You Are an Enigma, Sir

by Anne Motto, Curator of Collections
June 1, 2021

Some of history’s 19th-century mysteries likely can’t be solved, but if there was any place with best odds of success, it’s Morristown.

1875 invoice from J. R. Sutton’s store with his signature at bottom.

The sheer volume of Morristown’s historical records makes it possible to at times trace an individual’s movements year by year. Some records are relatively universal within NJ: federal censuses every decade and state censuses mid-decade through 1915. However, Morristown, somewhat uniquely in the county, adds town directories with occupations and addresses; church records marking births, marriages, and deaths; grave records; annotated maps and atlases (1853, 1868, 1874, 1887, and 1910); and digitized newspapers. It’s very hard for a Morristonian to be completely lost to time.

Table from J. R. Sutton’s store. His signature is under the marble (top photo).

However, John R. Sutton came very close. We are certain he existed, and that he was a furniture maker in Morristown circa 1873-5. MCHS maintains two pieces from his store, a marble-top table and pine cabinet, marked “J.R. Sutton, Morristown,” as well as two invoices signed by him in 1875. However, outside MCHS’s archives and collections, John R. Sutton the furniture maker is nearly nonexistent. He appears in the 1873 Morris County directory as “John R. Sutton, furniture” and in the 1875 Morristown directory as “John R. Sutton, furniture, South n opp De Hart,” but his store does not appear on any maps, and he never appears on a census in Morristown.

Now you see me (left), now you don’t (right). The building of John H. Reid’s store, later owned by John Sutton’s son, disappeared between 1890 and 1901 due to the fire. The maps show it was opposite DeHart (where the 1875 directory lists J. R. Sutton’s store).

The most logical candidate is a John Reid Sutton who came from a family of furniture makers and carpenters that moved from NYC to Morristown by 1870. There’s only one catch: he alone remained in Brooklyn and worked in tobacco. A variety of circumstantial evidence connects him to Morristown, but the most tantalizing link to the store is through his uncle, John H. Reid. Reid ran a furniture store on South Street from the 1880s until his death in 1894. Following his death, John Sutton’s son seems to have owned the building, which burned down in 1899. Comparing 1890 and 1901 maps of the site, it can confidently be located on South Street opposite DeHart – the exact location of John R. Sutton’s store in the 1870s. While the case may not be airtight, sometimes, even in Morristown, circumstantial is all you get.