Whalers, medical crooks and a heartbroken mother

An undated postcard of the three buildings, circa 1930-45. (Photo submitted)

Now here is a story of love, death, whaling ships, scandals, questionable drugs and heartbroken mothers.

The three old buildings on the hill at the corner of Broad and Williams streets in New London are now a courthouse, civic offices and a Methodist church, but, oh, if only all those walls could talk.

When my family moved to this area, these three buildings were part of the former Saint Bernard High School, now located (since 1968) in Uncasville. Students were bused to this high school from all over New London, Groton, Mystic, Westerly, Norwich, Waterford, Niantic and cities in between.

Today, the central Marion Hall as it was then called, and the former St. Albert’s Hall – now a Methodist church – is sadly in need of a lot of loving care. The old St. Edmund’s Hall is fine, but that’s because it was completely gutted and modernized inside as a courthouse. Some remember those beautiful old floors, windows and doors, and all those elaborate interior details. Now, unfortunately, almost gone.

While trudging around these three old buildings a few years ago, gathering some history on them, it was the guard at the entrance to the Connecticut State Superior Court building who succumbed to my harassment and recovered an extremely dusty impression on the building. He decided I looked trustworthy enough to take a look, so he ran me through the metal detectors while keeping a cautious eye.

I stopped at many doors and windows to ask about the history of the building. Nobody knew anything.

Later, the small impression of the guard led me to search the Internet and beyond.

Connecticut’s current Superior Court brownstone building was once part of the Williams Memorial Institute, a school for girls, built by a surprisingly (for its time) forward-thinking, aged, heartbroken, but incredibly short woman generous and philanthropic.

Harriet Peck Williams was born in 1795. She married during the War of 1812, just when British Captain Thomas Hardy (of Nelson and Trafalgar fame) had our own illustrious Stephen Decatur (of ‘Shores’ fame of Tripoli”). in New London. She married the wealthy militiaman, General William Williams, who had met Napoleon on a trip to Europe (!), and returned home to earn his money in flour, cotton, and finally whaling.

Harriet and her husband lost several sons as babies, but the last son, Thomas, survived into adulthood and went with his father to the New London whaling business.

They made a fortune. Thomas planned to build a mansion for his wife Amanda on New London’s High Hill at what is now Broad and Williams.

Through extensive research by former Williams Institute professor Peter Emanuel, we learn the following: One day in New London Harbor after fitting out his company’s whaler, the ” North Star”, Thomas left the ship at the end of the day. complaining that he had a “heat in his head”. He went to a local hairdresser and asked to wash his head with cold water.

Alas, in vain. Within hours Thomas was dead of “congestion in the brain” – according to the death certificate. He was only 40 and had already buried four of his own babies. Amanda, Thomas’s wife, died soon after of “nervous fever”.

And so the devastated and heartbroken mother Harriet – having now lost her own three sons, then her four grandsons too – knew there would be no heirs, and no one to pass on the Williams name.

Harriet’s Williams Memorial Institute was built with her trust in the memory of her son Thomas, exactly where he planned to build his mansion. The institute was indeed a very grand Richardsonian Romanesque building, with cast iron turrets, arches, balconies and interior staircases.

The whole thing was built in granite, slate, cut stone and brownstone, filled with medieval faces overhanging carved capitals. Its open space on the third floor was designed for “physical culture” and “symmetrical physical development” – whatever.

The institute flourished and was eventually moved in 1954 to the Connecticut College campus. The brownstone building called Williams Memorial Institute became St. Edmund’s Hall when St. Bernard High School was established.

Meanwhile, also on the same hill is what is now the United Methodist Church. It was originally the mansion – now greatly stripped of much magnificence – built just before the start of the Civil War for the Mayor of New London, and later Connecticut Congressman, then Senator Jonathan Newton Harris . Harris had made his fortune in a variety of pursuits, including as a grocer, ship chandler, cotton and southern railroad speculator, and finally on “patent” drugs – those so-called “cures” (mostly alcohol and opium) which were sold without detail. in terms of efficiency or control. The country was crazy about them; the more you took, the better you felt. All of this, of course, to great detriment, as we know all too well today.

Harris controlled all sales of certain “medicines” west of the Allegheny Mountains. His house on the highest hill in New London was called “The Pain-Killer Villa”.

Harris’s ostentatious mansion (surprisingly resembles the Edward King mansion in Newport) was in the radical new Victorian Italian-Islamic eclectic style, with towers, stained glass, Gothic tracery, fretwork, Islamic plasterwork, Venetian windows, loggias, triangular protrusions -outs and an array of competing bracket styles all around.

From his rooftop tower, Harris could see New London Harbor and in the distance to Long Island Sound. His mansion was on every visitor’s tour of New London highlights.

Harris became so successful and successful that he eventually built the huge Mercantile Building still standing in downtown New London on State Street, called the Lena Building for some time thereafter, and Harris Place now.

Harris’ “Pain-Killer Villa” would have been next door to Harriet’s son Thomas, had Thomas ever built his own mansion.

Harris himself, like the Williams family, was also a huge philanthropist, endowing schools and institutions as far away as Japan. But alas, he became embroiled in a particularly shocking and outrageous divorce dubbed the “Harris Imbroglio” (think child quarrels, servant whispers, clandestine meetings with officers stationed at Fort Trumbull, the horse-drawn carriage “assignment”, to “maternal recklessness” and “maternal recklessness” endless kisses of promiscuity”), making the pages of both lowbrow and highbrow newspapers across the country.

They read far worse than the Heard-Depp imbroglio of today.

But I digress….

Today, the former Harris Mansion – St. Albert’s Science Hall for students of Saint Bernard High School and the Palmer Building for the Williams Institute before that – is now used as a church, stripped of many of its embellishments. fantastic, dilapidated and in need of a lot of repair, but still steadfastly standing – although highly threatened today and may be sold.

The Williams Memorial Institute grew, taking over the old Harris mansion – they called it the Palmer Building (both buildings are now on the historic register), then built in the 1930s the center of what are the three buildings on the hill today. This central building – actually quite unremarkable compared to its neighbors – was then called Buell Hall, after the first president of the Williams school, and later became Marion Hall for Saint Bernard Secondary School.

St. Bernard moved his boys to Uncasville around 1968 (the girls remained in New London for a time), and Marion Hall and St. Edmund’s Hall were eventually sold to the state, while the former Harris mansion went at the United Methodist Church.

Harris, by the way, won the divorce case against his wife in 1865, although she had adamant supporters. She, though claiming physical and emotional abuse and more, had eight children for Harris, but all lost custody and received no child support. She died eight years later.

Harris lived another 30 years, remarried, and was buried under the largest of all grave markers in New London’s Cedar Grove Cemetery.

Oh, imagine the rest of the stories that are not told…

GS Casale is president of the Willow Point Homeowners Association.

A 19th century depiction of Harris Manor. (Photo submitted)

An undated photo from the Williams Memorial Institute/St. St Edmund’s Hall at Bernard High School, now the Connecticut State Superior Court Building. (Photo submitted)

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