J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, June 24, 2010

“Bearing on His Eccentricities”

Today Boston 1775 goes off on a tangent about Isaac Chauncey Wyman, who claimed descent from a Revolutionary War veteran, though his exact ancestors and how old they were and other details shifted over time. This posting has little to do with the eighteenth century, so you’re welcome to skip out. But some gossip I can’t ignore.

Isaac Chauncey Wyman’s big bequest to Princeton in 1910 made headlines across the country, and those news stories preserve even more family tensions and secrets than are evident in his professional profiles.

Marblehead vital records show that this man’s father Isaac Wyman married Elizabeth Ingalls on 2 July 1820, and died on 4 Oct 1836 at the reported age of 81 (suggesting that he was born in 1755). The Genealogy and History of the Ingalls Family in America says that Elizabeth Ingalls was born 19 Jan 1789, so she was more than thirty years younger.

That couple had three children who lived to adulthood: Susan, William, and Isaac Chauncey. When Isaac died in 1836, according to the Gulfport Daily Herald’s report decades later, he left $80,000 to Isaac Chauncey and nothing to his other son.

There’s also a claim that, despite marrying under her maiden name, Elizabeth Ingalls had an earlier marriage to a man named John Nourse, and a son by him named John Ingalls Nourse. Descriptions of John I. Nourse’s parentage were published well before it became a legal issue, with his daughter suing for a piece of Isaac Chauncey Wyman’s estate on the grounds that she was a half-niece.

John Ingalls Nourse had an interesting death in 1857:

John I. Nourse, probably the largest man in the State, died here [Andover] Aug. 1. He was formerly a seaman, and quite slender; but after receiving a severe fever a few years ago, continued to increase in flesh till his last sickness, when he weighed four hundred pounds.
But I digress (even within this tangent).

At Princeton, Isaac Chauncey Wyman convinced his guardian to advance him some money and speculated successfully in sugar, then in timberland. He got a law degree from Harvard in 1850 and practiced for eleven years, serving as assistant to the U.S. attorney for Massachusetts. Then he devoted himself to accumulating real estate.

When he died, Wyman owned large swaths of Essex County, as well as land in all or most of the other forty-eight states, Hawaii, Canada, Britain, Spain, and Bulgaria. The Gulfport Daily Herald said: “Living on the southern border of Marblehead, Mr. Wyman used to say that he could walk to the northern border of the town without leaving his own land.” In addition, “He frequently spoke of a coal mine, a silver mine and a railroad of which he was owner.” Those were apparently in Carpenter, Colorado, now a ghost town.

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram published a dispatch from Salem that said:
In Lynn, Marblehead and this city, where the testator was best known, hundreds of stories are in circulation bearing on his eccentricities. . . . he refused to have a fire in his office even in the coldest days of winter, and [showed] his unwillingness to give away anything even of the most trivial value.
The Gulfport Daily Herald reported:
Collecting antiques was his sole diversion, although he said he occasionally dissipated to the extent of reading a novel. He found money so easy to get that he frequently said that there must be something the matter with the poor.
Sounds like he had trouble relating to people, right?

In fact, I think that was a congenital condition for Isaac Chauncey Wyman. I’m going out on a limb and hypothesizing that he had Asperger’s syndrome. Wyman had serious difficulties with interpersonal relationships. In Reminiscences of Princeton College, 1845-1848 his classmate Edward Wall wrote:
He was, when a student, a tall and slender young man, very shy, shrinking from acquaintanceship rather than seeking it. He, therefore, had hardly any friends. . . .

His household consisted of himself and housekeeper,—an elderly and quite plain woman, who milked the cow, and attended to all chores outside the house as well as everything within. He was very neat in his dress, very polite, never went into society, or visited any one, or received visitors at his house.
However, Wyman was intellectually sharp, and particularly good at memorizing facts in his chosen field. Again from the Gulfport Daily Herald:
He continued his studies throughout life and was a Latin or Greek scholar as well as being versed in economics. He possessed a remarkable memory and could quote offhand the corporation or land laws of every state.
Wyman’s combination of mental strengths and weaknesses allowed him to accumulate a large fortune, and left him with virtually no one to share it with. Princeton officials maintained contact with him—his faith in his father’s service on the Princeton battlefield no doubt helped, even though no one remembered him revisiting the campus. And in the end the college benefited, and grew into a university.

TOMORROW: Back to the literary side of “The White Horseman.”

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