Thomas H. Perkins was a wealthy Boston merchant whose business took him around the world. Over the years, he traded slaves in Hispaniola, exported Turkish opium to China, and smuggled Lafayette’s son out of Revolutionary France. With his wealth, Perkins became one of the great patrons of early 19th century Boston. He supported dozens of local causes and was a founder of the Massachusetts General Hospital, the Bunker Hill Monument, and the Boston Athenaeum. But he is perhaps best remembered as the benefactor of the Perkins Institute for the Blind, a school that revolutionized education for the physically handicapped.
Perkins was born in Boston in December 1764, the sixth of eight children to one of the colony’s most successful wine merchants. Not long after his fifth birthday, young Thomas crouched inside his father’s shop as the Boston Massacre raged outside. It marked the beginning of a turbulent time. Thomas’ father died in 1773, forcing his mother, Elizabeth, to provide for the family. She opened her own merchant house, trading china, glass, and wine. She scratched together enough to send her three sons to preparatory school, hoping that they would all attend Harvard.
Thomas, however, “was strongly inclined by temperament to active life,” according to a biographer. He apprenticed with Messrs. Shattuck, one of Boston’s busiest counting houses. There he remained until he turned 21, at which point he joined a partnership with his two brothers, managing commerce between Boston and Santo Domingo. In February 1789, he sailed aboard the Astraea to the recently opened port of Canton, where he traded a cargo of cheese, lard, wine, and iron for tea and silk cloth. He threw himself into the maritime fur trade, acquiring sea otter skins from the Pacific Northwest and selling them in China. Perkins set up a trading house in Canton, from which he entered the highly profitable opium trade. In fact, with his brother James, Perkins opened a Mediterranean office in 1815, to purchase Turkish opium for resale in China.
His commercial enterprises produced adventures. While fording a stream on the island of Java, Perkins saw a dozen crocodiles brush by his knees. He gambled on cock fights in Malaysia. Shortly after the Reign of Terror, Perkins was in France, where James Monroe, Minister of the United States, asked him to perform a service for the nation. Would he, asked Monroe, smuggle the Marquis de Lafayette’s son, George Washington Lafayette, to the United States? Perkins cheerfully did so, and was promptly invited to Mount Vernon where he was thanked by Washington himself.
After the turn of the 19th century, Perkins began to spend less time abroad and devote more time to managing his affairs from Boston. Naturally, with his growing wealth came increasing civic responsibilities. He was named president of the Boston branch of the First Bank of the United States, elected to the Massachusetts State Senate, and made a colonel in the state militia.
“Colonel Perkins,” wrote Freeman Hunt, always took “a lively interest in all that concerned the welfare of the community in which he lived.” He was an active supporter of the Mercantile Association of Young Men in Boston, the McLean Asylum for the Insane, and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. But he dedicated most of his time and funding to four causes: the Massachusetts General Hospital, the Bunker Hill Monument, the Boston Athenaeum, and the Perkins Institute for the Blind.
His first great philanthropic achievement was helping to found the Massachusetts General Hospital. In 1811, the Commonwealth granted a charter for the hospital that would take effect once the effort had raised $100,000. Perkins and his brother James each contributed $5,000. By 1813, the full amount was raised and ground was broken. Perkins served on the board until 1827, including stints as president, vice president, and chairman.
Perkins was also a driving force behind the creation of the Bunker Hill Monument Association. In 1823, he hosted a breakfast at which William Ticknor suggested the memorial, and by June 1825 the Marquis de Lafayette way laying the cornerstone. To haul granite from the quarry to barges on the Neponset, Perkins organized the Granite Railway, the first commercial railroad in the United States. Insufficient funds frequently interrupted construction, but Perkins guided the project until the capstone was erected in July 1842.
Perkins was not a founder of the Boston Athenaeum, but he supported it with funds and with items from his own collection. At two critical junctures, he offered donations that would allow the library and gallery to keep its doors open. In 1826, when $30,000 was needed, Perkins and his nephew each stepped forward with $8,000. Then, in 1853, after the Athenaeum incurred enormous expenses while building its current home at 10½ Beacon Street, Perkins offered to retire whatever debt remained at the end of the year. His offer proved unnecessary (an unexpected bequest covered the shortfall) but to this day, a full-length portrait of Perkins adorns the Long Room in the ground floor entrance of the grateful Athenaeum.
Thomas Perkins is best remembered for his support for the Perkins School for the Blind. The New England Asylum for the Blind was chartered in March 1829, the first such entity in the United States. European schools for the blind fell into one of two camps: either vocational or academic. Under the leadership of Samuel Gridley Howe, the Boston school attempted to combine the two models: providing practical, real-world skills (weaving, pottery, and basket-making) while also cultivating the minds of the students (reading by “raised letters,” as well as math, science, and literature). The concept was immediately popular, and the student body outgrew its space within a year.
Perkins, whose eyesight was declining by the year, took a special interest in the project. In 1833, he offered to donate his mansion on 17 Pearl Street, on one condition: that the school raise $50,000 within 30 days. The funds were raised, and the school moved into its new home, where it tripled its enrollment within six years. By 1839, it was clear that the school would need still more space. Perkins arranged the sale of the Pearl Street mansion and the purchase of the Mount Washington Hotel in South Boston, where the school remained for the next 75 years. Thankful for his sustained generosity, the school renamed itself the Perkins Institute for the Blind.
When Perkins died in 1854, a choir from the Perkins Institute sang the requiem. “Their high regard for his memory was seen,” reported one newspaper, “in gleams of pleasure lighting their faces.”
~ Christopher Levenick