There’s a saying that when you’re taught history in elementary school, you’re given a basic understanding of what happened in the world. In high school, you’re told what you were taught isn’t actually quite right; by college everything you thought you knew is wrong.

It’s the difference between finding out George Washington’s teeth weren’t made of wood but rather other materials, like ivory, and finding out that some of the teeth in his dentures were actually human teeth — possibly those of slaves.

History, as much as we’d like it not to be, is complicated. Depending on where you’re standing, the story can look different.

Which is why to some, Charles K. Landis, founding father of Vineland and Sea Isle City, might be seen as a benevolent visionary who worked tirelessly to improve the lives of the working man, and to others, a deranged murderer.

The reality is, Landis was more complex than that.

By most accounts, Landis was brilliant. At 15, he entered law school, and by 19, he started his own practice before he realized he had a taste for real estate.

Many years after developing Vineland, he penned an unpublished sci-fi book about life on Mars — years before anyone had even considered the idea that the planet could be inhabitable.

When Landis came to Vineland, it was said to be the “dream of a lunatic.” This wouldn’t be the first — or last time — someone would call him that, but if the former Philadelphia lawyer heard it, it never deterred him.

The land wasn’t much to look at in the early spring of 1861, but in Landis’ eye, he saw a utopian society paved with tree-lined streets, fruit farms, flower beds, railroads and a society free from the ills of liquor.

By his own account, Landis woke early, hitting the unpaved streets of Millville where pigs — yes pigs — ran at large. Soon, he was certain the town was everything he was looking for.

War loomed close, as seven slave states had recently seceded from the union by the time he arrived in Millville, and by that April, the first shots of the Civil War would ring out.

Patricia A. Martinelli, curator of the Vineland Historical and Antiquarian Society, said Landis was passionate about the projects he worked on, but he had a stubborn streak. Getting his own way didn’t always “endear him to certain friends and family members.”

“We try to stereotype as a matter of mental shorthand when we look at history,” she said. “But when you pull away the layers on someone like Landis, you’re going to find those complexities and nuances like every person — but he was such a public figure, that’s what made the difference.”

What Landis dreamed eventually became a reality. By the summer, construction on Vineland was underway and he purchased 22,000 acres from Richard D. Wood before slowly buying more until he owned 32,000.

When he got to the community, Martinelli said he paid the German immigrants and black residents living in the area an unheard of $1 a day to help set up Vineland.

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Streets of Vineland. Identified by caption as the residence of Charles K. Landis. Date unknown. 

Fruits flourished — particularly the town’s grape orchards — and in 1869, Thomas Bramwell Welch began making “unfermented wine” for church services, later becoming Welch’s Grape Juice.

Landis advertised Vineland, and people from all over the country — and even as far flung as Europe — came to Vineland to start a new life. For some of the immigrants who settled, it was the first time some of them had ever owned their own land, said Martinelli.

With railroads coming in and out of the town, access to major cities such as Philadelphia became easier than ever before.

“This is someone who is interested in modern technology. He was always looking at ways to make his communities better, but Vineland rapidly became the cultural mecca very early on and it was nationally known and respected as a successful utopian community,” said Martinelli.

Just as he had pictured from the start, the town stayed tavern-free, and he later wrote that he didn’t see how residents could have succeeded without temperance and industry from the get-go.

The winter after founding Vineland, Landis wrestled with doubts and even wrote that he felt depressed when he’d look out at the vast, unsettled wilderness still in front of him. He later wrote there was no one he could lean on for assistance and encouragement, and the financial responsibility at the time was was daunting.

But by the fall of October 1868, the founder would find love — much to the surprise of townsfolk — when he married the daughter of Capt. Richard Meade, Clara F. Meade.

By the time the pair had wed, Clara Meade’s uncle, General George W. Meade, was somewhat of a rock star, having defeated Confederate General Robert E. Lee at the Battle of Gettysburg.

Their marriage would last only eight years. Their firstborn son, Henry Meigs Landis, died young, and while some accounts say he died from a rat bite, more recent research leans toward cholera.

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Shown is Charles K. Landis’ house in Sea Isle City on 44th Street. Inspired by his European travels, he dreamed of digging canals that would turn the island into a little Venice of sorts. In 1881, he started the Sea Isle City Improvement Company.

Rumors and small towns have a tendency to go together. The editor and publisher of The Vineland Independent, Uri Carruth, had been a critic of Landis. But when he published a rumor that Landis wanted to commit Clara to an insane asylum, it must have crossed a line.

To the outside, Landis had everything going for him in 1875; his town was thriving with 20 schools, four post offices and railways.

On March 18, taking the article with him, Landis went to Carruth’s office and shot him in the head.

Carruth languished for seven months until finally dying of an abscess around the wound. Testimony from his sister indicated he went blind and suffered constant pain.

Ironically, Carruth’s move to Vineland from the Midwest was prompted by one of Landis’ ads touting the town’s “healthful climate.”

Landis’ murder trial became high-profile — think O.J. Simpson — with spectators crowding around the courtroom in Bridgeton.

Testimony from former employees and doctors detailed Landis’ erratic behavior leading up to the killing: He stopped eating, sleeping, and for a time, expressed fears about being assassinated.

Even the sheriff who arrested him testified he locked Landis in a cell because he was “afraid he would do himself bodily harm.”

Landis was found not guilty by reason of insanity — a verdict that brought mixed criticisms.

Landis and Clara divorced and his sister Matilda raised the children, while Clara would go on to marry a German nobleman. According to Martinelli, Clara wasn’t a victim in their relationship and Landis treated her well.

“You have to remember, this is a young woman who grew up in high society and used to live a very luxurious lifestyle,” she explained. “When it came to Vineland, it was very much a Wild-West frontier town — I don’t know if she ever successfully adapted to living in Vineland.”

With a messy trial behind him, Landis set his eyes toward Ludlam Island in 1879, now known as Sea Isle City.

Inspired by his European travels, he dreamed of digging canals that would turn the island into a little Venice of sorts. In 1881, he started the Sea Isle City Improvement Company and the rest would be, as they say, history.

Landis left a formidable legacy behind when he died June 12, 1900, at age 67, with the once-infamous murder trial absent from his obituary.

However, this wouldn’t be the last time the Landis family would see the inside of a courtroom. Landis’ two youngest sons, James and Richard, were excluded from his will.

Their aunt, Matilda, was named the executor of Landis’ estate. Though the two sons contested it in court on the grounds that Landis was found “insane,” they lost. The courts found Landis to be perfectly sound of mind.

If you ever wonder if history repeats itself: James would go on to shoot at a lawyer he felt was having unscrupulous relations with his wife. But in a twist of fate, all for the better, James missed.

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609-272-7217 MRuss@pressofac.com Twitter @acpressmruss