Sennes, Elmer O. – American Clockmaker & Cabinetmaker – Massachusetts

A mahogany dwarf case clock by Elmer Stennes with rocking ship in arch

p4A ItemID E8897875
An Elmer O. Stennes lyre banjo clock, mahogany, throat with scrolling leaf carvings, reverse painted throat glass with gilt cornucopias on a white background

p4A ItemID E8897824

p4A ItemID F7993487
A girandole Aurora banjo clock by Elmer O. Stennes

p4A ItemID F7991748

Elmer O. Stennes: Clockmaker, Cabinetmaker and Murderer

In the antiques world a good story can add as much to the value of an object as its quality or rarity. That story or history of an object is known as the provenance. Provenance that is mixed with violence seems to add an irresistible appeal. So it is with the clocks and other creations of Elmer O. Stennes (1911 to 1975), an East Weymouth, Massachusetts cabinetmaker and clockmaker.

Although Stennes is best known for his excellent reproductions of Early American clock cases, which echo the designs of Silas Hoadly, Lemuel Curtis and the renowned Willard Family, events in his personal life have endowed Stennes clocks with a special collectibilty. On December 2, 1968, Stennes, who was known to be argumentative and abrasive, murdered his wife, Eva, in the kitchen of their East Weymouth home. Apparently the couple argued over a matter of Elmer’s infidelity, whereupon he shot her in the head with a .357 magnum derringer.

Stennes pleaded to a charge of manslaughter and served a little more than two years in the Massachusetts Correctional Institution. There he taught carpentry and carried on his clock case business using the prison equipment and fellow inmates as assistants. After his 1972 parole Stennes returned to his cabinet shop located near his home at 1 Tick Tock Lane. He remarried in 1972 to Phyllis Means, an attractive and well-to-do widow. Elmer’s good fortune was short lived. Around midnight on October 4, 1975 Stennes and his wife were brutally shot in their bed by intruders. Although hit seven times, Phyllis survived. The suspects included Elliot, Stennes’ son by Eva and some of Elmer’s dissatisfied prison acquaintances. Apparently there was insufficient evidence to charge anyone. To add to the mystery, Esther Stennes, another child by Eva, committed suicide, and her employer and a salesman of Stennes’ clocks died under unusual circumstances.

Stennes must have been a virtuoso. He made clocks of every description: banjo clocks, shelf clocks, along with grandfather and grandmother clocks. Besides the cabinetry, he carved, gilded and painted his beauties, often using antique works, which he rebuilt, mainly from E. Howard and Chelsea wall regulators. Stennes generally signed his clocks on the dials and stamped the works with his name. Demonstrating his quirkiness, Stennes branded the clocks made while he was awaiting trial with O.O.B., signifying “out on bond”. And the clocks made while incarcerated were properly marked M.C.I.P. for “made case in prison.”

Elmer Stennes’ clocks are beautiful reproductions of antique American 19th century examples. But based on their selling prices at auction (documented by P4A), they have an appeal beyond their intrinsic value. Now a reasonable person might wonder why such sordid events would lend value to a maker’s clocks. It seems that something in human nature triggers a desire for objects related to violent acts. In her article “Murder on Tick Tock Lane”, Jeanne Schinto describes a 1990s auction of contents from Elmer Stennes’ estate attended by his widow where the buyers were discussing bullet holes as well as dovetails. This interest in objects associated with the assassinations of prominent figures such as President Abraham Lincoln, President John F. Kennedy and Louisiana politician Huey P. Long are reminders of that appeal.

Elmer Stennes left collectors another legacy in the form of his loyal long-time assistant, Foster S. Campos, who became a talented clockmaker in his own right, perhaps exceeding his teacher. Operating in Pembroke, Massachusetts he produced highly prized replicas of Early American clocks until 1993. He died in 2007. Examples of Campos’ clocks appear in the P4A database.

Reference note by Robert H. Goldberg, p4A editor and an Accredited Senior Member of the American Society of Appraisers from New Orleans, specializing in the appraisal of antiques and residential contents. January, 2009.

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