One spring day in Saco, Maine, Osgood Stevens, 14, was having trouble clearing debris from Woodbury Brook. He couldn’t dislodge a whitewashed plank stuck in a culvert. When he finally managed to pull it out, he realized why. A dead woman named Mary Bean was tied to it.
He didn’t know her identity at first. A calico apron covered her face, which rats had eaten away. Her clothes didn’t identify her – just a thin shift, a nightcap and blue stockings. But she had distinctive hair, long and dark, and the residents of Saco figured out who she was. A Canadian mill girl who had come to live at the home of Dr. James Harvey Smith during the winter. The board to which she was tied had the same whitewash pattern as Smith’s stable, and it matched an empty space in a stall.
It was 1850, a time when young women left their farms and family to work in New England’s burgeoning textile industry. The mills needed cheap labor to work the carding machines, mule spinners and looms. Starting in 1830, young, single farm women began finding the independence and wages of a mill job an attractive alternative to the drudgery of farm labor. But many people found the self-sufficient mill girls unsettling, and used ‘girl of the town’ to describe prostitutes.
Mary Bean became a cautionary tale about what happened to young women who left home and lost their virtue. It was a story people knew well. In 1831, a pregnant mill girl named Sarah Cornell died by strangulation, and a Methodist minister – her seducer – took the blame for her murder.
A Boston newspaper ran the headline, “Supposed Murder of Another Factory Girl.”
Her name wasn’t even Mary Bean. She was Berengera Caswell, born in Brompton, Quebec in 1828.
Berengera and her two sisters, Ruth and Thais, left their farm in Canada for the mill cities of New England. They first went to Lowell, Mass., where Ruth got married and remained. Berengera and Thais then moved to Manchester, N.H., where they found work in the Amoskeag mills. Berengera got a job in the carding room, earning $3.25 a week for 12-hour days. But at night she could shop, or go to lectures or socialize with friends on the streets of Manchester.
In 1849, Berengera met a machine operator named William Long and they became lovers. Long lost his job, however, and moved back home to Biddeford, Maine, in September 1849.
Berengera then moved to Salem, Mass., where in November she realized she was pregnant. She went to Biddeford, where she moved into a boardinghouse, and found Long. They decided she should have an abortion.
Long had gotten a new job at the Saco Water Power Co. on Factory Island. His supervisor, a Mr. Blake, introduced him to Dr. Smith, who performed abortions. Blake even loaned him the $10 for the procedure. Long told Blake that the girl’s name was Mary Bean – a private joke, because he used the word “bean” to describe activity considered depraved.
Smith, who didn’t have a medical degree, practiced herbal medicine.
Berengera moved in with Smith and he began treating her with a juniper extract to induce contractions.
It didn’t work. And so Smith decided to surgically remove the fetus. The hook he used punctured her uterus and infected it. The infection turned septic and spread throughout her body. Berengera died on Dec. 22, 1849.
Maine laws left the legality of abortion a murky question in 1849. Women could easily buy over-the-counter herbal remedies that induced abortion. Up until 1841, custom and law decreed that abortion was permissible until quickening, when a woman could feel the fetus move. But then in 1841, the Maine Legislature passed one of the first laws in the United States to make it a crime for anyone to try to abort a pregnant woman. Violators faced punishment of a fine up to $1,000 and a year in jail.
That didn’t end the practice of abortion, as custom made it acceptable before quickening. A handbook for justices of the peace in that era noted that an old law considered it manslaughter. However, it said, ‘the modern law doth not look upon this offence in quite so atrocious a light, but merely as a heinous misdemeanor.’
And so Dr. James Harvey Smith hid Berengera’s body. He tied her to a plank and put it in the brook, thinking it would float to the Saco River and into the Gulf of Maine. But her body only traveled into the culvert where Osgood Stevens found it 3-1/2 months later.
Smith, when questioned, said Mary Bean had not died as the result of an abortion, but of typhoid. So town officials exhumed her body and removed her reproductive organs. More than 600 people, including newspaper reporters, attended the coroner’s inquest in Saco. William Long testified he’d taken Berengera to Smith’s house. Doctors presented testimony about her condition. Neighbors described Smith’s abortion practice. And a 12-year-old Irish servant, Anna Covney, said she’d seen Smith use his tools on Berengera and other girls. She’d also watched Berengera die.
Smith was charged with murder. In his defense, he hired a lawyer, Nathan Clifford, a former diplomat and U.S. attorney general and a future U.S. Supreme Court justice.
The trial mimicked the coroner’s inquest. Clifford tried to shift the blame to Berengera’s seducer, William Long. Then when her sister Thais identified the dresses and jewelry found in Smith’s home as Berengera’s, Clifford tried to turn it against her. He painted Berengera as self-indulgent, vain and morally suspect.
It took the jury just two hours to find Smith guilty of second-degree murder. The judge sentenced him to life in the Maine State Prison. But Clifford appealed, arguing Maine state law contradicted itself on the question of abortion. He succeeded in freeing Smith after he served two years in prison – the punishment for manslaughter. Smith died of tuberculosis three years later.
Newspapers sensationalized Smith’s trial, and writers turned Berengera Caswell’s death into a morality tale.
One book, Mary Bean, the Factory Girl; or The Victim of Seduction appeared in 1850. and A Thrilling and Exciting Account of the Horrible Murder of Mary Bean, the Factory Girl, appeared in 1852.
Another writer disguised William Long as George Hamilton in A full and complete confession of the horrid transactions in the life of George Hamilton: the murderer of Mary Bean, the factory girl in 1852.
A pamphlet, titled Mary Bean: The Factory Girl. A Domestic Story, Illustrative of the Trials and Temptations of Factory Life, Founded on Recent Events, used Mary Bean’s story as a cautionary tale for mill girls lured by the city. In it, the author wrote,
…the unthinking female is ensnared in the toils of the destroyer, and being insidiously led onward, step by step, she awakes from her dream of fancied happiness, but to mourn over her dishonor, and the destruction of her cherished hopes. Such was the case with Mary Bean.
With thanks to ”Mary Bean” — The Factory Girl by Robert Wilhelm in Murder by Gaslight and The Changing Nature of Abortion in Rural Maine, 1904-1931 by Mazie Hough in Maine History, Winter 2016-17. Also Murdered Mill Girl Memorialized At Maine Library by Nancy Mattoon for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on March 10, 2010.
Image of the Saco River: By The original uploader was Decumanus at English Wikipedia. – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Matthiasb., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3422062. This story was updated in 2022.