I am providence the life.., p.2
I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 2
Lovecraft mentions that Whipple attended the East Greenwich Academy (then called the Providence Conference Seminary), but no date for his attendance has been established; probably it occurred prior to the death of his father, Jeremiah. In 1852 Whipple went to live with his uncle James Phillips (1794–1878) in Delavan, Illinois, a temperance town his relatives had founded; he returned the next year to Foster because (as his obituary declares) the climate did not suit him. It was probably at this time that he engaged in what Lovecraft called a “brief career as a teacher in the country schools.” He married his first cousin, Robie Alzada Place (1827–1896), on January 27, 1856, settling in a homestead in Foster built by Robie’s father, Stephen Place. Their first child, Lillian Delora (1856–1932), was born less than three months later. There were four other children: Sarah Susan (1857–1921), Emeline (1859–1865), Edwin Everett (1864–1918), and Annie Emeline (1866–1941). Lovecraft’s mother Sarah Susan was born, as her own mother had been, at the Place homestead.
In 1855 Whipple purchased a general store in Foster and ran it for at least two years; he then presumably sold the store and its goods, probably at a substantial profit, thereby commencing his career as entrepreneur and land speculator. At that time he moved a few miles south of Foster to the town of Coffin’s Corner, where he built “a mill, a house, an assembly hall, and several cottages for employees”; since he had purchased all the land there, he renamed the town Greene (in honour of the Rhode Island Revolutionary War hero Nathanael Greene). Many of these structures—including the house Whipple built for his family—were still standing in 1926, when Lovecraft and his aunt Annie visited them. It is remarkable to think of a twenty-four-year-old essentially owning an entire small town, but Whipple was clearly a bold and dynamic businessman, one who would gain and lose several fortunes in his crowded life.
Lovecraft states that his grandfather founded the Masonic Lodge at Greene, and this statement is confirmed by Henry W. Rugg’s History of Freemasonry in Rhode Island (1895). Rugg writes:
In the year 1869 Bro. Whipple D. [sic] Phillips and fifteen other brethren, nearly all members of Manchester Lodge, united in asking for a Dispensation authorizing the establishment of a new Lodge, to be called “Ionic Lodge.” The petition was presented to Most Wor. Bro. Thomas A. Doyle, then Grand Master, who approved the same, and issued a Dispensation under date of January 15, 1870, authorizing and empowering the petitioners to form and open a new Lodge in the village of Greene, town of Coventry, to be designated Ionic Lodge, No. 12.
Acting under the authority thus conferred, the first meeting of the brethren interested, was held March 19, 1870, with Bro. Whipple D. Phillips officiating as Master, Bro. Warren H. Tillinghast as S. W., and William R. Carter as J. W.
Whipple Phillips held positions in other Masonic organisations in Rhode Island. In 1886, after the Lodge found itself crowded in its quarters, Whipple—although by then settled in Providence—leased to the Masons an edifice he had built and still owned, “Phillips Hall.”
Whipple at this time made his brief foray into Rhode Island politics, serving (according to his obituary) in the lower house of the state legislature from May 1870 to May 1872. But politics clearly did not suit him as well as business. Lovecraft tells the story of the ups and downs of his business dealings at the time: “. . . in 1870 [Whipple] was overtaken by sudden collapse financially—a thing he could have averted by disavowing responsibility for a signed note, but which as a gentleman he refused to evade. This moved the family to Providence, where a happy financial recovery took place . . .” It may be possible to elaborate upon this incident somewhat. Casey B. Tyler, Lovecraft’s maternal grandmother’s cousin, in his Historical Reminiscences of Foster, Rhode Island (1884–93) refers the fact that Whipple “at last fell prey to that noted demon, ‘Hugog,’ and lost much of his hard earnings.” There is no telling who this Hugog is, but Tyler reports that he himself in 1869 lost $10,000 as a result of the “rascality of a pretended friend, called Hugog.” Perhaps the swindling of Tyler and Whipple’s loss of money are related. In any event, Tyler had nothing good to say about Mr Hugog: “There has never been but one person from Foster who has been a disgrace and dishonor to the town and may his name never be mentioned and although possessed of much ill-gotten wealth, may he be forgiven and forgotten and his name sink in oblivion as not worthy to be remembered by future generations.” Tyler has apparently gotten his wish.
The Place homestead in Foster must have been sold at this time, as Lovecraft states that it passed out of the family in 1870. The move to Providence probably occurred in 1874. After several changes of residence Whipple settled around 1876 at 276 Broadway on the West Side of Providence—the western shore of the Providence River, site of the present business district—since his business offices were in this general area (principally at 5 Custom House Street near the river). The 1878 city directory lists him as owner of a “fringing machine” business, i.e. the manufacturing of fringes for curtains, bedspreads, and perhaps clothing. One curious sidelight is Whipple’s travel to France for the Paris Universal Exposition of 1878 in connexion with his fringing business. He does not seem to have had good luck getting his name printed correctly, for the official report of the exhibition lists him as “Phillips (M. D.) & Co., Providence, R.I.” Lovecraft reports that his grandfather was “a man of culture & extensive travel” and makes note of “his acquaintance with all the wonders of Europe, which he had seen at first hand.” Whipple’s Paris jaunt was only the first (if indeed it was the first) of many such voyages to the Continent; his obituary reports that there was a “protracted business visit” to London and Liverpool in 1880.
By this time Whipple Phillips was clearly a man of substantial means, and aside from building the house at 194 Angell Street in 1880–81, he undertook what was to be his most ambitious business enterprise: the establishment of the Owyhee Land and Irrigation Company in Owyhee County in the southwest corner of Idaho, “which had for its object the damming of the Snake River & the irrigation of the surrounding farming & fruit-growing region.” Kenneth W. Faig, Jr, has performed a remarkable feat of excavation in supplying the details of his enterprise, and I can do no better than to summarise his findings.
The company was incorporated in Providence as the Snake River Company as early as 1884, with Whipple as president and his nephew Jeremiah W. Phillips (son of his brother James W. Phillips) as secretary and treasurer. Initially the company dealt in “land and live stock” (as an advertisement in the 1888 Providence city directory states), but shortly thereafter Whipple shifted his attention to the building of a dam—not over the Snake River, as Lovecraft believed, but over its tributary, the Bruneau River. Lovecraft states that the company was reorganised in October 1889 as the Owyhee Land and Irrigation Company and incorporated as a Maine corporation; in 1892 it was again reorganised as a Rhode Island corporation.
Work on the dam began in the autumn of 1887 and was completed by early 1890. Following his habit of naming towns, Whipple purchased the Henry Dorsey Ferry in 1887 and established a town near the ferry on the Snake River, naming it Grand View. (In the 1980 census this town, about thirty miles south of Boise, had a population of 366.) He also built a Grand View Hotel, to be managed by his son Edwin.
At this point disaster struck. On March 5, 1890, the dam was completely washed out by high waters, and the $70,000 spent in constructing it was lost. The Owyhee Avalanche, a paper published in nearby Silver City, made a sanguine prediction: “Mr. Phillips, the manager, is not the man to be disheartened by an accident of the kind above mentioned, and he will no doubt have a better dam than the one destroyed in the same place in less than two years.” In the event, the Avalanche was only slightly optimistic: a new dam was begun in the summer of 1891 and completed by February 1893.
Whipple was, of course, by no means permanently at the site; indeed, he appears to have visited it only occasionally. We shall see that when he
The Owyhee Land and Irrigation Company appears to have suffered some sort of financial difficulties around 1900; this is the last date the company is listed in the Providence city directory, and on March 12, 1901, the company was sold at a sheriff’s sale in Silver City. Whipple Phillips was one of five purchasers, but the total property value of the company had been assessed on May 25, 1900, at only $9430, more than half of it a mining ditch. The final blow came in early 1904, when the dam was wiped out again. Lovecraft states that this second disaster “virtually wiped the Phillips family out financially & hastened my grandfather’s death—age 70, of apoplexy.” Whipple Phillips died on March 28, 1904; after his death three other individuals bought out his interest in the Owyhee Land and Irrigation Company and renamed it the Grand View Irrigation Company, Ltd. I shall have more to say about this entire incident later.
The Owyhee project was clearly Whipple’s principal business concern during his later years, although no doubt he had other interests in Providence and elsewhere, as his wide travels suggest. Arthur S. Koki, having gained access to the Phillips family papers, found some stationery listing Whipple as the proprietor of the Westminster Hotel at 317 Westminster Street in Providence, but there is no indication of the date or duration of his proprietorship. In spite of the large sum of money that he lost in the Idaho venture, the picture that emerges of Whipple Phillips is that of an abundantly capable businessman—bold, innovative, and perhaps a little reckless—but also a man of wide culture and one who took great concern in the financial, intellectual, and personal well-being of his extended family. We shall see these latter traits well displayed in his nurturing of his young grandchild.
Of Whipple Phillips’s wife Robie very little is known. Lovecraft states that she attended the Lapham Institute (cited by Lovecraft as “Lapham Seminary”) in North Scituate, Rhode Island, about fifteen miles northeast of Greene, but does not supply the date of her attendance. Lapham Institute was founded as Smithfield Institute in 1839 by the Rhode Island Association of Free Baptists, and conceivably Robie Place could have been one of the first students to attend it. The mere fact that she went there suggests her strong religiosity, as does the fact that both she and her three surviving daughters joined the First Baptist Church in the 1880s; Robie and Susie, at least, remained on the rolls until their respective deaths. Lovecraft describes his grandmother in an early letter as “a serene, quiet lady of the old school.”
Lovecraft’s elder aunt, Lillian Delora Clark, attended the Wheaton Female Seminary (now Wheaton College) in Norton, Massachusetts, for at least the period 1871–73. Norton is a small town in the southeastern part of the state, about ten miles from the Rhode Island border; it is not clear why Lillian and also Susie attended this college preparatory school rather than one more locally situated. Lovecraft states that she “also attended the State Normal School, and was for some time a teacher,” but her attendance at the Normal School has not been confirmed. Lovecraft was proud of the artistic skills of both his aunt and his mother, and claimed that Lillian has “had canvases hung in exhibitions at the Providence Art Club.”
Lovecraft speaks little of his uncle, Edwin Everett Phillips, and it is clear that he was not close to him. We have seen that he briefly assisted his father in his Idaho enterprise, but he returned to Providence in 1889 and attempted—not very successfully, it appears—to go into business for himself. In 1894 he married Martha Helen Mathews; at some point they were divorced, then remarried in 1903. Throughout his life Edwin seems to have held various odd jobs—a manufacturer’s representative, real estate and mortgage agent, rent collector, notary public, coin dealer—and, probably in the early 1910s, established the Edwin E. Phillips Refrigeration Company. His one significant involvement with Lovecraft and his mother was, as we shall see, an unfortunate one.
Annie Emeline Phillips, Lovecraft’s younger aunt, was nine years younger than Susie. Lovecraft remarks that she “was yet a very young lady when I first began to observe events about me. She was rather a favourite in the younger social set, & brought the principal touch of gayety to a rather conservative household.” I know nothing about her education.
We can finally turn our attention to Sarah Susan Phillips, born on October 17, 1857, at the Place homestead in Foster. Regrettably little is known about her early years. A commonplace book she began keeping in her youth contains—aside from school lessons, genealogical information, and other matter—a touching tribute to her sister Emeline, who died of diphtheria in 1865, before her sixth birthday:
Little Emma was a child of great promise, her budding intellect already began to awaken fond expectations in the minds of her friends, while her artless simplicity of manners and sweetness of temper not only doubly endeared her to her parents but won the hearts of all who knew her.
She manifested much patience during her sickness although suffering severely from difficult breathing and once in her childlike manner said to her mother, “I wish I could stop breathing a little while just to rest.” At another time she roused up and said “mother the bible is a guide to youth.”
Lovecraft states that she, like Lillian, attended Wheaton Female Seminary, but her attendance can only be confirmed for the school year 1871–72. From this period up to the time of her marriage in 1889 the record is blank, aside from the fact that she is listed in the 1880 U.S. census as residing with her father at 276 Broadway. Clara Hess, a friend of the Lovecrafts, gives a description of Susie, probably dating from the late 1890s: “She was very pretty and attractive, with a beautiful and unusually white complexion—got, it is said, by eating arsenic, although whether there was any truth to this story I do not know. She was an intensely nervous person.” What to make of the arsenic story—and whether this had anything to do with Susie’s later physical and psychological maladies—I have no idea. In a later piece Hess continues: “She had a peculiarly shaped nose which rather fascinated me, as it gave her a very inquiring expression. Howard looked very much like her.”
What little we know of Winfield Scott Lovecraft prior to his marriage derives from research conducted by Richard D. Squires of the Wallace Library at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Winfield was born on October 26, 1853, probably at the home of George and Helen Lovecraft at 42 (later renumbered 67) Marshall Street in Rochester. His name, of course, derives from General Winfield Scott, and it is perhaps no accident that he was so named almost exactly a year after Scott, then the Whig candidate for president, visited Rochester (October 14, 1852). George Lovecraft was at the time a “traveling agent” for the Ellwanger & Barry Nursery, a major business in Rochester. The family attended services at the Grace Episcopal (now St Paul’s) Church. These facts may be of some relevance to Winfield, since he was himself a salesman and as he was married at St Paul’s Episcopal Church in Boston, even though his bride was a Baptist.
The family’s address in 1859 is listed as 26 Griffith Street in Rochester, one street over from the Marshall Street address. (This house is no longer standing, although the Marshall Street house is.) There is no evidence as to the site of Winfield’s early schooling; presumably it was in one of the elementary schools in Rochester. Around 1863 George Lovecraft left the area to investigate the possibility of the family’s move to New York City, and for about a year Winfield lived with his mother, sisters, and uncle Joseph, Jr, at 106 Allen Street. The family did in
Lovecraft stated in 1915 that his father “was educated both privately, and at a military school, making modern languages his specialty”; but less than two years later he wrote that Winfield “was a lover of things military, and . . . in youth gave up an appointment to West Point only to please his mother.” Did, then, Winfield indeed attend any military academy at all? The location of this military school has not been traced, and Winfield clearly did not attend West Point, as a quick check of its registry of graduates establishes. It is possible that it may not have been a formal military academy (of which there were very few at the time) but a school that emphasised military training. In any event, it is likely to have been local—somewhere in New York State, perhaps close to the Rochester area—although according to Squires there does not seem to be any such school. Winfield’s attendance (if it occurred at all) may have preceded his employment as a blacksmith, and the military school could have been the equivalent of a high school.
At some point Winfield moved to New York City, as this is given as his place of residence on his marriage certificate. He does not appear, however, in the city directories of Manhattan or Brooklyn (there were no city directories for Queens or the Bronx for the period of Winfield’s presumable residence there). But one individual of some interest is found in the Manhattan city directory for much of the 1880s: Frederick A. Lovecraft (1850–1893), the son of George Lovecraft’s older brother Aaron, and therefore Winfield’s cousin. Is it possible that Winfield roomed or boarded with Frederick for some period prior to his marriage? Boarders were frequently overlooked in city directories (Lovecraft himself, boarding at 10 Barnes Street from 1926 to 1932, does not show up for any of these years in the Providence city directory), and I can imagine no other likely scenario for Winfield’s New York residence.
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