For Julius Caesar, it was the Ides of March. For a more modern Caesar, it was the Ides of August.
Tomorrow, August 15, will mark the 170th anniversary of the passing of Ezra Weston II (1772-1842) who was known locally as “King Caesar.” Ezra Weston is not a household name, I know, but nonetheless the man had a huge impact on Massachusetts maritime history and, reaching across the span of almost two centuries, has been tremendously significant in my life.
Weston was a merchant fleet owner with a prodigious and truly uncanny talent for administration and finance. He reigned as the dominant magnate of Duxbury, Massachusetts in the early 19th century–a wealthy and powerful man. His father, who started the family business, had earned the nickname “King Caesar” due to, I think, his ambition and heavy-handed business practices. The title passed to the son, Ezra II, who lived up to the sobriquet, but not through heavy-handedness. Instead, Ezra Weston II brought the family business to international prominence through sheer talent and unrelenting effort. And we are not talking about Boston Brahmins here. Duxbury was not that kind of place. Ezra Weston II was a country-schooled, back-water Yankee who instinctively knew how to make lots and lots of money.
Senator Daniel Webster gave an off-the-cuff remark in 1841 during a speech in Saratoga, New York calling Weston the “largest ship owner, probably, in the United States.” This quote has been repeated in numerous maritime histories, leaving out the “probably,” without every really questioning its veracity. After years of comparative research, the best I can say is that Weston probably had the largest merchant fleet in Massachusetts in the early 1840s. He certainly had the largest merchant fleet on the South Shore of Massachusetts at the time.
Ezra Weston II’s house is now maintained as a museum known as the King Caesar House by the Duxbury Rural and Historical Society where I work. I’ve devoted many years of research on this fellow. And now a bit of shameless self-promotion. (I have pointedly avoided such behavior in my two years of writing this blog, so I guess I don’t mind doing so now). Some years ago, I wrote a book on King Caesar. If at all interested, you can check it out on Amazon. In the unlikely event that anyone should be compelled to order it, I would humbly suggest you do so through the historical society directly (that way the full funds go to the organization).
Now, back to our subject. King Caesar’s death. In the course of working on this book, there were many things that fascinated me about Ezra Weston and his business. His seemingly innate talent for finance. The storied histories of the fine ships he built. The biographies of the many sea captains and ships carpenters who worked for him. But one subject which I find strangely fascinating are the circumstances of his death. I am not obsessed by the macabre or any such thing. But I find his cause of death profoundly ironic. And there are many questions in my mind as to how it all played out.
There are virtually no extant personal papers written by King Caesar. The historical society has many business records on the Weston firm and so the book I wrote is primarily a business history. I could not really crack his personal life. The true man behind the autocrat of local legend remains a mystery. His death is a perfect example of this.
I will never forget when I looked up his death record at the Massachusetts Archives. Such things were not really available online at the time. The concept of microfilm reels seems almost silly now. But there I was a number of years ago in the reading room eagerly spinning the reel to the appropriate record. And there it was…cause of death, “marasmus.”
What on earth that meant, I did not know, and I had to copy down several different versions of what I thought the spelling was given the cryptic 19th century handwriting. No wifi then to look it up. No smartphones. It was a long drive home until I could hop online and look it up. Marasmus was the period medical term for starvation.
Duxbury’s wealthiest man, one of the great tycoon’s of 19th century Massachusetts, died of starvation. Oh, the irony. And how could that be?
Well, it stands to reason that he must have been severely ill. Who knows. Cancer? Infection? Some debilitating illness that weakened him to the point where he could not eat. A little further research proved that King Caesar had been declining for quite some time.
His brief obituary in the Old Colony Memorial, published in nearby Plymouth: “In Duxbury, the 15 inst., Ezra Weston, Esqr. 70. Mr. Weston was long known as one of the largest ship owners in Massachusetts. He was an active and successful merchant, indeed he was industrious, and so devoted to business as to probably impair his health, which for two years has been very feeble. But he was not grasping nor avaricious, and no one could accuse him of dishonesty or oppression, or over-reaching his business. He usually employed a great number of mechanics, who always bore witness to his integrity and kindness.”
Another of the scant shreds of evidence regarding his decline…in the archives of the historical society is a scrap of paper on which a Duxbury woman wrote, around the turn of the 20th century, that her mother, as a girl, had remembered seeing old King Caesar running about Powder Point in Duxbury in a red cloak during thunderstorms. Dramatic gossip stretched and inflated over the span of generations? Perhaps. But if there is anything to it, we might infer that Weston’s mind was declining along with his body.
Weston was responsible for the launch of dozens of vessels from Duxbury’s shores. The very last he saw launched just a few months before his death was a brig of 140 tons. The name that he gave her is laced with morose irony and we are left to wonder if he did so with his own mortality in mind. He called her the Vulture.
I spend a good deal of my time promoting King Caesar’s accomplishments and the legacy of achievement that is preserved within his house. But every August 15, I can’t help but wonder over the perplexing and sad circumstances of his death. And, although it may just be my overactive imagination, I tend to think the house takes on a somewhat darker atmosphere on the Ides of August.