The letter featured for this week's column is a bit hard to decipher. The author has penned the one-page missive in a flourishing cursive, which probably saved him some time but also creates something of a scribble. Nonetheless, the letter offers some intriguing clues as to its origin.
The 1858 communication and its stamped envelope are up for auction by user nalwife. Though I agree with the description saying it was written by a J.W. Whitney of New York, I disagree when it says it was to a J.W. Williams in New London. Rather, it seems read "Thos W. Williams," indicating that the recipient was likely Thomas Wheeler Williams, one of the more remarkable residents in the city's history.
A Stonington native, Williams was born in September of 1789, clerked in New York City for a time, and was involved in the shipping business for about eight years before he moved to New London. He is credited with getting the ball rolling on outfitting ships for whaling and turning New London into a prominent whaling port. Indeed, Benjamin Tinkham Marshall writes in A Modern History of New London County that after some abortive earlier attempts, the "real birth of the whale fishing in New London" can be traced to Williams' outfitting of the Mary in 1819, alongside two other whaling ships outfitted by different captains. Williams and Acors Barns created a firm in 1829 to fit ships for whaling, and Williams remained a part of it until 1858.
Williams' prominence may also have helped him to get elected to the House of Representatives twice. He ran successfully as a Whig in 1838 and 1840, and was in the Connecticut house of representatives in 1846 and 1847. Shifting the focus of his business interest, he became the long-running president of the New London, Willamantic and Palmer Railroad (or New London Northern Railroad, as it was later called) in 1847. The letter indicates that he was still involved in this trade by the time 1858 rolled around.
"The rails I offered you are I believe of good quality [patterns?]," Whitney writes. "Cash is a very desirable article just now." The letter ends with the cordial note, "Shall be very happy to see you, when you visit the City."
Though there was a Thomas W. Williams II in the family as well, he was deceased by the time this letter was written. This other Williams passed away in 1855 and the , originally located at Broad Street at the site of the , is named in his memory. Given Williams' age, it also seems likely that it was another relative who captained the Monticello out of New London later in the century; this whaling ship and several others were trapped in Alaskan ice and crushed, the Monticello being lost with 630 barrels of whale oil and 270 barrels of sperm oil in September of 1871.
The asking price for the letter is $4.99, plus $1.50 for shipping and handling from Asheville, N.C. The letter is described as being in good condition, with some corner bumps on the envelope. The auction ends at about 7:49 p.m. on Thursday.