Summer’s Love, Winter’s Tragedy

What were the odds? In 1880, a young Prussian Baron sailed to visit America and perhaps do some hunting “out west.” In New York City, he heard of the beauties of Skaneateles and decided to visit. Imagine the stir caused by his arrival. Imagine the quickening of hearts when the Baron’s gaze first fell upon the love of his life. It was a fairytale, a handsome nobleman from Europe, a blushing young woman from a small village on a lake.

So it was when the Baron Carl Joseph von Jena met Edith Porter, daughter of James Edward Porter. The Baron, a descendant of one of the oldest noble families of Prussia, was charmed. And in the words of a contemporary journal, “He laid siege to the citadel of her affections, and won her heart and hand.”

The Baron came by his military bearing honestly. In 1864, his father had fought and died at the storming of the fortress of Dybbøl during the Prussian Danish War (a conflict largely overlooked here as the U.S. was embroiled in its own Civil War). A graduate of the German Naval Academy, Carl von Jena served as an Ensign in the North Sea during the Franco-Prussian War, and then in the German Army as a Lieutenant of dragoons. An inheritance gave him the wherewithal to travel. Time spent on an estate in Silesia had prepared him to run the large estate left to him by his grandfather. He was the real deal, and he was just 29.

Edith Porter was, of course, royalty in Skaneateles, the great-granddaughter of William J. Vredenburgh, our first wealthy and regal personage. Her grandfather was James Porter, who served in the New York State Assembly and the U.S. House of Representatives. She was the only child of James Edward Porter and Clarissa Wilmarth Porter; James Edward had served for a time at the American Legation in Rome; he was said to be conversant in many languages; he liked to sail.

When the ship Ben H. Porter was launched on Skaneateles Lake in 1866, young Edith did the christening “gracefully and pleasantly.” The Porters lived in the house next-door to the newly built (1873) St. James’ Episcopal Church.

That autumn, the Baron parted briefly from Edith, returning to Germany to publish the announcement of his betrothal and prepare his estate for his bride-to-be. By January of 1881, he was back in New York City, where he stayed with Porter relations, probably William Vredenberg Porter (James Edward’s brother) or Elizabeth T. Porter Beach (James Edward’s elder sister). Edith joined Carl in New York to make wedding preparations. The fairytale was building to its happy ending.

In this age of immunizations, antibiotics and intensive care, it is difficult to understand how perilous life was in the nineteenth century. On a Tuesday afternoon, the Baron came down with a cold. But it was not a cold; it was diphtheria, which could, and did, paralyze the muscles of his throat.

With Edith Porter at his side, Carl von Jena died on Wednesday afternoon, March 9, 1881. He was 30 years old. Three days after his death, his body was sent back to Germany aboard the steamship Mosel of the North German Line. And so the dream ended, suddenly, forever.

Edith returned to Skaneateles to live with her father and mother in the house next to St. James’. Many years later, in 1895, she married Albert Melrose Burritt of Connecticut, who had been widowed in 1880. Perhaps the two understood each other’s loss and loneliness. Mr. Burritt was the inventor of an automatic sprinkler system for mills and other large buildings. He was also the director of a flatware company in Waterbury. His home was filled with his collection of china and old prints, “beautiful things,” his real joy in life.

In 1902, A. Melrose Burritt died. His obituary, somewhat cryptically, said the cause was “nervous prostration,” and that his life was lost “by too close devotion to what he felt to be his duty.” He was 54 years old.

Edith, a widow after just seven years of marriage, auctioned off her husband’s collections in New York City, and returned to Skaneateles. Her mother, Clarissa, had died in 1896; her father had died in 1901. She shared the Porter home with Margaret Wilmarth Burdsall, her half-sister (her mother’s daughter from an earlier marriage to J. Richard Burdsall who died of consumption at the age of 36 in 1855).

In 1906, when Amie Willetts, of The Boulders next-door, married Samuel Roosevelt Outerbridge at St. James’, Edith and Margaret opened their house to wedding guests who had come from all over the country.

In 1907, Edith sold the Porter house to St. James’ for use as a rectory, and moved to New York City. Margaret sold her mahogany furniture and moved to New Rochelle, where she died in 1917.

When Edith Porter Burritt’s will was read in 1927, her estate totaled almost $100,000. She left $500 each to St. James’ and to the Skaneateles Library Association.

The house where young Edith was courted by a Prussian Baron is still the St. James’ rectory. If only its walls could talk.

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One thought on “Summer’s Love, Winter’s Tragedy

  1. Kihm,
    At the risk of “making you blush” again, the craftmanship in the telling of this story is awesome. Relaying stories about the lives of people who walked what is familiar to us, the places, the floors, the very ground we walk on now, brings another dimension to what we (I) take for granted too often. My imagination runs away with the images……You have a remarkable talent for telling these stories and I thank you again.

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