by Graham Forsdyke
Issue No. 33
LIKING, as I do, a neat turn of phrase, I enjoyed tremendously the short profile of Isaac Merritt Singer given by the Torbay Civic Society in its leaflet available at Singer's house "Oldway Mansion".
The leaflet spoke of his fleeing to France whilst being sued for alimony with seven co-respondents being named, but said that, once there, his philoprogenitive predilections once more came to the fore and he gave six children to yet another woman. This prompted me to dig deeper into the marital and extra-marital activities of the 19th-century bluebeard.
Isaac Merritt Singer lived over half his life in a hand-to-mouth sort of existence, frequently poor, and when wealth was thrust upon him he was able to spend the next 25 years making up for lost time.
He was born in Schaghticoke, New York. In early manhood he moved to Waterloo, New York, where he got work as a wood turner.
He was married in 1830 to Catherine Haley and their first child was born four years later.
Even then it seems he was much given to consorting with other women, being quite popular with the fair sex on account of his natural ability as an actor and imitator.
In 1837 a second child was born to them in New York City where they were living, and this year was the last he spent with his first wife before going on the road as a strolling player.
Wife number two was an 18-year-old Baltimore girl Mary Anne Sponsler. Singer saw her one night from the stage of the theatre in Baltimore where he was acting and sought her out. It wasn't long before they were living in New York as man and wife, having quite conveniently quarreled with his legal wife at the same time.
He told his new companion when she insisted that he must marry her that he would do so as soon as he was able to get a divorce. Miss Sponsler had to share a great deal of poverty with Singer in a relationship which lasted 28 years. She took lessons to fit herself for the stage and the two, under the name of Mr. and Mrs. Merritt, played temperance pieces in churches all over the country.
They followed this life for 14 years. They were wretchedly poor and everything they had in the world was in the one-horse wagon with which they wandered from town to town.
Whilst they were in Chicago Singer invented a reaping machine and later an engine for carving wood type. This was the start of the Singers' fortune. In 1850 he had completed the inventions that made up the Singer . He returned again to New York, but this time he set up a stylish accommodation at No. 14 Fifth Avenue. The first, and only true, Mrs. Singer seems then to have been forgotten and banished to an apartment in Brooklyn.
Number two was everywhere regarded as the inventor's wife, her visiting cards and invitations to parties that she gave bore the name of Mrs. I M Singer. She ordered goods at stores as Mrs. Singer and Singer paid all the bills. She and Isaac visited her parents at Baltimore as man and wife and so registered wherever they stopped in hotels.
She bore him 10 children, which added to the two from Catherine Haley, brought his score at this date to a round dozen. In 1860, 24 years after he had left his first companion, he legally divorced Catherine Haley Singer.
If Mary Sponsler thought that this was the beginning of their real romance she was very wrong. Seven months after the divorce Miss Sponsler, riding in her own carriage, saw him with Mary McGonigal. Se stood up in her carriage and screamed abuse at her common-law husband.
When Singer came home he beat Mary Sponsler and eventually she had him arrested, but they later married.
At the suggestion of the company, Singer then left for Europe, and in the year that he was away it was revealed that he had been living with two other women in New York City who both thought themselves his only companion.
That same Mary McGonigal had born him five children. He and she lived together as Mr. and Mrs. Matthews. Miss Mary E Water, who lived with him under the name of Mrs. Merritt, had added another child to the list.
Singer's absence also allowed his solicitors to deal unhindered with Mary Anne Sponsler who sued for divorce and was awarded $8,000 alimony, then the largest amount ever obtained. Singer's lawyers managed to parley this down to a smaller figure, but threw in one of Singer's large and valuable houses as part of the deal.
Within a month she had secretly married one John E Foster, not telling any of her family of the ceremony for fear that it would jeopardize the divorce settlement from Singer.
But she hurt herself badly in a fall from a chair and believing herself to be dying told one of her daughters of the marriage. As this daughter's husband was an officer of the Singer company and knew which side his clothplate was oiled, Isaac Merritt soon learned of the secret wedding and caused his divorced wife to relinquish all claims upon him and to vacate the house. She went to live with Foster.
The fifth regular lady then appeared in his wife. She was a French woman who he had met during his year abroad. On June 13 1865, seven weeks after wife number two had renounced her claims upon him, he was married to Isobel Eugenie Boyce under the name of Isobel E Sommerville, and with her went to Paris to live.
Whilst he was there a great house was built in the New York suburb of Yonkers, and when it was finished the pair returned there to live, inviting hundreds to the house-warming party.
But few turned up. Even Singer's great wealth and fabulous parties couldn't undo the reputation that he had built and most of the invited guests thought it best to stay away.
Disenchanted with attempting to live down his reputation, in 1873 he moved to England, bought a nobleman's estate in Paignton, Devonshire, and began the construction of an enormous castle which he called the Wigwam. This contained a theatre, riding hall, banqueting hall and all the conveniences money could command. It was still not finished when in July 1875 he died.
These were the families that he left behind:
By Mrs. Catherine Haley Singer: William A Singer; Lillian C Singer.
By Mary Anne Sponsler: Isaac Augustus; Voulettie Teresa; John Albert; Fanny Elizabeth; Jasper Hamlet; Mary Olive; Julia Ann; Caroline Virginia; two others died.
By Mrs. Matthews (the wife under an assumed name): L Florence Matthews; Mary Matthews; Charles A Matthews; two others died.
By Mrs. Merritt (the wife under his middle name): Alice Merritt.
By Mrs. Isobel Eugenie Singer (the third legal wife): Adam Mortimer; Winaretta Eugenie; Washington Merritt Grant; Paris Eugene; Isobella Blanche; Franklin Moor.
Singer's will was contested by Mrs. Spensler Singer who proved a marriage with Singer from the time he was divorced from Mrs. Haley until she married Foster -- a period of less than a year. This made her last child Caroline Virginia a legitimate daughter. All other children by her thus became illegitimate. Her eight children received $1,750,000, but she got only a small sum.
Mrs. Matthews' five children received about $1,750,000. Mrs. Merritt's child got about $400,000. Of the children of Mrs. Catherine Haley Singer, the first wife, one got $500 and one $10,000.
The remainder of the estate was shared between Mrs. Isobel Eugenie Singer and her children. And it was this third legal wife, a widow now with millions, who carried on the business.
She fell in love with a French musician, and after marrying him, bought him a title in Europe and the pair blossomed out as the Duke and Duchess of D Camposelice.
They attempted to buy their way into the cafe society in Paris but were not successful. By marrying the duke Isobel Eugenie lost her interest in Singer's English estate which was then valued at $5,000,000. She had to give up the castle and park at Paignton. However, she still had about 5,000 shares of Singer stock which was estimated to be worth about $1,500,000. All the children except the eldest, Adam Mortimer, lived with her in Paris.
To quote the Sewing Machine Advance for 1889: "When the old sinner died he left him surviving, as the lawyers say, one wife and two ex wives of the legitimate variety and Lord knows how many more of the brevet variety.
All of the above may have little relevance to sewing-machine history, but if the Sunday papers can do it so can we.