March 18, 2010

True crime tale more about mores than murder


Elizabeth A. DeWolfe's "The Murder of Mary Bean and Other Stories" is an extraordinary book on several counts, and extraordinary is not a word used lightly. First off, the author, a professor of history at the University of New England, has chosen a long forgotten but once celebrated historical event, the so-called "Murder of Mary Bean." The macabre discovery of a beautiful young woman's body, lashed to a board in a Saco, Maine, brook, on April 13, 1850, set salacious minds aquiver throughout New England. Indeed, the story of the woman's demise still has the power to fascinate on several levels. DeWolfe, an elegant writer, who has mastered the art of organizing tons of diverse material (legal, medical, genealogical, journalistic and religious) might well be termed a forensic historian. In 203 pages (index included) she manages to tell the reader more about sex, the role of women in the mid-19th century work force, attitudes toward abortion and life in small town northern New England, than a whole shelf of standard volumes. Extraordinary. Nothing is simple in the Mary Bean saga, except the clear, concise manner of telling. But even here be sure to read carefully. The very title seems to contradict itself. "The Murder of Mary Bean and Other Stories" suggests that an actual event might have been a story or, perhaps, the crime was not murder. Even the name Mary Bean was fiction, for a young Canadian factory worker named Bergengera Casewell, who had traveled to Maine seeking her lover and it turned out, an abortion. DeWolfe successfully reconstructs Casewell's short life and career as a "factory girl" in New Hampshire, and her decision to terminate her pregnancy under the care of Saco physician James Hervey Smith. The latter, a botanical doctor, sought and failed to end the pregnancy with herbs, and then botched an operation leading to Casewell's death. The doctor's clumsy, undocumented disposal of his patient's body brought on Smith's arrest, trial, conviction, and a field day for the regional press and true crime pamphleteers (whose works were entirely fiction and produced volumes for several years). There is information here that on the specific local level at least, has never been addressed previously. Indeed, I am astounded that it could have been found. To her credit the author has persevered and brought it forth. A whole host of attitudes focused on the Mary Bean case. At first the doctor was the only villain, then "Mary came in for it with her expensive earrings, wardrobe, made possible by her "factory girl" disposable income. Equally fascinating was society's odd (from our vantage) attitudes toward abortion. Abortifacents (menstrual regulators) were advertised in all the newspapers of the day, and as the author notes under common law: "If a woman aborted prior to quickening – the moment at which a woman can feel the fetus move (approximately sixteen weeks) – there is no social or legal stigma or legal prohibition; this permissiveness concerning early-term abortion was supported by fifteen hundred years of Christian doctrine that asserted that before quickening the fetus had not yet developed a soul." However, Dr. Smith found himself in trouble, not just for having killed his patient and failed to report it, but because in 1841 Maine had passed its first statutory law forbidding "every person" from using instruments or drugs to destroy a child. DeWolfe notes: "The goal was to control medical practice, not outlaw abortions per se. This was still very much a debate about the safe practice of medicine rather than a moral issue." In fact, Smith was the kind of self-trained or under-trained practitioner Maine's growing medical establishment wanted weeded out, and he was. On some level this volume shows the reader the underside, or an underside of New England life in the 1840s. But it is not that horrific. Everyone is trying to get by, there are no real villains or heroes, though the local press certainly tried to build up stories and angles. Even better, DeWolfe includes two (dare I say) extraordinary crime tracts, in full: "Mary Bean, The Factory Girl: A Thrilling and Exciting Account of the Horrible Murder," by Miss J.A.B. of Manchester, 1852, and "Life of George Hamilton: A Full and Complete Confession of the Horrid Transaction in the Life of George Hamilton, The Murderer of Mary Bean," by the Rev. Mr. Miller, 1852. These fictional accounts were written, it is claimed "with a desire to do good." However, given the purple prose, stock characters and delight taken in describing dens of evil and seductions that would do Snidely Whiplash proud, I will let the reader decide. "The Murder of Mary Bean and Other Stories" offers and altogether different doorway into Maine and New England in the mid-19th century. Great stuff! William D. Barry is a local historian who has authored five books, including "Tate House: Crown of the Maine Mass Trade" and the novel "Pyrrhus Venture." He lives in Portland.
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