The growth of textile mills in the middle of the 19th century brought new opportunities to young women in rural New England. Though the days were long and the toil hard and dangerous, factory work provided financial independence and freedom of movement unknown to women of previous generations. But along with opportunity came new temptations and new perils. The body of a young woman was found floating in a culvert in the mill town of Saco, Maine, in April 1850. She was identified as Mary Bean, a young factory girl who had been treated for typhoid at the home of Dr. James Smith. Her real name was not Mary Bean and her condition was not typhoid. When the truth was learned, the story of Mary Bean's death became a cautionary tale exhorting factory girls to guard their virtue.Victim: Berengera Caswell
Date: December 22, 1849
Date: December 22, 1849
Cause of Death: Complications from abortion
Accused: Dr. James Harvey Smith
On the afternoon of April 13, 1850, 14-year-old Osgood Stevens was helping a neighbor clear a clogged brook in Saco, Maine. One especially stubborn plank wedged in a culvert was giving him trouble. When he was finally able to flip it over he could see why - tightly bound to the whitewashed plank was the body of a young woman. She was dressed as if for bed, wearing just a thin shift and blue stockings; on her head was a nightcap. Covering her face was a child’s calico apron, and underneath it her face had been gnawed away by rats. The stench from the body was overpowering.
Before long a crowd gathered around the body and someone sent for the constable and the coroner. They hastily convened an inquest jury who concluded that she had died as a consequence of an abortion, which, by Maine law, was considered murder.
A number of people were able to identify the girl, primarily from her long, and, in life, beautiful, black hair. She was Mary Bean, who before her disappearance, had been living at the home of Dr. James Harvey Smith. This was verified when someone recognized that the distinctive pattern of the whitewash on the plank was the same as Dr. Smith’s stable. Sure enough, one stall in the doctor’s stable had a missing plank.
At the time, the laws surrounding abortion in Maine were somewhat murky. Prior to 1841, social, religious, and legal custom said that prior to “quickening” – when the mother can feel the fetus move (around sixteen weeks) – abortion was permissible. An 1841 law made abortion at any point in the pregnancy a crime. At the same time, abortifacients, sold over the counter as menstrual regulators or Emmenagogues, were readily available. Proving that a patient had procured an abortion, rather than being treated for mestruaral blockage, meant proving that she was pregnant. At the time there were no tests to prove this prior to quickinging.
Three days after her autopsy and subsequent burial, Mary Bean’s body was disenterred so that physicians could continue their investigation. Her reproductive organs were removed and preserved and she was buried again. When Dr. Smith was accused of killing Mary Bean while performing an abortion, Smith said, no, she had died of typhoid. The body was disenterred once more to look for signs of typhoid.
Berengera Caswell had come from Brompton, Quebec with her sisters, Ruth and Thais, to work in the textile mills of New England. Following the route taken by thousands of young women before them, the Caswell sisters went first to factory town of Lowell, Massachusetts. Ruth married and remained in Lowell while Berengera and Thais moved to Manchester, New Hampshire to work at the Amoskeag Mill. There Berengera met William Long who worked in the machine shop at the mill. They began a romance in the summer of 1849.
Berengera moved into Dr. Smith’s house while he treated her. Smith first tried an herbal method of abortion, giving Berengera extracts from a juniper bush which contains savin to stimulate uterine contraction. When this did not work, Berengera agreed to a more drastic approach. Using an eight inch wire instrument with a hook on the end, Dr. Smith attempted to scrape loose the fetus. The abortion was successful, but in the process Dr. Smith punctured her uterus leaving a four inch gash. The wound quickly turned septic and infection spread through her body. She lay at Dr. Smith’s house for a week suffering from pain and fever, then on December 22 she died.
Dr. Smith needed to get rid of the body to avoid drawing attention to his abortion practice. He tied it to a plank from his stable and placed it in Woodbury Brook which ran near his house. From there he expected it to travel to the Saco River and ultimately into the ocean. He did not know that the body had only traveled a few yards before getting stuck in the culvert.
Trial: January 1851