The Siren Call

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Gloucester may be Natchez’s oldest surviving “suburban villa.”

Natchez’s celebrated treasure trove of antebellum architecture, unlike that of most historic Southern cities, was largely built by a society seeking to be, as F. Scott Fitzgerald put it, “rich together.” Imitating the English gentry who maintained townhouses as well as country homes, the region’s phenomenally wealthy cotton barons escaped the ennui of rural plantation life via city homes where they could socialize with their peers. Sometimes modest, usually grandiose, these houses bloomed in the heart of Natchez and in park-like settings, some as large as eighty acres, on the outskirts of town. Arguably the oldest surviving “suburban villa,” as the style came to be known, is Gloucester. Its most famous occupant–and a highly unlikely candidate for the genteel, glamorous lifestyle it afforded– was a dour, strait-laced New Englander named Winthrop Sargent.

Winthrop Sargent (1753-1820), the quintessential stern New Englander.

Winthrop Sargent (1753-1820), the quintessential stern New Englander.

A native of Gloucester, Massachusetts, Sargent arrived in 1798 as Governor of the Mississippi Territory where he was appalled by Natchez’s laissez-faire attitude and fondness for leisure. The loathing became mutual when he antagonized the populace with unpopular Federalist policies and laws the citizenry considered repressive and unconstitutional. Sargent’s strict, unbending demeanor only worsened matters, and there was widespread celebrating when newly elected President Thomas Jefferson replaced Sargent in 1801 with Republican William C. C. Claiborne. His turbulent term finished, Sargent shocked everyone, perhaps himself as well, by not only heeding Natchez’s siren call but by embracing many of her values he had earlier condemned. He even married a local widow, Mary Williams, and embarked on a career as a Mississippi planter. By 1807, Sargent was so successful he sought a residence suitable for his lofty new status. He settled on Bellevue, a two-story brick Federal-style home built in 1803. He renamed it “Gloster Place” to honor his birthplace, and engaged a prominent local architect to make extensive renovations. The sophisticated designs suggest the work of Levi Weeks, particularly in some Federal woodwork considered the finest in Natchez. Sargent and his wife had a son whom he named George Washington Sargent (after securing Martha Washington’s permission!), and after building an agricultural empire encompassing 25,000 acres in four states, Sargent died in 1820. Four years later, Mary sold the house, took young George and moved to Philadelphia. When Federal architecture fell out of fashion, new owners, James and Catherine Wilkins, added spectacular Tuscan porticoes front and back, complete with bull’s eye windows in the portico, in the newly popular Greek Revival style. It was perhaps during their tenure that the house became known as Gloucester.

This 1940s vintage postcard incorrectly named Governor Sargent as the builder of Gloucester.

This 1940s vintage postcard incorrectly named Governor Sargent as the builder of Gloucester.

In 1840, George Washington Sargent returned to Natchez and bought his homeplace back. During the Union occupation in 1864, a man who had done work for him came calling with two Yankee soldiers. Suspecting their goal was robbery, George confronted them on the rear gallery and was fatally shot in the chest. When he died a few days later, the three intruders were executed by firing squad at Devereux plantation. In 1877, Gloucester was bought by wealthy Natchezian James Surget who, as an absentee landlord, allowed the magnificent mansion to deteriorate.

Gloucester's decline invited comparison to Charles Dickens's fictional Bleak House.

Gloucester’s decline invited comparison to Charles Dickens’s fictional Bleak House.

Around 1900, Surget rented the house to a relative, Jennie Merrill, who, after a few years, could no longer tolerate leaky roofs and collapsing ceilings. It was during this period that Natchez poetess Octavia Dockery visited Gloucester and described it as, “standing grim in the shade of handsome trees and past recollections, a veritable Bleak House with its air of mystery and secrets.” The two women would cross paths again in 1932 when Octavia was accused of Jennie’s murder. Gloucester was destined to change hands several more times before being rescued from desuetude and handsomely restored. Today it is privately owned.

Jennie Merrill’s untimely death is re-imagined in my book, The Goat Castle Murder.

Goat Castle Murder

 

3 Comments

  1. Donna
    Aug 3, 2016

    Looks like the groundwork for another ghost murder mystery. Did Octavia murder Jennie inspired by the “mysteries and secrets” of the house? Hmmm…

  2. Robert Lowe
    Aug 7, 2016

    Wonderful article. Waiting for newest novel by this great author…

  3. Linda Gray
    Aug 7, 2016

    Interesting tidbit about Jenny and Octavia. I agree; that would make a good murder mystery.

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