1981.

My family spent 71 years–most of the twentieth century–in the newspaper business.  All because my great grandfather made an impression on Mrs. Leeds and she made a decision to hire him.  Through the friendship and partnership of Rudolph G. Leeds, my family’s history was changed forever.

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11 Responses to The Tin Plate King

  1. DeAnn says:

    This is excellent research and writing, Kevin – love the photos too. I never knew all of this history! Have you posted on the Ancestry website?

    • Thanks, DeAnn. It is interesting stuff. I’m not sure where exactly it would fit on Ancestry, but we could probably capture it as a pdf file and put it under Edward H. Harris, Sr. or something. If you have any ideas where it would best go, just let me know.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  2. mirroredImages says:

    I know I’m only a Harris by marriage, but HEY isn’t it cool that I work for a newspaper, albeit a fake one? Great post – I think Mr Leeds, Sr was a big jerk. Used up his wife’s money to buy his tin company and then left her by the side of the road when he was done with her. Did Rudolph have much to do with him after his mom bought him the newspaper? Wow – makes me feel like an inadequate mom: The biggest thing I’ve ever bought for my kid is a Nintendo DSI xl! Oh well. There’s still time, right? We could buy Alex an art gallery in the Short North, and Max can run a football training camp.

    But please don’t leave me by the side of the road when you’ve used up all my immense wealth. :)

    • It is cool that you work for a newspaper. I love to show off copies of your newspaper to new people I meet when they ask what you do (and sometimes even when they don’t ask).

      The senior Mr. Leeds (William Bates Leeds) was an interesting character. His son by his second marriage turned out to be a character too. Maybe another blog post…

      And as far as you and your immense wealth, as I’ve said before, you’ve got to write your book first. Then you too can become fabulously wealthy and I’ll be the one in danger of being left by the side of the road. So, write a book–share your talent with the world!

  3. bronxboy55 says:

    I have to confess that I was halfway through this post and still thinking, “Isn’t it amazing that William Bateman Leeds managed to become a billionaire by selling tin pie plates? How many pies would that be?” (Please don’t mention this to Julia.)

    We used to visit family graves at Woodlawn when I was a kid and I often wondered who those important people were in the mausoleums. Now I know.

    More great stuff, Kevin. Thanks.

    • Your secret is safe with me. And if you want to believe he became a billionaire by selling pie plates, that’s fine too.

      I contacted Woodlawn Cemetery to find out if the Leeds Mausoleum was still for sale. The good news is that it is for sale. The bad news is that with all the necessary repairs, endowments, etc. the total bill would be about $4.2 million dollars. But the nice lady who sent the 3-page, illustrated information packet to me said to let her know if I want to make an offer. I’d be happy to pass it along if you want to become one of the important people and upstage your other family members–or move them in with you and become important together.

  4. Priya says:

    Where do you get all this information, Kevin? Is it in your family’s records, internet, the city’s records? Or all of them? I am not the first to ask this question, I am sure, but I feel compelled to sate my curiosity!

    This story reminds me of all the stories that talk of human interlinking, and the Will to Do. There are numerous such small, big instances around us that remind that eventually, no matter how or when, our efforts will result in Goodness like Kevin Harris. Thank you.

    • When I write a post, I often get the information from my files. I have been working on family history off and on for over 20 years. Plus I have collected other people’s research, so I have a lot of files. I also will usually take a few books out of the library (or off my shelf) and read up a little on the topic. The original research came from government records and libraries as well as family members. So it comes from a lot of different places.

      The interlinking of the human beings in this story is very interesting. Sometimes, the connections between people are fascinating. And it is amazing how the choices of one person can so profoundly impact others.

      Thanks for your comments!

  5. pokedpotato says:

    Great post!! I’ll be honest…I like reading about the “gossipy” stuff like divorces & money…

    It is interesting that some of the pictures you post, I can see the family resemblence & then other pictures I see nothing similar. For some reason I don’t see that much in EHH even though he was your GGPa. I see more in some of the older pictures. Maybe it is because some of them have facial hair…lol.

    Again, totally apologize for these random comments.

    • This is an interesting story…it played out in the New York newspapers too. You can go back and read about divorce hearings, yachts, etc.

      Family resemblence is interesting too. The mixing of genes from fathers and mothers and different lines create such different features. Like my two kids.

      Thanks for all your comments! I enjoy them all!

  6. Jim Resh says:

    Hello:
    I enjoyed the history of the Leeds family and their connection to the Reids here in Richmond, IN.
    As a kid, I delivered the Palladium and grew up in Wayne County, In.
    I am now with the Wayne County Tourism Bureau and I am searching for a descendent of the Reid family or the Leeds family to honor the family with a State Tree planting ceremony here in Richmond, In next year. Last year we honored President Rutherford B. Hayes family who visited Richmond in 1877.

    May I ask, are you a descendent of the Leeds family and do you live in Indiana or near?
    I look forward to hearing from you and best wishes with you Blog. It’s very interesting and well written.

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