Historical Perspective: Mr. Munroe of Edgartown – Tailor, Millionaire

Historical Perspective: Mr. Munroe of Edgartown – Tailor, Millionaire

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William H. Munroe (1815 – 1898) was born in Bristol, Rhode Island. At his death he was Edgartown’s largest taxpayer. — Photo courtesy of Martha's Vineyard Museum

Martha’s Vineyard’s history is a rich narrative of people and events. In a regularly appearing series, The Times has invited the Martha’s Vineyard Museum to draw on its unique cache of contemporary photos and first-person accounts to describe interesting but often unfamiliar moments in Island history called to mind sometimes, but not always, by present dates.

In 1925, before the Martha’s Vineyard Museum was three years old, almost a decade before we had a home for our then-small collection, and long before we even started calling ourself a museum, John Frederick Hussey gave us the painted portrait of a prosperous-looking young man named William H. Munroe. Hussey had just sold his family’s Danvers, Massachusetts, mansion for use as the New England Home for Deaf Mutes, and must have been taking a fresh look at his family possessions as he prepared to move. Munroe was Hussey’s stepmother’s father, described in an 1899 history as “the millionaire of Martha’s Vineyard.” Martha’s Vineyard had a new historical organization, and what better place for the portrait of one of its most prominent citizens?

In his portrait, Munroe sports a dark jacket, pleated white shirt, an ornately tied black cravat, and the unfortunate mid 19th-century fashion of facial hair now descriptively called a “neck beard.” That he should come across as a serious and well turned out fellow makes sense. In 1839, Munroe moved to Edgartown from Bristol, Rhode Island, to work as a tailor. He was 24 years old and clearly ambitious. He soon joined the Methodist Church and in 1844, he married a local girl, Sarah Morse.

As Munroe’s business prospered and his family grew, he both practiced and invested in other endeavors. This portrait is tentatively dated to around 1850, but in it Munroe looks more like a man in his mid-twenties than his mid-thirties and it could very well have been made a bit earlier, just as he was becoming prominent in the community. It appears that Munroe could afford to have his portrait made, but not necessarily by an academically trained artist. We do not know who painted it, but it looks like the work of a “limner,” a journeyman artist who traveled from place to place painting likenesses at reasonable rates.

References to Munroe make it clear that he was involved in many business activities. Over the course of 50 years, he is referred to as a tailor, a trader, a bank clerk, and a machinist, but he is also called a “capitalist,” that is, one who speculatively supplies money to companies in hopes of a handsome return on his investment. By the only measure that counts for a capitalist — money — Munroe was a great success. By January 1855 he was wealthy enough to help found the Martha’s Vineyard Bank of Edgartown. He was its first clerk and also served as a Director. Ten years later, the bank was reorganized and renamed the Martha’s Vineyard National Bank.

Not all of Munroe’s investments were so successful. During the Civil War he invested in the Dukes County Boot and Shoe Company, an unprofitable business that only survived a few years. But after the War, Munroe’s wealth grew with his investments in whaling voyages and other ventures. For example, in 1866 he held a 1/8 interest in a voyage of the whaleship Champion, a $3,758 investment that paid a return of $10,712 in 1868.

Munroe’s daughter, Sarah, married adventurer and businessman William Penn Hussey. An 1899 history of Danvers offers a short biography of Hussey, who had by that time become a prominent townsman. According to this book, Hussey was born in Maine and traveled to California, where he “engaged in mining,” lived for some years in Kansas, and then settled in Danvers, where he worked in the wholesale and retail coal business. A more recent source calls him “a trapeze artist and entrepreneur.” It is not clear how or where Hussey met and married the millionaire’s daughter, but the 1880 United States census lists Sarah and Hussey living in Edgartown with her parents. They had just married and she was his second wife. William Munroe is listed as a retired machinist. Hussey is listed as “unemployed.” This unemployment did not last long.

In 1894, Munroe became involved in his son-in-law’s Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, coal mining venture. He is listed as a director in the company’s prospectus, which also shows that he continued as a Director in the Martha’s Vineyard National Bank and that he retained ties with the town of his birth, serving as Director in two Bristol. Rhode Island, banks.

William H. Munroe died a wealthy man in 1898. In a newspaper article noting his passing, one writer took the opportunity to lament as well the end of Edgartown’s whaling industry:

“In the death of William Munroe another of those, who in bygone days, made Edgartown prosperous and influential among her sisters, has gone to his long home. The town has lost many such in the past decade… The glory of the old whaling days has departed; the sound of the cooper’s hammer and the caulker’s iron is hushed.; the creaking of the block and the flap of the sail, as the boys lay aloft, is no more heard; the last gallant ship, with her hardy crew, has sailed her last voyage from the old wharf.”

Bonnie Stacy is chief curator of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, on School Street in Edgartown. The Museum is open Monday through Saturday. Go to mvmuseum.org or call 508-627-4441 for more information on tours and exhibits.

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