Lost Lansing: Usa Forester: Lansing Business Giant with Mysterious Origins

Our story begins in the middle: Usa Forester was brought to America as a small child by Edward Forester of New York City. When adopted by Forester, he was given the symbolic name, Usa (United States of America). His career began in New York state as an errand boy, but within two years he was the head of the white-goods department of a dry goods store. Arriving in Lansing in 1869, Usa Forester worked for several dry goods stores until he opened his own book, stationery and wallpaper business in the in the opera house that some Lansing residents may recall became the Gladmer Theater. He next built his own three-store “block” on the site of today’s Victor Building on the 200 block of North Washington where he conducted business until his retirement in 1916.

In 1887, Forester was acclaimed “Lansing’s Pride!” along with 11 other manufacturers, merchants and tradesmen on the 50th anniversary of Lansing’s founding. The State Republican, on September 6th, acclaimed Forester “one of Lansing’s most determinedly enterprising merchants” and boasted “elaborate preparations are already under way for the display of the grandest array of fancy and holiday goods this market has ever seen.”
His place in Lansing is further illuminated by the appearance in 1931of a page one State Journal story reporting his death in Florida.

Usa Forester’s effect on Lansing could be felt well into modern times. A 1961 property report said the property at 215 North Washington was owned at that time by the U. H. Forester Estate. An adjacent property noted its owner as the Margaret F. Wood Estate – Margaret Forester was Usa’s daughter; she married William Wood.

Usa Forester’s memory is still alive in Lansing today. Mrs. Gert Mitchell, now 93, recently wrote, “I personally knew Mr. Forester. [He] lived next door to my birth home at 326 N. Capitol. … [We] used to stop from Church and call on them.”

But where did Forester come from? Reports in Lansing’s newspaper and histories are inconsistent about his home: China, Japan or some other country? During Forester’s time in Lansing, animosity toward the Chinese was widespread. In the US Census of 1880, he reported himself to be Chinese; in the 1894, 1900 and 1910 Census’, he reported himself to be Japanese. Forester was quoted in an 1887 New York Times article saying he was Japanese, but was captured in the Chinese rebellion of 1857 and taken with other Japanese prisoners to Shanghai. However, this account does not square at all with other solid evidence of those times. Ultimately, the best evidence may be found in Usa Forester’s death certificate that was filed in Florida. It shows, according to a nephew, that Usa was Chinese.

Unfortunately, how Usa Forester got to America is still an open mystery. By the 1896 account of one General Edward Forester, soldier of fortune, scoundrel and certified inveterate liar, Usa was rescued from certain execution by General Forester. However, so many of the other allegations in Forester’s account have been disproven that this one is most dubious. Usa Forester himself, in the 1887 New York Times article, ascribed his rescue to a notorious criminal, William Kissane; however, despite extensive documentation of that Chinese rebellion, there is no independent record of Kissane ever being in the Orient. Gordon Knight, a professor in Vermont who has studied Kissane and Usa Forester concluded that either Usa made up his own account to hide his Chinese heritage or the newspaper reporter for the Times got the story wrong, confusing facts reported by Usa with the widely known Kissane.

The mysterious story of Usa Forester and his Lansing origins came to light when a Chicago researcher discovered an article in the April 7, 1887 New York Times that mentioned Usa’s roots and requested additional information from the Greater Lansing Historical Society.

Upon further research the President of the Society Doug Johnson discovered a fun-to-read albeit contested account of Usa’s “being saved” by General Edward Forester in China in the 1896/97 “Cosmopolitan” magazine. The article is “Personal Recollections of the Tai-Ping Rebellion” by General Edward Forester. The article ran in pieces over several issues and the Usa portion doesn’t appear until the third installment. The article begins in Vol. XXI, May-Oct 1896 at p625. The second and third portions are in Vol. XXII, Nov 1896 – Apr 1897 at pp. 34 and 209, respectively. The passage recounting his “rescue” of Usa (without using that name) is in Vol. XXII at p214. The issues are available on Google Books.

Additionally, Gordon Knight, a professor in Vermont who has done a lot of work on General Edward Forester has published articles in obscure journals. He and Johnson exchanged information. A paper he delivered to a recent conference was titled, “General Edward Forester (1830-1901): Correcting the Auto-biography of an Inveterate Liar.” Gordon has thoroughly discredited virtually every fact in the Cosmopolitan article and raises serious questions about the likely truth of the New York Times article cited above.

The Capital Area District Library’s The David Caterino Collection was the source of of additional information about Usa.

Lost Lansing is a feature from the Capital Area District Library.

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