Editor's Note: This is the third installment on T.P. James, a spiritualist who claimed he was channeling the spirit of Charles Dickens.
BRATTLEBORO — In her book, "The Annals of Brattleboro," Mary Cabot dedicated a section to T.P. James, called "The Tramp Printer." She declared that James only published one issue of his spiritualist magazine, The Summerland Messenger, and did not succeed in publishing the next novel that James said Dickens' ghost was dictating to him, "The Life and Times of Bockely Whickleheap." She also states that he rarely stayed in a job for longer than a year.
Cabot may have overstated things, but it is true that in his lifetime, James did have a tendency to disappear. He did start newspapers in at least four towns and repeatedly left within a relatively short time of doing so. He also married at least four wives, (research indicates he may have had at least two more) and vanished from their lives.
Though James wrote a solution to Dickens' mystery, he unintentionally created other mysteries for researchers to puzzle over. Why did he leave Brattleboro, after becoming the
co-editor and co-publisher of the Windham County Reformer? What happened to him after he left Brattleboro? How many wives did he have, and what happened to them? Did he continue to write?
James left a trail of papers that help answer some of these questions. Materials at the Brooks Memorial Library, in the town hall's records vault, at the Brattleboro Historical Society, as well as online sources made available by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Library of Congress, allow modern day researchers to piece together parts of the James story that were previously impossible to gather These materials shed some light on the life and character of this mysterious man.
James had even more difficulty staying married than the reporters of his era knew. The details of his first marriage are mysterious, and suggest a tragedy early in his life. When James was a boy of 18, and working as a clerk in Boston, he married Sarah Whitcomb in 1853, who was only 15. Curiously, the place for her parents' names was left blank on her wedding certificate. After that she disappears from history. Given the sad mortality rates of young teenage mothers in the 1850s, if the young clerk married his 15-year-old partner because she was pregnant, one possibility is that she could have died in childbirth. Further research on this point is needed, but difficult given the lack of information about the young bride. Interestingly, the wedding was officiated by Reverend Streeter, a Universalist, the denomination most associated with spiritualism.
James is listed in the census of 1860 as a 24-year-old living in Lawrence, Mass., with his wife, Elizabeth Scott, who was 11 years his senior. It was also her second marriage. Living in the same household were her two children from a previous marriage, both of whom were only a few years younger than James. This means that she either began having children at 13, or that they were her first husband's children. Curiously, a newspaper reporting on the scandal that erupted in 1873 stated that in his childhood James had been an intimate of his future step-children.
We next find James on his way to war. He was drafted from his residence in Lowell, Mass., in 1863, and his occupation is listed as "printer." James' military service during the war is a tangled mess for historians. This may be in part due to his use of a pseudonym he appears to have used. A curious military record from the same year has Thomas P. James listed with the name of Theodore crossed out. The record notes that the man was transferred from a New York company. Under "Explanation" is the word, "Same."
Another mystery surrounding his military service was uncovered by amateur historian, Chris Zappala, of Brattleboro, who found records that indicate "T. P. James" was discovered to be incapable of playing the trumpet. Did James make the claim that he could play the horn, in an attempt to escape the front line?
James survived the war, and returned to his wife, Elizabeth, who we find living in Nashua, N.H., in 1870, the year of Dickens' death. After leaving Elizabeth, James traveled with her boarder, Martha, to Fall River, and other towns in Massachusetts, where he continued to master the printing trade. After publishing "The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Complete," in Brattleboro, he launched his spiritualist magazine, The Summerland Messenger in 1874. This magazine, whose existence was announced and lauded in the Farmer and Record, printed new novels from "Dickens' Spirit Pen," namely "The Life and Adventures of Bockley Whickleheap," and "The Humpback's Pilgrimage." To date, the only edition of this magazine that we know to exist is the 10th. A digital copy of this edition was located by Jeanne Walsh, reference librarian at the Brooks Memorial library, in 2013.
One theme of Bockley Whickleheap is that some people wrongly assume that no one would willfully do harm to another person capriciously.
How many more editions were published, is not known. It is thus also not known if James completed these Dickensian novels. If he did, there is no record of them being pulled together into published books.
James' reputation, following the scandal that broke on him during his second year in Brattleboro, was not so bad as to get in the way of his becoming the co-editor and co-publisher with prominent lawyer Charles H. Davenport of the Windham County Democrat in 1878. In 1913, this paper combined with the Vermont Phoenix and became The Brattleboro Reformer. However, the relationship between James and Davenport apparently soured. James started his own paper, The Independent, within the same year. Paul Heller, a writer for the Times Argus, discovered that the Springfield Republican wrote of the Independent that, "... the mission of the new paper, so far as it has one, seems to be to print a good deal of cheap wit at the expense of Lawyer Davenport and Deacon Jacob Estey. Happily, there is not much living power in this sort of journalism."
James' third wife was Martha Adaline Hill, whom newspaper writers referred to as his "victim." The most cynical explanation as to why he didn't marry Martha until after a newspaper expose revealed his past was that he had no intention to do so until scandal forced his hand. However, there is good reason to believe that he always intended to marry Martha before the expose broke, because newspapers reported that by 1873 he was using her initials and last name, "M. A. Hill" as a pen name. He registered "The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Complete," with the Library of Congress in her name.
Did Martha expect to get any of the proceeds of this book that bore her name? Martha may have been easy to take advantage of. It appears that her mother died when Martha was young, and she moved in with her uncle and aunt. School records show that in contrast to her cousins she was sparsely educated. She is only recorded to have attended school at the age of 4, and one term of schooling the year she was 14. She was signed up for two terms at Irasburg District 4 in 1867 but for one of the two terms, her name is crossed off. Her cousin Henry left the farm to fight on the battlefields of the Civil War, and the family may have needed her for farm chores after he left. Was she seen as less deserving or likely to benefit from education? Was she eventually seen as a burden who needed to earn her keep? We know only that she arrived at the mills in Nashua, as a 17-year-old girl with only a modest amount of education when T. P. James took her away with him to Brattleboro.
Martha's marriage to James lasted a little more than six years before she would in turn be left for a woman from a Brattleboro family, Lizzie Plummer. What happened to Martha after her divorce is a mystery. Her divorce was filed in Orleans County and granted in 1881. It appears she may have remarried, but more research is needed to detangle this part of her story. Whatever happened to Martha, she is immortalized in the Library of Congress as the false name under which he registered "The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Complete." Her ghost may find it small consolation. Though Martha and T. P. James were not divorced until 1881, James felt free enough to move to Watertown, Mass., and marry Lizzie Plummer in 1879. Where did James get the notion that it was entirely possible to hide the fact of a previous marriage? Why hadn't his experience in Brattleboro thoroughly taught him how easy it was for past vows of fidelity and devotion to another woman to be discovered?
The wife for whom marriage lasted the longest was Lizzie Plummer, a member of the Salisburys, a wealthy paper making family. Lizzie was previously married to James Gilmore, but that appears to have quickly ended in divorce. However, she was apparently pregnant very shortly after getting married and in 1870 was living in Brattleboro. Both of her boys, George and Charles, are listed as having been born in 1870 in Brattleboro, so it would appear that she was a single mother of twins. About one year later, T. P. James moved to town.
When Lizzie Plummer and T. P. James were married in 1879 in the Boston area, both declared this to be their second marriage. Of course, she was telling the truth, and he was not. James seems to have decided that bigamy was a better option than not being married to his current lover. Perhaps this was due to the watchful eye of his lovers' mother, which could not be evaded.
Ellen Plummer was living with Thomas and Martha in Watertown on Main Street. Also living with them was Lizzie's boy, Charles, "Charles James," according to the 1880 census of Watertown, Mass., who was "at school." No mention is made of George.
James moved in the 1880s to Maine with Lizzie and her son, and started the Sanford Herald in 1884. In the last edition of the paper, which is currently the last known publication we have for James that we can still read, he assured his readers that the paper had such a successful start, that he was committing to a second year of publication. He urged readers to pay for a subscription for the coming year, and for merchants to purchase ads at discount rates. Within days, he was on the train back to Massachusetts, where he was announced as the editor of the Waltham Times in October of 1885. It seems hardly possible that he did not know he had a new job hundreds of miles from Sanford, and that no one who paid for a subscription to the Herald's second year would ever receive a copy of it. The paper also included a story about a fantastically large snake, supposedly cut to pieces by a thresher in Sanford.
We know that James and Lizzie were still married in 1889, because Lizzie sold her share in her aunt Lestina's property in Brattleboro that year, and T. P. James signed on the quit claim deed, as Lizzie's husband. They are listed as living together as man and wife in Chelsea, Mass. They were separated sometime not long after the sale. Hopefully she received some of the proceeds. She worked as a piano teacher in Waltham, after taking back her maiden name.
James is listed as a reporter working in Boston in the 1890s, and then disappears from history.
Who erected the large stone cenotaph that Lizzie, her third husband Dr. Jabez Heigham and her son Charles all share in the Prospect Hill Cemetery in Brattleboro? Both her husband and her son predeceased Lizzie. Her son is named on the stone, not as "Charles James," but rather as the son of Lizzie's first husband, J. M. Gillmore. Lizzie died in 1934, and in her last years she was living alone in a boarding house in the Boston area.
Who paid for Lizzie Plummer Heigham's stone? The erection of her stone predates the records that have been kept at Abiatti Monuments, so we may never know. But we do know someone cared enough about her memory to take care of this detail. Hopefully, her last years included the love of someone who cared for her in her old age, as James had promised to do.
An exhibit featuring portraits of T. P. James and other important figures in Brattleboro's printing and publishing history is at the Brooks Memorial Library. It is funded by a NEH Creating Humanities Communities Grant for which Parker is one of the principal historians. For more information about the grant visit http://www.brattleboro.com/words. A presentation on how to do research and write stories on people from Brattleboro's past, including T. P. James, will be held at the Brooks Memorial Library on Nov. 29.