There is a delicious hint of mystery about the Sorrel/Weed House on beautiful Madison Square. Built in 1841, designed by New York architect Charles Clusky, it is a handsome example of Greek Revival architecture with elegant Regency touches.
But it's as though the house is hiding secrets from us all who look upon it. And, indeed it is! Checking history sites provides some information, but I chanced upon, by accident, a slender, non-fiction volume, "The Sorrels of Savannah" by Carla Ramsey Weeks that peeks into the history and backstory of the family who lived in the house they called Shady Corner.
Francis Sorrel himself is an enigma. A very successful, wealthy businessman in Savannah, he would nevertheless harbor a secret about himself that he would take to his grave. And that secret, strangely enough, would give him something in common with Alexander Dumas, the author of "The Count of Monte Cristo" and "The Three
Sorrel's father was the scion of a prominent French family. His father's stellar military career as an engineer and geographer would land him in St. Domingue (now Haiti) in the 1790's, where he would meet and marry Eugenie De Sutre, a free woman of color, who would die seven weeks after giving birth to Francois. Curiously, Alexander Dumas's father was born in St. Domingue of a French nobleman and a black slave and would become a heroic military leader.
However,unlike Dumas's father, Francois's father had little or no interest in his infant son, not seeing him for three years until he attended his Baptism. Francois was sent to live with relatives in Port au Prince, and in 1805 his father went on to Cuba, leaving his year-old son behind and then to a 5,000 acre plantation in Louisiana owned by a rich cousin. He would neither inquire after nor send for his son.
Meanwhile St. Domingue, a French colony where the black population outnumbered the white eight to one, was in utter turmoil. The goal of the island's dictator was to wipe out the white population. Francois, now eleven years old with no one to look after him, was trying his best just to stay alive during the carnage that raged throughout the colony. At age 14, he landed a job as office boy for Richard and George Douglas, coffee and sugar traders. They would become Francois's saviors, sending him to their Baltimore office and lodging him with a clergyman who taught him English. And it is here that Francois becomes Francis Sorrel.
In 1818, the Douglas brothers sent Francis to Savannah to head up a new mercantile company they were setting up in the port city. Francis became quite wealthy and quickly rose in prominence and was even appointed Portuguese Vice Consul in 1816...all the while keeping the identity of his black mother hidden, for this would surely have ruined him Savannah at that time.
In 1825, he went into business for himself, and six years later built an office building on the corner of Bay and Bull Streets that still stands today.
Although Francis Sorrel became wealthy, successful and respected in Savannah,his private life was full of sadness. His first wife, Lucinda, died of yellow fever while attending neighbors who were sick with the fever. Several years later, he married Lucinda's sister, Matilda. She suffered from bouts of depression, and when two of her children died in close succession, it was thought that this drove her to throw herself from the balcony of the Sorrel mansion, although Francis claimed it was an accident.
He would father 11 children from the two marriages and eight would live to maturity. Romance, drama and heroics would play out in the lives of six of those children.