Monday, November 6, 2017

Bennett Brothers; An Adirondack Witch Tale (Conclusion)

At the end of 1915, a year and a half after their mother was removed from the home, conditions had hardly improved for the Bennett brothers of Hope in Hamilton County. Their father, badly troubled by rheumatism, had hired a man to operate the farm, and the boys were learning to do for themselves whatever their father couldn’t. Dr. Edwin Hagedorn, after examining the three boys, said each suffered from “fatty degeneration of the heart,” and that their muscles had atrophied to such an extent that even walking might well be outside the realm of possibility.

On the plus side, they were all still alive, and had begun accepting visitors more often, a result of their notoriety among Adirondack residents and tourists who wished to meet them in person. One of their favorite subjects to discuss with visitors was the conflict (World War I) raging in Europe.

In 1917, the boys began caring for their father, who had fallen ill with cancer, and not long after became permanently bedridden. That same year, the Selective Service Act of 1917 was passed, requiring all men between the ages of 21 and 31 to register for the draft. Because of their ages, George (39), Ward (35), and Frank (34) were exempt. But there were two other wartime registrations, the third of which, on September 12, 1918, required men ages 18 through 45 to register. All three of the Bennett boys did so on that date (via a proxy), providing official documentation of their health status on each man’s registration card: Frank (“Helpless invalid eleven years”), George (“Helpless invalid fourteen years”), and Ward (“Helpless invalid seventeen years”).

Despite their condition as “helpless invalids,” progress was being made. An elderly boarder who also served as cook had relieved part of their burden, allowing the boys to focus on moving about and exercising their muscles. In late 1919, more than five years after his mother was locked away, George made headlines for taking part in an adventure that only Fayette and Sarah among the Bennetts had experienced: riding in an automobile. Two couples from Broadalbin, about 18 miles south of Hope, somehow convinced him to accompany them on a joy ride.

What was an average event for most folks was momentous for the Bennett brothers, comprising their first step towards normalcy. At age 40, George was, in fact, the only member of the family taking any steps at all, having learned by that time to make his way around on crutches. The car ride marked the first time in 15 years he had left the house. What a wonderful shock it was to the senses, and how inspirational the stories were that he shared with his brothers.

In the January 1920 census, the three Bennett sons were still listed as invalids. But while Frank remained disabled, both George and Ward had progressed dramatically towards normal living, becoming ambulatory and getting out of the house regularly. Three months after the census was taken, George made it to Gloversville for the first time in 16 years. In June, shortly before his 38th birthday, Ward did the same. It was believed to be his first visit since bicycling there from Hope in 1900 as a robust 18-year-old.

In February 1921, after several years of invalid care provided mainly by his sons, John Bennett died at age 78. In his absence, the boys continued working hard and making great strides — except for Frank, who languished in bed and appeared unlikely to ever regain his health. They began seeking jobs, and in 1924, Ward Bennett was advertised as the official sales representative for a major car manufacturer, the Willys-Overland Company. His territory included Northumberland and Broadalbin in Fulton County, and all of Hamilton County.

He also began courting Laura Rhodes, a Northampton girl sixteen years his junior. They married in 1927, and settled into the Bennett family home in Hope with George and Frank. The household gained a new member when son John Ward III was born in June 1929, but lost an old one soon after when Frank Bennett, youngest of the brothers, died in November at the age of 45. He never recovered from decades of isolation, and was bedridden for the last 22 years of his life.

In 1931, at the age of 80, Sarah Bennett died after spending fifteen years in the Utica asylum. From the day she was abducted in May 1914, the only time she returned home was for her funeral and burial.

In 1938, the last connection between the Sarah Bennett family and Hope was about to be erased. The town needed their land for “reconstruction of the Hope Center – Wells Pt. 1 State Highway,” according to official documents. A three-man commission was appointed to ascertain the “compensation to be paid to George Bennett, Ward Bennett, and Laura Bennett, reputed owners” of the property.

For the surviving family members, life played out in normal fashion. Ward served as a county Republican Party committeeman from Hope for two years before moving to Northville, where he operated a barbershop. George ran a farm in Hope and also worked as a lumberman. In April 1942, during World War II, both men registered with the military, revealing the hale and hearty specimens they could have been much earlier in life without their mother’s stifling influence. At age 59, Ward was a solid 5 feet 9 and 180 pounds, while George, 62, was 6 feet tall and 215 pounds.

In early November 1946, George became seriously ill and was unable to work. He moved into Ward’s home at Northville, and was cared for there until hospitalization became necessary. He passed away five days later at the age of 66.

Fayette, the oldest brother, and not among those once held captive by their mother, raised three daughters — Madge, Blanche, and Hazel — with his wife, Annie, and died in June 1953 at the age of 82. And finally there was Ward (John Ward Bennett Jr.), who died in 1971 at the age of 88, the proud father of a son and daughter. His wife, Laura, survived him in Northville by five years, dying at age 78.

There’s no telling how quickly the brothers might have recovered back in 1914, and how well Frank might have done, had a well-thought-out and arranged plan been implemented. Instead, the family’s core — Sarah, however flawed she may have been — was suddenly removed, with the expectation that life in the Bennett household would be fully normalized within six months. But that plan for their recovery was just as flawed, for it failed miserably, badly underestimating the lasting effects of decades under Sarah’s control. Her absence spawned a six-year struggle as the brothers gradually learned to walk and function on their own. And Frank, of course, was a casualty. He didn’t make it.

In retrospect, the Bennett story is one of tragedy and triumph. It’s tragic that Sarah may have suffered mental illness; that she and her family were suddenly and permanently separated by others, albeit with the best of intentions; and that the premature deaths of Maggie and Frank were almost certainly a direct result of their mother’s fears and/or psychoses. The triumphs were fewer: after battling for years to recover their health, at least Ward and George managed to lead productive and normal partial lives.

But for me to see it that way took a crazy mix of three positive adages: the Pollyanna view through half-filled, rose-colored glasses.

Start this story at part one.

Photos: Headlines from 1915, 1924, and 1971

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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.

14 Responses

  1. Beth Rowland says:

    What a story!

  2. Tim Hubbard says:

    Another incredible tale to tell – you just keep finding these pearls of discovery in our collective past! The human spirit can be so strong when forced to. As you stated so well, it is such a shame how events evolved and there will always be that question lingering “what if?”…

  3. drdirt says:

    Thanks for another great story. Is the ‘Bennett road’ in Hope that leaves and reenters Rt 30 named after this family?

    • Lawrence Gooley says:

      I can’t say for certain if the road was named after this particular family, but snippets of information helped me estimate where their home was located, which is when I saw the Bennett Road nearby, indicating I was on the right track.

  4. kathy says:

    Any possibility that you could stretch this out to a novel? Loved reading it for all the aspects of this true story and you tell it so well.

    • Lawrence Gooley says:

      Thanks Kathy. Maybe you should flesh out the story with your own ideas and join the family of Adirondack novelists!

    • Boreas says:

      I agree. I just read the series today. Great read. Perhaps a documentary in the vein of “Brother’s Keeper” about 4 very odd brothers (farmers) in Oneida Co., one of which was accused of murdering his sibling – whom he shared a non-romantic bed with… A great documentary – won Sundance Film Festival. Check it out.

      • kathy says:

        Just ordered the disc on Netflix and it must be popular since it is “very long wait”.

        • Boreas says:

          In my experience with “very long wait”, it means they may or may not have it. You may get lucky, though. Sometimes they are cheap enough just to buy the DVD on Amazon.

  5. Peggy Trzaskos says:

    My husband, John J. Trzaskos is the sole surviving grandson of Ward and Laura Bennett. He is the son of their daughter Jean Bennett who married William Trzaskos. (Both of Ward & Laura’s children passed away. John in the mid 70s and Jean in 1999) Together they had 4 children, John, Bonnie (dec), William (dec,) and Edward (also dec.) We have 2 children and 5 grandchildren who would be their great and great, great grandchildren. Bonnie was married to Theodore Burton and together they had 2 daughters, their daughter Laura has 2 daughters. The other 2 boys never had any children. We have some of the original documents from the doctors and hospitals.

  6. Peggy Trzaskos says:

    Ward also loved gospel music and even wrote several songs, some of which were published. My husband had the honor of singing some of these songs in our church.

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