George Brinkerhoff mystery, 1893

George M. Brinkerhoff Sr. and his daughter Bessie climbed aboard an Illinois Central Railroad sleeper the evening of July 28, 1893, on their way home from the World’s Fair in Chicago.

When the train arrived in Springfield the next morning, George Brinkerhoff – banker, investor and friend of Abraham Lincoln – wasn’t on it.

A train porter said he had last seen Brinkerhoff (1839-1928), in his trademark soft hat, cutaway coat and red socks, at Clinton. Traveling via buggy, railroad handcar and shoe leather, some of central Illinois’ most prominent citizens scoured every inch, every ravine and every clump of bushes along the IC line between Clinton and Springfield. They found nothing.

George Madoc Brinkerhoff Sr., undated (Courtesy State Journal-Register)

The Brinkerhoff family then hired Pinkerton detectives, who pursued tips for a month. The investigators checked out farm laborers, tramps and imaginary dead bodies, but the whereabouts of George Brinkerhoff remained a total mystery

“Suffice it to say that not a single clue was found in all the weeks of inquiry that gave the slightest intimation of the whereabouts of the missing man,” the Illinois State Journal reported in October. “Finally, when every recourse had been taken in vain, the search was reluctantly given up with strong probabilities that the problem would never be solved.”

Aside from the personal concern and distress, Brinkerhoff’s disappearance paralyzed his primary business, the lending and real estate firm of Brinkerhoff and Oliver. Co-owner Edward Oliver had died a year earlier, so when Brinkerhoff vanished, no one could handle transactions, deal with creditors or pay taxes. At the request of both partners’ families, lawyer Clinton Conkling was appointed the business’s receiver.

Then, on Oct. 19, a letter addressed to Brinkerhoff’s wife, Isabella (1843-94), arrived at the family mansion on North Fifth Street. Signed “George,” the brief note asked only about the health of Mrs. Brinkerhoff and their five children. The handwriting looked only vaguely like that of the missing man, and the letter said nothing about why he had disappeared. It also didn’t say where he was. The envelope, however, was postmarked Toledo, Ohio.

That was enough for John Brinkerhoff (1866-1938), George and Isabella’s oldest son. He immediately booked a ticket to Toledo, the Journal said.

He argued that his father would look for an answer to his inquiries and would appear at the post office to call for the reply.

John arrived in Toledo and waited in the post office lobby from 8 o’clock to 11 o’clock in the morning, and at the latter hour, true to expectations, Mr. Brinkerhoff came in. He was recognized by John, who stepped up to him, called him by name and grasped his hand in greeting.

Mr. Brinkerhoff was very perceptibly startled by the meeting and when he had partially recovered he gave way to a flood of tears and wept like a child.

That reaction didn’t mean the elder Brinkerhoff had somehow recovered his faculties, and many aspects of his sojourn would remain forever mysterious. But it apparently had its roots in what one newspaper story called Brinkerhoff’s longstanding “nervous prostration.”

Brinkerhoff often suffered from severe headaches that led to confusion, and they were more likely to happen when he was tired. He and Marian had had a long day at the World’s Fair, and Brinkerhoff had been unable to sleep when the two got on the train. Marian stayed up with her father until late, but he eventually seemed to relax, and she retired to her berth in the sleeper.

George, however, was still unsettled, so when the train stopped at Clinton in the early morning, he stepped out onto the station platform for some fresh air. But the train then pulled out of Clinton, leaving Brinkerhoff behind.

That’s where the story gets foggy, and Brinkerhoff seems to have rambled around much of the Midwest.

“His son says that his mind wanders from his narrative,” an Illinois State Register story said.

Mr. Brinkerhoff says the Illinois Central train left him at Clinton the morning he was first missed. He doesn’t know where he next went, but he says he was in Decatur. He sometimes talks about walking out of that city, and about being there three days, and again he will talk about being there only three hours and taking a Wabash train out. It appears from all the story of his movements that he never got off the Wabash road.

He next remembers that he was sick at Detroit, but whether it was for three or seven weeks he can’t tell. From there he believes he went to Windsor, Mich. Afterwards he was at Cleveland. He was not sure that he went by rail or by the lake to that point.

He walked thirty miles out of Cleveland, and rode in a box car to Toledo, where he was found. John Brinkerhoff says his father talks like he had been to Toledo twice since he left home.

“The swollen and lacerated condition of his feet,” the Journal added, “indicates that he had walked many a weary mile.”

Brinkerhoff had borrowed $150 from a friend while still in Chicago. That money apparently financed his travels, but he was down to his last $3 when found.

Beyond food and lodging, Brinkerhoff’s only purchases seem to have been a new hat, new socks and a shirt and cuffs. The rest of his clothes, although neat and seemingly clean, were the ones he had on when he stepped onto the platform in Clinton.

Physically, Brinkerhoff was in shaky condition, the Register reported.

Mr. Brinkerhoff is said to have altered greatly in appearance. He looks twenty years more aged than he did when he left here. His beard has grown to about seven inches in length, and together with his hair, has greatly whitened. He has lost flesh until he barely weighs 100 pounds.

Brinkerhoff’s family gradually nursed him back to physical health at home. “George M. Brinkerhoff is improving rapidly,” the Register reported in November, “(and) is able to recognize all acquaintances and to converse as rationally as ever.”

Brinkerhoff greenhouses, undated. The mansion’s roof can be seen above trees at right (SJ-R)

Before his breakdown, Brinkerhoff had been a civic as well as business leader in Springfield. He served two terms as city comptroller, helped create Illinois’ insurance regulation system, and turned over the first shovelful of dirt when Springfield built its water reservoir. He was personal friends not only with Lincoln (he helped rescue Lincoln from an overenthusiastic crowd of supporters during the 1860 presidential campaign) but also with U.S. Grant.

After Brinkerhoff returned home, however, he became a very private citizen. He never went back to his former businesses; instead, he made himself an expert gardener. He had an extensive greenhouse system built at the Brinkerhoff mansion, and over the next three decades, flowers and plants Brinkerhoff cultivated won hundreds of awards at the Illinois State Fair.

Both newspapers published long obituaries and memorial editorials when George Brinkerhoff died in 1928. None of the articles included a word about his three months on the road.

Original content copyright Sangamon County Historical Society. You are free to republish this content as long as credit is given to the Society. Learn how to support the Society. 


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5 Responses to George Brinkerhoff mystery, 1893

  1. Mark Martinie says:

    Love the history of Sangamon Co. and Springfield, Il.

  2. Thomas Trello says:

    Amazing story !!! Thanks for fantastic writing abilities .. i have not lived in Ill in 25 years! Makes me thing of home

  3. nick wasmer says:

    Very interesting. I notice his daughter was with him on the train, but not mentioned again as to if she made it home or was also missing with him. What happened to Bessie?

    Thanks for your work.

    • editor says:

      Good question, Nick. Thanks for reading so closely, and thanks for the kind words. Bessie indeed was still on the train when it got to Springfield — it was she who alerted authorities to her missing father. I had that in the entry at one point, but edited it out of the final version. Bessie Brinkerhoff never married. She died at 87 in 1966 and is buried at Oak Ridge.

  4. Maureen Davlin says:

    Such interesting history about our beautiful Brinkerhoff Mansion. We even had my Mum’s funeral reception at the Brinkerhoff Mansion Dec, 2024. I can see that beautiful Brinkerhoff Mansion from my front window. I have always loved and appreciated both the Brinkerhoff and Oak Ridge Cemetery, which is my back yard neighbors. I like to say ‘Abe Lincoln is buried in my back yard’, and now I can also note the Brinkerhoff Family as well. Thank you for the great Springfield history. I do love my and Abe’s Home Town.

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