In just a couple of weeks Mattapoisett will host the annual Harbor Days Triathlon, an event that began 32 years ago. Brush up on your triathlon history by viewing an historic list of winners: Harbor Days Triathlon Historic Results.
I picked up this photograph a year or two ago at a yard sale in Mattapoisett. I see old photographs now and then at antique malls and sales. Many are forgotten faces that nobody knows or remembers. This is mostly because nobody took the time to write the name of the person on the photo or kept the photo in the family.
This photo, however, has a name written on the back:
So, for a few dollars I bought the photograph and I thought I would find out who she was. I’ve done this before and it usually doesn’t take long to locate an identity through a little research.
I’m assuming she was local since the photographer is marked on the front of the photograph, “Sherman New Bedford, Mass.” The photographer is Francis P. Sherman, a Fairhaven resident who opened up a studio in October of 1886 at 174 Union Street in New Bedford. At that time the address was located at the corner of Union Street and 4th Street.
I haven’t had any luck tracking down Anne Nerbonne or Anne West. I found an Anne West living in New Bedford at 146 Union Street but that was in the 1830s, much too early for this woman.
Around 1910 I started seeing Nerbonne appearing in the census records. But no record of Anne Nerbonne.
I’ve also searched marriage records up to 1915 for a West/Nerbonne union in Massachusetts but no luck.
The closest match I found was a woman named Anne Paull Nerbonne who was born in 1897 and died in Fairhaven in May of 1995. I’ve ruled her out for a couple of reasons. The first being her birth year. I think she would be too young to be the woman in the photograph. I’m also going on the assumption that the woman I’m looking for had a married of West with her maiden name being Nerbonne.
I’ve come to a dead end trying to locate this dead person. It is possible that the name isn’t Nerbonne. I’ve tried variations of the name including Merboune, Nerbourne, Nerbone and others without luck. It is also possible that the name on the back isn’t the name of the woman in the photo. I could be a previous owner of the photograph.
I thought I would share this photo in the hopes that maybe a reader will have some thoughts on her identity or a descendent may happen to come across it and recognize her.
This Halloween children and adults of all ages will gather in front of Center School in Mattapoisett to take part in what has become a tradition that goes back quite some time. Just when it all started has been anyone’s guess. In 1983, Selectman John DeCosta thought the parade had started in 1965 under the direction of Police Chief Alden Kinney. In 1992, the Wanderer noted that the parade had been going on for the last 30 years placing the origin of the parade at about 1962.
In 1996, Police Chief James Moran noted that the parade had been going on for “over 35 years.” In 2003, the Board of Selectmen asked that if anyone knew how the parade tradition started to share the information. A couple of the board members knew it had been going on for over 50 years. In 2014, the “over 50 years” mark was again noted by Police Chief Mary Lyons in a letter to the editor reminding people of the upcoming event.
In fact, the Mattapoisett Halloween Parade tradition goes back much further than 50 years and seems to have been started by one man who gathered and led costumed children through the streets of Mattapoisett with a drum.
Abraham Skidmore was born in 1878 in Oxford, North Carolina to Ferry Skidmore and Jinny Nelson, who may have been former slaves. Not much is known about his early life other than he left North Carolina for Somerville, New Jersey before coming to New Bedford and then settling in Mattapoisett by 1899.
Skidmore worked as a barber in New Bedford where he may have met Anna Calhoun. Anna was from Newport, Rhode Island where she once worked as a servant at the U.S. Naval War College. In 1903, Abraham and Anna married in New Bedford. By this time Abraham was now cutting hair in Mattapoisett and was becoming popular with children in town. At some point he picked up playing drums and organized several bands over the years. In addition to playing in bands, he took his drum to the streets and was known for organizing and leading parades.
It was in October 1949 that about 125 children along with their parents, gathered outside of Abraham’s barber shop near Center School. The children were “dressed as witches, ghosts and all the other usual characters”. Abraham began banging on his drum and led the children on a march.
The parents lined the streets and the children marched alone with the exception of the children who “were too small to go unattended.” Those children’s parents would join them in the march. Abraham, led the children down Church Street toward Main Street. Once the parade got to Main Street, Abraham took a left turn down Water Street and march the children on Water Street to North Street back to Church Street leading them back to his barber shop. The children were then dispersed to attend Halloween parties. Abraham Skidmore and the 125 children and their parents had just taken part in a tradition that is still going on in Mattapoisett nearly 70 years later.
The next year the parade had grown to about 300 children and followed the same route as the previous year with parents carrying red flares at the head and rear of the parade. At the lead of the parade was once again, Abraham Skidmore. After the parade a party was held for the children at the Congregation Church where they played games and had refreshments. The older children, presumably junior high and high school kids, had a party at Town Hall where they took part in square dancing and games. Twelve children received prizes in a costume judging contest.
By 1954 the parade was considered a tradition and Skidmore once again lead cowboys, Dutch girls, black cats, Mickey Mouse and many other costumed children through the streets on Halloween. Later that fall, Skidmore became sick with pneumonia. In December he was admitted to Tobey Hospital in Wareham. He never recovered. Abraham Skidmore passed away at age 76 leaving behind a tradition that would continue to thrill children for generations to come.
If there were any questions about the fate of the parade they were answered quickly. In 1955 the parade was sponsored by the Mattapoisett Lions Club and was escorted by the auxiliary police. Taking over the drumming at the lead of the parade was Al Morgado, also a barber that now worked out of Abraham’s old shop.
The parade went on throughout the 1950s in much the same manner with Al Morgado drumming at the lead of the parade and the children taking part in parties at various locations. Preschoolers and first graders usually partied at the Congregational Church, second and third graders went to St. Anthony’s Church, the fourth and fifth graders had their party at Center School while the junior and senior high school students went to Town Hall.
Costume contests were held and were sometimes judged for prettiest, handsomest boy, handsomest girl, funniest, most original and most horrible. Typical costumes worn by the children during that time were ghosts, hob goblins, rabbits, Dutch girls, devils, ballerinas and Mickey Mouse.
The 1960s began to show slight changes to the parade. Early in the decade there was a modification to the parade route which started in the usual spot near Center School on Church Street and then headed north on Pearl Street. At Tobey Lane the parade headed west and dropped off preschoolers at a youth center for their party. The parade would continue on to Main Street and then to Depot Street where the first graders were left off at the American Legion Hall. The second and third graders went to Town Hall while the parade continued along Church Street where the 4th, 5th and 6th graders went to Center School and the 7th through 12th graders went to the Congregational Church for their respective community parties.
Costume contests were typically held at these community parties and 1962 was the first time it was noted that the parade was cancelled due to rain. Costumes also began to change from the traditional Halloween costumes of the 1950s with costumes such as the Great Pumpkin, Phyllis Diller, Lobsters in a Trap, hippies, Ned’s Point Lighthouse, the Town Dump and now and then, a pack of cigarettes.
The 1960s also saw the addition of the drum and bugle corps from New Bedford Post 1 or Fairhaven Post 166 leading the parade replacing Al Morgado. The American Legion Post bands were sometimes accompanied by the Plymouth Voiture 40 and 8 Locomotive. It isn’t known how long the American Legion posts led the parade but at some point in the 1970s the Old Rochester Regional High School Band led the parade and may have done so throughout much of the 1970s and 1980s.
By 1964, the parade began taking on its modern shape. The parade route reverted back to its original route. The community parties were cancelled that year and instead the parade ended at Center School where kids were treated with apples, ice cream and candy bars. There is no indication there was a costume contest that year.
The 1965 parade was much the same as the 1964 parade. However, that year’s parade had an upsetting moment when “teenage drivers from Fairhaven” sped through the village throwing lit firecrackers from their cars. It was noted that “malicious damage… can be attributed to this Fairhaven group whose behavior was very objectionable.”
If the costume contest didn’t take place for a couple of years it was back by 1966 with prizes of bicycles and tricycles awarded. There was even a $2.00 consolation prize. There were treats of candy, apples and ice cream served in the Center School cafeteria.
Bicycles and tricycles continued to be awarded to costume contest winners in the 1970s with costumes such as Ivory Soap bubbles, Land-O-Lakes butter, Mama Leone and the Mattapoisett Theater.
Though there were no known incidents that had occurred, there were concerns in 1976 for children “stumbling around town in a hard to see out of store bought mask”. This prompted third grade teacher, Pat Sylvia to organize a crew of face painters to paint masks on children at Center School before the parade.
Also, 1976 marked possibly the only year that the parade did not take place on Halloween. Due to inclement weather the parade took place on November 1st.
Through much of the 1970s, the parade route continued unchanged, leaving Center School on Church Street toward Main Street and then heading down Water Street to North Street where it finished at Center School. In 1977, a modification was made to the parade. Instead of heading up North Street the parade would go from Water Street to Barstow Street and back to Center School which is the present day route.
The end of the 1970s brought more modern prizes to the costume contents. In addition to the popular bicycle prizes, AM/FM radios were awarded to some winners.
The 1980s saw more signs of changing times. In 1982 it was noted that Halloween “had been much quieter as parents exercised caution and confined children’s activity mainly to the parade and police party.”
The Police Department also began publishing safety tips such as wearing light colored costumes, taking masks off before crossing streets, traveling in groups with older siblings or parents, walking facing traffic when sidewalks are not available and not eating candy until inspecting it at home.
While there had been no known incidents involving the safety of local children or reports of tampered candy, there had been high profile news stories of product tampering such as the Tylenol incident in 1982 that may have led to a heightened concern for candy tampering as well.
In 1986, a live Dixie Land music band performed while the parade was gathering. That year it was announced that an adult prize of a dinner for two would be given out at the costume contest in an effort to make the Halloween event “more of a family affair.” Since 1971, prizes had only been given out to preschool through sixth graders. Junior high and high school students would not make a return to the costume contest until 1995.
Costumes would continue to evolve during the 1980s such as Holly Hobbie, Pink Panther and toothpaste in the early ‘80s and the Bride of Death Valley, Freddie from Nightmare on Elm Street and the Dancing Raisins later in the decade.
Prizes continued to change as well. The bicycles were still awarded and stereos, video games and boom boxes were added.
In the 1990s costumes continued to reflect pop culture such as Edward Scissorhands, baseball cards, Julia Child and the Simpsons. The bicycle still remained one of the top prizes of the ‘90s and other prizes included Walkmans, cassette/CD boomboxes, inline skates as well as small black and white and color televisions.
In 1995, the junior high and high school students returned to the costume parade for the first time since 1970 as noted earlier. A year later glow sticks were handed out to children before the parade began and police officer Ken Pacheco entertained the crowd while judges decided on the winning costumes by doing the Macarena dance.
The start of the 2000s saw the parade cancelled due to the weather but the costume contest went on. In 2001, with the events of 9/11 still on the minds of everyone, the National Anthem was performed by Carly Suzan. In 2003, with construction going on to update Center School, the parade route was completely altered for the only time in the parade’s history.
The parade would began at the Town Wharf and head east past the Harbormaster’s building. It would then take a right on Water Street to Barstow Street where it would pick up the traditional route along Church Street past the growing Center School. It would continue on to Main Street and to Water Street where it would end back at the wharf. The costume contest took place at Shipyard Park that year.
The 2000’s also saw the return of the drummer to the Halloween parade. Mike Bauer and his son Garrett took the parade lead in 2001 at the urging of Mike’s wife, Jodi. When Garrett left for college, Jodi took over the drumming duties. Jodi Bauer runs the same barber shop that Abraham Skidmore worked in when he started the parade and now she leads the parade as barbers Skidmore and Morgado did in the parade’s early years. Coincidently, Jodi also lives in the same house that Skidmore lived.
In 2004, the parade route was restored back to its current form and the costume
contest returned to Center School. This year will mark the 66th year of the Mattapoisett Halloween Parade.
Since the parade began in 1949 over 1,200 children and adults have won prizes in the costume contest following the parade and thousands more have marched in the parade and participated in the costume contest.
Some of the children that won prizes over the years include the current master of ceremonies, Captain Anthony Days of the Mattapoisett Police Department who won a prize as Grog during the 1970 costume contest. A year later, Jodi Ennis would win a prize as a cup of hot chocolate. She would be pictured in the Presto Press standing next to an old radio costume which also won a prize. The child wearing the costume of the old radio was Mike Bauer. Later in life the two would marry and as noted earlier, lead the parade. (Below are links to historic lists of the names of the costume winners, judges and parade leaders).
On Halloween night in 1950, just after the parade, a trophy was presented to Abraham Skidmore. In just the parade’s second year the children wanted to show their appreciation for what Abraham had done for them. The trophy was inscribed “To Skid, from all the youngsters of Mattapoisett, Halloween, 1950”. Today, the whereabouts of the trophy are not known. He had been honored over the years for his community involvement including a medal he received from the American Legion for his civic accomplishments. He had touched the lives of children during the early to mid 2oth century and he continues to do so in the 21st century as his spirit carries on with the parade.
Click on the map below to explore the early route of the parade and click on the map markers for additional parade information.
James McDonald sat in the wagon with his hands and feet bound and his eyes blindfolded. He could hear the jeers of the 40 or 50 hooded men yelling, “kill him” and “lynch him”. Moments earlier, he had been forced from the house in which he was boarding and stripped of his clothing while someone slathered him with tar and then dumped feathers on him. To an observer, it seemed to be an old fashioned form of public humiliation that one had heard took place in Salem and Boston in the 1760s and 1770s but rarely in the early 20th century.
They were now in the darkness on the side of the road at the Marion-Mattapoisett border when McDonald felt a rope drop around his neck. Someone pulled him up and kicked him off the cart. He felt the rope suddenly grow tight around his neck. He gasped for air as he tried in vain to feel the ground with his feet. It was that moment when Charles Potter, a man that took the most pleasure in witnessing the mob’s work, would later describe as “the best joke of the evening”.
McDonald came to Marion around 1901. At that time Marion was known as “ultra exclusive” and a place that had “prided itself on its quiet refinement and culture”. It was a summer resort to famous notables such as writer Richard Harding Davis, actress Ethel Barrymore and politicians such as President Grover Cleveland and Massachusetts Attorney General Hosea Knowlton.
James McDonald was considered to be attractive with an imperial beard and moustache, which gave him “a certain air of good breeding”. He was about 54 years old and from Scituate where he was the proprietor of the Scituate House, a summer resort he ran for eight years. He was married and had fathered five children, two of which were stillborn.
In September 1900, he left Scituate to become a watchman at the Castle Square Hotel in Boston. It isn’t known why he gave up his proprietorship and left town to work leaving his family behind. He may have had issues with local authorities that led to his leaving. In 1887, McDonald was charged and found guilty in district court of “keeping a liquor nuisance”. He appealed the verdict but it is not known what the outcome of his appeal was. In June 1900, he was listed in the census as a “hotel keeper”, still in Situate.
After a short stay in Boston, he came to Marion. It seemed a likely place to go, as at a summer resort he was sure to find work. He found employment at Joe Collins’ place in East Marion on Wareham Road selling lunch and beer. Before long, McDonald became familiar with the locals that dined at the Collins place. In July 1901, he came to know Charles Potter who was a regular at the Collins place. Potter often came in with his wife Clara who happened to draw McDonald’s attention.
Clara Gilbert Chloe Fiske Mendel and Charles H. Potter married on December 19, 1886. By 1901, they had three children; Emma, Edith and Elmer ages 10, 8 and 4 respectively. Charles had been described as a “small” man who worked as a foreman of a section gang on the railroad. Clara, with her chestnut hair and dark eyes was known locally for her beauty and who, according to one resident, “everybody in Marion has knowed… since she was a little girl”.
The Potters lived on Mill Street at the corner of present day Ryder Lane. The house was given to Clara and her sister by their grandmother. Clara would later convince her husband to buy out her sister’s share of the house and sign it over to her making her the legal owner. She was often left home with the children when Charles was working at the Tremont Station in Wareham for periods of time. While Charles was away, Clara made visits to comfort her friend, Jennie McAllister, who lived next to the Collins place and had lost her 17 year old daughter to suicide in February of 1902.
During these visits Clara became friendly with James McDonald. Their familiarity grew and went beyond casual chats at the Collins place. Soon they were going to the theater together and McDonald took her for afternoon drives. In February 1902, McDonald left the Collins place after having “trouble” with Joe Collins. McDonald seems to have accepted an offer from Clara to rent out a room in her house.
Charles Potter did not seem to be aware of his wife’s relationship with McDonald and he agreed with the idea of taking in a boarder, at first. McDonald, not having employment, offered to pay his board as soon as he got a job. Once he got a job McDonald said, he promised to pay for his board and move out.
There weren’t many opportunities for employment over the winter, but as spring came, McDonald began to explore job options. He liked the idea of being a skipper of a yacht. But when he was offered a job as a yacht skipper, he turned it down, citing his lack of knowledge of the local coast line. He also though he could rent a shack near Joe Collins’ place and run a “road barroom”, but decided against it. He had other job opportunities, but passed them up as well.
McDonald claimed he was only a boarder from February to July of 1902. After that, he and Clara entered into a partnership in running a boarding house in which they mostly had transients and no long term boarders. Charles claimed his wife and McDonald were planning on opening an eatery, but questioned the type of customers they would attract noting “the people of Marion are not going to a lunchroom on the outskirts of the village”.
Charles and Clara’s relationship was strained. They got in arguments over McDonald living at the house and his lack of finding work. Charles ate dinner with the kids while Clara and McDonald ate alone together.
Rumors began to circulate that McDonald was selling liquor at the Potter house. Marion at the time was a “no license town”. Other rumors that circulated around town was that McDonald was often seen in the company of girls “not yet out of their teens” and being “unduly familiar” with the young ladies. Tensions were running high in town with some complaining to town officials, but selectmen claimed there was not much they could do. Clara was the legal owner of the house and there was no proof of the illegal selling of liquor out of the house.
In early August, Charles came home from work to find beer and booze in the house. He had enough. He told McDonald to get out. McDonald refused.
“Who’s running this place”? Charles demanded.
McDonald said he was. Charles’ wife sided with McDonald.
“I would have grappled with him then but he is a good deal larger than I…” Charles recalled. He let the matter drop for the moment.
Not long after his argument with McDonald, Charles came home from New Bedford late one evening and found a horse hitched at his house. He walked in the door to find several men in his home “carousing”. Charles announced that who ever owned the horse to get it out of the yard since it was awaking the neighbors. He then began arguing with McDonald and told him once again to leave. Charles decided size no longer mattered and began to “grapple” with McDonald. The fight didn’t last long. Clara opened the front door and McDonald threw him out.
For the next couple of nights, Charles and two of his children stayed across the street at the home of David and Mary Faunce while he pondered his next move. He decided that he would place the children in the care of Jennie McAllister while he stayed with George Gifford. He wasn’t sure what to do next. Charles felt he was over powered and outnumbered in his own home.
He didn’t know that the next move was being planned on his behalf. On the night of August 7, Charles just sat down for dinner when there was a knock on the door. A man that Charles may or may not have known was there to inform him that a group of men were meeting at town hall at 8:00 PM to run McDonald out of town. As Charles later explained it, “I went to see the fun”.
At town hall Charles saw about 50 men had gathered, all wearing hooded masks or handkerchiefs covering their faces. The men made their way through the woods to the Potter house with additional men joining the party along the way. At the house, Charles counted perhaps 100 men who had joined the mob. Five of them walked up to the front door and knocked. One of the men asked for a beer. McDonald opened the door just slightly and the men kick in the door and forced their way inside.
McDonald grabbed a chair and held it up in defense. He yelled for Clara to get his revolver. It was too late. Some of the men grabbed Clara while the others wrestled the chair from McDonald. The men dragged McDonald and Clara into the yard. Clara screamed “Murder!” She begged them to let her stay with her child that was still in the house. One of the men told her not to worry. He would stay with the child.
McDonald and Clara were taken to a nearby sandpit. McDonald was thrown to the ground and his clothing was torn off. He was blindfolded and his hands bound. Using whisk brushes they painted pine tar all over him and then brought out a feather tick bed. They opened the tick bed and dumped the feathers on him.
While the tarring and feathering was taking place a man carrying a lantern told the two men that were holding Clara to take her back home. One of the men grabbed her by her by her collar and led her back home. Outside the house one of the men tore open Clara’s clothing at the waist. The other man tore the hooks off her skirt and let it fall to the ground. The string of her underskirt was broken and her underclothing removed.
All the while Clara pleaded with them not to take her clothing off. They slapped her and said “Shut up”.
“I won’t shut up. Don’t you take off my clothes”, she pleaded.
She tried to scream out. One of the men placed his hand over her mouth. The other placed his hand on her. “If you say anything about this we will hang you”.
She pleaded with them to let her go in the house.
“Will you behave yourself after this?” one of them asked.
She answered that she always did. They hit her again and told her to shut up.
At that point another man came up to them and called for the lantern one of them had been carrying. The man with the lantern left. The other man led Clara up to the house. “If I hear anything from you I’ll hang you. Don’t you dare open your mouth about this.”
He gave her clothing back to her and led her in to the kitchen. Standing there waiting for her was a masked man, a man she would later refer to as Mr. Turner and her husband.
Back at the sandpit the mob tried to place McDonald on a rail post so they could parade him out of town but he could not balance on it. Some of the men went to the house of Selectman Henry Ryder. They asked to borrow his democrat wagon. He let them borrow it. He was pleased to see the matter of Charles Potter’s home affairs being handled though he thought it “was a little rash”.
McDonald was placed on the wagon and several of the men took hold of the shafts and let the cart out to Front Street. They passed Hossea Knowlton’s house and headed for Hiller’s stable. There they attached a horse to the cart and headed back out to Mill Street toward Mattapoisett.
Throughout the ordeal McDonald swore at the mob and planned his revenge. Every once in a while his blindfold would slip or angle at such a way he could see a face. He made mental notes of who he saw.
Once the mob reached Mattapoisett many of the men in the mob took switches and hit McDonald. A rope was thrown over a tree branch. At one end a couple of the men held on while the other end of the rope was placed over McDonald’s neck. The plan was to scare him in to thinking he was to be hanged. But someone had miscalculated the length of the rope. When the men holding the rope realized McDonald was suspended in air they let go and McDonald crashed to the ground.
Charles Potter who had rejoined the mob watched as McDonald ran in to the woods as people yelled at the naked, feathered man to never come back. Charles headed back home thinking it was all over and justice had been served.
The news of what had happened spread quickly. The next day newspaper reporters were in town asking questions. Selectman Ryder said the trouble was behind them. There would be no investigation. “Nobody has complained to the selectman about it”, the reporters were told.
Though local authorities appeared to be turning a blind eye to justice, several sheriff county officers arrived in Marion and arrested five men that McDonald had apparently identified. A week later two more men were arrested in Marion.
District Attorney, Asa P. French who would later be appointed to United States Attorney for the district of Massachusetts by President Theodore Roosevelt, called the act against McDonald “mob punishment” in a town that had always been known to “maintain such a high standard of peace and order, and…always been a law abiding community”.
The men were charged with riotous assault. A fund of $5000 was raised in Marion in defense of the accused. A grand jury indicted the seven men and the case went to trial.
The trial, which began on November 24 was sometimes referred to as the “White Cap” case in reference to a lawless movement called whitecapping that took place in the late 19th and early 20th century in which members of a community formed secret societies that enforced community morals. The movement occurred throughout the US taking on an anti-black theme in the rural south.
The trial contained as much drama as the actual events that led to the trial. A witness for the prosecution went missing but was later found and brought in to court drunk. It was thought he had been enticed away by persons supporting the defense and hidden at a hotel in Duxbury. He spent the night in jail to sober up for his testimony.
A witness for the defense was arrested for perjury. The witness, Robert Hiller, testified that he did not see any feathers in the sand pit other than the feathers the chickens were wearing. Deputy Sheriff Hurley and four other witnesses testified they did see feathers and tar at the site.
To add to the drama Charles and Clara Potter and James McDonald were spotted walking “arm in arm to the Potter house” one night and then arriving in the courtroom together. Charles even identified in court several of the accused as taking part in the tar and feathering.
On December 1, both the prosecution and defense made their final arguments. At 4:15 in the afternoon the judge instructed the jury on finding the verdict and adjourned until the jury came back with a verdict. Because of the time it took to hear the case and the charges on each man would have to be discussed by the jury separately nearly all of the court officials and spectators of the trial went home. Though the judge and attorney French stayed in Plymouth, the attorney for the defense, John Cummings, traveled back home to Fall River. There was a lot to discuss and no one expected a verdict for each of the men to be announced anytime soon.
However, just before 1:00 in the morning, the judge was summoned out of bed. The jury had reached a verdict. In a nearly empty court room the jury announced that all of the accused were not guilty. The judge ordered all seven men released, thanked the jury and went back to bed.
The drama with the Potters apparently did not end with the trial. In January, Charles Potter was found unconscious on the side of the road, his faced bruised and bloody. It was believed that Potter had been attacked due to his testimony against the accused and siding with McDonald. Potter claimed that while working that day cutting wood, a limb struck him across the face. While walking home later he said he fainted.
Little is known what happened to James McDonald after the trial. He died sometime in 1905 and he is buried at Union Cemetery in Sciuate. His son, James Henry, never spoke of his father out of the shame he brought to the family.
Clara Potter received a letter from Alabama in 1903 filled with racist comments. The letter writer, W. F. Spurlin, described how southerners “hang and burn” black people and warned her she was not safe in her community and invited her to move south which she seemed to consider. But she did not sell the house and she lived there with Charles until they died. The house is no longer there. The property eventually became part of the Old Landing Cemetery where the Potters lie side by side within sight of where they once lived.
Priscilla Richmond was widowed and living alone. Her home, which was located on present day Foster Street, was described as being on “the fringe of the woods” in 1905. Priscilla called her house “The Shelter”. Her husband, William, a Civil War veteran had died in 1898. Her only child, Annie Paine, had married in 1888 and lived in Mattapoisett.
Priscilla finally had Annie back home after she had unexpectedly left to go to Paris. It was around Memorial Day when she left but it wasn’t clear why. It wasn’t until late July Annie’s family found out she was attending a wedding.
Annie’s niece and close friend, Anna Barstow, asked her to be the matron of honor in the ceremony. Anna had lived in Mattapoisett for about 20 years. Her father had been in the whaling business and retired to take over a sizable estate in Mattapoisett. After finishing school, Anna went to work in a hotel on Nantasket beach and later went to Boston and then Philadelphia to become a housekeeper.
While in Philadelphia she worked for a wealthy bachelor. When he passed away he left her a large sum of money which she supposedly invested in a mine company which she more than tripled her money. She returned to Massachusetts and lived in “a fashionable quarter of the city” with her own housekeeper, Teresa McKenna. Anna held lavish parties at her home in Boston but still came down to Mattapoisett to visit her widowed mother who lived with the Shaw family on North Street.
It may have been one of these parties that she met Paul Butler. Butler was the son of former Governor and Civil War Major General Benjamin Butler who famously declared escaped slaves as “contraband of war” and once hanged a man in New Orleans during the war for tearing down the US flag.
Paul Butler was a wealthy businessman and a member of several prominent yacht clubs. Despite Anna’s declaration that she would never marry, the couple had other plans. Around Memorial Day, Paul, Anna, Anna’s friend Annie Paine and several other close friends left for France. Paul or Anna did not tell their families they were going to marry.
Anna’s uncle and Annie husband, Abraham Paine reacted to the news of the marriage; “Surprised? Yes I am… Last I heard from them they were in Paris… where Mrs. Paine was ill”.
In Paris, the wedding party ran in to problems. When they arrived they discovered that as foreigners, it would be impossible for them to marry according to French law. So they quickly changed plans and headed for Switzerland where they were married on July 21.
However, Annie became very ill and stayed behind in Paris. Annie had suffered a series of heart attacks and never recovered. She died on July 22. At home, Annie’s mother, Priscilla was grief stricken. Annie was so far away and she wanted her back.
After the wedding Anna Butler made arrangements to return Annie’s body was home. She prepared and placed in a coffin dressed in the clothing she was to wear at the wedding; a white silk dress and slippers.
Annie’s body arrived in New York on August 7 and ten days later she was delivered to The Shelter where her grieving mother awaited her. Her mother did not want to let go of her dear Annie so she kept her body, still dressed in her wedding party clothing lying in the coffin, in a parlor just off of the bedroom.
At one time it was common to have the deceased laid out in the home in the days before a funeral with funeral services taking place in the home. It is most likely that many homes in the tri town, if they are old enough, housed a deceased loved one until the body could be buried.
However, Priscilla did not want to bury her daughter anytime soon. She spoke of having Annie there for her long, final visit. The room was decorated with flowers and she kept chairs near the coffin so she could sit with Annie and visitors that came to pay their respects. And many people came over the weeks to visit.
Though it was late August, the French undertaker that had prepared Annie’s body for her trip home had taken great care to preserve her. She was embalmed and her body placed in a metallic casket which was hermetically sealed. In the area of the casket that covered the face of Annie was a sheet of glass so one could see her eternal rest. The metallic casket was then placed in a polished oak coffin which had a unique feature; a hinged door over the glass of the casket. Priscilla often kept this door open so she could gaze at the face of her dead daughter.
Going in to September people began to wonder when or even if Priscilla would bury her daughter. It was thought she was waiting for Anna Butler to return home from Europe so she could attend her burial. Anna was just as distraught over the loss. She wrote home to Priscilla, “What shall I do, Mother Priscilla with my beautiful sister gone?”
Local folklore tells that Priscilla kept the body in the house for six months before being ordered by the Board of Health to bury her daughter. But in late August the Board of Health discussed the matter and since they had received no complaints and the body was well sealed they let the mother continue to grieve.
According to Annie’s death record she wasn’t buried six months later. In fact, the date of burial is noted as September 27, 1905; about five and half weeks after her body returned home and two months after she died. Weather she was buried by a Board of Health order or unable to wait any longer for the return of Anna Butler, Priscilla finally had to let go and say goodbye forever at Cushing Cemetery.
The tragedy did not end here. Annie’s husband, Abraham, had become withdrawn. He stayed in his “Oakland Heights” home in Mattapoisett and became known as a hermit. In July 1906, he traveled to New Bedford where he made a visit to James Ebenezer Norton Shaw, a young Mattapoisett attorney to draw up his will. He left Mr. Shaw’s office and disappeared. He was last seen asking for car fare at a saloon located at the New Bedford end of the Fairhaven Bridge.
Early in 1907, a gruesome discovery was made. The skeleton of Abraham was found near a road in Mattapoisett. He had no clothing on except for two “flimsy” shirts which were identified by friends as belonging to Abraham. It was believed that he had wandered through the woods half clothed, perhaps intoxicated. At some point he became exhausted, passed out and later died.
In the early 2000s the home of Priscilla Richmond, once known as The Shelter, was falling apart. The home was torn down along with all of the grief it witnessed and a new house was built in its place.
*This story also appeared in the October 17, 2013 edition of The Wanderer.
The beautiful colonial house that sits on North Street was ominously called “The Shadows”. J. E. Norton Shaw and his wife, Helen Sherman Shaw happily lived in the house since their 1909 marriage. In that time they enjoyed bird watching, plays, traveling and many other activities. But on Thanksgiving weekend, 1926 the house would witness a terrible tragedy and the quiet life they lived would be shattered.
Helen Sherman was born in New Bedford on October 28, 1880 to William Sherman and Rosa Cook. Before marrying, she attended Brown University and graduated in 1902. While at Brown she helped form the Komains, a theater club for women. The only option for women actors at Brown at that time was a sorority that performed Shakespeare plays. The Komains would produce their own plays and the women would play both the female and male parts of the play.
After leaving Brown, Helen Sherman would go on to teach school in places like Quincy, Grafton, and Mattapoisett. It is perhaps during her time teaching in Mattapoisett that she met J. E. Norton Shaw, a lawyer who lived in town.
James Ebenezer Norton Shaw was born in Mattapoisett on February 7, 1876 to Bruce Freeman Shaw and Eliza Angelia Cook. Norton, as he was called, was raised in the town almshouse on Aucoot Road, his father being the keeper of the almshouse. Norton attended school in Mattapoisett and prepared for college at Tabor Academy in Marion where he graduated second in his class. At Tabor he was described as being “satisfactory in deportment and morals”. Though he failed an earlier attempt at his preliminary exams, his work was faithful and completed out of his sense of duty. His family “stands well” in Mattapoisett and he was influenced to pursue a liberal education. After studying at Tabor he enrolled at Harvard University.
At Harvard Shaw played football making the varsity team his freshman year. He was described as a tower of strength playing right guard, weighing in at 210 lbs. at 5’11”. He was well liked at Harvard, involved in several student organizations and was chosen a member of the class committee. One teammate later said of him he was “a splendid fellow in every way”.
After graduating from the college in 1898, Shaw went on to the Harvard Law School where he earned a law degree in 1901. From there he opened up a practice in New Bedford and had an office located at the Masonic Building. About eight months before marrying Helen, Shaw purchased “The Shadows” from his father.
The Shaw’s lived a quite life and had no children. While they lived at the Shadows, Mr. Shaw would “motor to and from” his office seven miles away. They spent their leisure time studying birds and reporting their findings to groups and publications dedicated to protecting birds such as Bird-Lore. They also took part in yacht racing, farming and “motor cruising” throughout New England. They traveled to Maine and Canada for canoeing trips and to explore forests. Helen particularly enjoyed watching sports including boxing matches in New Bedford. A woman at a boxing match drew much notice in those days but she apparently didn’t mind.
Mr. Shaw was also very much engaged in his work as an attorney in general practice at the Masonic Building in New Bedford.
In 1926, he was appointed co-executor of the will of George Russell of Acushnet. Russell had bequeathed a large portion of his estate to Acushnet worth around $140,000. The money was to fund a new library, upkeep of the town’s cemeteries and for other projects.
Russell, a Mayflower descent, taught school in Acushnet, Fairhaven and New Bedford for 22 years. He was once noted by the town of Acushnet for his success as a teacher due to his qualities of “firmness, patience and self possession”. After teaching, Russell went in to the banking business. In 1880, he married a woman named Abbie Pilling but by 1900 they had divorced having had no children.
Russell had become lonely and had fallen for a much younger woman named Rebecca Maud. He was in his 60s while she was in her 20s. Apparently they had developed a friendly relationship. At some point he began to refer to her as his “sweetheart” and proposed. She declined his offer despite the urging of her friends to marry him. She later married Wallace Holmes and Russell did not speak to her for a year.
They were soon on good terms but Russell’s infatuation for her did not end. When she became pregnant he offered her $40,000 to name the child after him if it was a boy. She accepted his offer and named the baby boy after him. But the baby did not live and Russell died soon after.
Before Russell died, he had hired J. E. Norton Shaw to be the executor of his will. Russell called a meeting with Mrs. Holmes and Mr. Shaw and instructed the attorney to invest the $40,000 in bonds for Mrs. Holmes. At least that is the story Mrs. Holmes told in court.
Rebecca Holmes and J. E. Norton Shaw were to attend a hearing on November 29, 1926 due to objections raised by the town of Acushnet. The town had questioned the nearly $40,000 paid to Mrs. Holmes and two payments made to Mr. Shaw of $2,200 and $1,700. The money had come from Mr. Russell’s estate.
The hearing would not take place. On Thanksgiving, Mr. Shaw spent the day with his friends and family in a cheerful mood. The court hearing, his friends would later say, didn’t seem to bother him. The Friday after Thanksgiving, Shaw went to his office as usual and left at the end of the day, leaving the papers related to the estate and court hearing on his desk in preparation for Monday’s hearing.
He came home around 3:30 and changed in to some old clothes and grabbed his shotgun. He told his housekeeper, Catherine Sherman, he saw a rat in the yard on the way in and he was going out to shoot it. At about 4:45 he came back in the house and said the rat had got away. Shaw then went up stairs where his wife was getting dressed for her evening walk. A moment later a shot rang out.
“My God, I’ve shot my wife! The gun went off! Call Dr. Tilden, quick!” he yelled down to the housekeeper.
Ms. Sherman ran to the phone to call Dr. Tilden who said he would be right over. Putting down the phone she turned to hurry up the stairs when she heard the second shot.
After Dr. Tilden arrived he called for Dr. Raymond Baxter of Marion a medical examiner. They examined the Shaw’s as they lie dead in the bedroom; Mrs. Shaw with a gunshot wound to the chin and neck, Mr. Shaw with a gunshot wound to the head.
Mr. Shaw’s aged mother, who lived across the street from the Shadows, was unaware of the tragic events that had taken place. For days afterward no one had the heart to break the bad news.
Initially, Dr. Baxter ruled the incident an accidental homicide and suicide. A week later while the Shaw’s bodies lay in their home for the funeral services, the District Attorney Winfield M. Wilbar, stated that Dr. Baxter exceeded his authority in the ruling. Later a private inquest was held and the judge later agreed with Dr. Baxter’s findings.
However, Shaw and Holmes were later charged with conspiracy to deplete the Russell estate. Judge Mayhew R. Hitch found that Russell was incompetent of the time he gave Mrs. Holmes $40,000. She was charged with maladministration and Mr. Shaw was charged with fraud.
Two years later the house was sold to Benjamin S. Blake of Weston, Mass. Today, the house is no longer known as the Shadows and the Shaws lie side by side in the quiet Cushing Cemetery as moss grows over their neglected headstone seemingly trying to hide the tragic history of the end of their lives.
View an interactive map of the locations mentioned in the story:
In 1863, the Third Regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteer Militia was stationed at Fort Monroe in Virginia. That year, President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, an order that required the army to treat anyone enslaved in Confederate territories as free persons.
Soldiers at Fort Monroe were already used to encountering slaves seeking freedom. In 1861, Major General Benjamin Butler of Massachusetts, in command of Fort Monroe, declared that any slaves escaping to Union lines would not be returned to slavery. General Butler was not exactly freeing slaves. He considered them contraband of war. However, many slaves considered it freedom and began to head toward Fort Monroe. The fort soon became known as “Freedom’s Fortress.”
Sometime between 1861, when Butler issued his orders relating to escaped slaves, and 1863, when the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, a slave named William Scott began working as an assistant cook with the Third Regiment.
William was born into slavery around 1822 in Virginia. He was enslaved in Hicksford by a man named Nathaniel Land. Later, William was sold to a man named George Gray of Windsor, North Carolina.
By 1850, George Gray owned five human beings ranging in age from 20 to 80 years old. Ten years later, Gray owned even more people, 17 in all. The youngest was six years old. It is presumed that Gray lost his slaves to freedom around 1863, including William Scott. In 1869, Gray’s wife, Helen Land, died and Gray died 10 years later. The inscription on his stone in Rose Field Cemetery in Windsor reads: “In memory of George Gray. The righteous hath hope in his death.”
While a slave under George Gray, William became involved with a slave woman named Priscilla Collins. Priscilla had been married to another slave and had children. While slave marriages held no legal standing under local or federal law, enslaved humans married out of tradition, the belief in the importance of family and, of course, love.
However, slave marriages could be broken up at anytime. A slave owner could decide to sell a slave who was married while the spouse stayed behind. Children of a slave couple could be sold as well. Families were often ripped apart to never see one another again.
Priscilla was born into slavery around 1805 and was owned by a local lawyer, James Allen. Among Allen’s possessions that sold at his estate sale after he died in the late 1840s were six Waverly novels, five tea spoons and “1 black man to Dr. Bond.”
After James Allen died, Priscilla was sent to live with his son, Thomas. It is possible that at this point, Priscilla and her husband were separated or her husband died. Later, Priscilla and William would meet and they would marry.
However, the circumstances of the war would force them apart, but not forever. While William was working as the assistant cook for the Third Regiment, he headed north with a company that was made up mostly of men from Lynn, Mass. It is unclear why he didn’t travel back to Lynn with the company. Instead, he ended up in Mattapoisett.
William evidently became popular in Mattapoisett and he made many friends. The whereabouts of Priscilla were either known by William or a group of people who befriended him in Mattapoisett and tracked Priscilla down. In 1868, she was brought north to be reunited with William.
In June, William and Priscilla were married on Mechanic Street at a house that had been “fitted for their use.” At the time, this was the only house on the west side of the street from County Road to Church Street besides a school house that sat on the corner of Church and Mechanic Streets.
In attendance were 75 of their friends “representing all classes” who had made the arrangements for the couple to marry. William and Priscilla received many gifts which were described as “new, useful and entertaining.” The evening of their wedding was spent at their home with their friends singing songs and celebrating.
William went to work as a farmhand and by 1880, Priscilla’s 13-year-old granddaughter, Delia Allen, was living with them as a family.
Five years later, Priscilla would become sick and die. Her cause of death was listed as enlargement of her liver. She had survived slavery, become a free woman and lived to be around 80 years old. William was now living alone.
Delia was living in New Bedford, possibly with a family as their servant. However, in 1889, she too became ill and died of a consumption related illness.
William continued to live in his Mechanic Street home for the next couple of decades, working as a laborer and a gardner. In early November, 1912, he became ill. He was in his 90s working and still working but time was taking its toll and his heart was failing. On December 12, 1912, William died at home.
He was laid to rest in Cushing Cemetery, his headstone noting his origin as a slave. Nearby are the graves of Priscilla and Delia, forever reunited with his family.
View an interactive map of William and Priscilla’s life (link below map)
Early municipal record keeping in America consisted of recording town business along with life events of the town residents such as births, deaths and marriages. These records were often written down in numbered volumes or books. Book IV of Rochester town records include the births of the citizens of Rochester in the late 1700s and early 1800s. One particular entry records the dates of the births of the children of Lucinda and William Parlow, Jr. They had ten children from 1789 to 1812. The first child noted was Keziah born September 30, 1789.
Aside from historical value, there is nothing remarkable about this entry of births and the many others like it. But in the fall of 1886 a reporter from the Boston Daily Globe was sent out to investigate the life of this child who was born during the first term of President George Washington. He arrived in Mattapoisett asking for directions to a house deep in the woods on the outskirts of town to conduct an interview.
“Take the road toward Marion out to the Quaker Meeting House”, he was told by one of the locals knowing exactly who the reporter was looking for. Many people came to town to make this visit including Frances Cleveland, the wife of President Grover Cleveland.
The reporter followed the directions, riding through the woods behind the Quaker Meeting House on present day Marion Road. He came to a clearing which stood a small cottage surrounded by large pines. He knocked on the door. When the door opened a small, elderly woman with snow-white hair greeted him.
“Hitch your horse to the tree and come right in. I know what you want”, she ordered him.
“You want to see the old lady that lives in the woods. I have lots of visitors… They think I’m crazy to live out here alone in the woods, but I tell ‘em that’s what keeps me well and healthy”. Perhaps she was right. Aunt Keziah, as she was known, was now 103 years old. She insisted that she was born September 30, 1783 not 1789.
Keziah Parlow was born in Marion at the site of what became the Marion railroad station. By the time she was ten years old she was sent to live with a local preacher where she worked and received an education. Around 1807 she traveled to Smith Mills in Dartmouth where she taught school.
At some point she relocated back to the tri town area and in 1810 she married Richard Randall. Mr. Randall was a much older man, about 55 years old at the time of their marriage. In 1812 when war broke out, Mr. Randall volunteered to serve as a coast guard. He didn’t see any action and returned home. In 1815 he contracted yellow fever and died.
The same Book IV that lists the birth of Keziah, lists the children born to Richard and Keziah Randall on the next page. It notes they had three children; Arethusa born in 1812, Roxalana born in 1814 and an unnamed daughter born in 1816.
This daughter born in 1816 may have been Lucretia who died in a fire early in 1824. Keziah left the home for a little bit while the children stayed inside. It was suggested later that Lucretia’s clothing had caught fire, she panicked and ran around the room spreading the flames. When Keziah returned she found Lucretia severely burned and dying nearby a cradle that had, what was reported to be Keziah’s infant daughter. Keziah pulled the baby from the flames that were surrounding the cradle.
The baby was most likely Matilda, who was born in April of 1822. Vital Records of Rochester, Mass does not note the father of Matilda but it may have been Ezra Read of Dartmouth. Ezra and Keziah filed an intention to marry in December of 1822 but apparently never married.
Keziah claimed to have a son who was living in Virginia by the 1880s. She kept a photograph of herself standing with him in front of her house along with photographs of her grandchildren hanging on her walls.
Aunt Keziah managed to support her self and children over the years and put money away. By 1835 she moved to Mattapoisett to work for a man as his housekeeper. Not long after going to work for this man he passed away and willed his property to her. She lived in his old log home for a short time before having a new house built on the property around 1837.
She would spend the next several decades in this home. She remained active working in her garden growing her own food and otherwise running her own farm. Being engaged in active out door work is what Aunt Keziah credited to her having lived a long life.
She nursed her self when she was sick using herbal remedies, made her own root beer and made rugs for her house. Near the end of her life she noted that girls of the day did not learn any useful skills such as spinning and weaving. “Now they play the piano, go to school and get so lazy that they die early”.
They eat too much sugar and “the o-so sweet stuff” and don’t know how to dress. “They wear a little mite of a plate on top of their head and go half naked” she said of Victorian era young women.
“Girls were prettier then than they are now”, she added.
Despite living alone in the woods, Aunt Keziah was not a hermit. She welcomed visitors from ‘Poisett as she referred to Mattapoisett. She made trips to see her daughter, Arethusa in Fall River and grandchildren in New Bedford and Brockton.
In 1889 Aunt Keziah’s friends celebrated her 100th birthday with her. They took her to a picnic and gave her $100. Despite this generosity she was quietly disappointed. For her birthday she had been hoping for a headstone for her grave.
She had a fear that when she died she would be buried in an unmarked grave. She had put away money so she could place a headstone on her husband’s grave at the First Parish Cemetery in Rochester, with the phrase “We shall meet again” inscribed on it.
Later, summer residents in Mattapoisett would furnish Keziah with a headstone that was placed in Pine Island Cemetery. In the months before she passed away, she could be seen wandering the cemetery where she would visit her own grave and work on it, preparing for her final resting place.
In the summer of 1892 she became very ill, was confined to bed and soon slipped in to unconsciousness. Not long before, Aunt Keziah’s grandchildren were visiting her Just before leaving as she lay in bed, one of them said, “I’m going home, Aunt Keziah”.
Pointing upward, Aunt Keziah replied, “So am I”.
View an interactive map of Aunt Keziah’s life:
The gravediggers worked hard digging through the cold February ground. The corpse had been buried for seven days during the dead of winter of 1841. Hopefully, the smell would not be as bad.
Rumors had begun to circulate in the days after the death of Thomas Randall. His death had come “by unfair means,” it was said. Unfair, presumably meaning he was murdered.
He was 43 years old and was eating dinner with his family when he fell back in his chair, began gasping for air and turned black in the face. He was known as an “intemperate man” and may have been drinking at the time. Before anyone could help him, if help was even attempted, he died.
It had snowed about six inches on February 1, the day after his death. The Reverend Thomas Robbins noted he attended a funeral the next day of the “drinking man who had died suddenly.” He was buried at the “Mattapoisett Cemetery” after the funeral.
Thomas Randall married Maribah Parlow on June 18, 1820 in Rochester. They had five children between 1821 and 1832, all girls. Perhaps it was because Mr. Randall was known as being a drunk and he had died suddenly with his family watching, people began to think his death was not an accident.
The rumors persisted and soon several people demanded an investigation. The coroner asked a jury to order a disinterment of the body, and on February 9, several men went to the cemetery with shovels in hand to dig up the remains of Thomas Randall. The news had spread throughout New England. Newspapers in New Bedford, Boston, Salem, Northampton and Keene, New Hampshire would report on the grizzly post mortem exam. Digging up bodies was not a common thing in 19th century. Social beliefs of the time thought of the dead body of something to be protected. There were also many superstitions about corpses, such as the belief that the living needed to be protected from the dead.
When the grave diggers made their way though the cold, icy ground and the several inches of snow that continued to fall during the past few days, they lifted the wooden coffin up and loaded it on to a wagon. The rotting corpse was carried through the streets of Mattapoisett to perhaps the office of one of the physicians in the village.
Waiting to observe the dissection and exam of the corpse was the coroner, the jury and “several spectators.” Dr. A. S. Jones of Mattapoisett was assigned to perform the post mortem exam. This same Dr. Jones would be charged a few years later along with another local doctor and a medical student for robbing a grave of a corpse for the purpose of dissecting it.
Dr. Jones went to work on the body of Mr. Randall while the onlookers observed in curious silence. Medical training at the time did not often include hands-on dissections of bodies. What one knew of anatomy was often learned through reading books and later while operating on living persons. Perhaps Dr. Jones took this opportunity to explore anatomy while performing the exam. Or perhaps he worked quickly because the corpse was already over a week old.
While examining the air passage of the deceased, Dr. Jones was sure he discovered the cause of death. Either by reaching in the mouth or cutting open the throat, Dr. Jones produced what appeared to be a mass of flesh. Upon further examination and knowledge of the menu of his dinner the night of his death, it was discovered that the mass lodged in the deceased’s throat was a large piece of boiled pork weighing about an ounce and a half.
The jury rendered a verdict of an accidental choking while eating. Any thoughts of an “unfair” death were quickly put to rest in Mattapoisett. Mr. Randall was returned to his grave where he has been, hopefully, at rest for the past 177 years.
In 1902 the State Board of Charity delivered its annual report to the Massachusetts legislature. The report was not a positive one. It noted the large number of complaints about the state’s almshouses including overcrowding, dilapidated housing, squalid living conditions and vermin.
The report indicated that the almshouse in Rochester was home to four people, one man and three women. It stated that the almshouse itself was “in very bad condition and beyond possibility of repair”. Rather than spend money to build a new almshouse and continue employing and supporting a keeper for the almshouse, Rochester decided to board out the inmates.
One of those boarded out was 81 year old Jim Perkins. Mr. Perkins had been a lifelong resident of Rochester. He was born February 16, 1821 to John and Salome Sherman Perkins. He was the eldest of eight children and lived at home until at least 1850. Three years later his mother died of tuberculosis.
It may have been around this time that Perkins left Rochester for Hartford, Conn where he learned to work with sharpening tools and became a skilled axeman. When he returned to Rochester he worked as a farm laborer and took jobs chopping wood whenever he had the chance.
Before ending up in the Rochester almshouse, Perkins boarded with Andrew Haskell and his family who lived in Marion “on the road leading to Rochester”. Mr. Haskell noted that Perkins was “a little flighty and seemed to have a hobby for sharp instruments.” At some point Perkins had a collection of axes but sold them off after having “some trouble with a man he worked for” as Haskell explained it.
But Mr. Haskell also described him as a “dandy in his younger days…There was no feller in these three towns that looked any finer when he fixed himself up for a party”. Perkins never married. It was rumored that he was engaged to be married twice but both times his fiancé died leaving him love sick.
Perkins began collecting shaving razors after giving up his axe collection. He kept the razors in a chest at the Haskell’s. One time Perkins became ill at the Haskell’s and he mentioned his razor collection to the doctor treating him. While it is not clear what his illness was the doctor warned Haskell to hide the razors out of fear that Perkins could hurt himself or others with the razors.
When Perkins moved to the almshouse he did not take the chest of razors with him. Instead they remained in a loft in a shed at the Haskell’s. He still kept in contact with his friends at the Haskell household and would spend time sharpening and polishing the razors. Before he would return to the almshouse he often replaced Mr. Haskell’s shaving razor with a fresh one from his trunk. He would clean and sharpen the old razor and “let it rest” in the trunk.
When the almshouse closed Perkins was classified as being senile and became a ward of the state. He was moved to Bridgewater to the State Farm. While at Bridgewater he became sick and passed away on November 6, 1902. The cause of death was listed as dilation of the stomach.
When news of Perkins’ death reached Rochester, the local gossip led to his collection of razors. Rochester selectmen decided to follow up on the gossip and investigate to see if Jim Perkins had left behind personal belongings of any value.
At Andrew Haskell’s home the selectmen discovered that Perkins left behind two old chests. In a large chest they found stored several axe handles and hones, boxes of polish, soap and rags. Other items included two swallow tail coats from the early 1850s, left over no doubt from Perkins’ partying years.
In a smaller chest the selectmen were astonished to find the shaving razors collected by Perkins—all 239 of them. The razors were in perfect condition, shined and polished. Many were newer razors but several others were stamped with the dates 1825 and 1830. Many had ivory or bone handles.
Several of the blades were manufactured by well known manufactures in Sheffield, England such as blades produced by Frederick Reynolds. These blades found were known as Washington razors because of the full length etching of George Washington on the blade with the words “The Champion of Liberty”.
Another Sheffield manufacture blades that were found included John Helffor who was noted to produce blades in the early 19th century with the words “made for the army” stamped on the blade. A blade made by William Graeves described as being from the “before the war period” was inscribed “I am good and will shave well”.
Selectman Alden Roundsville took some of the blades to experts in Boston thinking Rochester could cash in on the find. The experts concluded that they had indeed made a valuable discovery and that Jim Perkins knew his razors.
Rochester put the razors up for sale and Selectman Roundsville offered to give shaving demonstrations for people interested in purchasing razors. When he had no stubble to shave he would pluck hairs from his head to test the razor’s edge. However, his hair was already thinning and Mrs. Roundsville quickly put an end to the demonstrations.
The razors were offered at $1 for new razors and 50 cents for older ones and they became very popular throughout town. The Boston Daily Globe reported that nearly three-fourth of the men in Rochester were bearded but in the dash to get a “Jim Perkins Razor” the town’s men were expected to be beardless before long.
View an interactive map of Jim Perkins’ life here: