The former home of Lewis Temple, a local innovator, still stands at 54 Bedford Street in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Today, it is a private residence but it has a small plaque over the front door marking the home’s significance in New Bedford’s history. Temple was a former slave who became a free man and a skilled blacksmith. He invented a toggle harpoon used by the local whalers. His design was an important contribution to the whaling industry.
Lewis Temple was born in
Richmond, Virginia in 1800. By 1829, he had arrived in New Bedford,
Massachusetts. Temple had been born a slave over sixty years before the
American Civil War ended the trade. He was a free man once he made it to New
Bedford. Temple became an active member of the abolitionist movement in New
Bedford, perhaps due to his past experiences as a slave in the South. He was
one of the black auxiliaries to the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society and
served as Vice President of the New Bedford Union Society.
Temple was a skilled blacksmith
who is credited with inventing a new, better type of whaling harpoon. The
“Temple Toggle Iron” was first created in 1848. His design had a pivoted tip.
When the tip penetrated the whale’s body, it would twist and become embedded in
the blubber. This improved the whaling industry since previous harpoons simply
pierced the animal’s skin but could slip out while the whale struggled to
regain its freedom. Temple created the
new toggle irons from his shop near the waterfront on Coffin Wharf.
Unfortunately, he never patented the design during his lifetime and ended up
destitute at the end of his life. Other blacksmiths were able to produce and
sell the Temple toggle iron in their own shops.
Lewis Temple died in 1854, a few
weeks after an accidental fall. He was walking by the construction site of his
new shop and slipped from a plank that was held over an open sewer trench. He sued the city and won $2,000, but did not
live long enough to see any of it. After his death, the money was used to pay
off various business debts. Unfortunately, his family was left with very
The house located at 54 Bedford
Street (once known as 42 Bedford Street) was the home of Lewis Temple and his
family from 1836 through the mid-1840s. They moved closer to the wharf and
Temple’s blacksmith shop in 1849. His niece, Mary Clark, and her husband,
Miguel Fortes (also a blacksmith) moved into the house after the Temple family
left. The 2 ½ story home is now a private residence and not open to the
public. It is, however, listed on the
New Bedford Mansions tour. There is a small plaque located above the front door
marking its significance as a historic site.
A monument to Temple’s memory was
commissioned by the City of New Bedford in 1985 and erected on the front lawn
of the New Bedford Public Library. Temple is shown dressed in an apron,
examining the end of one of the harpoons he has been producing.