Business and Labor

Boston’s J. Wright Boott – A Tale of Orchids and Insanity

In March of 1845, J. Wright Boott wrote a letter to his old friend and business partner, John Amory Lowell; with it he enclosed his will and wrote that he planned to kill himself. ‘Please don’t think any less of me,’ he added.

For J. Wright Boott, life had become unbearable, but exactly why it happened spilled out into a debate that ran for years between prominent Boston families. One camp held that he had been harassed to the point of despair by two of his siblings. The other said his end was the result of insanity – that his mental condition had gradually deteriorated from mildly peculiar to outright madness.

J. Wright Boott

National Park Service artwork, Kathleen Konicek-Moran

The story starts in 1817 when Boott was 31. Boston businessman Kirk Boott died, leaving an estate worth $280,000 (more than $4 million today). For Boott’s son and business partner, J. Wright Boott, the receipt of such a fortune might seem like a great gift, but the burden of managing the estate and looking after his siblings was too much to handle.

Kirk Boott was a late comer to the scene of Boston Brahmins. He came to Boston from England in 1783 and set up business as a wholesaler. His connections in England and the unquenchable appetite for European fine goods in New England combined to quickly make him a wealthy man.

Boott built for himself a mansion in Bowdoin Square in Boston (at roughly the corner of Bowdoin and Cambridge Streets). He brought his two oldest sons, J. Wright and and James, into his business and renamed it Kirk Boott & Sons.

In 1817, as Kirk died, the fortunes of the Boott company took a turn for the worse.  Boott had profited throughout the War of 1812, but following the war as America dropped tariffs against English goods, the Boott company found that its inventory on-hand could now be imported at lower cost.

The merchants that it sold to struggled to pay for their goods, and many failed. Back in England, an uncle of the Bootts’ declared bankruptcy owing the firm £10,000. All of this drained the value of Boott’s inheritance, and for the next 20 years he struggled to manage the expenses of his younger siblings, launching them into business and marriage.

By 1830, Wright Boott was retiring from active business. He had backed his two brothers-in-law in a foundry that nearly bankrupted him, and he had worked with his partner, James A. Lowell, in a short-lived wholesaling partnership.

In 1822, he had personally invested in the Merrimack Manufacturing Company and had seen his younger brother Kirk move north to establish the city of Lowell and, backed by Boston’s wealthy families, grow enormous fortunes borne out of the Lowell Mills.

The younger Kirk Boott encouraged his brother to take a more active role in operating the mills, but Wright declined. His only true passion left was his plants. Boott had been collecting and growing plants for many years and he embraced the orchid craze that was sweeping the country. When relatives would travel to England they would send special plants back for Boott. He even discovered a plant in New Hampshire’s White Mountains that is named for him: Rattlesnake or Boott’s Root (Prenanthes boottii).

Boott’s collection was a large and acclaimed one among Boston’s horticulturalists. In her book So Fine a Prospect: Historic New England Gardens, Alan Emmett notes that his flowers were included in the Massachusetts’ Horticultural Society’s first exhibit in 1834 at Faneuil Hall. Though he became less active in the society, his plants were so well known they were still being featured in the society’s publications.

In his 50s Boott began withdrawing from society. His mother moved to England and Boott, living alone in the mansion at Bowdoin Square, became increasingly irascible.

Then the family finally imploded. Boott’s younger sister Elizabeth had married Edward Brooks – an heir to an enormous fortune of his father Peter, who came from an even wealthier Boston family whose money came from insurance.  The Brooks’ were well-connected among Boston elites.

Brooks did not get along with Boott, and one day in 1844 when Elizabeth visited Wright at the family mansion, she took offense at the lifestyle of two of her nephews who were also visiting the mansion. At noon she encountered the boys still lounging over breakfast, reading newspapers and smoking cigars. They rudely ignored her.

Elizabeth wrote to her mother complaining of the situation. The matter infuriated Boott, who believed Elizabeth was needlessly agitating the family, and when he ignored both her and her husband at a family gathering, Edward Brooks took offense.

Finally, Brooks said, he would no longer tolerate Boott’s rudeness. He wrote to Boott’s siblings and told them that he and Elizabeth would no longer associate with them if they remained on friendly terms with Boott – they declined, preferring to remain neutral.

His only ally in the fight was Boott’s youngest brother, William, who had quarreled with Boott.

William and the older J. Wright had been fast friends, though William had a reckless streak. He had a history of ingratiating himself with Wright when he needed money but criticizing him behind his back for his temper. Much of his inheritance had been spent on travels in Europe. In 1834 he had been arrested for participating in a duel, and Wright stood by him.

Finally, though, the two brothers fought and William moved out of the family mansion. The house was now occupied by Boott and his widowed sister. They barely spoke, if at all. Boott was convinced she had allied herself with the Brooks’ against him, and forbade them from visiting.

The mansion was part of the Kirk Boott estate, and it had been left for his widow’s use for as long as she lived. However, having moved to England with another of her sons, Boott’s mother consented to have the house and its contents sold, the proceeds to be distributed in line with the terms of his father’s will.

At the sale, Boott learned that he needed his brothers and sisters to sign off on the deed. They refused, until Boott provided an accounting for how he had handled their father’s estate. The estate had long been settled. In 1833 all parties had agreed that Boott had settled affairs and they had no claims against him. Now, however, egged on by Brooks, the family wanted more proof.

The accounts were presented and, it turned out, they showed Boott had given his brothers and sisters more than they were actually entitled to. Brooks was not satisfied the accounts were correct, but he got no chance to challenge them before Boott killed himself.

Before he died, Boott rewrote his will. He left the major portion of his fortune to his sister Anne, with whom he had never quarreled. Brooks, William Boott and his sister Mary challenged the will, but they soon dropped the case. Word had spread that Boott had been hounded to suicide by his hostile siblings, and Brooks suspected Lowell, Boott’s executor, was behind the stories and decided to make his case public.

In 1847 he published a 250-page, wide-ranging attack on Lowell and Boott: A correspondence between Edward Brooks and John A. Lowell. It laid out his position that Boott had mismanaged his father’s estate and invested it for his own purposes. He bluntly stated that Boott was insane, and generally aired out the family linen.

Lowell, however, was not one to shy away from a fight. To defend the honor of his friend and business partner, in 1848 he published Reply to a pamphlet recently circulated by Mr. Edward Brooks, which came in at 224 pages. It was a well-argued and thorough rebuttal that tended to clear his name and Boott’s name, and establish that Boott, while difficult, was probably sane. He pointed out that he had offered to have an open trial on either the issues of Bootts’ use of the funds or his insanity, but the family declined to proceed.

Now looking either foolish, dishonest or both, Brooks dredged the whole story up again with a rambling 836-page rebuttal, An Answer to the Pamphlet of Mr. John A. Lowell. It was published in 1851, a full six years after Boott’s suicide. It did little to clarify matters.

The one thing John Lowell did get out of the whole affair is that his friend Boott willed him his collection of orchids and other plants, which Lowell displayed and eventually passed on to other collectors. The Boott mansion, meanwhile, was demolished to make way for the Revere House hotel. That, in turn, burned down in 1912.

Kirk Boott’s greatest legacy, apart from orchids, was his son Kirk’s participation in the founding of Lowell, where the Boott Mills still exist today.

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