Gen. William Hyslop Sumner
William Hyslop Sumner portrait In a speech given at the centennial of JP's St. John's Episcopal Church on October 14, 1941, Mr. John H. Wilson began: "It is well to pause a few minutes to pay tribute to the donor of the land on which our church stands-Gen. William Hyslop Sumner." General Sumner was born on the auspicious evening of July 4, 1780, in the homestead in Roxbury by the corner of Washington and Sumner streets.
His father, Increase Sumner, was a member of that far flung clan that traced its roots to William Sumner, an immigrant of good Anglican stock, who had settled in Dorchester in the 1630s. Increase was a governor of Massachusetts, a judge on the Supreme Judicial Court, a politician, businessman and farmer. His wife, Elizabeth (Hyslop) Sumner, was, through her mother Mehetable (Stoddard) Hyslop, a part of the Stoddard family, which owned Noodle's Island in Boston Harbor.
Life for this upper class 18th century man was typical and predictable. Young William Sumner was at school first at Master Lane's West Boston Writing-School, then at Phillips Academy in Andover, and finally at Harvard College, from which he graduated in 1799. William then studied law privately (as was the custom) and was admitted to the Boston Bar in 1802.
Young Sumner was a representative from Boston to the Great and General Court from 1818 to 1834, during which time he unsuccessfully tried to postpone consideration of the Gerrymandering Bill of 1811. In 1814 he was appointed Executive Agent for the defense of the District of Maine (which became a state in 1820), as it had been invaded by Canadians, and later that year he joined the Board of War, which borrowed money to pay the troops called out in defense of the District. In 1818 Governor Brooks appointed him Adjutant General of the State Militia, a position he held for 16 years and which title he retained for the rest of his life.
In 1826 Sumner married Mary Ann (DeWolf) Perry, the daughter of a Rhode Island legislator and a sister-in-law of Commodore Perry, who would open up Japan peacefully in 1853. She died in 1834, and it was about this time that Sumner's Noodle's Island property became a focus of his energy beyond his extensive landholdings downtown and in Chelsea. Wooded Noodle's Island, by far the largest of five harbor islands (Noodle's, Hog, Bird, Governor's and Apple) joined by landfill to create East Boston after 1830, had been granted first to William Noodle in 1629 and later to Samuel Maverick in 1633 by the Crown.
Maverick sold the island to Samuel Shrimpton in 1670. That family quietly rented out the property for farming for the next century. By then the Shrimpton name had died out, with the last daughters married to Deacon Thomas Greenough of JP and William Hyslop of Dorchester. The families shared the island for picnics and outings for two generations. Why dash off to Nahant, the swell resort of the time, when one had his own isle nearby? Then came the War of 1812. Noodle's, due to its size, was considered an important part of the defense of Boston Harbor (a battle had been fought there at the start of the Revolution).
General Sumner, as part of the defense establishment, saw potential in this swampy piece of ancestral property; his distant cousin and co-executor, David Stoddard Greenough, did not. Greenough, a lawyer, died suddenly in 1830 and left a wife, six children, much property but no will. It took some four years for the estate to be settled, but finally in 1834 Sumner purchased the residual Greenough shares in Noodle's Island from the heirs for $80,000. He then combined them with the half of Noodle's Island that he managed for his uncle and sister since his mother's death and formed the East Boston Company to develop that newly-named area. Finally in 1836 he married Greenough's widow, Maria Foster Doane, who died in 1843.
At that time the David Greenough heirs were subdividing the JP estate that ran from the Monument to the railroad tracks. Sumner moved to JP after his second wife's death and became a Vestryman at St. John's Episcopal Church in 1844. He purchased property at 10 Roanoke Ave. the next year from the Greenoughs for $500. In 1848 he remarried for the third time to Mary Dickinson Kemble of New York City, a niece of General Gage, the last British governor of Massachusetts. They moved into the Greek Revival/Italianate mansion on Roanoke Street in 1852.
By now wealthy and semi-retired, the General was busy-traveling, writing articles for "The New England Historical and Genealogical Register," producing a biography of his father and the "History of East Boston" (1853) in some 800 pages, collecting art, and helping to manage his fledgling parish church. He served on the Vestry from 1844 to 1846 and again from 1858 to 1860, and was a Warden from 1847 to 1852 and again from 1854 to 1857. With other JP Anglicans he helped build and furnish the first church down St. John's Street near Green.
A memorial plaque to his famous mother-in-law and one to the General were moved to the present church in 1882. This land in front of the Sumner mansion became the site of the second church upon Mrs. Sumner's death in 1872 with the provision that an Episcopal church and rectory be built upon it. The General became paralyzed in 1857 after a stroke and died on October 24, 1861. His funeral was at the old St. John's, and burial followed at the new Forest Hills Cemetery. His marble monument marks him as "A Loyal Patriot, A Useful Citizen, And A Steadfast Friend."
His will—all 65 items and two codicils-is a model of precision and completeness. He left busts of himself, which have disappeared, to several friends. Rev. Babcock of St. John's and his staff were given a full set of mourning attire. To several friends he bequeathed bottles of Madeira wine. To his wife he left land, equipment, clothing, furniture, wines and livestock-all minutely itemized.
His name was immortalized when it was applied to the prestigious hill in JP and when it was fittingly placed on the first harbor tunnel (now the East Boston-downtown tunnel) which replaced the East Boston ferry in 1931. In this process he joined many other men in the private and public sectors who have had their names attached to notable public works projects. The second tunnel in 1951 was named for the son of the longtime chief of Massachusetts roads killed in action in World War II, and the third tunnel now under construction will take its name from one of the Boston baseball greats.
F. S. Drake, "Town of Roxbury," 1878; Last Will & Testament at Massachusetts Historical Society, "Dictionary of American Biography"; Boston 200, "East Boston"; E. R. Snow, "The Islands of Boston Harbor."
Written by K. Cipolia and W.H. Marx. Reprinted with permission from the March 11, 1994 Jamaica Plain Gazette. Copyright © Gazette Publications, Inc. Photograph courtesy of the Boston Public Library.