Edward Fitch Underhill

Edward F Underhill around fifty years old
Edward F. Underhill (1830-1898)

Courtesy of Nantucket Historical Association, MS 64-68-2

At 18, Edward Fitch Underhill was among the men who attended the First Woman's Rights Convention in 1848 and affixed his signature "in favor of the movement." Edward went with his aunt, signer Martha Barker Underhill of New York City. In his teens Underhill learned phonography, a form of shorthand and he became a reporter. He also became a convert to Fourierism, a system espoused in the 1840s for reorganizing society into small communities of self-supporting groups or "phalanxes."

In his twenties, he was involved in Socialism, the Free-Love movement and cooperative housing experiments in New York City. Underhill expressed his humor as a satirical writer and an entertainer. He was, "a piano player, an expert whistler, and an excellent story teller." He began to write humorous pieces while a reporter in St. Louis and in 1856 he co-authored a satirical work entitled The History and Records of the Elephant Club, poking fun at pretensions and social norms. A decade later, Underhill was on a lecture tour in upstate New York delivering what he described as "Funny Lectures & Entertainment" entitled "An Evening with Funny Folks."

In his thirties, he was a war correspondent for the New York Times just before the outbreak of the Civil War, a position that landed him in a Confederate jail for a short period of time. He became a lawyer, turned his focus to law reporting and was among those who worked to professionalize stenography in New York State. In his forties, he invested his money in a vineyard in Chautauqua County, New York and in his fifties and sixties he developed a resort community at Siasconset on Nantucket Island.

Underhill's father, Edward, moved to Wolcott, Wayne County, New York in the early 1820s to join his brother, Benjamin Mott Underhill, in the mercantile business. Benjamin was married to Eliza Hunt, the sister of three Signers from Waterloo; Lydia Mount, Richard P. Hunt and Hannah Plant. Edward married Mary Harriet Fitch in 1829 and their first child, Edward Fitch Underhill was born the following year.

In 1846 the young Underhill went to work in the Waterloo Woolen Manufacturing Co. of which his uncle's brother-in-law, Richard P. Hunt, was Secretary and a major stock holder. But his career in the textile business ended in the first week when he lost the fingers of his left hand in a machinery accident. In later life, Underhill joked that he had the loss of his fingers to thank for his success as a "shorthand" reporter.

In his adulthood, Underhill was called "Ned" by his friends. He was curly-haired and described by one observer as "boyish." His obituary noted that he was "a man of interesting and most agreeable character" who "possessed a strong vein of originality liberally tinged with humor" and that "he had a fondness for big enterprises." He was multifaceted: an entertainer, a writer, a vineyardist, an actor, a journalist, a reformer, a prisoner of war, a resort developer, a lawyer, a stenographer, an inventor, a husband and a father. He died at age 68, having packed several lifetimes into a relatively short life.

Anne Derousie, park historian

Last updated: February 26, 2015

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