I’ve been debating in my head whether I should post this. This story bothers me. Not so much the part about theft and deceit from a century ago. Nah, that isn’t so bad. What really gets me worked up is that Wellesley seemed to do its best to hide this story. Don’t mention it and eventually it will go away. I always admired Wellesley’s leaders for their ability to shape the town according to their needs and desires, but I never had a concrete example from the early days of how they wiped away something unflattering. Well, now I have an example: Albert Jennings, the first town treasurer who served from 1881 until he was arrested in 1902. He was one of the Wellesley’s most highly regarded citizens, a leader within the Wellesley Village Church, and part of a prominent family that for decades had been large landowners and was active in town affairs. And just like that, he was gone. Wellesley’s only paper at the time of the incident — Our Town — didn’t cover the story at all, yet the Boston and New York papers did. And when the scandal resurfaced in 1906, the Townsman made only a limited attempt to cover it. Albert Jennings became ‘he-who-must-not-be-named.’ So here I am, trying to bring this man back to life. It may be unflattering for the town of Wellesley, but we can’t ignore our past.
Before I get into the meat of the scandal, let me back up a bit and talk about the Jennings family in general. I don’t want to bore you, but I need to give you some understanding of the prominence of the family and why I find the ‘disappearance’ of Albert Jennings so shocking.
The best available genealogy of the Jennings family comes from Epitaphs from Graveyards in Wellesley (Formerly West Needham), North Natick, and St. Mary’s Churchyard in Newton Lower Falls, Masschusetts by George Kuhn Clarke, a Needham historian from the turn of the 20th Century. I was unable to find the name of the first Jennings to arrive in the area, but it appears that they lived in Natick as early as c. 1750. Most of the Jennings family is buried in the North Natick graveyard on Route 27 just north of Route 9. Furthermore, there’s actually a pond in Natick, just over the Wellesley border, called Jennings Pond:
See Jennings Pond to the west of Morses Pond? For the most part, your family needs to be historically important to get its own pond (re: Morse, Longfellow, Abbott). The Jennings were probably up there as well. Just as an aside, before 1797, both the pond and the graveyard were part of the ‘Needham Leg’ of West Needham. In 1797, Needham gave this land to Natick in exchange for much of the current Hunnewell property in the southwest corner of Wellesley. That’s a story for another day.
As for specific ancestors of Albert Jennings, I’ll spare you the details about most of them, but I will say that his great-grandfather, Ethel Jennings, moved to Wellesley or Needham in the late 1700s or early 1800s. And by 1856, the Jennings family came into possession of Blanchard’s Tavern, which sat on a knoll on the north side of Wellesley Square on Washington Street to the east of the Shattuck Block (the four-story building on the corner of the road leading to the Post Office). This tavern was probably the most well-known house in all of Wellesley throughout the 1800s, a landmark for any passenger. It’s been said that George Washington slept there, but that can be said of three or four long-gone houses in Wellesley and it’s even questionable if ever spent the night here! What can be said for certain, however, is that during a part of the second-half of the 19th Century, the tavern had clapboards that were painted alternately red and white and the cornices were blue with white stars. Perhaps this was for the Centennial celebrations of 1876, but that’s just my guess.
Albert Jennings was born in Wellesley about 1852 and probably grew up in this house (which around 1904 was moved a few dozen feet to the north and west when the current building on that spot — the Patridge/Kartt Block –was erected. The former tavern was razed in 1932 when the Shaw Block, which stood between it and the road, was expanded to make way for the new store of the Wellesley Fruit Company.) By 1888, Jennings lived on Grove Street two houses down from Spring Street on the site of the ’40 Grove Street’ office building. Besides serving as town treasurer, he also ran the family insurance business, started by his father, George Jennings, in the 1850s. That company was originally run out of the old tavern, but moved to the second floor of the Shattuck Block after its completion in 1889. In fact, Albert Jennings also acted as Town Treasurer from this Shattuck Block office.
OK, I think I’ve given enough background. On with the scandal…
The crime and the resulting investigation played out during the end of December 1901 into January 1902. Here’s a play-by-play of what happened. On December 30th, Albert Jennings met with Massachusetts State Treasurer Edward S. Bradford in Boston in order to cash a $5000 town note (worth about $135,000 in 2012 dollars). He presented Bradford a note that had the signatures of Wellesley’s three selectmen along with the cumulative amount of money borrowed from the town during that fiscal year ($60,000). Everything seemed legit, so Bradford gave him $4823 ($5000 minus interest). During the next week, on January 6th, 1902, Bradford was notified by a banking firm that it had purchased a $15,000 Wellesley town note from Jennings on December 31st, but the note said the town’s cumulative borrowing amount for the year was $70,000 — not the supposed correct amount of $75,000. Bradford then examined the notes and immediately questioned their authenticity. Suspecting that Jennings had forged them, he contacted the Wellesley selectmen. On January 10th in Boston, Bradford met with two of the selectmen (the third was out of town during this entire episode) and they assured him that they signed the $15,000 note, but could not say whether they signed the $5000 note. A police officer then brought Jennings to Boston to meet with Bradford and the two selectmen. And here’s what happened according to the Boston Evening Transcript of January 17th, 1902:
The State treasurer frankly stated his suspicions. Mr. Jennings denied the insinuation, and laughed the matter away as a clerical error, assuring the selectmen that it could be easily explained by an examination of his books. Mr. Jennings could not remember when and under what circumstances the selectmen had signed the note, although they could readily recall the circumstances attending the signing of the other notes, but they would not admit that they believe Mr. Jennings had committed a forgery and Mr. Jennings steadfastly repudiated that charge.
When Jennings was to meet with the two selectmen the following day to examine the books, he did not show up, but instead went to Bradford’s office in Boston with a check for $5000 in order to rectify the situation and redeem the cashed note. The state treasurer, however, refused to accept the money. When the two selectmen confronted Jennings later that evening, he lied to them, claiming that he missed their meeting because he had been called to Newton Lower Falls. And as the same issue of the Boston Evening Transcript reports:
[The selectmen] suggested that they begin on the books at once. Mr. Jennings demurred, on the ground that he had company at his house and that it was almost imperative that he should entertain them. Then it was suggested that they begin the examination on the following day. To this he again demurred, on the ground that his company would be entertained over Sunday, that he wanted to go to church, and that it was against his principles to do work on Sunday.
He was unmistakably informed that for once he would have to sacrifice his principles to the urgency of the situation, and on Sunday afternoon the inspection was begun…A record of the note for $5000 was…found in his treasurer’s books, as well as on his passbook on the Boston Safe Deposit & Trust Company, but in both of these cases the ink was so fresh that it had not turned from blue to black, as had the other records, and, although the note for $5000 was discounted on Dec. 30, it was not recorded on the passbook until Jan. 11.
Meanwhile, Bradford found another $5000 note cashed at the state treasurer’s office in December of 1900 that was not recorded in Jennings’ town records. At that point, the selectmen reprimanded Jennings by merely telling him he would have to step down as treasurer in the spring. To that, Jennings protested, but then confessed that he had been stock speculating and offered to repay all money taken. Unfortunately, for Jennings, his punishment doesn’t end there:
Mr. Jennings was arrested in Wellesley just before five o’clock by State Officer Rhoades after he returned from a sleighing party with his wife and a friend of the latter. There was hardly any need of the officer telling Jennings his mission, as the town treasurer guessed it the minute he laid eyes upon Mr. Rhoades, having met the latter at the State treasurer’s office last Friday night. After Jennings left the ladies, Officer Rhoades informed the town treasurer that he was under arrest. The latter simply said that he thought the matter had been hushed up and then made arrangements to accompany Mr. Rhoades to Boston on the 5:45 P.M. train and at 6:30 o’clock the prisoner was locked up in the tombs.
Albert Jennings was charged with forgery and released on bail. Unfortunately, two days later, on January 19th, 1902, he was arrested again and charged with larceny of $5000, having cashed another forged town note at a Natick bank in 1896.
Oh, if only the story ended there! In early February, as his two trials began (one at Natick District Court and the other at Suffolk Superior Court), rumors circled about whether Jennings and his lawyers were working towards getting an insanity ruling. The Boston Evening Transcript even ran an article entitled ‘Is Jennings Insane?’ Well, these rumors proved true and Jennings was declared ‘incurably insane’ by physicians and sent to the state hospital for the insane in Worcester. The trials were postponed until further notice. Flash forward four years to July 1906 and, as a headline in the Boston Daily Globe tells us, ‘Jennings Now Rational.’ Jennings was released from the hospital and taken to court where he pleaded not guilty and was released on bail. Yet, in December of that year, the court ruled once again that Jennings was insane and the case was closed.
And here’s where I lose track of Albert Jennings. I consider myself pretty good at historical research, but this guy dropped off the face of the planet. Obviously, the town was not too thrilled with all of the national attention over this incident, so I’m guessing it did everything it could to avoid mentioning Jennings. No newspaper coverage. No mention in the history books. And that makes it pretty tough to figure out what happened to him. Where did he go? When did he die? In short, I have absolutely no idea. All I know is that in 1913, the Townsman published (by law, not by choice) a probate court notice regarding a petition by his wife that “her husband fails without just cause to furnish suitable support for her, and praying that the Court will, by its order, prohibit her husband from imposing any restraint on her personal liberty,” and requiring him to show up at the courthouse in Dedham. This must have been some kind of divorce hearing. There is also a land court notice in the Townsman in 1914 (again, published by law and not by choice) mentioning that Albert Jennings lived in Oklahoma City. So what happened to the first Treasurer of Wellesley after 1906? If someone could fill me in, I would greatly appreciate it.
But am I done with the story? Of course not! In 1906, the town was sued for $15,000 (almost $400,000 today) by Mrs. E. Adelaide Bass, who in 1900, had bought three $5000 town notes from a local note brokerage that had obtained the notes from Albert Jennings. Bass had then exchanged the notes for a new $15,000 town note at the end of 1900 and again in 1901, both of these new notes being forged by Jennings. When she tried to recoup her money after the Jennings saga, the town wouldn’t pay, claiming it wasn’t liable because the three $5000 notes were never shown to be genuine, and even if they were genuine, she voluntarily exchanged them for a forged note and that’s not the fault of the town. To complicate matters, two of the three $5000 notes were never found and the town was extremely poor at bookkeeping (no records where kept of when notes were signed or even the total amount of money the town had borrowed). I’m not really sure how the town could think that the voluntary exchange of a forged note constitutes a legal payment. Well, neither could the court, which ruled in favor of Bass, forcing the town to pay up. Actually, the town didn’t lose any money here. Its bonding company did.
So that’s the end of the story. Like I said at the beginning, the actual events may be rather mundane by today’s standards, but everyone should be fascinated by the fact that Wellesley chose to ostracize Albert Jennings and avoid mentioning the scandal in perpetuity.
As a pseudo-epilogue, I thought it would be interesting to look at the fate of Albert Jennings’ immediate family, here’s what I know:
- Albert Jennings and his wife, Mary Frances Jennings, had one child, George Hoyt Jennings. At the time of the incident in 1902, George was a student at Harvard. For at least a few months that year, he took over his father’s insurance business before selling it to Fred O. Johnson (who was also the new town treasurer). George Jennings then moved briefly to New Jersey before settling in Fort Worth, Texas, working in the cattle industry. In 1910, he married a local Texan and moved to Portland, Oregon to continue working with cattle. He had one daughter.
- Albert’s wife, Mary, floated around for the next decade, living first in Haverhill and then in Texas and Oregon with her son, often coming back to Wellesley for extended periods of time. I’m not sure when she passed away. In 1923, Dana Hall, which had been leasing the former Jennings home on Grove Street for some time, took ownership of the house.
- Albert Jennings also had at least two sisters, who lived with their mother at 31 Brook Street (which still stands on the north corner of Brook Street and Hampden Street). The mother died in 1908. One of his sisters, Julia F. Jennings, was the first librarian of the Wellesley Free Library from 1887 to 1904. She passed away unmarried in 1928. Another sister, Ellen M. Jennings, had been a teacher at the old Hunnewell School on Central Street (near the fire station) and died unmarried in 1940. In 1942, Dana Hall converted the house to a dormitory, but I believe it is back as a single-family residence.
- Needham Map of 1856
- Wellesley Atlases of 1888 and 1897
- Epitaphs from Graveyards in Wellesley (Formerly West Needham), North Natick, and St. Mary’s Churchyard in Newton Lower Falls, Masschusetts by George Kuhn Clarke (1900)
- Boston Evening Transcript: 17 January 1902; 30 January 1902; 3 Feburary 1902; 7 February 1902; 8 February 1902; 21 December 1906;
- New York Times: 19 January 1902
- The Lewiston Evening Journal: 12 February 1902
- Boston Daily Globe: 25 July 1906
- Wellesley Townsman: 27 July 1906; 7 September 1906; 21 September 1906; 8 February 1907; 10 July 1908; 26 February 1909; 25 February 1910; 3 June 1910; 14 June 1912; 28 March 1913; 4 December 1914; 7 December 1923; 23 November 1928; 22 March 1940; 2 July 1942; 9 February 1961; 7 November 1963;
- Harvard College, Class of 1903, Decennial Report (1913)
- History of the Town of Wellesley, Massachusetts by Joseph E. Fiske (1917)
- Google Maps