Lewis Temple House
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.
Backstory and Context
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 little.
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.
Lewis Temple. New Bedford Historical Society. Accessed September 29, 2017. http://nbhistoricalsociety.org/Important-Figures/lewis-temple/.
Lewis Temple, Inventor for the Whaling Industry. African-American Registry. Accessed September 29, 2017. http://www.aaregistry.org/historic_events/view/lewis-temple-inventor-whaling-industry.
Silvia, Joe. Historical Personages of New Bedford: Lewis Temple. New Bedford Guide. May 08, 2013. Accessed September 29, 2017. https://www.newbedfordguide.com/lewis-temple/2013/05/08.
Lewis Temple Memorial. Destination New Bedford. Accessed September 29, 2017. http://destinationnewbedford.org/listing/lewis-temple-memorial/.
Parcel Lookup. New Bedford Assessor's Department. Accessed September 30, 2017. http://www.newbedford-ma.gov/assessors/parcel-lookup/.