Thursday, April 16, 2020

Wealthy Widow in a brown calico Elizabeth Peck Perkins 1736-1807 helps Boston Catholics

Elizabeth Peck Perkins (1736-1807), was a Boston widow, businesswoman, & philanthropist. She was the oldest child of English immigrants Elizabeth & Thomas Handasyd Peck. Her father became a successful fur trader & hatter; an outspoken Whig; & a friend of John Murray, the founder of Universalism in America.

When she was 18, Elizabeth married James Perkins (1733-1773), an employee of her father’s countinghouse who later became a general-store merchant. Unfortunately, after less than 20 years of marriage, Perkins died leaving his wife with 8 children to feed & clothe & educate, a 9th died as an infant.

Admired for her ability to support her large family after husband's death, established "grossary shop" business (1773), selling chinaware, glass, wine, and other imported goods; inherited real estate from parents' deaths (late 1770s). plus a wide variety of imported items. 

But the American Revolution interrupted both her family & her business. Shortly before the battle of Bunker Hill, she decided it would be safer for her children, if they all moved to Barnstable, Massachusettes, where the family lived temporarily with an old family friend.

Following the British evacuation the next spring, she returned to Boston to reopen her business. But the years of the Revolution brought personal tragedies as well war. Her father died in 1777, & her mother a little over a year later.

Now Elizabeth was alone with her children. She was the sole surviving child of her parents; however, and she came into a respectable inheritance in Boston real estate but continued to have only a modest income.  Elizabeth was shrewd with her father's property; and after his death, she increased the value of his estate a hundred fold. 

Elizabeth Peck Perkins moved her family into her father's Boston house stood in Merchants Row, about midway between State Street and Chatham Street.  In 1751, when Gillam Phillips conveyed this property to Thomas Handasyd Peck, the father of Elizabeth (Peck) Perkins, it had a frontage of forty feet on Merchants Row and of 23 & 1/2 feet on Butler's Row.

When she returned to Boston, she reopened her business and took over her husband’s partnerships with other merchants. She became part owner of the ship the “Beaver” and was soon receiving letters from Holland addressed to Mr. Elizabeth Perkins, or Captain Perkins.

By 1780, with her children growing toward adulthood, she began her civic involvement by donating $1,000 to support the Continental Army. Her 3 sons went to work at an early age and became leading maritime merchants in the 1790s. The two eldest, James (b 1761) & Thomas Handasyd (b 1764), formed the firm of J. & T.H. Perkins; the youngest, Samuel (b 1767), joined in business with his father-in-law, Stephen Higginson.

Her boys went into business. Jim began in business about 1782, at Cape Fran├žois on the island of Santo Domingo (Haiti), and his brothers Tom and Sam joined him as soon as they came of age. Her daughters married well.  Elizabeth married Russell Sturgis, a fur merchant; Ann married Robert Cushing, Captain of the Beaver; Mary married Benjamin Abbot, headmaster of Exeter Academy; Esther married Thomas Doubleday, and after he died, Josiah Sturgis (Russell’s brother), and Margaret married Ralph Bennet Forbes who entered the Perkins family business.

Elizabeth invested in the ships her sons would use for trade which included slaves and opium. Following their mother's lead, all of her sons became well known for their philanthropy & civic interest. Thomas, perhaps the most famous of the great China trade merchants of the 19th century, was a benefactor of the Massachusetts General Hospital, the Boston Athenaeum, and the Perkins School for the Blind (which bears his name).

With her children financially independent, Elizabeth Perkins turned her energy to civic & philanthropic endeavors. As her father had taught her, she was sympathetic to Universalist doctrines, refusing to believe in damnation. She was accepting of a variety of religions including that of Jean de Cheverus, the first Roman Catholic bishop in Boston, to whom she offered a building she owned on School Street in which he could conduct services, as she contributed to his work among the poor.

She was deeply concerned with the mental illness she saw about her. In 1800, she helped found the Boston Female Asylum, the 1st charitable institution in Boston established by women. She served the asylum as a director & supported it financially both during her lifetime & in her will. When she died, the officers of the Boston Female Asylum wore badges of mourning for seventy-one days, corresponding to the number of years she had lived.

Elizabeth Peck Perkins continued to own considerable real estate in the Boston business district throughout her life. Until her death in 1807, she lived with the simplicity she had adopted during the years she was a single mother raising 8 children. She did most of her own housework wearing plain dresses of brown calico in the morning & changing to brown silk in the afternoon, when civic leaders & visitors might call requesting her financial assistance with another charitable endeavor.

A granddaughter remembered her as a stern, reserved woman of impressive dignity & strength of character, honored & respected by her children & somewhat feared by her grandchildren.