Murdered "Mill Girl" Memorialized At Maine Library March 10, 2010 – Tags: Berengera Caswell, books, Elizabeth De Wolfe, Maine Libraries, Maine Memory Network, McArthur Public Library, Murder of Mary Bean and Other Stories, public libraries, Sensation Novels
Saco, Maine 1850: The partially-clad body of a beautiful, young woman is found, bound to a board, floating in a stream. An immediate scandal ensues when the local police cannot identify the body. Newspaper reports take on an alarmist tone: Where is the girl’s family? Why is she alone and far from home? Who has brought about her untimely death, and why? A new online exhibit hosted by Biddeford, Maine’s McArthur Public Library reveals the history of this murder case so sensational it inspired three books in the years immediately following the crime, and yet another book over 150 years later.
As industrial workers, in this instance, as weavers in Maine’s textile mills, these girls had an unprecedented amount of freedom. They lived, relatively unsupervised, in boarding houses; earned enough money to support themselves and even, to a small degree, indulge themselves; and had opportunities to meet, and enter into romances, with men who no longer had to ask for parental permission to come a-courting. The emergence of this new urban woman was so troubling to traditionalists that the term “girl of the town” became for them a euphemism for “prostitute.” Clearly these girls had no idea of the dangers they faced now that they were no longer down on the farm. The death of the “Mill Girl of Maine,” would be spun into a cautionary tale to warn them of the dire consequences of their wicked ways.
A History professor at Biddeford’s University of New England, Elizabeth De Wolfe first came across the story of the Mill Girl’s murder when she happened upon two 1852 fictionalizations of the case in her husband’s bookstore, De Wolfe & Wood Rare Books. The books fascinated her: “As a scholar and a teacher of women’s history, [ it] was just too intriguing. Murder? Young women? In my backyard? A little research quickly revealed that the obviously fictional story was actually based on a real death. At that point I thought I was investigating a straightforward story. You can see…how complicated (and interesting) the story turned out to be.”
The nature of the 1852 versions of the tale are revealed in their complete titles: Mary Bean, The Factory Girl, The Victim of Seduction. A Domestic Story, Illustrative of the Trials and Temptations of Factory Life, Founded on Recent Events; and Mary Bean, Or The Mysterious Murder: Thrilling and exciting account of the horrible murder of Mary Bean, the factory girl : together with an authentic statement of George Hamilton…narrative of his intercourse with Mary Bean, and his betrayal of the beautiful but unfortunate girl, whose body was found floating in a mill stream in Saco, near Boston. Both were what were known as “sensation novels,” an odd genre that ostensibly attempted to warn readers of the perils of city life, but which in fact reveled in the vicarious thrill of recounting (and often amplifying) each and every salacious detail of a real-life crime.
The Confession Of George Hamilton For The Murder Of Mary Bean,
Written and Published by The Rev. Mr. Miller, 1852.
The only crime “George Hamilton” (Real name: William Long.)
was guilty of was being Mary Bean’s lover.
A spoonful of Mary Bean, The Factory Girl, etc. proves more than enough to get the taste of the tome’s stomach-turning flavor: “Not unfrequently impatient of restraint, and indisposed to listen to the voice of counsel, the unthinking female is ensnared in the toils of the destroyer, and being insidiously led onward, step by step, she awakes from her dream of fancied happiness, but to mourn over her dishonor, and the destruction of her cherished hopes. Such was the case with Mary Bean… Let those of her sex, then, who may chance to read these pages, be admonished in season, and not turn a deaf ear to those counsels, which, if regarded, would save them from misery and dishonor. ” Professor De Wolfe sums up the two novel’s sledge-hammered moral lesson: “The assumption here is if you’re single, you’re feminine, and you’re in the working world you are also having sex – and that’s going to kill you.” But she was left wondering: How different were these heavily-embroidered fictions from the simple fabric of the facts?
De Wolfe’s 2007 non-fiction book, The Murder of Mary Bean and Other Stories, allows readers to answer that question themselves. It contains a meticulously researched account of the actual crime, based on primary sources, followed by the complete text of two of the 1852 sensation novels it inspired. A bare bones narrative of the story, also written by De Wolfe, with contemporaneous photographs provided by The Maine Memory Network, a website devoted to providing Maine’s history online, are all a part of the McArthur Public Library’s online exhibit.
The photo — unidentified — has been passed down through
the family and the young woman pictured fits the physical
description of Caswell as recalled in period newspapers.
“Mary Bean” was in fact an alias, given to Pepperell Mills worker Berengera Caswell, by Dr. James Smith, a Saco “physician.” (He in fact had no medical training beyond what he had picked up from books and some short seminars.) Smith is listed in an 1849 Saco Directory as a “botanic physician,” meaning he relied on herbal remedies and treatments. He was apparently well-known among the factory workers for providing a specific remedy: an herbal concoction that was supposed to induce abortions.
Berengera Caswell, Canadian farm girl turned factory girl, sought out the services of Dr. Smith upon the advice of her lover, William Long. Berengera could not bear the shame of being labeled “a fallen woman” due to her out of wedlock pregnancy. But Long was not about to submit to a shotgun wedding. Dr. Smith “treated” Berengera, under the alias “Mary Bean,” with the usual herbal abortificients, but these failed to work. So in December 1849, Smith, not deterred by his complete lack of surgical knowledge, attempted to abort the fetus with an operation. This resolved the unhappy couple’s dilemma, but had a rather unfortunate side effect: Berengera suffered a systemic infection, and died a week later.
Dr. Smith proved as inept at disguising his medical blunder as he was in causing it: the board to which Berengera’s body was tied was an exact match to one that was missing from the physician’s barn. Abortion was a legal procedure in 1849, but Caswell’s resulting death was considered criminal: Dr. Smith was tried for murder. Hundreds of citizens from throughout Maine, and even the nearby states, avidly followed every twist and turn of the sensational court case.
But even Smith’s first-class lawyer, Nathan Clifford, who later became an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court, could not refute the overwhelming evidence against his client. Testimony from other physicians confirmed the botched abortion caused Caswell’s death. Eyewitnesses placed Caswell at Smith’s office, and later, his home. Most damning, Berengera’s younger sister, Thais Elizabeth Caswell, identified possessions belonging to the dead patient found in Smith’s residence. In 1851 Smith was convicted of second-degree murder, and remanded to the Maine State Prison. (An appeal, based on conflicting statutory and common laws, freed the Doctor two years later.)
The Caswell case became a cause celebre because it encapsulated the many fears of a rapidly changing society. The migration of thousands of young, single, women from rural to urban areas was seen as extremely dangerous to their moral character. And their presence also changed the make-up of the mill towns. As professor De Wolfe sees it: “The murder of Mary Bean reveals what was simmering beneath the surface of a no longer serene Saco.” The economic boom the textile mills provided was offset by a loss of a sense of community. (The population of Biddeford and Saco doubled between 1840 and 1850.) Long time residents of the area felt the crime and the trial proved they no longer knew, or could trust, their neighbors.
The trial also provided fodder for those who feared and resisted the idea of a women becoming economically and sexually free. The very term “factory girl,” consistently used in newspaper accounts, implied that a young woman’s time in the workforce was merely a temporary way station on the road to marriage and motherhood. No respectable girl would remain a paid employee any longer than was necessary before finding a husband, and becoming a housewife. (And needless to say, no decent girl would engage in premarital sex.)
Saco, Maine: Harris Publishing Hall, 1852.
The cover page states, “The Saco Factory Girl, Giving a Thrilling History of Four Years of the Life of a Factory Girl, From the Time She Left Her Father’s House at the Age of Thirteen, Until the Age of Seventeen Found Her a Ruined Female in New York City.”
This attitude was underlined when, in an attempt to smear Berengera Caswell’s character, a detailed listing of the victim’s clothing and jewelry was introduced as evidence at the trial. The conclusion to be drawn was that the self-indulgent, careless girl had squandered her wages on mere vanities intended to attract suitors. A calling card from an unknown man was also produced, which was said to reflect the victim’s low morals, and possible entanglements with more than one man. According to Professor De Wolfe: “The detailed attention to Berengera’s clothing is a clear indication of a problem people saw with mill girls: they were just too darned independent. The implication was, it was in part her fault.”
Perhaps the strangest part of the story of the mill girl’s murder is that even now many of the issues it raises remain controversial. Abortion, legal or illegal, is a hot button topic in 2010. The separation of sexuality from reproduction is still a moral issue for many. The concept that women must choose between a life centered on career, or one focused on marriage and motherhood, lives on. Today’s criminal lawyers still invoke defenses based on vilifying the female victim, implying that a sexually attractive woman “got what she deserved.” And aren’t the tabloids, with their bizarre mash-ups of fact and fiction, leavened by a dash of hype, and spiced-up with a pinch of moral outrage, today’s version of the “sensation novel?” How frightening that Elizabeth De Wolfe’s book about a 150-year-old murder case is somehow perfectly up-to-date.