The homeless boy who got his very own castle

Every time Thomas Waller glanced out at the New York Stock Exchange from the windows of his Wall Street law office, he must have been reminded just how lucky he was. The arc of his life had taken him from homeless orphan to successful attorney and politician. He owed much of this good fortune to a New London man with a big heart.

According to New London historian Frances Caulkins, the Waller family has been in the city since the 1600s. Matthew Waller lived in a neighborhood called Waller’s Hill near Granite Street. (Today’s Waller Street branches off Williams Street.) Goodman Waller repaired the turret of the town’s watch tower, and William Waller helped settle the acrimonious border dispute between East Lyme and New London.

Fast forward to the 19th century, when Robert K. Waller owned the Waller & Pitman grocery store on the corner of Blinman and Truman Streets. The store was a community gathering spot where old men hung out on the veranda in the evenings, spinning yarns. Business was brisk, making Robert a prosperous man, but that didn’t immunize him against personal loss. Three of his children died as babies, and that sad fact may have influenced his decision to befriend a homeless but spunky little boy.

Robert met Thomas when the 9-year-old was about to board a ship to the Gold Rush. The child’s plight and his brave attempt to survive in an adult world apparently touched Robert, because he adopted Thomas, changed his surname from Armstrong to Waller, and raised him as his own.

The contrast between Thomas’ new and former circumstances couldn’t have been greater. He was born in New York in 1839, the son of Irish immigrants. His parents and only sibling died when he was 8 years old, leaving him alone in a dangerous city without relatives or resources. He begged, sold newspapers, and slept on the streets. Now he was safe in a loving home, with regular meals, decent clothes, and consistent access to education. Thomas flourished.

Recalling those early days, a New London neighbor once described watching how hard Thomas worked in the store, stocking shelves and delivering groceries. She admired the child’s diligence and his obvious devotion to his adoptive parents. His later success as a grown man didn’t surprise her one bit.

What was surprising was the magnitude of that success. After high school, Thomas passed the bar but then put his law career on hold to enlist in the Civil War. Although discharged for health issues, he still contributed to the cause by using his gift of oratory (recognized and nurtured at New London’s Bartlett High School) to recruit new volunteers for the Union.

After the war, Thomas’ eloquence brought luster to his law practice and was a factor in his rise as an up-and-coming political star. On the Connecticut state level, he held positions as representative, secretary of state, and governor. Locally, he was mayor of New London from 1873 to 1879. Thomas received national attention at the 1884 Democratic Convention when he made a nominating speech for Grover Cleveland’s vice presidential candidate. In 1895 President, Cleveland appointed him to represent the United States in London as counsel general.

After returning from his London assignment, Thomas retired from politics but not from life. He opened a law office in New York City, became involved in Ocean Beach development, and purchased a home in New London’s Neptune Park. His impressive residence, "the Castle," still stands on Elliott Avenue. (Elliott Avenue honors a famous 19th-century doctor and social reformer, but that’s another story!)

Thomas’ semi-retirement must have suited him, because he once joked, “I work five days a week in New York that I may live two in Connecticut." He died at age 85, in Connecticut, in his castle, in the city where his real life had begun.

 

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