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Rags to Riches to Philanthropy


Henry Keep 1818 – 1869

Emma Keep ca 1827 - 1900  


Henry Keep, b 1818 in Adams in the State of New York, USA, and d 1869 in Watertown, New York, was a very successful and wealthy industrialist and banker. Historians suggest that 90% of people like Henry Keep, and others much more wealthy, were not honest men.  The remaining 10% were considered probably honorable men.   We shall consider Henry as one in the 10%, and presumably lived up to his designated name of Good Samaritan Keep.  The fact is that there is a nursing home in Watertown, N. Y., named Samaritan Keep Home after this man and his wife.

Henry Keep was a descendant of John Keep of Longmeadow, Massachusetts (the first known Keep in the U. S., d 1676), and of the family of Walter Kep, b ca 1230 in Astwood, Buckinghamshire, England.  He had one child, Emma, named after her mother.  His father was Heman or Herman Keep b 1782, and the line goes back to John Keep through Mathew b 1745, Mathew b 1722, and Samuel b 1670, all of Massachusetts.


There was an item in a Watertown paper in 1835 describing 17-year old Henry Keep as a runaway:  "TWO CENTS REWARD!  Ran away from the subscriber. . .an indentured apprentice.  This is to forbid all persons harboring him or trusting him on my account, as I shall pay no debts of his contracting." 


Thirty-three years later, the following appeared in The New York Times (Oct., 1868):


“When Henry was born and the family lived at the county poor house, Henry was forced into indentured service to the farmer from whom he fled (and was never captured).  He went to Honeoye Falls in western New York and worked as a teamster for a time on the Erie Canal, but soon began speculating in currency.”


An article in the Watertown Daily Times (Sept., 1999) is headed, "Crafty Wheeling and Dealing made Henry Keep Rich."  The item explains that thanks to President Andrew Jackson's treat­ment of the country's banking system, bank notes lost value because there wasn't enough gold coin to redeem them.  Through some peculiarity in the banking system that Henry rec­ognized, he bought bank notes in Rochester and then went to Watertown and sold them at a profit.  And while in Watertown he bought more depreciated notes and returned to Rochester to cash them in, again at a profit. He then expanded the operation by doing much the same thing, and profiting more, between Canada and the United States.  With this accumulation of profits, he decided that he could go into the banking business himself, which he did by opening the Henry Keep Bank, Mechanics' Bank, Citizens' Bank, and Frontier Bank, in succession.


In New York City, about 1860, he  began investing in railroads just before the value of those stocks shot up because of the Civil War.  He became very wealthy.   After successfully dealing in railroad stock, he became an officer in the Michigan, Southern & Northern Indiana Railroad.  He became president of the New York Central Railroad, president of the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad, and president of the Cleveland and Toledo Railroad.  He also managed the North Indiana Railroad. All of these posts involved the financial aspects of the companies because he really wasn’t a railroad man.

Henry was a good and shrewd man.  The following excerpt taken from Bulls and Bears of New York, by Matthew Hale Smith, contains an expression of Henry's honor and his tips about how to go from rags to riches.  "The late Henry Keep, whose success was remarkable, and whose integrity and honor were without a stain, told a friend a short time before he died, that one of the elements of his success was this--he never bought from impulse, [and] never allowed the excitement, flurry, and panic of the street to control his judgment." 


The New York Times ran this testimonial to Henry Keep from his associates:  “True merit seldom fails to receive proper acknowledgement. . . .Mr. Henry Keep, a gentle­man well and favorably known in railroad circles for his shrewdness and success, has just been the recipient at the hands of some of his friends, of a magnificent gold service, weighing in all one hundred and thirty seven ounces of solid gold, of the value of $5,000." 


Henry’s estate was valued at $1,000,000, and his brother-in-law and future Governor of New York State, Roswell Flower, increased the estate to $4,000,000 by good manage­ment. 

After his death, Henry’s wife Emma built the Henry Keep Home in 1879, a 65-bed Gothic style mansion that served as a rest home for the old aged and infirm for nearly 100 years.  A hospital, The House of the Good Samaritan, was built across the street from the home in 1887. 

The Henry Keep Home 1879 - 1972
 Samaritan Keep Home  1972

The Henry Keep Home was eventually taken over by the hospital, and in 1972, the building was demolished.  A modern nursing home facility was built in its place and named Samaritan Keep Home in honor of Emma and Henry Keep.


Also, there is today in Watertown the Henry Keep Apartments, a low-income facility for older people. Henry and Emma were also generous to their relatives in their wills:  Siblings received up to hundreds of thousands, and a servant received $10,000 if she cared for Emma’s pets for at least a year.