Massachusetts

William Bentley Mourns His Ne’er-Do-Well Brother in 1804

Salem minister William Bentley believed his brother Thomas led a life of dissipation because he was named after the wrong grandfather.

William was born June 22, 1759 in Boston. He graduated from Harvard in 1777. Though his parents were disinterested in his education, he got a good one because of the grandfather for whom he was named.

After graduation, William Bentley taught school and tutored Harvard students in Latin and Greek.

640px-Crowninshield-Bentley_House_-_Salem,_Massachusetts

Crowninshield-Bentley House

In 1783 he was ordained a Unitarian minister and became pastor of the Second Congregational Church, known as the East Church, in Salem, Mass. He preached a gospel of good works, which was well liked by his parishioners, and gave half his salary to the poor.

William Bentley lived modestly as a boarder at what is now the Crowninshield-Bentley House. He was an indefatigable reader and diarist who amassed 4,000 books, one of the largest libraries in the United States. Every week, he wrote a much-copied column summarizing world events for the Salem Gazette. He continued to tutor and teach; mathematician Nathaniel Bowditch was one of his students.

Bentley spoke seven languages fluently. He was admired by Thomas Jefferson, who offered him jobs as chaplain of the U.S. Congress and president of the University of Virginia. He declined both.

His brother led a much different life.

On Dec. 11, 1804, William Bentley wrote in his diary that Thomas had just died.

This day died my Brother Thomas Bentley, in Boston. He was of the twin children born 10 Jan. 1764. He was not so well educated as he might have been, as my F. (father) took no pains to give his children as good education as he had himself & my Mother had none at all. Thomas was named after his G.F. (grandfather) Bentley, as I was after my G.F. Paine. He was inferior to none of us in point of capacity, but the G.F. after whom he was named did not take such care of him as I received for my name. He was bound an apprentice to one Emery, a jeweler, or Silversmith, who was then in high reputation. My Brother made all the proficiency in his art known in his time and added such other parts as his fruitful invention assisted & was a good Engraver upon Silver, & for his business. In all this time he was taught nothing which led to correct his manners & a taste for songs & social glee soon gave a wrong bent to his genius. It was hoped that marriage would put him right, but alas, the woman he married had not sprightliness enough to amuse him, or prudence enough to govern him, & he soon became a pet companion. After having increased his family & deranged his affairs. After having been a heavy tax upon our feelings & interest, he ventured down to Gloucester. In that place he confirmed all his ill habits & got not good ones, till stripped of all his property he returned to Boston. He found ready employment, but he never found ready resolution to be steady. After having tired all his friends, he returned with his family into the arms of his Parents. Our mothers soon fell a victim to her cares. In her complaints he was removed into the country but he still was unreformed & habitually intemperate. He was brought back to his father's house on the 7 & died on the 11 of December. He has left a wife & four small children. Thomas was good tempered, sacredly honest, a man of truth, & when temperate, of ceaseless industry. Ingenious, persevering, he was excellent in his calling. But he loved society & he found not such as he loved at home. Dissipation succeeded to his social indulgences & he died pitied & yet without an enemy.

William Bentley died December 29, 1819 of a heart attack. The Crowninshield-Bentley House is now owned by the Peabody Essex Museum and is open for tours in the summer.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Pingback: A Banana and a Red Snapper: Two 1809 Firsts for William Bentley - New England Historical Society

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

To Top