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Sumner the Tavernkeeper


Substantially remodeled South Dedham Tavern as it appeared in the early 20th century. From the Robert Donahue Collection

Joseph Sumner (1797-1877)

Betsey Sumner (1799-1879)


Joseph Sumner was born on April 28, 1797. He was the son of Nathaniel and Elizabeth Sumner. On July 22, 1821, he married Charlotte Rhoades (1800-1823), the daughter of Eliphalet Rhoads and Mercy Holland Rhoads. The couple had a daughter, Charlotte, born in 1823. Joseph Sumner’s wife died on May 19, 1823 leaving him with an infant daughter. He remarried on August 10, 1823 to Elizabeth “Betsey” Huntley (or Hunting) (1799-1879).

Site of South Dedham (Sumner>Hartshorn)Tavern AKA the Norwood House in the early 20th century.



Approx. site of 19th century South Dedham Tavern intersection of Nahatan and Washington Sts. as it appears in 2019.

Also in 1823, Joseph Sumner became the proprietor of the South Dedham Tavern, a mainstay of village life and commerce. The tavern was located about where the town common now stands. Along with running his tavern, Sumner became embroiled in local religious politics when a small group of parishioners – including Joseph Sumner – chose to leave the South Church of Dedham (as the First Congregational Church was renamed in 1824) and form a Universalist congregation. Founded in 1793 in Oxford, Massachusetts, Universalism embraced the doctrine of universal salvation, that is, that no matter what the transgression, reconciliation with God was possible for all human beings. In addition, Universalism expanded the notion of individual faith to include social responsibility, and strongly advocated for social reforms such as temperance, women’s rights, prison reform, and the abolition of slavery.


The Universalists met in Sumner’s tavern until 1829, when the group erected and dedicated a meeting house on Washington Street property now occupied by St. Catherine’s rectory. A second-floor suite of rooms at Sumner’s tavern remained the residence of the Society’s pastor, Rev. Alfred Bassett (lot 117) who was only 24 years old when he became the group’s first regular pastor. Tragically, on December 26, 1831, Rev. Mr. Bassett committed suicide in his rooms at the tavern, an act which shocked and saddened his congregation.



The original Universalist Meeting House 1829

Site of the original Universalist Meeting House in 1829. Now the site of St. Catherines of Siena Rectory.







In 1841, Rev. Edwin Thompson (lot 9) became the leader of the South Dedham Universalists. A staunch abolitionist, Thompson was also a leader in the Total Abstinence Movement and frowned on the sale of liquor in the tavern. He confronted the tavern owner and Sumner offered to stop selling rum if he could find someone to buy his existing stock. Thompson took him up on the offer, bought the liquor himself, and


destroyed it. Joseph Sumner remained the proprietor of the (newly-“dry”) South Dedham Tavern until he sold it to Richard Hartshorn in the 1850s.


By the 1860 US Census, Joseph Sumner was the Depot Master of the railroad and later, his occupation was listed as laborer. He died on September 13, 1877, at the age of 80. His widow, Betsey Sumner, died on July 23, 1879. Both deaths were recorded as due to old age.


Sumner Grave Marker after OPPV Cleaning

Sumner Grave Marker before OPPV cleaning


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