William James Chalmers was born in Chicago on July 10, 1852. His father was Thomas Chalmers born in Dundee, Scotland. His mother, Janet Telser, was also born in Scotland. William was educated in the public schools of Chicago and did not attend college. He began working with his father early in life at the Eagle Works Mfg. Company where his father was General Superintendent. In 1872 they created a new firm called Fraser & Chalmers which became the largest manufacturer of mining machinery in the world. In 1900 they united with the Allis Engine Works at Milwaukee and became Allis-Chalmers with William J. as the President.
Joan Pinkerton was the only daughter of Alan Pinkerton, the detective. She was described as a striking brunette, well educated and highly independent. A classmate of hers, Lizzie Chalmers, had a brother named William and they were introduced at a party in 1876. They had a great deal in common since they were both first generation Scottish Americans. William was described as handsome, well educated and cultured. He shared Joan’s love of music. Throughout the Summer and Fall the romance blossomed. William became a regular visitor to the Pinkerton home at 554 W. Monroe Street. Mr. Pinkerton traveled frequently and Joan’s mother encouraged the relationship.
Alan Pinkerton vigorously, and with anger, opposed the marriage but the ceremony occurred October 21, 1878. It was held at the fashionable Third Presbyterian Church with Dr. A. E. Kittredge officiating. The reception was held at 372 Monroe Street which was the home of the newly married couple. The house was fully furnished including an elegant piano. It was filled with many expensive wedding gifts. The house was later robbed and many of those gifts were stolen.
In the mid-1880's, the Chalmers built a new home at 315 S. Ashland Avenue. It contained 15 rooms with a ballroom on the third floor. Across the street lived Carter H. Harrison the mayor of Chicago. The Chalmers house is still standing but is now a condominium. You can find pictures on the Internet. They sold the house in 1897. It is unclear where they lived next, but their final residence was 1100 Lake Shore Drive in Chicago.
Carter Harrison was mayor for five terms and was greatly loved by the people of Chicago. He was assassinated in his home on Ashland Avenue, October 28, 1893, around 8 p.m. The first persons on the scene were William and Joan Chalmers. They had heard the gunshots and ran to give assistance and comfort to the dying Mayor but nothing could be done to save him. The man who did the shooting was Eugene Patrick Prendergast. He was defended by Clarence S. Darrow on the grounds that he had become insane after the shooting. Prendergast had two trials and was found guilty both times. He was hanged on Friday, July 13, 1894, and was later buried in Calvary Cemetery. Carter Harrison was buried at Graceland Cemetery. Six hundred carriages, driven three abreast and 15,000 men followed the body to its final resting place.
Alan Pinkerton believed that William Chalmers would never accomplish much and thus he opposed the marriage. You can be the judge. Mr. Chalmers was President of the Commercial National Safe Deposit Co; Director of Frazer & Chalmers in London, England. Member of the Chicago Board of Education; Director of World’s Columbian Exposition; President of the Commercial Club of Chicago; Director of the Field Museum of Natural History; Member of the Union League Club, Chicago Athletic Club, Lake Geneva Country Club, Saddle and Cycle Club, and the Engineers Club of New York. The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago has the largest cut topaz in the world. It is named for William J. Chalmers.
The Chalmer’s were known for their philanthropy. They supported many causes including the Illinois Saint Andrew Society and the Scottish Home. Our records of giving are few in number but we do know that in 1927, the Chalmers sent a check for $500. Because of their many connections to Society members we would believe that they were consistent contributors. In one of the old boxes, we found a letter from Mr. Chalmer’s secretary dated 1931 which said: “Mr. Chalmers thought the enclosed picture of Scots-American Tribute to Scotland’s Dead might be of interest to the inmates of the Scottish Old Peoples Home.” The pictures are now apparently gone.
Mr. Chalmers died December 10, 1938. His wife, Joan Pinkerton Chalmers, died January 25, 1940. On at least two of our history tours, we have visited the Chalmers grave and the monument erected in their honor. There is much more to the story which we will continue in our next blog.
President Emeritus & Historian
Illinois St. Andrew's Society