There once was a girl called Lepha. She was born into a farming family in a small, rural settlement in western Massachusetts. Like every other human being, she must have had hopes, dreams, and wishes for her future. I can tell you nothing about these. Sadly, the event that I can tell you about in the most detail is Lepha’s tragic death. I could tell you a great deal, too, about the man whose actions ended her life, his family history, his accomplishments in the thirty years that he went on to enjoy, years she did not have. But I am not going to do that. This is Lepha’s story, and out of respect for her, that is where my focus will remain.
Lepha Irene Sherman entered the world in 1843. She was born to Kelley and Susan Sherman, farmers in the tiny northern Berkshire County community of Florida, Massachusetts. Lepha appears to have been the youngest of eight children. The details of her early life are lost to us. Like another woman I once wrote about, even her name has not come down to us clearly. She appeared in birth, marriage and census records as: Leafy, Liefa, Leapha and Lepha. After her life was cut short, she appeared in print as Sepha, Aletha and Alepha; one paper claimed that she was “familiarly called LENA” (Elyria Democrat, 1-10-1866, pg. 2).
Massachusetts conducted a state census every decade on the five-year mark, i. e. between federal census decades. We can therefore see that sometime between 1850 and 1855, Lepha’s uncle and paternal aunt, William Towner and Phebe L. Sherman Houghton, moved from Pownal, Vermont to Florida, Massachusetts. They took up residence very close, possibly next door, to the Sherman family. They brought two sons. The eldest, Isaac, was five years older than his cousin, Lepha. By the Fourth of July, 1861, Isaac and Lepha were married. She had just turned eighteen.
Fifteen months later, Carlton L. Houghton was born. The baby survived only ten months. The Pittsfield Sun reported that the death of the “son of Isaac Houghton” occurred August 20th, 1863. In the documentation bookending his boy’s brief existence, Isaac was identified as both a farmer and carpenter. (In 1855, there were fourteen saw mills in Florida, a good option for employment during the off-season.) I can find no record of Isaac serving in the Civil War, though The History of Berkshire County, Volume One noted that forty-five local men served and of those, eleven did not come back (pg. 700).
By the 1865 Massachusetts census, both Lepha and Isaac disappear from the rolls. Their respective families continued to farm side-by-side in Florida, but I can find no mention of either of them in all of Berkshire County. According to testimony offered after Lepha’s death, she relocated to Ohio early that year “for the purpose of procuring a divorce from her husband” (Elyria Democrat, 1-10-1866, pg. 2). If this statement is accurate, it obviously suggests that Isaac remained alive. But I can locate no further trace of him in the historical record.
Why did Lepha leave her husband? It is impossible to say. We can conjecture about her youth–she was barely twenty-two–and whether she had ever wanted to be married to her first cousin. Perhaps she did not wish to be a farmer’s wife. Her choice of comparatively urban Wellington as a new home is an interesting one. I was very curious to learn how she came to settle so far from her birthplace. Regular readers of the blog will no doubt be thinking of the many other families who emigrated from Berkshire to Lorain County. Given that Lepha’s married name was Houghton, I initially suspected she was related to the Houghtons of Wellington. But research revealed what I believe to be the more likely scenario, namely familial networks on her mother’s side.
Two clues survive in the testimony offered after Lepha’s death. Elyria papers reported that her body was taken to New London “by a relative” for interment. The Cleveland Daily Leader wrote, “The evidence given by Charles Hannenway, cousin of deceased, revealed no new facts” (2-27-1866, pg. 4). I could find no evidence of such a person as Charles Hannenway. It then struck me that the name in the testimony was reminiscent of ‘Hemenway,’ a family I have written about before. The Hemenways came from New London, and one of brothers was, in fact, called Charles. Further digging revealed that they originally emigrated from Berkshire County and at least two of the Hemenway siblings were born in Florida. Lepha’s mother’s maiden name is recorded in her marriage documents as “Hemingway.” Susan Hemenway Sherman died in October 1863, just weeks after her infant grandson, Carlton. Perhaps the loss of both her mother and child drove Lepha to leave Massachusetts behind and start over in Ohio with help from her maternal cousins.
Lepha boarded in Wellington and “ran a sewing machine” in Levi Bowman’s clothing shop on the west side of South Main Street. She lived in the village for a year, as the Civil War drew to a close. Did she attend the memorial service when President Lincoln was assassinated in April? Did she get up in the middle of the night to watch his funeral train pass by the depot in a driving rain? Did she stroll through the fairgrounds with friends that September? We have no way of knowing. The obliquest of mentions appeared in the Lorain County News, in a description of her workplace: “A look through the clothing establishment of L. Bowman, of this place, will satisfy any one that some things can be done in Wellington, as well as others. Mr. B. is manufacturing all his own clothing, and at the present time giving employment to four men and eight or ten women. He has a very large stock of clothes and gentlemen’s furnishing goods, which will be sold as low as similar goods can be bought in the state. Give him a call, and satisfy yourselves” (8-30-1865, pg. 3).
Among those “four men and eight or ten women” employed at Bowman’s were both Lepha and A. J. Brown. He is referred to as “Asa” and “Andrew” Brown in later reports, while the Lorain County News dismissed him as “one ‘Jack’ Brown” (1-10-1866, pg. 3). Jack was allegedly separated from his own wife by 1865. In examining the 1860 federal census for Wellington, I found three J. Browns. Two were named John, a thirty-eight-year-old unmarried shoemaker and a forty-six-year-old laborer with a wife and five children. The third man, Jackson Brown of New York, was a twenty-four-year-old tailor with a young wife (Marion, 22) and small daughter (Emma, 3). His name, age and profession lead me to believe that he is the person at the center of the calamity that followed.
The two co-workers began a relationship and by early winter, Lepha was pregnant. Was the affair secret? The woman with whom Lepha boarded, Mrs. Amelia R. Herrick, claimed that she knew Lepha was expecting as she “had had morning sickness and had symptoms of approaching maternity” (Cleveland Daily Leader, 2-27-1866, pg. 4). As a side-note, I have been unable to find Amelia R. Herrick in Wellington records. There was an unmarried educator in town named Armenia Herrick; she was sister to Charlotte Herrick Howk. In 1860, Armenia was sixty years old and fostering a nine-year-old niece. By 1870, she had moved in with another sister and nieces–five unmarried women in a single household. Widely respected in the community, Herrick was the subject of a lengthy 1879 obituary in The Wellington Enterprise by co-editor Mary Hayes Houghton; not surprisingly, it says nothing about Armenia keeping boarders, nor hints at any connection to the 1866 scandal.
Trial documents tell the rest of the story. Jack approached Mary Mason, who resided in Wellington more-or-less continuously from 1853 until her death in 1903, but had moved for a brief period to Elyria that September. She later testified that she had known Lepha for nearly a year prior to the latter’s death. Did the girl send her lover to Mrs. Mason to ask for help or did he know, and apparently trust, Mrs. Mason on his own? There is a vague reference in the court transcript which suggests that Mary Mason had visited the same doctor on several previous occasions; it may be that she was known as an individual who would discreetly assist women “in trouble.” Regardless, it was eventually arranged that Mrs. Mason would meet Lepha in Cleveland after Christmas and escort her to a clandestine, illegal abortion.
On December 30th, the two women went to the office of “Doctor” Hosea W. Libbey. I will spare you, dear reader, the gruesome details included in the subsequent indictment. Suffice to say that Libbey had no degree nor formal medical training of any kind, and was a charlatan even by the standards of his own century. The injuries he inflicted on Lepha in a locked office, away from Mary Mason’s eyes, led to the younger woman suffering severe internal hemorrhaging on the return train to Elyria. Mary brought Lepha to her house, where the girl was put to bed and never recovered. She died on January 4th, 1866. As mentioned, her body was taken to New London for interment. I have not been able to locate her grave, but I suspect she is resting among her Hemenway relations in the Grove Street Cemetery.
Ironically, the only person for whom this story’s ending is clear is the one who encountered Lepha Sherman Houghton for just ten minutes of her entire life. Jack Brown, father of the child, and Mary Mason, the woman who risked her own reputation to help, were both arrested for their complicity in the crime. I do not know anything further about Jack Brown’s fate; if I am correct in believing him to be “Jackson Brown” from the 1860 federal census, I also know nothing of what happened to the spurned Marion Brown or their daughter, Emma. Mary Mason continued on in Wellington until her death in 1903 and is buried with her husband in Greenwood Cemetery. What impact the scandal had on her interactions with her neighbors, we can only guess. (It is interesting to note that all mentions of the trial featured in the Lorain County News were submitted by the Elyria correspondent; not a single line was ever printed in the Wellington column, as if the village were trying to disavow any association with the shameful episode.) Hosea W. Libbey, just thirty-two years old at the time, was tried and convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to eight years of hard labor; later documents show he served six weeks of that sentence before being released by the Pardon Board. He went right back to medicine. Though he periodically resurfaced in newspaper accounts of lawsuits, arrests for theft, and even the auction of his home and goods to settle debts, he continued with what seem to have been profitable practices in Cleveland and Boston. He secured patents and produced several publications. When he died in 1900, it was covered in both Ohio and Massachusetts newspapers; no allusion was made to his manslaughter conviction.
How unjust that we should have a portrait of Libbey, but not of Lepha. She was “of attractive form and features, and…deported herself in a manner that indicated a good character and industrious habits,” we are told. Her landlady, even after Lepha’s public disgrace, characterized her as “steady, industrious, healthy, robust.” Whatever her sins, if sins they were, surely she did not deserve the excruciating, isolated death she received, surrounded only by acquaintances terrified that her end meant the beginning of their legal troubles. It is unclear whether even Jack was present when she passed. An editorial decried “the almost inhuman neglect of her body after life was extinct,” and indeed, we can only speculate as to where her body ended its journey.
That editorial, in the Elyria Democrat, delivered this scathing summation of the affair: “In all such cases, when woman yields to the more powerful influences of men, there is abundant cause for the exercise of two eminent virtues–pity, and contempt. Pity for the weaker and fallen one, and loathing and contempt for him who compassed her ruin by artful wiles, and then with cowardly instinct, seeks to hide his own shame by urging his victim to pursue a course that puts her life in peril” (1-10-1866, pg. 2). The assumption that Lepha was “weak” and seduced or coerced by Brown belittles her and negates her agency as a thinking, feeling person. In reality, we can have no idea of the true nature of the relationship between the two. Were they in love or lust, both or neither? Did they hope to marry or was the intimacy of a more casual nature? Did Lepha prefer to be independent, free of a father and husband’s control for the first time, or was she perchance hoping that sex would bind Brown more closely to her? It is possible she was entirely relieved to learn that an abortion was available in nearby Cleveland; but maybe, instead, she remembered little Carlton on the long train ride north and mourned the loss of a second, unmet baby. “Well-behaved women seldom make history,” the saying goes. Equally important to remember is that the simplified history we think we know rarely bears any resemblance to the complex and confused experience of actually living it.
Loved the story.