Friday, October 31, 2014

A Life of Achievement Marred by Tragedy

Gossips' interest in Dr. John C. DuBois began with discovering that he had visited Abraham Lincoln at his home in Springfield just a month before the election of 1860. In 1883, DuBois traveled abroad with William H. Traver and Prof. T. E. Combs--a journey that seems to have been carefully monitored by the press back here in Hudson.

When he visited Lincoln, DuBois was a young doctor, 28 years old, just returned to the United States after two and a half years of studying medicine in Europe. Fifteen years later, according to the 1875 New York State Census, DuBois had a wife named Evelina and three children: Julian, 5; Rachel, 3; and Florence, 5 months. The family lived on Allen Street, in the house that is now No. 203, with two servants and a young woman identified as a cousin.

By 1880, according to the decennial U.S. Census, Dr. John C. DuBois and his family, now including a fourth child, two-year-old Gertrude, had moved upstreet to the more fashionable 300 block of Allen Street and had taken up residence in the house where he and Evelina would live for the rest of their lives: 318 Allen Street.

In 1881, John and Evelina's fifth child was born. He was named Coert, his father's middle name. Of the five children, Coert seems to have had the most illustrious life but also the most tragic.

Coert DuBois graduated from Hudson High School and went on to study at the Biltmore Forest School, the first school of forestry in North America. The school was founded in 1898 by Carl Schenck on George W. Vanderbilt's Biltmore Estate in North Carolina. Coert DuBois, who probably graduated from Hudson High School in 1899, would have been one of the school's earliest students. He was certainly one of its few students. When Vanderbilt fell on hard times in 1909, he fired Schenck, and the Biltmore School of Forestry ceased to exist.

George Schenck and his students--one of whom might be Coert DuBois
The man who had preceded Schenck as manager of Vanderbilt's forest, designed and created by Frederick Law Olmsted, was Gifford Pinchot, who in 1895 became the first Chief of the U.S. Forest Service. Coert DuBois followed Pinchot's path. When he finished his study at the Biltmore Forest School, he joined the U.S. Forest Service and went to work first in Washington, D.C., and then in California.

Coert DuBois kept his connections to Hudson and the East Coast. Throughout the first decade of the 1900, "About the Folks: Short Items Concerning People Who Come and Go" in the Columbia Republican and "Personal Notes and Jottings" the Hudson Register regularly contained news of Coert DuBois' visits home. In August 1910, Coert DuBois married Margaret Beauvais Mendell from Kendal Green, Massachusetts. Their marriage was reported in the New York Times.

When the United States entered World War I in 1917, Coert DuBois entered military service as a major in the 10th Engineers Forest Regiment, American Expeditionary Forces. While he was away at war, his wife and their two daughters--Elizabeth, then 5, and Jane, then 2--lived in Hudson, with Coert's father and his oldest sister, Rachel, at 318 Allen Street. (The U.S. Census for 1910 lists John C. DuBois as a widower.)

When the war was over, Coert DuBois, who had by then earned the rank of lieutenant colonel, left military service and entered diplomatic service. He was serving as consul-general in Naples in 1935, when his two daughters died in a manner that evoked classical tragedy. The story appeared on the front page of newspapers throughout New York State. The Cortland Standard ran this banner headline: "TWO U.S. GIRLS LEAP TO DEATH FROM BRITISH PLANE." This report followed:

Jane and Elizabeth DuBois, 2o and 23, 
Found Dead After Airship Returns to Flying Field
Pilot Did Not See Girls Jump and Sensed Tragedy
Only When He Looked Back, Saw Door Open
Upminster, Essex, Eng., Feb. 21 (AP)--Jane and Elizabeth DuBois, daughters of the American consul-general at Naples, were killed today in a mysterious fall from an airplane bound for Paris.
The girls, both less than 24 years old, plunged into a field just outside the town, from a height of about 1,500 feet.
A witness said they were "clasped hand-in-hand" in a last embrace as they hurled through the air.
Their father is Coert DuBois, 54 years old, native of Hudson, N. Y., but with a legal residence at San Francisco.
His wife is the former Margaret Mendell of Boston, they were married in 1910.
The girls killed today were their only children.
The girls were the only passengers in the plane and the pilot did not know of their disappearance until sometime later when he turned around and saw their seats vacant and the door ajar.
He returned to Stapleford aerodrome and reported to police.
Friends of the girls said they started on their last flight heartbroken over the recent crash deaths of two men of the Royal Flying Corps. 
Air line officials said two letters were found on the airplane--addressed to the girls' father.
Jane DuBois was 20 and Elizabeth 23. Coert DuBois has been American consul general at Naples since 1931. Before he entered the diplomatic service he was in California as district forester of the United States Forest Service from 1911 to 1917.
He had served in Washington, Paris, Port Said, Batavia, in India, and at Naples. He was a major and a lieutenant colonel of engineers in the World War, and for a time was in the 10th Engineers in France.
Syracuse Journal, Feb. 23, 1935
Three days later, after an inquest had been held, this Associated Press report appeared in the Kingston Daily Freeman.
Romford, Eng., Feb. 25 (AP)--Elizabeth and Jane DuBois, who plunged from an airplane to death last week, visualized their suicides as a "pretty straight" corridor to the dead men they loved.
Coroner's jury today returned a verdict of "suicide while of unsound minds" after it had heard the contents of the two letters which the girls had intended only for their father, Coert DuBois, United States consul general in Naples, and their mother.
The father, tight-lipped and white-knuckled, attended the inquest. The mother stayed alone at a hotel, still unaware of the complete details of her daughters' plunge from a commercial transport ship.
In their letters, the two beautiful American girls told of their grief for the deaths of Flying Officer John A. C. Forbes and Flight Lieutenant Henry L. Beatty, who were killed at Messina, Sicily, two weeks ago when their Royal Air Force flying boat, "Ace of Diamonds," crashed into a hillside.
One of the notes said that Flying Officer Forbes, engaged to another girl, was going to break off his engagement in order to marry Jane.
The coroner said he only did his duty in reading the letters as without them it would have been difficult for the jury to arrive at a proper verdict.
"In time to come," he said, "I am sure the father will realize that reading these letters was the only course to be taken in the circumstances."
The content of the letters was included in the AP article, so not only the jury but everyone following the story in the newspapers could know the parting thoughts Elizabeth and Jane shared with their parents.

Gossips discovered news of Coert DuBois twice again in local papers. On March 10, 1942, the Hudson Evening Register reported that President Franklin Roosevelt had appointed Coert DuBois, "formerly a resident of this city," to the Anglo-American Caribbean Commission, a commission created to "encourage and strengthen social and economic cooperation between the American and British outposts in the Caribbean." At that time, DuBois was working for the Department of State as chief of the Caribbean office. 

On January 17, 1944, the Evening Register published a letter DuBois had received from President Roosevelt, praising him for his part in organizing the West Indian Schooner Pool. The letter read in part: "Charles Lansing, the U.S. chairman of the Anglo-American Commission, tells me that it is largely through your organizing ability and pertinacity that the valuable adjunct to merchant shipping in the Caribbean Sea was developed." The Register prefaces the letter in this way: "Friends of Coert DuBois, of Washington, D.C., son of the late Dr. and Mrs. John C. DuBois, of this city, who spent his boyhood here, where he has many friends, will be interested in the following, which he received recently from President Roosevelt."


  1. What a fascinating account!
    Thanks for all the work you put in to bringing this to light.

  2. Local boy makes good but ...oh those girls!

  3. My Uncle was J.A. Charles Forbes. According to his family (including my father) there was no truth in the girl's assertion that Flying Officer Forbes was going to break off his engagement.

  4. Yale University Press published a chapbook of Jane Du Bois's Sonnets later in 1935.

  5. Thx for I just googled the girls after a mention of them in an octane magazine story about vintage aircraft. The internet truly is amazing.

  6. I just read that Coert DuBois spent some time in the late 1930s as U.S. Consul in Havana, where he gained a reputation for being exceptionally compassionate and helpful to Jewish refugees trying to escape Hitler through Cuba at a time when most doors were closed to them. (One Mighty and Irresistible Tide, Jia Lynn Yang, p. 81)