Friday, June 18, 2021

The Detective Waxed His 'Stache: Some Sidelights on the Fascinating Family of Phoebe Atwood Taylor

My title, you may have guessed, is indebted to the title of a Peter Lovesey novel.  Do you know which one?

As I have written about here in the past, regional New England crime writer Phoebe Atwood Taylor [aka PAT] was the deepest-dyed of Yankees, her ancestry on her mother's paternal side (the Atwoods) and paternal side (the Freemans) respectively going back ten and eleven generations in Cape Cod, Massachusetts.  (Her father's side of the family, the Taylors, was composed of comparative upstarts, going back merely eight generations in Cape Cod.) 

Indeed, Freeman married a granddaughter of Mayflower passenger William Brewster, making PAT a Mayflower descendant, like, I as surprised to learn, some 35 million other people around the world.  That's actually a lot of people, considering they are all descended from a pool of only 22 passengers Mayflower, which anchored off the tip of Cape Cod over 400 hundred years ago on November 11, 1620.  

1932 map of Cape Cod--the town of Wellfleet is the pink section in the middle of the tip,
Orleans the yellow section below it

For generations the Atwoods stayed put in the Cape Cod town of Wellfleet, Massachusetts, which is mentioned over and over in PAT's books.  Wellfleet's population in 1930, a year before PAT published her first Cape Cod detective novel, was only 826, the town having declined steadily with the demise of the whaling industry from its recorded high of 2411 in 1850. 

However, things picked up again after World War Two and by 2010, Wellfleet had made it up to a new high of 2750.  In her books PAT captures this Depression era sense of decline, as well as the area's growing dependence on the nascent tourist industry from Boston and others parts, as Americans became increasingly interested in the country's "quaint" colonial past.  

Thomas Atwood house on Bound Brook Island on the west side of Wellfleet, centerpiece
of the Atwood-Higgins historic district. (Historical American Buildings Survey, 1930s)
Originally erected as a half-house by Thomas Higgins in 1730, the expanded cottage was
purchased in 1805 by Thomas Atwood, a fourth cousin once removed of PAT's grandfather
Ebenezer Atwood.  After many years of no vacancy, the house was purchased in 1919 by 
George Higgins, a relation of the original owner, who restored it and added a number
of outbuildings to give it the feel of a living farmstead.  After Bound Brook Island Road
was improved, connecting the island to the mainland, the site became more accessible.
 (To me this recalls the house in PAT's 1935 novel The Crimson Patch.) 
Altogether, the district represents the original story-and-a-half Cape Cod cottage
architecture as well as 20th century restoration efforts. (See National Park Service.)
All too prosaically, however, PAT's maternal grandfather, Ebenezer Tilton Atwood (1835-1900), had moved with his wife, Clara Maria Freeman (1842-1911) and two daughters, Josephine and Alice Tilton (a son, Freeman Dana, had died as a child), to the Eagle Hill neighborhood of East Boston by 1900, the year of his death, where he was employed as a salesman of plumbing supplies.  (No wonder there's a plumber character in PAT's detective novel Octagon House!)  That year the Atwood family also took in a boarder, a young bookkeeper from Wellfleet.  

PAT's second cousin
Richard Rich Freeman III, who died
in the sinking of Lusitania in 1915. 
This was the passport photo
which he took for the fatal trip.

Clara's marriage to Ebenezer must have been a love match, one gathers, for Clara was one of thirteen children of Captain Richard Rich Freeman (yes, "Richie Rich"), who "from his early years followed the sea" to great success, becoming President of the Boston and Provincetown Steamship Company, President of the Wellfleet Savings Bank and and a Director of the Wellfleet Marine Insurance Company.  His youngest son, Clara's youngest brother, Richard Rich II, was a prominent Boston shipping broker and said to be one of the best golfers in the state.  His only son, Clara's nephew and PAT's second cousin from this line, was Richard Rich III, a Harvard educated mining engineer.  He stood 5'11" with spectacles, a chiseled face, cleft chin, blue-gray eyes, crinkly auburn hair and a long straight nose, in contrast to PAT's pug one, which she inherited from her father. 

In 1915, when PAT was six, he embarked on an ocean liner to Russia, having taken a mining job there.  Unfortunately the ocean liner he embarked upon was RMS Lusitania.  The moving story of the 28-year-old's death is told here and here.  His body was never recovered.  

As with so many Cape Codders, the livelihoods of many of PAT's relatives were derived from the ocean waters, which sustained life as well as claimed them.  As a young man Clara's husband Ebenezer had been a sailor on the whaler Hector, so perhaps it was there that he learned about plugging leaks, as it were.  He himself a son of Simeon Atwood (1792-1863), owner of a stove and hardware store in Wellfleet, which much more recently was the cite of The Juice restaurant.  

former Wellfleet store owned by PAT's maternal great-grandfather, Simeon Atwood

After Ebenezer's death, his and Clara's daughter Josephine married Dr. John Danforth Taylor, a 1900 graduate from Harvard medical school, and they moved a three minutes walk away from the rather boxy and dull Atwood family home at 126 Princeton Street to an attractive frame Italianate house with bay windows and a mansard roof at 31 Princeton Street.  Josephine's elder sister Alice remained at home with her mother Clara, until Clara's death in 1911.  Alice herself stayed at this home for two decades after the death of her mother, living there alone with a series of maids, until PAT herself moved in.  

former Taylor residence in east Boston (red painted house)
--no black lives matter signs back in those days!

PAT had graduated from Barnard College in 1930 at the age of 21 and probably soon thereafter moved in with with her Aunt Alice, with whom she would stay with until the elder woman's death in 1942.  PAT obviously must have had great affection for her, naming her most famous pseudonym, Alice Tilton, after her aunt.  (Her other, minor, pseudonym, Freeman Dana, under which she produced a single mystery, was drawn from her uncle of that name, who had died as a child long before PAT was born.) 

Still it seems unusual for a young college graduate to want almost immediately on graduation to move in with her spinster aunt and remain with her for a dozen years, unless she literally has to as a sort of paid companion (a situation that certainly arises in classic mysteries).  Clearly PAT had more in mind for her life than that. 

Next to her Barnard College yearbook photo is the quotation, drawn from a translation of German poet Heinrich Heine, "I crave an ampler, worthier sphere."  From her own interview comments, PAT had been bored at college, yet she obviously had intense ambition to be something out of the ordinary.  She was known to her classmates as "a bland, imperturbable young woman with a Boston accent, an inquisitive pug nose, and a mind like a two-edged sword."  In fiction writing she found a creative outlet for her brilliant, effervescent mind.  

PAT at Barnard age 20 or 21

Jeffrey Marks has written that PAT returned to Cape Cod, to "Weston, Massachusetts" to care for her "invalid aunt," this being Alice Tilton Atwood, so perhaps her aunt stood in special need of a companion, and this made a convenient arrangement for PAT, the younger woman getting lodging from her aunt where she could write.  (Incidentally, there is a Weston, Massachusetts, but as the name suggests it's west of Boston, not in Cape Cod, so perhaps Marks meant Wellfleet; yet Ebenezer and Clara Atwood had left Wellfleet decades before and as far as I can tell PAT never resided at Cape Cod, contrary to what Marks writes, unless one counts her summering with her parents at Nauset Beach near Orleans, her father's native town.)

In a newspaper piece PAT joked that she was a comprehensive failure in a short succession of jobs after graduating from Barnard, so that helps explain why she did not live on her own when she started writing her first novel in 1930.  But could she not have moved in with her own parents?  She certainly would not have been the first, or last, college graduate to do that.  What was going on down the street in the Taylor household at this time?

Quite a lot of upheaval, actually!  In March 1929, when PAT was still attending Barnard, her mother Josephine died suddenly from a cerebral hemorrhage during a Unitarian Church supper in Boston, when she was only 52.  (Josephine was a committed member of both the Unitarian Church and the Daughters of the American Revolution.)  Dr. Taylor, PAT's highly opinionated, rationalistic father, who regularly aired his secularist, progressive opinions in letters and journal articles, was left a widower at age 53.  

PAT's father, whom I think she favored,
as we say in the South

Less than a year later, however, Dr. Taylor remarried, to a woman nearly two decades younger than he memorably named Hazel Aurelia Schmeltz, who hailed from Detroit, Michigan.  I have no idea how this marriage came about, but could PAT have taken a dim view of suddenly acquiring a strange new stepmother, only fourteen years older than she, so soon after he mother's sudden death?  Hazel herself was a former dental assistant and a  divorcee, having divorced her first husband in Michigan less than three years earlier, after a marriage of less than a year's duration.  Interestingly, Hazel's own father Henry P. Schmeltz, a Detroit police lieutenant, had himself divorced, back in 1909, the year of PAT's birth.  

It was a divorce that was messy enough--and quirky enough--to make Detroit newspaper headlines:

Wax on Schmeltz Mustache Helps to Chill Wife's Love; Gun Play Freezes It

Is that your nightstick or are you just 
happy to see me? According to his wife
Patrolman Schmeltz was a player.

Wax applied to the moustache of Patrolman Henry P. Schmeltz was among the primary causes of a decree of divorce granted to his wife, Anna, by Judge Hosmer yesterday.  The decree was granted on Mrs. Schmeltz's cross-bill.

Schmeltz began the suit, declaring that his wife was inordinately jealous and had accused him of personal adornment to make himself more agreeable to other members of the fair sex.

Mrs. Schmeltz in her cross-bill alleged she had reason enough to be jealous, and that her husband spent not only time and money on other women, but that, when she objected, he had threatened to shoot her and once shot through the leg of the table.  Judge Hosmer decided that she was entitled to a decree on the ground of extreme cruelty.

This could have come out of one of PAT's novels, except for its being in Detroit, Michigan.  Could this be one reason cops always seem like a dimwits in her books, or did Hazel not volunteer this information about her family to her new stepdaughter? 

In any event, Dr. Taylor and his new bride soon were taking cruises together, to Europe and to Hawaii, and one can see how PAT might have felt out of his place in this situation.  After World War Two, Dr. Taylor moved with Hazel across the country to San Diego, California, where she died in 1961 and he died three years later at the age of 87.  They are buried next to each other in Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Dr. Taylor having served as a major in the Medical Corps Reserve in both World Wars.  A cenotaph was erected for the doctor at the Taylor family plot in Orleans at Cape Cod.

Tudor-style home in Newton, MA purchased by PAT, probably not long before she began 
writing her first Alice Tilton mystery set in fictional Dalton, MA.  The pen name was derived from
 the maternal aunt with whom she lived, Alice Tilton Atwood.

Josephine Taylor has a cenotaph in her name in Orleans as well, though she was buried with her family at Wellfleet, as was PAT after she died at the age of 66 in 1976.  Was there acrimony within the Taylor family?  Dr. Taylor and Josephine are only together in the sense that their cenotaphs, presumably erected by PAT, are side by side.  Their actual remains lie on different coasts, separated by a continent.  

tombstone for sisters Josephine and 
Alice Tilton Atwood, PAT's mother and
aunt, at Oak Dale cemetery at Wellfleet
As for PAT and her "invalid Aunt," the duo sometime in the 1930s moved together, presumably on the strength of PAT's royalties, from East Boston to the neighborhood of the Highlands in the town of Newton, Massachusetts, a few miles west of Boston (and not far from Weston), where they resided at an attractive Tudor-style house of about 2100 squared feet and built in 1926.  (Today the house, which had been heavily modernized on the interior, is valued at nearly a million dollars.)

In 1940 PAT was listed as the head of the household, which included as boarders a married couple, a childless middle-aged salesman and his wife.  Jeffrey Marks writes that the town of Dalton in the Alice Tilton mysteries ("Dalton" was another family name) was based on Newton, where, he notes, "Taylor spent a great deal of time."  

PAT actually lived in Newton for years (possibly as long as two decades), so she must have spent a great deal time of there, yes.  I'm guessing she moved to Newton not long before she commenced the Alice Tilton series, set in "Dalton," in 1937.

Coming soon: More on PAT's background and the origin of "Asey Mayo."


  1. I can't believe there aren't any comments- is everyone vacationing on Cape Cod? I'm enjoying this PAT series and am looking forward to the origin of Asey Mayo!

  2. I also enjoyed this history, thank you.