John W. Downs (#18)

Last Updated: 5 Junuary 2019

John Downs
John Downs, 1924

John William Downs (1888-1959)

John William Downs(#18) was born 23 August 1888 to Thomas(#20) and Anna Downs(#21) in Eastham, Massachusetts.[i]  He was the second of six boys, and after the third was born, the family moved to Orleans, Massachusetts, the next town over.  John’s father, Thomas, was an operator on the transatlantic cable that had come ashore in Eastham.  The cable was moved to Orleans, and the family moved with it.  The Cable Company actually moved the houses of the employees to the next town.

The house was now situated on Tonset Road in Orleans on the Town Cove.  I know little about his youth other than he broke his leg.  The fact that he broke his leg as a kid, I learned from my father, but we find evidence of this on his World War I draft registration.  We learn there that he had an exemption because he had dependents (he was already married and had a kid) and he had a disability.  The draft record notes that one leg was 3/8 of an inch shorter than the other.[ii]  This seems to fit what I heard about him when I was growing up.

After he graduated from Orleans High School,[iii] he attended Massachusetts Nautical School as a cadet and graduated in 1908.[iv]  (The school would later change its name to the “Massachusetts Maritime Academy” in 1942.)  After this, he went to sea with the Merchant Marine.

On 22 September 1914, he married Helen Hopkins (#19) in Somerville, Massachusetts.  On the marriage certificate, it lists his occupation as “Insurance Adjuster.”  He would spend the rest of his life involved in the insurance industry.[v]

He was a Free Mason and was initiated 2 July 1917, passed 4 September 1917, and raised 29 October 1917, in the Somerville Lodge.[vi]  He attained the title of “Royal Arch Mason” in St. Paul’s Royal Arch Chapter in Boston on 23 June 1922.[vii]  On 21 March 1923, He was made a “Knight of the Red Cross, Knight Templar, and Knight of Malta of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem,” in Boston (a mouthful for sure).[viii]  He was a Charter Member of the Russell Lodge in Arlington on 2 May 1924.[ix]  He attained the 32nd Degree in Scottish Rite of Free Masonry on 25 February 1944 in Boston.[x]  I’m not sure if this is a complete record of his Masonic activities, but this is what I can document.

In 1921, he began Law School at Boston University School of Law, where he was a member of the John Adams Senate (read “Chapter) of the Delta Theta Phi Law Fraternity.  I quote the write up on him from his yearbook from 1924, the year he graduated:

“Genial “Jack” is to be congratulated.  After spending two years “before the mast,”[xi] he entered the domain of the insurance world; then later he just naturally and easily became located in the legislative halls as a champion of the cause of insurance.  And now he has studied his way through three years of law.  We have had the pleasure of noting how he accomplishes things by his service as a member of the Student Council for three years.

“Another accomplishment! He is the father of a Class Baby.”[xii]

He spent the rest of his working career as a lawyer dealing with insurance matters, usually representing the insurance industry in the Massachusetts General Court (the state legislature) as a lobbyist.  He had an office at 11 Beacon Street on Beacon Hill in Boston, Massachusetts.

On 29 November 1944, he was appointed Commissioner of his alma mater, Massachusetts Maritime Academy, by the Governor of Massachusetts, Leverett Saltonstall.[xiii]

In 1949, he attended the 25th reunion of his law class.  I’ll quote his write-up for that event:

“Counsel for various insurance interests.  Trustee of the Charlestown Five-Cent Savings Bank – married and has three children and six grandchildren.  Time largely occupied in representing insurance companies in rate making hearings and similar matters throughout New England.”[xiv]

He was described in a newspaper article addressing his work as an insurance lobbyist as “among the most competent and successful.”  The article went on to say:

“John Downs represents the big insurance interests and legislators seeking information about the broad subject of insurance never hesitate to seek his counsel, because they can rely on his facts.  It has been his practice to refrain from deception.  If the facts on a given subject are detrimental to his case he nevertheless will give them to the inquiring legislator and that is why he stands so well with them.”[xv]

He would take his family to a house they owned in Chatham, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod for the summer.  Sometime during the mid-1930s, he bought a large parcel of property on Tonset Road in Orleans, just down the road from the house where he grew up.  He purchased the property from Clayton Mayo(#7664) of Singer Sewing Machine fame and half third cousin once removed of his wife, Helen (Hopkins) Downs.  The property already had a boathouse and a workshop by the water because Mayo used the land to keep his boat.  John Downs built the house after he purchased the property and he had a new summer residence on the Cape.[xvi]

John eventually bought a boat, which he named the Helen after his wife, which seemed to be the custom at the time.  Harry Hunt, who owned the property on the Town Cove just to the northeast, named his boat the Gertrude after his wife.  The water by the shore of the cove was quite shallow and John used to keep his boat offshore a distance.  He used a small dinghy to go from the dock to where he kept the Helen anchored but instead of tying the small boat to the fixed anchor line during his excursion, he would just tow it behind him.

That whole shore along the cove in that area was occupied by Downs families to the point where that area became known locally as “Downs City.”[xvii]  Within sight of so many of his nieces and nephews, his practice of towing the dinghy gave rise to a popular remark, “There go Uncle John and his tender behind.”  This was an obvious play on words and a reference to the naval practice of referring to boats or ships that serviced other ships as “tenders.”

He was a member of the First Congregational Church of Winchester, where he was a member of the Pulpit Committee.

In 1957, John was being treated for a hernia and it was then that he learned that he had cancer and it had spread to other organs.  He passed away on his 45th wedding anniversary on 22 September 1959 in Winchester, Massachusetts and he was laid to rest three days later in Orleans Cemetery in Orleans, Massachusetts.[xviii]  His grave is about 1000 feet from the house he was born in.  I know, he was born in Eastham and buried in Orleans but remember I said that they moved the house when the family moved.  Our family has always been fond of saying that Thomas and Anna had six boys, three born in Eastham and three born in Orleans… and all in the same house!

Genealogical Charts and Pages
John W. Downs (#18) Ancestry
Vital Information for John W, Downs (#18)

[On sources: I’ve listed 18 sources below but much of the information used in this biographical sketch is stuff I just know because he was my grandfather.]

Photo Credit: The picture at the top of the page is from his 1924 yearbook, sourced below.

[i] John William Downes [sic], birth certificate (B 4154 (1888), The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Office of the Secretary of State, Archives Division, Vol. 385; page 8; No. 4).  Rec. Date: 4 Feb 1889.  On this document, “Downs” is consistently misspelled as “Downes.”  This is taken from an official copy in possession of the author and dated July 10, 1989.  John Downs, son of this individual requested this copy and carried on a correspondence with the Commonwealth concerning this error.

[ii] John W. Downs, draft registration card, World War I, no. 20-5-19-A (1917), online <; downloaded 24 January 2005.

[iii] Boston University Law School, The Brief, (Boston: Boston University School of Law Yearbook Committee, 1924)

[iv] The Massachusetts Maritime Academy Alumni Association Web Site, online <;, downloaded 25 June 2005.

[v] John William Downs and Helen Susan Hopkins, marriage certificate (No. F001147 (1914), The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, State Department of Public Health, Registry of Vital Records and Statistics, Vol. 626, page 749, no. 695).  Rec. Date: 8 Oct 1914.

[vi] Massachusetts, Mason Membership Cards, 1733-1990 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2013, accessed 18 December 2018.

[vii] Masonic certificate belonging to John W. Downs, now in possession of the author.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Massachusetts, Mason Membership Cards, 1733-1990.

[x] Masonic certificate belonging to John W. Downs, now in possession of the author.

[xi] This is a reference to Richard Henry Dana’s memoir, Two Years Before the Mast.  In it, he explains that the term “before the mast” meant you were a common seaman with quarters in the fo’c’sle (forecastle) of the ship.  The officers had better quarters further aft.  (If you don’t want to be identified as a hopeless land lubber, pronounce it “folk’-sul.”)  Dana had shipped aboard a sailing ship in the early 1800s for a two-year journey and he wrote a book about his experience.  It just so happened that John Downs’s stint with the Merchant Marine was also two years.

[xii] Boston University Law School, The Brief, (Boston: Boston University School of Law Yearbook Committee, 1924)

[xiii] “Certificate Appointing John Downs to Commissioner of Massachusetts Maritime Academy,” (in possession of the author.)

[xiv] Boston University Law School, The Brief, 25th Reunion Newsletter/1949 Edition.

[xv] Unfortunately, this article was clipped from a newspaper without any banner or margin material; hence I have no knowledge of what paper it was clipped from, or even the date it appeared.

[xvi] I have pictures of the property from when Clayton Mayo owned it, showing the boathouse and workshop but with no house on the bluff.  My father (John’s son) once told me during a discussion of the Orleans house that my grandfather built it during the Great Depression.  This was during my father’s lifetime and he probably would have been a young teenager at the time.

[xvii] Hopkins, Giles E., Have You Anything to Teach Me? (New York, NY, unpublished manuscript, 6 November 1951)

[xviii] John Wiliam Downs, death certificate (The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Executive Office of Human Services, State Department of Public Health, Registry of Vital Records and Statistics).  Rec. Date: 23 Sep 1959.  This is an official copy with a raised seal in the author’s possession and dated July 13, 1989. Certificate no. A263064.