Home Massachusetts “Wormley, The Caterer, Dead”

“Wormley, The Caterer, Dead”

0 comment

That’s what The Boston Sunday Globe of Oct. 19, 1884, proclaimed.  James Wormley the proprietor of the famous Wormley Hotel in Washington, D.C., died at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston after unsuccessful surgery to treat his chronic kidney stones.


James Wormley

Wormley came to Boston to seek relief from the renowned surgeon Henry J. Bigelow, an early proponent of anesthesia and a pioneer in surgery for vesicle calculus (bladder stones). The Boston-born Bigelow was a graduate of Boston Latin and Harvard and served as a surgeon at Mass General for over 40 years.

Painting of first operation under ether at Mass General. Bigelow is standing third from right.

That Wormley chose Dr. Bigelow and Mass General says a lot about the physician and the institution, which opened its doors in 1821 and has been a national leader in medical advancement ever since.  But it was clear that Wormley was gravely ill when he came to Boston; Dr. Bigelow said his chances of survival were about one in a thousand, according to The Evening Star of Washington, D.C.

Renowned surgeon Henry J. Bigelow of Mass General.

Who Was Wormley?

James Wormley was a Black caterer and hotelier born in Washington, D.C.  His hotel was one of the most elegant and modern in Washington, renowned for its cuisine. It was frequented by the political power brokers of the post-Civil-War period.  It served as the venue of the infamous Compromise of 1877, also known as the Wormley Agreement. The deal settled the disputed presidential election of 1876 between Republican Rutherford Hayes and Democrat Samuel Tilden by throwing the election to Hayes.  The Republican victory led to the removal of federal troops from the South and the effective end of Reconstruction.

The Wormley Hotel in Washington, D.C.

Wormley was one of the most prominent African Americans in the country during the 1870s and 1880s. An ardent proponent of Black civil rights, he counted among his friends Frederick Douglass and John Mercer Langston, the U.S. minister to Haiti. His sons served in the army and navy during the Civil War.

The Massachusetts Connection

Wormley had many connections to Massachusetts’ political leaders.  U.S. Representative Samuel Hooper from Marblehead helped him purchase his hotel in 1871, acting as a silent partner. In 1884, The Boston Globe reported that Sen. George Frisbee Hoar of Worcester entertained U.S. Supreme Court Justice Horace Gray of Nahant at Wormley’s at the extravagant cost of $100 a plate.

Congressman Samuel Hooper from Marblehead

But his closest relationship was with Sen. Charles Sumner of Boston, the radical Republican.  In 1871, Wormley and Sumner persuaded Congress to fund the first public school for African Americans in Washington, which became known as the Wormley School.  The two became lifelong friends.  In fact, Sumner gave him a gift of his personal copy of the signed 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery.  Wormley was among the attendants as Sumner lay dying after suffering a heart attack in Washington.

Senator Charles Sumner

In May 1884, just five months before his own death, he received “the thanks of the Commonwealth” for the gift of his good friend Charles Sumner’s portrait.  That portrait still hangs today in the Statehouse.

Currier and Ives print, Death of Charles Sumner. Wormley is sitting in chair.

About the Author

James F. Lee is a freelance writer and blogger whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, and AAA Tidewater Traveler Magazine. He recently posted Phillis Wheatley’s Boston: Vestiges of the poet’s life remain today. He can be reached at www.jamesflee.com.

SOURCES: Boston Globe Archives, whitehousehistory.org, James Wormley Recognition Project.  IMAGES: James Wormley, Unknown Author Creative Commons — Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International — CC BY-SA 4.0; Wormley Hotel, Unknown Author {{PD-US}}; Henry J. Bigelow, Unknown Author https://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/image/L0015953.html Creative Commons — Attribution 4.0 International — CC BY 4.0; ether operation painting by Robert C. Hinckley, from the Collection of the Boston Medical Library {{PD-US}}; Samuel Hooper {{PD-US]]; death of Sumner, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, ID cph. 3b50 102 {{PD-US}}.

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join our mailing list to receive the latest artciles from the New England Historical Society

Thanks for Signing Up!

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join Now and Get The Latest Articles. 

It's Free!

You have Successfully Subscribed!