True crime tale more about mores than murder
By WILLIAM DAVID BARRY
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.
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
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.
"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
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
"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.