Eugene Richter Knapp (1848-1905) was born on Nantucket during an economic depression. The Great Fire of 1846 burned, by conservative estimates, 400 buildings in the heart of Nantucket’s commercial center, a death knell for an island economy that was already suffering from over-whaling and competition with deeper-harbored New Bedford. The family left Nantucket in 1850 and arrived in Cambridge, MA impoverished, hoping for a new start. In a cruel twist of fate, the ship carrying the family’s possessions hit a shoal on its way to Boston, taking on water and ruining everything they owned.
In adulthood, Knapp, still residing in Cambridge, became one of the most expert wool buyers in the country. Married with three children (and two more on the way), Knapp left Cambridge in 1880 and purchased what was known as “the old Mansion house’’, previously owned by Howard S. Williams, at the corner of Beacon and Tappan streets in Brookline. As Beacon Street was widened to bring new streetcars and development to Brookline, similar to what was recently seen in Back Bay, Tappan re-envisioned his new property as an opportunity. He had a series of luxurious apartment buildings constructed (more posts to follow).
According to Knapp’s obituary, when the panic of 1903 came, Knapp was overextended financially and sold his Beaconsfield complex and estate to Henry M. Whitney, a business partner, who re-hired Knapp as manager. The loss of his “life’s work”; his son’s death through an accidental drowning, and finally his unexpected dismissal by Whitney, led to his suicide. On July 3, 1905, Knapp climbed the rails of a steamship bound for Portland, Maine, plunged into the Atlantic Ocean, and drowned. His obituary in the Brookline Chronicle reported: “When Mr. Knapp’s body was taken from the water by the steamer’s crew, letters were found in his pockets signed by occupants of the Beaconsfield Hotel expressing displeasure at the dismissal of Mr. Knapp as manager. A letter addressed to the captain of the steamer was found in the stateroom and with it a little cash and a note stating ‘All the money I have left’. The mansion was demolished in the 20th century as is the site of a supermarket.