Disappointed Love and Dangerous Temptations: Textile Factories and True Crime

Mary Bean enjoyed “unlawful relations” in the summer of 1849; by the fall she was pregnant. In November she entered the house of the mysterious Dr. Savin and was never seen again.1 Jilted at the altar, Orrilla Durrell died from “disappointed love”;2 so did Catherine Cotton, whose encounter with a con man pushed her to suicide.3 Caroline, “The Saco Factory Girl,” fell victim to a sweet-talking seducer, was robbed of all she had and ended up in a brothel, crippled by disease.4

True crime–based accounts in mid-nineteenth-century “sensational fiction”—published in inexpensive, lurid pamphlet-novellas with bright yellow covers—exposed the dangers of the big, bad city for country girls turned cash-earning urban workers. But what these cautionary tales truly exposed was a cultural uncertainty about women in the workforce. In tale after tale, naïve, and sometimes disobedient, young women drifted away from their ideal future of marriage and motherhood, falling victim to seduction and its attendant specter of abortion. Set in textile factories in the 1840s and 1850s, these true (or true-ish) crime tales offered a voyeuristic view of the scene of the crime while simultaneously reorienting young women’s vision back toward home. In these cautionary tales, the criminals are consequence, not cause. The true crime was women wanting more.

A young white woman in a long white dress, with dark sleeves, reads off a list. She is standing on the factory floor, with tables and equipment around her
Woman distributing work in a shoe factory, Lynn, Massachusetts. (France Johnston/Wikipedia Commons)

The nineteenth century offered new opportunities for young women. From the 1830s to the 1860s, thousands of daughters of New England farmers headed to the textile mills of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine. Mill owners required workers to live in company-owned boarding houses, where matrons kept an eye on curfews and enforced mandatory church attendance. This paternalistic oversight reassured worried parents that their daughters’ reputations were safe.5

Yet, in this new urban setting, and despite twelve- to fourteen-hour work days, young women made time to partake in novel activities and to socialize. After work, mill girls would engage in the “Lowell stroll,” parading along the mill canals to see and to be seen. And seen they were. And as numerous works of sensational fiction depicted, the greatest danger was being seen by men. For young, innocent “factory girls,” flattered by attention and tricked by false promises, it was a quick and inevitable slide to seduction, pregnancy, and death.6

True-crime based narratives had roots in trial reports and criminal biographies popular in the first decades of the nineteenth century. Prior to 1820, readers embraced these genres as a way to find a moral or religious lesson in murder or an explanation for what turned a God-fearing man into a criminal. By the 1830s, with the popularity of the murder-filled penny papers, authors dropped the lessons and instead drew on crime to feed an audience eager for lurid and shocking tales. New printing technologies, more efficient distribution systems, and rising literacy supported the commercialization of the crime pamphlet, widely popular by mid-century among mobile urban youth and those who wished to join them. Opportunistic publishers and their story-for-hire authors turned true crimes into fictionalized tales of the dangers of the urban world.7

The exploits of textile factory workers offered a rich ground for plot lines. Away from the watchful eyes of parents and neighbors, the young women working shuttles and looms experimented with a tantalizing economic independence. Young women’s desires for wages, for city fashions, and for new experiences put them in harm’s way. In works of sensational fiction, men perpetrated the crimes, but women endured the punishment.

Sarah Maria Cornell’s story riveted readers. In 1832, Cornell, a Fall River (Mass.) textile worker, was found pregnant and hanging in a barn, an apparent suicide. A note discovered among her possessions pointed a posthumous finger at Reverend Ephraim Avery, later acquitted of murder. The mystery of her death both horrified and captivated the public and Cornell’s fate found numerous retellings in trial accounts, poems, broadsides, and plays—some censuring Cornell’s restless nature, others pitying a deceived young woman.

Seduction led to death for Sarah Furber and Berengera Caswell, both of whom died from septicemia following abortions.8 They also suffered the added ignominy of a cruel burial: Caswell’s body was tied to a board and placed in a river (it got stuck and was discovered months later after the winter snow had melted), while Furber’s was stuffed in a trunk and shipped to Boston for medical school dissection (it was intercepted). Alice Bowlsby, another victim to the absence of germ theory, was placed in a trunk in New York City. Bound for Chicago, her corpse never got on the train when hot August weather revealed the malodorous, and gruesome contents of the “Great Trunk Mystery.”

Suicide claimed the lives of textile workers who grew despondent after seduction or from being jilted, a mental state termed “disappointed love.” Following seduction, Cordelia Crane took Oil of Cedar to end her life; 9 fearing public shame after discovering she was pregnant, Lavina Roche, “the Beauty of Glendale Silk Mill,” jumped from a steamer into Long Island Sound.10 Disappointed friends Clara Cochran and Catherine Cotton left notes for their families before jumping hand-in-hand into a New Hampshire mill canal, where both drowned.11

The Lowell Offering includes “Abby’s Year in Lowell.” (Charles Knight/Archive.org)

But amidst the real-life tragedies, novellas of young women’s success in the workplace highlighted a safer path. In “Abby’s Year in Lowell,” the heroine dutifully ignored the temptation of shopping for one year, returning home with gifts for her family, but nothing for herself. Her abstinence gained her father’s approval and another year of independence.12 Emily Rollins, the “Factory Girl of Saco,” selflessly cared for her ill grandmother, eschewing social events and frivolous purchases. When their lodgings caught fire, Rollins was rescued by a handsome, wealthy man who had worshipped Emily from afar. They mourned the now dead grandmother and married.13 Mary Bean’s sister stuck to the straight and narrow. Unlike Mary, Ellen Bean did not meet a handsome man in a thicket and did not follow him to the city. At the end of this tragic story, the author provided a reward: Ellen Bean married her dead sister’s fiancé.14 The moral of every sensational story: young women stay home.

Seduction, rape, pregnancy—all stymied a young woman’s destiny to marriage and motherhood. Yet this motif also references larger cultural concerns: that this taste of geographic mobility, the lure of an urban environment, and having one’s own money would fundamentally change young women’s lives and futures. And it did.

Mill girls postponed marriage, married men closer to their own age, and had fewer children compared to those young women who remained at home. Mill workers tended to settle in urban environments or to head west.15 It was not uncommon for former textile operatives to open their own businesses or even to consider higher education, limited as it was in the antebellum era. The bottom line: textile operatives tended not to follow in their mother’s footsteps.

True-crime inspired sensational fiction featuring working women continued beyond the 1860s, when the workforce of New England textile mills shifted from native-born white New Englanders to immigrant laborers. While textile operatives fell out of popularity as the subject of sensation, young women in a variety of urban occupations—shop assistants, garment workers—found themselves facing familiar dangers and punishments. The venues may have changed, but the dangers to, and of, independent women remained.

Notes

  1. Miss. J.A.B., A Thrilling and Exciting Account of the Horrible Murder of Mary Bean, The Factory Girl (Cincinnati, Ohio: H.M. Rulison, 1852). Return to text.
  2. “Love and Suicide,” Augusta (Maine) Age, Jan. 25, 1849. Return to text.
  3. [George Thompson], Catherine and Clara, or, The Double Suicide: A True Tale of Disappointed Love (Boston: Federhen & Co., 1854). Return to text.
  4. Fitzallen, The Saco Factory Girl (Saco, Maine: Harris’s Publishing Hall, 1852). Return to text.
  5. Thomas Dublin, Farm to Factory: Women’s Letters, 1830-1860 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993): 6. Return to text.
  6. For an annotated bibliography on textile factory literature see Judith A. Ranta, Women and Children of the Mills (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999). Return to text.
  7. On sensational literature, see David S. Reynolds, Beneath the American Renaissance: The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988): 169-210. Return to text.
  8. Berengera Caswell’s short life and tragic death are discussed in Elizabeth A. DeWolfe, The Murder of Mary Bean and Other Stories (Kent State University Press, 2007). Return to text.
  9. “Painful Suicide in Lowell of a Young Girl, On the Massachusetts Corporation,” Young America (New York, NY), August 16, 1845. Return to text.
  10. Charles Wesley Alexander, Only a Mill Girl! Or, Vinnie Roche’s Sad Fate: A True and Touching Account of “The Beauty of Glendale Silk Mill,” (Philadelphia, Penn.: Old Franklin Publishing House, 1879). Return to text.
  11. [George Thompson], Catherine and Clara, or, The Double Suicide: A True Tale of Disappointed Love (Boston: Federhen & Co., 1854). Return to text.
  12. Harriet Farley, “Abby’s Year in Lowell,” Shells from the Strand of the Sea of Genius (Boston: james Munroe, 1847): 56-66. Return to text.
  13. J. C. Milledoli, “Emily Rollins, or, The Factory Girl of Saco. A Tale of Romance,” Biddeford (Maine) Mercantile Advertiser, Dec. 20, 1849-Jan. 24, 1850. Return to text.
  14. Miss. J. A. B., A Thrilling and Exciting Account of the Horrible Murder of Mary Bean, the Factory Girl (Cincinnati, Ohio: H.M. Rulison, 1852): 40. Return to text.
  15. Thomas, Dublin, Farm to Factory: Women’s Letters, 1830-1860 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993): 32-34. Return to text.

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