Falmouth’s legendary Highfield and Tanglewood Halls set the stage for the rise—and tragic fall—of the famous Beebe family.
Certain family names have been connected with towns on Cape Cod and the Islands for centuries. The Snows of Orleans, the Coffins and Starbucks of Nantucket, and the Nickersons and Atwoods of Chatham all have legendary connections to their respective towns.
In Falmouth today, the name Beebe is synonymous with Beebe Woods, a magnificent, 383-acre stretch enjoyed by thousands of visitors year-round. The pristine land, highlighted by walking trails that pass through wooded ridges, along shady hollows, and beside a picturesque pond, were once part of a sprawling estate purchased in the late 1800s by a wealthy Bostonian, James Beebe. His descendents, who lived in two elegant mansions on the estate, were among Falmouth’s earliest summer visitors.
However, the legacy of the Beebe name has also been associated with tragedy. During a 60-year period beginning in the early 1870s, the Beebe family experienced suicides, sudden deaths, turns of bad luck, lawsuits, and mental health episodes that made headlines in Boston’s Back Bay, on the campuses of prestigious colleges, and in Falmouth’s quiet, turn-of-the-century community.
Family patriarch James Madison Beebe made his fortune in dry goods and manufacturing. In 1872, looking to escape the heat and discomfort of Boston in the summertime, he converted the Thomas Swift House on Shore Street into a summer home called Vineyard Lodge. Beebe subsequently purchased more than 700 acres of land in Falmouth, almost 400 of which are known today as Beebe Woods.
James Beebe only spent three summers in Falmouth before passing away in 1875. He left behind his wife and seven children, all of whom shared their father’s love of the town. Two of the sons later built manors on their father’s property: Pierson selected a plot atop a hill where he built sprawling Highfield Hall in 1878, while his younger brother J. Arthur chose an adjacent tract and built an equally grand home named Tanglewood the following year.
Susan Shepard described the architecture of Highfield in a 2003 edition of Spritsail, the Woods Hole Historical Museum’s biannual journal. “Highfield Hall is the earliest known building on Cape Cod to exhibit some of the Pavilion’s neo-Elizabethan elements: the cove cornice, the very large ‘living hall,’ and the imitation half timbering that can be seen on some of the gables. Highfield is one, and perhaps the only remaining, example of the very brief nineteenth century period when Stick Style architecture was being assimilated into American Queen Anne [architecture].”
When creating his own manor, J. Arthur hired architects from Peabody & Stearns, a prestigious Boston-based firm who designed several of the Newport mansions and many iconic buildings throughout New England. The firm is remembered for ushering in the early Queen Anne, Shingle, and Colonial Revival styles, according to Shepard. Elements of each were visible in the design of Tanglewood.
With the exception of J. Arthur, who preferred the sea, all the Beebe siblings cherished the woods that surrounded the two estates. The children spent many happy summer days in the solitude of the woods, exploring, riding horses, and even helping to build and maintain roads and a stonewall that snaked through their land. Frank, the youngest son, planted trees and shrubs, enhancing the property’s considerable natural beauty.
J. Arthur’s brother, Pierson, lived at Highfield Hall with his other siblings, Emily and Frank. Emily was an early Cape Cod socialite, known for throwing fantastic parties at Highfield during the summer as well as at the family’s home in Back Bay. Emily also traveled abroad to many major European cities and spent several winters in exotic Cairo, Egypt.
Of James Beebe’s three daughters, only one married. Emily was the only one to reach old age. Despite having numerous suitors as a young woman, she never found a husband and died alone at the age of 80 in 1916. Younger sister Mary Louisa died young from a rare form of cancer and is buried, with the rest of the Beebe family, in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge. The youngest Beebe girl, Frances Lathrop, or Fannie as the family affectionately called her, married George Fiske in 1866. The couple had two children before Fiske became ill and died, just two years after their marriage.
Tanglewood, the second Beebe home, stood a short walk from Highfield. Tanglewood was home to J. Arthur; his wife, Emily; and their three children, Arthur, Emily, and Charles Philip. The couple, married in 1869, entertained their guests each summer with musicals, theatrical performances, and fundraising events. Both shared a love of animals and donated heavily to animal charities. Unlike his brother’s adjacent home, where three sibling adults lived, Tanglewood was filled with the sounds of children, all of whom J. Arthur loved deeply.
Tragedy first struck the family in 1900. Arthur, the oldest son of Emily and J. Arthur, committed suicide at the family’s Commonwealth Avenue home in Boston while the rest of the family was vacationing in California. Just 28 years old, Arthur attended Harvard Medical School and had just successfully completed his residency at Massachusetts General Hospital when he died.
The New York Times reported, “It has been impossible to reach any member of the [Beebe] family, and Medical Examiner F.W. Draper, who admits that he was called to view the body, in answer to the query ‘Did Mr. Beebe shoot himself?’ said, ‘I cannot answer that question.’ The only facts, obtained, The Post says, are that Dr. Beebe was seen walking on Commonwealth Avenue Sunday evening. A few hours later his uncle found him dead under circumstances which made it imperative to call the Medical Examiner.”
Young Arthur’s close friend and fellow Harvard alumnus, Sydney Messer Williams, eulogized his deceased classmate. “Outside his college courses, in which he stood well, and his medical school work, in which he took the deepest interest, Beebe was especially fond of sailing, and for several years his boat ‘Nobska’ was champion of its class in Buzzards Bay…He was a man who preferred a few intimate friends to a wide general acquaintance, and those whom he knew best were almost all ’94 men, not only during college, but up to the time of his death.”
An Enduring Tragedy
In 1911, J. Arthur, still grieving the loss of his son, had to face the passing of his relatively young wife. It was at this point that Tanglewood began to fall into disrepair and the happy summer days ended. Several years later, in an attempt to soothe his woe, J. Arthur and daughter Emily traveled to Europe where they narrowly avoided disaster. The duo were scheduled to take the doomed Titanic home, but either missed the boat or changed their itinerary without informing anyone back home—which must have been a frightening time for the pair’s remaining family and friends.
A year later, Emily, like her brother before her, committed suicide at the Hotel Touraine in Boston. She had only just returned to the city several hours before from a friend’s home in Manchester-by-the-Sea, where she had been living for the summer. Upon hearing this news, J. Arthur rushed to the scene. His chauffeur was driving so quickly that he did not see a 10-year-old boy crossing the road, and struck and killed him.
The Boston Evening Transcript describes the event: “During luncheon Miss Beebe was taken ill and asked that her family physician Dr. C. T. Putnam be called. She then went to her room. When the physician arrived he found the door locked and heard groans. The door was forced with the aid of employees of the hotel and the young woman was found lying on the bed fully dressed. She died almost immediately. Medical Examiner Leary said that death was due to shooting with a revolver.”
Emily, like her father, had been devastated by the loss of her brother and mother. J. Arthur had noticed Emily’s fragile mental state and the extensive traveling the two did together in the years before her suicide were meant to alleviate her pain.
A devastated, exhausted J. Arthur spent the next year in Boston. On the evening of November 28, 1914, while eating dinner at the famous Plaza Hotel, he died suddenly from heart failure.
Fellow Harvard classmate William S. Hall remembers J. Arthur in the following quote: “Very few in private life had a wider circle of acquaintance. Not many realized that his manner, blithe and debonair, was a veil over tragedies in life that are called upon to bear. Under the staggering blows which Fate dealt him, he carried himself with manly courage to the end, but with a breaking heart.”
Life was equally challenging for J. Arthur’s youngest child. Charles Philip Beebe had a normal childhood, but would eventually succumb to the mental illness that seems to have plagued the family. Philip, as he preferred to go by, attended Harvard, as did many Beebe men, but left after two years to travel to Europe. Upon his return, Philip purchased a farm in Mount Hood, Oregon, in 1910, and didn’t return to Boston until after his father’s death in 1914.
J. Arthur was a man of considerable wealth, but left no money to Philip in his will. J. Arthur felt the small fortune his wife had left their son was enough for him to live a prosperous life. Philip disagreed and sued for what he felt was his share of his father’s wealth and was eventually awarded $700,000.
In the coming years, Philip began to suffer from mental instability. He would spend a little over a decade in McLean Hospital, before being released in 1932. The following year Philip purchased Eastleigh Farm in Framingham, Massachusetts, and returned to farming life. He would spend the rest of his life on his farm, always accompanied by a male attendant from McLean for security reasons.
Today, many sights around Falmouth preserve the Beebes’ love for the community. The trees surrounding the Village Green were a gift of Mary Louisa Beebe; St. Barnabas Church on West Main Street was erected with donations from several Beebe children; Beebe Woods has remained pristine for the public’s enjoyment, and Highfield Hall remains a beautifully restored cultural landmark enjoyed by the entire Cape community.
Highfield almost met the same fate as its sister mansion, Tanglewood, which was demolished in 1977. In 1994, bulldozers were preparing to tear down the considerably neglected house, which had become the scene of illicit high school parties and a refuge for the homeless, when a group of concerned citizens formed the Friends of Highfield and gathered over 5,000 signatures to have the house saved. In the years that followed, a legion of volunteers and professionals restored Highfield to its former glory.
“The restoration and rebirth of Highfield Hall has been a labor of love for our community,” says Barbara Milligan, executive director of Historic Highfield, Inc. “The story is truly extraordinary—not only the fascinating history of the Beebe family, but the three-decade long fight to save the building and the passionate effort of local townspeople to make the restoration possible. Highfield Hall is an example of what one community can accomplish when supremely and unswervingly determined.”
All the passions of the ill-fated Beebe family—history, music, art, and nature—are still cherished every month at Highfield Hall where concerts, art exhibits, nature walks, lectures, and children’s programs are enjoyed year round. This place, once a site of stunning loss, has become a timeless gift, enjoyed with pleasure.
For information on Highfield Hall, go to highfieldhall.org.
Matthew Nilsson is Special Sections Editor
at Cape Cod Life Publications.