Mill worker’s grim 19th-century murder was a cautionary tale for girls
It was a warm day in April 1850. Saco’s Woodbury Brook was probably a torrent of meltwater when 14-year-old Osgood Stevens tried to clear a culvert where the creek flowed under Storer Street.
Osgood stood in the freezing water and found the culprit. A whitewashed plank of wood blocked the flow. Then the teenager made a much more gruesome discovery.
Fastened to the other side of the six-foot board was the body of a woman.
Her hands were bound with cotton rags, and she was tied to the plank at her neck and ankles. Dressed only in blue stockings, a light shirt, and a nightcap, rats had gnawed most of her face off. It was clear to the assembled crowd that they had been in the passage for some time.
Thus began the sensational public story of Mary Bean, a woman whose story would eventually include a botched abortion and the murder trial of the doctor who performed the procedure. The story became a national sensation and a cautionary tale of moral caution against young women who left their rural homes and virtues behind to seek opportunities—and their own rewards—in the burgeoning factory towns of New England.
“This is a story about women in the workforce and the price of progress and who should be on the workforce in the first place,” said Elizabeth De Wolfe, a professor at the University of New England who wrote an award-winning book called The Murder of Mary Bean and Other Stories in 2007. “And it’s about women leaving home without men’s watchful eyes, and it’s about monitoring women’s behavior.”
De Wolfe will be launching her book in person on February 17 and online on February 21 as part of the University of Southern Maine Osher Map Library’s Industry, Wealth, and Labor: Mapping New England’s Textile Industry exhibit.
The exhibit is inspired by the recent acquisition of textile mill insurance plans and historical maps from the defunct American Textile History Museum in Lowell, Massachusetts.
Mary Bean’s real name, then concealed for privacy reasons, was Berengera Caswell. Born in Quebec, Caswell had come to work in New England factories a few years before her death. She was one of thousands of young women escaping the drudgery of farm life, eager for her own cash wages.
This rural-to-urban labor migration came just as the women’s suffrage movement was gaining momentum. It also coincided with several new state laws that gave women independent property and decision-making rights that were not tied to either their husbands or fathers.
These changes, coupled with working women refraining from early marriage, made many in the establishment deeply uneasy. A cultural backlash was inevitable.
Caswell’s sad end was therefore a convenient vehicle for salacious newspaper articles and moralistic panic pamphlets whose underlying message to women leaving their homes was always the same.
“You will end up dead or as a prostitute,” De Wolfe said.
While working at a factory in Manchester, New Hampshire, Caswell met William Long. The two became lovers, but Long lost his position and moved back to his hometown of Biddeford. Sometime later, Caswell discovered she was pregnant, followed Long, and settled into a boarding house in late 1849.
Pregnancy among New England’s “mill girls,” as they were called, was a common problem. If discovered, the women were inevitably fired. Long sought advice from his supervisor at Saco Water Power Company on Factory Island. His boss said he knew a Saco doctor who could terminate the pregnancy and even loaned Long money for the procedure.
Caswell then moved into the home of Dr. James Harvey Smith in Saco. Smith practiced herbal medicine and did not have a medical degree. He repeatedly gave Caswell a juniper compound intended to induce miscarriage, but the botanical method failed.
On December 15, Smith took a more dangerous and drastic approach.
“Smith performed an abortion using an eight-inch wire instrument with a hook at the end,” De Wolfe wrote in her book. “Using his wire tool and no anesthetic, Smith attempted to puncture the amniotic sac and scrape the pregnancy.”
In the process, however, Smith perforated Caswell’s uterus, leaving a four-inch wound and also mutilating nearby organs. Infection set in immediately, and Caswell died a week later, probably in agony.
Smith then tied Caswell to a board from a stand in his barn and let her float in Woodbury Brook. He thought the creek would carry Caswell’s remains to the Saco River and then out to sea, but she never cleared the nearby culvert. Caswell’s body had remained there for over three months when Stevens found it in April.
Authorities eventually identified the remains and arrested Smith. Abortion and birth control were both legal in Maine, but he was charged with second-degree murder in Caswell’s death.
“Mary Beans; The Factory Girl; Victim of Seduction,” screamed a headline in the Maine Democrat newspaper as Caswell’s story circulated, growing more dramatic with each retelling. Some printed accounts also included sexualized, buxom drawings allegedly showing Caswell in prostitute-like clothes.
Moralizing, fact-blurring, and downright fictionalized “snatched from the headlines” reports were also published as free-standing pamphlets and magazines. Caswell, Long and Smith’s names were all changed, but the public knew who the story was about.
In any case, Caswell—and Long—were simple countrymen lured into temptation and moral ruin by bad company that emanated exclusively from the nation’s mill towns.
A full-length book entitled A Thrilling and Exciting Account of the Horrible Murder of Mary Bean, the Factory Girl was published in 1852.
Smith was represented in court by Nathan Clifford, a former diplomat, US Attorney General and future US Supreme Court Justice. Yet even when Clifford repeatedly questioned Caswell’s moral character, which the popular press reflected, it took the jury just two hours to find Smith guilty. The doctor was subsequently sentenced to life imprisonment.
On appeal, Clifford was able to have Smith’s conviction reduced to manslaughter. Smith served two years and died of tuberculosis three years after his release from prison.
More than 170 years later, Caswell’s story still draws attention.
“We signed up so many people for the talk,” said Libby Bischof, executive director of the Osher Map Library. “A lot of people love true crime, but there’s also a lot of nostalgia for Maine’s industries. People have made their living there, and it is being lost – and changing again.”
De Wolfe sees Caswell as a bridge between two American epochs.
“She was living in that industrial moment where women were taking strides forward and society was trying to push them back,” she said. “Working through her story is important for us to understand the long road to women’s rights and women’s industry.”
Last summer, De Wolfe had the opportunity to visit Caswell’s grave in Quebec. While there, she offered a token of gratitude because she felt she owed Caswell something for the young woman’s story and the opportunities that came with it.
“There was a little, tiny story in one of the newspapers that I came across quite by accident,” De Wolfe said. “In it, her sister Thais recalled that Berengera had a bean-shaped purse in which she kept shiny nickels that she kept as gifts.”
Before leaving Caswell’s final resting place, De Wolfe left Caswell a bright new nickel.