The real Colonel Sellers, as I knew him in James Lampton, was a pathetic and beautiful spirit, a manly man, a straight and honorable man, a man with a big, foolish, unselfish heart in his bosom, a man born to be loved; and he was loved by all his friends, and by his family worshipped. It is the right word. To them he was but little less than a god. The real Colonel Sellers was never on the stage.
-Mark Twain, Autobiography
Poor George Escol Sellers could never quite match his older brother Coleman Sellers’ fame and success. Yet what really bothered him was that he served as a literary stand-in for Mark Twain’s cousin James Lampton, a charming fool who was constantly dreaming of riches…and always falling short.
Escol, as his family knew him, had moved to Cincinnati as a young man. where he designed early steam locomotives with Coleman. In addition to coming up with a process of making paper with vegetable fibers, he also was the author of Improvements in Locomotive Engines, and Railways, published in 1849. Ensconced at the Globe Rolling Mills and Wire Works, he dreamed of expanding the North’s burgeoning railroad system into the agrarian, slave-holding South. Bales of “King Cotton” would no longer travel to the looms of New England or the docks of New York by packet ship or river steamer, but swiftly by rail. He also dreamed of a transcontinental railroad that would one day link California with the rest of the country and earn him and his partners tremendous profits: $14.65 million a year, he estimated.
However, in 1850, Escol rashly sold his patent for a grade-climbing locomotive to an old friend from Philadelphia for $10,000 (about $200,000 today). He then signed a consulting contract with the Panama Pacific Railroad, which built tracks to span the 50-mile isthmus between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. When the first two of Escol Sellers’ locomotives arrived, however, his friend had left the company, and the railroad refused to honor the inventor’s patents. His brother Coleman, who also designed locomotives for the Panama Pacific Railroad, was somehow unable to lobby successfully on his brother’s behalf. Escol Sellers sued and lost, but walked away with a $20,000 pay off, a sum that allowed him to live in comfort for the rest of his life. He spent his free time amassing and curating a considerable collection of Native American artifacts. When the transcontinental railroad was finally finished in 1869, Sellers could only read about the celebrations from afar.
Four years after the golden spoken was driven into place in Utah, the first edition of The Gilded Age rolled off the presses. The plot was focused on the Hawkins family, which tried to get rich selling 75,000 acres of unimproved land in Tennessee. They failed, and so the Hawkins’ adopted daughter Laura moved to Washington. There, she tried to use her charm and beauty not just to climb the social ladder, but also to convince the federal government to purchase her family’s unwanted property. Although Twain and Warner skewered corrupt big city life and Washington high society, they also poked fun at small town ambition in the person of Colonel Escol Sellers, who appears throughout the book as as the eternal optimist, always in search of riches.
After one harsh financial setback, Twain wrote of Colonel Sellers: “It was hard to come down to humdrum ordinary life again after being a General Superintendent and the most conspicuous man in the community. It was sad to see his name disappear from the newspapers; sadder still to see it resurrected at intervals, shorn of its aforetime gaudy gear of compliments and clothed on with rhetorical tar and fathers…He had to bolster up his wife’s spirits every now and then. On one of these occasions he said: ‘It’s all right, my dear, all right; it will all come all right in a little while. There’s $200,000 coming, and that will set things booming again.”
Twain appears to have taken a cruel delight in co-opting the name of the distinguished Philadelphian that his co-author Charles Dudley Warner had briefly met in Cincinnati many years ago. “We will confiscate his name,” Twain wrote gleefully. “The name you are using is common, and therefore dangerous; there are probably a thousand Sellerses bearing it, and the whole horde will come after us; but Eschol Sellers is a safe name — it is a rock.”
The novel was a runaway success in 1873. and its title soon became synonymous with the shoddy ethos of post-Civil War American capitalism. Naturally a copy found its way into the hands of George Escol Sellers. The distinguished inventor was so incensed that he took the train to Hartford, Connecticut and showed up on the doorstep of Warner and Twain’s publisher.
“My name is Escol Sellers,” he huffed. “You have used it in one of your publications. It has brought upon me a lot of ridicule. My people wish me to sue you for $10,000 damages.”
In response to a possible lawsuit, Twain and Warner halted production of the first edition and substituted the name Beriah Sellers for the next print run. Yet another man named Beriah Sellers vehemently objected to this.
Finally, the two authors settled on the name Mulberry Sellers. But the damage to Escol Sellers’ reputation was done. Despite his engineering prowess, he was forever branded as the Micawber-ish Colonel Sellers. Matters were made worse when Twain revived the Colonel Sellers character in the 1892 novel The American Claimant. And then there was the traveling stage version of The Gilded Age, in which actor John Raymond played Colonel Sellers to hoots and guffaws to audiences throughout the United States.
Escol Sellers died in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1899, comfortable but obscure, unlike his famous brother Coleman, a millionaire industrialist who resided in a sprawling family compound in West Philadelphia.
The Sellers ultimately had the last laugh, as Mark Twain squandered his own substantial fortune (and his wife’s inheritance) in a series of disastrous investments, and “get-rich-quick” schemes. The flamboyant author in a white suit most of his later years on the traveling lecture circuit, scrambling to rebuild his own reputation and riches.
“410 N. 33rd Street,” PoweltonVillage.org. http://poweltonvillage.org/interactivemap/files/410n33rd.htm
Barbara Schmidt, “We Will Confiscate His Name: The Unfortunate Case of George Escol Sellers,” TwainQuotes.com, n.d., http://www.twainquotes.com/ColonelSellers.html
Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today (Hartford: American Publishing Company, 1874), p.244.
Dominic Vitiello, Engineering Philadelphia: The Sellers Family and the Industrial Metropolis (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013), p.54.