In his final years, Charles Read suffered illness and endured tragedy. For as high as Read soared, becoming one of the most notable politicians of the day, one of the largest land owners of New Jersey, and the greatest ironmaster in the province, his final years left him in very poor health and nearly destitute.
The end of the French and Indian War led to a financial depression which severely affected the price of land, rendering Read’s vast holdings significantly less valuable. The iron furnaces, with their expensive labor, shipping costs, and near constant upkeep requirements, continued to be a drain on his finances. The salaries and fees collected from his political appointments failed to cover the costs for the furnaces – especially as Read became increasingly ill and unable to perform his duties. In 1768 he secured a mortgage on the Etna tract for ₤500, which held the wolf at bay for a while.
Tragedy struck on November 13, 1769 when Read’s wife, Alice, died after struggling with an illness. As befitting her husband’s position, a large number of distinguished citizens attended Alice’s burial at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Burlington. Said the Pennsylvania Gazette: “The Corpse was carried to the Grave by respectable Housekeepers of the Place: The Pall was supported by the Gentleman of His Majesty’s Council. The Chief Justice, and Attorney-General. The great Number of the most respectable People assembled on this Occasion from the adjacent Towns manifested the affectionate Regard paid to her Memory.”
Alice, knowing that she would soon pass, prepared a will providing for the distribution of her estate, which contained a large amount of land in the West Indies. The estate was split evenly between her husband and their son, Charles Jr. with a trust fund established for their son, Jacob, who had turned out to be idle and irresponsible both in money and morals. While Charles Jr. did not have the same level of aspirations and ambitions that his father possessed, he proved to be a capable businessman and did a fair job managing the iron works at Etna and caring for his father who, following Alice’s death, moved to Etna.
Death did not quickly leave the Read household. Less than one month after Alice passed, Charles Read IV, the 13-month-old son of Charles Jr. died. He was buried at the Evesham Friends’ Meeting in Mt. Laurel.
Throughout the winter of 1770-71, Read fell desperately ill. He described the situation as a “Excessive tedious & dangerous sickness wth wch I have been afflicted the last fall & Winter the most of which I spent in bed and my recovery not expected by my friends…” Shortly after, in November of 1772 he lost his granddaughter, as he exclaimed in a letter to John Pemberton: “This day we are engaged with the burial of my Dear little grand daughter who died of the measles her little brother went thro’ them with great difficulty.”
By 1773, with his creditors clamoring to be paid, his body wracked with illness, and his heart in despair, he arranged for a trip to the West Indies to settle Alice’s estate and possibly convalesce in the more agreeable weather. Read left, presumably under a veil of some secrecy, without resigning his legislative offices or notifying his creditors. It is likely that most people did not know he had departed until his trustees placed this notice in the Pennsylvania Gazette on June 30, 1773:
Whereas Charles Read, Esq.; for the recovery of his health, as well as for securing and recovering some large sums of money due him in the West-Indies, has lately embarked thither, and, being desirous of preventing any uneasiness among such as he may owe money to, has appointed us as the subscribers, trustees, to make sale of such parts of his estate, as may be necessary for the discharge of his debts, which we purpose proceeding to do so as soon as possible. We therefore desire all persons who have any demands against him to bring in their accounts, properly proved, that they may be settled; and all who are indebted to him, by mortgage, bond, note or book-debt, are desired immediately to discharge their respective debts to the subscribers, who are authorized to receive the same.
Daniel Ellis, at Burlington
Charles Read, Junior; Aetna Furnace.
Thomas Fisher, Philadelphia.
Read continued correspondence from St. Croix throughout 1773; it appears, however, that the money from Alice’s estate never materialized. In a postscript to a letter that Read wrote he said: “My love to all Frds. I hope no man shall lose by me tho’ they may be longer than I choose out of ye money.”
Without the money from Alice’s estate it seems as if Read gave up on the idea of returning to New Jersey to settle his debts. It is likely that the collapse of his empire, the death of his wife and grandchildren, coupled with the disappointment of not being able to settle his debts through the estate of his wife drove him to the brink of sanity. Sometime in November 1773, he left St. Croix and opened a small general store in Martinburg, North Carolina. On December 27, 1774, Read died without leaving a will, and without having an opportunity to say goodbye to his family and the land upon which he built his empire. Charles Jr. did not learn of his father’s death until May of 1775.
It appears his grave has disappeared over time. Burlington County historian Henry Bisbee traveled to North Carolina to search for it during the 1960s. Today, Martinburg is Greenville, and Bisbee found a new supermarket constructed on the last of the old burial grounds in the city. Read “may have been a prominent citizen in New Jersey,” Bisbee explains, “but in North Carolina he had simply been an elderly storekeeper. Who would pay for his headstone?”
One of the most curious biographies of Read comes from a contemporary of his, Aaron Leaming, of Cape May. Leaming, a Quaker who was also involved in the legislature and land speculation, and likely had run-ins with the powerful Read, does not hold back in his diary. Of Read he writes:
“He had more vices than virtues. He had many of both and thise of the high rank. He was intriegueing to the highest degree. No man knew so well as he how to riggle himself into office, nor keep it so long, nor make so much of it… His intrigues with women, tho’ they employed a large share of his thought, were not worth naming; they were rather the foibles than the vices in so large a character yet because I know he would never have pardoned the man that should attempt his Story without making honorable mention of them I draw them into his shade. He was so van of them that if he had penned this character they would have filled many pages.”
Of his fortunes and family: “His offices furnished him with a constant flow of Cash. This power & flow of Cash enlarged his mind above himself. Instead of founding a fortune to his two sons as he ought to have done in those prosperous times, he ran upon schemes for the improvement of the Country. Witness his Fishery at Lamberton, his Iron Works, and many other schemes which tho’ virtuous in a very high degree in a man of great fortune, it ought to be treated with distrust with men of little estates. He was industrious in the most unremitting degree. No man planned a scheme so well as he, nor executed him better. He loved the country better than his family. And knew no friend but the man that could serve him.”
1. Carl Raymond Woodward, Ploughs and Politicks: Charles Read of New Jersey and his Notes on Agriculture (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1941) p. 212
2. Ibid, p. 213
3. Ibid, p. 214
5. Ibid, p. 215
6. Henry H. Bisbee, The Burlington Story. Vol. 9, No 1. 1979, pg 4.
7. Woodward, p. 405