Near Tragedy in Mattapoisett

In 1875, the population of Mattapoisett was 1,361. It had much more open space than exists now. With over 300 houses in Mattapoisett, about one third of them were farms. A railroad ran through what is now Railroad Avenue and over present day Route 6 heading north. County Road ended at North Street as did Church Street. On the northeast corner of Church and North Streets lived a boy about the age of 13 named Willis Burbank. Like most boys his age, he was most likely a baseball fan.

Willis did not follow the Red Sox – they would not be conceived for another 26 years. Instead, Willis would have followed the local team. In 1875, most towns and cities had at least one local baseball team, and the Tri-Town area was no exception.

Baseball was just as fun and exciting to watch as it is now. At first glance, a game in the 1870s would not seem too different from today. The game consisted of nine players, nine innings – three strikes, and you are out. However, on a closer look one could see differences. The pitcher pitched from a square box (not a mound) and was not allowed to pitch overhand. The batter could call for a high or a low pitch. That may sound like a soft version of the game, but pitchers could still throw hard and they were using the curve ball by this time – it could still be a dangerous game.

Additionally, baseball was played with very little protective gear. Fielder’s gloves did not come in to use until a decade later and head protection was certainly unheard of. Most ball fields were open fields and probably did not have much in the way of fencing surrounding the playing field that would have protected fans from foul balls and in some cases the occasional run away bat. Baseball was most likely played in or around Mattapoisett village, because there was more open space at that time.

All of these factors played in to an apparent tragedy in Mattapoisett on June of 1875 as reported by the Lowell Daily Citizen:

The Lowell Daily Citizen does not appear to have published a follow-up story reporting the fate of young Willis Burbank. However, the historical record does reveal some information about Willis and his family. He was born about 1862 to Joseph and Sarah (Price) Burbank. Joseph was a ship carpenter and most likely employed by one of the shipyards in Mattapoisett.

Willis had three siblings; George, Mary and William. William died on December 31, 1850 of neurosyphilis at the age of 5. George was born about 1854. Records for him are scarce but it appears he died sometime before 1870.

Mary seems to have escaped the dangers of childhood. In 1878, she would marry William Branch Nelson of Mattapoisett. Her husband died of septicemia in 1893 and by 1900, she was living with her 13-year old daughter, Sarah. In September of 1907, Mary passed away due to a gastric ulcer and was buried in Cushing Cemetery. When she passed away, it was Willis that provided the information to complete her death certificate.

Evidently, Willis’ injury was not as bad as his physician feared. He recovered and by 1880, was working as a sailor out of Mattapoisett. He gave up a career on the seas, married Cora Haskell in 1898, and pursued a retail career in woolen goods and umbrellas. It appears that Willis and Cora did not have children.

Wills lived well beyond what his doctor feared on that near tragic day in 1875. By 1930, Willis was living in Boston with his wife and a nurse while still actively engaged in business, perhaps summering in Mattapoisett. 57 years after living through a near-tragic accident that summer day in Mattapoisett, Willis passed away.

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