This Was Then: Hiram and Tom

A tale of two Edgartown Dunham brothers.

An early 1900s postcard image of Hiram and Tom Dunham at home in Edgartown, evidently on what is today known as Dock Street. (Lucille Engley collection.) — Courtesy Stephen Engley

Hiram Dunham was 3 years old, and his older brother Tom was 15, when their father’s seizures began.

Ralph Dunham, a 41-year-old Edgartown native, had been working as a cooper (a barrel maker) in New Bedford, where he lived with his Edgartown-born wife Cynthia and their four children, William, Tom, Susan, and Hiram. William and Tom found work as young teenagers on the whaling ships for which the city was famous, Tom first serving as a “boy” on the ship Friendship of New Bedford.

Ralph’s health deteriorated. Cynthia and their children moved back to her parents’ home in Edgartown, where she delivered her last child, Edwin, in August 1848. The following month the courts committed Ralph to the State Lunatic Hospital in Worcester, where he became inmate No. 3035. The “supposed cause” of his illness was recorded as “epilepsy.”

In 1848, epilepsy was a grave diagnosis. “The insane, who have epileptic fits or convulsions, seldom or never recover,” the trustees of the Worcester asylum wrote in their annual report at the end of that year. “They continue along many years, perhaps, but almost always becoming gradually more diseased and more demented. From [this class] of patients, much of our fatality proceeds.”

And indeed, after three years of unsuccessful treatment at the Worcester Lunatic Hospital, Ralph Dunham died at the age of 45, in 1850. He was buried in Pine Meadow Burial Ground in Worcester, which was later moved to make way for the Boston & Albany Railroad.

The Vineyard regularly sent mentally ill residents to the Worcester State Lunatic Hospital. Indeed, it was by citing testimony of the Dukes County sheriff that distinguished author and advocate Dorothea Dix successfully argued in 1843 that the insane should not be housed with convicts, and therefore the Massachusetts legislature should expand Worcester’s state-funded asylum. By 1850, 15 Vineyarders had been admitted to the lunatic hospital at Worcester, including Capt. John Manter of Tisbury (who was placed there upon a vote at the town meeting, under the direction of the selectmen of Tisbury and at the cost of the town; he died there a year later). More would follow, and even more would be sent to the new Taunton Lunatic Asylum, which opened in 1851.

Cynthia and her children remained in Edgartown, the two oldest boys mostly at sea. Just five months after his father’s death, young Tom wrote a letter home from Honolulu with the tragic news that his 21-year-old older brother William had been lost, together with an entire whale boat’s crew of the ship Metacom of New Bedford, “drowned by a whale which had been fastened to the boat.” Undeterred, a few years later, 13-year-old Hiram followed his brothers to sea, on the crew of the whaler Eugenia.

In September 1862, one day after the bloody Battle of Antietam, 20-year-old Hiram enlisted in the Navy. Dunham spent most of his nearly two years of service as a seaman on the USS Mohican. His service record was undistinguished. He was described as a “useful man” who was “hard of hearing”; he was once confined to “double irons” (shackles and manacles) for failing to obey an order, and another time was confined for five days for trying to sell his jacket ashore.

The Mohican’s mission was to chase the notorious Confederate raiders CSS Florida and CSS Alabama. Cruising between Cape Verde and the Cape of Good Hope, Pernambuco and Rio Janeiro, the Mohican sailed more than 36,000 miles in 282 days, boarding some 162 vessels. But the rebel raiders eluded them the entire time. (On April 15, 1863, while the Mohican was at Praia Harbor in Cape Verde, the Confederate sloop-of-war Alabama was busy burning two Vineyard whalers — the brig Kate Cory and bark Lafayette — off the island of Fernando de Noronha. The prisoners — including at least 14 Vineyarders — were promptly put ashore, where they would be stranded in a Brazilian penal colony for several months, with 1,500 convicted criminals.)

Tragedy continued to befall the Dunham family after the war. Hiram’s 35-year-old sister, Susan, died of tuberculosis in New Bedford in 1866, leaving her husband, retired naval officer Charles Cleveland Sr. (another Edgartown native) to care for their sickly 9-year-old son, Charles Jr. But eight weeks after her death, Capt. Cleveland instead married an 18-year-old New Bedford woman, and abandoned his son in Edgartown. There being no almshouse in Edgartown, young Charles Jr. became one of 18 resident “pauper and indigent inhabitants” supported by the town. His care was given to his grandmother Cynthia, who was paid a stipend to board him. In 1880, Cynthia Dunham, her sons Tom and Hiram, and her grandson Charles Cleveland were enumerated together in the Edgartown census. Tom, 50, and Hiram, 38, were working as fishermen; grandson Charles, now 22, was “sick” with “fits,” and classified as not “able-bodied.”

Cynthia died in her Edgartown home in 1891 at the age of 89. Tom and Hiram, unable to care for Charles, sent him to the Worcester Insane Asylum — the same institution which had cared for their father. He died there two years later, at the age of 36; cause of death: “epilepsy.”(Eleven percent of the inmate population of the Worcester Insane Asylum died of various causes that year.)

Brothers Tom and Hiram continued to live together in their Dock Street home. Tom eked out a small living as a fisherman and boatman, Hiram retired on a modest state pension he finally won in 1891 after the U.S. Navy long denied his requests for a pension due to a medical disability (“kidney trouble”) incurred during his service.

When the 25-foot-tall bronze obelisk was unveiled with great hoopla in 1901 at Memorial Park (“Cannonball Park”) in Edgartown, Capt. Charles Cleveland Sr.’s name was prominently displayed among the “the brave men … who, amid the darkness and sorrows of war, brought light and liberty to our beloved country,” together with Hiram’s shipmate on the Mohican, Alonzo Fisher. But Hiram Dunham’s name was overlooked, even as he still lived on the Edgartown waterfront less than half a mile away.

Dr. Thomas Walker, prominent Edgartown physician and druggist, had a photograph made of Tom and Hiram standing in front of their ramshackle house. Dr. Walker, in addition to being the leading physician in Edgartown and one of the principal financial backers of the Harbor View Hotel, also produced a line of tourist postcards sold at his storefront, the Edgartown Drug Store. Together with postcard images of churches and scenic and stately waterfront homes, he also sold this one of Tom and Hiram, which he captioned, “Two seamen and their Home on Shore Street.”

Tom and Hiram died less than a year apart, in 1914, at the ages of 88 and 74. The family has no living descendants.

Special thanks for additional research by Justin Baer.