Wednesday, July 20, 2016

William Hill Hunt: American Scoundrel

William Hill Hunt, 1900

Just at that moment, timing couldn’t be better – the turn of the switch of the twentieth century –

Successful American, an illustrated monthly magazine featuring “sketches and portraits of representative men and women,” made its debut.  

Women were largely confined to society notes at the back of each issue. Politicians and educators appeared here and there. The real focus was railway magnates, bankers, industrialists; the men who used to be called capitalists. Their stories dominated the pages of Successful American, with each picture accompanied by a caption that said it all:

One of Our Most Experienced Engineers, and Identified with the Gigantic Developments of the Period.

Introducer of the Automatic Weighing Machine, and Connected with a Host of Industries.

A Hustler in the Best Sense of the Term – A Modern American Full of Vim and Energy.

Known as One of the Leading Lights in the Financial and Railroad World.

And in December 1902, here came William Hill Hunt:

The Pioneer of American International Banking, A Progressive and Successful American.

Hunt was born in Alabama in 1864. His father, an overseer (that would be slaves), died the same year. The son started his career as a grocery store clerk. By the age of 21, he had established two banks in Selma and made valuable connections. Somehow he met Mattie Mitchell, daughter of a Minneapolis physician who had amassed wealth as a director of two Midwestern railways.

In 1894 Mattie and William married and moved to San Antonio where he worked as a banker. Almost certainly the proximity to Mexico led to his interest in making money there. While agriculture still dominated the Mexican economy, manufacturing, mining, and other businesses were taking off as the government encouraged foreign investment.

William was on the move.

A son, Lester, arrived in 1894 and a daughter, Siloma, in 1897. A few years later, William moved his family to New York City. They lived at The Alimar, a fancy new apartment house on the Upper West Side.

The Alimar, 925 West End Avenue, Manhattan
(The Architectural Review, June 1903)

In June 1901, William Hill Hunt established the Mexican Trust Company, the first U.S. financial institution to operate a branch banking system in a foreign nation. Mr. Hunt studied the problem for eight years before figuring out how to break the European monopoly on international banking, according to Successful American.            

In 1902, Hunt changed the company’s name to the International Bank and Trust Company of America.

A year after that, the bank went into receivership with a $1 million loss.

A year after that, Hunt reorganized the bank as the Pan-American Banking Company.

And in 1905, the state of Illinois indicted him for larceny. Accused of accepting deposits as an officer of his company when he knew it was insolvent, Hunt also falsely used the name of General Nelson A. Miles, a veteran of the Civil War and Spanish-American War, to lure investors. The judge set bail at $5,000.

The loyal Mattie set to work lobbying the Illinois governor for a pardon, and finally succeeded. After William got out of jail, she asked her father to help her husband restart his career. William established the United States Industrial Company and hoped to make another fortune through trade with Argentina. When one plan failed, Hunt moved onto another.

Announcement of Hill's 1916 business endeavor: "William Hill Hunt,
of New York, devised the scheme of organization and made a trip to
Argentina to discuss the plan with merchants and importers. . ."

Meanwhile Mattie left in 1912, taking the children. Her cousin had arranged to have William tailed and it turned out he had been unfaithful. Next, a mining engineer came out of the woodwork to testify that Hunt had “misbehaved” in Cuba in 1896 and described his “notorious” conduct with women. After two years of working with a court-appointed referee, Mattie received a divorce decree.

The man from Alabama continued to scheme until he had to stop. When he died in 1928 the New York Times reported politely that his banking operations “brought him a good deal of notoriety.”  

An inglorious end for a “successful American.” And, in the end, a truly American story. A young, ambitious banker who overvalued social status, William Hill Hunt became cagey and deceitful, lying recklessly to his own investors. He thought himself invincible.

Yet Hunt certainly was a man of his times. Mustachioed and packed into an Edwardian waistcoat, like so many others he launched himself greedily into the new century.

Mattie's story will follow. 

See also April 20 post about William Hunt's sister, Mamie Hunt Sims, and her book Negro Mystic Lore.


  1. "A Hustler in the Best Sense of the Term – A Modern American Full of Vim and Energy." I love that! The American self-conception. Less as changed than it should!


The Little Time Traveler

  Last fall, my adorable grandson, halfway between two and three years, was finally tall enough to look at the family pictures arranged on a...