Having established that the city of Willoughby was named for Dr. Westel Willoughby, Jr., let’s conclude our report with a few more words about this interesting, multitalented resident of Newport, Herkimer County, New York.
As reported previously, Dr. Willoughby was, or had been married, when he arrived in New York in 1792. Whether he ever divorced his first wife Rhoda Judd, whom he married in Stockbridge, Massachusetts in 1790, is not known. One story, never proven, is that Westel left Rhoda when he discovered that the child she was about to bear was not his. True? Who knows? The other version is that she refused to move to the more primitive area around the Mohawk River in New York. Whatever the case, Westel married Sarah (Sally) Cole in 1792 and they shared 46 years together until she died of tuberculosis in 1838. Westel married Maria (the widow St. John) in 1839 and lived with her until his death in 1844. Maria was originally from Buffalo, a fact that will prove interesting later. She definitely outlived her husband, despite some reports that at the time of his death, only the first wife of Dr. Willoughby was still living.
Dr. Westel Willoughby, Jr. died, without offspring, on October 3, 1844 at age 75 and lies buried with several other Willoughby family members in the First Baptist Church Cemetery in Newport, New York. Dr. Willoughby’s will shows that he tried to provide for his third wife Maria, his brothers and sisters and also for relatives of his second wife Sally. His first wife Rhoda is not mentioned in the document, negating the story that she showed up and was awarded the major share of the estate. It is also significant that the city of Willoughby, Ohio is not mentioned in the will. This should put an end to the long-told myth that the city was promised to inherit his estate if the name were changed from Chagrin to Willoughby!
At the time of Dr. Willoughby’s death, first wife Rhoda was living in Binghamton Village, New York. Dr. Willoughby’s widow Maria sent her son, Charles R. St. John to Binghamton apparently in response to an inquiry about Dr. Willoughby’s will. He found Rhoda with members of her family with the surname Slasson, some of whom never knew about Rhoda’s first marriage to Dr. Willoughby. Apparently nothing came of this visit to Rhoda and no further action was taken as far as is known, although not all the information concerning this will has been found, including the location of the final attested copy. An interesting paragraph in the will states, “I give my portrait to Sarah Larned (Westel’s sister) wife of Benjamin Larned if living at my decease, if not, then to her son George, provided however that my wife Maria, if she chooses, be at liberty to retain the custody of the said painting during her life.” Dr. Willoughby did not bequeath the oil portrait of him to the city of Willoughby!
The epitaph on Dr. Willoughby’s headstone reads, “Sacred to the memory of Hon. WESTEL WILLOUGHBY M.D. PROF. &c WHO departed this life OCT. 3, 1844 aE, LXXV, i.e., at age 75.
Beneath this is a lengthy description of Dr. Willoughby’s many accomplishments, which were legible when this photo was taken in 1993. That part of the inscription is now badly faded and difficult to read.
While we have uncovered many of the proven facts concerning Dr. Willoughby and the naming of the city that bears his name, some questions do remain. This should not be surprising since all history is incomplete and the quest for answers usually precipitates more questions. For instance, is there another incorporated city named Willoughby in the U.S.? We have discovered crossroads and neighborhoods with this name in Vermont, Virginia, Maryland and New York, but none is an incorporated city. If you find one, please let us know.
What happened to the original photocopy of the Willoughby portrait? It was in Willoughby when the city celebrated its centennial in 1935 and was published on the front page of The News-Herald in a special edition. Apparently, it disappeared some time later and was replaced by professional photographer Bob Riggin in 1968 who was driven to Canton, Ohio (blindfolded!) where he was allowed to photograph the painting in the home of a descendent of Dr. Willoughby’s sister, Sarah Larned.
Dr. Willoughby’s third wife Maria, referred to as the “widow St. John”, came from Buffalo. Was she related to Dr. Orson Swift St. John, who also was from Buffalo? He graduated from the Fairfield Medical College that Dr. Willoughby had helped to found and then presided over for so many years. Dr. St. John was married to Louisa Card, niece of Dr. George W. Card, a graduate of Fairfield and one of the founders of the Willoughby Medical College. The St. John daughter, Margaret, died in a tragic house fire in New York city in 1899 along with her husband Wallace C. Andrews and other relatives. The Andrews estate ultimately provided funds for the creation of the Andrews School for Girls, which opened in 1910. This followed nine years of legal battles that were finally decided by the United States Supreme Court in 1908. This school is now known as the Andrews Osborne Academy.
I’m sure that as more answers are found, more puzzles will arise. That’s what makes this pursuit so interesting.
By Ronald J. Taddeo, M.D.
Ronald J. Taddeo, MD is a retired plastic and reconstructive surgeon with an insatiable interest in history. Dr. Taddeo and his wife Sandy are members of most of the historical societies in northeast Ohio. For over twenty years, Dr. Taddeo has served as historian for the Lake County Medical Society, historian for the Ohio Valley Society of Plastic Surgeons and is a member of the President’s Advisory Committee of the Lake County Historical Society. Additionally, Dr. Taddeo is president of the Willoughby Area Welcome Center in downtown Willoughby where historical exhibits tell the fascinating stories of our Lake County communities.