Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Sarah Bennett’s Babies: Years of Sickness

Local authorities, including the Humane Society, considered taking action to alleviate conditions in  John and Sarah Bennett’s home at Hope in Hamilton County.

Some believed the Bennett’s three sons were being held captive by their mother, perhaps under a kind of spell.  After checking in on the three Bennett brothers,  Dr. George Peters of Gloversville rendered this assessment:

“I have examined George, Ward, and Frank Bennett of Hope, New York, and it is my opinion that if the three young men were taken from their home, or even if they were left at home and placed under the tutorship of a competent person — not necessarily a physician, but a person possessing the ability to develop the confidence which the average man possesses in himself — all three would in a few months time be able to perform labor which any man of ordinary intelligence daily performs.”

Regional newspapers covered the story, which was picked up by many big-city dailies and weeklies due to its unusual nature. The statement by Dr. Peters was cited, adding further impetus for someone to take action on behalf of the boys. But because the family was self-sufficient, and none of them were wards of the state, nothing could be done legally. Until, that is, a cry for help was received — from the inside.

When dynamite blasting affected the boys’ health, road workers had visited the Bennetts and offered to take them for medical care, but were refused. Doctors had examined the boys, and local authorities had come by to discuss rerouting the road and other possible solutions. No one knew who it was, but someone among that group — road workers, doctors, and county officials — secretly accepted a note from George Bennett, the oldest son, and mailed it to the Humane Society without Sarah’s knowledge.

In part, the letter said: “It seems a mystery to the public why we have remained in bed so long. This letter reveals to you the truth of the matter. We have been bothered with heart trouble from our youth up, and were taken with this disease, and a violent and lasting strain of the trouble has racked our hearts and nervous systems and utterly ruined us, keeping us in a state of nervous prostration. What our suffering has been, it is impossible to describe during these years of sickness.”

George further explained that the inhuman hardships they had thus far endured threatened their very lives, and that his mother wasn’t ruling the home by mental control alone. “She raves and yells around the house, using abusive and profane language. She also locks father out of doors.” All of it, he said, was to protect the boys from “undue excitement,” which would most assuredly kill them.

Legal advisors to the Humane Society suggested that, based on the letter’s contents, a court order might be obtained to remove the brothers from the residence. But Mrs. Bennett rejected all overtures, reportedly wielding a shotgun as a deterrent. Although they were taken aback, authorities should have foreseen trouble. After all, did they expect Sarah — rumored to have hypnotized her four menfolk, and who for decades had ruled the family with an iron fist — to be submissive?

Despite widespread publicity, demands by local residents that something be done, and attempts by officials to take action, Sarah stood her ground, asserted her right to privacy, and proved intimidating enough that everyone backed off.

Meanwhile, the road project continued, and by summer 1913 the entire surface from Northville to Wells was topped with macadam. In early 1914, local authorities turned their attention back to the Bennetts, devising a plan to release the boys from captivity in hopes that they might lead normal lives. Subterfuge played a key role in attempting to set them free.

It began with the Superintendent of the Poor, Herbert Snell, accepting a complaint that Sarah was insane, and assigning two doctors as an insanity commission to verify or refute the charge. Because she was certain to defend herself and refuse examination, the plan was to abduct her from a public venue, a job that was assigned to two local men. They knew that Sarah, as the family’s only source of food and other necessities, made periodic visits to town. Among the stops on her next trip was the Northville Holiness Mission. Upon exiting, she was taken by the arms, forced into a waiting car, and driven to a doctor’s office, where two physicians, Edward Grant and Anson Avery, conducted an assessment and concluded she was insane. Without learning the reason for the examination, she was released and allowed to return home.

Considering her suspicious nature, it’s possible that Sarah knew what they were up to, and believed she had passed muster because they had let her go. But based on their findings, commitment papers were prepared, signed by a judge, and returned for execution. On the next occasion when Sarah left home, she was again abducted, but this time was taken by Dr. Grant directly to the Utica State Hospital (formerly the New York State Lunatic Asylum), where she was committed as an insane inmate.

With the first step successfully completed, it was time to address the remaining problems. Four doctors who had interviewed and examined them at different times agreed that the sons had suffered deleterious effects from inactivity for such a prolonged period, but could regain normal health in time. Plans were made to place them in the Nathan Littauer Hospital at Gloversville to ensure restoration of vigor, hopefully before their mother’s release so that they could begin to function independently.

But those plans didn’t take into account Sarah’s lasting effect on her sons and husband. They were under no obligation to comply with requests from county officials, who had identified the problem to their own satisfaction and remedied it by removing Sarah. When Harry Schumann, superintendent of the County Humane Society, visited Hope, he spoke at length with the boys’ father, but was not allowed to see them, let alone remove them from the residence. While Sarah was absent physically, her control over the household was undeniable, for virtually nothing had changed except that the boys were less-well cared for, causing their suffering to increase.

John, now 70, lacked the time and energy to operate the farm and tend to their every need. The boys, he said, were rapidly declining, which was very alarming in light of their already fragile condition before Sarah was taken away. George and Ward were devastated by the news that their mother had been hospitalized, and they dared not tell Frank, whose condition was so delicate, they expected he would soon die. None of them could walk, but Ward could speak well and had begun trying to care for his brothers. George was so weak, his voice had for many years been nothing more than a whisper. He was only strong enough to occasionally crawl onto a nearby chair when the bedclothes were changed.

Frank was helpless — barely able to move his head and left arm, unable to speak, and paralyzed from the waist down, according to his father. Schumann (of the Humane Society) assured him that the hospital could treat any disabilities and restore the boys’ health, but John Bennett couldn’t be reasoned with, instead falling back on the same arguments made by Sarah during the past two decades — that their sons were best cared for at home, and moving them could kill them. George, Ward, and Frank believed it as well and expressed no interest in leaving, despite their apparently dire situation. The spell Sarah had cast remained firmly in place, even as she was locked in an asylum 50 miles away.

Next, the conclusion: learning to live again.

Photos: Headlines from 1914, 1914, and 1915

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Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

4 Responses

  1. adkDreamer says:

    Great mini-series!

  2. Amy Godine says:

    Great story, Lawrence. Horrific, but also very gripping. Thanks for the good work.

    • Lawrence Gooley says:

      Thanks very much. It began with a minor note I saved a couple of years ago. Didn’t seem like it would amount to much, but I took a look recently, and some obsessive digging uncovered a really strange backstory that left me flabbergasted (now THERE’s a word you don’t see much of anymore!).

  3. It would be helpful if you would cite your sources here. I’m especially interested in the evidence for the alleged “abduction” by Hope locals, the secret note, and Sarah’s intimidation of people with a shotgun.

    I have also been looking into Sarah’s story, in large part because it doesn’t add up. Going by the (very poor, ill-documented) secondary historical literature, she was effectively accused of MSbP/MSP, or Munchausen syndrome by proxy – a form of abuse typically inflicted upon the very young, the very old, or the otherwise vulnerable, which does not fit the profile of the Bennett men. To boot, I have long been dubious that a poor Hope homestead could afford to lose the labor of three strapping farm hands, and the evidence I have found suggests that they were not self-sufficient, but struggling and indeed obtaining assistance from charities outside Hope. There has also been some suggestion, promulgated primarily by my predecessors Stella King and Ted Aber, that Sarah exhibited signs of mental illness that might have indicated some form of early-onset dementia (night wandering, failing memory, etc.). But this seems to have been based on local rumor, codified into “truth” and repeated. Actual facts are thin on the ground, though two decennial census enumerators did at least document the three younger sons as “invalids” (countered by further local stories that the scene was staged strategically for these visits).

    The timing of the incident also gives me considerable pause. These events occurred not far off the Victorian Era, when women were not infrequently accused of “madness” (and sometimes incarcerated for same) by male doctors for reasons that had little to do with mental illness. The “witchcraft” accusation, apparently invented by the regional press to add spice to the story, only adds to my doubts: women are often accused of witchcraft when they transgress patriarchal norms. I have also wondered if the Bennetts’ poverty may have been a source of shame in the community. As Amy Godine herself has noted in the pages of the Almanack, Hamilton County has at times been hard on the poor, considering it a matter of personal disgrace rather than political economy. What happened to the Bennetts did not happen in a vacuum, and I wonder how these broader contexts shaped the events themselves – as well as the way the story has been told through the years.

    Finally – and for this I have little to go on but my own witchy sixth sense, bolstered by the factual and logical doubts expressed above – I have a distinct feeling that Sarah Bennett has been maligned by history. Clearly, something terribly tragic happened to this family. It is particularly heartbreaking that the one thing Sarah seemed to fear the most – losing her family – was indeed the thing that came to pass. I suppose it makes for a juicy story around Halloween, but these were real people in my community, with real lives and real pain. I will be interested to see how your version ends, but I would especially appreciate any concrete documentation you can provide that would help us excavate the layers of hearsay and get to the bottom of what really happened.

    Dr. Eliza Jane Darling
    Hamilton County Historian

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