The Trials of Spencer Hannum

“Born under a bad sign, been down since I began to crawl.
If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all.”

 A machinist from Williamsburg, Massachusetts, Spencer Hannum moved here in 1828 and prospered, manufacturing and repairing machinery for the woolen mills that drew water power from the lake’s outlet, also making tools, plow blades, sled runners, fire dogs and parlor stoves. Public-spirited as well as entrepreneurial, he was elected president of the village, a position similar to mayor, in 1844 and 1859. As a measure of his status, he was in 1855 a celebrity endorser for Mrs. Stafford’s Magic Salve, an “absolutely unsurpassed and inestimable” family remedy.

But his business success was not always accompanied by good fortune. Before he left Williamsburg, in April of 1828, his house burnt down. In Skaneateles, in January of 1832, his first wife Juliana died at the age of 27. He married a local woman, Abigail Huff, later that year. In 1839, a daughter, Hortense M. Hannum, died at the age of three months.

In February of 1842, Hannum’s machine shop burnt down in a fire that started in Erastus Kellogg’s adjacent woolen mill.

In September of 1842, Hannum’s son, William Edwin, was killed in the workplace. The Skaneateles Columbian reported:

“Edwin, a promising son of Mr. Spencer Hannum, of this village, aged 14 years, was instantly killed yesterday morning in his father’s machine shop. He was at work at a grindstone turned by a belt passing round a drum or shaft overhead, revolving at the rate of 50 or 60 times a minute. The belt slipped from its place, and in endeavoring to adjust it, his feet became entangled and he was drawn round with the shaft several times before the machinery could be stopped, and his head shockingly mangled by coming in contact with the joists of the floor above. When released from his perilous situation, a mere gasp was the only sign of life exhibited.”

In January of 1850, Hannum’s new foundry, built on the site of Kellogg’s former woolen mill, was destroyed by fire.

In 1851, Genie S. Hannum died at the age of two. In 1853, Helen A. Hannum died at the age of 26.

On June 2, 1854, the Skaneateles Democrat noted, “It is with satisfaction that we note the erection of a new and costly dwelling, immediately to the west of Col. Lamb’s Hotel, by Mr. Hannum; which, when completed, and grounds arranged, will add very much to that street.”

In January of 1858, Hannum’s grandson, Clarence Mason Hall, died at the age of two. He was the son of daughter Julia. The boy’s father, Daniel W. Hall, died months later of tuberculosis, at the age of 26. In 1860, Hannum’s daughter Marion died at the age of 20.

In 1861, daughter Julia Hall died at the age of 28. Hannum was the executor of her will and her sole heir.

In 1862, Spencer Hannum retired from business and divided his time between Auburn, N.Y., and Williamsburg. In 1868, he was widowed for a second time, losing his wife Abigail. In November of that year, he was married, at the age of 70, to Lucretia B. Hill.

On May 16, 1874, the Williamsburg Reservoir Dam burst and a 40-foot wall of water and debris roared down the Mill River valley, killing 139 people. The flood swept away half of Hannum’s house and all of his furniture. Hannum and his wife survived, taking shelter in the home of a button manufacturer across the street. In the photo below, identified as “Spencer Hannum house,” by the Meekins Library in Williamsburg, I suspect that the man in the top hat is Hannum, surveying the damage.

Spencer Hannum House Wmsbrg 1874

The next year, the New York Sun reported that Hannum, “whose house and fortune were twice swept away by the waters of Mill River,” had left Williamsburg and returned to Auburn.

In 1875, Hannum’s daughter, Frances Hannum Bloom, died in childbirth at the age of 33.

In 1878, at the age of 80, having out-lived two wives and all of his children, Spencer Hannum died in Williamsburg on Christmas Day. His earthly remains are buried in the family plot, Lake View Cemetery, Skaneateles.

In 1887, Spencer’s grandson, James Hyde Bloom, son of Frances, died at the age of 22 in Auburn. He was the last of the line.

In 1908, the house that Spencer Hannum had built in 1854 was renovated and enlarged by Norman O. Shepard, taking the shape that we recognize today as the Hannum House, at the corner of Hannum and West Genesee Streets.

Hannum House Matt 1a

Selected Sources:

“Born Under a Bad Sign,” recorded by Albert King in 1967. Lyrics by William Bell, music by Booker T. Jones.

In the Shadow of the Dam: The Aftermath of the Mill River Flood of 1874 by Elizabeth M. Sharpe

Stereograph from the collection of the Meekins Library, Williamsburg, Massachusetts

The always invaluable Fulton History site

The Hannum family monument, Lake View Cemetery, Skaneateles

S Hannum Stone

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