The Portrait of a Politician
Jekyll Island was named in 1734 by General James Edward Oglethorpe, founder of the Georgia colony, in honor of Sir Joseph Jekyll. Jekyll was a financial backer of the young colony, who, along with his wife, had contributed a total of £600 to the venture. In 1738, Oglethorpe wrote a letter from Jekyll Sound to Sir Joseph Jekyll. He wrote “Sir: I am now got to an anchor in a harbour and near an island that bears your name.”
Sir Joseph Jekyll, son of John Jekyll, was born in London in 1663. He went to school at the Middle Temple and became a lawyer in 1687. Within the span of ten years, he rose to the position of Chief Justice of Chester. In 1697 he also became a member of Parliament, and retained this position for the rest of his life. He went on to become Sergeant-at-Law and King’s Sergeant. In 1700, King George I made him a Knight. In 1717, he became Master of the Rolls, the third most senior judge in England. His wife was Lady Elizabeth Somers.
Jekyll was a man of great judicial and legislative power, in a position to advance the cause of the Georgia Colony. He was also one of the officials named to receive mandatory reports on the progress of English settlement. In naming Jekyll Island after him, Oglethorpe flattered a man with both money and influence. Jekyll would lose some of this influence with the public towards the end of his career, however.
Jekyll became very unpopular with the working classes in 1736, for sponsoring the Gin Act, which established taxes on retailing liquor. During the ensuing Gin Riots, his house had to be protected from a mob. In one episode he was reportedly knocked down and nearly killed in the middle of Lincoln’s Inn Field, an area of dancing bears, animal matches, and public pulpits. As a result of this incident, palisades were set up and a pleasant garden was installed in the area.
Jekyll passed away on August 19, 1738. In his will he designated a portion of his substantial estate to be applied to the national debt. His contemporaries ridiculed Jekyll for this benevolent gesture. One commentator scoffed that he might as well have “attempted to block the middle arch of Blackfriars Bridge with his full-bottomed wig.” In later proceedings, the will was actually set aside on the “ground of imbecility,” even though he was an active member of Parliament at the time he made the will.
Jekyll passed away before he received the letter Oglethorpe addressed to him. In time the spelling of the island’s name became corrupted. The island was referred to on maps and historic documents by alternate spellings, such as “Jeckel,” “Jeekel,” “Jekil,” “Jeykil,” and “Jekyl.” The misspelling of the name became standardized when a group of wealthy northerners purchased the island and dubbed themselves “The Jekyl Island Club.”
Around 1928, Club members commissioned a portrait of Sir Joseph Jekyll to be modeled after another portrait painted by Michael Dahl and owned by Sir Herbert Jekyll. Through correspondence with the Jekyll family, the spelling error was discovered. Club members agitated for the name of the island to be corrected.
On July 31, 1929, the Georgia State Legislature passed a resolution to change the spelling of “Jekyl Island,” declaring “the correct and legal spelling of the name of said island is and shall be Jekyll Island.”
Thus, 191 years after his death, the portrait of Sir Joseph Jekyll prompted a final legal resolution to be enacted in his honor. This seems a fitting end to the tale of a lawyer, judge, and politician.
The original portrait commissioned by the Jekyll Island Club is on display in Dubignon Cottage in the Jekyll Island Club National Historic Landmark District. Tours of the historic district are available through the Jekyll Island Museum on Stable Road, (912) 635-4036.