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Family - Rev. Thomas Baker
Isaac Baldwin McQuesten of Whitehern
Nov. 26, 1847 - Mar. 7, 1888

Isaac Baldwin McQuesten (Ike) was born on November 26, 1847 in Hamilton, Canada West, and died on March 7, 1888 in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada1. He is the son of Dr. Calvin McQuesten and his second wife, Estimate Ruth Esther Baldwin (1816-51) whom he married in 1844. Isaac also had a younger brother, David (1849-54), who died in a fire. Dr. Calvin's first wife had been Margarette B. Lerned (1809-41) and they had a son, Calvin Brooks McQuesten (1837-1912) who was Isaac's half-brother and was ten years older than Isaac (see Family). Calvin and Isaac were close and even when Dr. Calvin Brooks settled in New York to practice medicine, they remained in contact by letter, particularly when they needed to collaborate against the demands of their step-mother, Elizabeth Fuller, Dr. Calvin's third wife. There was some anger between them over the estate but it was resolved. Dr. Calvin married Elizabeth Fuller, a school teacher in 1853, so that his sons could have a mother, however, she showed little interest in the children2.


Isaac and Calvin Brooks had a poor relationship with their step-mother from the start. She instructed them to call her Mrs. McQuesten, sent them away to school, and spent her time traveling and shopping. Isaac was educated in boarding schools, at Dr. Tassie's school in Galt, and at Upper Canada College in Toronto (1864). He then took his B.A. from University College, Toronto, and graduated on June 10, 1869, with honours in Modern Languages. He then graduated with an M. A. degree in 1870, and studied law under Vice-Chancellor Proudfoot in Hamilton. He wrote the examinations to enter the Law Society of Upper Canada at Osgoode Hall.

Isaac's letters between himself and other students show that he was high-spirited, and led a very active social life while at school; he is described by one friend as "a mighty mingler" and "drinker of strong drink" (W2275). Elizabeth Fuller McQuesten sought to turn Isaac's father against him by charging him with irresponsible behaviour and drinking and carousing at school, some of which was true. She and Isaac engaged in a long struggle over the family finances (W2321).

Marriage And Family

Isaac had courted several women friends before his engagement to Mary Jane Baker (later, Mary Baker). She was the only daughter of Rev. Thomas Baker, a Congregational Church minister and his second wife Mary Jane McIlwaine. The courtship lasted four years and Mary broke off their engagement at least once because of Isaac's excessive drinking.

Theirs was a loving relationship (see courtship letters W2351, W2377), and they were married on June 18, 1873 in Toronto. They settled in a double house at 1 Bold Street in Hamilton, near Whitehern (then known as Willowbank3) and Mary's parents took the other half of the house. In 1882 Isaac also purchased a summer home in Hespeler (now Cambridge). In the twelve years following their marriage Isaac and Mary had seven children:

Mary Baldwin1874
Calvin (later, Rev.)1876
Ruby Baker1879
Muriel Fletcher1880 (deceased 2 yrs. old)
Thomas Baker (later, MPP)1882
Margaret Edna1885

Community Involvement

During this time, Isaac practiced law in Hamilton and was active in community affairs and politics: He was a trustee of Ward 2 of the Hamilton Board of Education, and was an influential Liberal. He was a director of the Literary and Scientific Associations Mechanics' Institute4, and Chairman of the Internal Management Committee with the Board of Education; he was elected to the University of Toronto Senate, was Director of the Ontario Mutual Assurance Company of Waterloo, and he served on the Board of Management and was a trustee of the MacNab Street Presbyterian Church. Isaac was also known to be of a very kind nature and was very well liked. At the same time Isaac's wife Mary was active in the Women's Missionary Society, serving as President for many years.

Business & Legal Matters

Isaac continued his law practice and handled his father's and his half-brother's financial interests. His father, Dr. Calvin McQuesten, retired from active participation in the foundry business in Hamilton in 1857, with $500,000 and real estate and investments. During this time Isaac and his half-brother, Dr. Calvin Brooks, exchanged many letters regarding the legal problems they were encountering with their step-mother who was attempting to have her husband sign over the estate to her. The letters reveal that although the brothers were united in their struggle against their step-mother, they also became divided for a time over Isaac's handling of the finances. However they were very frank with one another and the relationship was soon mended, especially since they required unity to withstand their step-mother's demands. In their letters they often use the sobriquet "O.L." (Old Lady) for their step-mother, or simply, "Mrs. McQ."

During the last years of Dr. Calvin's life Elizabeth was a thorn-in-the-flesh to her husband and step-son Isaac and his wife, Mary, by her importunities and harassment. When Elizabeth Fuller's relationship with Dr. Calvin deteriorated, Isaac was finally able to convince his father and brother to sign legal papers in secret to secure the estate for the family, and to provide for Elizabeth Fuller with an annuity.

Isaac was then able to marry and leave the house, although he lived nearby at 1 Bold Street. Now that Elizabeth was alone with Dr. Calvin, who was growing increasingly senile, she continued her attempts to acquire the estate, but to no avail. When Dr. Calvin died in 1885, Elizabeth Fuller retired to the United States with her annuity, and Isaac and his family moved into Whitehern. Elizabeth Fuller McQuesten died in Petersburg, Virginia in 1897.

These years were a very trying period for Isaac, financially and emotionally. From 1881 to 1887 Isaac and partners J. Schofield and John Harvey, became involved in the Textile Mill business in Hespeler, and in 1885, John Harvey and Isaac McQuesten organized the Hespeler Woolen and Cotton Mfg. Co. with capital of $170,000, and became involved in investments into various patents. Unfortunately, the depression of the 1880's forced the Hespeler mill business into decline; Isaac's relationship with Harvey deteriorated, and the patents proved to be unprofitable.

Illness, Bankruptcy, & Death

Throughout this time Isaac suffered from alcoholism, and possibly other addictions, and depression, which gradually deepened into mental illness. Mary's letters to Isaac's half-brother, Dr. Calvin Brooks McQuesten, in May and July 1885, relate her increasing distress and anxiety about the urgent family problems: Isaac's father's health, the continuing struggle with their step-mother, and Isaac's "nervous disease"(W4323, W4327). In 1886 Dr. Mullins replied to Dr. Calvin Brooks' inquiry concerning Isaac that "an unfortunate habit had been established and I believe that a sincere effort has been made to resist it" (W1592).

This was a very trying time for the McQuesten family. Isaac's wife, Mary, had given birth to their seventh child (Margaret Edna) in October 1885, just 3 days after Dr. Calvin's funeral, and between April and August 1886, Mary suffered a breakdown and required rest and treatment for depression. Isaac wrote to her on August 23, 1886 expressing his deep regret and loneliness (W2495). Then on October 1, 1887, Isaac wrote to his brother admitting that he was being treated as an inpatient at Homewood in Guelph for insomnia, depression, and a dependency on "stimulants" (W2511, see also W4327).

Isaac died very suddenly on March 7, 1888, at the age of forty, after consuming a combination of a sleeping draught and alcohol. His death was immediately followed by bankruptcy with liabilities of $900,000 and assets of approximately $20,000 in personal and Real Estate. However, he had had the foresight to place the house, Whitehern, in the hands of a law partner in trust for his wife. His will left his entire estate to his wife and she was named the sole executor. The excerpt from Isaac's "Obituary" provides some details of his death:

I. B. McQuesten, M.A.

All classes of citizens will learn with regret that I.B. McQuesten died at 9 o'clock yesterday. The deceased was enjoying the usual health until Tuesday evening, but was taken sick about midnight. Dr. Mullin was called in and was with him until 9 a.m. yesterday when he died. Mrs. McQuesten left him reading in the library and went to bed. About midnight she heard a fall, and on going downstairs found her husband lying in an insensible condition. In a glass in the room were the remains of a sleeping draught which the deceased was in the habit of taking occasionally, and it is supposed that in his latterly feeble state of health the dose proved too much for him. Dr. Mullin was immediately summoned and stayed with him until morning by which time he had partially regained consciousness, but shortly after he relapsed into insensibility and died in a few minutes.4
(Hamilton Daily Spectator, Thursday, March 8, 1888, p.3)

Isaac McQuesten's story is a tragic one, beginning with the death of his mother at the age of four and ending with his own untimely death at the age of forty. The happy period in his life was his loving relationship with his wife, and his pride in his children and his community. Isaac's father's story, Dr. Calvin McQuesten, represents the rise of the house of McQuesten, while Isaac's story represents the fall of the house of McQuesten.

Fortunately the house of McQuesten was eventually restored through the efforts of Mary Baker McQuesten and her children, after the death of Isaac in 1888. After the initial shock and grief, Mary took on the role of the family matriarch of her six children who were between the ages of fourteen and three, and she struggled through at least twenty years of genteel poverty to maintain the home, guide and educate her children, and finally to restore the house of McQuesten to social prominence and prestige, if not to wealth.

Thomas Baker McQuesten (1882-1948), became head of the Parks Board in Hamilton and later, as Member of Provincial Parliament for Transportation, was instrumental in establishing many Hamilton and Ontario parks, highways, bridges and places of beauty (see Thomas Baker McQuesten). The children cooperated with their mother throughout this period and it is because of the family's dedication, sacrifice, and combined efforts that the family was restored.

The McQuesten children never married, and in 1959 the remaining family members deeded the house to the City of Hamilton. In1968, at the death of the final member, Rev. Calvin McQuesten, Whitehern, complete with all family possessions, reverted to the City to be used as a museum, "a period piece".

1 After Confederation in 1867 the name "Ontario" was applied to the whole province (CE 1569).

2 We are indebted to Georgina Minnes and Mary Harrington Farmer (CMQPW 7-9) for some of the information in this biographical sketch (Minnes, "Isaac Baldwin McQuesten" 1-11).

3 At that time the house was named Willowbank and, after Isaac and Mary moved in, Mary promptly changed it to Whitehern.

4 The Mechanics' Institute was located in the Alexandra Arcade, which was also the location of Hamilton's first lending library. Isaac held the mortgage of $30,000 on the building and in 1880, it fell into his hands. In the settlement of Isaac's estate and bankruptcy in 1888, his half-brother, Dr. Calvin Brooks McQuesten gained possession of the Arcade, and used the rental income to pay the annuity to his step-mother, Elizabeth Fuller McQuesten. (See W1652 and others).

5 At the time there were rumours that Isaac's death may have been a suicide, but that has not been substantiated.

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Copyright 2002 Whitehern Historic House and Garden
The development of this website was directed by Mary Anderson, Ph.D. and Janelle Baldwin, M.A.
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