Common Lives of the Uncommon: Judges, Politicians, and Socialites in the Curtis Family

Anne Mathilda McBride McLanahan (1808-1882), the wife of James Xavier McLanahan, and great-grandmother of Helen Kingsbury Curtis, who donated this daguerreotype to Trinity College (Hartford, Connecticut).

By Brenda Piedras

The Watkinson Library at Trinity College makes available several groups of personal papers and family materials, from the Curtis, McLanahan, and Heister families. The Curtis, McLanahan, and Heister collections primarily contain correspondence, newspapers, and photographs, which document the lives of Judge William Edmond Curtis, Judge Holbrook Curtis, William Edmond Curtis Jr., Dr. Holbrook Curtis, and Elizabeth Curtis.

Originally donated to the Trinity College Library beginning in the fall of 1975 by Mrs. Herbert Pelham Curtis (Helen Kingsbury Curtis), the materials focus on two alumni of Trinity College – Judge William Curtis (class of 1843) and William Edmond Curtis, Jr. (class of 1875) – and Elizabeth Curtis (1873-1946). The latter was the author of Letters and Journals: Judge William Edmond, 1755-1838, Judge Holbrook Curtis, 1787-1858, Judge William Edmond Curtis, 1823-1880, William Edmond Curtis, 1855-1923, and Dr. Holbrook Curtis, 1856-1920 (Hartford, 1926), a biographical account of prominent members of the Curtis family. Interested researchers and the general public can access these family manuscripts and memorabilia in the John M.K. Davis Reading Room at the Watkinson Library, Hartford, Connecticut.

Letters and Journals (Hartford: Case, Lockwood & Brainard Co. 1926), edited and compiled by Elizabeth Curtis (1873-1946), brought together genealogical information and family histories.

Judge William Edmond Curtis (1823-1880), after graduating from Trinity College in the Class of 1843, Curtis served as a Trinity College Trustee from 1857 to 1880. Judge William Curtis also had a vibrant political and legal career. Judge Curtis served on the Supreme Court of New York. While there, he was prompted to start the New York Alumni Association of Trinity College, of which he became president in June 1870. Judge Curtis married Mary Ann Scovill, and fathered William Edmond Curtis Jr., who continued the Curtis family’s involvement in law and politics.

William Edmond Curtis Jr. (1855-1923) was also a Trinity College alumnus, graduating with the Class of 1875. Like his father Judge William Curtis, he served on the Trinity Board of Trustees (from 1886-1889). While the men of the Curtis family had previously taken their political and legal careers only to state office positions, Curtis Jr. pursued a career at the national level. William Edmond Curtis served as the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury during the Cleveland Administration. The Curtis papers provide considerable insight into his work on the Bond Issue of 1896, which emphasized to European investors the United States’ commitment to the gold standard. William Edmond Curtis’ profession secured the Curtis family’s status as East Coast elites and New York socialites. The Curtis family papers houses a significant collection of calling cards, including one from “The Great Dissenter,” Supreme Court Justice John Marshal Harlan.

Calling Cards, Curtis Family Papers, Watkinson Library Manuscripts
Calling Cards, Curtis Family Papers, Watkinson Library Manuscripts.

Remaining active in Trinity College’s affairs, Curtis Jr. sat on the committee which in 1904 selected and voted unanimously on the decision to offer the college presidency to Flavel S. Luther. In 1920, Curtis Jr. also directed Trinity’s committee to select a suitable Trinity College President, namely, President Remsen B. Ogilby.

Elizabeth Curtis (1873-1946) wanted to commemorate politically or socially prominent figures in the Curtis family like Judge William Curtis and William Edmond Curtis Jr. A substantial portion of the Curtis family papers is dedicated to her genealogical research and her own collection of materials for her biographical work, Letters and Journals. Elizabeth Curtis contributed to the family involvement in politics. Her personal correspondence typifies a prominent advocate of the involvement of the United States in World War II. Yet Elizabeth Curtis was primarily focused on the genealogy of the Curtis family. Her researches for Letters and Journals seemed to ignite her fascination with family history, a passion for documentary research which was subsequently passed to a member of the McLanahan and Heister family, who married into the Curtis family.

While the McLanahan and Heister family papers constitute a smaller collection in comparison to the Curtis family papers, it nonetheless provides another useful account of the lives of East Coast socialites from the end of the eighteenth through the first half of the twentieth centuries. In addition, there are materials for people interested in politics dating to the eighteenth century, as the Curtis collections even house a small amount of manuscripts from and to the infamous United States Vice President, Aaron Burr.

Recently, Trinity College student Brenda Piedras ’21, working as an assistant of the Watkinson Library in 2019-2020, reprocessed the Curtis Family Papers to facilitate research and to increase user accessibility. The Curtis family papers had been previously arranged and described by Mrs. Charles W. Knapp, Martin Fuller, and Trinity student assistant Carol Flinn (Trinity class of 1979). The papers of the Curtis and McLanahan-Hiester families are particularly extensive and hopefully prove useful for researchers interested in American politics and society between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries.