Thursday, December 8, 2011

Godolphin Finney Burslem (1855-?)

Portrait from the Representative Men of New York, Volume II, 1898.

  The picturesque life of Godolphin Burslem is examined today, and after reading the following passages on his life, I'm certain you'll agree that the mustachioed man above lived a life of intrigue and mystery! While not a politician in the exact sense of the word, Burslem ran an unsuccessful campaign for the New York State Assembly in 1896, but it is the other aspects of his life (that of a con man and criminal) that will lend quite a bit of color to this article. Godolphin Finney Burslem was born in Great Britain on May 6, 1855 into a family  prominent in the English military. He attended the Woolrich Military School in 1870 and the next year began service in the Royal Horse Artillery. 
   In 1874 he journeyed to South Africa and eventually became caught up in the Zulu War, which began in 1879. During his service in that  war Burslem lost a leg at the Battle of Isandlwana and later had it replaced by one made of cork (and here is where his story starts to get interesting; it was later determined that Finney actually lost his leg in a gun carriage accident during the final months of the war.) While he may have been exposed as a humbug late in his life, it is obvious that Burslem did have a noteworthy military career early on.
  After returning home to Great Britain Burslem began a career (if you can call it that) as a swindler and fraudster. A brief snippet of his criminal beginnings was chronicled in the New York Times in 1901 and is shown below.

   In September 1885 he was arrested for securities fraud in Cockerill, England and subsequently jailed. He was released from prison in 1889 and in January 1890 immigrated to the United States. The 1898 work entitled Representative Men of New York, Volume II, gives a very "clean" overview of Burslem's life (his frauds hadn't been exposed yet) and notes that in 1891 "he entered the publishing business which he followed for some time with great success". Later on, this same work details that after engaging in banking and brokerage pursuits, Burslem "succeeded in incorporating forty-three companies, possessing an aggregate capitalization of $23,000,000." One can pretty much read between the lines here and see that this was mere embellishment on the part of Burslem, who obviously kept his stint in jail a secret from the book's editor, one Jay Henry Mowbray. The aforementioned book also relates other factual inaccuracies about Burslem's life, such as his settlement in Buffalo in 1885 (obviously untrue) and his job as a purchasing agent for the Metropolitan Hotel in New York City.

A Burslem campaign notice from the New York Times, 1896.

   In 1896 Burslem's apparently "sterling" reputation got him noticed by the Democratic Party in New York City, which subsequently nominated him for a seat in the state assembly. The above New York Times snippet for the assembly seat lists Burslem as a member of the ill-reputed Tammany Hall, and mentions him as an insurance agent. The results of the campaign (which Burslem lost) were posted in the New York Times a few days after the election. You'll notice that he placed a respectable second out of a field of six candidates, being defeated by Republican nominee Robert Mazet by over three-thousand votes.

   Between this election and 1901 little is known of Burslem's life, but what life he had carved for himself was brought to an end in December 1900 when a bench warrant was issued for his arrest on the charge of larceny, having stolen a sum of $40 from a Ms. Caroline Krager of Elberon, New Jersey. Burslem would escape New York City shortly afterward and was later arrested in Boston in July of 1901. Following his return to New York City, he was incarcerated at the infamous "Tombs" jail, being held on $1000 bail.

  Godolphin Burslem was convicted of larceny in February 1902 and when sentenced, pleaded for clemency. The final New York Times article mentioning him was published shortly after his conviction and is posted in its entirety below. Strangely, none of these articles dealing with his arrest mention his earlier candidacy for the state assembly.

  The end of Godolphin Burslem's life is as mysterious as the rest of the facts presented above. It appears that after his 1902 conviction Burslem disappeared from the pages of history for the most part. He is recorded as an inmate in the 1905 New York State census, and it isn't conclusively established what happened to him after this date. It can be surmised that he may have died in jail or could have possibly returned to England after serving his sentence. I suppose it will forever remain a mystery, much like the man himself!

  For those who may want to read the "clean" version of Burslem's life (as published in 1898 in the Representative Men of New York mentioned earlier) it has been posted below, as it was originally found on the website


  1. Great article Andy.

    As a distant relative of GF Burslem, he was definitely one of the most colorful characters in our family's past.

    My father has spent a great deal of time researching GF and has compiled a complete dossier on him here:

    It may add some further color to your picture of him. As a serial con-man, most of what he told the world about himself was a complete lie!

    1. Thank you for reading Godolphin's article! The whole thing took quite a long while to put together, and I'm amazed I found as much information as I did on his life and exploits. Your father has done a fantastic job on chronicling Godolphin's career as a humbug and I am willing to venture a guess that your father's work constitutes the closest thing to a biography on Burslem that's available online. And now a question......I can see that your father put "after 1910" as a reference point as to Burslem's date of death. Have you been able to track down any leads as to where he might be buried? While putting my bio on him together I figured he moved back to England and died there, but from what I've read on your family's site he was still living in NY in 1910. I'm willing to bet he's buried somewhere in NYC, hopefully not under one of his many aliases! Certainly very interesting and hopefully someday we'll be able to figure out what became of him!
      Andy Osterdahl

    2. Joel, seems we share the same ancester... Old Golophin Finney was quite the character wasn't he?

  2. William Godolphin Curzon Burslem died after a fall aged 98.
    His daughter Eileen lived to the age 106. She died Good Friday 2012. google Eileen Elliott 106- Werribee Vic Aust.
    Godolphin Finnie Burslem may well have lived to 100 years of age

  3. About 1910 my grandfather William Godolphin Curzon Burslem, Finnie's brother, was sent a letter from a law firm in England offering to pay his fare back to England because he had been left money in a will. At first my Grandmother agree he should go back and collect the money waiting for him in chancery. One however morning she woke early and tore up the papers he had signed.
    Maybe Finnie received a similar letter.
    My cousin searched for the will. There was no money left to us from a Burslem.

  4. Once again, my grandfather was nearly blind because of an eye condition called keratoconus. 4 generations have inherited this condition in a milder form. It strikes at different ages. Did Captain George James Burslem also have this eye disorder

  5. It appears from recent DNA testing Captain George James Burslem's mother was a Siddi (a Sub Saharan African) born in India.