What’s in a name

Debtors’ prison (“New Gaol”) in New York City. William Whitehead (1773-1837) was briefly incarcerated here when about 17 years old.

IT was mid-May, and winter had yielded finally to spring. Perth Amboy’s proliferation of trees shimmered in the unbroken warmth, while every garden put on its most daring scents and colors. In harmony with the outdoors the Whitehead home was a place of merriment, most of all on the twin anniversary of the 12th, when patriarch William Whitehead celebrated both his birthday and the day on which, a widower of 28, he had embarked on a second marriage with Abby Coe.

In 1829, on the day William turned 56, he and Abby, married half that sum of years, had further cause for joy as they welcomed their younger son back from a seven-month absence in the tropics.1 To them he must have seemed, like the gardens outside, grown-up and blossoming. He had matured with time and distance, and was bronzed by the rays of the perennial Caribbean sun.

A major stakeholder in Key West who never visited the island, William must have listened attentively to accounts of a place that his returning son had so expertly surveyed and mapped, his impressions of the character and growth of the town and port, and the unimagined marvels seen on a recent excursion to Cuba. But it’s as likely that long-ago memories modulated the father’s interest: he too was an adventurer once, his trajectory similar but in the reverse direction, his journey taken at a much younger age and at no small risk of disappointment, or worse.

Born in 1773 on St. Croix into an English family “not encumbered with worldly goods,” William Whitehead became fatherless at age eight, and at twelve left to seek his fortune in New York. Soon after his arrival he apprenticed himself to a cabinet-maker, one of the renowned Burling family, whose lead artisan Thomas Burling supplied furniture for the homes of President Washington and Secretary of State Jefferson.2

When not yet 18, as he would later recount, William received word of the death of his mother. A creditor, suspicious that he planned to return to the Caribbean for good, had him arrested and dragged to prison as an absconding debtor. To his aid came a stranger, another cabinet-maker named Thomas Timpson. He not only paid Whitehead’s bill but got him released, rousting the unhappy jailer from bed so that his prisoner would be spared a night in the squalor of New Gaol.3

Having settled his mother’s affairs on St. Croix, William returned swiftly to New York and became a grateful employee of his benefactor, boarding with Timpson and his wife. “The intimacy thus formed,” his son later wrote, “ripened into a warm friendship which continued through life, Mr. and Mrs. Timpson regarding my father as a son, and by him called ‘Father’ and ‘Mother’.”4

Sideboard produced by William Whitehead, from his workshop in Pearl Street.

Timpson probably saw in the young Whitehead an artisan of promise, and rightly so. The apprentice of one talented craftsman and protégé of another established himself early in the furniture trade, New York city directories showing him with his own shop in 1792 when he was just 19. Working mainly from a desirable address in Pearl Street, Whitehead turned out elaborate and highly prized pieces like the delicate mahogany sideboard pictured here. But he evinced little pride in his achievements, at least within his younger son’s hearing: “How successful he may have been,” the latter admitted, “I know not.”5

A 1798 notice of inventory for sale, a signal that Whitehead was preparing to get out of the furniture business.

That may be because the business eventually proved a means to other ends. Like Timpson, Whitehead joined the Tammany Society, becoming its Treasurer, and in 1798 he became Secretary (with Timpson as Vice-President) of the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen: the two associations were crucial to the ambitions of the artisan class in Federal-era New York. Soon Whitehead would lay down the furniture maker’s planes and levels, and take up the pens and ledgers of a banker for Aaron Burr’s formidable Manhattan Company.6

Perhaps while still in Thomas Timpson’s employ and under his roof, Whitehead became acquainted with members of the Adee family. Ties both commercial and sentimental developed between the two households. The landmark dates all followed Whitehead’s final departure from New York, Thomas’s daughter Sarah Timpson becoming the second wife of dry goods merchant William Adee in 1807, and his son James Timpson marrying Maria Adee in 1818. A partnership later formed–Adee, Timpson & Co., Auctioneers–out of which William Adee grew into one of New York’s most successful businessmen.7

Details of William Whitehead’s early life remain, for the most part, elusive, but to these two leading New York families his devotion needs no further proof than the names he and Abby would give their children, Thomas Timpson Whitehead and William Adee Whitehead, thus acknowledging debts that could never be calculated or repaid.

Copyright © 2018-2023 Gregory J. Guderian

[1] “Great were the rejoicings” of that day, William A. Whitehead remembered in “Childhood and Youth of W. A. Whitehead 1810-1830,” part of a memoir of which a transcription is held by the Florida History Department, Monroe County Public Library, Key West, Florida, and by the P. K. Yonge Library of Florida History, George A. Smathers Library, University of Florida; page 26 of the transcription contains the reference.

[2] William A. Whitehead received the impression that his father left for New York without his mother’s blessing, if not without her knowledge. “Childhood and youth” 1. He names James Burling as his father’s employer, but no furniture maker of that name is recorded in the period. Thomas Burling however had a thriving New York business from the end of the Revolutionary War until his retirement in 1802. For the history of the family and this distinguished cabinet-maker see Jane Thompson-Stahr, “Thomas Burling, joiner: Family, friends and furniture,” New York genealogical and biographical record 126:4 (October 1995) 225-31, 127:1 (January 1996) 24-31, 127:2 (April 1996) 83-88, 127:3 (July 1996) 161-164; eadem, The Burling books. Ancestors and descendants of Edward and Grace Burling, Quakers [1600-2000] (2 vols. Baltimore 2001), esp. 1:259-282; Margaret Van Cott, “Thomas Burling of New York City, exponent of the new Republic style,” Furniture history. The journal of the Furniture History Society 37 (2001) 32-50.

[3] On imprisonment for debt (not abolished in New York State until 1831) and conditions in New Gaol see Bruce H. Mann, Republic of debtors. Bankruptcy in the age of American independence (Cambridge, Mass. and London 2002) 86-99 passim.

[4] “Childhood and youth” 2. For the Timpsons see William S. Pelletreau, Historic homes and institutions and genealogical and family history of New York (4 vols. New York and Chicago 1907) 2:287-288.

[5] “Childhood and youth” 3. William Whitehead’s shop moved from 43 Beekman Street, according to the 1792 directory, to 6 Nassau Street in 1793. The 1794 directory shows Whitehead at 75 Pearl Street, where he would run his business for the next five years. William Duncan, The New-York directory, and register, for the year 1792 (New York 1792) 150; idem, The New-York directory, and register, for the year 1792 [1793] (New York 1793) 168; idem, The New-York directory and register, for the year 1794 (New York 1794) 203.

[6] “Childhood and youth” 3-4; The Weekly Museum (New York, N.Y.) 13 January 1798 3:1.

[7] Pelletreau, Historic homes 2:288; The National Advocate (New York, N.Y.) 12 March 1821 3:4, 14 March 1821 3:3 and 21 March 1821 3:4; New-York (N.Y.) Gazette 15 March 1821 3:5. In 1845 Adee was estimated to be worth $200,000 according to [Moses Y. Beach,] Wealth and biography of the wealthy citizens of New York City (New York 18456) 1. Dying the following year, he was one of a quartet of wealthy men named by the New-York Evening Express as having left “over a million of dollars, and, what is of far greater importance, a good name.” Newburyport (Mass.) Herald 18 August 1846 3:2. The figure of “over a million” may represent the total of all four estates, not each one singly.

Images: 1) Prison: Robert Sears, The pictorial history of the American Revolution; with a sketch of the early history of the country, the Constitution of the United States, and a chronological index (New York 1845) 220, from Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. 2) Sideboard: 76.1000.5 A, High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Ga. 3) Notice: The Daily Advertiser (New York, N.Y.) 15 March 1798 4:4.

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