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Cudmore: Mohawk Valley man pioneered hiring women in government

Cudmore: Mohawk Valley man pioneered hiring women in government

Francis E. Spinner was a 19th century U.S. treasurer who developed an elaborate signature to prevent currency counterfeiting.

He also was proud of being one of the first federal officials to hire women to do work previously done by men.

Spinner was born in German Flats in the western Mohawk Valley in 1802, the oldest of nine children. His father, Rev. John Spinner, was a German Roman Catholic priest who had become a Protestant and married Magdalene Brument. The Spinners came to the United States in 1801.  John Spinner was pastor of two German-speaking Dutch Reformed churches in Herkimer and German Flats.

In a 1937 history, Rev. W.N.P. Dailey wrote, “A week after the child (Francis Spinner) was born, the house burned and the mother, barefooted, carried her infant through the snow to a neighbor’s. As a lad he showed great taste for books but his father insisted on his learning a trade.”

Spinner was apprenticed to a confectioner in Albany. His father moved him to Amsterdam when he found out the young man was not learning how to make confections but was serving as a salesman and bookkeeper in Albany.

The youth was apprenticed to saddle and harness maker David DeForest in Amsterdam.

Spinner showed his love of books by reading every volume in the Union Library, the first organized book collection in Amsterdam.

A newspaper reported that Spinner had a close call when the first Amsterdam Mohawk River bridge was under construction in 1821. Spinner was climbing along an unfinished part of the structure when it began to give way. He jumped to safety as part of the bridge collapsed.

Spinner returned to Herkimer County in 1824, where he married Caroline Caswell of Herkimer and became a banker. He also was a major general in the state militia and sheriff of Herkimer County. He was one of the commissioners involved in construction of the state asylum for the mentally ill in Utica.

A Republican, he served in Congress from 1855 to 1861. President Abraham Lincoln named Spinner the U.S. treasurer following a recommendation from Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase.

Spinner’s elaborate signature became the best known handwriting in America. He told a magazine writer that he consciously developed his signature while he was sheriff, asylum commissioner and banker.

During the Civil War Spinner was among the first federal officials to hire women as clerks because so many men had become soldiers. Some 70 women were hired and Skinner kept them on after the war ended.

According to the U.S. treasury website, the first woman employed at Treasury was Jennie Douglas of Ilion, New York in 1862, hired to cut and trim new “greenback” currency.

Spinner said he took great satisfaction in being one of those “instrumental in introducing women to employment in the offices of the government.”

Women were paid less than men. Male clerks had a salary of $1,200 annually while women were paid $900.

In 1875 Skinner resigned as U.S. treasurer in a dispute with a new secretary of the treasury who would not give Spinner final say over who would serve on his staff. That same year Spinner ran unsuccessfully for New York state comptroller. He relocated to Jacksonville, Florida and died in 1890. He was buried in the village cemetery in Mohawk in Herkimer County.

The women he had hired at Treasury raised $10,000 for a bronze statue of Spinner done by sculptor Henry J. Ellicott, first located at a private gallery in Washington. In 1909 the Daughters of the American Revolution had the statue moved to Myers Park in Herkimer.

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