The Quinine King— And His House, the Survivor

Text by Karen Fox Historic photographs courtesy of Perry Benson / Spring 2017

Cape May—in its heyday as the first and most popular seaside resort—attracted all sorts of VIPs. Lured by the restorative powers of the sea and the status of socializing at the beach were United States presidents, southern plantation owners, entrepreneurs, inventors, industrialists, military heroes, architects, artists and—the Quinine King.

William Weightman of Philadelphia, the Quinine King, earned the title for perfecting the mass production of quinine in the United States, and subsequently becoming one of the richest men in America. He had a near monopoly of the drug at a propitious time—during the Civil War—when quinine was prescribed for malaria, which felled more soldiers than swords and guns. Malaria, an infectious disease carried by mosquitoes, causes fever, vomiting, chills, and joint pain. Troops, not understanding the cause, camped near swamps, streams and ponds, the breeding grounds for mosquitoes. Malaria impeded both the Union and Confederate armies, exhausting soldiers and sending them to sick bay. Quinine, made from the bark of the Peruvian cinchona tree, was prescribed as the miracle drug for treating malaria. It was credited with saving thousands of Civil War lives, its demand unrelenting during the battle years of 1861-1865. Often more important than cash, quinine was smuggled past Confederate blockades in coffins, children’s toys, and food supplies. Dr. Nathan Mayer, a Connecticut regiment volunteer, wrote in describing a daylong march: “In one pocket I carried quinine, in the other morphine and whiskey in my canteen.”

Even before the war, William Weightman’s fortunes were expanding, as were his chemical processing plants in Philadelphia. There is a lithograph at the Free Library of Philadelphia showing new Powers & Weightman brick laboratory buildings, established in 1848, stretching across the hills of Schuylkill Falls (now East Falls).

In the 1850s, Weightman was among the first of wealthy Philadelphians to erect a summer mansion in Cape May. He purchased a lot at Washington and Jefferson Streets, at the edge of the commercial district, where the U.S. Post Office is now located. There he built for his family—his wife Louisa, sons John and William and daughter Anne—a huge, handsome three-story Second Empire home with some Queen Anne detail.

The house Weightman built has had several incarnations as a family home, hotel, restaurant, dormitory, and one of the most beloved bed and breakfasts in America. Perhaps most important of all, it has been a lucky survivor. It was split in half, endured two moves to two different locations, escaped two Cape May infernos, in 1869 and 1878; outlived at least two demolition attempts, and has withstood powerful hurricanes and nor’easters over more than a century and a half.

In 1881, the Weightman family seized an opportunity to move the house to the beach front. The 1878 fire started in the sprawling three-story Ocean House on Perry Street below Washington. The fire burned virtually every hotel, home, and business, including Congress Hall. The heart of town was destroyed in a four and a half block area along the beach from Congress to Gurney, from Washington to Beach Avenue. It was devastating. The fear was that the halcyon days of the first resort had ended in a pile of ashes. How could Cape May possibly survive?

Original cottage at Washington and Jefferson Streets

The naysayers were wrong. The city was quick to rise like a phoenix with renewed construction in 1879, including plans for a new Congress Hall and next door, construction of the Windsor Hotel. At this time of revived rebuilding, the Weightmans acquired an oceanfront lot on the scorched Columbia House grounds. William Weightman, the son, supervised the project, and according to news reports, townspeople were excited about what might be built. Instead he moved the existing family house several blocks from Washington and Jefferson to the corner of Ocean and Beach, next to where the Marquis de Lafayette is now, and across the street from the Colonial Hotel, now the Inn of Cape May.

The local legend says that farmers were hired to make the move during the winter using mules and horses to pull and push the house on rolling logs. They discovered the house was too big to move in one piece—so they cut it in two. Once they arrived at the destination, it was impossible to match the pieces together. Instead each part was renovated to its best advantage. The larger structure was set at an angle to provide ocean views from most rooms. Local builders Ware and Eldredge were contracted to add towers, long verandas on the first and second floors, lacey railings, pillars and bric-a-brac befitting the fancy Victorian style sweeping Cape May.

A big house on the beach no doubt provided carefree summer times for William Weightman Jr., his wife, Sabine Josephine d’Invilliers Weightman, their growing family, and staff. By 1882 they had five girls: Mary Louise, Anne, Bertha, Louisa, and Ethel. Another daughter, Sabine Josephine, had died in infancy. A seventh daughter, Martha, was born in 1886.

Both Weightman sons, John and William, died in their early 40s. Sabine, now a young widow, lived with her daughters, at least part time, at her wealthy father-in-law’s winter townhouse on Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square, his summer mansion Ravenhill, high above his factories in East Falls, and at the beach cottage in Cape May. Six years after her husband’s death, Sabine married socially prominent Jones Wister in June of 1895.

When William Weightman, the Quinine King, died in 1904 at age 91, his sons’ widows and their children were not in the will. The sole beneficiary was his daughter Anne. His obituary in the New York Times reported: “His only partner in the firm is his one surviving child Mrs. Anne Weightman Walker, who was at his bedside when he died. Mr. Weightman’s fortune is estimated at $50,000,000 and his estate, which is thought to be one of the largest ever acquired by a Philadelphian, is of the solid-material kind. His money for investment went into realty, dwelling houses, and business buildings.” Computerized inflation rates show that 50 million dollars in 1904 translates to $1,289,841,293.85, or one billion, 289 million, 841 thousand, 293 dollars and 85 cents in 2016.

Sabine, believing her daughters had been cheated, contested the will. She claimed there was a codicil to the will and went to court in 1906 to prove her case. According to news reports, Sabine alleged that her father-in-law, Willam Weightman, Sr. was not of sound mind prior to his death; that he may have excluded her daughters because she had refused a marriage proposal from him.

The New York Times headlined the trial in Philadelphia, October 15, 1906: “Mysterious Note Stops Weightman Will Fight–A bit of notepaper, yellow with age, with only a few sentences on it, brought to a sudden halt today the contest over the $50,000,000 estate of William Weightman, the late Philadelphia chemist. ….What was written on this bit of paper to make it so remarkably effective was not revealed. Only a dozen persons know and they have been pledged to secrecy”. ….

Prior to the abrupt stop to the trial, there was testimony that one of the witnesses to the will had received gifts totaling $109,000 from Weightman’s daughter Anne. The reason for the payments was not established. The Times reported that on the stand, Weightman’s daughter claimed she had no knowledge of a previous will or any codicil, and she emphasized she had no undue influence on her father making her the full heiress. She testified there was a time her visits with her father were infrequent. “Of course, I did not see my father much then, for he was staying with Mrs. Wister—Mrs. Weightman Jr., she was then.” Under questioning, she claimed that Sabine Wister had caused her and her father “great injury.” She said her husband initially broke the news her father had changed his will. She testified she visited her father the next day and he said, “My daughter, I have changed my will and left everything to you. It is better that way.” Asked if there was a suggestion that his grandchildren should be provided for, she quoted her father: “Do as you please. I know you love your nieces and nephews.”

During further questioning, according to the Times, Sabine Wister’s attorney asked, “Did Mr. Weightman write on a separate piece of paper and put it in his desk? May I see the note?” After shuffling through papers, a note was presented to Sabine Wister’s attorney. It was reviewed silently, but not read into the record. Then, suddenly, there was a recess. The trial never resumed.

Sabine Wister’s son-in-law Richard W. Meirs is quoted as saying, “I hope the note never saw the light of day. I would rather have my tongue cut out than reveal what was on that paper.” Tabloids of the day speculated the note may have contained a secret about the past relationship of Sabine and her father-in-law, William Weightman, the Quinine King. Daughter Anne is said to have moved to New York after the trial, in the fear she would be poisoned. She kept most of the inheritance for her own extravagant lifestyle. In her later years she converted to Catholicism; she gave millions in cash and property, including Ravenhill, to the church.

Despite the will controversy, Sabine did become owner of the Weightman cottages on the beach in Cape May. In a 1923 auction advertisement the property is listed as The Wister Estate. It had been subdivided, allowing the buildings to be purchased individually, or together. The ad promoted riparian rights—that is, owning the beach in front of the cottages. The larger cottage was described as in first-class condition with large living room, dining and breakfast rooms, butler’s pantry, kitchen, basement, seven bedrooms and three bathrooms on the second floor; three bedrooms and a bath on the third floor, gas and coal ranges, a garage, plus beautiful furnishings and a fine lawn. The smaller cottage had eight bedrooms, two baths, living and dining rooms and a kitchen, fully furnished.

It is Sabine Weightman Wister’s daughter, Ethel Emile Jamart d’Invilliers Weightman Benson, who provides a thread through the more than century and a half history of the house from the Victorian era to today. Ethel kept scrapbooks of important events and memories. Among the newspaper clips is an article describing her wedding to Edwin North Benson Jr. a Philadelphia aristocrat. April 30, 1908: “Married in a Bower of Apple BlossomsUnique and Elaborate Decorations in Holy Trinity Church [Rittenhouse Square] for Benson-Weightman Wedding – Breakfast Followed at Bride’s Home [her mother’s] …1819 Walnut Street..The drawing room was banked with pink and white azaleas and palms screened an orchestra, which played during the breakfast..”

Ethel collected photographs of her family’s summers at the Weightman cottages with her sons, Perry, Richard and Peter, her husband and other family members, the vintage photos published here for the first time.

Ethel’s son Perry Benson, who played on the beach in Cape May as a child, married Phebe Ingersoll in 1941. They were attracted to each other as accomplished equestrians in the Penllyn and Whitemarsh Valley area of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania which was still fox hunting country. By then the Weightman cottages had changed owners several times. It was best known in the 1940s and ‘50s as the Ocean View Hotel and Restaurant. An old menu shows three-course dinners, for example: Cherry Stone Clams, Sirloin Steak, Flake Potatoes, Salad, Fresh Huckleberry Pie, Bread and Butter, Iced Tea for $1!

The Weightman and Benson descendants no longer vacationed in Cape May. They had moved on, summering on Mount Desert Island in Maine and Harvey Cedars up the coast in New Jersey.

In 1962 the Weightman cottages were victims of the three-day Ash Wednesday Nor’easter that hammered the Cape May beachfront, tearing up the boardwalk and battering old Victorians facing the sea. Radio preacher Carl McIntire was establishing his Shelton College in town. He had a passion for historic buildings and expanded his real estate holdings by purchasing architectural treasures badly damaged in the storm. The Weightman cottages were to be torn down to make way for a parking lot. Reverend McIntire saved them, moving them once again in 1967—this time by flatbed truck to Trenton Avenue, between Beach and New Jersey Avenues. He painted them white with green trim and used them for housing students and staff.

The cottages attracted no attention until the early 1970s, when a team of University of Pennsylvania architects came to town on a Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) recording project. Cape May, once a whaling destination, then a fancy Victorian resort, presented one of the largest collections of frame Victorian buildings in the country. Its architecture was diverse—a “textbook of Victoriana,” said Carolyn Pitts, an architectural historian who organized the HABS team. Its mission was to record in measured pen and ink drawings, photographs and deed records of Cape May’s most significant structures, which would be placed in the Library of Congress.

One of the young architects was Perry Benson Jr., great-great grandson of William Weightman, great-grandson of Sabine Weightman Wister, grandson of Ethel Weightman Benson, the keeper of the family albums. Perry inherited some of the memorabilia when his father died. Perry never vacationed in Cape May as a child, but knew of his family’s connection through the old photographs. “I joined the HABS team, in part,” he says, “because I wanted to learn more about the architecture of Weightman Cottage, built by my great-great grandfather.” In his third season with the HABS team, in 1977, he committed the measured dimensions of his family’s four-generation summer place to paper in a pen and ink drawing, now among other Cape May architectural delineations of the city’s most important buildings.

In the mid-1980s, the state of New Jersey forced the closing of Shelton College on the grounds it was unaccredited. The cottages were padlocked, vacant—standing alone in the landscape, beacons of another era. The only attention they merited was an occasional visit by the police chasing vandals. Once again they were targets for demolition.

Then one day in late 1988, a miracle happened. John Girton, a local condominium developer, and his wife Barbara became curious about the old buildings. They stopped by to discover broken windows, rotted porches, falling ceilings, collapsed walls. They were intrigued and on further inspection, found the structures were worth saving.

They hired architect John Oliveri to design renovations to create a luxury bed and breakfast. Oliveri’s associate architect Paul Kiss recalls: “We crawled up and down, all through the buildings, then in pretty bad shape, to obtain measurements and photographs for drawings. January winds blowing off the ocean froze us to the bone. We’d take a break mid-day, go down to the Ugly Mug, get warmed up, and go back to work documenting the roof structure, all the piers and supports—everything that John Girton wanted to do with the buildings. There were the addition of a tower on the second building, porches, railings, a third floor deck, a new kitchen, large dining room area and a set-up of rooms for a spacious bed and breakfast. We also put together the presentations for the many approvals before the Historic Preservation Commission and other city boards.”

Girton told the Cape May Star and Wave soon after the restoration that the project required 103,000 manpower hours and an investment of three and a half million dollars. Carpenters and craftsmen worked around the clock, seven days a week, to install all new systems: water, electricity, heat, air conditioning, fire protection. Old windows were kept. Pieces of gingerbread and wood paneling were reproduced in a carpenter shop set up on the premises.

The Angel of the Sea B&B in 2017. Photo by Michelle Giorla

The larger building opened as the beautiful, elegant Angel of the Sea bed and breakfast, painted its distinctive pink, in July of 1989, offering 13 rooms. A year later, work on the second building was completed with 14 guest rooms and a conference center. The complex has become one of the most popular and rewarded-for-excellence bed and breakfasts in the United States. The efforts to lift the decaying buildings into modern-day usefulness won a Historic Preservation Award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington, D.C., for renovation to historic specification. Thousands of guests have enjoyed its hospitality and picturesque perch along the ocean. The Girtons sold the property to their daughter Lorie Whissell, who operated it for 20 years. In 2015 she sold the complex to Theresa and Ron Stanton and family, who are adding their own guest amenities and equipment to the historic structures. The Angel of the Sea will celebrate its 30th anniversary in 2019.

There is a saying, “We all have an angel who guards us.” Those words seem to be true of The Angel of the Sea—the beautiful, romantic survivor of the house William Weightman, the Quinine King, built more than 160 years ago.