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Sherburne Hopkins

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Subject: Military history of Mexico, Francisco I. Madero, Mexican Revolution
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Sherburne Hopkins

Sherburne Gillette Hopkins (October 5, 1867 – June 22, 1932) was an American lawyer and influential lobbyist in Washington DC. His clients included oil tycoon Henry Clay Pierce, financier and "father of trusts" Charles Ranlett Flint, Guatemalan President Manuel Estrada Cabrera, and Mexican President Francisco I. Madero among others. He specialized on connecting American finance with Latin-American revolutionaries.

Family Background and Upbringing

Born on October 5, 1867 in Washington D.C., he and his baby sister Jessie (born in 1876) could trace their roots to England. Hopkins’ father, Thomas Snell Hopkins, had moved to Washington in the 1860s from Maine where the family homestead remains. Sherburne’s ancestor Stephen Hopkins (1583-1644) came to Plymouth, Massachusetts on the Mayflower.[1] Samuel Sherburne, his great grandfather, fought for American independence as a lieutenant in the New Hampshire Militia.[2] Sherburne Hopkins’ mother was Caroline Eastman whose family came from England to Massachusetts on the “Confidence” in 1638.[3] Both sides of Hopkins’ family tree count among the oldest families in U.S. history.

Hopkins attended school in Washington, D.C. and went on to college at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis.[4] He graduated with a degree in international law from Columbia University in 1890 and joined his father’s practice. While establishing himself as a lawyer in his father’s practice, Hopkins married Hester Davis in 1891. Not much is known about their courtship other that it was brief. Sherburne and Hester had two children, Sherburne Philbrick on December 3, 1891, and Marjorie on August 5, 1894. Their son, Sherburne Philbrick, later also a lawyer in the family firm, briefly became a social star when he married Margaret Upton, better known as Peggy Hopkins Joyce, a famous stage actress. The law firm now called Hopkins and Hopkins became one of the top lobbying outfits for Wall Street in Washington.

Early Legal Career

One of their largest clients was the “King of Trusts,” American Chicle Company in 1899. In 1911, Flint founded the Computing Tabulating Recording Company, which later became IBM. His rubber business naturally necessitated large investments in Latin America, Africa, and India. Flint especially had large real estate interests in southern Mexico. He joined with Henry Clay Pierce to become one of the largest investors in Mexican railways and international shipping companies such as the Pierce Forwarding Company of New Orleans. Pierce had purchased a majority share in the National Railroad of Mexico in 1903.[5] In Mexico, one of Flint’s competitors in the rubber industry was Evaristo Madero, the future Mexican president’s grandfather. The Maderos sold out to Flint in the very beginning of the Mexican Revolution, which rightfully prompted historians to suspect Flint’s financing of the upheaval. Flint also held large interests in Pierce’s endeavors helping the oil magnate stay clear of hated rival John D. Rockefeller who owned the Standard Oil Company. “To the question whether Capt. Sherburne G. Hopkins of Washington had represented him [Pierce] in negotiations with Carranza he declined to answer, though he said that the law firm of Hopkins and Hopkins had looked after his interests in Washington for the last twenty-five years. His acquaintance with Capt. Hopkins is slight, but his father, Thomas S. Hopkins, has long been his attorney in Washington.”[6] All along the way, Thomas Hopkins and his son Sherburne provided the legal work for Pierce and Flint. On January 3, 1900, the St. Louis Republic reported that Hopkins and Hopkins negotiated with the State Department on behalf of Flint. The British had confiscated several loads of flour off the coast of what is Mozambique today. The illegally seized freight had belonged to Flint’s shipping concern. In the effort to force the English to release the cargo Hopkins had strong support from the State Department as well as from the German Foreign Office. In addition to Flint’s flour, British warships had impounded a German mail steamer bound for home.[7] The flour cargo ended up spoilt but Britain had to reimburse Flint for the damages.

Military Service

In 1898, Sherburne Hopkins joined the active navy in the [8] His rank is given as lieutenant. According to his own testimony to the U.S. Senate in 1912, Hopkins’ responsibility “was …in the purchase of some materials of war for our own Government…”[9] Through the years of his service in the naval reserves, Hopkins in fact had risen to the rank of lieutenant commander. When in the fall of 1899 Admiral Dewey returned to the United States a hero, Hopkins found mention in the official program of Dewey’s Washington, D.C. rally as “Naval Battalion, Lieut. Commander Sherburne G. Hopkins, Commanding.”[10] His nickname among military peers was Sherby. Raised to the rank of Commander, Sherby remained in charge of the Washington, D.C. Naval Militia through 1904.[11] Through his responsibilities as commander both professionally and socially Hopkins came to know the senior military establishment of Washington intricately.

Lobbying Work in Central America

The law firm showed its unparalleled manipulative might when it single-handedly shaped Central American history in the following years. After a skirmish between Honduras and Guatemala in 1906, the two countries and El Salvador had concluded the so-called friendship pact that isolated Nicaragua. In the spring of 1907 Nicaragua invaded Honduras in an attempt to unseat President Manuel Bonilla, a puppet of United Fruit Company. With the help of U.S. marines the Honduran leader survived. Virtually a protectorate of the United States with marines occupying Bluefields on the Atlantic side of the country, Nicaragua invaded Honduras in 1908 to install a new, less hostile government there. Despite the official support for intervention of the U.S. government, Hopkins and his international clients worked behind the scenes to contain the Nicaraguan Dictator José Santos Zelaya. The weapon of choice was to provide money for neighboring countries such as Honduras and Guatemala while denying finance to Zelaya. After years of effort, Nicaragua had finally concluded a loan for 1.25 million pounds Sterling (over $100 Million in today’s value) from the Ethelburg Syndicate in London in 1909.[12] Hopkins and Hopkins signed Ethelburg as their client and promptly succeeded in canceling the loan. Apparently, Hopkins leaked crucial information on the impending U.S. intervention to unseat Zelaya to Otto Fuerth, a director of Ethelburg. The loan was cancelled and Zelaya gave up before the Marines landed. Hopkins testified in 1920: “I imparted the information to a friend of mine named Otto Fuerth, whom I had known for a number of years and who had vital interests in that Republic, and I did not want to see him make a loss, and I gave him a little quiet information.”[13] While Hopkins and his clients worked with the American government to unseat Zelaya, American mercenaries, the likes of Sam Dreben, Tracy Richardson, Tex O'Reilly, and Emil Lewis Holmdahl, together with forces from Guatemala and Honduras attacked Nicaragua full scale. Everyone expected an imminent invasion of the country by U.S. forces. As Hopkins managed to cancel the loan and American mercenaries began attacking the capital of Managua, the Nicaraguan dictator left. Hopkins’ involvement in the Nicaraguan change of government was critical. He represented his clients and acted on behalf of the U.S. government, especially Philander Knox who had become Secretary of State in 1909. Hopkins also supported Knox’s efforts to properly finance and equip the rebel forces. Guatemalan President and another puppet of the United Fruit Company, Manuel Estrada Cabrera, received funds from the United States, mainly in the form of loans. The banana fleets of United Fruit and Pierce transported weapons and ammunition to the Central American republics. The main U.S. port from where tramp steamers sailed was New Orleans, a hot bed for mercenaries, revolutionaries, and intrigue of all kind. After Zelaya fled, the American government installed a new puppet regime. “I knew exactly what was going to happen. I knew that nothing could save Zelaya,” Hopkins boasted to Senator Smith in 1912.[14] Upon the question of whether Hopkins’ intimate information about Nicaragua’s troubles came from sources in the government, he replied: “I should not say directly from our Government, Senator. I knew what was going to happen before our Government did, and stopped Zelaya’s loan from going through. I am also free to say that I received a great many hints that things were going to happen. I knew the sentiment in the State Department and elsewhere…”[15]

The Mexican Revolution

Hopkins’ obvious success and experience in Central America in the decade prior to the [16] Showing how much his connections were worth, Hopkins successfully interceded with his friend, Secretary of State Philander Knox, to allow munitions to pass unchallenged from El Paso to Ciudad Juarez.[17]

As the Maderos apparently put the well-connected lawyer in charge of the U.S. representation of their efforts, Hopkins had to find personnel quickly. The success of Madero’s uprising depended on immediate financing, munitions shipments, and political support in Washington. Historians friendly to Madero’s efforts to democratize Mexico and to institute meaningful social reforms are generally hesitant to admit the Madero-oil connection. An admission of these facts would somehow constitute a compromising situation for Madero. But what did he concede in order to receive this support? The question of influence on politicians is as old as politics existed. History is full of examples of undue influence being exerted to advance selfish goals. This does not mean that history is not also full of examples of politicians using whatever means they can to advance their own goals. Indeed, there is no hard evidence to suggest that the Maderos did anything other than what they could to advance their own goals. Henry Clay Pierce thought that President Madero would create a more favorable political environment for his corporate interests than Diaz. So he supported him. Even without any additional concessions, Pierce and the other U.S. magnates were not idealists. They faced an impossible work environment under Diaz. When Senator Gilbert Hitchcock asked Hopkins whether his engagement in Mexico was for “any idealistic purpose,” the answer defined the sad reality: “Of course not altogether, Senator.”[18]

American Intelligence Involvement

A representative of the Maderos and other governments, representing at the same time the Flint and Pierce interests, Hopkins also worked as an informant for the Military Intelligence Division of the US Army. However, the M.I.D. did not entirely trust him. When Hopkins determined that intelligence could be given without hurting the interests of his clients, it was reliable and valuable. Otherwise, he would not impart intelligence to the American government. His contacts in the M.I.D. hierarchy are also interesting. Not a single document could be found where Hopkins corresponded with Colonel Van Deman, the de facto head of the M.I.D. for many years. Hopkins corresponded with people much higher up in the chain of command, usually with the Secretary of War and his Chiefs of Staff. As a result it appears more often than not that lower tier staff did not know him. From the evaluations of his M.I.D. handlers it becomes clear that they recognized the essence of his value. Informed like no-one else, Hopkins had to be handled with one caveat aptly defined in 1920 by Major Montague of the Military Intelligence Division. “His loyalty shifts with his fee,” he cautioned his superiors.[19]

The Hibbs Break-In

On Sunday, June 28, 1914, an exposé with wide ranging consequences exploded on the first page of the New York Herald. As unbelievable as it sounds today, this attack of Venustiano Carranza's people against U.S. lobbyists and Villa supporters was so significant that the details of the scandal competed for first page headlines with the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife on the same day. The scandal had its origin just around the beginning of May, the time when Felix A. Sommerfeld and Hopkins shuttled between New York and Washington, trying to sideline Carranza, and arranging the finance for the final push against Victoriano Huerta. According to Sherburne Hopkins, burglars entered his Washington D.C. offices at the Hibbs building on 725 15th Street, NW in the middle of the night and “stole a mass of correspondence from his desk.” He suspected the burglars to be “Cientificos,” people who wanted to turn the clock back to Porfirio Diaz’ times.[20] The Washington lawyer denied knowing who in particular was to blame for the heist, but “had certain parties under suspicion.” Clearly, he was implicating Huerta agents in the crime. Most astonishing is the fact that, despite the break-in and removal of not a few but hundreds of files from his office, Hopkins did not file a police report.

Hundreds of letters between Hopkins, Carranza, Flint, and Pierce told a story of foreign interests using the Constitutionalists as puppets for their greedy ends. When reading the letters it seemed that the whole revolution had become a competition between Lord Cowdray and Henry Clay Pierce. The Hopkins papers revealed the extent to which American investors fronted by Pierce and Flint had been involved in the Mexican Revolution. Not much of the overall story should have been a surprise. For years American newspapers had reported on the financial dealings of the Maderos with Wall Street. When after President Madero’s murder the rest of the family fled to the U.S., their support for Carranza was public knowledge. However, what made the Hopkins papers so combustible was the undeniable link between major parts of the U.S. government, oil and railroad interests headed by Flint and Pierce, and certain factions within the Constitutionalists headed by Carranza and Pancho Villa. The appearance of impropriety was undeniable. As late as April 1914, President Wilson’s special envoy to Mexico, John Lind (politician), negotiated with Hopkins and Carranza with regards to the Niagara Falls peace conference. The exposé suggested also a second, less favorable picture of the Carranza government. The mere fact of Carranza corresponding freely with Hopkins and Pierce seemed to suggest that Carranza was willing to sell Mexico’s infrastructure and natural resources to American finance if they helped him win the revolution. In a sense, these revelations threatened to reduce Carranza to the level of Porfirio Diaz whose sell-out had precipitated the revolution. Carranza would not let this stand and quickly issued a categorical denial of his government ever having accepted any financing from U.S. interests. Like a pack of rats scurrying for cover, Hopkins, Pierce, Flint, Carranza, Cabrera, Vasconselos, Lind, Garrison, and Bryan all voiced public denials of ever having known anyone or dealt with anyone of the group. Only two parties smiled through the show: Senators Smith and Fall who loved to see the Wilson administration tumble, and Huerta’s representatives in Niagara who only had to gain from the revelations.

As the Republican Senators William Alden Smith and Albert Bacon Fall correctly assumed, Hopkins had driven a deep wedge of suspicion between President Wilson and his Secretaries William Jennings Bryan and Lindley Miller Garrison. The latter even publicly announced that he never met or dealt with Hopkins, which clearly was untrue. The issue of both cabinet members surreptitiously relenting on the arms embargo against Mexico, while publicly proclaiming its enforcement, smelled of intrigue and illegal influence.


The scandal devastated Hopkins' public image. He remained a solid soldier for the interests of Pierce and Flint, however, further in the background. His political clout had been on decline throughout the spring of 1914 and finally ended with the exposé of his stolen papers on June 28. In a larger sense, the Hopkins papers confirmed to the American public and international observers alike just how deep the machinations of American finance reached into U.S. foreign policy and Mexican affairs. Suddenly, all the rumors and suspicions voiced for years in newspapers and Senate investigations lay on public display as fact. Hopkins’ carefully crafted lobbying schemes, his financing of select revolutionary factions in Mexico, the pushing of his clients’ interests while hurting their competitors, and his intricate network of whole layers of government that operated on a system of favors – all of it had broken to pieces. After the scandal, Hopkins remained in the background. His protégé [22]


  1. ^ Azel Ames, The May-Flower and Her Log, July 15, 1620-May 6, 1621, Chiefly from Original Sources; Houghton, Mifflin, Boston and New York, 1907, p. 181.
  2. ^ Louis H. Cornish, editor, National Register of the Society of Sons of the American Revolution, New York, NY, 1902, p. 441.
  3. ^ Frederick Virkus, editor, Immigrant Ancestors: A List of 2,500 Immigrants to America before 1750, Genealogical Publishing Co., Baltimore, MD, 1964, p. 28.
  4. ^ National Archives, RG 165 Military Intelligence Division, Correspondence 1917 to 1941, Box 1266, File 2338-997.
  5. ^ The New York Times, August 4, 1903 “Railway Earning Prospects.”
  6. ^ The New York Times, June 28, 1914.
  7. ^ The St. Louis Republic, January 3, 1900, “State Department Addresses Britain.”
  8. ^ The Times, Washington, October 10, 1898.
  9. ^ United States Senate, Investigation of Mexican affairs, Subcommittee of the Committee of Foreign Relations, Government Printing Office, 1920, Testimony of Sherburne G. Hopkins, p. 2565.
  10. ^ Official program, Admiral Dewey Reception, October 2 and 3, Washington, 1899.
  11. ^ Naval Militia Yearbooks 1901, 1902, 1903, 1904.
  12. ^ Manzar Foroohar, The Catholic Church and Social Change in Nicaragua, State University of New York Press, Albany, NY, 1989, p. 11.
  13. ^ United States Senate, Investigation of Mexican affairs, Subcommittee of the Committee of Foreign Relations, Government Printing Office, 1920, Testimony of Sherburne G. Hopkins, p. 2565.
  14. ^ United States Senate, Investigation of Mexican affairs, Subcommittee of the Committee of Foreign Relations, Government Printing Office, 1920, Testimony of Sherburne G. Hopkins, p. 2565.
  15. ^ United States Senate, Investigation of Mexican affairs, Subcommittee of the Committee of Foreign Relations, Government Printing Office, 1920, Testimony of Sherburne G. Hopkins, p. 2565, p. 2566.
  16. ^ Heribert von Feilitzsch, In Plain Sight: Felix A. Sommerfeld, Spymaster in Mexico, 1908 to 1914, Henselstone Verlag LLC., 2012, p. 115.
  17. ^ John Skirius, “Railroad, Oil and other Foreign Interests in the Mexican Revolution,” Journal of Latin American Studies, Vol. 35, No. 1 (February 2003), p. 30.
  18. ^ United States Senate, Investigation of Mexican affairs, Subcommittee of the Committee of Foreign Relations, Government Printing Office, 1920, Testimony of Sherburne G. Hopkins, p. 2535.
  19. ^ National Archives, RG 165 Military Intelligence Division, Correspondence 1917 to 1941, Box 1266, File 2338-692, Memorandum for Lieut. Dunn.
  20. ^ The Washington Times, “Captain Hopkins Charges Letters Were Stolen As Part Of Conspiracy,” June 28, 1914.
  21. ^ The New York Times, June 23, 1932, “S.G. Hopkins Dead; Lawyer in Capital.”
  22. ^ National Archives, RG 165 Military Intelligence Division, Correspondence 1917 to 1941, Box 3692, files 10640-2413.


  • von Feilitzsch, Heribert (2012). Felix A. Sommerfeld: Spymaster in Mexico, 1908 to 1914. Amissville, Virginia: Henselstone Verlag.  
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