Tuckernuck's Resident Millionaire Buddhist
The Story Of Bigelow's Bluff
There's a stretch of coastline on Tuckernuck Island that has the unique
distinction of being named for a person. Most places on the island are distinguished somewhat more pragmatically: North Pond,
East Pond, South and North Shores; Bigelow's Bluff alone is a namesake. Never mind the fact that the particular spot so named
is by now far out to sea -- wherever that part of the shore terminates it will always be named after one of the most
remarkable men to ever grace the island: William Sturgis Bigelow.
Born on April 4, 1850, William Sturgis Bigelow was
the son Henry Jacob Bigelow and grandson of Jacob Bigelow, neither of whom were slouches in the "remarkable men" department
themselves: Jacob Bigelow was a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital for twenty years (there's a wing named after him),
established Mount Auburn Cemetery (which served as a model of sanitation for many later burial grounds) and, while at Harvard
University teaching science, coined the term "technology"; his son, Henry, studied medicine under his father at Harvard, eventually
becoming a professor there as well as chief of surgery at Massachusetts General. Perhaps his most far-reaching achievement
was to sponsor the first public demonstration of the efficacy of anaesthesia in surgery (the artist Robert Hinkley captured
the moment in his painting, "The First Operation with Ether" -- Bigelow is the third man from the right, with his hand
on his chest).
Plainly, Bigelow had some big surgical gloves to fill. Scion of the Scollay and Sturgis families as
well as the Bigelows, Boston Brahmins all, great things were expected of young William, and he did indeed achieve greatness
of a sort, although perhaps not the kind that his dour martinet of a father might have intended. William's mother died when
he was three years old, an event that would have a profound effect on the sensitive young man. An indifferent student, Bigelow's
report card in 1865 notes that he fell in the middle of his class academically but was next to last in "conduct". Nevertheless,
Bigelow managed to graduate from Harvard Medical School in 1874 and immediately embarked for Europe for additional study,
as his father had done during is days as a newly-minted student. While in Paris Bigelow studied under Louis Pasteur, eventually
returning to the United States with the latest research in the newly-created field of bacteriology; Bigelow would go on to
privately fund one of the first laboratories in that field.
Upon his return to Boston in the early 1880s, Bigelow
appeared to be on track for a distinguished career in medicine, following in the footsteps of his venerated father and grandfather.
In the winter of 1881-82, however, Bigelow's life took a quite unexpected turn; he attended a series of lectures by Edward
Morse, a professor of Comparative Anatomy and Zoology at Bowdoin College. A few years previously Morse had been invited to
the Imperial University of Tokyo in order to organize a department of zoology; during a return trip to the United States he
gave a series of lectures on Japan at the Lowell Institute in Boston. These lectures captivated the interest of many of Boston's
intelligentsia, including William Sturgis Bigelow, no doubt to the great alarm of William's father Henry.
year, after declaring his belief that the world was moving too fast and that much of life in Boston was "ugly", Bigelow announced
his plan to travel to Japan with Edward Morse and Ernest Fenollosa, a young Harvard Divinity student that Morse had recruited
during an early trip to Boston. William, sensitive as he was, was never cut out to be a surgeon, and he probably would have
left his pre-determined career path anyway. Entranced by the Japanese aesthetic and supportive of Fenollosa's efforts to conserve
Japanese ancient temples and monuments, Bigelow determined that he had to see them for himself. One cringes to imagine the
scene at the breakfast table when young William conveyed the news to his father -- glacial doesn't begin to describe it. William's
financial future was secure, however -- he had inherited a massive fortune from his mother, who had been heir to the
extremely wealthy Sturgis family of Barnstable on Cape Cod.
Bigelow and Fenollosa became quite close. Both men were
ardent Japanophiles and amassed enormous collections: Fenollosa specialized in Chinese and Japanese paintings, while Bigelow
purchased literally tens of thousands of pieces of lacquer ware, swords, statues and wood block prints. However, theirs was
more than simply the self-aggrandizing purchases of the mega-rich; they truly saw themselves as saving important pieces of
Japan's past, at a time when few others took notice, including many Japanese themselves: at the time the island nation was
rushing to modernize itself in the face of Western imperial power, and the old ways were deemed unimportant and not worth
saving. In 1885, both Fenollosa and Bigelow converted to Buddhism, studying with a Tendai Buddhist master and dressing in
Japanese robes (again, one can't help but wonder what that first trip home to the Bigelow family's townhouse on Beacon Hill
must have been like).
Over the next few years Fenollosa and Bigelow played host to a number of Bostonians who, fired
in part by Morse's lectures, visited Japan, eager to gain some insights into Buddhism. Among their distinguished guests were
Isabella Stewart Gardner (an important art collector in her own right, whose home later became the Gardner Museum) and the
author Henry Adams, who had traveled to Japan with his friend, the painter John La Farge. Adams was seeking escape in the
Far East from the intense grief he felt over the recent suicide of his wife Clover. A short (further) digression away from
the shore of Tuckernuck is necessary to detail the short unhappy life of Clover, which is intimately connected to that of
Clover's real name was Marian Sturgis Hooper; she was William's first cousin. Clover's mother, Ellen Sturgis
Hooper, was a poet and a member of the Transcendental Club (her sister, Susan Sturgis Bigelow, William's mother, was also
a member). Ralph Waldo Emerson regularly solicited poetry from her for his periodical The Dial, and Thoreau included
the end of Hooper's "The Wood-Fire" in the chapter "House-Warming" in Walden. Ellen Sturgis Hooper often hosted gatherings
of like-minded individuals at her home, where it would not have been unusual to see such luminaries as Ralph Waldo Emerson,
Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Henry James. Quite an inspiring home for a sensitive young girl, or so it would seem; sadly, Clover's
family had a tragic thread of mental illness and suicide that ran through the generations. Clover was present when her aunt
(William's mother), Susan Sturgis Bigelow, died, allegedly from arsenic poisoning at her own hand, although tuberculosis was
the polite reason given. In 1887 Clover's sister Ellen walked into an oncoming train and in 1901 her brother Edward leaped
from the third floor of his home, surviving briefly before eventually succumbing to pneumonia.
Clover was five when
her mother died of tuberculosis; she was extremely close to her father, Dr. Robert Hooper. Both Clover and her sister Ellen
often accompanied their father on visits to Worcester Asylum for the mentally ill, where they witnessed the dreadful effects
of mental illness and the almost medieval state of psychiatric treatment at the time. Clover was deeply affected by the horrors
of such confinement, and her surviving letters make it quite clear that she regarded suicide as preferable. On learning of
the suicide of William Morris Hunt, who had painted a portrait of Henry Adams' father, she wrote "He has put an end to his
wild, restless, unhappy life. Perhaps it has saved him years of insanity which his temperament pointed to." These experiences
left Clover a shy, retiring nervous girl, fearful of being separated from her father for any length of time.
prospects brightened, however, when she met the young Henry Adams. Adams, the grandson of John Quincy Adams and great-grandson
of John Adams, was the heir of yet another prominent Boston Brahmin family, and was beginning to establish a reputation for
himself as an author and historian in his own right. A marriage between these two was a favorable one socially, but while
there was apparently great fondness between them Clover's nervous disposition eventually drove Henry into a (unconsummated)
relationship with another woman, Lizzie Cameron, the niece of William Tecumseh Sherman. Their letters demonstrate their great,
if frustrated, passion for one another; if Clover had any knowledge of the long-distance love affair she made no mention of
it. Perhaps she was too immersed in worrying for her own health and safety.
While honeymooning in 1872 along the Nile,
Clover suffered a nervous breakdown; this was the first time that she had been apart from her father for any length of time.
Upon her return to Boston she discovered a passion for photography, but the limitations of her gender at that time, combined
with a lack of support from her husband, resulted in her talents being limited to family portraits. The death of her father
in the spring of 1885 sent Clover spiraling into a mental depression from which she did not recover. On December 6, 1885,
Henry Adams found his wife lying on the floor, a vial of potassium cyanide -- used to process photographs -- by
her side. A doctor was summoned, but it was too late. Clover was dead.
Adams' trip to Japan was an attempt to dull
the painful loss. His friend John La Farge was the one who suggested the idea. La Farge had been a pioneer in collecting Japanese
art and incorporating Japanese effects into his work, beginning in the 1860s (he also married Margaret Perry, the niece of
the Commodore who had opened Japan to the West over the barrel of a gun). In 1869, La Farge wrote an essay on Japanese art
detailing the asymmetry and heightened color of Japanese prints, which looked empty and unbalanced by traditional Western
standards. The radical qualities of La Farge's art in the 1860s were more subtly incorporated into his work over the subsequent
decades. Stunning examples of La Farge's work in stained glass (the brilliant coloring of which may have been influenced by
his interest in Japan), may still be seen at Trinity Church in Boston, and he became increasingly involved in large scale
decorative and mural projects, both for churches and the residences of America's newly-minted millionaires.
La Farge was again embarking for Japan and asked his grieving friend Henry Adams to join him; perhaps a further incentive
was the thought of seeing his late wife's cousin. Although not as smitten with the lure of the Orient was his companions,
Adams was apparently deeply moved by images of Kannon, the feminine Japanese embodiment of the wisdom of compassion. When
he returned to the United States, Adams commissioned the famed sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens to create a Kannon-inspired
statue for his wife's grave in Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, D.C. (La Farge's painting of Kannon by a waterfall may have
served as inspiration for the artist). That statue is widely considered to be Saint-Gauden's masterpiece, and may be viewed
to this day in Rock Creek Cemetery. If you visit, take a moment to remember poor Clover, please.
to Boston in 1889, and devoted much of his time to the study of art and Asian religions; following in the footsteps of Morse
he lectured widely on Buddhism, and played a key role in developing diplomatic and cultural relations between the U.S. and
Japan. Bigelow donated his collection and expertise to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts as a trustee; he brokered the purchase
of Fenollosa's collection through another Harvard doctor, Charles Goddard Weld (yes, as in former Governor Weld) and by the1890s,
the MFA had one of, if not the pre-eminent collection of Far Eastern art outside of Asia. Its first curator was Fenollosa,
who had returned from Japan with Adams and La Farge, and who was instrumental in establishing the collection.
after William Sturgis Bigelow returned from Japan, his father died following a carriage accident. In 1906 Bigelow purchased
56 Beacon Street in Boston, where Henry Adams, college chums George and Henry Cabot Lodge (cousins of the Adamses), and even
Theodore Roosevelt could be found visiting. Roosevelt made Bigelow's home his Boston headquarters, and presumably it was there
that Bigelow had an effect on U.S. foreign policy. No doubt aware that the manly Roosevelt would be less than impressed with
highly lacquered teapots Bigelow instructed the Rough Rider in the finer points of Japanese culture by throwing him repeatedly
using judo holds. Roosevelt was so impressed that he had a special Judo Room set aside in the White House -- he also
signed a treaty with Japan.
But what does all this have to do with a bit of shoreline on Tuckernuck? I was just getting
to that -- you needn't be in such a hurry! Bigelow would often escape from the heat and noise of Boston to his large,
rambling summer "cottage" on the west end of Tuckernuck. Perhaps one of the few pieces of common ground shared by William
and his father Henry Jacob Bigelow, literally, was their love for the island. Henry was an avid gunner and after visiting
the island briefly had returned and rented a cottage, and then leased land, from Charles Dunham; in 1871 he had built a simple,
boxy house on the land, even though the property wasn't really his. Bigelow suffered misfortune of hiring my grandmother's
great-grandfather, James Cochran Dunham, as his caretaker (my wife's family owns "Grandfather's House" on Tuckernuck --
James Cochran is the eponymous grandfather, and former owner). Dunham contemptuously viewed the senior Bigelow as having more
money than brains, and set out to take this "summer person" for all he could (thankfully, this attitude does not prevail today
In 1871 Bigelow tired of the constant gouging and fired Dunham as his caretaker. Dunham, a true Tuckernucker,
was not one to let an opportunity for a good feud to pass by, and began harassing Bigelow, denying access across his own property
to the rest of the island and sending his sons out to chase the birds away that Bigelow was hunting. Bigelow sued Dunham and
won; Dunham appealed and lost, and the fine was doubled. Unable to pay, Dunham was forced convey half of his farm to Bigelow.
Bigelow also eventually purchased the land he was leasing and set about enlarging the building on it in order to accommodate
his son William, their guests and their servants; he hired my cousins the Smiths and the Sandsburys to do the job. As with
cousin Clover, both Henry and William had an avid interest in photography, and they took many pictures of the construction
of their new house, and Tuckernuck at that time, including many members of my extended family.
In addition to his
beloved photography, Bigelow kept careful track of the almost constant erosion of Tuckernuck's north and west shores: "...very
heavy surf...6 to 10 feet cut off the bank," he wrote in 1904. "The last of the road around Robert [King Dunham]'s lot went,
leaving about a foot to squeeze by on.....The smallest loss in any one year since was 10 paces; the largest 39." In 1908:
"About 70 feet of bank cut off. Charley Brooks gives it eight years to the corner of the tennis court. I guess six".
entertained many of his distinguished friends at his island retreat, including Roosevelt, Henry Adams, John La Farge, Senator
Henry Cabot Lodge and Bishop William Lawrence, who had been John La Farge's sponsor at Trinity Church in Boston. To get there
they took a train from Boston to Woods Hole, followed by a three-hour trip on a side-wheel steamer to Nantucket, a bone-jarring
wagon ride to Madaket, then a private boat jaunt to Tuckernuck itself. It was strictly a men-only affair, and his guests wore
typically wore Japanese dress, or nothing at all, until dinnertime, when formal dress was required. A staff of servants, including
cook and butler, provided food and fine wines; Bigelow had one room converted into a darkroom to develop photographs, and
amassed a library contained 3,000 volumes to keep his visitors entertained when the weather turned foul. The collection, complete
with racy French and German magazines (which probably would seem quite tame to us today) topped off an experience that Henry
Adams described as "a scene of medieval splendor".
In his poem "Tuckanuck", dedicated to "W.S.B." (William Sturgis
Bigelow), he describes the philosophy of the group:
I am content to live the patient day.
The wind, sea-laden,
loiters to the land,
And on the naked heap of shining sand
Th' eternity of blue sea pales to spray.
In such a
world no need for us to pray:
The holy voices of the sea and air
Are sacramental, like a peaceful prayer
the world doth dream her tears away.
We row across the waters' fluent gold,
And age seems bless'd, for the world is
Softly we take from nature's open palm
The dower of the sunset and the sky
And dream an Eastern dream, starred
by the cry
Of sea-birds homing through the mighty calm.
These halcyon days were soon to end, however; in the
late summer of 1909, George Cabot Lodge fell ill while visiting Tuckernuck, and before medical aid could reach him, he died.
He was only 35 years old. Henry Cabot Lodge never returned to Tuckernuck and his friend's death affected Bigelow deeply. For
several years he stayed away from his beloved island, finally returning after a three year absence -- but the original
spirit of joie de vivre had vanished. "It is inexpressibly sad here, since 'Bay' (Lodge) left", he wrote later that year.
1926, at the age of 76, William Sturgis Bigelow died. His body was laid in state in his Buddhist robes in his home at 56 Beacon
Street in Back Bay; his funeral at Trinity Church was conducted by his classmate and friend William Lawrence, the former Episcopal
bishop of Massachusetts. Bigelow's ashes were divided: half were interred in Mount Auburn Cemetery, the cemetery founded by
his grandfather, while the other half were buried near Homyoin Temple in Japan, the site of his Buddhist initiation, overlooking
Bigelow's favorite lake. In his will Bigelow left a fund to Harvard University for the advancement of Buddhist studies, but
his accomplishments can never be measured by money alone. According to one estimate, Bigelow left 26,000 pieces of painting,
sculpture, ceramics, and manuscripts to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and is responsible as much as anyone for bringing
the Eastern aesthetic to America. Through his tireless work he influenced creative souls as diverse as Ezra Pound and Frank
Lloyd Wright, and through them countless others. Boston may have lost a fine doctor, but the world gained so much more in
There is a further, personal postscript to this story. Bigelow did make an exception to his "no women" policy --
in 1898 he offered his Tuckernuck estate to his niece Mabel Hooper (Clover's surviving sister) who had married John Louis
Bancel La Farge, for their honeymoon. They fell in love with the island, and their descendants remain there still. John Louis
also met and befriended my great-great-grandfather, Erastus Chapel, of whom he said "everything about him is round, his legs,
his belly, his arms and his shoulders, his head...and to top all, his little white hat -- the apple doesn't fall far from
the tree, apparently, that being a fair description of this author. Erastus had purchased a lot from William Sturgis Bigelow
in 1893 (part of the old Dunham property won in the lawsuit -- what's more, Erastus married James Cochrane Dunham's niece),
and built a house there. John Louis also mentions that Erastus was quite close to his son, whom he referred to as "the boy",
even when the "boy" was forty years old; that boy was James Everett Chapel, whom I am named for, and who is the former owner
of the house at 31 Union Street where I now reside with my family (the house now belongs to my great-aunt, Mary Chapel Humphrey,
and her children).
As William had feared, erosion eventually claimed the Bigelow estate on the west end of Tuckernuck,
including the house in 1944. Before that occurred, Mabel arranged to have Bigelow's old library transported from the west
end to the east, where she had bought some property was building a new house, designed by her son Louis, who was an architect.
In 1939 Mabel hired my great-grandfather, along with several other men, to move the building for her. They placed it on long
timbers resting on wagon wheels, and over the course of a month moved it to the east end of the island. That library building
was incorporated into the new house, and remains there to this day.
The La Farge family also sold a piece of the same
Dunham property to James Everett Chapel, and it is on a portion of that property that my family's house, the Pond House, still
stands. When I look out of the kitchen window of our little house, I can see Bigelow's Bluff; nothing physical remains to
note the passage of this remarkable man, but his contribution to art and to history, and the strong bonds of friendship between
his family and mine that remain to this day, provide a greater monument than any house or statue ever could.
deeply indebted to the patient research found in Wayman Coffin's book Tuckernuck Island, as well as the stories told
to me over the years by my grandmother, Ruth Chapel Grieder, for much of the Tuckernuck information found here. For more information
on Bigelow, La Farge and Boston's Japanese connection please check out The Great Wave : Gilded Age Misfits, Japanese Eccentrics,
and the Opening of Old Japan, by Christopher Benfey.
James Everett Grieder, a native Nantucketer, is the author of a number
of articles about Nantucket's history, many of which are true, and is a regular contributor to Yesterday's Island
magazine. He lives in the family homestead with his wife Katharine and his heir apparent, William Lewis Grieder. Oh, and cats,