Culture // 5 min Read

All Dogs Go to Heaven

Written by Dr. Mary Socci with an introduction by Kristen Constantineau

Aug 25, 2021


Palmetto Bluff is a special place full of discovery and adventure. And while the land may come first, our love for dogs is a close second.

And this love goes back centuries.

Once a spectacular summer estate built by the Wilson family over a century ago, evolving into an exclusive hunting retreat a half-century ago, to the 20,000-acre residential community with a rich sporting lifestyle that it is today, dogs have a long-standing history—and a special place in our hearts—here at the Bluff.

From our community full of green spaces to run and play and miles of trails perfect for exploring, to the canine ambassadors that greet guests at Montage Palmetto Bluff and our unofficial “must love dogs” policy within the walls of our offices, our love of man’s best friend can be found in and around every corner.

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But this story starts with one of the first four-legged inhabitants at the Bluff.

Adjacent to the May River, and just beyond the fire pits at the River House, lies a special plot of land that may go unnoticed by passersby. Taking up roughly 100 square feet with small tombstones is a cemetery of some of the beloved dogs of the Wilson family.

However, one tombstone stands out among the rest.

The single marble monument in the pet cemetery by the River House marks the burial site of Tommy, “a fine terrier and much-loved companion” that died December 3, 1912. He is surrounded by dogs with less expensive, concrete headstones and simpler epitaphs. So, who was Tommy and why did he receive special treatment?

Pet Cemetary

Tommy’s story begins in the summer of 1900 in Newport, Rhode Island. That July among the wealthy Northerners who decamped to the town’s seaside homes was Marian Mason, a 25-year-old Bostonian, who arrived with her uncle and aunt, Mr. and Mrs. E. Rollins Morse. Marian’s family was well-to-do. Her father was a physician and lecturer at Harvard’s medical school, but her aunt and uncle were the ones with the cachet that granted access to Newport’s social season. (E. Rollins Morse owned brokerage and banking firms in Boston and New York and served as president of the Boston Stock Exchange.) Shortly after arriving in Newport, Marian went to see a litter of smooth fox terriers that had been born in May. A white male puppy, “Tommy,” went home with her.

Wire Haired Fox Terrier SHADOW

Over the next 18 months, Tommy was by his mistress’s side as Richard T. Wilson Jr., a wealthy New York banker, courted her. Tommy was waiting when Marian kicked off her boots following an afternoon of riding with her beau or when she swept in after an evening of dancing. Tommy may have been the first one to hear that Wilson had asked her to be his wife.

In the spring of 1902, Tommy came to Palmetto Bluff with the newlyweds on their honeymoon. Over the next decade, Tommy returned each winter with the Wilsons, who enjoyed the mild weather of the Lowcountry and their mansion on the banks of the May River.

Mansion

Tommy probably savored escaping the confines of a New York City home for walks in manicured gardens and romps with the hunting dogs. But in an era before paved roads and automobiles, the remoteness of Palmetto Bluff was not without its perils. On April 7, 1903, Tommy’s life was in jeopardy, and he was hours from medical care.

It was obvious that morning that something was wrong. Tommy had had a slight cough for a few days, but now he was listless. He seemed exhausted by even the slightest movement. As the day wore on, his condition deteriorated. By evening, the little terrier was struggling to breathe. Marian became frantic. Tommy needed medical care, and he needed it soon. Her husband sent for the men who ran their motor launch between Palmetto Bluff and Savannah. Wilson’s orders were simple: get to Savannah as quickly as possible and bring back Dr. August Jasme, the veterinarian. Even at full speed, the trip would take over three hours each way, and there was no guarantee that the men would find the doctor at home. They set out knowing that Tommy’s life (and likely their livelihoods) depended on their success.

As the Savannah Morning News reported two days later, the men arrived at Dr. Jasme’s home around 10:00 p.m. They explained the situation and said he was to come at once. Dr. Jasme was understandably hesitant—hurtling down the Savannah River and across the tidal estuaries in the dark seemed like a good way to hasten his own demise. But Wilson’s men refused to allow him to decline their request. According to the newspaper, they had been “told to bring Dr. Jasme back, dead or alive,” and they would not leave until he agreed to go. Jasme reluctantly acquiesced.

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At 1:00 a.m., Jasme disembarked at the Wilsons’ dock and was rushed into the lit-up mansion—no one was asleep in the house despite the late hour. Jasme found Tommy on the bed in one of the guest bedrooms, Marian and her husband by his side. The family’s physician, Dr. Taft, was also in the room, but he readily turned his canine patient over to the veterinarian. Jasme’s examination was brief; Tommy had pneumonia, he declared. For the next few hours, Jasme and Taft stayed with Tommy until Jasme said there was nothing more he could do for him. Whatever Jasme did do—and this was well before antibiotics were discovered—proved to be enough. Tommy recovered. Jasme, the newspaper reported, received a check in the sum of “three figures,” an extraordinary amount in 1903.

There are few details of Tommy’s life after his illness. In 1910, he appeared in American Kennel Club records as the father of “May River Rollicker” and “May River Pixy.” The mother of the two puppies was a smooth fox terrier that had placed in shows in the Northeast.

The “fine terrier and much-loved companion” spent nine winters with the Wilsons at Palmetto Bluff before being laid to rest in the cemetery in December 1912. More than a century later, his simple marble headstone remains as a memorial to him and to his special place in Marian Wilson’s heart.

Read the original story in the Spring / Summer 2021 edition of the bluff.

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