The Curious Case of Gates Fahnestock

The eldest son of James and Sarah (Gates Lord) Fahnestock, Gates Fahnestock had a transformative experience at age ten when the Civil War action found Gettysburg. In his excellent piece on Gates, Brandon Neely traces the arc of Gates’s innocence to the point of its shattering during the battle and what that meant to his life thereafter. Neely notes that Gates was a typical ten-year-old who filled his days looking for excitement in and around his father’s and uncles’ store. When the Confederates first came to town on June 26, it seemed to Gates a grand adventure, though the family store was effectively looted.

A week later, as the firing opened on the northwest side of town, Gates was anxious to go with his buddies and see the action, but family members insisted he head home. He did so, and he and a few others climbed to the top of their two-story house to watch the action and see the shells fly over their heads. At the same time, General Oliver Otis Howard was across the street standing on the roof of the Fahnestock Brothers Store. But the fun would not last long. Gates’s uncle soon collected him and his buddies and got them down into the house. As the action came to a head, the family took shelter in the basement as bullets hit the house.

In the days that followed, Gates’s whole perspective changed. When he saw his first amputation, he nearly fainted, but he overcame this and took an active interest in helping the wounded. As noted elsewhere, the US Sanitary Commission used the Fahnestocks’ store as their main base of operations for several weeks until all the wounded were moved to Camp Letterman.

The experience was profound for Gates, and he reflected on it all his life. Ultimately, he moved away from Gettysburg with his family, and he became a successful banker and financier in Philadelphia and then New York City where he was noted both for his financial acumen and his generosity.

However, the end of his life was marked by the strange manner of his death. On November 6, 1936, several Brooklyn and New York newspapers recorded that Gates had died and that his body had been found with tape over his nose and mouth. According to these reports, these had been placed purposely by Gates himself to induce suffocation, and the coroner ruled the case suicide, though Gates’s personal doctor denied anything of the sort and indicated Gates had died of a stroke incident to his advanced age (he was eighty-three). The papers then go largely silent on the matter, though tributes from people that Gates had supported came in.

Back to the Fahnestock Family and their Store

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