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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

The Richest Woman

In her later years Mary Frances Hopkins was publicly castigated as a rich, vain, willful woman; her conduct judged foolish and scandalous by California’s elite high society. Part of it might have been pure jealousy: she was, at the time, considered the richest woman in the world.

Nothing about her earlier life even hinted that she would one day acquire either a fortune or unwelcome notoriety. Born in New York City March 8, 1818, Mary Frances Sherwood grew up in a family that was financially comfortable, but hardly wealthy; a family that placed a high value on education and intellectual pursuits. Her father William Sherwood, headmaster at a private boys’ school, counted prominent authors James Fennimore Cooper and Washington Irving among his close personal friends. Mary Frances herself was a life-long student of art and literature. She spent school terms at her aunts’ Kellogg Terrace Academy in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and later taught there. What evidence there is of her girlhood suggests she was introspective, quiet, and bookishly inclined.

On September 20, 1854, in New York, she married her long-time beau Mark Hopkins (who had always called her Frances); five years her senior, and a successful merchant in far-off Sacramento, California. Frances was 36 on her wedding day—an age considered quite old for a bride—although they had committed to marry before Mark’s impetuous sojourn to California’s great Gold Rush six years earlier. They were first cousins, related through the inter-married Sherwood, Kellogg, and Hopkins families.

The couple set up housekeeping in Sacramento, where Mark had been a wholesale grocer but now became partners with Collis Huntington in a hardware business. Otherwise, they lived quiet lives suited to their temperaments, rarely attending any of the soirees, social clubs, or private parties so prevalent in the city’s lively social scene. They had been married eight years, and were childless, when Frances hired Mrs. Catherine Nolan, a destitute widow, to do their laundry. Unable to afford a sitter, Mrs. Nolan brought her young son Timothy with her to work; a handsome, precocious boy who quickly captured Frances’ heart—and Mark’s. An agreement that allowed Tim to live in the Hopkins’ home and become part of their family was reached with Catherine, who apparently felt that allowing Tim to be raised by Mark and Frances Hopkins was providing her son with social and financial advantages she simply couldn’t match: a secure home with a kindly, well-to-do Sacramento merchant and his former-schoolteacher wife.

Soon after Tim became their ward, Mark’s public life as treasurer of the California Pacific Railroad became well known. However, except for her devotion to Tim and to her church, little is known of Frances’s 20 years in Sacramento.

When the railroad’s headquarters relocated to San Francisco in the early 1870s, Mark and Frances acquired an unpretentious house in the city because—despite the wealth he was accumulating—Mark preferred to live simply. By and by though, Frances insisted on building a magnificent new residence on Nob Hill just like Mark’s railroad partners Charles Crocker and Leland Stanford had done. The mansion was almost finished when Mark Hopkins died suddenly, in March 1878.

Frances inherited most of her husband’s $20 million dollar fortune and moved into the fabulous 40-room, multi-turreted mansion replete with gables, spires, and ornate ornamentation, a house widely scorned for its “fanciful” architecture. Reserved by nature, she had invested little time in San Francisco’s social circles before Mark’s death and now continued to remain aloof. The press magnified her every move, seizing on unwise remarks she let slip about her growing dislike of California, with the result that Frances was harshly judged as an egotistical woman who was lacking in refinement.

Malicious tongues wagged even more furiously when Frances, aged 69 and widowed nine years, married handsome interior designer Edward Searles in New York on November 7, 1887. Not only was he 22 years her junior—but perhaps even worse in the eyes of high society matrons—he was the mere craftsman she had hired to decorate the Nob Hill mansion.

Mr. and Mrs. Searles honeymooned in Europe. When they returned the couple combined her money and his talent to purchase and lavishly renovate several properties, among them a New York house and Edward’s family home in Methuen, Massachusetts, until Frances’ health began to fail around 1890.

Her death in Methuen on July 25, 1891, was announced by headlines such as “Rich Woman Dead” in newspapers across the country. Frances earned yet more public antagonism postmortem, when it was discovered that the terms of her will excluded her now adult, adopted son Tim Nolan Hopkins. Her sole beneficiary was Edward Searles, who donated the Nob Hill mansion to the San Francisco Art Institute two years later.

The 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire destroyed everything except the chimney stacks and granite restraining wall of the magnificent, romantic fairy-tale castle Frances Sherwood Hopkins Searles built on California Street. The Mark Hopkins Hotel has occupied the site since 1926. March is National Women’s History Month.

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