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The Scottish American History Club Newsletter
April 2006


Robert Burns Hutchinson

Robert Burns Hutchinson was the great-grandson of Robert Burns. His mother, Sarah Elizabeth, was the daughter of Col. James Glencairn Burns, son of the great poet. The subject of this article was born in Cheltenham, England, on November 10, 1855. He then spent thirteen years in India but when his health failed, he returned to England. In 1891, he married and took his young wife to Mexico where he was employed in  an English syndicate until it failed. His time in Mexico must have been short for by July, 1892, he was living in Chicago.

In Chicago, he found employment with a marine insurance company located on Sherman Street. The family now had a five month old baby boy and they lived at 277 Lincoln Avenue. It appears the baby was born in Chicago. On the night of June 7, 1892, Mr. Hutchinson had worked until late in the evening and started home on the streetcar. He left the streetcar at Clark and North Avenue and began walking home.

Near the south end of Lincoln Park, he was approached by “three strange men” who spoke a foreign language. He was savagely attacked and robbed. They took his money, his gold watch and chain and other valuables. When he resisted the robbery, he was beaten and left for dead. He recovered consciousness near “the great new building at Clark and North Avenue.” He secured a horse-drawn cab and reported to the Larrabee Police Station and then left for home. A doctor was called and his wounds, at the base of his skull and on his forehead, were treated and stitched.

Two days after the assault, Hutchinson became unconscious and delirious. Dr. Church and four other physicians were called, one of them being a brain specialist. They advised him to seek hospital admission and he was taken on a Sunday morning to St. Luke’s in a police ambulance. The doctors believed that a bone splinter may have been the problem and that surgery would be necessary. The Chicago Daily News reported that “he raves about his business, his friends, his wife, and his child, and his whole condition is pitiable.”

His young wife had written his old mother in Cheltenham and was expecting an answer soon. She is quoted as saying: “he was the last male descendant of Robert Burns, until our own son was born.” The baby was to have been christened on the very day that Hutchinson was admitted to the hospital. The ceremony was postponed, but the boy was to be named Robert Burns Hutchinson. “My husband revered the memory of his great ancestor and loved the American people because of the reverence they have for the poet”, his wife said. She was fearful that her husband would never recover and that his condition had worsened.

On Monday, the child became seriously ill and on July 14, 1892, at 10:00 p.m., Robert Burns Hutchinson, aged 5 months, died at 277 Lincoln Avenue, Chicago, Illinois, of cholera. His death certificate says that he had been ill for five days and died from convulsions. He was attended by Dr. Helen M. Goodsmith who lived at 396 Belden Avenue. A neighbor reported that he was “the most beautiful child she ever saw.” Knowing that the child would die, the mother had the baby baptized and later a photographer “took the only likeness of the dead child.

”The funeral service, without the father, was held in their modest home. The Rev. David Beaton, of Scottish descent and pastor of the Lincoln Park Congregational Church, repeated the Lord’s Prayer and made a few remarks. A dozen friends gathered around the small casket which was covered with white brocaded silk. There were tea roses and smilax laid on the casket and around it. After the short service, the casket was taken outside to a horse-drawn carriage and the journey was made to Graceland Cemetery.

Cemetery records show that the baby was buried in Section G, Area 90, near marker 1037. The grave does not have a headstone or marker of any kind. The plot belonged to the Alexander McCullock family, and permission to use the grave was given by Sarah McCulloch Cameron, a daughter. Four children are buried here, ranging in age from one month to 11 months.  They all have different last names. The oldest person is Harry W. Holm who died on December 15, 1902. His child, eleven months old, who died in 1897, is buried near him. It appears that the McCullock family made this large plot available to families in need.

The newspapers accuse the Scottish Societies of “wanton and extra-ordinary neglect in ministering to the wants of Robert Burns Hutchinson and his young wife in their most unfortunate circumstances.” Of course, there was considerable doubt in the Scottish community as to the claims that he was the great-grandson of the poet. Soon a letter arrived from John Baynes, who lived at 603 W. 36th Street in New York City, stating that he had know Mr. Hutchinson as a child and he was indeed the only living male descendant of the Poet. He was trying to raise money in New York to help the family. Mr. Baynes had also written to the Illinois Saint Andrew Society asking them to intervene in this needy case. It was announced on July 18, 1892, that “R. B. Hutchinson and his wife are not without friends in this busy city; that his hospital expenses are paid and money is promised to his wife at any time that she might call for it...”

There were a number of Scottish organizations in Chicago at this time and all began to help the Hutchinson family. The Executive Council of the Highland Association of Illinois held a special session at the Sherman House. It was decided that the association would take “full care of Robert Burns Hutchinson, the last male descendant of Robert Burns.”  The Scottish Association met at Washington Hall, 70 Adams street, and appointed a committee of women to get subscriptions for Mrs. Hutchinson “and to see that she wants for nothing.” On July 20, 1892, a meeting of “Scotchmen” was held in the office of the Western British American where a committee was selected to solicit subscriptions for Mr. & Mrs. Hutchinson. Members were: Charles A. McDonald, Hugh McMillan, Thomas Edgar, Thomas Watson, Peter McEwan, Angus Stewart, William Barclay and Capt. John Keith.

The story as told in the various local newspapers now ends. There are no further articles, so one does not know how it all ended. Did the father survive? How much help did the family receive? What happened to Mr. & Mrs. Robert Burns Hutchinson? A search of the Internet brought us to information at Ancestry.com, RootsWeb.com and John Burness who manages a Burns family genealogy web site. All these sources said that Robert Burns Hutchinson, born November 10, 1855 in Cheltenham, England, died on August 26, 1944 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. He was 88 years old.

The only person I knew in Vancouver was Harry McGrath of Simon Fraser University so I sent him an email. Harry had attended the Leadership Conference held at the Scottish Home in 2004. He replied that he was unaware of this story, but would send the word out to those on his mailing list. I have now heard from a number of people including: Lew Ross, Ron MacLeod, Anne Yandle, Joan MacKenzie and Susan Andrews. It is said that Don Sinclair, founding member of the Burns Club of Vancouver, may actually have pictures of the Hutchinson family.

Anne Yandle, who works at the University of British Columbia found the following obituary. “Mr. Robert Burns Hutchinson, great-grandson and nearest direct descendant of the poet, died in August 1944 at Vancouver, British Columbia. He was born at Cheltenham England. He spent some time tea-planting in India. Later (1891) went to the United States of America, farmed in British Columbia, and engaged in the lumber business in Fiji, afterwards retiring to Vancouver.”

It appears that the couple had five more children. Dorothea Mabel Burns Hutchinson was born May 21, 1893 in Chicago. Her “delayed record of birth” indicates that she was born in Cook County, Illinois. She did not ask for a birth certificate until 1957 and used a Certificate of Marriage (16 09 084477) dated May 6, 1916 in Victoria, B. C. when she was 22 years of age. Two friends also signed the affidavit to obtain the certificate. Her husband’s name was Charles R. W. Sabourin. She died on February 15, 1979. This means that Robert Burns Hutchinson recovered and spent additional time in Chicago. The other children, all born in Vancouver, were Robina (born in 1897 and died April 27, 1969); Hugh Burnand (born September 13, 1899 and died April 13, 1977); Jean Burns (born January 3, 1903, but no date of death is given); and Berkeley Westropp (born September 12, 1908 and died September 21, 1989). It may be possible that descendants are still living in Vancouver and hopefully will be found soon.

The Museum and History Club reviewed this story on March 4, 2006, and have confidence that this is a true story. They saw newspaper articles, cemetery records, and death certificates. We are all quite amazed to discover that the great-great-grandson of Robert Burns is buried in an unmarked grave in Chicago and that this story has somehow been lost for more than one hundred years.

Our thanks to Gus Noble, President of the Illinois Saint Andrew Society for his support and also appreciation to the Donald A. Campbell, Jr., Museum and History Fund.

Reference: Chicago Tribune

Scottish-American Museum

Our museum is open every day by appointment, but will be open to the public the first Saturday of each month (except July, August and December), from 9 a.m. until 12 noon.  A PowerPoint presentation and discussion will be given on each of these Saturdays at 10 a.m.

The following dates and subjects are scheduled:

  • May 6, 2006 - Did the last surviving member of the Boston Tea Party die in Chicago? If so, was he a Scot and where is he buried?
  • June 3, 2006 - C. K. G. Billings married Blanche MacLeish. They had a wonderful life and are both buried at Graceland Cemetery. If you have old wedding pictures please bring them and share with the group. We will also consider other marriages important to the Scottish history of Chicago.
  • July 15, 2006  - Tour to Graceland Cemetery.
  • September 9, 2006 - A review of “Long Gone” by David R. Frew.  Bob McLeod lost two great uncles on the Marquette & Bessemer. We will hear about ships which sank on Lake Erie, one of which has never been found. Bob’s grandfather was a ship’s captain on the Great Lakes and he will bring some of his memorabilia to the meeting. Others are invited to do the same.
  • October 7, 2006 - Scottish sufferers and the fire of 1871. You will hear a little known description of the Great Fire written by a member of our Society. See a list of the “Scottish sufferers” and who responded to their cry for help.
  • November 4, 2006 - Chicago Scots in the Civil War. We will feature the lives and stories of Scots who fought and died. The sword of Colonel George Mason carried at Shiloh will be on display.
  • January 6, 2007 - The unveiling of the Burns Monument in Garfield Park. Scottish organizations struggle to cooperate in the raising of money and the placement of the Burns statue in Chicago. Hear about the great celebration when it was finally dedicated.
  • February 3, 2007 - “Seven Minutes with Abraham Lincoln.” Hear about the numerous Scottish connections to President Lincoln. He may have even had some Scottish blood.


Wayne Rethford, President Emeritus
Illinois Saint Andrew Society
Scottish-American History Club
2800 Des Plaines Avenue
North Riverside, IL 60546