Speyer, Ellin Prince (1849–1921)

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Speyer, Ellin Prince (1849–1921)

American philanthropist and socialite. Name variations: Mrs. John A. Lowery; Mrs. James Speyer. Born Ellin L. Prince in Lowell, Massachusetts, on October 14, 1849; died in New York City on February 23, 1921; only daughter and younger of two children of John Dynely Prince (a chemist) and Mary (Travers) Prince; educated by private tutors; married John A. Lowery, in October 1871 (died 1892); married James Speyer (1861–1941, a banker and philanthropist), on November 11, 1897; no children.

Was one of the founders of the United Hospital Fund (1881); helped establish the New York Skin and Cancer Hospital (1886); founded club for working girls (1883); organized girls' branch of Public School Athletic League (1906); was chair of subcommittee on unemployment among women (1915); was an advocate for animals; raised funds for the Lafayette Street Hospital for animals.

Ellin Speyer was born Ellin Prince in 1849 in the mill town of Lowell, Massachusetts, to which her grandfather, John Dynely Prince, an expert textile printer, had emigrated in 1855. Both her parents died before she was 14 years old, and she spent her young adult years with and uncle and aunt in an environment of privilege, wealth, and social prominence. Her uncle William Riddell Travers was a wealthy New York lawyer, wit, and social leader; her aunt was the daughter of Judge Reverdy Johnson who at one time was minister to Great Britain. In later years, Speyer made good use of her position and influence to nurture her three most active interests: the availability of health care, the needs of working women, and, dearest to her heart, the welfare of animals.

Little is known about her marriage to John Lowery, although Speyer was married to him for over 20 years until his death in 1892. Her known charitable work began in 1881 when she helped to found the Hospital Saturday and Sunday Association, which later became the United Hospital Fund, and served as treasurer of its women's auxiliary. She continued her hospital work by helping to establish the New York Skin and Cancer Hospital in 1886 and by serving in the American Red Cross during two wars.

Speyer evinced a sustained concern for the needs of working women at a time when only the neediest women worked outside the home and were often badly exploited and ill used. In 1883, she founded a club for working girls, called the Irene Club, of which she served as president and treasurer for 30 years. This club was the seed from which grew a national network of societies supporting the needs of working girls. Speyer also helped to fund the New York League of Women Workers and the Working Girls Vacation Society. In 1906, she opened her home to the girls' branch of the Public School Athletic League. In 1915, Mayor John P. Mitchel appointed her chair of his subcommittee on unemployment among women. This committee provided employment in its workshops for hundreds of jobless women.

Speyer's interest in working women led her to try to help African-American women and children in particular. Her charities included St. Mary's Free Hospital for Children, the Nursery for Colored Children, and the National League on Urban Conditions among Negroes, all at a time when the specter of slavery was still very much a part of recent memory and practice.

In 1897, she married James Speyer, a banker and well-known philanthropist who belonged to a distinguished German-Jewish family. After their marriage, she became a leading society figure known for her gracious manners and witty and intelligent conversation. She was a member of the socially exclusive Colony Club for women, a patron of the Metropolitan Opera company, and a supportive friend of artists. In 1902, Speyer and her husband gave $100,000 to the Teachers College of Columbia University to found an experimental school which was named after them.

In her middle years, Speyer began the work that meant the most to her, that of protecting and helping animals. In 1910, she founded the New York Women's League for Animals, heading the organization for the remainder of her life. Using her influence with other wealthy socialites, she raised funds for the Lafayette Street Hospital for animals, which after her death was renamed the Ellin Prince Speyer Free Hospital for Animals in her honor. She was particularly sensitive to the plight of work horses which were often mistreated. She organized the "Work Horse Parade," giving out medals for the best-cared-for horses from the New York City police, fire, and street-cleaning departments; she found homes for horses retired by the police department; and she provided special nonslip shoes for work horses to prevent them from sliding on the icy winter streets. In her will, her largest bequest was to her beloved animal hospital.

Ellin Speyer died at her home on Fifth Avenue on February 23, 1921, at age 71. Her friend, violinist Fritz Kreisler, played at her funeral at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, after which she was buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Tarrytown, New York.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

Malinda Mayer , writer and editor, Falmouth, Massachusetts

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