23 April 2013

The Mystery That Was George Garretson

A death certificate from 1918, a single white evening glove, and a well-worn valentine signed "Helen", all carefully wrapped in tissue paper and found in a junk-filled Hillsborough home near the lifeless body of its owner, George Garretson.  Perhaps three of the most important clues into the life of one of Somerset County's most mysterious residents.

Born in 1878 into one of the area's most prominent families, George enjoyed a privileged life as the only child of Garret and Sarah Garretson.  A somewhat precocious youth, his inquisitive nature once led him to wire his childhood home for electricity at a time when nearly all in the area were still using gas lamps.  He studied engineering at a college in Pennsylvania, and by the turn of the century was living and working in San Diego, California.  He started a successful business manufacturing three inventions for use by electricians.

Garretson's boring machine allowed electricians and plumbers to quickly drill holes through joists.
Photo from the 10 July 1909 issue of "The Journal of Electricity, Power, and Gas

A reporter touring the old Hillsborough estate at the time of his death in 1950 observed two of the framed patents, one for a new kind of drill chuck, the other for a boring machine.  Not on display was Garretson's 1911 patent for an electrical binding post.  Significant because despite his prominent family, wealth, and personal success in business, the crumbling Hillsborough estate, with it's grand staircases, numerous outbuildings, and old servants' quarters which betrayed its prominent past, had no electric, gas, or telephone service.

Garretson came East at least a few times during this period - to visit friends in 1913, and, presumably, when his father passed in 1914. Then in 1915, the New Brunswick Home News reported that 300 people gathered at the East Millstone Reformed Church to witness his marriage to one Theresa Geisler - a name that disappears from the historical record almost as quickly as it enters.

Headline from the 6 July 1915 Home News

By 1950, Garretson - who had moved back to the old homestead on Amwell Road after the death of his mother in 1933 - had filled most of the twelve cobwebbed rooms of the mansion with broken furniture, old stoves, papers, and assorted junk.  He lived in just two rooms, coming out often to walk to the homes of old friends in the area.  When he hadn't been out for a few days, a neighbor who went to investigate spied him through the window lying dead on the dirty sofa.

The Garretson home on Amwell Road near the racquet club

It might be assumed that this is the story of a man who had fallen on hard times, lost it all in the stock market crash or an ill-advised business venture.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Garretson owned several valuable properties in the area and had a substantial financial portfolio with a good income.  He was, indeed, well-off.

Boring Machine patented by George Garretson in 1909.

So, as a reporter for the Franklin Record asked in 1950, "Why would a man, financially well off and accustomed to a moderately wealthy life as a child, be contented to live as a semi-hermit amid a junk-packed old home?"
Drill Chuck patented by George Garretson in 1909.

My own armchair investigation sheds little light on the mystery.  Census records always show him living alone or with unrelated lodgers, never with a wife - although one does list him as widowed.  A patent search revealed the three inventions, but not much else.
Electrical Binding Post patented by George Garretson in 1911.

The only other clue, besides the three precious items previously mentioned, is what he revealed to a close friend late in life.  He told a tale of his one and only love, an actress who appeared in the area with a traveling troupe, and how she left him on their wedding night. 

Could a broken heart truly have broken the man?  Perhaps we will never know.