A ship owner and merchant, Col. Jeremiah Lee was one of the most affluent men of the English North American colonies. His vessels, laden with salted and dried fish, sailed to ports around the Atlantic Ocean and returned to Marblehead with wine, fruit, textiles, flour and other commodities. In 1766, at age 45, Col. Lee began building the Mansion. Only the best quality woodwork, hand painted wallpaper and custom made furnishings were used in this public statement of Lee’s wealth and importance in the community. Amazingly, most of the architectural elements remain intact. Combined with the desire to build his Mansion in the manner of an English gentleman, Jeremiah Lee was also an ardent patriot.
He was active in town government and served as Colonel of Marblehead’s town militia for 25 years. Lee participated in the Massachusetts province’s new congress and was elected leader of a regional political body that dealt directly with the military governor appointed by King George II and III Using his trading agents in Spain, Lee procured weapons and ammunition which he then smuggled into various locations in towns outside of Boston. His involvement in the preparations for armed conflict between England and the colonies in April 1775 turned deadly after a meeting with John Hancock, Samuel Adams and fellow Marbleheaders, Elbridge Gerry and Azor Orne. The three Marblehead men had settled down for the night at the tavern where they had held their meeting. Disturbed by the British Regulars marching toward Lexington, the men left the tavern and hid in a corn field. Jeremiah Lee became ill with fever from the exposure and died three weeks later in Newton at age 54, on May 10 1775.
The Lee Mansion
By the 1760s, Marblehead was a cosmopolitan shipping center. Many of the town’s merchants prospered and built impressive homes but Jeremiah intended his Mansion to be monumental in both size and in the quality of the interior. All four facades were faced with wood that was cut to resemble stone and grains of sand were blown onto the wet paint to add the appearance and texture of stone. The interior was graced with a spacious central hallway and soaring staircase surrounded by rooms highlighted with elegantly carved moldings, hand crafted wallpapers and opulent furnishings. The grandeur extended to the 2nd floor, up to the more intimate proportions of the 3rd floor and stopped at the breathtaking, 360˚ view of Marblehead from the cupola.
Col. Jeremiah Lee, his wife Martha & their six children lived here as a family for only 7 years. Joseph, the eldest son, went to Harvard College in 1768 and got married in 1771. Mary, the eldest daughter, married wealthy Newburyport merchant Nathaniel Tracy in February 1775 and Col. Lee died only 3 months later without leaving a will. The war, a business network based primarily on credit and the complexities of a new form of government disrupted everything. It took 13 years for the estate to be settled. In 1788, Lee’s estate was declared bankrupt and the assets were liquidated.
After 1785, title to the Mansion was held by mortgage holders. Following the death of the Lee’s eldest son, Martha waived her widow’s rights and title passed to her son-in-law Nathaniel Tracy. Title then went to his creditors. In 1804, nearly thirty years after Lee’s death, the Mansion was bought by a bank which owned it until 1904, when it ceased operations. The bank made few changes to the building and the Marblehead Historical Society purchased the Mansion in 1909.
The Lee Family
Martha Lee died in Newbury in 1791 at age 62, surviving her husband by 16 years.
The eldest daughter, Mary, married in 1775.
Her son Joseph served as a Captain in the Marblehead regiment and died at age 37, in 1785.
The other two sons, Samuel and Jeremiah died prior to 1785.
One daughter Martha, married in 1785 and another daughter Abigail, died in 1785 after childbirth.