Saturday, June 25, 2016

Lloyd Hamilton: Pilgrim Son

Lloyd Hamilton in The Educator (1922)

Lloyd Hamilton, slapstick comedian extraordinaire, came from a prestigious family that was noted for its contributions to the founding of the United States.  Hamilton proudly mentioned his All-American roots when he was promoting The Optimist, a 1923 film that burlesqued our country's Pilgrim fathers.

The family's story in America began with Hamilton's 4 x great grandfather, William Hamilton.  William, the son of Galatin Hamilton and Jane Lauder, was born in Glasgow, Scotland, on March 7, 1647.  He immigrated to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, in 1668.  He later settled in North Kingston, Rhode Island, where he married Mercy Beere and had ten children (seven sons and three daughters).  Due to failing health, he moved into the residence of a daughter and her husband, Thomas Benedict, in May, 1749.  He was said to have died "easy in his chair" at the age of 102.

William was the subject of an extravagant tale that has remained prominent in various histories of Cape Cod.  The story later received mention in the New York Times (October 8, 1894), Alexander Starbuck's "History of the American Whale Fishery from its Earliest Inception to the Year 1876" (1878), and Duncan Oliver and John Braginton-Smith's "Cape Cod Shore Whaling: America's First Whalemen" (2008).  It was alleged in the story that William was the first man to kill a whale in Cape Cod waters.  William was alone at the seashore when he noticed a whale in the ocean.  He quickly rowed his boat out to the great beast, killed it with a harpoon, and dragged its carcass back to shore.  The State Journal reported, "The act was so unusual and daring that he was looked upon as a wizard, came near to being hung, and was taken up and confined in jail. . ."  William reportedly met other people arrested for suspicion of witchery and led the group into mounting a jail break.  The State Journal continued, "[They] marched through the town and informed the magistrates that if there was any more persons arrested for witchcraft they (the magistrates) would be hung."

Most other versions of the story leave out William's arrest and jail break.  These stories simply asserted that William's killing of the whale was attributed to, in Starbuck's words, "undue familiarity with evil spirits."  Historian Gertrude Wickham noted that William's family resettled in Rhode Island only after being "driven away as witches."  Starbuck, who found no verification of the incident in court records, doubted if the story of the Hamilton family's persecution was true.  He believed that Cape Cod residents were familiar enough with fishing skills to understand that killing a whale was nothing supernatural.  Besides, Starbuck claimed, "[T]he Cape was more an asylum for the persecuted than the source of persecution."  The fact that William's whale-slaying has been carried down in history books for more than 300 years suggests that something of the truth is present in the story.  

Lloyd Hamilton demonstrated his own troublesome whale-slaying skills on the big screen.  In Robinson Crusoe Ltd. (1921), Lloyd is taking a stroll on the deck of an ocean liner when he spots what he believes to be a whale in the water below.  He grabs a harpoon and launches it in the direction of the assumed creature, which turns out to be a floating mine.  The explosion that results is great enough to tear a hole in the hull of the liner and cause the ship to quickly sink beneath the waves.  Obviously, this act wasn't as daring or supernatural as it was dumb.  No footage or images of the scene are known to exist, but we do have a reworking of the scene performed by Three Stooges in Back from the Front (1943).


One of William's grandsons, Silas Hamilton, was also the subject of a historical legend.  The Revolutionary War was at the time causing death and destruction throughout the Colonies.  Silas, a resident of Danbury, Connecticut, was on horseback transporting a roll of red flannel cloth that he had obtained from a fuller shop when the British army arrived to burn down the town.  Silas was riled into action upon his confrontation with British forces.  The story, as detailed in "Commemorative Biographical Record of Fairfield County, Connecticut," continued as follows: "Remounting his horse he flew up Main Street with the troopers in full pursuits, and steadily gaining ground on him; one in advance and close upon him swung his sword to cut him down, when a singular but most fortunate accident occurred.  Silas lost a part of his hold upon the roll of cloth, and it flew out like a giant ribbon, frightened the pursuing animals so that he escaped with his life - and cloth!"  Silas' unusual escape comes across as a scene out of a Hamilton comedy.

The next descendant in Hamilton's family line was Hamilton's great great great grandfather, David Hamilton, who was born in 1697.  David married Anna Wright on September 3, 1727 in North Kingston, Rhode Island.  The marriage produced nine children (four daughters and five sons).  David worked as a deputy sheriff at one time, but he had much greater success later as a land speculator.  David remarried after Anna died in 1745.  His second wife, Sarah West, gave birth to two daughters, one in 1746 and the other in 1748, but both died in infancy.  David died in May, 1781, in Sharon, Connecticut.

Hamilton's great great grandfather, John I. Hamilton, was born in Lebanon, Connecticut, in 1732.  John fought in the Revolutionary War.  He was at first stationed in an outpost in Schoharie, New York, and later was stationed at Fort Edward.  He married Mercy Cornish.  The union of John and Mercy bore eight children (3 daughters and 5 sons).  John died at 85 years old in Montgomery County, New York, in 1809. 

Hamilton's great grandfather was a physician, Dr. Silas Hamilton.  This was a different man than the red cloth runner.  Silas was born at Stockbridge, Massachusetts on March 18, 1762.  He joined the army of the Revolution when he was fourteen years old, fighting with various regiments from 1776 to 1780.  He was stationed in the garrison at Ticonderoga, New York, under the command of General Anthony Wayne.  In July, 1777, he volunteered to join the militia company of Captain Amariah Babbitt, which led to him serving for one month in Colonel Seth Warner's regiment.  On August 15, 1777, he was one of the militiamen led by Warner into the Battle of Bennington. 

The Battle of Bennington was a key battle of the war and Warner's men played a pivotal role in its outcome.  British General John Burgoyne figured to gain control of the Hudson River Valley by capturing Albany.  The following was reported by Wikipedia:
Burgoyne's progress towards Albany had initially met with great success, including the scattering of Warner's men in the Battle of Hubbardton.  However, his advance had slowed to a crawl by late July, due to logistical difficulties, exacerbated by the American destruction of a key road, and the army's supplies began to dwindle.
Burgoyne sent a detachment of Indians, Loyalists and German dragoons led by Lieutenant Colonel Friedrich Baum to raid Bennington for horses and supplies.  Baum believed that the town was only lightly defended, but the fact was that General John Stark had arrived in Bennington with 1,500 militiamen from New Hampshire and Massachusetts.  Stark's men set out in a heavy rain to cut off Baum.

Wikipedia continued:
[Baum's] position was immediately surrounded by gunfire, which Stark described as "the hottest engagement I have ever witnessed. . ."  The Loyalists and Indian positions were overrun, causing many of them to flee or surrender.  This left Baum and his Brunswick dragoons trapped alone on the high ground.  The Germans fought valiantly even after running low on powder and the destruction of their ammunition wagon.  In desperation the dragoons led a sabre charge in an attempt to break through the enveloping forces. The charge failed horrendously, causing massive amounts of German casualties and gaining no ground on the rebels.  Baum was mortally wounded in this final charge, and the remaining Germans surrendered.

After the battle ended, while Stark's militiamen were busy disarming the prisoners and looting their supplies, Breymann arrived with his reinforcements.  Seeing the Americans in disarray, they immediately pressed their attack. After hastily regrouping, Stark's forces tried to hold their ground against the new German onslaught, but began to fall back.  Before their lines collapsed, Warner's men arrived on the scene to reinforce Stark's troops.  Pitched battle continued until dark, when both sides disengaged.  Breymann began a hasty retreat; he had lost one quarter of his force and all of his artillery pieces.
Wikipedia concluded, "The battle was a decisive victory for the rebel cause, as it reduced Burgoyne's army in size by almost 1,000 men, led his Indian support to largely abandon him, and deprived him of needed supplies such as cavalry and draft horses and food, all factors that contributed to Burgoyne's eventual surrender at Saratoga.  The victory also galvanized colonial support for the independence movement, and played a key role in bringing France into the war on the rebel side."

Silas married Achsah M. Barnes on June 20, 1793.  The couple brought forth thirteen children (6 daughters and 7 sons).  Silas was granted a soldier's pension on January 24, 1833, in the town of Victory, New York.  He died on February 6, 1847, at the age of 85. 

Hamilton's great aunt, Roxana, married an engraver and publisher, John Farmer.  In 1821, Michigan Governor Cass invited Farmer to move from Albany to Detroit to take charge of the University of Michigan.  His son, Silas Farmer, wrote:
Within two or three years after his arrival at Detroit, Mr. Farmer was engaged in surveying and preparing hand-made maps of the territory. . . He subsequently published, under various titles, twelve different maps of Michigan, Lake Superior, and Detroit, most of them being engraved by his own hand, and all who are acquainted with his works concede that they have never been excelled, and rarely if ever equaled in accuracy and completeness. . . In 1831 he compiled and drew for the Governor and Judges the first and only map transmitted by them to Congress, and that map is to this day the only legal authority and guide as to the surveys in the older portions of the city.  It was accepted by Congress as authoritative and is reproduced in Volume V of the American State Papers, Public Land Series.  In January, 1835, he issued the first published map of the city, which showed the size and correct outlines of the several lots.

His early maps of the Territory and State were sold by the thousands in all the leading eastern cities, and are conceded to have been greatly influential in promoting the extensive immigration to Michigan between the years 1825 and 1840.  In 1830, at Albany, New York, he issued the first Gazetteer of Michigan, a work relatively as complete as any gazetteer since issued.  He served repeatedly as District, City, and County Surveyor, and laid out many of the earlier roads and villages.
Farmer provided even more service to the state of Michigan.  He was the City Treasurer of Detroit.  He founded the first Methodist Episcopal Church of Detroit.  His son wrote, "He was an early advocate of the abolition of slavery, and would have sympathized with any and every effort made by the slaves to secure their freedom."

Hamilton's grandfather, Theron Hamilton, was born at Half Moon, New York, on July 26, 1807.  On September 13, 1831, Theron married Betsy McCollum, a resident of Cato, New York, on June 28, 1807.  In 1840, the couple moved from Port Byron, New York, to Burlington, Michigan.  In January, 1865, Theron moved his family to Marshall, Michigan, to accept the duties of Probate Judge for the county.  On November 19, 1875, the State Journal reported that Judge Hamilton died at his farm near Jefferson City and was buried in the "neighborhood burying grounds."  He was survived by his wife, two sons and an adopted daughter.

Hamilton's father, William Crane Hamilton, was born on February 16, 1846.  He married Hamilton's mother, Mary Edith McEntee, on September 23, 1875.  Mary was the daughter of Thomas Milton McEntee and Mary Jane Chaple.  Thomas was the City Attorney of Detroit from 1860 to 1863.  Thomas' brother, William Hervey McEntee, was also an attorney.  Hamilton got to poke fun at the lawyers in his family when he played an inept legal counselor in The Adviser (1921).

Lloyd Hamilton's mother, Mary Edith McEntee
Hamilton was a seventh generation American who descended from a whaler, a land speculator, a doctor, a city attorney, and a judge.  As a hard-partying slapstick comedian, he did not share the sober lifestyle of his forebearers.  He did not live as long as William (102 years), or David (84 years old), or John (85 years), or Silas (85 years), or Theron (68 years), or William (76 years).  He did not extend or expand the family line like William (10 children), David (11 children), John (8 children), Silas (13 children), Theron (3 children), and William (3 children).  But Hamilton enjoyed great distinction and great respect during his days.  It could be argued that he stands today as the best known and most beloved member of his outstanding family.

Additional notes: Going back further

The Hamilton clan descended from a Scottish nobleman, Walter fitz Gilbert of Hambledon.  This is where the man lived, Bothwell Castle.

The town of Hamilton, which is near Glasgow, was founded by the Hamilton family and named after them.  The name derives from the Old English word hamel "crooked" + dun "hill."

I came across an interesting story about Hamilton's father, William.  William, who owned a real estate business, had a long-simmering business dispute with Hugh Craig, the mayor of Piedmont.  The dispute came to a head at William's offices at the Realty Syndicate.  The result was the two men coming to blows.  The story made it into the next edition of the Oakland Tribune under the title "Aged Men in Bloody Fight."  The paper reported, "[G]lasses were snapped, cravats were torn and blood bespattered before the final blow had been put over."  William was at the time 65 years old (although the paper listed him as 60 years old) and Craig was 70 years old.  It was noted in the story, "Craig would not admit that there was a battle, and neither would Hamilton, but the latter finally admitted that there had been something doing and that he had come out on top."    

You can read more about Lloyd Hamilton in my book Lloyd Hamilton: Poor Boy of Silent Cinema.

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