Walkabout: Professor Friend and the Electric Sugar Factory, Part 1

Havemeyer Sugar Refinery, WB. Brooklyn Museum, 1891

Read Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 of this story.

Far from being the name of a psychedelic band from the ‘70s, the Electric Sugar Factory is a true story, taken from the Brooklyn and New York City newspapers of the day, and repeated in papers all across the country. It has everything, beginning with a poor eccentric inventor with a wonderful procedure that would revolutionize an industry.

It also had the opportunity for wealthy businessmen both here and in England to invest in said invention and the company around it, a pious man of God who champions the company, the inventor’s much younger wife, an obscure British religious sect, a very uncurious Brooklyn architect and an English solicitor. Our tale starts in the Midwest, because that’s where Professor Friend developed his great invention.

Professor Henry C. Friend was from the Chicago area. He called himself a manufacturing chemist and an electrician, at a time when the field of electricity was still at its beginnings, and the currents and bolts of raw electricity still were mysterious and marvelous.

Sometime around 1875, he announced that he had invented something that would change the world. He had come up with a new method to refine sugar, harnessing the mighty and mysterious power of electricity. It had to be seen to be believed.

Sugar had long been refined in a series of steps that involved a lot of boiling, drying, chemical washes, straining, more boiling and more chemicals, more straining, and more drying before pure refined sugar was produced.

It was a lengthy, messy, hot and back breaking process. The good professor had come up with a machine that miraculously, pardon the pun, refined the process. Simply put,the raw sugar mixture went in one end, was subjected to electric current and other secret stuff, and pure refined sugar came out the other end.

If this really worked, then it would revolutionize one of the world’s most important and lucrative industries. Sugar was one of the most valuable commodities in the world. The sugar barons of the United States, England, and other countries were kings.

The sale of this wondrous invention would make a smart investor a king as well. Professor Friend’s invention, if it worked, would cut production costs to pennies on the ton. The wonders of electricity were indeed a gift from God.

Unfortunately, for Professor Friend, no one believed him. He had tried to get the interest of the powerful Chicago commodities market, and to have potential investors take a look at his invention, but they sneered that it was impossible, and chased him out of town.

Disappointed, but undaunted, he and his wife Olive decided to come to New York and Brooklyn, where sugar was indeed king, and the powerful Havemeyer Sugar Refining Company was the largest sugar manufacturer in the world.

The Friends scraped together enough money to get an apartment in Harlem, at that time a suburban area barely in the city. Professor Friend was determined to show the Sugar Kings of New York his process, certain that when they saw it work, they would pay dearly for it.

But the professor, who by this time was becoming a rather old man, did not have the connections to get to the right people. He and Olive tried to meet the sugar barons, but they couldn’t even get close.

They also couldn’t get meetings with the rich investors who could help them turn this great invention into a factory. It was Chicago all over again.

Then the Reverend W. E. Howard entered the picture. Pastor Howard was a minister straight from Central Casting. He was tall and lean, with a gaunt face and the piercing gaze of a zealot. He was clean shaven at a time when most had beards or mutton-chops, and always wore a clerical collar and black parson’s garb.

He was also Mrs. Olive Friend’s step-father. Pastor Howard was a street preacher by trade, an intense and charismatic figure who could preach the sinners out of their damnation, and had the ability to sell a snake sneakers.

He was a familiar presence down on Wall Street, where he often preached and solicited donations. No one wanted to offend the clergy; it was bad public relations, especially during the Victorian era, when everyone gave great lip service to being good and charitable churchgoers.

An editorial, written after this whole affair was over, described him as “a man with so much piety on his coat-sleeves that it seems to be dripping from them all the time.”

Rev. Howard started working the Street, dropping hints in the market that a marvelous new invention was going to be coming out, and now was the time for smart investors to get in on the ground floor.

Always looking for a good investment, as well as beating out the competition, a few people did some cursory investigating, and began investing. It all looked good.

By 1883, Professor and Mrs. Friend, as well as Rev. Howard and his wife, were living at 227 East 60th Street in Manhattan. The Professor was still working out the kinks on his machine, subjecting the complaining neighbors to all kinds of sounds and smells, as well as the crackling of ozone.

The Reverend Howard could be heard at the windows of the building, singing hymns and praying at the top of his lungs. He seemed to really like the part of the process where the raw sugar went into the machine, and then come out totally refined, because over the sound of the machinery at that point, great cries of “Glory, hallelujah!” could be heard.

In 1884, the Electric Sugar Refining Company was incorporated. Officers in the corporation had been chosen. Shares of both preferred and common stock were up on the boards.

Of course, the Friends and the Howards had a controlling share of the preferred stock. Word of the greatest invention since, well, electricity had even made its way to England.

The president of the Electric Sugar Refining Company was an Englishman named William H. Cotterill. He had been a lawyer in England, but had lived in New York for many years, where he also had practiced law. His presence gave the company needed gravitas.

The Secretary-Treasurer of the ESRC was another Englishman named J. U. Robertson. He had been the owner of a successful Liverpool shipping company when he heard of the marvelous machine. He was also member of a religious sect called the Christadelphians.

They had originated in Birmingham, England, and were spreading throughout the country at the time. Robertson was a devout member of the sect, and once he had gotten involved with the Electric Sugar Company, was equally as zealous in his belief in the company, spreading the word amongst Christadelphians to buy stock.

The news of the ESRC was printed in the “Christadelphian,” the newspaper of the group. Even though some members of the sect decried getting involved in worldly commerce, this was different, Robertson said.

This new invention, given to man by God, and blessed by the participation of a man of the cloth, presented an investment opportunity that was too good to pass up.

Every issue of the “Christadelphian” explained how the machine worked, and invited even the smallest investor to become a part of it. Hundreds of Christadelphians did, purchasing a share or two of common stock.

In addition, Robertson’s uncle, not a Christadelphian, was a very wealthy man in Liverpool. He was a cautious investor by nature, a characteristic that had made him well respected, and also quite rich.

When Robertson came to him with the news of the Electric Sugar Refining Company, the uncle did his due diligence, and was impressed enough to invest heavily.

He also invited his colleagues and friends to do so as well. In a short amount of time, the ESRC had enough money just from English investors, that they were able to rent office space on the sixth floor of 69 Wall Street.

They also bought the old F.E. Smith Atlantic Flour Mills buildings in Red Hook, Brooklyn, where they planned on opening their factory. It was right near the docks, on Hamilton Avenue, where ships could bring the raw sugar to their doors, and then ship the refined product anywhere in the world.

An architect named Thomas Sniffin had been commissioned to build the new manufacturing space. He already had plans, and was quite looking forward to beginning.

Not everyone was taken by the news of a new and revolutionary invention in the sugar market. Bradstreets, the financial advisory company on Wall Street, warned investors away. So did a firm in London, advising smart investors to not throw their money away on a machine that couldn’t possibly work.

When the largest of the French sugar manufacturers, Lebaudy Frères, inquired in England and America about the company, they received advice to back away quickly and not invest.

In spite of this advice, many Frenchmen also had shared in the company. By 1888, after word of successful demonstrations of the process, the stock peaked in the English market at £120.

Everything was set. The Electric Sugar Refining Company had operating capital to make Professor Friend’s marvelous invention start production.

They had offices on Wall Street, stock was being traded on two continents, they had a factory building in Brooklyn, and money in the bank.

Truly, the Lord was working miracles here. But then, one day, right around the time of the great Blizzard of 1888, Professor Henry C. Friend was called to the Big Home Office. He very suddenly and quite permanently dropped dead.

Next time – How did the ESRC impress a pretty smart group of international investors to invest so heavily in this operation? What was the miracle machine, and how did it work? Did anyone actually see it turn raw sugar into refined table sugar? A look at how this the electric sugar refining process worked, and the fate of the company after its founder dies. Did the secret to the machine die with him? You can’t make this stuff up. This true story continues next time.

(Photograph: Havemeyer Sugar Refinery, Williamsburg, 1891. From the collection of the Brooklyn Museum)

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