Born on December 19, 1850, James Wilson Hunter married eighteen-year-old Lizzie Ayer Barnes at St. Luke’s Church in Norfolk in 1877 with “consent of [the] lady’s mother.”On April 30, 1878, the couple welcomed their first child and only son, James Wilson Hunter Jr., to their family. On October 10, 1880, the family expanded to include Harriet Cornelia, followed by her sister Eloise Dexter on February 2, 1885. When the family moved into their new home on Freemason Street, the children were nine, fourteen and sixteen years old. None of the Hunter children married or had children of their own, and all remained in the home throughout the duration of their lives.
While residents in the home, the children were well educated and became very involved in the local community. Harriet and Eloise were both educated at the Phillips and Wests’ School for Girls in Norfolk, where they were taught the subjects deemed appropriate for young ladies of their standing. They were regular attendees at Sunday service at nearby Christ and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Norfolk, both before the churches combined forces and afterward. They were also very involved in genealogical and heritage-based organizations like the Daughters of the Confederacy, Daughters of the American Revolution and the Huguenot Society. They remained active in all these organizations until their deaths in the mid-twentieth century.
James Wilson Hunter Jr. experienced a very different life than Harriet and Eloise. James was educated at the Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Virginia, as a youth. When the family moved into the home, James was attending this school. Following high school, James attended the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia. Here, he received a bachelor of arts and master of arts, both in 1899. He also did more graduate work at the University of Virginia, graduating with his medical doctor (MD) degree in 1901. He then attended Harvard, where he pursued his postgraduate education. By 1901, he had become a certified doctor and was categorized as a general practitioner, cardiologist and radiologist.
James continued his blossoming career under the guidance of local doctor Southgate Leigh, who now has a hospital named after him in Norfolk. Once he finished this period of professional guidance, James opened his own practice in downtown Norfolk, where he remained for the majority of his life. His medical practice was only interrupted as World War I broke out and he joined the army. He is listed as a member of the Medical Advisory Board, no. 3, which indicates he was active from May 18, 1917, to March 31, 1919. During this period, he also served as captain of the Medical Corps from November 5, 1918, to January 6, 1919.
When not involved with his practice, James, like his sisters, gave much of his time to genealogical, service and heritage-based organizations. He was part of the Society of the Cincinnati, the American Legion and the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, among others. All three children enjoyed researching their heritage and tracing their family genealogy, as well as reading and discovering nature. They probably spent many afternoons together engaged in these activities as both children and adults. Seeing as they spent their entire lives together, it would be a mistake to suggest they were not close.
By 1931, James Wilson Hunter had passed away, followed by his wife, Lizzie, in 1940. Prior to his mother’s death, James Wilson Hunter Jr. suffered a heart attack and passed away in 1940. James had been away in Hot Springs, Arkansas, making him the only family member who did not pass away in the house. All the family members were laid out in the front parlor, as was custom, and buried in Elmwood Cemetery. By the end of that same year, Harriet and Eloise became two sisters living alone in the big city.
The loss of their family members certainly did not hinder the sisters’ continued involvement in many philanthropic, genealogical and social organizations. Harriet and Eloise remained active in the Daughters of the Revolution, Daughters of the Confederacy and various other organizations until their deaths in 1958 and 1965, respectively. “The girls,” as many docents affectionately refer to them, liked to stay busy, as evidenced by the countless social clubs and organizations in which they took part. They were often in the public eye during their later years, something the earlier Victorians would have gasped at and certainly gossiped frequently about. Free of the social chains the Victorian era had placed on their sex, the Harriet and Eloise of the 1950s would not have resembled the Harriet and Eloise of the 1890s and 1900s. They would have experienced much more autonomy in their later years.
Visitors often stand awe-struck when told the sisters never married and even more so when they discover James did not marry either. Unfortunately for museum staff and visitors alike, the reasons for this choice have never been determined. The Hunters chose to have their home live on as a museum of decorative arts and furnishings from the Victorian era, giving little credence to the need to preserve their own private history. There are no diaries, letters or an abundance of other correspondence. Like the choice the siblings made to never marry, they made the choice to keep the details of their private lives private. As interpreters of the home, the museum staff chooses to respect those choices and focus on the exquisite pieces they maintained for our viewing pleasure.***
**This information was taken from our Director Jaclyn Spainhour’s published work Gilded Age Norfolk, Virginia: Tidewater Wealth, Industry, and Propriety which can be purchased in our museum shop, at local bookstores like Prince Books in Norfolk, and on Amazon.