In January 2016, a windfall fell into our lap at Falmouth Museums on the Green. We received a phone call from an old Boston law firm. They had opened a long-forgotten storage unit and found a stash of papers belonging to the Beebe family, dating from the 1880s to the 1950s.
Apparently, no descendants wanted the papers. Were we interested?
You bet we were.
James Madison Beebe made a fortune operating Boston’s first department store. His children and grandchildren adopted Falmouth as their summer home, and left an indelible mark on the town. They built Highfield Hall and St. Barnabas Church, preserved the land known today as Beebe Woods, and patronized an array of charities.
The Beebes enjoyed their position atop the social pyramid, but they had tragedies and secrets, just as any other family does. Two of James Madison Beebe’s grandchildren, Emily and Arthur, committed suicide as young adults. Their brother, Charles Philip, was rumored to be “odd” and was rarely seen in Falmouth. Word leaked out that he had been committed to Maclean Hospital.
As we began to sift through our new Beebe collection, we found box after box of documents belonging to this mystery man. A glance through his account books shows Charles to be a profligate spender who divided his time between a Back Bay townhouse and a remote camp in Oregon. Letters hint at a strained relationship with his family. Bills from Pinkerton’s agency indicate that Charles had hired private detectives to shadow one or more people. Eventually his behavior alarmed his uncles enough so that they petitioned a court for his involuntary committal.
It will take years for us to digest all the information in this collection. Was Charles really insane, or just eccentric, as he claimed?
One day we may have a clearer picture. So far, we’ve barely looked into the boxes related to E. Pierson, Franklin, J. Arthur, and other Beebes. Imagine what secrets are still waiting to be discovered!