Thomas H. Perkins (1764 – 1854)

November 30, 2016

Merchant and philanthropist Thomas Handasyd Perkins was born on December 15, 1764 and by his 20th birthday he was traveling the world.  After a trip to China with his wife Sarah Elliot’s uncle, James Magee who was then a captain of a ship in the China trade, Perkins and his brother formed J. & T. H. Perkins which soon became the foremost American trading house with China.  Their ships carried tea, cloth and china to the United States, coffee and sugar to Europe and furs and opium to China.  To ensure an advantage over other merchants they formed a branch in Canton in 1803.

Perkins’ later invested in cotton mills, mining, iron-making, hotels, theaters and quarrying.  The 1826 Granite Railway Company organized under his leadership was instrumental in building the first railroad in America.  For half a century Perkins’ company operated both quarries and railroad, but after laying a network of railroads he gave up railroad work and concentrated on the quarrying side of the business.  His quarrying business supplied the stone for many important buildings and structures in Boston, including the Bunker Hill Monument, the Boston Custom House, and Minot’s Ledge Light, one of the most famous lighthouses in the world near Boston Harbor.

Business acumen aside, Perkins is perhaps best known for his philanthropy, leading the way for the creation of the New England Asylum for the Blind, later known as the Perkins Institution and Massachusetts School for the Blind.  He also gave generously to the Bunker Hill Monument Association, the Massachusetts General Hospital and the Boston Athenaeum.

Thomas Handasyd Perkins was originally buried at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Boston, but was later moved to Mount Auburn Cemetery on March 21, 1914.  He is buried in an underground tomb, Lot # 108 on Central Avenue with his family.  The lot’s marble monument is a dog (photo above) sculpted by Horatio Greenough (Lot # 97 Cedar Avenue), commissioned by Perkins and placed at Mount Auburn in 1844.  Considered “America’s first sculptor,” Greenough is known for his famous portrait statue of George Washington now in the Smithsonian Institution.  Several volumes about Perkins’ life and business are held in the Perkins Collection at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

5 Comments

  1. Lisa Ridgway says:

    Very interesting. Thank you!
    But I was a bit confused. Perkins had the dog sculpture done and placed
    at Mt Auburn in 1844, may we assume for his family?
    But when he died 10 years later in 1854, he wasn’t even buried there–?
    And wasn’t put in Mt Auburn until 1914–?
    There’s a story behind this…

    Thanks for explaining it.

    • Jennifer Johnston says:

      Hi Lisa,

      In 1843, at the age of 79, Perkins commissioned Horatio Greenough to create the a sculpture for him. Greenough had studied at the Phillips Academy and Harvard before moving to Rome to study abroad. He was taught to cut marble by Alpheus Carey (sculptor of Hannah Adams’s monument , the first erected at Mount Auburn), supported by the famous Washington Allston, and called the first professional American sculptor. Greenough sculpted the realistic Newfoundland dog for Perkins while still in Italy. The beloved pet is a symbol of loyalty and companionship, and a guide through the afterlife.

      Perkins was buried at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Boston and moved to Mount Auburn Cemetery in 1914.

      The dog sculpture may have been something he wanted to enjoy in life and then it was moved to “guard his grave” after he died.

      Death like life seems to find people residing with different members of their families and friends. Often after a few generations it can be difficult to tease out the connections between people and the choices they may have made in life or in preparation for their and / or their loved one’s death (e.g. to understand why one family member or couple within a family will choose burial or cremation or interment or inurnment in one location and other family members and / or friends may make different choices).

    • Jennifer Johnston says:

      Great question Helen, as the Boston Globe has said: “Perkins has a fascinating and complicated history in this regard. He was a major industrialist with significant holdings in textiles, railroads, and iron mines. But as a young man, he traded slaves in Haiti through India and China.”
      As you know, many powerful and wealthy people in our country were involved in trading slaves in the past, and at least a half a dozen U.S. presidents owned slaves while they were in office. Many charities, schools and hospitals also have extremely complex connections to slavery. It is important to recognize this fact and not to repeat these terrible atrocities going forward.

      https://www.bostonglobe.com/opinion/2014/01/14/history-slavery-but-free-future/2gWAMbGZ41sRgrgc6eC2dJ/story.html

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