Abby Jane Wade

Crime and the Press in the 19th Century

During the nineteenth century, people got their information either from things that were written on paper (if they knew how to read at all, which was far from guaranteed) or from things they heard from people sharing actual physical space with them. That was it.

And in fact, it was plenty. Many people wrote letters constantly – expecting to hear from friends and relatives weekly, if not more often – and newspapers proliferated like mushrooms after a good rain. There were also magazines and books, of course, not to mention paintings, etchings, and other forms of popular visual media, especially in the latter part of the century, when photography also made its appearance.

But right now I’m going to talk about newspapers. And Abby Jane Wade of Hartford, Connecticut.

Then as now, one of the mainstays of newspaper coverage was crime and criminals, especially if the crime was gruesome, bizarre, or offered the opportunity to mock or demonize the members of disfavored racial, ethnic, or other groups. Abby Jane Wade’s short career as a public figure (1858-1869) hit each of these notes at one time or another.

She was, as far as I can determine, a person who was disadvantaged from very early in her life. In Nancy Hathaway Steenburg’s Children and the Criminal Law in Connecticut, 1635-1855: Changing Perceptions of Childhood (2005), she appears as an example of how the state would sometimes ignore concerns about the well-being of young people, including of young women, and send them to the state prison anyway. Abby Jane Wade (or Abby Jane Wilcox, as she apparently was also known) had been arrested for breaking into a house in the town of East Lyme and stealing a watch and some clothes, and also for stealing a horse. She was sentenced to a total of four years in the state prison despite being a minor (under the age of 21, at that time).

An explanation of the court’s decision lies in the court’s belief, repeated by Steenburg, that Wade was “a transient young woman.” Transient was a more polite word than vagrant, but the implication was same: a person who had no fixed place of abode or employment was inherently suspect and a threat to society.

Did you think our modern attitudes toward unhoused people just sprang out of nowhere?

Linda K. Kerber, in her No Constitutional Right to Be Ladies: Women and the Obligations of Citizenship (1998), offers a partial explanation of the basis of this view: one of the assumed, generally unspoken obligations of citizenship seems to be the obligation not to be a vagrant. This automatically criminalizes anyone who is, or appears to be, unhoused and/or unemployed. As a transient person, Abby Jane Wade was someone who the court “naturally” believed needed to be punished, and her actual criminal acts only added to that need.

Her initial case does not appear to have made any impression on the public. She became famous because of what she did in 1858, after her release from the state prison. The story was, apparently, initially reported in a newspaper called the Hartford Courier, but this text is from the October 26 edition of the Evansville Daily Journal in Ohio:

A girl about twenty-five years of age, by the name of Abby Jane Wade, who had been an inmate of the Connecticut State Prison four years, and was discharged on expiration of sentence a year ago, was found early Sunday morning in the female yard of that prison. Her excuse for this breach of courtesy was her longing for better living than she had been able to obtain since leaving—a strong desire to visit old friends—and again to breath[e] the atmosphere of home. A description of her appearance can be summed up in two words—dirt and rags. After a short confinement she was taken out of the front entrance and advised to leave.

The necessary ingredients for press attention were bizarreness (breaking into a prison!) and mockery – in this case, of a poor person with no resources and no help. Similarly, the Detroit Free Press printed a short version of the story on October 27:

STRANGE ATTACHMENT - Abby Jane Wade, 25 years of age, who was discharged quite recently from the Connecticut State prison, after four years’ imprisonment, was found early last Sunday morning secreted in the enclosure around the prison, and, finding herself discovered, begged piteously to be allowed to remain.

Here, the paper seemed to be emphasizing the weirdness of the event, I think. Not all newspapers have been digitized for searching on, but if it appeared twice, it seems likely that the story was reported in others as well. Although apparently not in the Hartford Courant, perhaps because they did not want to print it after one of their rivals had scooped them.

I have not learned exactly why she was arrested and imprisoned again, but on May 14, 1860, the warden of the state prison reported that she has escaped. From his notice in the Hartford Courant we have a description of her: “short in stature, round featured, fair complexion, black eyes, 23 years of age. Wore away a linsey dress, with a red stripe.” On May 18, he followed up in the Courant with a $25 reward for her return to the prison.

The reward may have been prompted by something reported in the Hartford Weekly Times on the same day: That she had slipped back into the prison and stolen some food. As the paper reported it:

WADING OUT AND WADING IN: Abby Jane Wade, who escaped from State Prison the other day, has since returned merely for a call, and is gone again. Night before last she scaled the yard wall by the help of a tree, and provided herself with provision from the kitchen, The only way the fact was ascertained was that she left a piece of her dress in her haste. She did not disturb any one, as the hour was late, and it was somewhat inconvenient for her to call earlier. Gen. Welles, of Wethersfield, found that one of his cows had been milked the same day, so that the inference is that Abby Jane luxuriated, at a late supper, on bread and milk. Very likely the time is not distant when she will make a longer visit to Mr. Webster, of the prison, and his family.

Here again the story is treated as humorous: describing her supposed entrance as if it were a social call. This time, perhaps the security arrangements of the prison were the target of the joke as much as the desperate young woman.

On May 22, “Miss Abby Jane Wade” was still at large, and the HartfordCourant finally reported on the fact. I strongly suspect that the paper’s use of “Miss” was intended to be ironic. It mentioned her theft of food from the prison, and went on to add a new anecdote:

This is not the first time that Abby Jane has fled from the face of man. A short time ago she lived with a family in this city. One morning, Abby Jane and a gold watch, belonging to the mistress of the house, were individually and collectively missing. All search for her was fruitless. A week afterwards, the lady of the house, in going down cellar one evening, was startled to see a hand resting on the stairs. She did not know who might own it, but she captured it and gave the alarm. As soon as help arrived, the person who was attached to the hand was drawn out from under the stairs. It was Abby Jane. She had lived a week under the floor of a woodhouse, reaching her nest by removing some of the stones which walled the cellar. At night she came out and helped herself to rations, and was upon a trip for the benefit of her commissary department when she was captured. Abby Jane very likely regained her liberty through a drain, if such an institution leads from the prison to the outer world; though it is not impossible that she yet remains within its walls.

Here again, we have a strange and unusual situation, written about with humor by the newspaper. What is not mentioned in the piece is whether the watch was found, and whether Wade was prosecuted for stealing it. Did she go into hiding because she feared being blamed for the loss of the watch? If she had stolen it, and been able to sell it, surely she would have had some money to get food. The story also does not say whether she was a servant in the house or a charity case; but I think that if it was the latter, then it would have been mentioned as another point of drama. A live-in servant was not unusual for the time and her status as such might have seemed obvious.

On the same day, The Louisville Daily Journal (in Kentucky) revisited the breaking-back-into-prison story in a short paragraph, adding that Wade had been returned to prison for stealing $500 from a Mr. Kennedy in the town of East Hartford. This piece seemed to play on the weirdness of it all, rather than looking for opportunities to mock the subject of it. On May 25, The Bridgton [ME] Reporter reprinted an item from the Hartford Press dated May 15 that brought readers up to date on her escapades, stating that she scaled the prison wall on Monday morning, “while the matron was giving directions to another prisoner about the breakfast.”

On June 6, the Hartford Courant was able to report that Wade had been captured, in a relatively lengthy article full of ironic mockery, in which the writer gave the impression of reporting on a peculiar species of animal and its habits. The piece is too long to quote in full, but here are some excerpts to show you what I mean:

ABBY JANE WADE.—This distinguished lady is again the subject of a news item. It will be recollected that she left her quarters at the State Prison a few weeks since, in a mysterious and ungrateful manner. She was there supported, free of expense, and no doubt furnished with the best the prison affords—well clothed, well fed, and well housed—accommodations vastly superior to her common lot.—Still, she yearned for the flesh pots of Egypt, and left. There is no accounting for tastes, and Abby Jane’s in particular … Abby Jane has a peculiar propensity for burrowing in the day time, and rambling about at night. While others take to a habitation and bed, she (Abby Jane) takes to barns, cellars and underground places for repose … reveling in filth and dirt would seem to be her delight; yet when cleaned up and properly dressed she talks well and appears like a likely young woman of about 20. …

Monday morning a careful and final search was made, when Abby Jane was found snugly stowed away in an old box under said barn [on a farm near the prison]. She was introduced to the light of day and marched back to her old quarters. She was dirty and ragged—that is, what there was left to make rags of. Her dress was gone and her whole covering was very scanty.

As in the rest of the news coverage, nowhere does this article suggest that Abby Jane Wade was a fellow human being whose circumstances should inspire sympathy, or at least regret, over whatever led her to behave like this.

Only a few months later, on August 10, the Hartford Courant reported that “Miss Abby Jane Wade and Miss Villetta Fairclough,” who had escaped from the State Prison on Tuesday night, had been given a meal (reportedly out of charity) by a man in Bristol, and repaid him by stealing his horse and wagon. A deputy sheriff pursued them and arrested them in Wolcott.

A Hartford Courant article from May 1860 reported that James Fairclough and Vinetta Fairclough were given two years and six months at the state prison for theft, with no ironic or humorous commentary. In July, the federal census marshal arrived at the state prison and counted James Fairclough (age 25, born in Connecticut, imprisoned for theft) and Abba J. Wade (age 26, born in Connecticut, imprisoned for theft). There was no Villetta Fairclough, but there was a Venetta Whitney (age 30, birthplace unknown, imprisoned for theft). Only Wade was notorious enough to appear more than once in the newspaper.

She remained out of sight of the available sources, however, until June 14, 1864, when the Hartford Courant reported that

An old thief and State prison bird made her appearance in charge of an officer at the police station, last evening. She was no less a personage than Abby Jane Wade. Her ruling passion had led her to steal a dress, and, as she has started right, she will probably reach Wethersfield again eventually.

Wethersfield being the location of the state prison. When she appeared in court on June 15 (as reported by the Hartford Courant on the 16th), however, the victim did not appear, and she was released on her own recognizance. The reporter apparently spoke to her, with the following results:

The dress, she says, she never stole, but when asked why she burnt it up, replied that she was afraid she might be accused of stealing it, “and I’d rather burn up every dress I’ve got in the world than to be accused of stealing them, for that ain’t my way of doing things,” said she. This remark is considered rather cool for a recent inmate of the State prison, whose life has been devoted to thieving. If she leaves the city before next Wednesday [her next court appearance], the city will be the gainer.

He also noted that the chief of police had had her picture taken to add to his “rogues’ gallery.”

But the other thing that this report revealed is that in 1864, Abby Jane Wade had friends. There were no references to hiding in holes or dressing in rags in this article or in later ones, which I think can be attributed to having friends—perhaps ones she had met in jail. But they were not the kind of friends that the dominant society of the time considered appropriate for her, with her “fair complexion.” The paper noted,

Abby had a host of colored sympathizers around her, most of whom are habitues of the low haunts that thrive in Charles street, and with whom she is in the habit of associating.

The reporter did not need to say that this was, in his view, another stroke against her character; his readers knew that very well.

On July 1, the Hartford Courant reported that Wade failed to show up for the continued hearing, and she was not found until she was arrested in the town of Hebron, on the 27th, for stealing a horse; she gave her name as Abby Jane Wilson, pled guilty, and was jailed there. “She evidently likes Wethersfield,” the reporter noted dryly, “and is figuring to reside there again.”

On March 14, 1865, the Hartford Courant briefly revisited the police departments rogues’ gallery, naming Abby Jane Wade, “now in the Tolland county jail for stealing a horse,” as one of the “sitters.” On December 4, the same paper reported the minor headline “Abby Jane Wade Heard From,” noting that “it was generally supposed she was in the State prison or county jail as usual, but it seems she has lately been enjoying a surprise party—freedom from arrest—on Commerce street.” The notice came because a Black man had stolen a watch from her and been arrested – and “The fact is worthy of mention only to show an extraordinary incident in Abby’s life—that for once she appears as a loser by a theft operation. It isn’t her style, by a long shot.” Amused contempt was still the order of the day in this news coverage, even where she was the victim.

By November of 1867, Wade was doing well enough for herself that she had a house on Charles Street. (Presumably it was rented, and in any case the Hartford land record index shows no land purchases by her.) She played a minor role in a horrific crime: a shopkeeper was killed in the course of a robbery, apparently by accident, and a white Englishman and two Black men were arrested for it. The Black men, Alexander Henry and Samuel Lang (who was soon cleared of involvement) were found and arrested at Abby Jane Wade’s house. This matter was treated very seriously, probably because a man had died.

On February 7, 1868, the opportunity for contemptuous humor at the expense of both Wade and Black people had arisen, and the Hartford Courant reported as follows:

Chicken Raiders Gobbled

The Hartford police on Thursday arrested in the mansion of the celebrated Abby Jane Wade, on Charles street, a “small but select” party of some dozen or more negroes, who were about to enjoy a feast of “chicken doin’s,” supposed to be the result of a raid the previous night into East Hartford, which devastated the roosts of several persons there. The cheerful assemblage was at once transferred to the police station, to be in readiness to attend the levee of the police judge this morning.

It is, needless to say, unlikely that a poor woman like Wade lived in a “mansion.” The remainder is a specimen of the kind of racist humor that portrayed Black people as foolish clowns. The outcome of these arrests is not known.

The later reports from 1868 indicate that overall, Wade had become less interesting to the Hartford Courant. Her arrest on a charge of stealing 50 pounds of hay was reported factually on April 27, and so was May 9 report of her arrest for allegedly stealing a brass kettle. The newspaper attempted to revive the joke in its reporting on May 12:

Abby Jane Wade stole a brass kettle. As an expiation of this transgression of the eighth commandment and the revised statutes, she languisheth for one moon in the town house, and has to loan the city $7 and costs.

But a decade had passed since the incident of a young woman trying to return to prison caught the attention of the press, and if Wade was 26 years old in 1860, by 1868 she was 34 and had not done anything really outrageous for many years. The joke was old. The last mention of her that I have found in newspaper searches is from June 5, 1869, when a man was “arraigned for creating a disturbance at the ‘Red, White and Blue,’ kept by Abby Jane Wade.”

Although her name did not turn up otherwise, I did discover that this Red, White and Blue place—presumably a saloon—was also famous in its own way. On July 16, 1869, the Hartford Courant reported that “The notorious ‘Red, White and Blue’ house on Commerce street came near being destroyed by fire at about 3 o’clock yesterday morning. … Had it burned to the ground, the loss would have occasioned little regret in that neighborhood.”

And that is the end of the story.

Really. I have no idea where in Connecticut Abby Jane Wade was born, or to whom. I have not been able to find out whether she died or just became too boring to be featured in the paper. Perhaps managing a saloon provided enough money for her to avoid any more stealing. Neither she nor the Red, White and Blue were the type to be listed in city directories. Perhaps she married and changed her name, but I have not been able to find any evidence of that, either.

Abby Jane Wade became briefly famous for being young, desperate, and poor as dirt. Her society and its legal system considered her to be a threat to the proper order of things, to be disciplined by prison and public contempt. Her circumstances and actions were considered newspaper fodder because making fun of such people was entirely normal. Once she stopped being “interesting”—nothing more can be found about her.

I am, honestly, not at all sure that we have become any better than this.

What I’m Reading

As I mentioned above, I’m reading Linda K. Kerber’s No Constitutional Right to Be Ladies: Women and the Obligations of Citizenship (1998), which I picked up nearly at random at Nutmeg Books in Torrington.

As I mentioned on Twitter earlier this month, this book (which I haven’t even finished!) is one of two things I’ve read lately that really slapped me upside the head and said “You’ve been thinking about government all wrong!” The other is an essay critiquing the entire concept of the Supreme Court being the final arbiter of what is constitutional, which I am horrified to discover that I cannot find, even though I downloaded a copy. Drat.

Historical Notions: Operation Wigwam

Or, That Time When Risking Total Obliteration Was Supposed to Keep us Safe

And now for something completely different. We picked up this item, in a cheap frame, at a flea market in Connecticut last month.

“Certificate of Participation. Commander Task Group 7.3 Presents This Certificate to Henry J. Polinski, FN, 436 40 56, USN-U1, U.S.S. Wright (CV1-49), for Participation in the Underwater Atomic Test Operation Wigwam, 1955.” Signed, “John Sylvester, Rear Admiral, U. S. Navy, Commander.” Includes a colorful image of a Plains Indian teepee, with water behind it, overlaid on the profile of a modern warship.

When we took it out of the frame, we found this letter, dated July 27, 1955, tucked in behind it:

Subj: Commendatory Service During Operation WIGWAM

1. The Underwater atomic test, Operation WIGWAM, in which you participated was conducted on the Pacific during May 1955.

2. The high state of readiness, application of professional skill and efficiency required of each individual in the performance of his duties was reflected in the successful accomplishment of this unique and unprecedented operation.

3. The Task Group Commander takes pleasure in commending you in recognition of your services that contributed to the fulfillment of the mission of the task group, and thus ultimately to the successful completion of the operation.

I don’t know how common this kind of commendation was, but the event it commemorates definitely was not common – if a series of tests numbering over 1,000 can truly be considered “not common.”

Almost ten years before Operation Wigwam, in July 1945, the United States had carried out its first nuclear bomb test (code name “Trinity”) in New Mexico, followed the next month by the deployment of nuclear bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. Another series occurred in 1946, the first carried out in the U. S. occupied territory of the Marshall Islands.

Following the Soviet Union’s test of its own nuclear bomb in 1949, the United States began developing its next generation of atomic weapon. The testing area known as the Nevada Proving Grounds was established in 1951 and began being used almost immediately. The first U.S. thermonuclear device was tested in the Marshall Islands as part of Operation Ivy in 1952, although it was only an intermediate step. The Soviet Union tested its hydrogen bomb in 1953. In 1954, United States tested its first usable thermonuclear bombs in the Marshall Islands, under the code name Operation Castle, trying out different fuel mixes. Tests were conducted in the islands through 1958. Testing continued in Nevada through 1991, when the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty came into effect.

Yes. 1991.

Operation Wigwam, however, took place deep in the Pacific Ocean, some 500 miles southwest of San Diego, California. The purpose of the test was to study the potential effects of deep underwater nuclear explosions on submarines and surface vessels. There were 30 ships and some 6,800 personnel involved in the operation.

What they did is take a 30 kiloton nuclear device and hang it off a cable 2,000 feet long, in an area where the water was 16,000 feet deep. The barge it was hung off of was unmanned, and being towed about 6 miles behind the fleet’s tugboat. It seems they also attached to the towline a series of pressure-measuring instruments and unmanned surface boats with instrumentation. They also specially built and included some unmanned submarine-like hulls that they called, God give me strength and I would not make this up because I’m not a racist jackass, “squaws.”

The rest of the ships and all the actual personnel held station five miles upwind from the bomb barge, except for two that had been reconfigured had special shielding put on them, which were set up five miles downwind from it. They set off the bomb at 1 p.m. local time on May 14, 1955.

Operation Wigwam Underwater Atomic Explosion – photograph of a massive explosion plume above the surface of the ocean, with a few naval ships visible as well.

Polinski’s ship, the U.S.S. Wright, held the film lab where the radiation badges issued to the personnel were developed and analyzed – approximately 10,000 of them. They found that being upwind generally protected the personnel from the small amount of airborne contamination caused by the detonation. Even on the two ships that were stationed downwind, only seven personnel had badge readings above zero, in each case no higher than 0.20 rem (not nothing, but well below the safety standard).

So it’s nice to know that at this point, they were well aware of the dangers of exposure to radioactive fallout and put a lot of effort into protecting their personnel, as they rapidly worked out better and better ways to slaughter tens of thousands of civilians at a time.

Nuclear bombs were, obviously, a very serious business. For that matter, so was any operation that involved thousands of personnel and technicians and so forth. It was all happening under a veil of secrecy – though once the operation was over, things like certificates of participation were handed out, and written commendations put in the records of men like Polinski.

And let’s take another look at that logo.

Setting aside the fact that the graphic designer didn’t know or care about the difference between a teepee and a wigwam (a teepee is a tent, and a wigwam is a house), this four-color logo was designed to a professional standard. I have no idea who designed it (though I suppose one could find out). Notice how the ground inside the circle aligns visually with the naval ship profile outside the circle. The inclusion of the water horizon beyond the earth and the yellow zig-zag stripe and open entry flap on the teepee keep the whole thing from being too horizontal (as does the conical shape of the teepee). Even the double circle around the teepee keeps it interesting by swapping colors on a diagonal line.

Of course, the appropriation of Native American culture that was involved in the Navy using two distinctive types of their dwellings in the process of branding this operation, which was a dangerous experiment carried out for the development of a horrifically destructive technology of war, is also a next level settler colonial act.

Sometimes it’s the casual racism that gets me. Sometimes it’s the serious certitude, in history and in the present, that one of the worst possible courses of action is necessary. Today, the combination of the two is just about making my head explode.

Key References

Defense Threat Reduction Agency. “Fact Sheet: Operation WIGWAM.” Created May, 2015; accessed June 25, 2021.

United States Defense Nuclear Agency. Operation Wigwam Explosion, 1955. SIO Photographs Collection. SMC 59. Special Collections & Archives, UC San Diego. Accessed June 25, 2021.

May 2021

Surprises from the United Workers of Norwich (CT)

I picked up this pamphlet at the Brimfield flea market a few years ago based on its title. “United Workers!” I thought. “It must be a labor organization, cool!”

Friends, I was wrong. The United Workers of Norwich, Connecticut was a social welfare organization incorporated in 1878 for the purpose of “the relief of suffering and the elevation of destitute women and children” in Norwich. It was the type of organization that, remarkably, gets less attention from historians than labor organizations.

Then – 1878

Let’s take a look at the names of the founders, as listed in its charter, and then guess why the United Workers of Norwich doesn’t get much historical attention:

Sarah A. Huntington

Lucy A. Jewett

Maria P. Gilman

Sarah L. Giesey

Myra Mitchell

Fannie P. Palmer

Emily Davies

Carrie L. Thomas

Mary H. Seymour

Mary R. Greene.

See the common element there?

But wait, there’s more! The “United Workers” were not a grassroots organization of working-class people. No, I found nine of these 10 middle-aged white women in the 1880 census for Norwich, and they were all well-off enough to have live-in servants and support a variety of relatives and others. Two of them (Gilman and Thomas) had never married, yet were able to support multiple non-working relatives – that suggests inherited wealth. Four of them (Huntington, Jewett, Mitchell, and Davies) were widows, supporting adult and/or younger relatives with their own or their husbands’ money. In Jewett’s case, her household also included three 19-year-old Chinese boys who were students. Three of them (Giesey, Palmer, and Green) were married, two to clergymen and one to an iron manufacturer. Palmer’s household included a boarder who was artist named Mary A. Phipps.

In short, the founders of UWN were wealthy and generally conformist philanthropists, looking to make use of the energies they were not supposed to put into things that were claimed to be the male domain (like business, or politics, or science, or higher education). In 1878, the married women had only just gotten the legal ability to hold property in their own name, rather than their husbands’.

The organization’s charter (granted by the state legislature in 1878, and amended in 1889, 1893, and 1917) allowed it to hold up to $200,000 in real estate and also gave it “the same powers in regard to the adoption of children as are given by Section 471 of the General Statutes to the board of management of orphan asylums chartered by the state.”

Then - 1929

As of 1929, the UWN had been operating for 53 years. As printed in the annual report, its constitution stated that its purpose was “the promotion of practical benevolence in the Town of Norwich.” This is interesting, because there was also a City of Norwich, yet this document seems to ignore its existence. Unsurprisingly, given the time period, the group laid claim to the term “nonsectarian” by asserting that membership was open to “all earnest Christian Workers in the community.” That phrase may explain why it called itself “United Workers” – it was made up of people seeking to do good works (though only Christians). Also, in the course of outlining the officers’ roles, the constitution assumed that the officers would all be women.

So, 53 years on, what was this organization doing?

No, wait, let’s look at its finances. The bottom line of its financial statement was $963,687.47. Yes, that’s nearly a million dollars, in 1929 dollars. According to US Inflation Calculator, that would be $15,050,097.41 in today’s dollars. This organization was loaded.

But then, looking deeper, we find that it had $98,605.88 tied up in real estate – the United Workers’ House, the Rock Nook Children’s Home, and Sheltering Arms. They had also issued mortgage loans valued at $20,700, had $40,574.02 in six different savings banks, owned $458,086.79 in stocks, and held $332,860.46 in bonds. They were mainly operating off “interest and dividends” ($47,068.22), receipts from investments ($67,707.43), and receipts from legacies in cash ($47,241.40). 

This was, of course, the year during which the stock market crashed and took most of the economy with it. Remember, though, that this annual report was compiled in January 1930, when the scope of the rolling economic disaster had not yet become clear. No doubt its finances suffered in the succeeding years.

Turning back to the people and their activities, all of the officers and virtually all of the standing committee members were still women. The auditors (who needed to be accountants) were men, and there was an eight-member advisory board that was also all men (which included the organization’s attorney).

Let’s just look briefly at the seven top officers, using the 1930 census (first pause to breath and count to 10):

Mrs. Albert H. Chase = Ada R. Chase

Mrs. Charles B. Gilbert = Helen F. Gilbert

Miss Adelaide L. Butts

Miss Matilda Butts

Mrs. Harvey M. Briggs = Hortense M. Briggs

Mrs. Henry H. Pettis = Martha A. Pettis

Mrs. William H. Oat = Anna L. Oat.

This was a much more middle-class group, still middle-aged, and with much smaller households. Only two (Chase and Gilbert) had a live-in servant, but then such arrangements were much less common in 1929. Their spouses were in sales (hardware, auto supplies), a lawyer, and the editor and the publisher of the Norwich Bulletin newspaper. The Butts sisters, both in their 70s and never married, lived together with no one else. And there was one major departure from the 1878 group: Helen F. Gilbert gave her occupation as high school teacher.

I did notice, as I went through the report, that the women submitting the committee reports did put their own given names on them.

We could be here forever looking at the rest of the vice presidents and committee members. Instead, let’s talk about the committees, briefly. There was one for the United Workers’ House, which held offices and classrooms; the committee’s secretary included a line in her report that endears her to me, saying that “we all know that an old house requires eternal vigilance to keep it in good repair” (p. 9).

This house was at 9 Washington Street, and a little judicious searching found a scanned photograph of it posted on Facebook. At present, it appears that the building no longer exists.

The Family Welfare Department, headquartered here, rendered assistance to 305 families, ranging from medical and dental treatment to employment assistance to cash loans, as well as material goods; they also collected and distributed Thanksgiving dinners and Christmas toys and candy. The Public Health Nursing Department undertook prenatal and newborn education and care, work with handicapped children, tuberculosis care, smallpox vaccination, and miscellaneous medical care. They also were part of making “Alpine Light treatment” available to children at the Rock Nook Clinic. I think, based on some quick research, that this treatment involved therapeutic application of ultraviolet light. Altogether the visiting nurses and the clinics worked with over 3,000 patients during the year. There was also the Club Committee, which did “Club Work.” The committee report clarifies that they gave cooking and sewing classes to girls, apparently using the headquarters classrooms.

The Norwich Neuropsychiatric Clinic was a program in its sixth year, and was about to change its name to Norwich Mental Hygiene Clinic. This isn’t the place to go into the whole concept of mental hygiene – it’s complicated in all the ways that early mental health movements were – and anyway the committee’s report talked far more about education and going to meetings than actual activities. It was apparently located in Backus Hospital.

The Sheltering Arms was apparently a small convalescent home. This facility was started as one of the UWN’s first projects and was originally located in this building:

According to Old Houses of the Antient Town of Norwich, 1660-1800 by Mary E. Perkins (1895), this house (built by the fourth Thomas Leffingwell some time after 1733) was on the old Canterbury road, and was sold to the United Workers in 1878, who used it to aid “the sick and the suffering” (p. 48).

By 1929, however, the Sheltering Arms was located at 165 McKinley Avenue, according to the annual report. The City of Norwich’s online records say that the convalescent home there was built in 1925. Its staff cared for 23 patients during the year, held a number of special events, and received donations of a grandfather clock (from the family of a deceased committee member), dining-room china, and 148 items from the Needlework Guild.

The Rock Nook Children’s Home was an orphanage. Again according to Perkins’ Old Houses of the Antient Town of Norwich (p. 365), this was the building it was set up in:

The house seems to have been built before the Revolution by Jesse Brown, who ran a tavern in it. In this photograph, however, its appearance is much more mid-nineteenth century than that; Perkins herself noted that it was “much altered and modernized.” She also reported that it was donated to the United Workers by Moses Pierce, who had purchased in in 1855 (p. 367). According to the 1929 annual report, the facility held an average of 30 children a month, and also benefited from donations by the Needlework Guild.

The Riverside Home was apparently another convalescent home, which had 65 residents at the end of the year, but was not the property of UWN. It seems they had been given responsibility to “visit” or inspect it.

The volunteer staff, and the accountants, had the responsibility of managing the funds (including many memorial funds and restricted bequests) of an organization with multiple facilities staffed by paid employees and volunteers. In 1929, the women in charge, or at least the ones I looked at, had all been born before 1900. Had they had any formal education that helped them with the job? Or was it all “hands on” experience, because they were still pushing up against the limits that society had placed on their interests and ambitions? I don’t know. This is a newsletter item, not a thesis.

Now - 2021

The other thing about The United Workers of Norwich is that, over 140 years after its founding, it still exists, albeit under the name United Community & Family Services. It seems to have pivoted to the health care field (no more orphans or sewing classes), and is very active in the community and on social media. According to its 2020 annual report, issued while the COVID-19 pandemic was still grinding on, its operational revenue was $33,957,805 and its operational expenses were $35,703,813. No longer an all-female-led organization, it ran multiple health-related programs at schools in Norwich and was active in seven other eastern Connecticut towns as well.

Those 10 women in 1878, who did not yet have the right to vote, started an organization that lasted over 140 years – longer than most of the profit-making corporations founded by men at the time, which their socioeconomic status kept them from being part of.

Also, here is the location of the Sheltering Arms home (now including the Ross Adult Day Center), built in 1925:

And here is the location of Rock Nook Community Behavioral Health Programs:

Almost as fascinatingly, at some point during the twentieth century they moved their headquarters into the Governor Samuel Huntington House at 34 East Town Street:

Color photograph of a two-story frame house, painted yellow with white trim, with a pillared porch and a sign with the name, address, and historical status of the building.

So, if anyone out there is looking for a thesis project on American women’s charitable organizations in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, here you go. I found the 14th annual report (1891) scanned into Google Books, and further searching there found other “United Workers” reports from other cities. And I’ll give you a scan of the 1929 annual report, too.

The Ashton Cookbook

This is April's newsletter (really).

I decided to write up another cookbook from my collection, because it turned out to be even more interesting than I thought it was. Here is the cover:

This is actually a lined blank book, with all the recipes (except for some newspaper clippings) handwritten in it. Keep that “Treasury Department” information in mind as we go along.

Before we go into the people details, there are three vague clues about this book in the form of notes written in it:

(1) The inside front cover has the note “Small store Room” written in pencil.

(2) The reverse of the front page has the note “check out what you take out. Flo[   ]t for gen mess. Back for wardroom.”

(3) The inside back cover has the note “Wardroom Mess.”

These are not, of course, domestic kitchen related notes; wardrooms occur on warships.

Our first very specific clue is the name and address written in ink on the front side of the first page, which says:

Sarah L. Ashton

1019 Ashmun St

Sault St. Marie


c/o Wynn Apts

To deal with the short lead first, I searched for “Wynn Apartments” in Sault Ste. Marie and to my surprise turned up a relevant hit – Chippewa County businessman Robert J. Wynn acquired the Wynn apartment building in 1912.

The 1922 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Sault Sainte Marie, Chippewa County, Michigan (plate 29) shows 1019 Ashmun Street as one side of a three-story, six-unit apartment building.

Before anybody gets too excited about this delightfully specific information, here’s what that block looks like in the current Google Maps view:

That’s a Rite Aid and its parking lot, I don’t know why it has a marker that says “higi.” Mr. Wynn’s valuable apartment building, former residence of Sarah L. Ashton, is no more.

So let’s return to Sarah L. Ashton. For the longest time, I was convinced the first name was “Soval” and spent too much time trying to find anyone of that name. Finally I just started looking at Ashtons and found her entry.

First, though, I referred to some of the notes on the recipes in the book, specifically:

Mrs. Moore – Soo. Michigan 1938

Mrs. Meserve? Kezar Falls Maine, 1939

Jeanne Daughatry? Soo. Michigan, 1940

“Soo” means “Sault St. Marie,” seeing as the “Sault” is pronounced “Soo.” Anyway, this told me to look in the 1940 federal census. And there she was!

Connecticut-born Sarah Ashton was a married woman acting as head of household, living at 1019 Ashmun Street (one of three households at that address). Aged 30, she had a 10-year-old daughter Louise and a five-year-old son, helpfully named Peter Jr. Both children were born in Connecticut, but five years before the family resided in Portland, Maine.

So far so good, but where was Peter Sr.?

Answer: In the Coast Guard, on the USS Ossipee, stationed at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan.

He was Peter P. Ashton, 40 years old, and born in Ohio. Five years before, he was also in Sault Ste. Marie. Unfortunately, the census enumerator did not record the occupations of the Coast Guard sailors.

This explains the U.S. Treasury blank book, because at the time the Coast Guard was still in that department! And it explains the “wardroom” and “mess” references written in it! Peter must have taken his wife’s handwritten cookbook with him onto the Ossippee.

So to get a more complete picture of his couple, let’s go back to 1930, when Peter and Sarah had just married.

Sarah L. Ashton was lodging at 111 Blinman Street in Ward 3 of the City of New London, Connecticut, in the household of a widowed French Canadian woman and her young grandson. The form also tells us that she had married at 19, and that her father was born in Connecticut and her mother in Massachusetts. She did not give an occupation.

Peter was not living with her because he was in the “U.S.C.G. Receiving Unit” in New London, according to the census.

He was 30 years old, had married at 29, and reported that he and his parents were born in Ohio.

And his occupation was listed as “Ships Cook First Class.”

According to a simple index to Connecticut marriage records (1897-1968) created by the Connecticut State Library and accessed through, Sarah Jordan married Peter Ashton at New London, Connecticut on September 9, 1929. That’s consistent with the 1930 census information, which is great.

Since the censuses after 1950 are not publicly available, I turned to city directories to trace their movements before and after that date. And I made a Google Map to look up the various addresses:

The New London city directory for 1930 had them at 111 Blinman Street; in 1931 they were at 45 Willetts Ave; in 1932 they were at 77 Howard Street; in 1933 and 1934 they were at 59 Willetts Ave; and in 1935 they had removed to Portland, Maine. According to Google Maps, the current Blinman Street and Willetts Avenue buildings may be the same, while 77 Howard Street is now a modern commercial district.

An interesting but not surprising aspect of their movements has to do with Sarah L. Jordan’s parents. In the 1920 census, when she was 10 years and 9 months old, her family was living at 9 Stony Hill in New London, a road that no longer seems to exist. Her father, John J., was 48 years old and a house painter; her mother, Louise V., was 47. She had two older brothers, Joseph A. (22 and working as a flag man on the railroad) and Sherman R. (19 and working as an oiler at something beginning with M), and supposedly a younger sister, whose name started with L and was 1 years and 1 month old. The census enumerator’s handwriting included many unnecessary flourishes that make it hard to read.

In 1930, after all but the youngest child (now identified as a son named Leander B., age 17 and working as a grocery store salesman) had moved out, the Jordans were living in a two-family house at 77 Howard Street – the same place their daughter and son-in-law were listed in the 1932 city directory. By 1940, Sarah’s father John had died, and Leander was living with Louise and working as a salesman for a wholesale bakery.

After they moved to Portland, ME, Peter and Sarah stayed there for about three years (in 1935, only Peter was listed, on his ship; in 1936, their address was 177 Cumberland Ave, and in 1937 it was 44 Myrtle Street, and there was no listing or them in 1938).

Then in 1939, they turned up at 1019 Ashmun Street in Sault Sainte Marie. They were there in the 1940 census, and then not listed in the 1941 directories. Between 1942 and 1950 they were listed in the city directory as living at Cohanzie Road in Waterford (next to New London). In 1952, the directory said they had removed to North Carolina. The key thing here, though, is that in at least 1942 and 1944, the directory also listed Louise Jordan and Leander Jordan (who was actually in the army) at Cohanzie Road as well. Cohanzie Road no longer exists; according to a local news site, it is now called Vauxhall Street Extension. This is a very long road, so for the Google map I just picked the point where it intersects with I-395.

Also, from 1947 to 1950, Peter Ashton was listed in the directories as working at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy – not on a ship. According to the directory and census information – I don’t have access to Coast Guard personnel records – Peter Ashton as assigned to the Ossipee between 1935 and 1940. The Ossipee (specifically the WPG-50 iteration of the name) was a Coast Guard cutter built at Newport News, VA in 1915 and assigned to Portland, ME in that year. The ship was 165 feet long and 32 feet wide and apparently looked like this:

The ship was transferred to the Navy in 1917 and patrolled in the Mediterranean during World War I, then returned to the Coast Guard at Portland in 1919. It stayed there until 1935, where Peter Ashton joined its crew. It was then transferred to Sault Sainte Marie in 1936, and the other information indicates that the Ashtons moved with it. Then on November 1, 1941, the Ossipee was transferred to the Navy, patrolling in Lake Erie until June 1945, when the ship (then 30 years old) was decommissioned and sold to a private individual.

So: the period during which this cookbook could have been kept in the wardroom of a ship was only from 1935 to 1941. Why Peter would have borrowed this book from Sarah is another question. There appears to have been a Navy cookbook that was in use during that period. And presumably, since the 1930 census said he was a ship’s cook (first class), he had been trained in cooking by the Coast Guard. Still, it seems possible that this book served, however unofficially, on the US Coast Guard vessel Ossipee for some period in the 1930s. That is a most unusual history!

As to its owners, Peter P. Ashton (February 5, 1900 – August 5, 1959) died in a veterans’ hospital in Norfolk, VA, as a retiree from the US Coast Guard (though his residence was in Elizabeth City, North Carolina). This death record identified his wife as Sarah L. Ashton, and his parents as Jenny Brady and Charles Wesley Ashton. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. The gravestone recorded his service in the Coast Guard, World War II, and the Korean War:

It also stated that he was born in North Carolina. This is odd, because his obituary in the Raleigh, NC News and Observer stated that he was born in Youngstown, Ohio (which is consistent with the census information). He served in the Coast Guard for 30 years, ending his career as a chief warrant officer (a big step up from being a cook).

Sarah L. Jordan Ashton’s death was reported in the News and Observer in 1989, when she was 79 years old. The obituary said she was from Mystic, Connecticut (which is close to New London), and had been a busy volunteer in Greenville and in Elizabeth City (where she lived from 1950 to 1966).

How her cookbook wound up in a collection of miscellaneous papers being sold at the antique show in Brimfield, Massachusetts is a mystery that is likely to never be solved. Did she give it away at some point when she was in Connecticut, before they moved south? There’s no way to know.

This turned out to be an even more interesting story than I expected. I hope you enjoyed it too!

The Library of Benjamin Douglas, Part 1

A while back, I ran across the item-level inventory of Benjamin Douglas’s library in his 1775 probate record. It included no fewer than 60 titles, many of them multi-volume, and that is an impressive number of books. The inventory also included his wife Elizabeth’s books, because in 1775 a married woman’s property was legally her husband’s property, and that was another 12 titles, some of which were also multi-volume. They each also owned pamphlets that were not separately listed (3 for her, and 36 for him).

So who was this guy who owned so many books, and whose wife also was educated enough to have her own library? He is not famous, but frankly that is likely because he was only 37 years old when he died. The library tells us that he was a lawyer, because more than half of his books were law and law-related works. Guessing that he was a Yale graduate (the next guess would be Harvard), I looked him up in Dexter’s Biographical Sketches of the Graduates of Yale and there he was in Volume II. He was born in Plainfield, August 29, 1739, graduated from Yale in 1760, and joined the bar in New Haven in 1762, where he also resided, becoming King’s Attorney for New Haven County before his death.

His probate inventory shows that he was a slaveholder, keeping two people (a 20-year-old man and a 13-year-old girl, called Harry and Candice) in then-legal bondage. This fact did not, alas, prevent his contemporaries from believing that he was a delightful and universally-loved person. Would he have become a revolutionary? Would the concept of “liberty” have percolated through his mind well enough to imagine liberty for enslaved people? He missed his chance to show us, but his library does offer some hints.

In fact, I would not be interested in Benjamin Douglas outside of my research project if it weren’t for his library. Outside of the most wealthy and prominent families, the fate of most private libraries at the death of their owner is to be broken up and sold. Worse, probate inventories most often just refer to a “lot of books” and their collective value. Here, we have an itemized list. We can look through them to see what the books’ owners were reading – what food they were giving their minds.

Now, 32 of Benjamin’s books were law books, and most of those were basic reference texts about case law, specific legal theories, etc. The fact that he owned “Jacob’s Law Dictionary” only tells us that he was a lawyer. But there were two books that the men making the inventory lumped in with the law books, probably because they had the word “law” in their titles, that were not really law books. They were “Puffendorf’s Law of Nature &c” and “Burlamarqi’s Nat: & Pol: Law” in two volumes (the latter in octavo format, meaning they were printed in relatively small volumes).

These were actually works of Enlightenment philosophy.

“Puffendorf” was Samuel Freiherr von Pufendorf (1632-1694), whose work was originally written in Latin and called De Jure Naturae Et Gentium Libri Octo, or On the Law of Nature and of Nations in English. Published in 1673, it was translated and reissued many times; this edition [], from 1729, was probably pretty close.

“Burlamarqui” was Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui (1694-1748), whose works Principles du Droit Naturel (1747) and Principes du Droit Politique (1751) were later translated and published as The Principles of Natural and Political Law, again in many editions. This 1763 edition [] could have been the one that Benjamin Douglas had.

Natural law was a project of the Enlightenment, was intended to provide a rational, organized alternative to scriptural authority for the laws and rules of society. It included the concept of natural rights, and sought to use human reason to develop systems of law, morality, and ethics – with the same ultimate goal as religion, namely to create a just and orderly society. Unfortunately it drew on society as it existed at the time and tended to assume that the common denominators among existing systems represented “natural” laws. Thus, such Enlightenment thinkers quite often developed “rational” reasons for the existence of slavery, for the subjugation of women, for corporal punishment, and so forth. I’ve been disappointed in the Enlightenment since I realized that in many ways, its thinkers substituted “nature” for “God” instead of really taking human responsibility for human behaviors and systems.

But I digress. What these two books tell us about Benjamin Douglas is that he had received a mainstream eighteenth-century education in law and philosophy. Concepts of natural law were part of the ordinary furnishings of an educated man. In the year after his death, the Declaration of Independence would include in its first sentence the phrase “the laws of nature and of nature’s God.” Both the pro- and anti-independence sides of the Revolutionary argument used the same set of concepts, only reaching different conclusions from them.

I don’t recommend trying to actually read these two books – scanning their tables of contents will tell you a lot about them. It’s dense material even without the convoluted syntax that the writers of their period tended to use. Some of the other books he owned, which I’ll talk about in some later newsletter, will be a little easier on the brain.

What I’ve Been Reading

Meghan K. Winchell, Good Girls, Good Food, Good Fun: The Story of USO Hostesses During World War II (2008). An interesting sociocultural history of a phenomenon that was, when you really think about it, pretty darn weird and quixotic.

Kevin M. Levin, Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth (2019). This won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I appreciated Levin’s highly detailed review of the evidence and how it’s been misused to pretend that there were bunches of Black Confederate soldiers.

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